Hard as I try, I struggle to learn all the isms and phobias to be shunned.
The moment I figure out the difference between haemophilia and homophobia, paediatrician and paedophile, agism and agility, misogyny and miso soup, a new offence is identified and proscribed.
mortally scared of inadvertently offending a vulnerable group of sensitive
people, I try to keep up as best I can. After all, moral laws are part of
divine revelation, and no one said they were given all at once.
divinely inspired people should be expected to update morality as they go
along. And it behoves the rest of us to obey new prescriptions and
proscriptions as faithfully as we obey the old ones, earlier vouchsafed first to
Moses and then to those multitudes at the Mount.
Those of us who refuse to do so or, worse still, mock the new morality risk public opprobrium. If they happen to be public figures, they may also find themselves under investigation – as the football presenter Gary Lineker has discovered.
His two colleagues on BBC Match of the Day, Danny Murphy and Alan Shearer, are both follicularly challenged or, if you insist on using outdated offensive vocabulary, bald. Hence they belong to a widely abused group requiring especially sensitive treatment.
Yet Lineker (and no report of this offence failed to mention his £1.75 million-a-year salary, a highly relevant fact) saw fit not just to make light of this handicap but actually to mock it. He thereby offended not only his two immediate targets, but all follicularly challenged persons – and also all of us who are out to uphold the standards of new morality.
The presenter discussed a “hair-raising” start to the Premier League season, adding “’unless of course you’re Alan Shearer or Danny Murphy”. He thought that blatant display of hairism was funny, and so did Messrs Shearer and Murphy – or rather they pretended to smile, doubtless trying to suppress the acute pain they felt inwardly.
Predictably, the incident generated numerous complaints from individuals and institutions alike. We, sensitive people, will no longer tolerate offensive remarks. A spokesman for Alopecia UK certainly won’t: “It’s a shame that those in the media,” he stated, “still use that platform in a way that reinforces negativity towards hair loss.”
And, he continued, “In today’s society, it seems
that jokes about bald men… can lead to men with hair loss feeling they are not
supported when they struggle to come to terms with their change in appearance.”
The BBC is investigating the incident, and none too
soon. After all, its own internal guidance states that “The BBC is for everyone
and should include everyone whatever their background.”
Presumably, Lineker’s criminal quip has the effect of excluding about half of the adult male population, who’ll now give Match of the Day a wide berth. Since my own bald spot is bigger than Lineker’s, though not as big as Shearer’s and Murphy’s, I hereby undertake never again to watch that programme – or at least not to tell anybody if I do.
We must all of us, follicularly challenged or otherwise, close ranks and fight against hairism – and if I’m the first to come up with this neologism, then I’m proud. Lineker’s crime makes my hair, what’s left of it, stand on end.
We should be vigilant and never forget that everything about modernity must be progressive. Including its madness.
The French have a slang word for the likes of Macron and Trump: collabo, short for collaborator.
The term gained currency during the Nazi occupation of France, but collaboration
describes the run-up to the occupation just as accurately, as a synonym of
For, by their craven appeasement of Hitler, culminating at Munich, France
and Britain effectively collaborated with the Nazis, a point driven home by the
panzers entering Paris on 14 June, 1940.
A lesson was thus taught, but it wasn’t learned. Now, 81 years after Edouard
Daladier put his signature on the Munich Treaty, another French president,
Manny Macron, is playing footsies with another aggressor with pan-European
aspirations, Vlad Putin.
Meeting the Russian chieftain at Brégançon,
Manny couldn’t have been more effusive. Obviously, Russia must take her seat at
the upcoming G7 meeting, he insisted, that’s beyond doubt – and it’s most
unfortunate that she lost her seat in the first place.
the time that ousting occurred, in 2014, the G7 members stated their reasons succinctly.
Russia, they explained, no longer belonged in that body because of her aggression
against the Ukraine:
“International law prohibits the acquisition of
part or all of another state’s territory through coercion or force. To do so
violates the principles upon which the international system is built. We
condemn the illegal referendum held in Crimea in violation of Ukraine’s
Manny’s urgent desire to reverse that decision must
be based on his conviction that since then Russia has reacquired respect for
international law. However, the evidence for such a Damascene conversion isn’t
so much flimsy as non-existent.
Since that aforementioned referendum, Russia has
effectively annexed two vast provinces in East Ukraine, killing 14,000
Ukrainians in the process.
Then there was that unfortunate incident with the Malaysian
airliner, an incursion into Syria conducted with characteristic KGB savagery,
an uninterrupted string of nuclear threats against the West, full-scale
electronic warfare aimed at subverting elections, escalation of hysterical
anti-West propaganda unseen since Khrushchev and many other, shall we say,
All these are, according to Manny, silly
incidentals. As a self-appointed French intellectual, he won’t be side-tracked
by facts interfering with a broad historical and cultural vision.
Instead, he came up with two startling discoveries:
“Russia,” he pronounced, “is a deeply European country. We believe in this
Europe that spreads from Lisbon to Vladivostok.”
Manny’s foster mother Brigitte used to be his
school mistress, as it were, in which role she failed miserably. Geography wasn’t
a subject she taught, but she still should have made sure that little Manny knew
that 3,500 thousand miles of Asia separate Vladivostok from Europe.
Anyway, that was music to Vlad’s ears, and his
geography is better than Manny’s: one of his pet subjects is Eurasia, a vast
continent that Russia can confidently guide to a bright future or, barring
that, just guide tout court.
This is a giant step forward from Gorbachev, who
laboured under the same geographic misapprehension when he talked about “our common European home from
the Atlantic to Vladivostok”. Manny, who repeated Gorby almost verbatim, must
have gone to the Joe Biden school of speechwriting.
I’m being facetious here. Manny, as an aspiring French intellectual (and French
people tend to share that aspiration if they want to get ahead in life),
doubtless was talking in cultural, not geographic, terms.
so, he must be congratulated: his discovery finally settles once and for all
the question that all the best minds in Russia herself have been pondering for
at least two centuries.
Russia Europe, Asia, both, neither, somewhere in between or sui generis? They shouldn’t have been
spinning their wheels trying to answer that question in vain. They should have
asked Manny instead.
playing lickspittle to the KGB thug, Manny seems to be undeterred by the lavish
financing Vlad provides for Marine Le Pen neo-fascists, a service he extends to
all marginal European parties of similar leanings.
practice put paid to the government in Austria, but it has caused not a shadow
of scandal in either Italy or France, where Russia’s involvement is much more
has it given Manny any second thoughts, which is surprising in a politician:
after all, Le Pen’s party presents a serious electoral challenge to Manny’s
own. But, with his approval rating dipping below 30 per cent and the yellow
vests still restless, Manny has obviously decided to roll the political dice.
some time he was the only major European leader who identified Putin’s Russia
as a threat. Now Manny has performed a dizzying pirouette, and one can only
guess his reasons.
he may be hoping that Vlad will now marginalise Le Pen and divert his
financial, electronic and propaganda support to Manny instead. But I wouldn’t
put it past Manny to have a long view as well.
Perhaps he wants to beat Angie Merkel to the European presidency, and he identified sucking up to Putin as a promising avenue to explore. Who knows, when French voters have finally had enough of Manny, he may fill that post and do all he can to make sure Putin’s Europe indeed spreads from Lisbon to Vladivostok – or rather from Vladivostok to Lisbon.
However, beating Angie to that position is in the future. At present, Manny
has beaten Trump in the collabo game of mollifying Putin.
Trump too wishes to see Vlad’s charming face at the G7 summit. The reason
for that, according to that master rhetorician, is that “A lot of the time we
talk about, we talk about Russia, Russia –
because I’ve been to numerous G7 meetings…”
The word ‘because’ implies a causal relationship, which one struggles to
discern here. And the fact that the subject of Russia often comes up at G7
meetings is neither here nor there.
I’m sure Trump and his colleagues also talk about, they talk about Iran,
Iran and North Korea, North Korea. One would expect Western leaders to discuss
countries that pose a threat to the West. Does that mean Iran and North Korea too
should be admitted to the G7?
The president blamed Vlad’s expulsion on his predecessor Barack Obama.
Putin, Trump said, had “outsmarted him”.
So he did, on numerous occasions – but not on this one. Unless Trump thinks
that Vlad actually tricked Obama into expelling Russia from the G8 (as it then
was), I’d be tempted to say that just this once no outsmarting took place.
This tune isn’t new for Trump; he has been
agitating for Russia’s return to the G7 since 2018. However, he hasn’t done any
better than Macron or other European stooges to Putin in proving that the
reasons for the expulsion no longer apply.
Now I don’t know if Putin outsmarted Obama, but
Manny certainly outsmarted Donny in the collabo stakes: he scooped Trump by one
day with this round of shilling for Putin.
Manny should view some documentary footage of the
Nazis entering Paris. Perhaps he’ll learn how seamlessly appeasement segues
And I’m still waiting for any Western leader to put
forth a counter proposal, that, rather than being readmitted to the G7, Russia
should be expelled from the UN Security Council.
Between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, there’s something fishy about Scottish politics.
I remember saying this to a well-known conservative columnist in 2012, at the time the Scottish Independence Referendum Act was being mooted.
The Act was soon passed, and two years later the SNP got its referendum, which it lost by 55.3 to 44.7 per cent of the vote.
My interlocutor’s feelings about
Scottish independence could be summed up with the words ‘good riddance’, while
I was arguing the unionist cause. Even between us, we didn’t manage to solve
that problem there and then, and it continued to fester.
The SNP now demands a second referendum, which proves it’s in synch with EU policy: if you don’t like the result, make the people vote again and keep doing so until they get it right.
As a justification for its
persistence, the SNP refers to another referendum, the one in 2016, when
Britain voted to leave the EU, but the Scots voted to remain by a wide margin.
The Scots, claims the SNP, only
agreed to remain in the UK because that way they remained in the EU. Now that
prize is no longer on offer, they want to leave the former and seek membership
in the latter.
I smell a logical rat there somewhere. The Scots, or rather the SNP, seem to define independence as being dependent on the EU, rather than Britain. Such is the conduit channelling the fiercely individualistic spirit of the people who wear kilts with nothing underneath.
Now I must declare a personal interest, or rather a distinct lack thereof. The only Scottish contributions to our civilisation that enrich my life directly are malt whisky (especially from the Isle of Islay) and James MacMillan, who will in future be mentioned in the same breath as Bach – and I can’t imagine a political situation depriving me of either.
The Scots, however, have much to
lose if they aren’t careful about what they wish for. Scotland is currently
running a 10 per cent deficit-to-GDP ratio, which is a bill picked up by Her
Since that body will no longer be
proffering its chequebook, the Scots must hope that the EU will step in to take
up the slack. The hope may well be forlorn.
The EU demands a deficit of no
more than three per cent from its members. Though it has been known to show some
flexibility in this matter, 10 per cent is way too much even for the EU to swallow.
Hence Scotland will have to introduce severe austerity measures, meaning higher taxes and lower spending. I’ll leave it to the economists to argue about the plausibility of such a drastic deficit reduction. Let’s just say that no European country has found it easy.
Now, apart from whisky and James MacMillan, significant but not sufficient revenue streams, Scotland’s principal export is North Sea oil, which presents a few problems.
First, it’s not a foregone conclusion that Scotland can claim exclusive rights to those reserves simply on the basis of their geographic location. One suspects HMG could make a strong case about those oil fields belonging to the country that paid for their exploration and operation, which is Britain at large, not just one of her constituent parts.
But be that as it may, those reserves are dwindling away, in parallel with oil prices going down. Unless those problems are solved, no drastic deficit reduction is on the cards, barring Nicola Sturgeon whipping out her magic wand.
The EU may also get cold feet about Scotland’s historical tendency towards separatism, which no one believes will go away the moment the Scots have replaced the Union Jack with that stellar circle.
With Britain leaving, the EU will have enough separatist pressures already, thank you very much. It may not want any other member pushing against the walls from the inside.
Then there’s the issue of the euro, which Scotland would have to join, what with the pound sterling no longer available. That means the Scots wouldn’t be able to adjust their monetary policy to suit their specific needs, which may well have Greece-like consequences.
may regard England as the devil, but at least she’s the one they know. Swapping
the United Kingdom for the European Union is fraught with all manner of dangers
– can they really want to spite the English so much as to cut off their own
I don’t know. So perhaps a glass of Lagavulin in my hand and one of MacMillan’s Passions on the CD player will make things clearer.
Doesn’t tempus bloody well fugit? Monty Python’sLife of Brian was released 40 years ago, yet it seems like yesterday, I remember it so clearly.
caused a scandal in the American Bible Belt, where I then lived. The air was
full of words like ‘blasphemy’ and ‘sacrilege’, and the scourges wished upon
the heads of the Pythons were as horrific as they were imaginative.
like Norway, Ireland and several English counties, the film was banned outright,
and Aberystwyth in Wales persisted with the ban until 2009.
Brian is in the news again because The Mail on Sunday has unearthed the archive of Michael Palin, one of the film’s stars. It turns out many scenes were cut out of the script on legal advice – in those days one could still be prosecuted for blasphemy.
One such scene featured a waiter at the Last Supper
who tries to seat Jesus and his apostles, telling them: “I can do you two
tables for two and two threes.”
In another, King Herod is described as “the world’s
worst babysitter”. In yet another, embarrassed Joseph tries to explain the
Virgin Birth to his winking-nudging friends.
Just think: a mere 40 years ago such jokes could
lead to criminal prosecution. Today hardly anyone would bat an eyelid – we,
even practising Christians, have had most of our blasphemy sensors cauterised.
I’m one such, which I admit only on condition that my priest isn’t going to hear about this. I may suffer from a hypertrophied sense of humour, but Life of Brian makes me laugh, rather than see red.
The scenes mentioned above are funny and, by any
reasonable standards, rather innocuous. As are the scenes that actually made it
into the film.
One I recall involves a parody of the Sermon on the Mount, with multitudes gathering en masse. Since sound couldn’t then be amplified, those in the back struggled to hear properly. Hence the following dialogue took place:
“I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheese-makers’”.
“Ah. What’s so special about the cheese-makers?”
“Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally, it refers to any
manufacturers of dairy products.”
I know I’m supposed to be offended by this. But I am not. I just laugh.
Unsmiling people who actually do feel outrage allow such humour less
latitude than Jesus himself did. He singled out as an unforgivable sin only
blasphemy against the Holy Ghost:
“Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven
unto men; but the blasphemy against the
Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.”
One likes to believe that Christianity, unlike, say, Islam, is strong enough
to withstand a little good-natured fun poked at its expense. After all, our
founding religion has survived schisms, splits, dozens of major heresies and
God knows how many minor ones. Christianity also managed to live through
vicious persecutions, by emperors, caliphs, commissars et al.
As to mockery within Christendom itself, it goes back to at least the Renaissance. Read Boccaccio, Aretino, Rabelais or Chaucer, who were all Christians, and you’ll find an endless gallery of lustful, venal monks, nuns and priests.
Compared to the output of those writers, Monty Python’s little jokes tickle, rather than cut. Still, some people, those whose Christian sensibilities are stronger than mine and sense of humour weaker, may get offended.
As I would be, if I didn’t find Monty Python hilarious. After all, the
capacity to make people laugh must have some redemptive quality.
Much more likely to cause real offence is unfunny mockery for the sake of mockery, such as that exemplified by the French satirist Léo Taxil (d. 1907) and his once popular sneering books The Amusing Bible and The Life of Jesus.
Even worse are supposedly serious, but in fact always spurious, attacks on
Christianity by those who don’t even bother to conceal their visceral hatred of
One could mention here, inter alia, Polly Toynbee, Ian McEwan, Richard Dawkins, the late Stephen Hawking and Christopher Hitchens, Lewis Wolpert and many others, whose name is legion.
These people take it upon themselves to concoct ‘rational’ arguments against Christianity without bothering to understand it and learn about it.
That task has made stronger thinkers than these sound feeble, as anyone who has read Nietzsche’s book The Anti-Christ will confirm. But at least Nietzsche attacked Christianity for what it actually is, rather than the fake picture of it those other critics see in their mind’s eye.
However, people who are outraged by Life of Brian won’t be dismissed lightly. They maintain that there should be one thing in our anomic, deracinated world that lies beyond the reach of humour. People who ask “Is nothing sacred anymore?” know that question is rhetorical, and they’re upset.
Such staunch believers have strong arguments on their side, and I respect
both them and their arguments. In fact, I’ve been known to make some of the
same points myself.
Yet – yet I can’t help laughing at Life
of Brian. And I can’t for the life of me force myself to be offended by it.
A writer owes a debt to his readers, and they are within their rights to demand repayment.
The readers agree to offer the writer their time
and, in some cases, mental effort. But this is a loan, not a gift.
To repay it, the writer undertakes to offer his
readers something worth their time and, in some cases, mental effort. The loan
is made up of the principal and accrued interest.
These days, most readers are generous enough, or perhaps realistic enough, to forgo the interest: elegance, verve, refined style, wit, erudition, depth.
But they still must demand a prompt repayment of the principal: lucid, comprehensible communication.
A reader may at times have to make an effort to grasp a complex idea, but he shouldn’t have to make any effort at all trying to force his way through the thicket of turgid, involute style, bad grammar and careless word order.
In other words, a writer is allowed to make his readers stop and think because of what he writes, but not because of how he writes it. If that’s what he does, he’s in default.
In that vein, earlier today I felt cheated by this headline in a daily paper: “Holocaust survivor reveals how the French held thousands of doomed Jews in Paris prison camp and followed Nazi orders with ‘chilling efficiency’ on the 75th anniversary of its liberation.”
I knew that the French, like our own Labour Party, may incline to anti-Semitism, but the headline still gave me a start. For that anniversary is just about now. So, just about now, the French are still running a prison camp in Paris, in which they hold thousands of doomed Jews on Nazi orders.
Fine, some writers do derive the EU’s genealogy from the Third Reich, but surely it’s outrageous to suppose that, 75 years after the liberation of Paris, the French are still following Nazi diktats. I’ve heard of EU tyranny, but this is just too much to absorb.
The two paragraphs above are written in jest. The headline in question actually testifies not to French monstrosity, but to English illiteracy: to make the headline unequivocal, the phrase “on the 75th anniversary of Paris liberation” should have come either at the beginning of the sentence or else after the verb “reveals”.
It took me a few seconds to figure this out, but these were the few seconds I, the reader, shouldn’t have been expected to waste trying to decipher the sentence. The writer cheated me of my time – his loan is thereby foreclosed, and he’s declared professionally bankrupt.
Also, that and another paper used “on his behalf”
when they meant “on his part” twice in the same issue. Chaps, when a mistake is
made on a person’s behalf, he isn’t
to blame, at least not wholly. When it’s a mistake on his part, he is – it’s his own bloody fault.
If you don’t know the difference, you should really
look for a different line of work – writing for a living isn’t for you. The
same goes for those who use ‘infer’ to mean ‘imply’.
‘Imply’ is what you put in; ‘infer’ is what somebody else takes out. Thus I’ve implied throughout this piece that basic standards of literacy are no longer enforced at our mainstream papers, while you may or may not infer that this is a symptom of a general cultural malaise.
Reasonably clear, isn’t it? Not to some hacks, by the looks of it.
Oh well, I could go on and on, but I can’t wait to get back to my volume of Chesterton’s articles and essays – just to remind myself what a splendid tool English can be, when wielded by a masterly hand.
By the way, confusion between ‘masterly’ and ‘masterful’ is another bugbear of mine, mainly because the former word is regrettably disappearing. That proves yet again that modern vandalism in language and elsewhere is reductive.
Just for the benefit of those professional hacks: ‘masterly’
and ‘masterful’ are cognates but not synonyms. The former means virtuosically
skilful; the latter, imperious. And writers who don’t know the difference are
The other day I watched a Russian-language documentary about the British historian Nikolai Tolstoy, Russkiy graf iz angliskoi glubinki (Russian Count from English Backwater).
Tolstoy has written a number of interesting and informative works. But he became famous after the publication of his books The Victims of Yalta (1977) and The Minister and the Massacres (1986).
There he dealt with one of the most shameful betrayals in British history: the forced handover to Stalin of hundreds of thousands of Soviets held in POW camps – and thousands of Cossacks who had never even been Soviet citizens.
The handover, handled with ruthless perfidy, violated not
only the Geneva Accords but even the Yalta Treaty – in their haste to mollycoddle
Stalin, the British delivered more than he had demanded.
In The Minister and
the Massacres, Tolstoy actually named those directly responsible for that monstrosity.
One of them, Lord Aldington, sued for defamation.
The British establishment closed ranks behind him, some key
documents miraculously disappeared from the archives, and Aldington won his
suit. He was awarded £2 million in damages and legal costs, driving Tolstoy
My sympathies were and still are with Tolstoy. But the documentary, most of it a running interview, depleted much of the goodwill capital his books had built.
For Tolstoy came across as an ideological Russian chauvinist
– possibly because his claim to being any other kind of Russian is less than ironclad.
The count was born in England to a Russian father and English mother, and his
stepfather was the novelist Patrick O’Brien.
Educated at Wellington College, Sandhurst and Trinity College, Dublin, he speaks his mother tongue, English, in perfect upper-class cadences. As to his ideological tongue, Russian, he hardly speaks it at all, beyond a few heavily accented words.
Still, a man is entitled to consider himself anything he
pleases. The heart’s genetic memory reinforced by cultural inclinations may
trump linguistic deficiencies and the accident of birth.
However, Count Tolstoy’s heart has led him not only to a Russian identity, but also to Russian jingoism, of the kind that defies reason, morality and – lamentable in such a good historian – even elementary education.
The British, complained Tolstoy, have always treated Russia as a backward country, “a land of tyrants and slaves”. Actually, this last phrase comes almost verbatim from a poem by the Russian poet Lermontov (“Farewell to thee, my squalid Russia, a land of masters, land of slaves…”).
So it wasn’t just the dastardly English who noticed the traditional Russian dichotomy of tyrants and slaves – in fact, the list of such perceptive individuals in Russia herself is endless, and it even includes some of Count Tolstoy’s illustrious ancestors.
It takes a woeful misreading of history not to see that the notion of sovereign individuals is alien to the Russians. Power in the country (vlast’, which is a cognate of the English weal) has always been monocentric, concentrated in the hands of tsar, emperor, general secretary or president.
The parallel centres of power that have always, if at times intermittently, existed in the West, such as aristocracy, councils of elders, church, people’s assemblies, have in Russia always been epiphenomenal extensions of the Weal. That’s why the English enjoyed in the thirteenth century many of the liberties the Russians still don’t possess in the twenty-first.
In any case, it wasn’t because of their supercilious attitude to the Russians that the British committed the crime that Count Tolstoy correctly regards as such, the forced repatriation of people seeking freedom.
But, said Tolstoy, the West is still looking down on the Russians. After they got rid of communism, the West still commits aggression against Russia: the Ukraine is being drawn into NATO, Western soldiers are stationed in the Baltics, missiles are based in Poland – all because Russia is regarded as backward.
At this point, we enter the realm of madness caused by maniacal chauvinism. The West, sir, takes precautions against Russia not because it’s backward, but because it’s dangerous. She has shown willingness to pounce on her neighbours, while keeping the West at bay by nuclear blackmail.
Getting rid of communism also meant getting rid of the
communist Soviet empire. The good count touts the former but clearly wishes
Russia had kept the latter – one can’t help detecting a logical solecism there.
His chauvinist heart simply can’t accept that the Ukraine and other fiefdoms of the Russian, then Soviet, empire are now sovereign nations. As such, they are free to join NATO, the EU, NAFTA or even, if accepted, the Organisation of African States.
Preventing this exercise of independence by brute force,
which is Russia’s wont, shows contempt for international law and common
If Tolstoy could read Russian, he’d know that the official media (all others are suppressed) are spouting nuclear threats against the West in a continuous stream of effluvia.
There are signs that Putin’s kleptofascist gang is preparing
to test NATO’s resolve by trying to reconquer the Baltics, all NATO members.
Both Putin and Patrushev, his Secretary of the Security Council, issue threats
every day, repeating endlessly that a nuclear war is both possible and
But of course, Putin can do no wrong for the Tolstoys – he’s just the kind of ruler the family cherishes. In fact, the count’s son Dmitri attacked me some time ago for saying about Putin the sort of things I’ve just said. In several idiotically febrile e-mails, he demanded that I go back to Russia (which I left long before he was even born) and fight for its future.
Now, I’m considerably more British than any of the Tolstoy
clan are Russian, and Russia’s future interests me only inasmuch as it presents
a threat to everything I hold dear. Dmitri (who’s only a quarter-Russian, by
the way) and his father feel differently, but one still detects no willingness
on their part to settle in their ideological motherland and share its destiny.
But never mind Russia in general, continued Nikolai Tolstoy.
Even the Russian peasants were far from being primitive. As proof of their
cultural attainment, he held up a shirt beautifully embroidered in the
I can only put this down to the count’s advanced age, a
condition known to cause lachrymose sentimentality. By his chosen criterion, no
such thing as a primitive culture exists: even some African tribes with
objectionable dietary habits are eminently capable of producing beautiful artefacts.
Russia, boasted Tolstoy, created a great culture, which America, with all her money, has been unable to do. It’s true that during the century in which most of Russia’s great culture was produced, roughly 1820-1920, it was second to none.
Yet the Russian literary language was created by Francophone writers. They transposed into Russian the French lexical and grammatical patterns, much to the amazement of the perceptive writer Prosper Mérimée, who translated Pushkin’s prose into French.
In a letter to Pushkin’s friend Sobolevsky, Mérimée wrote: “I find that Pushkin’s phraseology is completely French… Could it be that you boyars first think in French and then write in Russian?” Well spotted.
Russian culture was created by perhaps one per cent of the population, the thoroughly Westernised elite most of which came from the same social stratum as the Tolstoys. That tiny group produced a sublime sub-set of European culture, and it’s in Europe that their antecedents are to be found.
This isn’t to deny the sui generis genius of Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Levitan, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and many others. It’s just that the presence of such giants in no way protects a country at large from backwardness – nor prevents it from plunging into evil.
Anyway, it’s pointless arguing serious points with the likes of the Tolstoys. Russia to them isn’t a real country in flesh and blood – it’s an idol and, even worse, an ideology. And when ideology speaks, reason is silenced.
Radio presenter John Humphrys sparked controversy yesterday by suggesting that perhaps Hitler was on to something, that the idea of guillotining a queen could work in Britain, and that the Labour Party ought to be outlawed.
Got you going there, didn’t I? Actually, the controversy was caused by something even more heinous: talking about baby care, Mr Humphrys dared suggest that women “by and large do a better job of it than men.”
He could have dug even a deeper hole for himself by
insisting that women also do a better job of giving birth and breastfeeding,
but the hole he did dig was deep enough.
The subject came up during a Radio 4 discussion of
two TV commercials, one for Volkswagen, the other for Philadelphia cheese, both
banned for ‘gender stereotyping’. One commercial showed men being hopeless at
baby care; the other depicted women being good at it.
The delinquent Mr Humphrys (far from a
conservative, by the way) first defended the ads and then showed no repentance:
“To whom is it causing harm if you show a woman sitting next to a baby in a
pram? Lots of women sit next to babies in prams. How does this sort of
advertising harm people?”
If he has to ask, he doesn’t belong in civilised
society, as defined by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and all other
progressive bodies and individuals. ASA’s Jessica Tye made that abundantly
Such offensive advertising, she explained – as if patently obvious things needed an explanation! – could lead women astray by affecting their aspirations and career choices.
Implicitly, the danger is that women will start bearing children and looking after them, rather than leaving that task to men or, better still, transsexuals, while they themselves seek rewarding careers as fighter pilots or boxers.
Following a groundswell of indignation at the grassroots,
ASA simply had to ban those affronts to humanity. Or perhaps ‘groundswell’ is
not only a cliché but also an exaggeration.
All in all, just one person objected to the cheese ad, and a whopping three to the Volkswagen one. But, as I never tire of pointing out, numbers shouldn’t affect a principle.
However, they could perhaps elucidate the principle, as they do in this case. The insanity pandemic infecting our society spreads from top to bottom, not from bottom to top; it’s institutional, not individual.
ASA pulled the commercials after just four cretins found them controversial – out of millions of viewers. Thereby that watchdog caused commercial damage to the advertisers, along with their various agencies and TV stations, but they have only themselves to blame.
The juggernaut of modernity rolls on, and one can’t get into its wheel spokes without getting crushed. All we can do is await new developments with trepidation.
Or else, even better, propose them. In that vein, I
think the Arts Council should take a good, long look at all those Virgin and Child
paintings befouling our museums. If that’s not gender stereotyping, I don’t know
Such offensive canvases ought to be expurgated and, ideally, burned in a new, progressive Bonfire of the Vanities. Girolamo Savonarola, call your office.
There’s a story that makes me think of aspiring philosophers. A young man, lost in the countryside, asks a crusty old local how to reach his destination. “If you want to get there,” says the man, “I wouldn’t start from here.”
Like that youngster, a philosopher travels the road to a destination, truth. Sometimes he runs, sometimes he walks, sometimes he crawls – and his chances of getting where he’s going may be better or worse. But they’ll be non-existent if he doesn’t get on that road at all.
This line of thought is inspired by the obituaries for Prof. Agnes Heller, describing her as a remarkable woman and a significant philosopher. Well, one out of two isn’t bad.
Holocaust survivor whom neither the Nazis nor the communists in her native
Hungary could break, and who lived to 90, remaining active until the last
moment, indeed has to be an amazing person.
people are rare, but real philosophers are rarer still, and it takes more than
a lifelong study to be one. More even than teaching the subject and writing the
usual quota of books, although these seem to be sufficient qualifications
A real philosopher finds the road to truth and signposts it for others. To do so, he has to start from the right place.
Prof. Heller’s formative influences are listed as Marx,Lukács, Freud and Hegel. The poor woman never had a chance: with mentors like those, she was lost before she left.
confusion is evident from the task she set for herself: “I promised myself to solve the
dirty secret of the 20th century, the secret of the unheard-of mass murders, of
several million corpses ‘produced’ by genocides, by the Holocaust, and all of
them in times of modern humanism and enlightenment.”
think she was so close to the perfect starting point and yet missed it by a
mile. All she had to do was replace the words “in times” at the end of her
sentence with the word ‘because’. Then suddenly she would have seen the road
sign TRUTH THIS WAY.
According to one obituary, Prof. Heller started “from the view that modernity
is founded on freedom.” It may be or may not be. But in either case, freedom
isn’t an absolute – when it comes up, one is within one’s rights to ask a few
probing questions, such as ‘freedom for whom, from what, from whom and to do
For example, freedom from political oppression is desirable, but freedom
from just laws isn’t. Freedom for thinkers is essential, but freedom for
criminals is in itself criminal. Freedom from evil prejudices is creative,
freedom from good ones is destructive. Freedom from biases may or may not be
clever, but freedom from presuppositions is always dumb – and so forth.
Since Prof. Heller clearly equated Enlightenment humanism with freedom, one
wonders how she would have fielded such subversive questions. Not very
convincingly, is my guess.
She didn’t realise that the principal desiderata of the ‘Enlightenment’ were
Ostensibly les philosophes and their students targeted l’Ancien Régime, but in fact they set out to annihilate ancien everything: religion, metaphysical (which is to say real) philosophy, sound political thought, social structures and conventions, morality, law, understanding of man’s nature and his place in this world, the very concept of reality.
In that undertaking they succeeded famously. Where they, along with their heirs, failed miserably is in the attempt to build a solid replacement structure on the ruins. They placed man in the spot hitherto occupied by God, at the centre of the universe. As a result, man’s head first swelled and then imploded.
To replace God, even in secular life, man had to be godlike: perfect and sinless, only made imperfect and sinful by the dastardly ancien everything (see above). Remove those offensive obstacles, and Rousseau’s view of man perfect in his primordial beauty would be vindicated.
Man was no longer fallen and therefore fallible. He was both perfect and,
But Rousseau’s view was a gross and, more important, demonstrable fallacy. The demonstration came from all those things that vexed Prof. Heller so: “several million corpses ‘produced’ by genocides, by the Holocaust”.
The ‘Enlightenment’ empowered man to be the sole judge of his actions; it dispensed
with the arbitrage of a supreme authority infinitely higher than man. Fair
enough, some people can indeed be trusted to be both players and referees. But
they are in an infinitesimal minority – most can’t navigate their way through
life without a guiding hand.
Prof. Heller endured much suffering from fascism and communism, but she failed to notice their genealogy. Yet neither of them had existed before the ‘Enlightenment’, and this isn’t a case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
The Enlightenment removed the adhesive bond of “neither Jew, nor Greek” universalism, thereby encouraging divisiveness. And it warped serious thought by divesting it of teleological striving for the absolute. Man’s thought no longer followed a brightly lit road; it began to meander in the dark.
Thereby the ‘Enlightenment’ opened the sluice gates in the stream of
unbounded evil, while shutting off all the intellectual byways. Man lost the
ability both to sense evil and to think it through.
In due course, humanist modernity bifurcated into two strains: predominately philistine and predominantly nihilist. Since both are materialist and at the same time equally hostile to the world hated by the ‘Enlightenment’, ‘predominantly’ is the key word: the philistines are possessed of some nihilist animus, and vice versa.
The philistines have replaced real love with love of material possessions;
the nihilists replaced it with hatred. But the important thing is that both
have replaced it.
In that undertaking they join forces, although the nihilists’ contribution
is more immediately obvious: red is a more visible colour than grey.
A real philosopher deals with first causes and last things. As a by-product, that enables him to understand derivative causes and quotidian things – such as in this case the carnage perpetrated by post-‘Enlightenment’ modernity.
Where others see an accidental deviation, he sees causation; where others see isolated events, he sees the links in the chain binding them all. Prof. Heller wasn’t such a philosopher – but she was a remarkable woman nonetheless. RIP.
The leading Democratic contender to unseat Donald Trump isn’t known as a phrase maker, although his reputation as a phrase borrower is second to none.
Mr Biden has been mocked for plagiarising other politicians and especially for choosing the wrong politicians to plagiarise, such as Neil Kinnock. I myself had some fun at Mr Biden’s expense a few days ago, which I now wholeheartedly regret.
For, belying his reputation, Mr Biden has come up with an epigrammatic insight of rare depth. He displayed an ability only the great thinkers possess: that of encapsulating a complex phenomenon in a poignant, penetrating aphorism.
enough to admit that he made me ashamed of my own prolixity. While I had to
write several books trying to come to grips with the nature of post-Enlightenment
modernity, Mr Biden managed to do so in one spiffy phrase.
Campaigning in Iowa, Mr Biden eschewed the apophatic trick of defining his liberalism (in the modern, American sense) simply by what it isn’t. Instead, he boldly came out and stated what it actually is:
“We got to let him [Trump] know who we are. We choose unity over division. We choose science over fiction. WE CHOOSE TRUTH OVER FACTS.”
emphasised the last sentence out of sheer admiration for its brilliance. Seldom
– possibly never – has such an exhaustive insight been expressed in just five
words. (If you don’t believe it possible, see for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15RjcRJ3Z70)
ponder the implications. First, truth has nothing to do with facts. Second, in
case of conflict, truth has precedence over facts. Third, Mr Biden hints at possessing
the answer to the question once posed by Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?” (John
All three components elucidate expodentially, to use one of Mr Biden’s own creative neologisms, the very nature of modernity.
For modernity treats facts as the trees for which one can’t see the wood of virtual reality, which alone is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Now, throughout his distinguished career Mr Biden has drawn inspiration from other politicians, which is a sign of a humble and quietly confident man. Typically, his role models come from the left reaches of what I call the philistine end of modern politics.
Hence he can’t be accused of borrowing from Joseph Stalin, the epitome of what I call the nihilist end, and any coincidence between his thoughts and Stalin’s has to be purely coincidental. But that isn’t to deny that a coincidence exists.
In 1932, at the height of yet another murderous famine, Stalin turned his mind to literature. Displaying a genius prefiguring Joe Biden, his namesake Uncle Joe laid down the doctrine of ‘socialist realism’.
Its essence was that the sole function of literature was to reflect the current line in party propaganda. Everything else (style, character development, structure, imagery, psychological depth and credibility) was strictly optional and only allowable inasmuch as it didn’t contradict the ‘general line’.
As an example of new art in action, while millions starved to death in the Ukraine and cannibalism was rife, a socialist realist poem of the time boasted that “our Ukraine is hard to beat, there’s things to drink and things to eat.”
some writers were slow to grasp the nature of socialist realism. They begged
the Great Leader to provide guidance in a personal meeting, and he
socialist realism?” asked the top writers admitted into the inner sanctum. “Write
the truth,” explained Stalin. “That’s what socialist realism is all about.”
those early days it was still possible to express mild misgivings and live to
tell the tale, someone quoted John Adams’s saying about facts being stubborn things.
“Well,” frowned the Great Leader, “if facts are stubborn things, then so much
the worse for facts.”
That was the first attempt to define truth as discrete from facts, yet it took another 87 years and Joe Biden to put this staggering discovery into a nutshell. Being a sublime metaphysical concept, truth soars above the crude physicality of facts.
To Mr Biden’s credit, he provided an instant illustration to this philosophical postulate by warning that another eight years of Trump’s presidency would change America beyond recognition.
That’s the ultimate, metaphysical truth – even though the constitutional fact is that, even if Trump wins the 2020 election, he only has five, not eight, more years in the White House.
The list of truths negating facts is long, and it comprises every cherished belief of modernity. I can offer a brief random sample, in the certainty that you can easily expand it no end.
Truth: Unlimited democracy elevates to government those fit to govern. Fact: It demonstrably doesn’t.
composition of a government must reflect the demographic makeup of the
population. Fact: Ability to govern is relevant; race and sex aren’t.
Truth: To relieve poverty, the state is justified to redistribute wealth. Fact: High taxation rates make more people poor.
nation’s sovereignty isn’t compromised by being vested in a foreign body. Fact:
It’s not so much compromised as destroyed.
It’s only because of racial discrimination that most prison inmates come from
ethnic minorities. Fact: They commit more crimes.
And so on, ad infinitum. You see how a tersely worded aphorism can unshackle one’s imagination?
argue that Mr Biden came up with his insight inadvertently, that he didn’t know
what he was saying. My reply to those sceptics is a resounding ‘so what’.
Think of Archimedes in his bath, Newton and his apple, Mendeleyev and his dream – many great men stumbled on truth seemingly by accident. That diminishes neither them nor their discoveries. And now we can mention Joe Biden side by side with those intellectual giants.
Aren’t Americans lucky to have him as a possible future president.
Regrettably, Britain stayed in the dark both about and on my birthday.
That the country was ignorant of so momentous an event is understandable. That more than a million Britons were plunged into darkness by a National Grid failure is worrying.
Boris Johnson has ordered an investigation into the power outages, and until it has been completed one shouldn’t venture too many guesses.
However, troglodytes who love to find fault with renewable energy will gloat because the blackout was made worse by Hornsea Wind Farm cutting off from the grid.
Yet this will in no way dampen my enthusiasm for saving the planet (aka the Earth) from global warming. We’re in the midst of this cataclysm, caused by aerosol sprays, hydrocarbons and Margaret Thatcher.
The goal of saving the planet is so noble that I’m prepared to freeze in the dark if that would help. However, some people don’t share my selfless commitment to this cause. They bitch about their lives being disrupted, as if spending a few pleasant hours stranded in traffic jams or on tube trains has ever hurt anybody.
They forget that it’s largely because of their selfishness that National Grid failed in the first place. Those egoists don’t think twice about the consequences of their actions.
turn on their chandeliers at mealtimes, ignoring the romantic appeal of a
candlelit supper. They sybaritically take public transport to work, even though
they could score a double whammy by walking.
exercise they’d get by a brisk 10-mile walk would improve their health and
reduce pressure on the NHS, whereas National Grid wouldn’t have to overstrain its
every sinew wheeling them around.
And as to
people who drive to work, or for that matter anywhere else, don’t get me
started on this. Leeches! Hedonists! Global warming deniers! Criminals! Sorry,
I can’t remain dispassionate when this subject comes up.
Oh well, until our next government criminalises self-interest, I suppose cars will be with us for a while. However, in common with all other planet-savers, I look forward to the time when all our cars will be electric.
This is what our government wants, and whatever our government wants has to be good and just. Especially since that commitment is shared by our high nobility, such as the Duchess of Sussex. So we can confidently look forward to the near future, when all 32.5 million cars in the UK will be replaced by their electric equivalents.
However, playing not so much devil’s advocate as the devil himself, one may mischievously juxtapose this coming bliss with the seams at which National Grid is creaking. This yields a chastening question: where’s the extra energy going to come from?
I don’t know
exactly how much more energy will be needed. But, in round numbers, it has to
be an awful lot.
Hence, if National Grid is at the end of its tether now, it’ll have to be boosted tremendously to cope with millions of cars recharging their batteries at the same time.
the boost come from? I know it’ll have to come from somewhere because surely
our wise government must have considered all the ramifications of its policy.
Let’s see. Nuclear is out because it’s deadly – even though there has never been a single fatal accident at a nuclear power station anywhere in the West. But facts shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with a noble principle and anyway, there’s always a first time.
and gas are the work of the devil because they, along with aerosols and Margaret
Thatcher, are responsible for destroying the planet in the first place. So they’re
out as well.
That leaves the sun and the wind as the clear winners. Scientists, those who work for neither governments nor the UN and therefore have no vested interest in saving the planet, doubt that those turbines and panels can do the job even if they densely cover every square inch of Britain.
those hirelings to capitalists and planet-rapists can’t deny that wind and
solar energy is friendly to the environment, making its efficacy a moot and
hear it for electric cars and Elon Musk – they are our near future. Also in our
near future is a vastly increased mining of lithium, cobalt, nickel and other
rare metals involved in the production of those zillions of car batteries.
the world’s supply of such metals comes from places where the miners are slaves
or as near as damn. But we planet-savers are blessed with a sufficiently
elastic conscience to look on the bright side: those Congo miners may be digging
themselves into a premature grave for a pound a week, but without those cobalt
mines they’d die of hunger even sooner.
course there’s the polluting effect of all the extra mining, which makes global
warming deniers question the net effect on the planet. Naysayers! Virtue must
be impervious to actuarial calculations – it has to do with high morality, not
undeterred by my wrath, those enemies of the planet keep piling on questions. Mercifully,
answers are always close at hand.
happens to those who can’t afford the expensive Elon Musk products? A. Patience.
In due course, they’ll become cheaper.
Q. What if
some of us can’t afford the £7,000 cost of replacing a car battery? A.
Patience. The cost is bound to come down.
will happen to those tens of millions of discarded batteries full of acid? Won’t
disposing of them hurt the environment? A. Patience. Our government will think
So you see, patience is the answer to every doubt, provided one’s heart is in the right place and one’s head isn’t.