The term used to describe marginal political extremists, especially those who didn’t mind expressing their insane ideas with pistols and bombs.
Now, if you believe Daniel Finkelstein of The Times, it stands for conservatives, especially those who believe in God. That lexical reassessment appears in the context of his article about assisted dying, which he considers “a modest and popular step”.
Therefore those who oppose it are immodest and unpopular radicals – because, in his own words, they resist “a radical change, a break with hundreds of years of law-making, philosophical principle and medical practice… the abandonment of common morality.”
The lexical acrobatics of the modern political nomenclatures clearly require the kind of agility I don’t possess. But I think I get it: a radical is one who resists a radical change.
If I understand Lord Finkelstein right, those wishing to overturn hundreds of years of legal, philosophical and moral tradition are sensible reformers, while those who think such things are worth keeping are dangerous radicals. To my ossified mind, it’s the other around, which I suppose makes me as radical as they come, radically speaking.
He then replaces verbal acrobatics with veritable contortionism by bending himself into all sorts of unlikely shapes in an attempt to distinguish between “assisted suicide” and “assisted dying”. These semantic subtleties escape me altogether, though I do grasp the general gist that “assisted suicide” is radical, whereas “assisted dying” is modest and popular.
I do agree with Lord Finkelstein when he says that: “Political minds change slowly but the change is all in one direction.” Where we diverge is in our assessment of this one direction. He sees it as commendable; I see it as vectored towards perdition.
Lord Finkelstein favours straight talk and declares war on euphemisms. “Assisted suicide” is an especially objectionable euphemism: “For the people who use the term suicide to describe assisted dying don’t really believe assisted dying is any kind of suicide. They believe it is murder.”
Remarkably, not a single word of the 1,120 in his article even touches upon the Judaeo-Christian origin of our civilisation, whence all those philosophical, moral and legal ideas come. I understand that Lord Finkelstein has no time for such arcana, but one doesn’t have to be a believing Jew or Christian to be able to identify the kernel of this matter.
The clue is provided by this dialogue from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Master and Margarita. While interrogating Jesus, appearing as Ha-Nozri, Pontius Pilate demands that he swear he isn’t a subversive.
“What do you want me to swear by?” asked the unbound prisoner with animation.
“Well, let us say by your life,” said the Procurator. “This is just the time to swear by it, for it hangs by a thread – you must know that.”
“And is it your belief that you have hung it so, Hegemon?” asked the prisoner. “If so, you are very mistaken.”
Pilate started and spoke through his teeth:
“I can cut this thread.”
“There, too, you are mistaken,” said the prisoner with a luminous smile, shielding himself from the sun with his hand. “You must agree that the thread can surely be cut only by him who had hung it?”
At the heart of the hundreds of years of tradition evidently despised by Lord Finkelstein lies the belief Bulgakov here conveys artistically. Since it’s God who gives life, only he is entitled to take it.
Hence, suicide, assisted or otherwise, indeed isn’t murder. It’s worse.
For, by taking a life or any number of them, a murderer merely defies one of the Commandments. By taking his own life, on the other hand, a suicide defies God altogether.
By rejecting God’s dominion over his life, he kills not only himself, but God within himself, thereby putting himself above God. That’s why suicides were traditionally denied a Christian burial, but murderers weren’t.
Thus, the issue of assisted dying becomes the battlefield on which two civilisations clash: the Judaeo-Christian one, based on the assertion of certain principles, and the modern one, based on their negation.
Lord Finkelstein is right though: it’s the latter that’s winning, for now. What is astounding is that he ignores the Judaeo-Christian argument altogether, without even bothering to take issue with it. This says much not just about him, but about the modernity he extols – crass and inane materialism is taken as a self-evident truth.
Lord Finkelstein then goes into a boring discussion of casuistic details, specifically of how a private member’s bill, such as the one to that effect currently submitted, can clear parliamentary hurdles. His conclusion is that sooner or later it will, because most people support it.
Lord Finkelstein thereby commits another fallacy, called argumentum ad populum: insisting that something is true because the majority thinks so. The whole modern civilisation is based on this fallacy, courtesy of what Ortega y Gasset aptly called “revolt of the masses” almost 100 years ago.
For all his shunning of rhetorical conventions, Lord Finkelstein is right: the masses are indeed revolting. Using another Latin-named rhetorical device, reductio ad absurdum, the majority prefers Lennon to Bach, Coronation Street to Shakespeare and three-word sound bites to Lord Finkelstein’s prolix musings.
There is little he can do about restoring Bach’s and Shakespeare’s popularity, but, to be true to his principles, he ought to relinquish his position at The Times and start twitting short messages ending with LOL.
But I’d still insist that he sort out his terminology. If a decent, church-going gentleman is a radical, then there is something wrong with Lord Finkelstein’s nomenclatures. Not with the gentleman.