Nothing wrong with slapstick

When I was little, my parents often took me to the circus, where I especially liked the clowns. Most of them didn’t tax my immature mind with subtle jokes or even unsubtle puns.

They would just fall down all of a sudden, and each pratfall made the child in me laugh. Mind you, at that age the child in me was, well, me. I was a child from top to bottom and childish humour appealed to me.

Now I’m happy to report that my inner child hasn’t gone away in the decades that have since passed. He is still there, albeit remaining small while the rest of me has grown big (too big if you listen to Penelope). The rest of me can appreciate – sometimes, on a good day, even produce – sophisticated humour.

I can laugh out loud reading Aristophanes, for example. Or Rabelais. Or La Rochefoucauld. Or Dickens. Or Gogol. Or P.G. Wodehouse. Or Waugh. That’s the grown-up part of me, enjoying a good day out.

But then I also remember the ‘70s, when my inner child laughed his head off at the opening sequences of Saturday Night Live, those featuring Chevy Chase. I know this dates me, but hell, anyone can find out how old I am by looking up my Wikipedia page.

Real slapstick should catch you off-guard, with a pratfall coming at a moment when you least expect it. The beauty of those opening sequences was that everybody knew exactly what was going to happen: Chevy would crash down in spectacular fashion. And then, still on the floor, he’d shout exuberantly: “Live! From New York! It’s Saturday Night!”

The inner child of me had a field day – I laughed every time. It wasn’t the appreciative laughter of a grown-up. It was the unrestrained guffaw of a child, who plays Peter Pan by stubbornly refusing to grow up.

This brings me to public speakers, especially politicians. They have to ration their humour, even if they are capable of it. That doesn’t mean they have to shun it altogether, but they should watch their step.

When I was a budding copywriter, an old hand told me not to overindulge my funny side. “People don’t buy from clowns,” he told me. “They buy from serious men.”

Yes, the odd joke adds spice to a message, but it can’t be the message. Politicians know this too, as they are aware that coming across as serious men (or women, or other) is good, but coming across as gravely ponderous isn’t.

That’s why they like to slip the odd joke in. For example, I remember Ronald Reagan, then 73, debating Walter Mondale in 1984. The moderator asked the president if he thought age was a factor in that campaign.

A tricky question, but Reagan saw it coming. “I promise not to hold my opponent’s youth and inexperience against him,” he said, and the national audience laughed in record numbers. Reagan won the debate and the subsequent election hands down.

Good for him, he was capable of a good line, or at least of delivering one. Actually, I take that sneer back – Reagan could also improvise a joke, as anyone who watched him on Firing Line can confirm.

An earlier Republican president, Gerry Ford, didn’t possess that ability, but he still didn’t want to appear all dour and ponderous. So he’d do slapstick, vying with Chevy Chase for the laurels of the best pratfaller in America.

Ford would joyously tumble down the Air Force One stairs and every other set of steps he could find. And once he went Chevy one better by falling up the stairs, and you must agree that takes some doing. Americans laughed heartily. (They then voted for his opponent, but that’s a separate story.)

I did too. The inner child of me rejoiced in every tumble, while the grown-up would reach a sensible conclusion that, however meagre our talents are, we owe it to ourselves to make the best of them. If some people can’t come up with witticisms, they can still add gaiety to our lives by falling down, or even up, the stairs – whether they mean it or not.

In fact, I wouldn’t jump to a hasty conclusion of which it is. We may think a politician’s fall was accidental, but in fact it may have been carefully planned in advance. Rather than berating ourselves for gloating about old people’s frailty, we should laugh away – that might have been the desired effect.

In fact, we should compliment a falling politician for brightening up our day. This way we can always watch the telly, with the sound turned off, whenever he graces the screen with his presence. Chances are he’ll execute another hilarious tumble, tickling the inner child in us pink.

Give him top marks, if not necessarily your vote, for trying: the chap wants to put you in a good frame of mind. Then again, he may be preparing a fallback position for his career. Should he lose the next election, he could retrain as a slapstick comedian.

Why am I carrying on about pratfalls, slapstick and politicians? No idea. After all, sometimes I have something to write and at other times I have to write something. James Joyce would have called it stream of consciousness.

Death, taxes and death taxes

Before I go on, I must issue a disclaimer. I believe, and my friend Melanie Phillips proves, that women can be very good columnists indeed.

40 per cent of it belongs to the state

Yet I also believe, and Emma Duncan proves, that women are sometimes hired to be columnists not because they are qualified but because they are women. Otherwise it’s hard to explain how she found a broadsheet platform for airing Marxist twaddle with a touch of psychobabble platitudes.

Miss Duncan works for The Times, where her most recent contribution starts with a rather strained paradox: Don’t Kill the Death Tax, It’s Good for Most of Us. If she expected to catch our attention, she succeeded in my case.

I read on to find out whether she could make a case for that crepuscular proposition. She couldn’t. All Miss Duncan managed to do was prove yet again that such propositions beget crepuscular thinking.

Shining through the gossamer veneer of ratiocination is her underlying belief in the Marxist dogma that daily toil is the only acceptable way of making money. Money shouldn’t be allowed to make money – that’s capitalism, with its inexorable enslavement of the working classes.

Alas, since money hasn’t yet been abolished, as it will be when the millenarian bliss of communism arrives, it’s hard to avoid the lamentable situation of some people having more of it than others. Such individuals then pass the excess on to their children, who thereby lose the incentive to do honest labour at a factory conveyor belt.

The only way of correcting that gross iniquity is to reset the dial in each generation, by confiscating the estate of the dead plutocrat, thereby forcing his progeny to work for a living, ideally in manual jobs. Since it’s hard to drum up public support for such an extreme measure, any approximation will have to do, the closer the better.

If we can’t expropriate 100 per cent, let’s make do with 40 per cent, for the time being. Meanwhile, while we await the bright future of total nationalisation, let’s mock people like Nadhim Zahawi, MP, who “reckons it is ‘morally wrong’ to take someone’s assets on their death.”

This is how Miss Duncan encapsulates that argument in one paragraph: “There certainly is an element of unfairness, in the form of double taxation: if people are passing on money they have earned, it has already been taxed. But the rise in the value of estates is largely due not to years of hard work but to the rise in property prices.”

The observation is astute. However, the illogical conclusion isn’t: so let’s extort that ‘surplus value’. Though Miss Duncan managed not to use that Marxist term, she has lovingly preserved the warped thinking behind it.

According to her, some taxes are good for you. “The best ones – sin taxes, carbon taxes – discourage bad behaviour.” ‘Sin tax’ is an excise tax levied on certain goods deemed harmful, such as alcohol and tobacco.

You see, we may not know what’s good for us, but thank goodness the state does. Having a drink at the local, for example, is sinful. That’s why the state has raised tax on beer to a point where some London pubs already have to charge £10 or more for a pint as the wages of sin.

That obviously limits their clientele, and pubs are going out of business in droves. Miss Duncan doubtless thinks it’s good riddance: those dens of iniquity lead people into temptation. Now those who feel like a drink will do the virtuous thing: buy a two-litre jug of the cheapest cider and drink it on a park bench.

But she is right about the carbon tax: it discourages people from pursuing hedonistic, soul-destroying ends, like keeping warm in winter. And as to industrial profits, we all know they are the work of the devil.

Hence, taxing factories a little extra for their use of hydrocarbons is God’s work. Since factory owners then raise the price of their products, consumers have to pay more for them, thus having less left to spend on booze and fags. Virtue all around, all thanks to good taxes.

Getting back to death taxes, Miss Duncan supports them with the trusted Marxist argument from inequality: “And if inheritance tax is unfair, inheritance itself is even more so. When I die, my children will use the proceeds from my house to buy their own… The third of people who don’t own a house won’t be able to give their children this leg-up.”

So let’s punish the remaining two-thirds for having the temerity to buy a house, rather than living in social accommodation where everybody is equal. Fair is fair, eh comrades?

Banning the inheritance tax would transgress against the sacred dogma of equality in other ways too: “It would also exacerbate regional inequalities: about half of the benefits would go to people in London and the southeast.”

Verily I say unto you, 40 per cent is a joke. What’s wrong with nationalising the whole estate, lock, stock and house? But does Miss Duncan ever wonder what percentage of our GDP is produced in that contemptible region? She should.

Just think about it: according to Miss Duncan, inheritance tax saves people from all seven cardinal sins: pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth. This last one is supported by unimpeachable evidence: “An American study showed that receiving a large inheritance tends to decrease people’s earnings and increase the chance that they will drop out of the labour force.”

Crikey. I wonder how much that study cost. So the more money people inherit the less likely they are to enjoy the daily grind? I could have told them the same thing for free.

The other sins discouraged by death taxes are less obvious. Since they are unsupported by poll data, Miss Duncan relies on anecdotal evidence or what to her seems to be logical inference. For example, she mentions families torn asunder by squabbling about inheritance. She also offers her own variation on the theme of ‘money doesn’t make you happy’.

That’s true, although I’ve seen more unhappiness caused by poverty than by wealth. But that’s not even the point. The point is that Miss Duncan proceeds from the assumption that the state, and she as its prophet, should treat people as children incapable of deciding for themselves what’s good for them.

Hence the state must step in and spank them into virtue with taxation. Spare the tax and spoil hoi polloi, that’s the upshot.

Now I know that The Times, in the past the mouthpiece of conservatism, has become ‘liberal’. But do its editors realise they are lending their pages to unvarnished Marxism? Oh well, they probably wouldn’t care even if they did.  

Moral equivalence is a gas

A chap who came to inspect our gas pipes this morning noticed that my shelves are full of books on Russia.

That sight inspired him to share his innermost thoughts on the subject. His audience was Penelope – I was busy chasing fuzzy yellow balls at the time.

“I quite like Putin,” said the gas man. “Why?” asked my inquisitive wife. “He is a strong leader,” explained the chap, who must be a Mail on Sunday reader and a fan of a certain columnist.

“But he kills a lot of people,” offered Penelope, trying to keep the argument at a level accessible to gas repairmen. “So do the Americans,” replied the proletarian.

“Not the same way,” insisted Penelope. “They don’t kill their journalists, they don’t poison people in foreign countries…” The chap shrugged in an eloquent manner meaning “six of one, half a dozen of the other.” Moral equivalence had the last word, or rather shrug.

Some years ago I encountered a similar attitude in a supposedly more enlightened audience. I was delivering a lecture on Russia to the faculty of a London university. My listeners took exception to my description of the Soviet Union as evil. After all, quite apart from everything else, the communists murdered 60 million of their own citizens.

“Americans have killed a lot of innocent people too,” countered the academics. “How many?” I asked. “Thousands.” “Even assuming that’s true,” I said, “it’s still a far cry from sixty million.”

“There’s no difference,” sneered the scholars. “And if you think there is, you are a moral relativist.” It’s refreshing to know that our university professors are of one mind with manual workers on the subject of Russia.

Actually, my guess is that a broader canvassing sample of the two groups would probably reveal that, on average, the workmen hold more sound ideas. They may even be more knowledgeable or, if you want to be pedantic about it, less ignorant.

In the spirit of the moral absolutism my academic listeners believed I lack, let me reiterate the seminal difference between America and Russia, under either the communists or Putin’s kleptofascists.

America has done a lot of things wrong, and continues to do them. America is often rash, misguided, ill-advised, culturally primitive, not sufficiently connected with the historical continuum, too materialistic for my taste. But one thing she definitely isn’t is evil.

Russia is, and has been since at least 1917. America is a careless driver who may accidentally hit a pedestrian. Russia is an evildoer who will deliberately drive his car into a crowd and then reverse over the bodies to make sure they are all dead. I could offer an endless litany of such metaphors, but you get the picture.

The two drivers aren’t much of a muchness. They inhabit different moral universes, one created by fallible human beings, the other by monstrous ogres.

You may think I’m trying too hard to prove I’m not the moral relativist those academic nonentities accused me of being. But that’s not the case. It’s just that some issues don’t call for a nuanced judgement of various shades of grey. They are black or white or, in the case of Putin’s Russia, all pitch black.

The war Putin is waging on the Ukraine is different from most other wars in that there isn’t even a smidgen of moral ambivalence about it. The same can’t be said, for example, about either World War.

In the first one, both sides claimed moral ascendancy nothing short of sacral righteousness. “Guerre sainte!” screamed French newspapers. “Gott mit uns!” disagreed the Germans. And Britain, explained the Bishop of Hereford, was fighting for “the realisation of the Christianity of Christ.”

In fact, all the parties succumbed to the suicidal death wish and joined forces to kill Europe in every other than the purely geographic sense. It’s possible to argue which side was more culpable, but in any case the issue lacks the chromatic contrast between black and white.

In the Second World war, the moral lines were clearer, but only marginally so. The war was started by an alliance of the two most evil regimes in history, Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, that both attacked Poland 17 days apart.

Britain and France immediately declared war on one evil power, Germany, but, illogically, not on the other, the Soviet Union. When two years later the two evil regimes quarrelled, the Western alliance sided with Stalin against Hitler. The subsequent defeat of Hitler was unequivocally moral, but the attendant victory of Stalin wasn’t.

Ask the Poles or the Czechs how happy they were during the ensuing decades of bolshevism, they’ll tell you. All things considered, that war wasn’t free of moral ambiguities: one evil regime was crushed, but the other thrived for another 46 years.

Moreover, when it died, it bequeathed to us all its evil progeny, Putin’s Russia. After consolidating its hold on domestic power, it started pouncing on its neighbours – eventually plunging Europe into by far the biggest war it has seen since 1945.

No ambivalence. No ambiguity. No argument: this war can and must be judged in black vs. white terms, as a clash between good and evil. If that’s not nuanced enough for you, fine. Here are a couple of shades, just a touch or two.

The Ukraine is good only on balance. It has good sides and bad ones, as do all countries inhabited by free men, and especially countries that communists were systematically corrupting for generations. The Ukraine is a work in progress, but she is definitely moving in the right direction, which is away from her miserable past under Putin’s predecessors and idols.

“Good on balance” is a morally relativist statement. So here’s a counterbalance of moral absolutism: Putin’s Russia is unequivocally, unambiguously and irredeemably evil. She is a fire-breathing Chimera, equally monstrous and equally mythological.

Her evil is unalloyed and unvarnished. Every end she pursues is evil, and so is every means she employs. No balance is anywhere in sight, no silver lining on the cloud and no light at the end of the tunnel (if you can forgive the lazy clichés). Everything else is myths spun out by either ignoramuses or people who are themselves evil.

It’s not just that Russia kills a lot of people, although God knows that’s bad enough. But that she has also created a moral climate in which killing a lot of people for evil reasons creates no public outrage. The evil regime has infected huge swathes of the population with its moral syphilis, with no antibiotics anywhere in sight. And now the whole world is quaking in its boots, wondering if that evil will unleash a nuclear apocalypse.

Strong words indeed, aren’t they? They are, advisedly and deservedly so. That’s to emphasise that no one in his right mind will use the same words to describe America. Love her or hate her or anything in between, she isn’t evil.

Anyone who detects moral equivalence between her and Russia should apply for a job with the Gas Board. They seem to hire such people, and I’m sure there must be vacancies. (I hear The Mail on Sunday is reducing its staff, so no luck there. And the job of the Putinversteher in residence is already taken.)   

“It doesn’t matter”

One hears young people utter that phrase in reference to things that really ought to matter. Such as products of the human spirit, religion, culture, intellect – everything that makes us different from animals.

Allan Bloom saw the signs

It’s not a function of their youth either. One can confidently predict that this abominable situation isn’t going to change as they mature. On the contrary, once they get mired in children, mortgages, retirement plans, insurance policies, adulteries, divorces, medical problems and so on, things are going to get worse, not better.

This observation has been prompted by a conversation with a good friend who was complaining about his nephew, a young doctor. That chap has married a Lebanese girl, his colleague.

She is a pious Muslim, which is why they first had to have a religious wedding in Lebanon. For that to take place, however, the young man had to convert, which he readily agreed to do.

He travelled to Lebanon, chanted the phrases he was supposed to chant, became a Muslim and went back to Europe to get married the proper, which is to say secular, way (his family and he don’t believe in all that God nonsense). When my friend queried him on his conversion, the young man laughed and uttered the phrase in the title above.

My friend’s immediate reaction was to point out to his nephew that there may be some practical ramifications. At some point he may be told to comply with Sharia law and, should he refuse, he’d become an apostate from Islam. That status isn’t always conducive to a long and healthy life, even in Europe.

But that’s a relatively minor matter. He and his wife are Western doctors, after all, and, barring the stuff of macabre dystopic fantasies, it’s unlikely they’ll ever fall under the jurisdiction of an Islamic court. The real problem isn’t the young man’s betrayal of Islam, but his betrayal of everything that constitutes Western culture.

According to my friend, the youngster knows next to nothing about the humanities, things like art, history, religion, philosophy. Such things simply don’t matter.

To his credit, the young doctor doesn’t pretend to be more knowledgeable than he is. He would if he saw the point, but he doesn’t. He’d earn no kudos for cultural pretensions because everyone he knows is just like him (except, obviously, my friend, but he lives far away).

The only judgement the youngster ever puts forth is that any judgement is, well, ‘judgemental’. And that’s the worst thing to be, next to racism and global warming denial. Such things apart, one’s mind is supposed to be open at all times to everything, with no critical judgement activated to filter concepts, tenets and ideas.

Yet it’s precisely by its judgement that a civilisation is defined, by its view of man and the role he plays in life’s drama. Cauterising one’s critical judgement can lead to the critical race theory being accepted as the be all and end all of consciousness – and conscience.

Observation suggests my friend’s nephew is no different from most of his coevals. This is supported by the evidence of those who deal with young people professionally.

As far back as 1987 Allan Bloom, professor at Chicago University, published his seminal book The Closing of the American Mind, in which he described this pandemic of deracination in detail. Bloom pointed out a paradox: the more open the mind, the tighter it’s closed in reality.

In the past, writes Bloom, professors of humanities defined their mission as disabusing students of their prejudices. These days, however, they have no prejudices whatsoever. They start out as tabulae rasae, but nothing worthy can be written on those slates. They remain pristine for life.

Yet prejudices are intuitive, a priori assumptions that anchor the mind, preparing it for a lifelong voyage. If that anchor doesn’t exist, the mind is cast adrift, whirling around aimlessly. Before long it’ll run aground.

Every Sunday a handful of Western holdouts recite the sacramental words “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…”, which young firebrands used to hate. Now they no longer dignify those fossils with such strong emotions. They just smile condescendingly and get on with their purely material – which is to say mindless and soulless – existence.

Their minds are wide-open, but not to what Dostoyevsky called the “accursed questions”. People used to try to answer those, then they began to claim the questions were unanswerable. Now they don’t even know those questions exist. Such things simply don’t matter.

However, those open minds readily admit any nonsense bypassing the mind and appealing directly to gonadic response. The critical race theory, global warming, the joy of transsexualism – anything will do as long as it imposes no demand on thought. Just mouth the requisite stock phrases, prove you are ‘cool’ and watch the remaining cultural holdouts squirm. There are so few of them, they don’t matter.

Contrary to what T.S. Eliot wrote, the world will end with neither a whimper nor a bang. It’ll end with an indifferent shrug.

What we have in the world today is the natural sciences and the humanities going their separate and divergent ways. The natural sciences keep churning out technologies that can make human life easier – or extinct. Which it will be depends on man’s capacity to promote good and resist evil.

The ability to do so requires a lifelong training course for the mind, spirit and senses. The more people sign up for that course, the more likely will society be to choose good over evil and, ultimately, life over death.

Every time an educated (meaning ‘professionally trained’ these days) young man says “It doesn’t matter” in response to one of the few questions that really do matter, the death knell sounds. Metaphorically, for now.

Private pensions and public greed

Socialists loathe everything private except parts, provided they are surgically interchangeable.

Labour economic policy

Such is the nature of socialism, and it’s easier for a tiger to turn into a cuddly kitten than for a socialist to support individual autonomy.

When you strip it of its mendacious share-care-be-aware jargon, socialism of any kind tends towards Mussolini’s terse formula: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”

All modern states gravitate towards this ideal, and their proximity to it defines the type of their socialism. It could be national, international, democratic – almost any modifier will do. But what matters there isn’t the adjective but the noun: socialism.

Its ultimate desideratum is always the same: shifting power from the individual to the state. If the individual still retains some control of his own destiny, it’s only because the state hasn’t yet found a way of stepping in.

In that context, private pensions are a glaring anachronism. If his private pension fund is big enough, the holder will be independent of the state in his later years. If it’s really big, the holder can even retire early, thus slipping out of the state’s clutches when he still has a long life ahead of him.

Yet this anachronism, defying as it does every instinct of our socialist state, used to thrive in Britain. Call it a throwback to sanity, but we used to have excellent provisions for private pensions.

Our state pension is the most miserly in Western Europe, and even at its maximum level it can’t provide for dignified existence. But when people and their employers pay into a private pension fund, the contributions are exempt from taxation, up to certain, quite sensible, limits.

That way, a responsible person on a middle-class income can retire comfortably by keeping up his maximum contributions for, say, 30 years. That, as far as the state is concerned, makes him a fish slipping out of the net. The holes in the net must be way too big.

Thus, when Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997 and started his offensive on traditional Britain, plundering private pensions was his top priority and the first thing he did. His chancellor Gordon Brown immediately imposed a £5.6 billion annual tax on pension funds.

He then boasted that his government “lets people keep more of their money”. First, that was untrue. Second, that was an unequivocal statement of tyranny: you can let someone keep only what’s legitimately yours.

Brown’s statement must be complimented for its honesty, or cynicism if you’d rather. For any socialist (meaning, any modern) state, our money isn’t really ours. It belongs to the state, which can then decide how much of it we’ll be allowed to keep for our families. The bandit raid on pensions was a practical expression of that principle.

As Keir Starmer prepares for government after 13 years of Labour Lite (aka Tory) rule, he lets it be known that Blair’s appetite was far too suppressed. He is planning to force pension funds to transfer 5 per cent of their capital (some £50 billion as things stand) into a so-called ‘growth fund’.

This will be supposed to be used for aggressive investments, and if you believe that, there’s a bridge over the Thames I’d like to sell you. In fact, socialist bureaucrats will have a new pot of money at their disposal, which they’ll be able to dole out as they see fit. It doesn’t take a flight of fancy to realise they’ll use it to feed public – which is to say the state’s – greed.

They’ll be unaccountable to the individual contributors, who will have no say in, nor any knowledge of, how their money is spent. In other words, this is another plundering raid on individual autonomy.

Private pension is a major bugbear of socialists, but not the only one. Inheritance tax is another. The whole idea of dynastic continuity is abhorrent to lefties, and they hate every manifestation of it, from hereditary aristocracy passing titles down the line to wealthy families doing the same with capital.

(This overlaps with their other pet hatred, for the family. The modern state correctly identifies it as its competitor and will do anything to weaken the institution. Inheritance tax thus joins homomarriage, easy divorce and incentives for single motherhood in the arsenal of modernity.)

That’s why the Blair government banned most hereditary aristocrats from the House of Lords, an outrage the subsequent ‘Conservative’ governments have done nothing to correct. And that’s why all our socialist governments, whatever they call themselves, try to push the inheritance tax threshold down.

At present, any inheritance in excess of £325,000 is taxed at 40 per cent. Now, any inheritance tax is immoral – a family is made to pay another tax on money that has been taxed already. But moving from the general to the specific, this threshold is dishonest even on its own terms.

For most British families, property makes up by far the greatest part of their inheritance. And property inflation in the UK outpaces money inflation by a factor of 7, in London as high as 10.

It’s not unusual in London for old people subsisting on meagre income to be living in houses they bought for a pittance 50 years ago, which are now worth a million or more, sometimes much more. That means the sum their heirs will have to pay in inheritance tax will be several times greater than the original cost of the house, inflation-adjusted.

How does the government justify this highway robbery? The answer is, it doesn’t have to – any more than a fox has to justify killing chickens. That’s just what it does.

Starmer is hatching similar plans for capital gains tax, which requires no additional comment. It’s the same combination of greed and powerlust, or rather greed as a mechanism of powerlust, same as with private pensions and inheritance tax.

Hence we should never take on faith any government moaning about the high cost of social care and the dependency culture it fosters. The modern state wants people to be dependent on it for their livelihood – the more the merrier. Every person caught up in the dependency net increases the state’s power, every person slipping out reduces it.

That’s all the state needs to know, the only motive it needs to act. I’ve used a couple of zoological metaphors already, so here’s another: such is the nature of the beast.

Jane and I think alike

The differences between Jane Fonda and me are obvious. She is a woman, I’m a man (as I’m not ashamed to admit, although Jane probably thinks I should be). She is rich and famous, I’m neither. She is ‘liberal’, I’m not.

The eyes have it

The differences are so vast that they overshadow the similarities. Yet similarities do exist, and I’m particularly grateful to Jane for going out of her way to support one of my cherished arguments.

I’ve said a thousand times if I’ve said it once that most of our ‘influencers’ are professional malcontents who hate the West and everything it stands for. Whatever it is, they hate it and will protest against it.

What ‘it’ is doesn’t matter. The underlying principle is “give us a cause and we’ll find a mob” – the same mob in most cases. They all converge on what they hate.

That’s why if a chap says, for example, that ‘our planet’ has 10 years left to live, I don’t have to ask him what he thinks about racism, misogyny, socialism, homomarriage or ‘hate crime’. I already know.

Following Aristotle’s epistemology, I first acquired that knowledge empirically, by perceiving the phenomenon through the senses, mainly those of hearing and sight. I then post-rationalised the findings into the concept I described above, somewhat schematically.

Still, given as I am to self-doubt, I have to wonder if I may be wrong. Am I oversimplifying a complex issue? Not at all, says Jane. She then dispels my doubts by proving me right.

In a recent interview Jane made my point more cogently than I ever could: “Well, you know, you can take anything – sexism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, whatever, the war. And if you really get into it, and study it and learn about it and the history of it, everything’s connected. There’d be no climate crisis if it wasn’t for racism.”

Everything is indeed connected, and I’m glad Jane confirmed it. Verily I say unto you, she is a walking one-woman mob, which narrows and therefore streamlines the field of study.

In this case, I am especially interested in the link between climate crisis and racism. I realise all such things come together within Jane’s mind, but is there any objective connection?

Yes there is, and I’m embarrassed at not having spotted it. You see, the modern hydrocarbon-based economy has been created mainly by white men.

Since hydrocarbons have put ‘our planet’ on death row, white men are to blame. That’s why Jane thinks they should all be arrested, which I fear may create a logistical problem. After all, there are about 600 million white men in the world, and I’m not sure there exist enough holding cells for them all.

“It is a tragedy that we have to absolutely stop. We have to arrest and jail those men – they’re all men,” says Jane. Then again, she may mean only those directly involved in that criminal activity, which would reduce the number to a more manageable couple of million.

White men are guilty not only of irresponsibility but also of racist perfidy. For they are killing ‘our planet’ not en masse, but selectively, by conspiring to poison specifically the areas inhabited by off-white persons. But I shouldn’t be making Jane’s points for her. She can do so herself, and can she ever:

“This is serious. We’ve got about seven, eight years to cut ourselves in half of what we use of fossil fuels, and unfortunately, the people that have the least responsibility for it are hit the hardest. Global South, people on islands, poor people of colour,” says Jane.

Ergo, “It’s good for us all to realise, there would be no climate crisis if there was no racism. There would be no climate crisis if there was no patriarchy.”

Now, Norway is the biggest oil producer in Europe, this side of Russia. I’m not as widely travelled as Jane, which is why I didn’t realise Norwegians were “poor people of colour”. Now I stand corrected, and perhaps it’s time for me to go shakin’ and bakin’ with them Norse brothers, you feel me?

Actually, if (when?) Labour get elected next year, them Norse bloods will get even richer murdering ‘our planet’. Kier Starmer has committed his party to banning licences for oil and gas production in the North Sea. That will give Norway a monopoly on being poisoned, cos they is all “poor people of colour”.

Hanoi Jane is a woman – sorry, person – after my own heart. That’s why I think I’m entitled to point out a slight inconsistency in her view of the problem.

White racist men have segregated “poor people of colour”, fair enough. But even those perfidious criminals can’t segregate the atmosphere. We all breathe the same air, and if ‘our planet’ only has “seven, eight years” left to live, it doesn’t really matter where the weapons of planetary destruction are sited.

So the dastardly plot hatched by white men is going to backfire. When ‘our planet’ turns into a great ball of fire, we’ll all perish together – poor people of colour, rich albinos of no colour, even North Vietnamese.

I do hope Jane sticks around long enough to see that catastrophe and say “I told you so”. Let’s see, she is 85, so seven or eight years from now she’ll be 92-93. Touch and go, I’d say, but doable. Still, on the balance of probability, I dare say ‘our planet’ will outlive Jane.

Although, of course, her insights are immortal.

The art of the possible

That’s how Bismarck described politics, and that was a good working definition. But it’s backward-looking.

Bismark was so-o-o yesterday

Any number of men, from Sun Tzu to Aristotle to Machiavelli, had said something similar before him, or at least could have done. Pragmatic, slightly cynical realpolitik wasn’t something Bismarck invented.

By contrast, his younger contemporary Lenin uttered a phrase – actually just a fragment of one – that charted a route mankind hadn’t travelled before him, and has been travelling ever since.

The fragment I find so fascinating is “we can and therefore must…”. The great man was talking about robbing the churches of their valuables and shooting most priests, but that lapidary phrase has what chemists would call a high valence – it can attach to anything these days.

Bismarck could have completed his adage by adding: “And anything possible is imperative”. But he didn’t: he lacked Lenin’s scale and prophetic powers.

Bismarck still thought that in many situations ‘we can’ may be separated from ‘we must’ by any number of barriers, mainly moral ones. And even when he was willing to overstep those barriers, others kept him in check.

For example, when Prussian troops besieged Paris in 1870, Bismarck wanted to shell the city and keep doing so until Paris surrendered. But the Prussian high command, headed by the king, vetoed that idea. Such a bombardment, they said, would hurt civilians and violate the rules of engagement.

How retro can you get? If Lenin or any other modern, progressive ruler had been in charge, Paris would have been reduced to smouldering rubble and its population to a charnel house. Have you seen pictures of Dresden or Bakhmut? That would have been Paris, circa 1871.

Yet we don’t have to talk about such apocalyptical possibilities. The principle of ‘can, therefore must’ works hard at every level of modern society, in every walk of life, no matter how rapid or sluggish.

Look at welfare for example. In Britain, social assistance has been on offer throughout my lifetime. Yet in the past, and not all that distant past, many needy people felt embarrassed or even – incredibly! – ashamed to seek it. Those fossils knew they could, but didn’t think they should, get handouts from the state.

If you think such people still exist in any other than negligible numbers, a quick look at our social expenditure would disabuse you of the misapprehension. Moreover, one could prove figures in hand that supply-side economics, somewhat perverted, works there as well.

The supply of a particular benefit generates an ever-growing demand for it. Thus the single-mother benefit produces more single mothers than ever, the disability benefit creates more cripples than Britain had after either World War, the housing benefit is sought by more homeless people than we had during the great urbanisation of the Industrial Revolution.

“Can, therefore must” is hard at work in science and technology too. The other day, an interviewer asked me about artificial intelligence. Its potential  pluses are obvious, but are there any minuses? He suggested growing unemployment as one such.

I agreed there was that danger. However, I added, even if it could be irrefutably proved that AI would produce nothing short of an economic and demographic calamity, its development would still go ahead. “We can and therefore must…”.

Moving some three feet down from the cerebral, one can’t help wondering if Britain is living through a pandemic of gender dysphoria. Stories of young people ‘transitioning’ are filling the papers to the brim, and the leader of His Majesty’s Opposition has opined that Britain already boasts 340,000 women with penises.

That might have been a rhetorical flourish, but anyone with eyes to see will agree that even a generation ago nothing like that was in evidence. Since then, however, the moral philosophy of ‘can, therefore must’ has moved from the brain downwards. “You can”, says the government supported by the modern ethos. “We must,” reply youngsters on cue.

Modernity endlessly extends the boundaries of the allowable, a tendency called ‘progress’ in some quarters. In some other, much smaller, quarters it’s called anomie.

Anomie is the cancer of the mind and, once some cells are affected, the disease ineluctably progresses to Stage IV. So far mankind has come up with only one therapy capable of controlling the disease, and I’d call it ‘DM’, as in Dmitri Karamazov.

That Dostoyevsky character knew exactly what the therapy was, and he loathed its diminishing availability:

“But what will become of men then?” I asked him, “without God and immortal life? All things are permitted then, they can do what they like?”

They can. And if they can, they must. And if they must, they will. The art of the possible is guaranteed to become the art of the obligatory – and not just in politics.

Self-indulgence isn’t a disease

First the dry facts untouched by emotion and unsullied with commentary. The Brentford footballer Ivan Toney pleaded guilty to 232 betting violations and was banned for eight months.

The ‘patient’

That mea culpa wasn’t issued immediately. At first he admitted he liked the odd flutter, but claimed he never bet on football matches. However, crushed by the weight of evidence, Toney finally conceded he had indeed placed such bets through third parties.

Moreover, 13 times he bet on his own team to lose, an outcome he could have facilitated personally, although there is no evidence he actually did so.

In view of that, the FA originally wanted to ban Toney for 15 months. However, they accepted his guilty plea, albeit belated, as a mitigating circumstance and took three months off. They then reduced it further to eight months because – and here it gets interesting – Toney’s lawyers managed to get him diagnosed with gambling addiction.

Thus yet another gross lapse of moral character has been medicalised and partly exculpated. Yet medicalised doesn’t mean legitimately medical – clinically speaking, there is no such thing as gambling addiction. There are only compulsive self-indulgent gamblers incapable of any self-restraint.

Many such people are considerably brighter than Toney, proving this is a failure of character, not of intelligence. Thus, Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, arguably Russia’s best writers, were all compulsive gamblers.

When he died in 1837, Pushkin left his widow with debts of 100,000 roubles, $50,000 at the time – a staggering sum, equivalent to $1.7 million today. Much of it was gambling debts.

As a young officer, Tolstoy gambled away his manor house. Later, he tried to bet his whole estate on a single hand of cards and was only stopped from doing so by an older officer. Had Tolstoy lost, his family would have been impoverished.

He retained that compulsion in his older age. Maxim Gorky observed: “He plays seriously, passionately. And when he picks up his cards his hands become so very nervous, as if he is holding live birds, not inanimate pieces of cardboard.”

Dostoyevsky was plagued by gambling debts all his life but, unlike Tolstoy, he didn’t have a vast estate to fall back on. Thus, when he travelled from one European casino to another, he’d often be left penniless.

Dostoyevsky would then write to his brother and friends begging for money, such as in this letter: “I walked up to the roulette table and won 600 francs within a quarter of an hour. That whetted my appetite. Suddenly I started losing; I could no longer restrain myself and lost everything I had with me.”

But in those unsophisticated days people hadn’t yet learned the art of using medical quackery to justify irresponsible behaviour. Those who gambled beyond their means with no regard for the consequences weren’t treated as patients. They were rebuked for their lack of self-control.

The operative phrase was uttered by Dostoyevsky: “I could no longer restrain myself”. Why not? What would have happened to him had he gone cold turkey and merely walked past a casino without going in?

Would he have experienced flu-like withdrawal symptoms, like an addict coming off heroin? A horrendous pain like an alcoholic who abruptly stops drinking? Dizziness, seizures and insomnia suffered by an addict denied barbiturates?

None of the above? Then the right way to describe Dostoyevasky’s inability to stop would have been “I didn’t want to restrain myself”. Saying “I could no longer…” was a trick typical of such people. They wish to convey the notion that their free will is being overpowered by a mighty outside force beyond their control.

For the same reason, genuine addicts tend to exaggerate the severity of their withdrawal symptoms. I found that out first hand some 20 years ago, when I was iatrogenically addicted to heroin having received it for a month through an intravenous drip.

When I no longer needed it post-discharge, I threw away the OxyContin tablets I had been given at the hospital and found out that all I had to contend with was a runny nose and a slightly sore throat. A far cry from the agony of withdrawal described by addicts who simply don’t want to quit.

The modern tendency to medicalise failures of character is quite sinister. It’s a reflection of the general urge to stop treating man as a free agent endowed with free will.

Instead man is depicted – and treated – as a creature at the mercy of some forces, pre-determined and variously mysterious. in fact, modernity has been shaped by three deterministic fallacies, Darwinist, Marxist and Freudian.

It’s the third one of the three that’s responsible for the medicalising trend, my subject today. Freud, who incidentally never had a single therapeutic success, sold mankind a blanket indulgence for the sin of personal irresponsibility. A bog standard lousy mood got to be treated as a medical disorder, only to be remedied by hundreds of hours (and thousands of pounds) spent on an analyst’s couch.

And what a unique medical condition it is, one that can be treated even by people without a medical degree. All a poor chap has to do is pay so much per hour and use that time to talk about his feeling lonely, friendless and dejected (or is it rejected?).

Usually that lamentable situation arises because the ‘patient’ has the kind of personality that repels potential friends. Any sensible doctor would say to him: “Stop wasting our time and your money. Go home and think how you can make yourself more attractive to people. And if you want to screw your Mum, kill your Dad and stick a needle in your eye, just decide not to and leave it at that.”

Yet here we have a millionaire footballer ‘diagnosed with gambling addiction’ he can do nothing about. Hypothetically, would Toney be as powerless if the likely punishment were death, not a few months’ suspension? Or would his ‘disease’ miraculously cure itself?

Far be it from me to advocate such extreme measures, but they do work. That’s how Mao solved the problem of opium addiction in China, by having a few users shot. And hey presto, a miracle: no one smoked opium any longer.

While decrying such draconian punishments, let’s note that this proves the problem isn’t medical: a cancer patient wouldn’t be instantly cured of his disease by a similar therapy. Nor would a man suffering from kidney stones or a woman plagued by cystitis.

All these are genuine diagnoses. “Addiction to gambling” isn’t. It’s hedonism and self-indulgence run riot. A footballer who bets on his own team to lose should be drummed out of the game for ever. Not for a few months.

Many ills in one sentence

No one commits a crime against progress and gets away with it.

Joshua Sutcliffe

Yet another teacher ‘misgendered’ a pupil by using a female personal pronoun rather than the male one the ‘trans’ pupil demanded. That he was sacked hardly needs saying – such punishment is practically mandatory.

However, it came with a lovely new touch: Joshua Sutcliffe was not only sacked from his Oxford school, but also prohibited from his profession indefinitely by the Teaching Regulation Authority (TRA).

The Mail covered the case dispassionately, simply reporting the facts. Yet the absence of a bias is a bias in itself. In such cases, mere neutrality betokens latent sympathy – after all, Mr Sutcliffe sinned against a whole ethos, not just an individual. Hence withdrawing self-righteous wrath is tantamount to ringing endorsement.

However, then came the sentence I promised in the title above. That too sounded like unvarnished reportage, but in fact the paper emphatically, if inadvertently, joined the ranks of Mr Sutcliffe’s executioners (only in his profession, for the time being):

“Joshua Sutcliffe, a 33-year-old who taught maths at The Cherwell School in Oxford, was found to have failed to treat the pupil ‘with dignity and respect’ by addressing them by a female pronoun when they identified as male.”

In any cultural war – and make no mistake, it’s under way – ceding the language positions is tantamount to surrender. When a single person is referred to as ‘they’ or ‘them’, I see a white flag flapping in the wind. The sight is ugly.

That aesthetics is an aspect of ethics was already known to the great Greeks. That’s why Plato described music as ‘a moral law’, and Aristotle decried musical innovation because, he thought, political subversion was bound to follow in its wake.

Ugly form points to the ugly content lurking underneath. For example, one doesn’t have to read Le Corbusier’s articles to know he was a fascist. Just looking at his buildings and plans for urban development should tell anyone everything he needs to know.

I’d argue that a finely tuned aesthetic perception often doesn’t have to rely on religion or philosophy to reach all the right conclusions. Reason can then move in to claim its slice of the epistemological pie, but its function is only to make the intuitive intelligible. Most rationalisation is in fact post-rationalisation.

Whoever wrote that offensive sentence must have had his aesthetic receptors cauterised. That is, if he doesn’t realise how unspeakably ugly that sentence is. That, however, is unlikely. Call me an idealist, but I still cling on to the notion that a professional writer can’t be so deaf to the beauty of English, his bread and butter.

Thus, he knows the sentence is ugly but still feels compelled to write it. If modernity demands unconditional surrender, he is happy to oblige.

The Greeks and Romans saw outward beauty as an unfailing indicator of virtue. Mens sana in corpore sano, wrote Juvenal – a healthy mind in a healthy body. In Western culture, the perception of beauty changed. It got to be understood as a perfect harmony between form and content, but with the content determining the form more than the other way around.

Thus a healthy body (language, in this case) may well mask an ugly content (thought) by way of subterfuge. But imposing ugly, unnatural language on society leaves no room for doubt. Our whole culture is falling victim to subversion on a universal scale.

Ugly is the new beautiful, wrong is the new right, unnatural is the new natural – such are the implicit slogans of that subversion. The few cases of genuine gender dysphoria aside, a woman insisting she is a man is ugly, unnatural and wrong. That, however, is her privilege – people have a right to be ugly, unnatural and wrong. But they have no right to demand that others concur, allowing their aesthetic compass to go haywire.

Yet that’s exactly what modernity demands. Mr Sutcliffe’s crime was refusing to go along. And he exacerbated it by rejecting the penitence demanded by the TRA. Had he agreed to scourge himself and wear a hairshirt from then on, modernity might have gone easy on him.

He recounts: “The TRA has said, you don’t feel enough remorse for not going on with the pronouns. Well, I’m sorry, but that’s the Christian position. I wasn’t going to say: ‘I’m going along with this’. I’d rather die to be honest.”

Oh yes, I should have mentioned Mr Sutcliffe is a Christian. Hence he chose to put his resistance to modern perversions into a Christian framework, which is both commendable and superfluous.

In just about any situation I can imagine offhand, a Christian can argue a case for aesthetic beauty or rational sense without invoking Christianity explicitly. He may believe that God is the origin of all beauty and reason, but these should be able to stand on their own two feet.

They are like children who grow up enough to leave the paternal home and enter life autonomously. Thus Mr Sutcliffe could have made a strong case by simply appealing to the aesthetic demands of English grammar with its pronouns and the rational diktats of genetics with its chromosomes.

In this case, as in so many others, a proposition that’s aesthetically and rationally sound also happens to be Christian. Thus Christianity may well stay in the background, acting as the implicit origin and a silent vindicator of the proposition. So inspired and validated, the idea can then fend for itself – while reinforcing by its own validity the truth of Christianity.

If I were in Mr Sutcliffe’s shoes, I’d do exactly what he did. But the impulse to do so would appear before I even thought of Christianity’s position on the issue. My initial response would be aesthetic rejection, which I would then post-rationalise with appeals to conventions of grammar and physiological realities.

Would I stand any chance of winning the argument? Don’t be silly, of course not. Sane people these days are inferior to even a bull in the ring. He isn’t encouraged to win, but at least he is encouraged to fight. We aren’t.

Whatever works doesn’t work

In today’s Times, Lord Hague unfurls a popular Tory banner saying “Conservatism isn’t an ideology”, and I myself have been known to wave it.

Whatever works is Conservatism to Lord Hague, and whatever doesn’t work isn’t. That’s too empiricist for my taste.

For no ideology shouldn’t mean no principles – and the calculating pragmatism advocated by Lord Hague doesn’t qualify as such, not by itself. If a party lacks or abandons its own principles, it ends up borrowing them from the other side.

This Lord Hague himself proves by insisting that support for homomarriage and ‘non-traditional’ families is a cardinal Tory virtue. Opposition to those things is to him un-Conservative and too American to be British.

In fact, one struggles to see any pragmatic value (other than winning more votes in the upmarket parts of London) in destroying the family as it has been for millennia. In fact, it’s easy to demonstrate, figures in hand, that traditional family reduces crime rates, boosts economic performance and improves public health – physical, mental and moral.

That’s the thing about traditional beliefs and principles: they have survived long enough to become traditional specifically because they work. And nowhere is this confluence of philosophy and pragmatism more evident than in the economy.

What our economists often forget is that economics isn’t a branch of mathematics. It’s a study of human behaviour, which starts from some basic understanding of human nature.

Since human nature is more or less immutable, the same economic principles have always been proved to work – or not. One principle that has always worked is based on a fundamental human trait: aversion to taxes. Thus, the more of their money do people get to keep, the harder they try to make more. That benefits not only them personally but the economy at large.

That’s why low taxation is both a sound conservative principle and a pragmatic idea known to work. Someone like me, a chap ignorant of the recondite interplay of numerals, indicators and indices, can still advocate a sound taxation policy based on that general principle only.

However, by myopically seeking a short-term gain, the Tories discard that traditional principle, claiming instead that their goal is purely pragmatic. However, they fail on both counts.

Take Sunak’s idea of raising corporate tax from 19 to 25 per cent. That clearly goes against core Tory principles – which is why it won’t work. Any short-term gain will be wiped out by an exodus of businesses seeking a warmer economic clime.

Some major foreign corporations have already indicated they now plan to take their business elsewhere. The effect of such withdrawals may not be felt before the next general election, but you can be sure it will be felt soon enough – and it will be devastating.

A simple policy, which Lord Hague would doubtless regard as being obtusely doctrinaire, would be to proceed from first economic principles, ignore the short-term bean counting and lower corporate taxes even further by offering foreign investors and our domestic entrepreneurs far-reaching tax breaks.

Putting Lord Hague’s notion of pragmatism into practice, the Tories are also in the process of ending VAT tax breaks for foreign visitors.

Thus an American tourist shopping in Paris or Milan will get the sales tax refunded. The same American shopping in London won’t. Where do you think he’d be more likely to shop? This is another example of general principles hard at work.

What effect do you suppose this will have on our hospitality and retail industries, which are both significant contributors to Britain’s GDP? You don’t need a calculator to answer this question. Just a set of proven conservative principles will suffice.

Britain’s economic legs are bending under the weight of the greatest taxation burden known in our peacetime history – this after 13 years of Tory government. Or rather zero years of Tory government if one looks at the principles from which it proceeds.

Trying to choose between principles and pragmatism, the Tories consistently choose neither. And if – or rather when – Starmer’s Labour take over, things will get even worse.

Those chaps share the Tories’ evident commitment to beggaring the country and pushing it even further down that road. For example, Britain now offers non-domiciled status, and hence tremendous tax breaks, to wealthy foreigners living here.

This is what Starmer promises to abolish, thereby supposedly adding £3 billion a year to the Exchequer’s coffers. That commitment reflects an underlying strong principle that happens to be wrong.

The principle is that squeezing the rich will improve the lot of the poor. But as often as not the result is exactly the opposite.

Most of those non-doms aren’t wealthy layabouts who spend their time lounging on their estates and yachts. Much as I love England, there are more attractive places in the world for that sort of thing.

With few exceptions, those non-doms are actively involved in increasing Britain’s GDP, and they didn’t choose Britain for the weather. Non-dom status was a major part of their decision to move here.

Since their attachment to Britain typically lacks a strong emotional component, take those tax breaks away from them and they’ll be likely to move elsewhere. How many of them? I suspect most, but I don’t really know and neither does Sir Keir.

Yet if only as few as half of them up sticks, even the immediate effect on tax revenue will be negative. At the moment, the non-doms pay close to £8 billion in annual taxes. Even accepting Sir Keir’s £3 billion prognosis, Britain will still be a billion short. And only a morbidly credulous individual would accept any Labour prediction at face value.

Preparing for power, Labour politicians openly talk about introducing wealth tax and closing all tax loopholes on North Sea oil exploration and production. That would work if the North Sea were the world’s only area rich in hydrocarbons. But it isn’t.

The Exchequer would definitely gain from such measures, but the benefits would last only as long as it’ll take big companies and wealthy individuals to move elsewhere. Which won’t be long.

The conclusion is clear. At that level, pragmatic measures only ever succeed if they proceed from sound first principles. By denouncing what Hague calls ‘ideologies’ but what is in fact a philosophy of life, the Tories invariably end up wearing socialists’ hand-me-downs.

The two parties then compete on which one can beggar Britain the fastest. So far it’s almost neck and neck.