I struggle to remember the last time I learned something from a newspaper column, or for that matter a magazine article, that added anything to my understanding of something.
But I do read them, mainly because columnists have access to newspaper archives from which they pull odd bits of information that might be hard to find otherwise.
Other than that, I divide columnists not into good ones and bad ones, but into those who are extremely offensive and those only mildly so.
Those who often avoid giving any offence tend to concentrate on narrow subjects. Thus I find nothing offensive in what Roger Boyer has to say about Russia or Christopher Howse about religion – although I sometimes disagree with both.
However, no one can write soundly on multiple subjects unless he proceeds from a single sound philosophy. This is no more possible than for a builder to erect a house on a termite-ridden foundation or for an army to vanquish when its rear is weak.
In the absence of a solid philosophical base put together over many years of contemplation and study, a writer will never avoid saying intellectually offensive things – even if he also says some useful ones.
Dominic Lawson is a case in point. He’s a lucid and quick-witted writer, but one showing quite a few holes in his erudition, those that even access to The Times data bank and a virtuosic mastery of Google can’t quite plug.
That by itself is no big deal – show me a man who claims to have no such holes, and I’ll show you a liar. But Mr Lawson’s sketchy erudition is accompanied by no discernible philosophical position, and that’s a more serious matter.
Such drawbacks can be masked by a nimble pen, quick mind and general intelligence, all of which Mr Lawson displays in abundance, but they become glaring when he tries to delve slightly deeper than the surface.
I’m not trying to be beastly to Mr Lawson: he’s actually among the least offensive columnists, even though he’s a scion of a family where girls are named after their fathers. Rather I’ve chosen him as an illustration of the feather-like weight of his profession as a whole.
He too uses the trick I commented on a few days ago: pre-empting what others might say about one by saying it first.
Thus he opens today’s column with a self-deprecating admission that “columnists are, despite our pretension to omniscience, only human.” What, even Peter Hitchens?
Mr Lawson then proceeds to demonstrate the reason for reading newspaper columns by providing all sorts of useful statistics.
I didn’t know the cost of complying with the EU law that mandates an 80 per cent reduction in CO2 levels by mid-century (eventually £2.5 trillion a year), nor that most American soft drinks, including Coke and Pepsi, are kosher even though observant Jews make up only 0.3 per cent of the population.
The latter point was made in support of the accurate observation that vociferous minorities can subvert democracy by imposing their prejudices on the majority. A valid point, although I’d prefer to illustrate it with a similar example closer to home: preponderance of halal meat in British supermarkets.
Mr Lawson also kindly provides a good term made up by the American scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb: IYI (Intellectual Yet Idiotic). I’d say that SIYI (S for Semi-) would be more precise because real intellectuals can’t be stupid by definition.
Still, the term has its uses, as anyone who follows the toings and froings in the academe will confirm.
Mr Lawson then takes advantage of being a Sunday paper columnist by rehashing things many of his colleagues said during the week, including the outrage of sex self-identification.
When the issue first became fashionable, I wondered if I could self-identify as a woman to gain access to the women’s showers at our tennis club, subsequently re-identifying as a man half an hour later.
The case cited by Mr Lawson is more serious. ‘Karen’ White is a criminal man who self-identifies as a woman and therefore was serving his term in a women’s prison. There ‘she’ gratefully raped fellow inmates with ‘her’ penis and got a life sentence for her trouble.
Mr Lawson correctly finds this situation deplorable, as any sane person would. But, having thus shown the good side of Op-Ed journalism, he then says things showing the bad side.
In fact, all the same things could be easily said by all the same people who champion the cause of transgender madness:
“This is not an argument for complete conservatism, opposing all changes in social mores except by means of a referendum. Five years ago this column supported Westminster’s introduction of same-sex marriage as I couldn’t see how the happiness it gave those couples was a problem in the lives of others.”
Only an IYI could write something as irredeemably inane as this. First, conservatism, being above all a matter of temperamental predisposition, can’t be complete or incomplete. It’s like being pregnant: one either is or isn’t.
Then it’s simple ignorance to say that conservatives oppose all social change. We oppose only pernicious change, and all unnecessary change qualifies as such.
A conservative will always agree with what Lucius Cary said almost 400 years ago: “If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”
Second, it’s even more ignorant to imply that conservatives would only accept social change as a result of a referendum. In fact, no real conservative has a good word to say for plebiscitary democracy, which is even more destructive than our present dictatorship of the Commons.
My view on this subject didn’t change one bit even after the latest plebiscite produced the result I welcome. But even accepting that some referendums are unavoidable, only an IYI would suggest they’re the only expedient for introducing a change in social mores.
You see, it has taken five paragraphs to give the lie to one IYI sentence. Mr Lawson’s second sentence, on the other hand, shows such an abyss of IYI ignorance that one could write a whole book about it.
The argument for homomarriage put forth by Mr Lawson isn’t so much eudemonic as demonic. It takes an IYI, especially one of the leftish persuasion, not to see that recognising the validity of homomarriage debauches the whole idea of society’s crucial sacrament.
Marriage and family, the building blocks of society, are among those institutions that can’t be redefined. They can only be destroyed, and legalising homomarriage takes a long stride in that direction.
The happiness of the homosexuals involved has no more bearing on the issue than the happiness of the well-hung ‘Karen’ White has on the issue of sex self-identification.
True enough, it doesn’t diminish Mr Lawson individually. However, we’re not only individuals, but also members of society. Anything that damages society diminishes us collectively short-term – and individually over time.
And what about a vociferous minority (in this case homosexual activists) imposing their bias on the majority? How can it be right for them and wrong for ‘Karen’ White’s supporters?
Since I’m only writing a short piece, not a book, on this subject, I’ll leave it at that. Let’s just say that Mr Lawson ought to be careful throwing IYI stones out of his glass house.
3 thoughts on “What’s wrong with our columnists, in a nutshell”
A dogmatic resistance to change, conserving for conservation’s sake is an unfair definition of conservatives, in my view.
I prefer Danesh D’Souza’s analogy:
A man buys a plot of land which, inexplicably (to him), has a fence running through the middle of it.
If the man is a progressive, his first action is to tear down the fence.
If the man is a conservative, his first action is to research why the fence was erected in the first place.
Taleb doesn’t necessarily want you to believe him but he does not recommend believing many others (some resemblance to the Boot business model). In order to believe Slavoj Žižek however, you would have to understand what he has said. He has faded from popular view lately and I couldn’t remember his name. But when I googled ‘crazy modern philosopher’ it came up instantly and first in the list.
Newspaper columnists cannot really be serious when they are essentially ‘writing on water’ or on material destined for a parrot’s cage. When they rehash their stuff in ‘collective works’ it is usually only of interest for information on forgotten trivia.
Sensationalism, triviality, superficiality, sentimentality. That is about all the modern media concerns itself with. A freak show to an extent and the more freak the better.