When I was young I protected the opinions I held like tender plants. I shielded them from harm and fed them well. I read newspapers and articles that confirmed my fledgling biases and listened to authorities in the media who reminded me that my viewpoint was correct. One of the great pleasures of being older is that not I have much more knowledge, experience and better judgement I am free to think as I will. I do not have to follow any particular herd I don’t need to toe any party line. My opinions are no longer those given to me but those I have forged for myself over many years.
I am also aware that others go though the same process as myself; discarding, forming and reforming their views, and that, as a consequence, good ideas can come from very diverse sources. I am also clear that many things I held as self-evident were in fact wrong, and it is inconceivable that my current views are immutable and cast in stone. Even faith can only survive if it is tested from time to time.
For the reasons above I like to try and vary my sources of information and try to consider opinions from differing viewpoints. This is why I prefer using Wordpress to other ‘social media’ the range of opinions is broader and the content is less trivial and partisan. The essay/blog format is better suited to discussing ideas than the short sentence format which is better suited to rispostes, oaths and threats. It might also be anticipated that I’d enjoy the “Discover” section on the Wordpress Reader. This is described as “A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read” and sounds like a place to find new ideas and interests. I hate to be churlish but this is anything but.
Each day the same type of pages are promoted with similar themes and topics. Even when the themes vary, the opinions on culture, politics, religion, society or any subject are the same and predictable. There are no discordant voices and no ‘surprising takes’ on any issue covered. It is rather like a pull-out supplement for the Huffington Post; bland and pappy, afraid to venture where there might be controversy, no voice appears from out of the wilderness to tell us we are wrong or misguided. While the race and gender mix of the authors is probably a good representative spread of our community, the lack of diversity of opinions held in this section is the only ‘discovery’ I have ever made. I am aware that I am not perhaps their target demographic but I can’t imagine everyone wants to read the same, unchallenging pieces day after day.
Heavens, this used to be the prerogative of the elderly. We old folk were meant to be the ones that wanted the same ‘nice’, comforting, ‘everything will work out fine’ stories day after day – indeed we had a magazine dedicated to this “The People’s Friend” (The world’s longest running women’s magazine). It used to be the young who wanted to explore new ideas, to kick over the traces and to shock. But perhaps with the fears of being “triggered” or experiencing “micro-aggressions” (Surely less troublesome than full throated aggression) it is the young now who want to curl up in the evening with a pipe, a good book, and their slippers. (Though the pipe is perhaps a bit dangerous). To be fair, it is likely that WordPress’s curators are too afraid to include anything which might give cause for offence to anyone for fear of being sued. This avoidance of controversy is guaranteed to lead them to curate the bland
A previous blogging platform I used had a useful feature. It had the option to read a random blog piece by just clicking a button. Using this I found many interesting sites (as well as many tedious and shocking ones), some of which I continue to read regularly and are sites I would not have found were it not for this act of chance. Wordpress itself had a “daily word” prompt blog. This allowed bloggers to create content in responce to a single word prompt and gave rise to a site with many varied authors taking very approaches to the subject matter. This also was a good source of discovery of new talent and content. Unfortunately this has now gone and we are left with the anodyne offering of the Discover page.
I have found one partial remedy. Take a word, at random, from the last paragraph of the blog you are reading. Don’t select, just plump for any one regardless – e.g. ‘partial’ ‘reading’ ‘paragraph” – and type this into the search bar of the reader. Surprises await you. Not always good ones but still often enough to make the endeavour worthwhile. Give it a go, you’ll certainly have more chance of making a discovery than with the official route.
We still have a long way to go but we are making some progress in dealing with the poor representation of some groups in government. Although the number of women and those of minority ethnic groups has increased they are still not properly represented in our governing class. Thankfully we are aware of this and are starting to address this. However, there is an area where we are making no progress and, if anything, seem to be going backwards. It is an important area, as it is possibly part of the reason that underpins much of the disengagement and distrust people have with our political class.
The last two generations have witnessed the growth of a professional political class. Our politicians may be a closer mix, in terms of gender and race, to ourselves, but are further away in terms of class and wealth. Over the years our representatives have become less and less like us, when one considers their background, and much more like each other. We may have seen some inadequate improvement in gender and race diversity, we have seen a worsening in terms of social class.
When the Labour Government took power in 1945 and started major works which set up the modern British welfare state half of the member of the cabinet had previously held blue collar jobs. In our most recent cabinets not one member has held such a job. All the parliamentarians have been white collar workers and, more than this, previously worked in law, politics, education or journalism. They are drawn from a very small and apparently select pool of the population.
It is not just in the UK that this trend has occurred. At the time of John F Kennedy 71% of senators held university degrees, by the time of Barack Obama took office the figure was 99%. In France and Germany it is a similar tale. Not only are our ‘rulers. far away from us in terms of their occupations but increasingly also in terms of incomes and wealth. In 2014 all those elected to Congress were in the top 1% of America’s income distribution. It is sobering to think that the median net worth of a senator in 2018 is $3,200,000.
The concerns of the top 1% of the income group and those working in the realms of law, politics, or journalism are not likely to be reflective of those working in blue collar manual jobs, or the poor without jobs at all. I think this is the reason that our politicians are seen as distant and non-representative; because they are distant and non-representative. They do not live in our communities, nor come from them, they do not share the lives and experience of the majority of us. If this trend continues, and there is little evidence to suggest it won’t, then increasingly populist politicians will be able to tap into this gulf. A rift is developing between the public and those who rule them. This rift could prove a powerful fault line for those who wished to gather and use the growing alienation and anger which exists. Allowing politics to become a specialist pursuit of the wealthy, educated elite could prove to be a very dangerous mistake. We need to push for more involvement of the demos, the crowd, the common people, in our democracy if we are to ensure it stays safe and healthy.
It was Benjamin Franklin’s opinion that “Nothing is of more importance to the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue” and I would hazard that very few people would disagree with him. Assisting our people to grow and develop is a key function of every society and it is the reason that education and academia are held in high regard. For over a decade I worked in a University Department of Medicine as a lower level academic and teacher and found this, initially, the most rewarding aspect of my career. Working with students to develop their understanding of medicine, to enlarge their store of knowledge, and to help them develop skills in critical thinking was the most satisfying post I ever held. Possibly even more satisfying than my time in clinical work. I was aware that was I helping train some doctors who, being much more able than I, would go on to help many more patients than I ever would myself.
Towards the end of my spell in the academic world I had started to become a little disillusioned. Fads and popular theories came and went without adequate critical appraisal and I feared the traditions of intellectual independence and rigour in analysis were starting to weaken under pressure from political and financial interference. I stepped sideways back into the NHS for last working years but continued to watch what was happening to my Alma Mater and education in general. It has not been pleasant or reassuring to observe what has followed.
The first onslaught appeared to be on academic freedom and on the idea of free speech. Lecturers were boycotted or banned if they held contentious opinions. A movement to de-platform speakers caught many off-guard and seemed to reach a pinnacle when Germaine Greer was banned by feminists from speaking on campus as her views on transgender issues are not currently mainstream. I’d recalled my university days, as both staff and student, as days of debate and discussion, often heated, often noisy, but always free and ultimately enlightening. I felt, increasingly, that we were failing our students with the growth of ‘safe spaces’, ‘trigger warnings’ and the avoidance of discussion.
This coddling was worrisome but much worse was to follow. As I had said, I had seen fads come and go. Usually when critical analysis was brought bear on the current pet theory it started to wither and retreat. However, now that debate is curtailed many theories last longer without proper scrutiny and start to establish themselves as the orthodox view without being having been based on good scientific enquiry. There are now many statements made that are accepted as fact and are now sheltered from questioning. These statements, have just be believed, it is increasingly heretical to question them.
For example take the problem of rape. Here is a terrible crime that concerns us all. We need to find every means at our disposal make this less frequent. Any initial reading on the subject will lead one to encounter the statement that “Rape is about control and power” not sex. In scientific terms this is quite an easy theory to test as it is falsifiable and testable. Unfortunately, on the times when good studies are undertaken about rape they tend to repeatedly reveal that, in a sizable proportion of cases, the driving factor in the crime was the sexual urge. None the less, you will find it very difficult to find anyone who doesn’t repeat the mantra “it’s not about sex, it’s about power” when discussing how we might deal with the problem with rape. This is to our shame as it is a missed opportunity; the task force set up by Obama found (The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) found that using this understanding (that rape is sometimes driven by sexual drives) there are means to reduce its frequency. This is surely what we all want and it is a grave error if we uncritically continue with a theory that reduces our ability to understand this issue and tackle it.
In many other areas statements are made with religious authority : concerning obesity – one can be fit at any weight; concerning racism – once can not be racist towards white people; concerning transgender – every child with gender dysphoria is starting on a permanent path of transition; concerning intelligence – genetic factors are of little importance. These statements fly in the face of prior, tested and scrutinised, claims but flourish while they are guarded from criticism. Like the religious authorities of old, our current academic priesthood brook no questions and cloud their statements in jargon and obfuscation. Alan Sokal the physicist recognised this a generation ago when he hoaxed the editors of “Social Text” with his nonsense paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity to Social Text“. Unfortunately, this broadside failed to slow down these changes which continued to expand and affect more academic departments.
Thankfully the struggle continues. Three academics have taken the hoax and multiplied it. They submitted a number of clearly broken papers with clearly implausible, indeed frankly unbelievable, findings to a number of journals. As long as they wrote including the current shibboleths and mantras they could get almost anything accepted for publication: Pages from Mein Kampf (replacing references to jews to white men) was accepted by a gender journal, an article watching dogs in a dog park was accepted as confirmation of rape culture in America, and an article suggesting men should masturbate with sex toys anally to reduce their transphobia and homohysteria was felt to be a valuable advance in our understanding of society. Their article in Areo magazine is a long read but well worth it. It is scarcely believable what they managed to have published, although perhaps it is telling that the paper published in Gender, Place and Culture on “The feminist post-humanist politics of what squirrels eat” was not a hoax (with academic work of this quality it is hard to tell).
These issues are depressing but I am glad to say that at least some humour can be had at their expense. As you would expect, when the Emperor wears his new clothes he manages to garner a laugh from those who are still able to think independently.
I still have hope that it is in nature of youth to rebel and to question authority. I hope that these attacks are the beginnings of a revolt against this new clerisy that has taken charge of our institutions. It is very dangerous to allow those in power to away our ability to question and reason independently. Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognised this as he watched, and lost his life fighting against, the rise of fascism when he wrote in his article “On Stupidity” :-
“On closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. … The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.
The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances.
The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him.
He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.”
Words change their meaning over time and there is nothing we can do about it. We can’t stop it and we shouldn’t try. The original meaning of prevent was simply to come (vene) before (pre) something, a synonym for precede, as in “I prevented the dawning of the morning, and cried.” (Psalm 119:147). The word no longer has this meaning except in that it carried the idea of something preceding a potential event and stopping it. To use the archaic meaning today could cause problems, what would the police make of the statement “I prevented the burglar entering the house” ? I doubt it would help communication. Words change their meanings and we adapt and use them appropriately.
However, it is important to know that these changes are taking place as sometimes they also signify a significant change in society as well as vocabulary. I though of this while watching television adverts for potato products. Adverts about families are very keen to stress that “families come in all shapes and sizes” and that the old idea of mother-father-children is archaic and redundant. I wondered if this was true. It is true that dogs come in all shapes and sizes (from chiwawas to great danes) as do cats and other types of animal. But what is it that makes a dog a dog and and a cat a cat ? Are they all just animals and it is unimportant ? Will Timmy, with his heart set on a puppy for Christmas, be over the moon with his Iguana – animals come in all shapes and sizes ?
What is it in a family, whatever form it takes, that makes it a family ? Why are a group of workmates not a family ? Why is my estranged brother still family even though I don’t see him ? Why is my best friend, who I see daily and has supported me through thick and thin, not my family ? I think there are two factors.
Firstly there is the biological relationship. We are genetically linked to our family. My brother and cousins share a genetic closeness with me that others do not. The same applies to family trees in animals. Two dogs, no matter how different, are more alike that a dog and a cat no matter how superficially similar. This relationship by blood is very important. I watch on the farm as animals maintain their family groups for life despite the hurdles that are put in their way. Humans are no different, and the maternal and paternal bonds are the most obvious sign of this blood relationship. The feelings of parents for children are very special and lead to very special behaviours which nurture and protect children as they grow. It is one of the core values of the family both to the individual child and to our society. This blood relationship is half of the answer, but only half.
Parents are not blood related, this would be a very bad idea. Their linkage is purely personal and social. It is a choice commonly described as based on ‘love’. But what makes this bond any different to any other ? I think there are clues in two common sayings. Firstly we believe “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family” and secondly we often hear crime syndicates, such as the mafia, described as the family because “nobody leaves the family”. I think the second bond that makes families different is that the bonds are binding and life-long. Once you enter into this relationship it is difficult, or impossible, to leave. I have my suspicions that this enduring closeness, this living together through good times and bad, is actually what creates love. Attraction brings people together, love develops when we travel through life with a companion, when we share our life with another person.
This combination of blood relationships and life-long commitments have been a boon to humans, and other animals, in creating stable social structures in which to grow offspring. It is true that today we feel we have evolved beyond the need for these traditional structures but the evidence would not tend to support this belief. Our statements that families ‘come in all shapes and sizes’ is more a statement of hope that the way we live now is as effective as the old family based on consanguinity and permanent relationships. Time will tell.
Family now has a new meaning as a ‘collection of people who elect, for the time being, to live together in some arrangement’. We should be aware of this when we use the term today, as we can no longer make the presumptions we formerly did. Family no longer means we can presume constancy, the presence of parental love, the likelihood of altruistic behaviour, and so on. It is a word so diminished of meaning as to have little value (though it does help sell chips on television adverts), it might mean mum, dad and the kids or it might mean two dads and no kids or a kid with two mums and one dad. It starts to be able to include a dog, or a cat, a budgie or an iguana. Not only is it not helpful it might also impair communication as people think it still has its archaic meaning. They may make unwarranted assumptions based on their past associations of the word ‘family’.
Let’s leave family to its new meaning and try and find a new term for the families animals, and increasingly fewer humans, live within. A word to describe a unit formed for the duration of the life of the members, usually in order to bear and nurture children. Perhaps another archaic word could be brought out of retirement and pressed into service, what about either of ‘kith andkin’ ?
Today’s daily prompt of “rebel” was timely as I realised I would be able to offer a little bit of public service to those of you who wish to rebel against stifling conformity and try a bit of free thinking. In an excellent article in the New York Times Bari Weiss discusses the new intellectuals who are changing the face of current debate and starting to offer some hope that free thinking and debate have not died. She suggests that there is an Intellectual Dark Web where rebellious debate is gathering momentum, it is really worth a few moments of your time to check this out.
One of the great advantages of the e-book and e-readers is the ability to gain access to a huge library of published work for free. Most of the classics from the ancient world are available and a large library of modern and, not so modern, work is available for the easy job of a little bit of browsing. It is hard to believe but most of us now have access to a library that would have made Croesus jealous. Emperors and kings a hundred years ago would not have believed, and would have envied, the texts which I have available today. It is almost impossible to think of a philosopher, political theorist, or other man or woman of letters that is not easily available either for free or for a very modest price. I find this wealth of literature captivating. I browse the 56,00 books available at the Gutenburg Project, or the 15,000,000 texts and books (including 550,000 modern ebooks) of the Internet Archive and wonder at the riches available. But this surfeit of choice does bring problems – ironically, “What to read next ?”
There are problems when choosing books from this library. Some have become very dated and are only really interesting as historical artefacts. Others were a fad of their day and really didn’t need to weather the years. Many other are well written and important but with the passage of time modern readers have changed. Modern readers can find the dense, heavy prose difficult to read and, at times, the vocabulary can be archaic and thus not understood. A further difficulty in understanding can arise from a prior presumption that readers would be familiar with the classics and the bible which is no longer a safe generalization. This having been said, I have been pleasantly surprised how many do stand the passage of time. H.G. Wells still reads as if he were writing yesterday and his science fiction is still enjoyable despite the appearance of the horse and cart along side the rocket ship.
I have tried to cope with this problem by the simple strategy of trying to read the classics of which I have heard. This includes reading books which I thought I had already read, as sometimes I found that I had never actually done so. My knowledge of the book was apparently achieved through cultural osmosis rather than actual reading. Sometimes this has been startling when I discover what was the actual content of the book. Sometimes I have reread classics simple because I was too young first time around. Some books were wasted on me as a callow youth and it is only reading them now, with the hindsight and hopefully wisdom of age, that they truly make sense. This was my strategy which lead me to Kropotkin’s “The State : Its Historic Role”
With regards to readability this is not a problem, it is clearly written and its still is easy on the modern reader. There are references to important political events which would have been known to any informed reader in 1897 but which might be more hazily recalled for the reader over a century later. Occasionally he makes assumptions that authors discussing the Paris Commune, or describing the Lombardy League, will be known to us. However, this is not sufficient a problem to impair the enjoyment from the text.
The basics of the text are his views on the historic development of the state and the crushing of societal developments which existed before this. He describes the development of the Communes and the Guilds across Europe and how this allowed the mutual aid which provides support for the members of societies. His concern is that society is in our nature, as it was in the animals from whom we evolved, and mankind will always find way to create supportive societies and does not require the state to do this.
“Man did not create society; society existed before Man.”
“Far from being the bloodthirsty beast he was made out to be in order to justify the need to dominate him , Man has always preferred peace and quiet .”
“Henceforth , the village community consisting entirely or partly of individual families – all united , however , by the possession in common of the land – became the essential link for centuries to come .”
Unfortunately my knowledge of medieval history is rather poor and I find it difficult to assess the accuracy of his descriptions of medieval city life. He is clearly very impressed with the early municipalism and syndicalism that he describes :-
“Was it not in fact the rule of the guild that two brothers should sit at the bedside of each sick brother – a custom which certainly required devotion in those times of contagious diseases and the plague – and to follow him as far as the grave , and then look after his widow and children ? Abject poverty , misery , uncertainty of the morrow for the majority , and the isolation of poverty , which are the characteristics of our modern cities , were quite unknown in those ‘ free oases , which emerged in the twelfth century amidst the feudal jungle ’ .”
But he pays rather scant regard to the problems of the serf in feudal society and to the other well documented problems for the poor of this time. However, he does detail the developing strategies that were made to provide support and succour which operated at a more local and personal level prior to the development of the state. Though I fear that sometimes he was donning spectacles with a strong rosy hue when reading his source texts.
He sees the state developing through the cooperation of chiefs and Kings, the Church and the priesthood as well as the judiciary :-
“And who are these barbarians ? It is the State : the Triple Alliance , finally constituted , of the military chief , the Roman judge and the priest – the three constituting a mutual assurance for domination – the three , united in one power which will command in the name of the interests of society – and will crush that same society .”
He describes the operation of these agencies to impose their power, in the form of the state, over prior voluntary organizations. He pays particular attention to the role of religious belief in the development of anarchist ideas and thinking. He is very aware that the Protestant revolutions did much to free the minds of men at the same time as the established church tried to limit thought and opinion. He ultimately reports that in this ideological battle for the soul of man the established church won.
“Lutherian Reform which had sprung from popular Anabaptism , was supported by the State , massacred the people and crushed the movement from which it had drawn its strength in the beginning .”
He is scathing of Martin Luther who he views as a turncoat who, by the end, encouraged “the massacre of the peasants with more virulence than the pope“. In general Piotr Kropotkin deals well with these issues. There was much greater understanding by these seminal authors, compared to contemporary anarchist writers, that to build an anarchist society depended on a change in the hearts and minds of men and women. These early writers saw the importance of personal responsibility and morality and dealt with the need for a root and branch reform of societal relationships in a much more thorough manner. These were not simple economic or political arguments but moral and spiritual also.
Once the state has started on its development he was aware that it would brook no opposition. He describes the hostility the state has to any autonomous societies or support organizations as it views these are threats. It sees them as “a state within the state” which can not be tolerated. Any alternative forms of mutual aid are opposed and although our instincts are to band together and help each other this is discouraged if it is not done by the agencies, and under the control, of the state.
“Peasants in a village have a large number of interests in common : household interests , neighborhood , and constant relationships . They are inevitably led to come together for a thousand different things . But the State does not want this , nor can it allow them to join together ! After all the State gives them the school and the priest , the gendarme and the judge – this should be sufficient .”
In our present days where the state has a large welfare component these factors are still important. Self help and mutual assistance is lost while centralised state provision takes it place.
“ The neighbor , the comrade , the companion – forget them . You will henceforth only know them through the intermediary of some organ or other of your State . And every one of you will make a virtue out of being equally subjected to it . ”
“ No direct moral obligations towards your neighbor , nor even any feeling of solidarity ; all your obligations are to the State ”
In many areas of the western world social care, health care, and education are removed from the individual. While basic safety and care may be provided the ability of the individual to participate in these matters is severely curtailed and their personal responsibility reduced. Further, it is the cooperative arrangement of these types of aid and support which creates our societies. It is possible, as we are discovering, that it is possible to have a large state providing many aspects of welfare but at the same time to have small or absent communities , an alienated and atomised population and very little society.
In the future, our ability to create societies which support our diverse peoples is going to be the biggest challenge in the face of the spreading state and globalisation. Anarchists and libertarians will need to take their part in this challenge and some of the history in the book may usefully guide them. His call to action is still valid as it is not simply and economic change we require but widespread social change.
Throughout the history of our civilization , two traditions , two opposing tendencies have confronted each other : the Roman and the Popular ; the imperial and the federalist ; the authoritarian and the libertarian . And this is so , once more , on the eve of the social revolution .
I am not really sure why I bought this book. Certainly it was not for any affection towards Melanie Phillips who I often find rather strident and dogmatic in her television appearances. My instinct might well have been to avoid her autobiography. However, I am aware that she has become one of the bogey-men of the left, whatever she says is dismissed outright, and she receives a degree of venom and hostility which is usually reserved for the Daily Mail and Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps this is why she needs to be so strident and forceful during her media appearances.
But I had an uncomfortable feeling that, often, what she was saying concurred with my feelings at some level and it was unpleasant watching someone attacked for views that I felt were, at least in part, reasonable. She worries about the education system failing our young, she feels family life is changing for the worse with regard to the needs of children, she has concerns that through multiculturalism we are developing ghettos rather than a more diverse society, and she thinks that there is a strand of anti-Semitism in the anti-Zionist posturing of much of our politics. Though my analysis of why such changes are occurring may differ from hers I too share these concerns and feel we need to discuss them. It has been the failure to discuss these issues which has fostered the growth of right-wing populism. We have seen the effect of marginalising debate on these issues in the election and referendum results in America and Britain and in many of the changes in the political landscape in Europe (As I write the Italian election results suggest this trend shows no signs of burning itself out).
When I was a young man and viewed myself as a “left-winger” my house journal was The Guardian newspaper. Well, to tell the truth, it was my second, or third, house journal after the Socialist Worker and Morning Star which were more important to me at this time as they were more likely to hold strictly to the party line. I remembered Melanie Phillips as one of the Guardian’s regulars from those days; in her youth, although no Trotskyist, a fully paid up member of the left and can recall watching her drift away during the late 80’s into the sunset on the right followed by a barrage of catcalls and name calling. It was probably this memory that prompted me to buy her autobiography, this and my suspicions that, when somebody is attacked to vehemently and their character decried so vociferously, there is usually some ulterior political motive for the character assassination.
The book details the her working life. There is some information on her early and family life which is interesting but not very revealing. The book is short and written as one would expect a journalist to write being easy to read and engaging. In essence it is a short read, a couple of evenings, describing her conversion from the left to the right. She would not agree with this usage of the left-right spectrum. However, like many other “apostates of the left” (See Nick Cohen, Dave Rubin, and many others) she largely feels that she has been consistent in her views while the left has abandoned these and drifted away from her. She has always held the liberal, enlightened position which is no longer held to be appropriate to the politics of the left which is in the thrall of identity politics and intersectionality. During the book she describes her political views and the principles which act as her moral lodestar. Anyone familiar with her work will know and recognise these but, if you haven’t read her work or heard her speak before, this would be a good place to find a summary of her views.
All in all I find I have warmed to Melanie Phillips after reading this book. It is clear that she still has the same concerns for the poor and disadvantaged as she always did but simply sees the dangers facing them as coming from a different source. I see her now as less the shrill harridan warning us of our moral failures and rather more as the Sybil trying hard to warn us of future calamity should we fail to correct our course. We need engage more with ideas like hers and find ways to meet the concerns she raises. We need to find how to maintain the best aspects of our civilisation and culture as it changes and evolves.
I watched an interview of Jordan Peterson by Cathy Newman recently and was rather surprised by what I saw. I was bewildered by Cathy Newman’s approach to her subject, she obviously found his views distasteful and was trying very hard to trip him up and reveal his dark and unpleasant, presumably misogynistic, side. She failed to do this and he remained placid, un-rattled, and replied fully and reasonably. Now I have seen her interview many people over the years and she is usually an excellent interviewer; able to debate with the best and able to handle herself in an argument She is, without doubt, one of the best news journalists we have on British television. I was therefore surprised to see her have such difficulty with this subject, to the extent that at one point she was literally struck dumb and at a loss for words.
At this point I had not heard of her subject Jordan B. Peterson, a Professor of Psychology at Toronto University, nor did I know of his views. But, spurred by this interview, I read a little about him. It became clear that he has become very popular on account of his most recent book and also for his lectures on psychology which are available on YouTube. He is a clinical psychologist and academic who has made a bit of speciality of examining the role of religion in culture and personal psychology. But it became clear that this was not the reason for his widespread, and increasing, fame (or notoriety), this was because of his position on the issue of “compelled speech” (in regard to pronoun usage with transgendered people) and because he has recently published a book which has become a surprising best seller “12 Rules for Life : An antidote to chaos”.
The book, a self-help psychology text, has been very successful with young men and his position on free speech has caused him to be seen as a darling by the “alt-right“. The latter problem is a common difficulty experienced by those of us who try and safeguard free-speech. Those on the far-right often like to profess a support for free-speech as they think it protects them when they spew their bile, particularly their misogynistic or racist ideas. They do not realise that those who support free-speech do so specifically to be able to debate with such hateful ideologies and, through debate, destroy them. The best way to get rid of hateful erroneous ideas is to debate with those who hold them and make them, and their fellow-travellers, feel embarrassed and ashamed town such thoughts.
The fact that his book was popular with young men was interesting as this is a demographic not often drawn to reading. This in itself did not cause me concern, despite Cathy Newman’s obvious distaste for the book, but it did suggest to me that I should read his book. A quick trip to the kindle store and three days later I was finished. It was a gripping read and one of the best books I have read in a long time.
To be fair this is a “pop psychology” book. It is written in easy chapters, each describing a basic rule. For example “Chapter 6 : Set you house in perfect order before you criticize the world“, and so on. He writes well and is an erudite thinker with a wide knowledge base. He starts each chapter with a story to outline his thinking on the subject or rule. He then considers the cultural history and scientific knowledge about the issue before completing the chapter with practical advice on how to apply this knowledge to your own life.
Much of his thinking is based on current knowledge of scientific psychology but it is mixed with practical experience of working in clinical psychology, especially in working in the field of deep insight orientated psychology. He refers back to Jung, Neitzsche and Adler as well as to recent neuropsychologists. But perhaps more interesting is his use of knowledge of religious history. He looks at how the major religions have addressed psychological issues such as suffering, death, guilt and happiness and points out, whether you believe in a deity or not, that religion was mankind’s way of making sense of our life experience and many of the lessons learnt millennia ago are just as applicable today.
In essence, I discovered a very readable and wise book. I am glad it has been successful as it will prove much more valuable that many of the faddish self-help bibles which have come and gone. The chapter on parenting is a valuable counterpoint to many of the prevailing mistakes we are making today. I found no evidence of misogyny or racism at all. Certainly there were some areas where he suggests that our evolutionary history has meant that some biological factors continue to influence our gender behaviours and he does not agree that this is entirely a social construct. Indeed, this might be his heresy. Today, we are meant to believe that all aspect of gender are socially constructed and that, barring organs of reproduction, there are no differences between men and women. This is clearly not true and the scientific literature attests to this. Unfortunately this is becoming a rather inconvenient truth and one that is not allowed to be said. I think this was the dynamic underpinning Cathy Newman’s interviewing style.
This is a problem. Womens’ rights have improved over the recent years but there is still a long way to go. If we are to obtain equality and fairness we will have to continue to fight for it. However, if there are uncomfortable facts, if there are biological factors influencing our behaviours, then we need to know about them and discuss them. It will not help our progress to pretend they do not exist and to cry “heresy” when people raise them. Biology is not necessarily our destiny but it has a bigger influence when it is ignored or denied; as a man I may be more prone to aggressive behaviours than a woman (on group averages) but knowing this only means I need to be more mindful. It is not an excuse and has no exculpatory power. For example, if I want to be a good man I need to know how to control and curb my aggressive instincts, to pretend that these impulses are not there helps no one.
I think therefore, on this occasion, Cathy Newman was wrong. Rather then trying to explore or debate his ideas she tried to shut him down. Others, with a similar agenda, have tried to minimise his works by smearing it, and him, as alt-right or similar. This means that his genuine insights are not considered but more importantly those young men who find meaning in his writings will be pushed and corralled into the area occupied by those who are indeed of the alt-right. This is a danger, as Peterson is aware, we need to help men to maturity and insight in our society, we need to make them more self aware, strong and confident because “if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of”
It is gingerly, and with a great deal of trepidation, that I write today’s post. I have been struck by the awfulness of Carl Sargeant’s death on Tuesday when it appears he took his life after having been accused of misbehaviour and having lost his government position. Now, I don’t have any great affection for politicians and did not know a great deal about Mr Sargeant before this event so why has his apparent suicide affected me ?
Firstly because it is a very obvious reminder of the terrible damage we are doing to our society and the rule of law by the ongoing hysteria in the media about sexual abuse and politicians. Clearly I would want to see any politician, of any hue, who abused any other person dealt with and punished appropriately. The promise of power and influence, that the world of politics offers, means that it will attract more than an average amount of psychopathic individuals. Therefore it is quite reasonable that we may find an above average number of people who are guilty acts of abuse in our governmental bodies. But, equally clearly, I only want guilty people punished and shamed. This distinction is one of the hallmarks of a civilised society where rules are just and punishment only justly applied when it is warranted.
One of the earliest legal treatises was the Mishneh Torah which was an attempt codify the bases of Jewish Law. In the early attempt to tease out guiding principles for a fair and just society the great philosopher Maimonides wrote :-
“It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.”
as he was aware that to do otherwise was the start of a slippery slope which lead to a lawless and unjust society where conviction, not being based on an adequate burden of proof, could lead to punishment on the basis of a whim of courts and rulers. This has also been referred to as Blackstone’s Formulation after he stated “All presumptive evidence of felony should be admitted cautiously; for the law holds it better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent party suffer“.
This principle should be considered alongside another, related legal principle, that is, the presumption of innocence. All legal systems hold this principle dear. Roman law states “ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat” (the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on one who denies), and Islamic law, Common Law and the Civil Law all carry this basic tenet. As the public puts it “Innocent until proven guilty“. This is a principle that keeps you and I safe : we can only fall foul of the law, and be punished, if we are found guilty after trail not simply by accusation.
In the Carl Sargeant case he was treated as if her were guilty before he had a hearing. He lost his position and was treated by Carwyn Jones, The First Minister of Wales, as if the accusations were true. This is the habit, increasingly popular, of jumping to the conclusion that accusations are truth. It is this approach which underpins such campaigns as #IBelieveHer. Now it is understandable that we want to increase the justice for those who are victims of any form of abuse but this strategy is very dangerous. If we believe the accusers without question what is the need for a trial ? If we believe the accusers then the only thing missing is retribution. This leads us to a very dark place where people can be destroyed by malicious accusations.
This photograph, might explain my concerns about this. This is a group of Welsh special advisors out for the evening celebrating on the night that they had just started the ball rolling on the case against Carl Sargeant. These are the expressions just after they have opened the floodgates of innuendo and suspicion. A colleague and erstwhile friend has been thrown to the dogs and this photograph reveals their feelings that very evening. When accusation becomes proof, accusations become dangerous and powerful political weapons which some people seem to enjoy using.
This is not the only legal principle that was ignored in Carl Sargeant’s case. He was never given details of the accusations nor knowledge of who his accusers were. Again in English Law, Roman Law, and also the Sixth Amendment of the United States this is a ignoring a cornerstone of justice. In the Bible, when Paul was accused, it was described thus :-
“It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man up to die before the accused has met his accusers face-to-face, and has been given a chance to defend himself against the charges.”
If one does not know the accusations, nor your accuser, you are effectively denied the opportunity to defend yourself. If you can not defend yourself you cannot receive justice. It has long been known that ignoring this principle would lead to injustice and would facilitate terror. The oppressive, nightmarish qualities we try to explain when we use the term “Kafkaesque” , relate to being on trial but ignorant of your accusers and their claims as so well described nn Kafka’s novel Der Process (The Trial). Secret accusations, secret courts and clandestine meetings have always been the way of the power hungry who wish to subvert justice. In this particular case it seems that it has gone further than this as there were also meetings with the accusers when their stories were discussed with all the risks of contaminating evidence of any wrong doing. This is very reminiscent of the history of the Stasi, or the Gestapo, collecting accusations so that they might prove useful against political enemies in power struggles at a future date
Carl Sargeant did not know of what he was accused nor do we. We know that it could not have been sufficient to warrant police involvement. It is likely that it was behaviour that is deemed inappropriate in our present moral climate. He might have behaved in a manner more in tune with an older generation than the present. If this is the case then it is probable that a further legal principle is in the process of being ignored – we can only be tried for offences against the rules that applied at the time. Guilt can not be backdated. If tomorrow they pass a law outlawing drinking alcohol on Sundays, it is this principle which protects me against them coming and punishing me for last Sunday’s drinking. I am obliged to follow the law as it is just now, not as how it might be in the future. Without this principle we could all be facing punishment in the future for some act which is not a crime at present – did you spank your child ? Did you smoke in a public place ? etc etc. The same guideline should be used when we consider social mores and customs.
For all these reasons the story of Carl Sargeant is a sad and worrisome tale. He did not receive fair justice and now never can. We will never know the truth of these accusations as they can not be tested now that he has died, so justice will never be served. These principles are not minor bureaucratic foibles but are the foundations of our enlightened society. For the sake of all those black men lynched in the South in America, denied a trial and presumed guilty on the words of their accusers, we must fight for these principles. For the sake of all the women accused of witchcraft and killed never able to confront their accusers we need to remember how important these principles continue to be. For the sake of the very many women who are going to be accused of adultery, or other crimes in the middle east, and face death just on the basis of an accusers word we need to promote these ideas and promote civilisation.
Carl Sargeant worked hard for his community and tried to improve the world by his work in politics, I hope now that he can rest in peace. Hopefully his family will also find peace and perhaps, in time, they may see that his sad death contributed to a turning point when society turned its back on hysteria and witch hunting.
I have become aware that sometime during the last decade I have become a ‘floating voter‘. Prior to this I had always identified myself with one or other of the main parties, either Labour or the S.N.P., and cast my vote loyally for their local candidates. I was aware that floating voters were always looked on with a degree of derision; as poor fellows lacking any political philosophy and being politically un-engaged. The quote below, by Ann Coulter the right-of-centre political commentator pretty much sums up the common impression.
“Swing voters are more appropriately known as the ‘idiot voters’ because they have no set of philosophical principles. By the age of fourteen, you’re either a Conservative or a Liberal if you have an IQ above a toaster.“
However, despite this statement being witty , is it accurate and reasonable ? Taking first the idea that floating, or swing, voters do not have a political philosophy; is this really likely to be the case ? If one has a well developed sense of political principles then it is quite unlikely that these will line up neatly with those of a single political party. While my desire for people to have the ability to determine their future might tally nicely with the SNP’s plans for and independence referendum but not with the Labour Party’s opposition. My internationalism may find favour with those pursuing worldwide class solidarity in the Labour Party but would jar with the nationalism of the SNP. My recognition of the importance of freedom of speech might be welcomed in the Conservative Party but cause consternation to those in left leaning parties who place greater emphasis on the dangers of “hate speech”. However, if I have well developed opinions I am going to have to drop some of these and compromise if I want to be a loyal party voter (though I suppose I could establish my own party !). If I have political principles I am going to have to weigh these up against the offerings of the political parties at any given time, as priorities and situations change, and decide which party looks the best recipient of my vote at that time. In short, if I am principled I’d be better being a floating voter.
I remember when I was active in political campaigning how little respect the parties had for their loyal voter. Their votes were “in the bag”, all that we needed to do was “get the vote out“, in some of our more certain constituencies we’d joke that we could put a red, or yellow, rosette on a dog and it would win handsomely. In essence we knew that these votes were loyalty votes, unthinking votes, knee jerk votes that we didn’t have to work for as they were not forged out of discussion or principle but because “I’ve always been Labour/SNP” or they were voting “like my father and his father before him”.Even when parties acted against their best interests (Labour has neglected the fate of the white working class, the SNP has ignored the best interests of the youth in Scotland, and the Conservatives are ignoring the economic havoc they are about unleash on the business community) the loyal voters keep coming back. Like store loyalty cards, even though you can get a better deal elsewhere, it coaxes you back to the same old fare.
Secondly there is the idea of intelligence, that floating voters are in someway a bit more dumb than those who have made up their mind. For the reasons above this is unlikely, but there is a further reason. The world constantly changes, the challenges we face differ, and our priorities need to change to match this. Intelligence comprises recognising change and adapting to it, changing our responses and dealing with it. It is stupidity to continue to try the same approach no matter what the problem. The old adage that when you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail comes to mind. Consider the problem facing loyal Labour voters, their conference has just jubilantly proposed harsh measures which will undoubtedly worry large businesses (they know this because they have started to plan for a run on the pound should they win). Now this is quiet understandable in the light of their general principles but, with Brexit just around the corner when everyone’s main priority will be to maintain business in the UK and try and avoid its flight to Europe, the smart labour voter might recognise priorities have changed (at least temporarily) and feel that they need to put their vote elsewhere – it would be the intelligent thing to do.
Indeed, being a floating voter requires more intelligence and more involvement. Voting on party lines means you are leaving the decisions to others, you are abrogating your democratic duty to consider the arguments and make a choice. It is more work being a floating voter but you can feel better knowing that your vote was actually a considered one and is more likely to have had an effect on the outcome (Floating votes are disproportionately important in election results). Our system with its reliance on political parties damages our democracy. The tendency of political parties to try and develop these “loyal voters” has lead to increasing pork-barrel politics with the right trying to expand its power by promising tax relief or advantage to its crony capitalist friends, or the left promising increased benefits in the welfare state to bribe its followers to keep in line. All of this concentrates political power and influence into a small number of hands, it reduces the choices we are given and influence of our opinions, and it weakens the flexibility and efficacy of our subsequent government.