Friday, January 20, 2017

2016

Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.
      Robert E. Howard



So, anyway: people keep falling down holes.

"Okay", I said: "We’d better have some people standing by with ladders and ropes and pulleys, so when anyone falls down a hole they can pull them out. And everyone will pay two and sixpence a year old money to pay their wages and the upkeep on the ropes and the ladders."

"No", you said. "That’s unfair on the people who never fall down holes. And the whole process of collecting two and six from everyone is wasteful. What we’ll do is charge the people who actually fall down holes the actual cost of pulling them out. Although naturally, if someone falls down a hole and really can’t afford the fee, we’ll exempt him from the charge. Or let him pay it installments, or make him do a stint pulling other people out of holes, or something." 

Then my friend joined the conversation. "I have an even better idea", they said. "Instead of spending all this money pulling people out of holes, why don’t we spend it filling in the holes, and putting up fences and lights and warning signs round the holes and preventing people from digging holes in the first place?"

"Oh, no, no, no" you said: "We can’t molly coddle our citizens like nanny goats! People must be free to fall down holes on their own time."  

But then your friend joined in the discussion, and asked if he might play devil’s advocate for a moment. "If someone is weak enough and stupid enough to fall down a hole", he explored, "Then surely he should be left there? Where did this idea that anyone had any responsibility to help anyone else out of a hole come from? That just leads to people walking around, not looking where they are going, falling down holes and expecting the government to pull them out, like in Germany. And anyway, there aren’t any holes, or if there are, no-one falls down them, or if they do, they climb out by themselves…"

"I think you will find… " said I.

"No, I am not going to argue with you", said your friend. "You should help someone out of a hole is an obvious piece of nonsense, on the same level as why is a mouse when it spins? and feminism. People who believe in pulling other people out of holes always lie about everything. Surely we can all accept that as a starting point?"

*


Chivalry is the idea that a person whose job it is to brutally kill people should, when he isn’t brutally killing people, be exceptionally kind and gentle. 

This is obviously a silly idea. Left to themselves, a person who chooses “killing people” as his career path is likely to want to kill as many people as he possibly can — and rape their women, take their stuff, burn their land, and then swagger into the pub and brag about it, expecting everyone in the pub to defer to him because he’s got a bloody big sword and they haven’t.

The Parfit Gentil Knyght is a made up thing. But for hundreds of years, most of the real-life knights believed in it. They honestly thought that to be truly soldierly and truly macho you had to be incredibly soft and gentle and (if one can put it like that) girly towards civilians and kids and old people and your horse and the fat guy in the squad who isn’t much use as a soldier and (especially) enemies who surrender to you. 

It was a bit like the fine old British idea of being a good sport. Guys put so much of themselves into rugger matches, and care so much about winning, that we had to base our entire education system around the idea that the really good rugger player is the one who doesn’t mind (or at any rate, pretends not to mind) if he loses. Otherwise the whole thing would quickly turn into a bloodbath. 

The catch is that people started to believe that sportsmanship and chivalry were the natural order of things. That if you gave a hormonal young man a rugby ball and told him that the whole honor of his school depended on his scoring a wicket with it, it would automatically follow that he would shake hands with the captain of the other team and say “Well done, old chap, you played much better than us, let me buy you a beer shandy” at the end of the game. And that if you were the sort of person who didn’t mind disemboweling Jerries with bayonets you would automatically also be the sort of person who helped old people across the road and never said "bloody" in front of a lady. That the bigger a psychopath you were on the battlefield, the more of a pussycat you would be in the dining room. 

The other catch is that teachers stopped thinking of sportsmanship as the only thing which made rugby bearable, and started to think of of rugby as the most important part of education because it taught young men about sportsmanship. And perhaps it did. Perhaps the best way to breed judges and politicians and policemen who mostly don’t take bribes or pick on the smaller guy is to bring them up to believe that things like that are "just not cricket". Or perhaps — as that great philosopher Captain Kirk pointed out — sportsmanship is a terrible idea precisely because it does take all the violence and brutality out of rugby. Maybe rugby ought to be violent and brutal: to ensure that civilized people only resort to rugby as a last resort. 

Once we started to believe that soldiers were automatically chivalrous we naturally stopped bothering to drum the idea of chivalry into soldiers, which more or less guaranteed that soldiers would stop trying to be chivalrous. (A similar problem arose when priests stopped thinking of Christianity as “this radical idea that it’s my job to convince people of” and started thinking of it as “what all English people are by default.”) And so you end up in a world where respectable newspapers columnists honestly don’t understand how one of Our Boys could have been court martialled for executing a prisoner of war. (But it was an enemy! A foreigner! Can’t you even execute foreign prisoners of war any more? It’s political correctness gone mad!) A world where a mainstream politician can wonder out loud whether it might be a good idea to torture people even suspected of being enemies.

And their wives.

And their children.

“Because we have to beat the savages.”

*


When I was born, men were still being sent to prison for going to bed with other men. In fact, men were still being sent to prison for sleeping with other men when I was in college. Homosexuality was only fully legalized in this country in 2001.

When my Mum was born, the British government still employed an official whose role it was to put ropes around people’s necks and push them through trap-doors. He was made redundant less than one year before I was born. The last neck-breaking session took place on 13 Aug 1964. A Thursday. Doctor Who was coming to the end of its first season. That Saturday’s episode was called Guests of Madam Guillotine. Before Google, it wouldn’t have been possible to find that kind of stuff out.

When my Grandmother was born, women were not allowed to vote in elections.

I cannot personally remember signs outside shops saying “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish” but I can remember when the BBC showed black face minstrel shows as part of a normal Sunday afternoon entertainment -- and everyone, even nice people, thought this was perfectly normal. And I can remember when it was perfectly normal for children (including me)to have rag dolls called “Greedy-Yids” with cute hook noses, skull caps, yellow stars and little bags of money and no-one could see what the problem was. (Some people still can’t.) 

I was never personally hit by a teacher, but both my schools (like every school not actually run by hippies) had a special stick for smacking children with, and everyone, even nice people, thought this was perfectly normal and even slightly amusing. (I believe it still happens in America.)

I don’t remember the election where Tories said “If you want an N for a neighbor, vote Liberal or Labour”, but I do remember the one where they said we should run Labour out of office because they thought there should be, er, sex education in schools.

And obviously I remember when the Tories made a law that you could only talk about homosexuality in school if you made it clear that it was a Bad Thing. (That one was abolished in 2003.)

But, on the other hand. 

I grew up in a world where free medicine was taken for granted. I remember literally not understanding when Jarvis betrayed the Avengers to Ultron because he needed money to pay for his mother's operation. 

I grew up in a world where free education was taken absolutely for granted. I could wish that my bog standard comp had pressed me harder to try out for Oxbridge, but there was never any doubt that if I got good enough A levels I could go to university for free, and even get a small stipend to pay for books and food and lodging and Dungeons & Dragons supplements.

I grew up in a world where the trains and the gas company and the water company were run by the government: not always infallibly, but generally affordably. I grew up in a world where unemployment was a misfortune, but not a catastrophe — where you knew that if worst came to worst you could sign on at a Job Center and get a small but adequate giro cheque every couple of weeks and (provided you weren’t living anywhere too posh) a substantial chunk of your rent paid. 

I didn’t even particularly notice any of this. I assumed it was the way things were.



So. That is what I believe happened in 2016.

I believe that the Nice Party took its eye off the ball. [*]

I think that the Nice Party forgot that the essentially Nice society we lived in was an amazing thing; based on counter-intuitive ideas; painstakingly built up over generations; a fragile flower that would die if you forgot to water it or exposed it to a draft. I think that the Nice Party came to believe that the Nice Society was just the way things were.

I think that the Nice Party came to believe that the victories of the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century were part of an inevitable movement upwards and leftwards towards the Light, which would go on more or less forever. Not all the battles had been won, by any means, but the general trajectory was in the correct direction.

And that's a big part of the problem. When the Nice Party wins a victory, it is inclined to regard that victory as won. “Hooray!” we say “We have abolished slavery, done away with capital punishment, given women the right to vote and gay people the right to get married -- so now that’s over and done with. Onwards to the next victory!”

But when the Nasty Party suffers a loss, they are inclined to regard it as merely a temporary setback. They never give up. Every criminal sent to jail is a convict who has grievously escaped the noose; every penny paid in unemployment benefit is a penny stolen by a sturdy beggar who should be in the workhouse, or the stocks, or Australia. "Oh dear", they say: "We appear to have conceded the point that poor people should be allowed to go to the doctor when they are sick. Well; we may have to put up with that for a little while. But don’t for one moment think we have conceded the principal. The day will come again when anyone who can't pay for their own medical care will die. The day will come when no-one will be pulled out of a hole."

Partly, I think, it was down to a naive belief in progress. Yes, my parents and grandparents remembered the days when it was quite legal to pay a lady less than a gentleman and to refuse to employ a black person at all — they remembered July 1916 and September 1940 and October 1962 — but that was back when everything was in black and white and hardly anyone had broadband. All those really terrible things like hangings and concentration camps and grammar schools happened in the olden days, like pirates and highwaymen and the Tulpuddle Martyrs. There are good reasons why none of it could possibly ever happen again. Give me a minute and I’ll tell you what they are.

I think a lot of it was down to a naive trust in institutions; an assumption that even if Mum and Dad and Teacher and P.C Plod were sometimes mean to you, Families and Schools and Policemen were basically looking out for your interests. Prime Ministers could be wrong but they couldn’t be stupid and they certainly couldn’t be corrupt. I know I personally took it for granted that Members of Parliament, even Tories, were always going to be more sensible than the people who elected them; and even if they weren’t the constitution and the courts and the judges would prevent them doing anything completely mad; and even if they didn’t we had the court of Human Rights to fall back on. By all means let the Daily Mail call for criminals to be tortured and pork forced into the mouths of Jewish school children; no MP would ever vote for it; and even if they did, the Lords would overturn it; and even if they didn’t Strasburg would strike it down. It stopped being necessary to persuade people that racism was wrong: it was possible to tell them that racism was actually illegal. And we were right: right up until the Nasty Party seized its moment, and started to invoke Infallible Referenda (which you cannot speak against, because it is The People’s Will) to support it’s cause; and to call into question the whole notion of human rights and even independent judges.


Image result for enemies of the people daily mail

If your whole life is about gardening and writing books about gardening and making TV shows about gardening, then it must be very tempting to think that gardening is the only thing that really matters and that gardening would solve all the worlds problems if you’d let it. (Osama Bin Laden would never have become a terrorist if he’d had a nice rose bush to prune!)

If you have spent your whole life teaching P.E, you probably aren't going to say that rugby is a fine thing in its own way, on a level with collecting stamps and painting 25 mm Space Orks. You are much more likely to say that sport is a corner stone of civilization and the only thing that will save us from the Commies. 

So if you are a politician, of course you are going to say that the only things worth fixing are the kinds of things that politicians can fix — schools and hospitals and welfare and housing — and that once they’re fixed then everything else will be fixed too. If human beings are Nasty, they were made Nasty by poor health and slum housing and rotten schools; fix all that, and all the Nastiness will go away. Now we’ve rehoused the poor in Nice housing estates, they won’t want to steal from each other any more. Now we’ve made prisons humane, there won’t be any more crime. Now we have reproductive rights and no-fault divorces there won’t be any more domestic abuse. Now we have pot luck parties where the Asian mums bring curry and the Jamaican mums bring fried chicken the Christians will stop hating the Muslims and the Muslims will stop hating the Christians…

But what if there were no natural inclination among people to be Nice?

What if Nice values were, like chivalry and sportsmanship, a made up thing? What if people with black skins naturally think that people with white skins are aliens and people with white skins naturally think that people with black skins are aliens? What if straight people naturally think that gay people are weird and yucky? What if it is natural for big boys to beat up little boys and for little boys to form gangs to protect themselves from the big boys, and for the big boys to get knives and the little boys to get guns? What if people had to be persuaded to be nice? And what if, having won all the victories, the Nice party didn't think they needed to do any more persuasion?

Since the Bad Thing happened the Nice Party has been told, over and over again, even on this page “You made all this happen! If you hadn’t spoken so stridently in favour of Nice things, the Nasty people would not have got so cross and voted for the Bad Thing. In fact, you were so strident that a good number of Nice People voted Nasty just to piss you off!”


There is a tiny, infinitesimally small, smidgen of a truth in this accusation. The great Peter Elbow pointed out that being right is a dangerous tactic since “sometimes being right makes you so insufferable that people are willing to stay wrong just for a chance to disagree with you.” Someone has suggested that the satirical song I linked to last month went a little bit too far in portraying people on the wrong side of the Referendum as yokels and morons. I agree: that kind of thing doesn't help. (It's still a very funny song.)

But let's also keep in mind Screwtape's warning: that preachers and politicians always admonish people about the exact sins which they are least like to commit. If you live at time when everyone goes to Church as a matter of course and doesn’t do much about it, then you can bet that you will hear stern sermons warning you of the dangers of religious fanaticism. But if you live at a time when everyone is gung-ho to go on a crusade and give Johnny Infidel a damn good thrashing, then expect to hear firey sermons warning you about the temptations of lukewarmness and nominal-ism. It is when the Nice Project is about to come tumbling down that that Nice Leaders start to say "Well, I think actually the Nasty Party has a point. Maybe we are a bit snowflakey. Maybe we are a bit prone to political correctness. Maybe people sometimes use racist language and don’t mean anything by it, and even if they do, maybe it’s patronizing of us to tell them they shouldn’t?” Which pretty much amounts to surrender. You don't wait until the Knights are slitting the French prisoner's throats and then say "Well, to be honest, maybe some of what's been said about chivalry is a little bit unrealistic." You don't pick the Saturday afternoon when the team captain has kneed the referee in the bollocks to say "I am not at all sure that some of the posher schools haven't gone a bit overboard in preaching about sportsmanship."

Image result for lady of the lake excalibur

It may be possible for the Nice Party to regain some ground. Some of the Nasty Party are still a bit ashamed of being Nasty. If you call them Racists or Fascists, they will still deny it -- because they have some residual sense that Racism and Fascism are bad thing. Like the guy who cheats at games, but will punch you if you say he is Unsportsmanlike, because he was raised to think that Sportsmanship was a good thing. But this won't last forever. Plenty of the Nasty Party's supporters are already openly saluting Swastikas.

But to do this, we are going to have to go right back to first principals and explain, until we are blue in the face, why we ever thought that multiculturalism and women's emancipation and gay equality and the welfare state and human rights were good ideas. Nice people are going to have to challenge Nasty assumptions whenever we hear them.

No, actually, I am pleased to pay my tax, it’s a way of sharing the important things between everyone.

Stop talking about “them” and “us”; so far as I am concerned, we’re all British, even if some of us dress differently and have a different word for God. 

There is no such thing as political correctness; it’s a lie made up to make people hate each other. 

Isn’t the Health Service brilliant. 

Isn’t it fantastic that we can all vote. 

Aren’t human rights a fantastic idea. 

Isn't multiculturalism wonderful? Isn't it depressing to look at one of those old movies and see only white faces (and everyone dressed the same.) Isn’t it brilliant how you only have to walk down the Gloucester Road and find Italian Pizza and Greek Kebabs and Jewish fish and chips and Indian curry and American coffee houses using Brazilian coffee beans selling French croissants and that's before we even get onto Greek tragedy and German opera and Danish thrillers.

Those of us who grew up before the Catastrophe are going to have to tell this story. No-one else will. We will be told that we are speaking against the Will of the People. I don't think that we will be treated as traitors and subversives, fun though that would be. I do think we will increasingly be regarded as weirdos and eccentrics, in much the way that people who thought that it was okay to be gay were regarded as weirdos and eccentrics in the 1970s.

"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that was given us." Our generation was handed Camelot as a gift. We couldn't be bothered to defend it. But we're going to have to keep the memory alive so the next generation can have another shot at rebuilding it. 

It is said that one Sunday morning in 1923 or 1924,  the U.S President returned to the White House having attended a church service.

“What did the pastor preach about?” asked the First Lady.

“Sin” replied the President.

“And what did he say?”

“He was against it.”






[*] Note: 

I am not here to argue that the British Labour Party or the American Democratic Party have the monopoly on goodness. I am not here to claim that Theresa May or David Cameron or George W Bush or Mitt Romney are simply evil. I think that most people on The Left and most people on The Right are mostly in agreement about most things. We all think it would be a good thing if everybody was well-fed, well-educated and could afford to see a doctor when they got ill; we all think it would be a Bad Thing if there were a nuclear war in the next few years. What we disagree about is which Good Things it should be the government’s job to do, and which Good Things should be left up to individuals, and who should pay for it all. And even that doesn’t necessarily split along neat party lines. 

If someone says “I think that we could get rid of the National Health Service and replace it with a German model of subsidized private health insurance, which would provide better hospitals for less money” then I would call him a Conservative. I would disagree with him politically. I think “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” is basically a good principal, but I wouldn’t think that he was stupid or evil.

But if someone said “I don’t think that one penny should be taken from the rich to pay the medical bills of the poor; if the poor can’t afford to pay their own hospital bills, then they should be allowed to die; you have no more right to free health care at the point of need than you do to free chocolate cake or free motor cars, then I would happily say that that person was both stupid and evil. (One such person writes to the Bristol Evening Post at least once a week.) 

I don’t think that all Conservatives are stupid and evil, and I don’t even think that all stupid and evil people are Conservatives. (That is a pleasing paradox, but I don’t set very high store by it as an axiom.) 

Hence, I am reduced to calling the people who believe in sharing the “Nice” party, and the people who believe in keeping all the good stuff for themselves the “Nasty” party. I have to say that the idea that we are all basically human and should be treated the same is a “Nice” idea and the idea that Our Lot are better than Your Lot and definitely better than The Other Lot is a “Nasty” idea. 

Regular readers will be amused, but not surprised, to hear that in an earlier draft of this piece I tried referring to them as “The Light Side” and “The Dark Side.”