Sunday, October 02, 2011


We know that we don't know,
So let our vision still be pure;
We are Agnostic Fundamentalists;
We’re fundamentally unsure!
Peace, my sisters and my brothers;
The Agnostic does not smite;
We are tolerant of others;
There’s a chance they may be right.
                  Les Barker (The Church of Wholly Undecided) 

If we believe wrong things, we will do wrong things. It is therefore sensible to try to believe right things, and to encourage other people to believe right things.

But none of us is infallible: we all believe some wrong things and are bound to sometimes do wrong things whether we mean to or not.

That's just how life is. The only alternative is doing nothing at all. No point worrying about it too much. I think that the "not doing anything at all" experiment might be worth trying for a few days, though.

We can minimize the amount of harm we do by always keeping in mind that there are two sides to every question (apart from the one about who created the Silver Surfer) and that the other guy might have a good point. 

But obviously, this approach only applies to everybody else. You have a perfect right to your opinions. But I don't have any opinions. I see things the way they actually are. "How lovely to think that all round the world, different groups of people are worshipping God in their own way, while here we are, worshipping Him in His way" as the fellow said. Now, if Melanie Phillips and Polly Toynbee, and Richard Dawkins and the Rowan Williams could both agree to say, and really mean "The other chap might have a good point" we would be getting somewhere. But we're not.

Anyway there are some things which it is just not possible to be tolerant about. And I'm not going to go all smartarse and postmodern and say "I'm not sure if tolerant people have to tolerate people who tolerate intolerant people, you know." If I were pacifist I really wouldn't see any difference between the dead boys being brought home to Brize Norton and the foreign boys they murdered. A murderer in uniform is still a murderer. I might very well spit on their coffins and picket their funerals, like that nice man in America. Who we should be tolerant of, because there's a chance he might be right.

I'm not a pacifist, in that sense. I'm a pacifist in the sense of thinking that peace is nicer than war, but so's everybody else. 

If I really believed that there was an institution on the high street whose only purpose was to massacre large numbers of small children then I would tie myself to the railings, picket it, throw rotten fruit at the staff, sell all my possessions and dedicate the rest of my life to closing down this infant death camp. I would certainly refuse to have anything to do with anyone who worked for the baby killing centre, in any capacity. I would hardly say "Oh, this is Mr Smith. He works as a receptionist in a concentration camp, you know. I don't quite approve, but if you set that aside, he's a very nice chap." I might even try to blow up the baby killing center and assassinate the staff. Given that I'm not a pacifist.

For the avoidance of doubt: I don't think that there are institutions in this country which kill babies. And so far as I can see, neither do those people who a have a real, strong, moral, thought-out, principled objection to abortion (who you should be are very tolerant of, because there's a chance they might be right.) They certainly don't behave as if they think that every single person who works in the health service is on the same moral level as a concentration camp guard.

You might very well think that human beings ought to be much kinder to the other animals we share a planet with than we are at the moment. You might very well be right. But you don't really think that a trainload of cows being taken off to be turned into hamburgers is the same as a trainload of Jews being taken off to Auschwitz. You might say that you do, but you don't. If you did, you'd be advocating us sending Spitfires to carpet bomb McDonald's. And you aren't. At least, I assume you aren't. Meat is not murder, whatever over-excitable vegetarians might sometimes say.

Of course, "Meat is murder" sounds much better than "The production of meat sometimes involves unnecessary cruelty". And "Sainsburies makes life taste better" is snappier than "Sainsburies is a shop which sells stuff." There is nothing wrong with slogans; there is nothing wrong with rhetoric; there is nothing wrong with exaggeration. I have used exaggeration to make a point, on millions of different occassions. 

But we need to be fairly clear when we are engaging in legitimate political exaggeration and when we are talking dangerous rubbish. You may very well think that the clerical child abuse scandal is a scandal, and one for which the Catholic church can't and shouldn't be forgiven. But if you start to say, and appear to actually mean, that the Roman Catholic church only ever existed as a means of supplying fresh young buttocks for gay male celibates to insert their penises between; that the Catholic Church is the greatest criminal organisation in history; that every priest is a child abuser and every Catholic an accessory to child abuse -- then you probably shouldn't be too surprised if someone starts killing priests and setting fire to churches. Because if every village in Europe had an institution which really was only a sophisticated paedophile grooming centre, then burning them down would be a perfectly understandable thing to do. Unless you were a pacifist.

Ohhh....but when I said that the Catholic Church was the biggest and worst criminal organisation in history, then I didn't actually mean that we should treat the Catholic Church as if it was the biggest and worst criminal organisation in history. I only meant that we should all write jolly stiff letters to the Independent. 

English Kings have got a nasty habit of saying very loudly and in public that they wouldn't be at all sad if some individual met with some nasty accident, and then being very surprised when the aforementioned individuals actually do meet with nasty accidents, often at the ends of swords belonging to the people the king was talking loudly in front of. You would think that they would learn to be more careful of what they say in front of drunken, angry knights. Careless talk costs archbishops.

Many of us couldn't help experiencing a sort of morbid schadenfreude when it turned out that Anders Breivik, the right wing nutter who shot 67 people in Norway over the summer, was a reader of the Daily Mail and quoted articles by Melanie Phillips. 
But it wasn't actually very surprising. He was a right wing nutter: the Daily Mail is aimed firmly at the "right wing nutter" demographic. When a man rapes a lady, it often turns out that he liked sex magazines; when a man kills a child with a gun, it often turns out that he liked gun magazines; when a man kills a child with a car, it often turns out that he liked car magazines.

And all the stupid people say, with one voice "Ooo....It was the magazine's fault. Let's ban magazines."

We are not stupid people. 

It will be remembered that that stupid American lady who the Guardian is obsessed with described the attempt to link her Teapot movement with the 2011 shootings in Tuscon Arizona as "a blood libel".  Because obviously, if you say that members of a particular party are Communists, Islamists, terrorist supporters, not real Americans and in extreme cases the AntiChrist, and print pictures of them with rifle cross hairs over their faces then there is no chance whatsoever that a nutter with a gun might take you a bit more literally than you intended him to. Particularly not in a country where its relatively easy to lay hands on a gun. 

What if the Daily Mail was right?

What if there really was a Marxist organisation dedicated to destruction of civilisation?

What if they had already taken over the BBC, the Labour Party and the President of America?

What if we teetered on the brink and saying "Before Common Era" and singing hymns at civil partnership ceremonies was going to push us over it? 

What if Teh Riotz were the beginning, and that was what it was going to be like in England every night from now on?

What if there was a real danger that the free press would be banned, Lord Cricket Ground turned into a collective farm and all of us forced to live on cold beetroot soup and turnips for the rest of our lives? (I assume that this is what it will be like after civilisation has ended and Herbert Marcuse and Stalin have taken over?)

What if David Cameron really had sided with those who wish to destroy civilisation, and opposed those who would quite like civilisation to carry on?

The fantasy world of the Daily Mail has been created specifically in order to smooth over moral grey areas; to make it quite impossible to say "there's a chance the other chap might be right." 

If we know in advance that the Political Correctness Brigade is on the point of destroying civilisation, then even to ask "How does Songs of Praise, The Life of Mohammad and Thought for the Day fit in with the BBC secularist agenda? How does employing Simon Schama to make history documentaries fit in with their plot to abolish history?" is a kind of treason. 

The fantasy world of the Common Sense Brigade, like the fantasy world of George Lucas, is specifically constructed so as to leave no space for nuance.  

In the 1980s, us students thought it was cool and ironic to read the Sunday Sport. The Sport was a not very successful attempt to market a U.S style supermarket tabloid in the UK. I think most of us realised that its storylines -- World War II Bomber Found on Moon; Hitler Was Really a Woman; Hitler Still Alive; Hitler Flew World War II Bomber to Moon Because Sunday Sport Revealed He Was Really A Woman; World War II Bomber Disappears From Moon -- were not 100% reliable. I don't think it would have been hard to read a political agenda into the Sunday Sport's made up world, either: they were selling their middle-aged readers a fantasy in which the 1940s and 1950s had never really come to an end -- the news stories of their youth (Hitler, Elvis, Vera Lynn) were still the news stories of the 1980s. In the years in between, nothing much had happened. I don't know if anyone believed in them. I guess that it was a bit like U.F.Os: people didn't believe in every two headed baby but they did feel that there was a lot of wierd shit going down, because, well, it was all in the papers, wasn't it. But it didn't affect political discourse. The Guardian didn't run news stories about what the London Double Decker bus at the South Pole said about Antarctic ecology; the Telegraph didn't write thunderous editorials about how the SAS should be sent to the Croydon chip shop to arrest Hitler, and why this showed that England was soft on Nazi war criminals and we should therefore withdraw from the E.U. The Sunday Sport never set the agenda.

But every time a columnist, or an Any Questions panel, or straw poll or a media phone talks about the fictional banning of the term "AD", or the fictional banning of the term "Gingerbred Man", or the fictional school where children sing baa-baa-green sheep, or the fictional celebration of Winterval then it allows the Express and the Mail and the Campaign Against Political Correctness to set the agenda. It decides that the Common Sense Brigade's fictional England is more worth talking about than the place where we actually live and more and have our being. 

And if the Daily Mail carries on encouraging its readers to believe wrong things, surely there is a risk that one of them will one day do a wrong thing? A terribly, terribly wrong thing?

If you really thought that the Cultural Marxists were about to take over, wouldn't you take drastic action to preserve Civilisation As  We Know It?

What if the Daily Mail was right?

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Sam Dodsworth said...

I'm not going to second-guess your conclusions, but I do have a few things I'd like to contribute as possibly helpful to your argument. I've mentioned all of these before at various times, of course, but I think they all have particular relevance here...

The first is Outgroup Homogeneity, which I think informs the Mail's views on "cultural Marxism". There's a short decription here but the abstract is that people who aren't like us tend to look scarily uniform. I think this is how a lot of not-quite-conspiracy theories come into being. There's a kind of cognitive dissonance that sets in between the assumption of uniform coordinated action and the obvious lack of an actual conspiracy - as with a homophobic friend of mine who agreed that there wasn't a literal written "gay agenda" but thought that something very like it arose from (effectively) flocking behaviour by Teh Gheys.

The second, ironically enough, comes from a book about witch trials - Gustav Henningson's "The Witches' Advocate". Henningson suggests that witch panics arise from the intersection of folk beliefs ("don't cross Ugly Dave - he's got the Evil Eye") and the right (wrong?) theoretical framework ("Satan is real and recruits sorcerers to do his bidding"). The point to take away is that this pattern doesn't just apply to literal witch panics - Henningson makes an explicit parallel with Nazi anti-Semitism as an example.

The third is Bob Altemeyer's "The Authoritarians", which is written in a style I find faintly irritating but is the best description of the patterns of thinking that inform the Daily Mail worldview. It's an actual book, but it's available as a free download.

Andrew Stevens said...

For the avoidance of doubt: I don't think that there are institutions in this country which kill babies. And so far as I can see, neither do those people who a have a real, strong, moral, thought-out, principled objection to abortion (who you should be are very tolerant of, because there's a chance they might be right.) They certainly don't behave as if they think that every single person who works in the health service is on the same moral level as a concentration camp guard.

I don't think this follows. You're assuming a level of moral courage which very few people possess. I'm going to use an American history example, for which I hope everyone will forgive me.

In the early 19th century, there were a large number of committed abolitionists, mostly up north. Very few of them did much more than the anti-abortion and "meat-is-murder" crowds are doing now. In fact, one of the exceptions, John Brown, has gone down in history as a madman which, by the way, he was not. But it goes to show that the level of moral courage you expect the average man to possess, in fact, looks very much like madness to the average man.

Brown really believed that black people were every bit as good as white people. This was exceptional, even among abolitionists (except of course for those who were of African descent themselves). The white abolitionists of the time, to a certain extent, couldn't help but think "What if I'm wrong?", surrounded as they were by a society which disagreed with them to varying extents, and most of them would have been horrified if a child of theirs wanted to marry a black ex-slave. John Brown would have given the marriage his blessing, but even Brown was originally radicalized, not by the holocaust which was being perpetrated on people of African descent, but by the murder of a white abolitionist by an opposition mob in Illinois. It was only after that that he started attending an African-American church in Springfield and came to fervently believe in the equality of the races.

It is one thing to talk about how we would treat concentration camp guards, given the chance, when we live in a society with no concentration camps and where everybody in our society agrees with us about the moral status of concentration camp guards. It is quite different if we lived in a society where the majority agreed with the concentration camp guards and supported their work as a necessary function of a civilized society, even if they found it a bit distasteful and in which a great many of your family and friends (and maybe even you yourself) have personally delivered people up to the concentration camp, believing that they were doing the right thing, or at least not a wrong thing.

I don't think it's very helpful to claim that the abolitionists of the early 19th century didn't really believe that slavery was wrong, simply because very few of them were willing to take actions which would have required enormous self-sacrifice and an astonishing amount of courage. I admire John Brown, but I am too self-aware not to admit that I do not have what it takes to have been John Brown.

A vegetarian activist or an anti-abortion activist, given their own probable knowledge of their own lack of moral courage, are also probably disposed to forgive their family and friends for their lack of moral clarity.

Richard Worth said...

While I don't know how many abolitionists were active in the Old South- the Underground Railroad seems to have had plenty of staff- being a Free-Stater in Vermot, or a slave owner in Georgia, didn't mean confronting the other point of view on a regular basis. Daily Mail readers may work on the same basis- those things they would find objectionable are also the things which are filtered out by living in their neighbourhoods, reading their newspapers etc. There may also be a touch of Sam's outgroup about cultural conservatives: people can read the Mail for the sports or fashion pages and don't have to sign up to the full world-view that requires them to go shooting Cultural Marxists.

Eric Spratling said...

"It will be remembered that that stupid American lady who the Guardian is obsessed with described the attempt to link her Teapot movement with the 2011 shootings in Tuscon Arizona as "a blood libel". Because obviously, if you say that members of a particular party are Communists, Islamists, terrorist supporters, not real Americans and in extreme cases the AntiChrist, and print pictures of them with rifle cross hairs over their faces then there is no chance whatsoever that a nutter with a gun might take you a bit more literally than you intended him to."

How unfortunate that this passage exists, in a post about the value of nuance and giving the other side a fair view.

Andrew Stevens said...

Most of the real dangerous heavy lifting of the Underground Railroad down South was done by blacks (both free and still enslaved). Whites were rarely doing any real high-risk work (though I have no doubt some were), particularly if they were in the North. E.g. after the Jerry Rescue in New York, when abolitionists broke into a jail and freed an escaped slave, 26 of them were prosecuted and only one convicted. Sympathetic juries refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. There are a few white abolitionist martyrs other than John Brown and Co., such as Elijah Lovejoy, but he didn't expect to be attacked by an angry mob. I consider white work on the Underground Railroad to be similar to the picketing, pamphleting, and lobbying, that goes on in the anti-abortion and anti-meat movements today.

My main point is that because John Adams was friends with Thomas Jefferson is not good evidence that John Adams didn't really believe that slavery was wrong. We only decide that all of the concentration camp guards were irredeemably evil when society has come firmly and nearly unanimously down on the other side, such that we can no longer fathom how it is even possible to have believed the opposite.

Andrew Stevens said...

Eric: Much of the criticism of Palin is fair and justified, in my opinion, though it is a dead certainty that Sarah Palin had no effect whatsoever on Jared Loughner, who had a pre-Palin grudge against Gabrielle Giffords (because she did not adequately answer his "What is government if words have no meaning?" question in 2007). Indeed, Loughner was probably opposed to Palin as well, since his views included that women should not be allowed to hold positions of power.

The claim that pictures were printed of candidates with crosshairs over their faces is an outright lie, though, which rudimentary fact-checking would have revealed. I'm prepared to believe that the lack of fact-checking is The Guardian's fault and Mr. Rilstone simply innocently parroted it, assuming it was correct.

I. Dall said...

@Sam Dodsworth;
Would certainly recommend Henningson, too-very happy to be able to read him in the Danish.

But of course, one can believe in Satanic Conspiracies without believing in a supernatural Accuser of Humanity (quite a few Satanic Ritual Abuseists, or the various pagan witch-hunters do not)-& vice versa.
Indeed, one recalls a public speech by a hypnotherapist in which he claimed that the elements of Satanic Ritual Abuse involving Space Aliens where "plants" made by the Satanic CIA Illuminati to discredit SRA supporters.

Eric Spratling said...

Mr. Stevens: Exactly. Even if it were in any way established or even probable that Loughner's decision to "target" Giffords came after Palin's Facebook map (and it has not), 1) Loughner's mental state was so absolutely far gone that he might just as well have decoded similar "instructions" from his Alphabit soup, and 2) the FB map with crosshairs/surveyor's marks on *districts* (not people) was such a bit of mundane political imagery as to be utterly unremarkable. In fact one of the very left-wing web sites that first took the lead in using the map to blame Palin had itself employed a similar map previously-- in addition to a posting where a writer emphatically declared that Giffords was "DEAD to me!" for insufficiently supporting her party's leadership at some juncture. There is more of a case to be made in blaming Jodie Foster for John Hinckley than there is in blaming Palin for Loughner.

In addition to the tragic deaths and injuries inflicted at the shooting itself, the aftermath is a very sad picture of one side of the American political establishment's shameless attempt to silence the other. If the Guardian is currently distorting its reporting of the event then I am disappointed, but not terribly surprised.

Andrew Stevens said...

Nevertheless, Palin's rhetoric is often over-the-top. I don't think she ever called anyone the anti-Christ or an Islamist or a terrorist, but her "Real America" comment was ridiculous (what could be more American than New York City?) and the secret socialist/Communist thing, so often heard from her and her side, while probably no worse than the "tools of the rich" nonsense from the other side, is definitely the sort of thing our political discourse could do with less of.