Wednesday, May 26, 2021

"Jeffcotism is invading all forms of discourse and rendering rational discussion impossible." Discuss. (2)

"You're a nutcase! You're a bleedin' nutcase!" 

"They said the same of Jesus Christ, Freud, and Galileo." 

"They said it of a lot of nutcases too."

Peter Cook/Dudley Moore

In 1996 the Humanist Association gave Richard Dawkins a gold star because he had done humanism better than anyone else that year. But in 2021 they asked him to send it back. The association defines humanism as "being good without God". Dawkins may score very highly in Column B but he is not so hot in column A. 

You would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh. 

The proximate cause of Dawkins' discomendation was a Jeffcotian comment he made on Twitter about transexual people. 

“In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP, was vilified for identifying as Black. Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.” 

Apparently, the Tweet has been "misconstrued". Dawkins was not expressing an opinion. He was asking an academic question You can tell that he was asking an academic question because he put the word "discuss" on the end of it.

This reminds me of an annoying toddler I once knew. He understood that he had to say "sorry" when he had done something naughty; and therefore started to say "sorry" before pouring orange juice over his sister's head. And also of lazy journalists who think that any calumny is magically neutralised by the addition of the word "allegedly". 

Putting the word "discuss" after an offensive remark does not make it okay. 

"Richard Dawkins is a cunt. Discuss." 

The act of placing something on the agenda for discussion is not a neutral act; it is a political act. It implies a stance. If I say "Ginger haired people do not exist. Discuss" then I am saying that the existence or non-existence of redheads is something about which more than one point of view could reasonably exist. 

Doubtless, in a debating society, you might try to defend indefensible positions:

"The world is flat. Hitler had a good point. There are no blonde women in Bognor Regis. Discuss." 

I believe that some Rabbis regard it as a point of honour to be able to prove from the Torah that the Torah says things which the Torah definitely doesn't say. Nothing in the context of Dawkin's anti-trans remarks suggest that he is engaging in intellectual play of that kind. I admit that Twitter doesn't allow much scope for nuance. That is why you should be very careful about how you use it. 

An examiner might perfectly well ask a candidate to discuss a deliberately controversial question: 

"Ibsen was a better playwright than Shakespeare. Discuss." 

The answer would be "it depends what you mean by playwright": Ibsen was better than Shakespeare at creating plots and dramatic effects; but he was nowhere near such a good writer. A Dolls House is a better play than the Taming of the Shrew, but it is not a better thing. The answer to "discuss" questions is always "it depends what you mean by". 

But an examiner would probably not smuggle too many assumptions onto the paper. He would probably not write: 

"The great and underrated Ibsen was an incomparably better playwright than that overrated hack Shakespeare, but anyone who dares say so will be hounded out of town by the anti-Norwegian Bard mob. Discuss." 

I suppose he might possibly put a genuinely controversial quote before the student and ask them to talk about it: 

"Shakespeare's name, you may depend on it, stands absurdly too high and will go down." (Lord Byron.) Discuss. 

"Discuss" questions turn up on humanities papers more often than they do on science papers. Literary criticism and philosophy are all about the discussion process. There aren't any right answers, although there are many wrong ones. Dawkins doesn't quite believe that philosophy and lit crit are real subjects. 

"Racial identity and gender identity are the same kind of thing. Discuss" might be a valid exam question; although I can't help thinking that my essay woul be quite short. ("Of course they bloody aren't".) Dawkins talk of white people "choosing" to be black and men "choosing" to be women make it pretty clear where he is coming from. And the word "vilification" gives the game away. 

Richard Dawkins is a committed Jeffcotian. Spiders are better than bears, but They won't let you say that nowadays. 

During the discussion of Dawkins, Mike Taylor drew my attention to this article, by a computer programmer called Paul Graham, about heresy, fashions in thought and things that one is not allowed to say. It seems to be the definitive statement of the Jeffcotian position, and it is worth looking at in some detail. 


It would be quite hard to disagree with the central thrust of the argument. There are fashions in thought as well as in clothes. There are prevailing orthodoxies and received wisdoms. We didn't all independently decide that Greta Thunberg was a Good Thing in 2018, any more than we all independently decided that flares were cool in 1972. To some extent we think what we think because other people think it too. From time to time we ought to examine our beliefs and ask "Why do I think that?" 

Maybe Ibsen is better than Shakespeare. Maybe being black doesn't have anything to do with the colour of your skin. Maybe Hitler did have a point. Maybe spiders are better than bears. 

There is, however, a very broad streak of Jeffcotism running through the essay. Graham believes that widespread agreement about a particular subject is prima facie evidence that some powerful lobby has a vested interest in preventing us from thinking the reverse. "Everyone thinks..." leads inexorably to "Everyone is forced to think..." and to "They won't let you think..." 

It is true that the centre ground, the consensus, the stuff which "everyone knows" shifts over time. If I had lived in 1750 I would probably have just kind of taken it for granted that women don't vote in elections because that's the way it has always been and why would it not be? If I had lived in 1650 I would probably have said "what are these 'elections' of which you speak?" If I had been born in, say, 1965, I would probably have found it quite hard to get my head round the idea that two males could be married to each other; but by, say, 2021, I would probably be finding it quite hard to remember what all the fuss was about. 

But is this simply fashion, simply us following the herd? Is there, indeed, a sinister Gay Marriage Brigade or Suffrage Lobby telling me what to think? 

Graham thinks (like Dawkins) that scientific truth is privileged. If everyone changes their mind about physics or astronomy, that's because the old point of view was just wrong and the new point of view is just right. He is correct to say that opinions about morality can't ever be definitely right or definitely wrong in the same way. But from this he makes the colossal leap that moral beliefs are simply a matter of taste: the same sort of thing as wearing skinny jeans because everyone else is. 

"What scares me is that there are moral fashions too. They're just as arbitrary, and just as invisible to most people. But they're much more dangerous. Fashion is mistaken for good design; moral fashion is mistaken for good. Dressing oddly gets you laughed at. Violating moral fashions can get you fired, ostracized, imprisoned, or even killed." 

"In a field like physics, if we disagree with past generations it's because we're right and they're wrong. But this becomes rapidly less true as you move away from the certainty of the hard sciences. By the time you get to social questions, many changes are just fashion. The age of consent fluctuates like hemlines." 

Well, no. In the first place, people consciously want to dress fashionably, and are consciously aware that fashion changes. That is the fun of it. "What colour is 'in' this month?" they ask. "How are the ladies in the big city wearing their hair?"

In the second place, fashion is not arbitrary. When having a sun-tan suggested that you spent all day outside doing manual work, the rich put mercury on their skin to make it unnaturally pale. When a sun-tan meant that you were rich enough to go on expensive foreign holidays, and idle enough to spend hours lying around doing nothing; the rich started to sit under ultra-violet lamps to make their skins look unnaturally brown. Or, in some cases, orange. The aspirational skin-tone changed: the wish to show off your status did not. 

Thirdly, changes in the law about the age of consent do not represent changes in our ideas about what is right and what is wrong. There are some moral beliefs which do not change over time: strong people shouldn't exploit weak people; you should only have sex with someone who wants to have sex with you; very young people can't give informed consent. Legislators have at different times had different opinions about how those moral beliefs should be reflected in the law of the land. I think that you should go to jail if you have sex with someone under the age of 21 (even though that means criminalising some consenting teenagers); you think that its none of the law's business what two 15 year olds get up to in private (even though it gives abusers a legal fig-leaf to hide behind). 

The implication that morality is as arbitrary as taste in clothes is shockingly amoral. "We used to think that it was okay for middle aged blokes to fuck little girls; now we lock them up for it" and "We used to think platform shoes were cool; now we think they look silly" are not equivalent statements. 

None of the chic set are into freedom any more. This season, wife-beating is the new philanthropy. 


Graham proposes a series of spiritual exercises in order to find out which of your beliefs are your own and which are merely fashionable. 

Do you have any opinions which you would be reluctant to express in public? If not, you are a conformist: you believe what you have been told to believe. If you do have some beliefs you would rather not admit to, you should ask yourself "What labels would be attached to them if I did?" Would you be called racist, or sexist, or unpatriotic? Next, ask yourself who would be calling you a racist or a commie, and for what reason. You will probably find that the person doing the name-calling represents a vested interest whose power is under threat. 

You won't be vilified for saying something which is obviously not true. There were no HUAC investigations into people who thought the moon was made of green cheese, and Galileo wouldn't have been put on house arrest for thinking that pussy cats barked. The things which are called heresies are precisely the things which some powerful group are afraid might be true. And the more strongly an idea is censored, the more likely it is to be true. The Catholic Church didn't squash Galileo because they thought his view were obviously silly, but because they feared he might be right. They squashed him at that time (despite having tolerated Copernicus a generation earlier) because they felt threatened by Martin Luther. 

So, I may very well be right about the need for the workers of the world to band together and seize the means of production and send Prince Charles to the guillotine, because I wouldn't dare say so in public and everyone would be awfully cross if I did. I am very probably wrong about Jimmy Saville having been a bit of a wrong'un because everyone agrees with me. 

So: work out what you wouldn't dare say. And then work out what you would be called if you did say it. And then free associate and make a list of other ideas in that category. And ask yourself whether or not they might be true, and who might have a vested interest in pretending they are not. 

So: here are some things which I would not say in public: 
  • Women shouldn't be allowed to vote. 
  • Rape victims have only themselves to blame 
  • Women should bring up the kids and leave men to earn the money
  • The reason there are so few women comedians is that women just aren't funny 
  • That woman won an award because the judges were box ticking to show their inclusiveness 
  • Females are like black holes which suck the creativity out of men 
  • School girls should learn needle work, school boys should learn wood work
  • Women's cricket is intrinsically ridiculous 
If I expressed these kinds of views, I would be called "sexist". Who would call me sexist? Women. Why would women call me sexist? Because they think that their gender shouldn't prevent them from playing sport, writing books, participating in politics, and choosing who they have sex with. 

I think women ought to be paid the same as men for the same work because I believe in fairness. If you say that a woman's work is worth less, I call you a "sexist" because sexism is a description of what you think. "Women are worth less than men". That's what the word sexism means. 

If you really want me to, I could try to frame an argument that some of the above propositions are true, or at any rate valid. "Women should be paid less than men for doing the same work. Discuss." My only line of argument would be to argue for gender-essentialism on religious, ontological or genetic grounds. I would have to say that it is an inevitable law of nature that women raise kids and men hunt antelope -- because God said so, or because it is in our genes, or because the platonic essence of Male implies wage-earning. If the nature of Man is Wage-Earner and the nature of Woman is Cake-Baker, then it follows that women in the workplace are either single and childless, or else are earning additional bacon over and above what their Man already brings home. They are paid less because they need the money less. 

This as as much as to say : "It is okay to be sexist because the universe is sexist." 

Playing that kind of game is a not un-useful exercise, I admit. But I don't think it proves that I am not allowed to have sexist opinions, or that a sinister feminist claque is stopping me because they are afraid I might be right.  


Most people think that it is OK to eat animals. More accurately, most people feel only a little bit uncomfortable about eating animals, and mostly just avoid thinking about it. It is perfectly possible that in ten years, or in ten thousand years, most people will say "How is it even possible that in the 20th century people ate dead baa-lambs?" But it is not true to say that you aren't allowed to speak against the meat industry. Start to sell veggie sausage rolls in your bakery and Piers Morgan might call you effeminate, but that's the extent of it. 

In the early nineteenth century, most people accepted that small boys were employed as chimney sweeps. But it isn't true that prior to 1833 you weren't allowed to say that child labour was cruel. Many people did. And many more people felt guilty about it but couldn't see how else the chimneys were going to get cleaned. And many others just never thought about it, just like I don't think about who made the nice Mandalorian t-shirt I bought from Primark last week. You weren't not allowed to be a pacifist when we were at war with Hitler: the Peace Pledge Union and Vera Brittan and the Society of Friends carried on publishing their books and pamphlets. A lot of people doubtless thoughty they were cowards and they weren't given an airing on the BBC. But the idea of pacifism was on the agenda.You weren't not allowed to be in favour of women's suffrage in the Victorian era; you weren't not allowed to be in favour of gay rights in the 1970s; you aren't not allowed to want to repeal the Second Amendment in the deep south today. There are prevailing opinions. There is some censorship of the arts. "You can't say fuck on the BBC before 9pm" is not the same as "If you claim to have seen the moons of Jupiter you will be executed for heresy".

There are complicated reasons why ideas about astronomy that were unthinkable in the sixteenth century became thinkable in the seventeenth. There are complex reasons why Darwin's ideas about natural selection went from being heresies to orthodoxies in a matter of decades. But it is a gross oversimplification to say that before 1632 and 1870, a powerful force called Organized Religion prohibited people from believing in natural selection or heliocentricism because it wasn't in their interests for people to have those thoughts. 

Rather than asking about what you aren't allowed to think, maybe we should ask what people think about a thing when that isn't the thing they are thinking about. Most English people of my generation take it for granted that the school day starts with a Christian hymn and a Christian prayer -- in the same way that we take it for granted that it includes a lunch break and some kind of supervised sport. All Things Bright and Beautiful has the same relationship to English schools that One Nation Indivisible does to American ones. This doesn't mean that no-one ever asked whether that kind of state-mandated worship was a great idea. This doesn't mean that no-one ever wrote jolly stiff letters to the Times about it. This doesn't mean you'd be blackballed from polite society for saying that maybe you could skip the Lord's Prayer and go straight on to the sporting fixtures and the notices. But most people didn't. 

I recently attempted to read Focault, largely because Liz Truss said I shouldn't. I am not at all sure I understood very much of him, but I find the idea of episteme very useful. We all live and move and have our being inside complicated sets of assumptions and axioms and ways of reasoning, which don't so much define what we think, as how we think. Aristotle honestly thought that you could work out how many teeth a horse had from first principles: it didn't occur to him to go and count them. It wasn't that no-one before Darwin had thought of natural selection; it was that no-one could think of it. Pious IX didn't tell people that they weren't allowed to have that idea. It was impossible for anyone to think it; until, one day, it wasn't.  

There are things which our generation finds literally unthinkable: but by definition, we don't know what they are yet. 


I don't think that challenging orthodoxies and breaking taboos is a good thing in itself. If I shout "fuck" in a crowded theatre or show a stranger my willy on the set of Doctor Who, I am not a latter day Galileo: I am merely a very naughty boy. I suppose "Why can't I say that particular word or uncover that particular part of my body" is a vaguely interesting question for a wet Sunday afternoon. I suppose the answer is "Because it is rude". So why do we define some things as rude, and why those things and not others? I believe there are societies, and not necessarily especially religious ones, where it is okay to say "shit" but you'll be vilified or cancelled if you say "hell" or "devil". Covering up the twiddly bits is a pretty universal human trait. I don't think that puts me under any obligation to expose myself, in order to challenge the authority that would sanction me if I try it. I suppose idly wondering why it's not allowed might not be a terrible idea. I'm no naturist, but I'd be happy if changing rooms and public beaches were a bit less of a palaver 


"We have such labels today, of course, quite a lot of them, from the all-purpose "inappropriate" to the dreaded "divisive." In any period, it should be easy to figure out what such labels are, simply by looking at what people call ideas they disagree with besides untrue. When a politician says his opponent is mistaken, that's a straightforward criticism, but when he attacks a statement as "divisive" or "racially insensitive" instead of arguing that it's false, we should start paying attention." 

So - what are the examples of words which are used to close down discussion, to tell us what we can and can't think, in the present day? 

A very obvious list comes to mind. 
  • Woke 
  • Virtue Signalling 
  • Left-Wing 
  • Liberal 
  • Elitist 
  • Metropolitan 
  • Politically Correct. 
Graham's essay was written before the "woke" conspiracy theory gained much traction. But he has a good deal to say about political correctness. 

If I say that we should take down statues which celebrate the slave trade; or put up a notice saying that people are free to use which ever toilet they prefer; I may very well be accused of being "politically correct". Some people may even say that political correctness has gone mad. They will probably get very cross indeed. 

So: I would expect Graham to say that the people who call me "politically correct" secretly believe, or fear, that I am quite right about slavery and trans people; but that, since they cannot refute my argument they have come up with a modern form of heresy to silence me. I would expect him to ask "Who is threatened by the removal of the Colston statue?" and to give the answer "White people; nativists; the privileged; white supremacists".

This is almost exactly what he does not say. 

He thinks that political correctness is a modern reincarnation of Victorian prudishness. What the nineteenth century's reluctance to talk about sex and the twentieth century's reluctance to use demeaning language to talk about minorities have in common, I couldn't quite say. Is calling a disabled person a cripple as indecent as talking about genitals in front of a respectable spinster? Or is thinking that you shouldn't call a black person a "wog" as silly as thinking you should put skirts round piano legs? 

What does saying "His concern" rather than "His penis" have in common with saying "Firefighter" rather than "Fireman"? 

It seems that "free speech" is Graham's great, over-riding concern. Political correctness and Victorian good manners were similar in that they said that there were some things that you ought not to say. I don't think that Graham merely thinks that there should be very few laws or criminal sanctions against the expression and circulation of ideas, even terrible ones. (Everyone would agree with him if he said that, which would mean, by his own arguments, that he was probably wrong.) I think he thinks that there should be no limits whatsoever on what anyone says; that we should all say whatever comes into our heads. 

He affects to be surprised that adults teach children to avoid words that they themselves use all the time. He thinks that this is because we want children to be "cute". I think it is actually because children are not capable of understanding nuance. Most of us understand that we can say "fuck" in a saloon but not at the vicar's tea party. (Graham affects not to understand what is meant by "inappropriate".) Most of us understand that when I choose to say "fuck" I am breaking a rule. That, indeed, is why the word has power. We have plenty of neutral words for sex -- sex, coitus, copulation. But if told children that kittens come along when a mummy cat and a daddy cat fuck each other; or encouraged then to say "I want a shit" rather than "I want the toilet" then I would have made the words neutral. Saying them wouldn't be naughty, it wouldn't indicate that I was in an adults only space, it wouldn't show you that I was very cross indeed. We would have deprived ourselves of some very useful cuss-words. 

And then he makes a quite astonishing admission. 

He is talking about how to put forward your heretical opinion: what to do when you are right and everyone else is wrong. 

"One way to do this is to ratchet the debate up one level of abstraction. If you argue against censorship in general, you can avoid being accused of whatever heresy is contained in the book or film that someone is trying to censor. You can attack labels with meta-labels: labels that refer to the use of labels to prevent discussion. The spread of the term "political correctness" meant the beginning of the end of political correctness, because it enabled one to attack the phenomenon as a whole without being accused of any of the specific heresies it sought to suppress." 

Have you got that? The free speech issue is a deliberate and conscious piece of misdirection. Don't defend you view that women should be paid less than men. Instead assert that you have the right to say that women should be paid less than men if you want to. Don't respond to the person who says that women should be paid the same as men: instead, refer to his views as "politically correct". And then talk about political correctness in general as if it were a thing. 

Everyone agrees that calling disabled people nasty names is not very nice. It follows that some group has a vested interest in preventing you from doing so, and therefore, you pretty much have a duty to use the demeaning term. But don't attempt to say that spastic and cripple and mong are not demeaning terms. Don't attempt to say that they are accurate descriptions. Don't say that you just happen to enjoy making fun of the disabled. That would result in you being accused of heresy -- and "maybe disabled people really are funny and inferior" is potentially as important a discovery as "maybe the sun doesn't go round the earth." Take a step back. Say you have the right to all people spastics if you want to. Say that the suggestion that some terms are offensive is an attack on free speech. Take a further step back and observe that there is a widespread phenomenon of saying that derogatory language is to be avoided. Give it a label: PC, woke, virtue signalling. 

Not very many of us are prepared to come right out and say that white people are better than black people and straight people are better than gay people. But we are surprisingly willing to say that abstaining from words like n*gg*r and p**f is is politically correct; and that being political correct is a Bad Thing. 

Hey presto: abusing minorities is a virtue. 

Covid was caused by the direct action of Satan. Flying the Union Jack should be against the law. Princess Diana was a warmonger. David Attenboroughs; TV shows are boring patronising rubbish. Abolish prisons. Bring back hanging for a traffic offenders. It is logically impossible for a black person to play Doctor Who. Repeal the 1870 reform act and limit voting to people whose houses are worth at least £2. Make Latin compulsory in all schools. Reduce the age of consent to eleven. Sport is a waste of time. All swimming pools should have compulsory mixed gender shower facilities. Colin Baker was the best Doctor Who. Reduce the speed limit to 5 miles per hour prior to banning cars altogether. Stan Lee created the Silver Surfer. Talons of Weng Chiang is too woke for its own good. If you aren't a member of the Church of England you aren't British. Ban ITV and Netflix and give the BBC a monopoly. Barak Obama was white. Donald Trump was a liberal. Reduce the price of Freddo bars to 5p. 

But you aren't allowed to say that kind of thing any more. 


How do you think the unthinkable? 

With an ithberg.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Back to the Future II

So, where did we get to?

Progress is a good thing. 

The principle of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" was a mechanism intended to achieve this thing called Progress. We have now abandoned this particular mechanism. But this is okay, because the mechanism was never what we cared about. What really mattered were the Underlying Values, and these have not changed. 

I am a bit unclear about what the Underlying Values are. I am a bit unclear about whether Marxism has been abandoned because it is old or because the external circumstances happen to have changed. (You might stop wearing wooly hats because they are out of fashion and make you look like your granddad.  But you might stop wearing them because the weather has turned hot all of a sudden.) I am also a bit unclear if we are talking about what is right, what will work, or what will win elections. I am not even sure if Tony Blair would recognise the distinction.

It might be that Marxism was morally good in the 1960s in the same way that slavery was morally good in the 1760s, but that the inexorable march of cosmic evolution has changed the nature of morality. 

It might be that people in the 1960s were stupid, and honestly believed that Marxism was good, in the same way that people in the 1760s were stupid and honestly believed that witches existed. We know better nowadays. But we shouldn't blame the people in the past for burning witches and believing in Marxism. They truthfully didn't know any better. 

It might be that "from each according to his ability" was a very good means to an end to adopt in the 1950s, when everyone worked in factories, but that now everyone works on the internet, a different means (unspecified) needs to be adopted to achieve the same ends (also unspecified). 

Finally, it might be that in the 1960s a canny politician had to pretend to believe in Marxism because that was the sort of thing gullible people would vote for, but nowadays you to pretend to believe in something else if you want to fool people into supporting you. 

When it turned out that Blair's reasons for starting a war with Iraq were not entirely true, he didn't think that this invalidated the war. He said that if he had known then what he knows now he would have "deployed" other arguments. Possibly Marxism and Progress are things which you deploy in order to achieve something else. I just wish I knew what the Something Else was. 

I think that we should go North at 100 miles an hour. You agree that we should go North, but only at 10 miles an hour. We are going in the same direction but at different speeds. 

Maybe we want to end up in the same place, and you think that by going slowly we are more likely to get there in the end. Or maybe I want to get to John O Groats but you think that Edinburgh is quite far enough. 

But someone else might find themselves thinking like this. 

"I want to go North, and my followers want to go North: but our opponents want to go South. I reckon that if I go South at 50 miles an hour, most of my supporters and some of my opponents will still vote for me. And even going South at 50 miles an hour is better than going South at 100 miles an hour, which is what is going to happen if I admit that I want to go North at even 1 mile per hour. Southhampton may not be Inverness, but it is slightly better than Penzance." 

That is the difference between sweet Moderation, which is the hope of our nation, and Centrism, which leads inexorably to Johnson, Trump -- and worse. 

I do not think that SCIENCES!! automatically leads to Progress, but I do agree that SCIENCES!! changes the kinds of things you can do to make Progress happen. 

Assuming that we all agree what we are Progressing towards, which we don't.

It is very silly, in the age of the Interwebs and Twitface, to be selling paper copies of Socialist Worker outside railway stations and spending hours and hours putting statistically dubious bar charts through people's letterboxes. Obama and Trump both understood that elections are won on social media. So, in fact, did Momentum. 

Blair, and by Blair I mean Peter Mandelson, won three elections because he understood how television and newspapers worked: how to take control of an interview, how to associate himself with "eye-catching initiatives", how to keep his acolytes "on message". The rebranding of his party as "new" Labour, and the wallet sized "pledge card" were both highly media-savvy tactics. If he had carved his pledges on a giant stone tablet he would have doubtless done even better. But Blair came to power when The World Wide Web was a novelty and no-one had heard of Facebook: those tactics would not work nearly as well tomorrow. 

I think I can envisage ways in which SCIENCES!! might make the old questions about Left and Right wing politics redundant. 

It might go something like this. 

"We want to get books into the hands of poor people because knowledge is power and I used to love the Famous Five when I was a kid. But we are using the Old Ways -- charging people Council Tax, and using the money to pay librarians to keep paper books in alphabetical order. I think we should close all the libraries and reduce council tax (which will earn us votes) and use SCIENCES!! to get books into people's hands. We will go to Jeff Bezos and say "It's all right. You don't have to pay us any tax, and you don't even have to let your staff go for a wee. But in return, we want all ebooks to be free, and for you to provide a tablet computer for every school kid in the country. (That will cost about three billion but you are worth about a hundred and thirty three billion so its not like you can't afford it.) Result: a massive democratisation of knowledge and literacy. Which was the Enduring Value we started from." 


It would not be true to say that New Labour was the same as the Old Tories, and that Blair as Prime Minister didn't do anything nice. It would be cynical to say that today's Labour Right don't believe in anything. But if you ask a continuity Blairite what the party achieved in power (having agreed that we are not going to mention the war) what you would get is a shopping list of small reforms. 

The thing which the Blair Party is most proud of is SureStart, which increased poor people's access to childcare and nursery education. They also introduced a national minimum wage. Blair took incremental steps towards full equality for LGBT people. He made some big political reforms, like devolved government in Scotland. He incorporated the human rights act into English law and formally abolished the death penalty. He banned fox hunting. These were undoubtedly Good Things. Some of them would have happened anyway, but some of them most definitely wouldn't. But they were hardly an all-consuming new vision of Britain. And they were not particularly informed by SCIENCES!! 

Now we are going to tear down the Labour party and three days later raise up another in its place. Nothing less will do, apparently. 

So, is this New New Labour Party forged in the white heat of the genome project and sat-nav going to be anything more than a new shopping list of moderately liberal reforms? Or is Progress (like Marxism before it) simply a rhetoric that we are going to deploy so we can dupe the voters into putting us in the position where we can introduce identity cards and ASBOs and frogmarch drunk teenagers to cashpoints? 

Screwtape said that Christian clergymen always warn people against the sins they are least likely to commit. When everyone is itching to launch a crusade against the infidel, they will hear stern sermons against lukewarmness and nominalism. When they regard churchgoing as a pleasant social duty they will be warned from the pulpit of the dangers of extremism and fanaticism. Blair does not tell Starmer to be more exciting; more radical; more daring; to take more risks; to try to get the public excited. Instead he presents a tabloid parody of the Left, and solemnly warns Kier Starmer not to be like that. 

Blair's analysis of the current political situation is very obscure: but it is just about decipherable. He seems to say two different things. 

First he says that young people -- and a new generation of uniquely and specially young people appear to have unexpectedly emerged fully formed in the the last year or two -- want change for change's sake. He seems to envisage them looking for something to rebel against and asking "what have you got?" Because the Moderates -- Kier Starmer -- are not talking about big economic changes, the young people have started calling for big changes in other areas. They are saying we should change the way black people, transexual and homosexual people are treated. They are saying we should change the way we do industry and travel, so as to halt global warming before we all die. They are saying we should change the way that nationality, gender and religion inform and define political beliefs. He lumps these together as "culture" or "identity". He says that moderates (Kier Starmer) don't understand these issues. But they are aware that their views may be wrong, or out of touch, or at any rate perceived as such. So they stay out of the argument altogether. This makes them look weak. So we have a vicious circle: the Young are radical because Starmer is so boring; Starmer is boring because the Young are so radical. 

But he also says that the agenda around "cultural" issues has been set by the Right. I think he is thinking here about the Far Right -- the ones who are prepared to say that imperialism was an unreservedly good thing and that trans people ought not to be allowed to go to the loo, and whose supporters are often nakedly racist and homophobic. But the result is the same. The moderates (Kier Starmer) are reluctant to push back against the Right's anti-immigrant, anti-trans rhetoric, so the only opposition comes from Young Radicals. But the Young Radicals scare everyone else off, meaning that the Right keep on winning elections. Which the Young Radicals secretly like, because they would rather be heroic martyrs than actually have to worry about the boring nuts and bolts of government. The Silly Right created the Culture Wars; the Sensible Left failed to oppose them, and the Silly Left have lept into the vacuum. And since the Silly Left are too silly too actually win the argument, the Right have victory handed to them on a plate. 

I don't know how true any of this is. I am, for example, intrigued by the idea that left-wing, Marxist politics are hopelessly old fashioned and mired in the past and at the same time especially attractive to the dynamic, new, young generation. If it is a bad thing to have old fashioned views on trains and trades unions, why is it kind of okay to have old fashioned views about transexuals?

Blair seems to agree with us recovering Corbynistas that Kier Starmer is hopelessly moderate, dull, weak and wet, and that he is failing to provide and intelligible response to the scary right wing agenda of Priti Patel and Nigel Farage. But that is not how the Centrists whose votes Blair wants perceive him. The Daily Mail call him hopelessly Woke for taking a knee during a black rights matter demonstration. A Tory MP described him as "prisoner of woke" during a serious debate in the Houses of Parliament. I think Starmer is boringly moderate; Blair's target audience think that he is terrifyingly left wing. 

I find it very hard to take seriously the idea that Greta Thurberg or the Colston Four are being radical for the sake of radicalism, and that if Kier Starmer had better policies about student loans and mortgages they would have been content to spend their evenings putting New Labour leaflets through their neighbours doors. 

There is room for more than one opinion about direct action: it may be that you shouldn't remove kitch Victorian statues of 18th century human traffickers from city centres, even when they have become the focus of nasty local nativist movements. These things are always better handled through process than through protest. I understand that you are cross about not having the vote, but tying yourself to railings and jumping in front of race horses only hurts your case. 

But I shudder, slightly, when I hear that behind the agenda of Black Rights Matter, Reclaim the Streets and Extinction Rebellion "lies an ideology that ordinary people find alien and extreme". What ideology lies behind these movements? One Daily Mail pundit thinks that they are working towards the destruction of "white society". Is this the kind of thing which Blair has in mind? 

But still, I do recognise the vicious circle that he is pointing to. The young are too extreme because the left are too moderate. The right are too extreme in response to the extremism of the left. The left can't provide an alternative to the extreme right, because they are too moderate. So the young become even more extreme to counter the extreme right. 

Starmer's moderation and the left's radicalism are both part of the problem. On this argument, the left need to dial it down and Starmer needs to turn the volume up. 

So: what is Blair's solution? How is this new scrub-it-out-and-start-it-again Labour Party going to look? 

Blair is not really a moderate or a compromiser. He may be interested in forming an alliance between New New Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but he isn't interested in a rapprochement between Corbynites and Millibandians. He is a populist. He sets about telling us what The People, or People or Ordinary People really want. 

A third of The People of Hartlepool wanted a Labour MP. A third of the People of the UK wanted Corbyn to be Prime Minister in 2019. (About forty per cent did so in 2017.) Nearly half The People voted to stay in the EU in 2015. Nevertheless The People are a homogenous lump who all speak with a single voice. I, a remain voting, Corbyn supporting, human rights advocating, pro-immigration, multi-cultural Old Labour Marxist am not one of The People. 

I do not, in fact, exist. 

"People", Blair says, do not like "their" country, "their" flag, or "their" history being disrespected. I think that we need to flip this round: Blair thinks that Old Labour and the Too Radical Young are inclined to be disrespectful about Britain, the history of Britain, and the Union Jack. He says that it does not follow that we can never acknowledge that Britain has done some Bad Things in the past: but in what other respect has anyone ever been inclined to diss this great country of ours? Do you hear the Left saying that the Lake District is not very pretty at this time of year, that Blackpool is not a great holiday resort, that Keats didn't write great poetry, that the Beatles didn't write great tunes and that Stevenson didn't invent steam trains? 

It is when I say that maybe Britain should be ashamed of the slave ships in the same way that Germany is ashamed of the concentration camps that I get called unpatriotic. It is when I ask if a black person with a slave heritage might feel about a medal called "Member of the Order of the British Empire" in the same way a Jewish person might regard a medal called "Iron Cross of the Gestapo" that I get accused of dissing my country. It is when I say that the guide books to national monuments ought to tell us the whole story about where they came from, whips and sugar plantations and all, that I am told that I want to erase, destroy, eradicate and rewrite our history. Either we join the the Right in celebrating Rhodes and Colston as great British heroes, or we accept the charge of being being unpatriotic, or we retire from the argument altogether. 

A cowboy and his comanche companion were in the bad-lands. "We're surrounded by Indians!" cried the cowboy. You know the punchline. 

Again, Blair tells us that "people" like common sense, proportion and reason. And so they do. Very probably they also like chocolate cake and bunny rabbits. But the flipside is that Blair thinks that The Left are unreasonable, inclined to overreact to things, and prone to act in ways which are contrary to common sense. 

"Whatever is contrary to common sense" is a frequent definition of Political Correctness. I don't know if Blair means it as a dogwhistle. David Cameron fought a nasty election campaign around the idea that lots of nasty right wing talking points were plain and simple common sense. Are you thinking what I am thinking of. 

He says that "people" like the police and they like the army. He says that the Left are allowed to criticise police and military conduct provided they do it without smearing -- Beelzebub, what a useful word! -- the organisation itself. The implication being, once again, that the Left do not like the police or the army, and that they are always seeking to smear soldiers in general and police officers in general. I suppose a small number of the radical left are pacifists and anarchists. Corbyn was misquoted -- smeared -- as saying that he would like to disband the British army, but what he had actually said was that he hoped one day wars would come to an end and no-one would have any need for soldiers. Again: any suggestion that a soldier tortured an enemy combatant or killed a civilian or that the police roughed up a suspect or fabricated evidence or provoked a riot or didn't treat the murder of a black person as seriously as they would have treated the murder of a white person will always be deemed by the Right to be a scurrilous attack on Our Brave Boys and Bobbies On The Beat. "Don't smear the police and the army" means "Stop going on and on about institutional racism and human rights abuses." 

Blair does say that defund the police is a silly slogan, and I probably agree with him.

This is an absolute play-book of the tabloid right wing. The Woke Mob hate England and the flag; the army and the police; they are politically correct; they take everything out of proportion. Blair's New New Labour party will not be like this parody of the Left. 

And now comes the bit where he says that the left-wing critique of the Moderates is partly fair, and lists ways in which Starmer could be more Radical.

Like hell he does. 

His parodic critique of The Left is the beginning an end of his analysis. 

He is refreshingly honest here. He doesn't say that Labour should support the police unreservedly, assert that slavery and empire were Good Things and deny that trans people exist because those ideas are right and true. Pretending to believe those things is -- he says this explicitly -- a tactic. To believe anything else is "electorally off-putting". The party who does not believe those things will "not win elections". 

"Let's pretend to be more racist so we can get into power and reduce carbon emissions by 2030" or "Let's throw trans people under the boss so we can massively tax Amazon and send twice as many people to college" might conceivably be the kinds of compromises that a politician needs to make. The gay and lesbian issue really did cost Kinnock dear among the pensioners. But Blair is long on the "let's do this bad thing..." part and very short on the " order that we may do this good thing" element 

"On cultural issues, one after another, the Labour Party is being backed into electorally off-putting positions. A progressive party seeking power which looks askance at the likes of Trevor Phillips, Sara Khan or JK Rowling is not going to win." 

Trevor Phillips was suspended from the Labour Party for anti-Islamic statements: he talked about Islam being a nation within a nation, and complained that the Muslims did not wear Remembrance Day poppies. Sarah Kahn's appointment by Theresa May as an "anti extremist Tsar" was criticised by some Muslims because of her connection with the governments Prevent programme which it was felt equated Islam with extremism. And J.K Rowling wrote a lot of shit fantasy books argued that someone born with a cock could never transition to being a woman.

I am not a hundred per cent sure what "look askance" means: I think it is a way of saying "You should not disagree with them" without quite saying that you agree with them. Blair thinks that "we" ought to have a debate. The question of whether Muslims are scary nation within a nation (as opposed to a minority religious group like Roman Catholics and, er, Jews); whether people who go to Mosque rather than Chapel are more likely to be terrorists than anyone else; and whether trans people even exist is the kind of thing that is open for discussion. 

Flipside: the Left think that the existence of transpeople and the idea that Muslims are just British citizen is something which is not open for discussion. 

"The Labour Party needs to push back strongly against those who will try to shout down the debate." 

Flipside: If you think that Muslims are not truly British and trans people don't exist, the Left will not let you speak. 

The Far Right are not prepared to say "Racism is good, actually" or "We hate trans people and want to abolish them" although that is clearly what some of them think. So they have adopted a strategy of making Free Speech the issue of the day. We are supposed to be scared of the Woke Left, not because they are against Racism, but because they won't let people who are in favour of racism have their fair say. We are supposed to be sympathetic to J.K Rowling, with her book contract and her fourteen million Twitter followers, not because she is right, but because no-one can hear what the poor woman is saying. 

The Left are intolerant of other views. The Left need to embrace the right of people to hold racist and anti-Islamic and anti-trans opinions. Presumably not anti-gay opinions and definitely not anti-Jewish ones. Not because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the way to win elections. The Labour Party, dissolved and reconstituted according to Blair's vision, would be the party of Peter Hitchens, Piers Morgan and the tabloids who drool and rant about the Woke Left.

If you say you want to go South, you will be shouted down. The most important thing is not to go North: it is to allow the people who want to go South to speak because if you look askance at them you will not win any elections.

Fuck! How the hell did we end up in Cape Town?


Thursday, May 20, 2021

Jeffcotism: The Foundation of 21st Century Thought (I)

Zechariah Jeffcott's destiny was determined at the age of five, when he heard his mother say to his father -- who had just said that it was universally agreed that the angles of a triangle added up to 180 degrees -- "Oh, that's because nowadays the geometry mob will vilify you if you dare to say they add up to anything else." 

"At that moment", Z. Jeffcott assures us "There flashed across my mind the great truth that behind every widely held opinion there is always a powerful elite systematically enforcing conformity and punishing dissent. The more widely believe something is, the more likely it is to be false."

That is how Jeffcotism became the foundation of 21st century thought. 

Over the next few days we are going to be looking at the fruits of his discovery. 


I ate a shepherd's pie last night. He was livid. 
      Thomas Cooper

On 23rd April (St George's Day) the Daily Mail published a recipe for spaghetti bolognaise. 

Nothing wrong with that. I quite like spaghetti bolognaise. 

But strangely, they published it as part of a political column, under the Jeffcotian headline: 

The woke mob can rant for all they're worth, but I'll keep adding Worcester sauce to my spag bol

Four years ago, an Italian chef, Antonio Carluccio, remarked that bolognaise sauce properly contained only meat, tomatoes, and wine: if it contained carrots and herbs, it's not bolognaise. He also thinks it should be served with tagliatelle rather than spaghetti. Three years ago, Nigella Lawson published a recipe for carbonara, which included cream as an ingredient. Some Italians on the Internet said that this wasn't how you made carbonara. Earlier this year, restaurant critic Jonathan Meades mentioned in a collection of old essays that he didn't think that authenticity mattered all that much: it was more important that the food tasted nice. So political writer Tom Uttley has decided it is his duty to publish a receipt for bolognaise sauce that includes Heinz tomato ketchup and Lee and Perins sauce. There comes a moment when everyone has to show the world which side they are on. 

Is there are valid point being made here? Yes, probably. 

Is it an interesting point? No, not particularly. 

Is the language in which Utley makes the point a fascinating and disturbing specimen of the ubiquity of Jeffcotism? Why else do you think I am writing about it?

Food criticism is indeed sometimes too proscriptive. Excellence is indeed more important than authenticity. A dish containing meat, vegetables, onions and spaghetti might very well be nice to eat, even though it is not a traditional Italian sauce. The pizza of New York is not the same as the pizza of Naples, but both are very nice to eat. When fish and chips is first mentioned in print -- somewhere in Dickens, I believe -- it is referred to as "Jewish style" fried fish and potatoes, but a hundred and fifty years later it is as English as, well, fish and chips.

False representation is a thing, and cultural appropriation is a thing. I probably ought not to advertise my shop as selling "authentic Italian cuisine" if I am not using Italian recipes and none of my staff have ever been near Italy. I certainly ought not to open a chain of restaurants festooned with Union Jacks and beefeaters claiming to be selling Authentic English Jerk Chicken. (And no, a diner full of green, yellow and black flags and pictures of Bob Marley selling "Authentic Jamaican Roast Beef And Yorkshire Pudding" would not be just as bad. That's not how it works.) But the only objection to a seaside landlady serving up mildly spiced mince with rice and (for some reason) sultanas is that it tastes disgusting. The fact that no-one on the Indian sub-continent would recognise it as curry is neither here nor there. 

I can see why chefs get annoyed when writers tell them how to cook. No artist likes a critic. "Why are you telling me how to paint?" they say "when you can't paint yourself?" 

Some consumers don't like critics either. "How dare you tell me that that is not a good painting?" they say,  "There is no such thing as a good painting, or a bad painting, there is only a painting which I like, and my opinion is just as good as yours. Why are you forcing me to read your column in the paper you have forced me to buy?" 

"When you have written a thousand page fantasy novel about wizards / run a busy Italian restaurant / sung Wotan at Covent Garden" they continue "Then you will be entitled to tell me that the book / pizza / singer was boring / burned / flat. But not before."

Those who can, do. Those who can't, write long learned articles in the Times about those who can.  

On the other hand, I recall a Thespian, possibly Sir Michael Hordon, saying that unlike some people in "the profession" he did read "the notices" because the critics went to the theatre every night ("poor bastards") and knew what they were talking about. To repeat myself: If I want to find a good middle-priced vegetarian restaurant; I would do better to ask Cecil, who eats out five nights a week but can't cook to save his life, than Joe, who hardly ever goes out but is widely regarded as the best pastry chef in the whole of Milton Keynes. I myself can point you in the direction of the best folk gigs in Bristol, even though I can't sing or play a single note. 

However, Tom Uttley turns this very obvious and uninteresting pushback against the preachy, proscriptive food critic  into a buzz-word bingo of Jeffcotian snarl words. 

"Before I write another word, I must issue a trigger warning to all culinary purists, vegans, opponents of cultural appropriation and others of a sensitive, woke disposition who are inclined to take offence at just about anything."

"Anyway, I can already sense the purists and politically correct leaping to condemn me for my sacrilegious treatment of goulash and bolognese." 

"The truth is that since the dawn of international trading, mankind has been culturally appropriating recipes, fashion tips, words, religions, artistic genres, scientific discoveries and economic and political systems from foreign societies. It’s only in this deranged modern world that fanatics have come to believe that adopting good ideas is a vile crime."

No-one has actually said anything is a vile crime, of course. It seems to me that a dish of minced beef, onion and gravy topped with mashed potato is pretty obviously not a "shepherds pie". If you wanted it to be a shepherds pie you would have made it with mutton. But no-one is claiming that being wrong on this point is or should be a criminal offence. 

At one time, most of the words in Uttley's Jeffcotian vocabulary had pretty clear meanings. A "trigger" meant something that could set off a PTSD episode, like a soldier having flashbacks to the trenches when he heard a motorbike backfire. "Political correctness" meant the avoidance of language which was demeaning to minorities. "Cultural appropriation" meant a more powerful or privileged group adopting the dress or religious symbols of a weaker or less privileged ons and presenting them as their own. 

People sometimes say neurotic" when they mean "worried" and "schizophrenic" when they mean "undecided". Jumping down the throat of every adolescent who says "that maths lesson triggered me" is about as helpful as pointing out that Frankenstien was not the name of the actual monster. But still: we are entitled to ask in what way might "using the correct ingredients of a meat dish" be analogous to "saying 'wheelchair user' rather than 'cripple'"? Why is Tom Uttley implying that "inventing you own version of a recipe" is somehow similar to "putting Jewish mystical symbols you don't understand on expensive designer jewellery"? 

Well, to be funny of course. But why would anyone find it funny? I am 90% certain that Boris Johnson doesn't really masturbate into the Union Jack. Well, 85%. But if I call him a "flagshagger", you reasonably infer that I think that he is patriotic in an exaggeratedly and slightly disgusting way, and that I think that performative nationalism is a bad and ridiculous thing. You could then write two hundred and fifty comments on my blog quoting facts and figures you have googled in order to establish that I am wrong to think that Boris Johnson is affectedly patriotic. What Uttley is doing is pretending (as a joke) that he thinks that the left are going to say that his recipe is a form of cultural appropriation. No-one has really said this, and no-one really thinks anyone is going to. But the joke wouldn't be funny if we didn't think that the left really do apply the word "cultural appropriation" to very trivial things: in fact, if we weren't assumed to agree that the whole idea of cultural appropriation is intrinsically ridiculous. 

I am fully on board with offensive jokes. The worse taste the better. One day I am going to write something in depth about Jimmy Carr. Jokes don't particularly have to align with my politics. I doubt if Ian Hislop put his cross in the same box that I did last Thursday. 

But jokes are not value neutral. Benny Hill really didn't approve of pedophilia. But the fact that he treated "dirty old men" as essentially funny figures tells us something about the prevailing attitude to sexuality in his day. The fact that we wouldn't make those jokes tells us something about ours. Carry On Camping and Jimmy Savile are part of one continuum. (So are John Barrowman and Noel Clark. Allegedly.) 

I see three possibilities. 

Perhaps Utley is consciously trying to defang these words: to render them unusable. When some very nasty Twitter thugs briefly attacked me for liking Jeremy Corbyn, having bad breath and wearing silly ties; one of their tactics was to claim that expressions like "I feel cross" was "triggering them" (because a: they were Jewish and b: one of their relatives had been killed with a crossbow.) They did not, of course, really believe that the word "cross" would cause a traumatic flashback. What they were doing was insinuating that that claim that the depiction of sexual assault in a literary work might cause a flashback in a rape-victim was just as silly as pretending to be triggered by the word "cross". 

So the tactic here is to imply that complaining about the ingredients of goulash would be just as silly as complaining about the use of the word "n*gg*r" or "sp*st*c". Since it would obviously be silly to accuse an English curry house of cultural appropriation, it is equally silly to complain about a white man who wears dreadlocks or a not-Jewish pop star who burbles on and on about the kabbala. Some entirely imaginary people might possibly claim that serving bolognaise with mixed herbs is cultural appropriation, therefore cultural appropriation does not exist. 

But perhaps he doesn't care what the words mean, or indeed, what any words mean. Political Correctness, Cultural Appropriation; Offence; Woke; Elite; Trigger; Modern; and Deranged are all simply synonyms for Bad Thing, or indeed, Double Plus Ungood. I contend that this article -- and indeed, every Daily Mail article -- makes a great deal more sense if you read it that way. 

The baddies can rant for all they're worth, but I'll keep adding Worcester sauce to my spag bol

Before I write another word, I must issue a warning to all baddies, nasty people, horrid people, and others of a silly, stupid disposition who are inclined to disagree with things that I like.

The hollowing out of political discourse is, in my view, double plus ungood; but it is very much what I would expect baddies and people I disagree with to be engaged in. The world is black and white; everything either gives you cancer or cures cancer. We can spot the bad opinions because they are believed in by bad people; we know which are the bad people because they have the bad views. If only we could deport, kill, or cancel the bad people then the world would become a good and happy place.

Words are not neutral. A different writer would have said that he fully expected the communists to object to his recipe; that he would carry on putting custard on his roast beef even though the papists would tell him not to; that he wasn't going to pay any attention to protestant heretics telling him how to cook. Different societies have different folk devils, which can be very uncomfortable if you are one of the folk devils that needs exorcising.

But there is a third, more alarming possibility. 

Perhaps Uttley honestly believes all this bullshit. 

Perhaps he expects his readers to believe it as well. Perhaps he honestly believes that everyone in the modern world (everyone apart from him) is literally mad. Perhaps he honestly believes that there is a more or less organised faction who want to tell him how to cook; and that adapting recipes is a serious act of political resistance. Perhaps he truly thinks that the statements "the slave trade was regrettable" and "you should cook Italian food the way Italians do" contain a similar quality called "political correctness" and that sinister forces will punish him for his dissent. 

 Perhaps he is a fully comitted Jeffcotian. 

There really is a Woke Mob, and it is coming for your spaghetti.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Back To The Future

Everything is different, but the same... things are more moderner than before... bigger, and yet smaller... it's computers...
        Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

"They keep on inventing new things nowadays, don't they, and making things lovelier and lovelier?" 
     H.G Wells "Things to Come". 

The times in which we live differ from all other times in two important ways. 

1: In the olden days things like machines and social institutions used to stay pretty much the same from generation to generation. But we use different phones from the ones our parents did, and our attitudes to sex and crime and religion are different from those of our grandparents. 

2: In the olden days, everyone was pretty much content with the way things were. But nowadays, people would like there to be more money, and they would like the money to be shared out more evenly. They think this would be a good thing. 

Some people would like the world to carry on getting better and better. But they are divided into three groups. 

Group A think that in order for the world to get better, we would have to make very big alterations to the way we do things. Unfortunately their ideas wouldn't work in practice. And the alterations they want are so big that people are scared of them. 

Group B also want the world to get better and better. And they have some ideas which might really work. But because they don't think that we need to make big alterations to the way we do things, they come across as very dull and no-one pays much attention to what they have to say. 

Group C have only come into existence recently. They also think that you have to make very big alterations to the way we do things in order to make the world better; but they think that those alterations are mostly to do with preventing the people who have most of the money from exploiting the people who do most of the work. People also used to think this a long time ago, which proves they are wrong. 

Some of the people who want the world to be better agree with group C. This unfortunately means that group B -- the ones who think that we should make the world better but not change too much -- have to pretend they agree with group C only not quite so much. (When Group C want to do something very silly indeed, the people from Group B do sometimes manage to stop them.) 

But all this does in the end is make the people who just want a little bit of change -- who are the overwhelming majority -- think that no-one cares about or agrees with them. So they join one of the groups who want to make the world worse.

This is why Labour lost the Hartlepool by-election. 

C.S Lewis said that all clergymen should have to do a translation exercise as part of their ordination exam: if you can't put an erudite passage of theology into ordinary language then you either don't believe it or else you don't understand it. This is why his religious books can come across as a little patronising and old-fashioned to modern ears. He plays the idea for not-particularly-subtle laughs at the end of his first science fiction book: the H.G Wells figure says things like: 

"But while I live I will not, with such a key in my hand, consent to close the gates of the future on my race. What lies in that future, beyond our present ken, passes imagination to conceive: it is enough for me that there is a Beyond." 

which the Christian philologist hero has to translate into the tongues of angels as: 

"He says that though he doesn't know what will happen to the creatures sprung from us, he wants it to happen very much." 

In this spirit, I attempted to translate a key passage from Tony Blair's New Statesmen essay into English. The original runs: 

"The progressive problem is that, in an era where people want change in a changing world, and a fairer, better and more prosperous future, the radical progressives aren’t sensible and the sensible aren’t radical. The choice is therefore between those who fail to inspire hope and those who inspire as much fear as hope. So, the running is made by the new radical left, with the “moderates” dragged along behind, uncomfortably mouthing a watered-down version of the left’s policies while occasionally trying to dig in their heels to stop further sliding towards the alienation of the centre." 

I made an honest attempt to attach meanings to words like "progressive" "moderate" and "radical left" and to work out what "an era when people want change in a changing world" could possibly mean. But I don't think that Blair himself could really say what they mean. I don't think that the essay goes into normal language. He doesn't understand it or believe it.


In Blair's world, the goodies are now called Progressives. "Progressive" encompasses both the The Centre and The Centre Left. The British Labour Party, the Lib Dems, and the American Democrats are all Progressives. The Right are still the enemy, of course, but The Left, the New Left, The Marxist Left and the Woke Left are also baddies because they will prevent the Progressive Centre getting back into power. 

Progressive is a weasel word. It might just be a synonym for Liberal. I might say that it is Progressive to think that gay people should be allowed to get married, and Conservative to think that they shouldn't. It might be used rather more widely: Progressives think that we can make the world better, as opposed to Conservatives, who think that it is just fine the way it is and Reactionaries who think it was better in the olden days. But the word is also bound up with the idea of Progress in technology and science; the idea that discovery and invention are constantly making the world lovelier and lovelier. We might use Progress to describe a genuine change for the better: but we might also use it to describe something which is regrettable, but inevitable. People used to die of diabetes; now it is eminently treatable. That's Progress. It's sad that we are going to cut down the forest to build a motorway: but the motorway represents Progress. You can't stop Progress. 

In power, Blair used "modernise" to mean "whatever is in my head right now". Schools and laws and hospitals were never merely changed or improved: they were always Modernised. (This meant that he didn't have to explain why his changes made things better: change was a good thing in itself.) The danger is that Progress in the scientific sense (we are making more and better machines) becomes merged with Progress in the political sense (we want to make everyone richer and happier) and then used rhetorically to justify any political change that you happen to feel like making. You may not like the idea of voter ID, but you can't stop Progress. If you aren't terribly careful you will find yourself saying that the Millennium Dome and the Iraq War must be good ideas because computers are so much faster and cheaper than they were twenty years ago. 

Progressives and The Left are now in opposition. Progressives believe that the world can be made lovelier and lovelier by science and technology; in contrast to Socialists, which thinks that the world can be made better through change to economics and the power structure. I, a Socialist, think that if the factory workers want a living wage, they should demand one, down tools, and refuse to work until the Boss agrees to give them a pay rise. You, a Progressive, think that if we build newer and better steam engines and warp drives, the factory will be making so many widgets that the management will be able to afford to double and triple everyone's pay (and will do so, out of the simple goodness of their hearts.) But he, a Conservative, thinks that if the workers want a living wage they should damn well work harder and buy a factory of their own. 

As an analysis, this is not intrinsically ridiculous. I know what a Progressive is, and I know that I am not one. You probably know whether or not you are a Socialist. The drawback is that for the first 90 years of its existence, Labour was definitely a Socialist Party. It had a little definition of Socialism on its membership cards. Before there can be a Labour Prime Minister, we have to admit that the party was predicated on a catastrophic error. 

"Wrong about everything for a hundred years -- vote for us anyway!" is not a great message. 

Blair thinks that technology might make the world a better place because it could increase freedom and opportunity. On the other hand, it might make the world a worse place by reducing those things. It's the role of the Progressives to make sure that the former happens and the latter does not. 

Freedom and Opportunity are two more dangerously vague and abstract words. So is Progress. Freedom to do what? The Opportunity to do what? Progressing towards what?

Twenty years ago a homosexual was not Free to get married in this country. Fifty years ago he was not free to have consensual sex. I don't think that science or technology caused his situation to change. I think that radicals -- the Loony Left  -- campaigned and argued and eventually won the argument because they were in the right. In this country, Muslim women are free to cover their faces if they want to. Some people think they shouldn't be. In France they do not have that freedom. In Saudi Arabia they are not free to leave their faces uncovered. We can have an argument about whether your right to dress as you like trumps my right not to be freaked out by people in weird clothes. But I can't see how any scientific advance affects the argument one way or the other. 

I can see in principle how a technological change could have a political and ethical implication. The contraceptive pill changed the way we behaved, and the way most people thought we ought to behave. You could plausibly argue that up to the 1950s it was immoral for a man to have sex with a woman he didn't intend to marry, because she would end up with a baby and he would end up on the next boat out of town; but nowadays there is no objection to it other than the purely prudish or religious one. If you said "Andrew, your belief that pre-marital sex is sinful is obsolete, redundant, a relic of a bygone era and a museum piece" I would understand what you were saying.

In so far as they mean anything at all Freedom and Opportunity tend to be buzzwords of the political right, not the political left. Conservatives tend to believe in Equality of Opportunity (everyone should have an equal shot at getting rich). Socialists tend to believe in Equality of Condition (everyone should have a good time even if they are poor). They don't think that everyone should have the same amount of money as everyone else (whatever the American internet may tell you) but they do think that the rich should be a bit poorer and the poor should be a bit richer. The Conservative says that the it is OK for the boss to have Rolls Royce provided the man sweeping the floor had a fair chance of owning his own factory one day. The Socialist says that we should take some of the money that the boss spends on smart cars and use them to set up a really good public transport system. The Progressive says -- what? That computers and the genome project will mean that it soon won't matter whether you have a car or not? That new technology will make Rolls Royces so cheap that everyone will be able to afford one? The pretty soon we'll have jetpacks so the question won't arise? A Socialist approach to technology would be one that asks how we could use it to make everyone more Equal -- in particular, how to make sure that everyone has equal access to the internet, say by giving everyone free wi-fi. But the word equality is not in Blair's political vocabulary. 

Compromise and moderation are good things. But Centrism always seems to mean "the left should become more like the right" and never "the right should become more like the left". I finds some of Blair's language quite alarming. Blair takes it for granted that Conservatives are proud of their country (and that this is a good thing) but that the Left are inclined to be ashamed of the whole idea of nations. And he speaks with apparent approval of The Right's championing of "flag, family and fireside". 

Freedom and opportunity. Flag, family and fireside. Traditional Values. Family Values. Back to Basics. We all know what this is right-wing code for. 

I am not completely sure if the technological changes that have happened in our lifetime really are the most significant since the invention of the steam train. I think that the two biggest shifts were the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century and the invention of television at the beginning of the twentieth. The Internet is the latest iteration of a mass media that has been evolving since 1922. I am not sure that Blair's talk of "a technology revolution of the internet, AI, quantum computing, extraordinary advances in genomics, bioscience, clean energy, nutrition, gaming, financial payments, satellite imagery " is a great deal more sensible than Boris Johnson's talk of pink eyed terminators and terrifying limbless chickens, and it's a lot less funny. And I remain to be convinced that computer games and satellite imagery have rendered Socialism obsolete in the way that the oral contraceptive pill (arguably) rendered Chastity redundant. 

Blair uses the idea of free university tuition (with scare quotes around the word free) as an example of something which used to be right but is now wrong. "Politically it is a museum piece, a lingering relic of an outdated ideology" he rambles. The argument seems to be that the idea of free education sprung from Marxism; Marxism is now out of date, so free education is out of date, so people should pay to go to college. 

But in what way is Marxism "out dated"? I don't want to hear Conservative arguments about why it is wrong. If it is wrong it was always wrong. I want to hear why the information technology has made it redundant. Does he mean anything more than "In the 60s, Marxism was fairly popular; now, not so much?" Or is there some sense in which Marxism was a good way of doing things in 1968 but a bad way in 2020? But in what way had Xbox III, Google Maps and Limbless Chickens rendered "from each according to his ability..." obsolete? 

If we believe in freedom and opportunity, then it follows that everyone who wants to go to university should be able to go to university: poverty and class should not be a barrier. 

There are other questions we might want to ask. Is education a good thing in itself, or are colleges merely one way to produce people who can fix computers and build bridges and perform heart surgery? Are universities centers of liberal wisdom or hotbeds of godless left wing book-learning? Are you better off getting a job at Apple and working your way up than taking you time getting a BSc in computer science? But granted that university is a good thing and that freedom and opportunity are also good things, then everyone who is clever enough to do the course ought to be able to study for a degree. 

The question is how we pay for it. Private fees and scholarships? State funded courses and maintenance grants? Student loans? Some other system which hasn't occurred to me yet? The answer depends on practical questions (what can we afford?) and moral questions (what is fair and just?) and social questions (what is good for the rest of the country?) If you think that education is a good thing in itself and that a country in which people have studied Proust and Quantum Physics and the life cycle of the mollusc lemur is a good country to live in, then you will be prepared to use tax money to finance higher education. If you see college in basically instrumental terms -- spend a few years studying to get a piece of paper which can be traded in for a better a job when you turn twenty five -- then you will think that students or their families should pay for it themselves. If you think that students are basically idle layabouts who drink too much then you'll be happy for college to be the province of kids with rich parents. The argument is very much the same as it always was. I don't see how gene sequencing or robot chickens effects it one way or the other. 

Yes computers are wonderful and science is wonderful. I had my Covid jab last week and the little wobbly line on the chart in the Guardian is going down every week. I take a little pink pill every day and my left leg happily remains the same size as my right leg. I can read obscure golden age Human Torch stories while sitting on the loo. If I want to. The internet has made online learning technically feasible: the Pandemic has normalized it to some extent. Of course that is something that the Minister for Education ought to be thinking about. "Now we have the possibility of Zoom classrooms, we ought to be looking at how to use them, and how to train teachers to use them" is a perfectly sensible thing to say. It is the idea that there is a distinctly Progressive way of doing remote learning -- and that this is different from the Old Left way of doing it, or the Conservative way of doing it -- that I struggle with. 

The Left used to talk about how the Eleven Plus and Streaming and the existence of private schools tended to mean that the children of middle-class parents were defined as "successful" by their school teachers, where the children of working class parents were judged to be "failures"; and that this made a nonsense of the whole idea of meritocracy. The Left are worried that black children might go right through school without reading a single book by a black author or encountering a single book about a black character. These discussions don't go away, or become less important, because we can now see our teachers on our IPads. Simply shouting "This is the future!" does not get us very far. 

Colstonians believe that flogging people and throwing them overboard would be wicked to day, but was really not wicked in the seventeenth century. Those of us who think that slavery was always out of order are condemned as Woke. That is what the word Woke means, I understand: the belief that you can judge the past by the standards of the present. Blair mentions Woke and Political Correctness in passing in the essay: the far-right press obediently responded to the dog whistle by running headlines about how the former Prime Minister had savaged wokery although that wasn't what the article was about. But maybe Blair really does have a Colstonian belief that morals and ethics mutate and change. Securing for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry really was The Good in 1901, but has really become a bad idea in 2021. He claims at one point that Clause IV -- the Labour Party's formal statement of its socialist principles -- was only ever a mechanism and that the mechanism is now obsolete but the underlying values have not changed. I can see how this could be true: the decent man in the 1950s abstained from pre-marital sex; but the decent man in the 1970s made sure he always had a packet of little rubber thingies in his wallet. His abiding value was that you don't make a woman pregnant if you can't or won't support the child; or more generally that you can't harm someone else for your own pleasure. Chastity and contraception were both mechanisms that enacted the same value. Not everyone would accept this: Christian might say "the risk of pregnancy is incidental: chastity is a Good Thing In Itself. A Socialist would certainly say "sharing the profits among the workers is not a means to an end: it is and end in itself, it is what we mean by the Good." It would help if Blair would say what the abiding values of Labour are; what values that he has in common with Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill (despite having a difference of opinion about the mechanics.)  But of course, he can't. 

I started out by trying to come up with concrete definitions of Blair's buzzwords. 

Progressive - Believing that the world ought to carry on getting lovelier and lovelier 

Radical - Believing that the world will only become lovelier if we make big changes 

Left - Believing that we need to make big changes to the economy and the power structure 

Centrist - Believing that the world can be made lovelier with only small changes 

Freedom - When everyone can do whatever they want to provided it doesn't harm anyone else 

Opportunity - When everyone has an equal chance to earn money and become rich. 

But the point of these words is that they cannot be tied down. The same goes for Woke and Political Correctness, of course. Blair specially says that he can't define them, but "ordinary people know exactly what they mean". I don't think ordinary people do know "exactly" what they mean; because I don't think they have an exact meaning. 

A better translation of Blair's word salad would have run as follows: 

"The problem with good people is that at a time when good people want things to be better; good people aren't sensible and sensible people aren't good. The choice is therefore between those who don't seem very good, and those who do seem good but who are also a bit scary. So the bad people do well, and the good people have to pretend to be a bit bad; while trying to stop the bad from being too bad in case the good all stop supporting them." 

Kier Starmer lost the election because he was not good. He will win the next election if he is better. I think that is a theory we can all get on board with.

The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.

The Screwtape Letters