3. The Activist

Carlos McKnight, Katherine Nicole Struck

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

In his younger days Pierre’s Tintinesque quiff had been quite famous. Now that his hair was markedly thinner it stood less proudly than it had done in its pomp. Nonetheless such as it was it was his and he was very fond of it. After making a few necessary adjustments to the cherished thing in the mirror he moved across the room and sat down opposite Étienne.

“Its very good of you to see me,” said the latter.

“Not at all,” said Pierre in his superficially jovial way “I’m always pleased to help research and, besides, I’m a big fan of Marianne and anyone recommended by her is welcome.”

“To begin then,” Étienne said “would it be fair to summarise your core mission as being ‘for equality, against discrimination’?”

Pierre had begun his career as a gay rights activist in those far off days when it was still possible to campaign for one sexuality at a time. He had nearly won an election to the legislature, he had spent a decade or so tormenting hapless Episcopalians and had finally morphed into what the media referred to as a ‘human rights campaigner.’ In this latter capacity he had shown some courage braving the wrath of dictators and their bodyguards at home and abroad.

“Yes. Thats rather good in fact. I might steal it for myself.”

“Feel free, I never claim copyright on my words. Mostly,” continued Étienne with a slightly rueful air “I admit, because no one has ever wanted to pay me for them. Anyway, be that as it may do you think that ‘for equality, against discrimination’ is the apple pie and motherhood of the current zeitgeist? No one who wants to be taken seriously can oppose these four words so even if they are resisting something which activists advocate they are forced to frame their arguments within the equality discourse.”

“Certainly its the common sense of our time. Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of history and the direction which progress is taking is pretty obvious. Although in many backward parts of the world this has yet to be realised so there is no ‘equality discourse’.”

“Let’s confine our attention to the West,” proposed Étienne “What scope do you see for individual conscience in, say, a country like ours where values and laws have changed dramatically since the 1960’s?”

“If by that you mean should bigots be allowed to discriminate on the basis of old fashioned religious beliefs then I see no scope at all. The law must be the same for all.”

“So, in the last analysis in a liberal democracy the State is the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, good and evil?”

Pierre began to look annoyed.

“I would prefer to say that the will of the majority of enlightened people is the final authority.”

“In a number of places,” Étienne countered “referenda or elections have resulted in decisions against equality and for discrimination. Do you oppose using the courts to overturn such expressions of popular will?”

“No, of course not. Discrimination should never be permitted.”

“Which brings us back to the State as the ultimate arbiter. If not the legislature then the executive if not the executive then the courts. But what if all three fail by your terms? Say that the law mandated a daily act of religious worship in schools, would you support the prosecution of teachers who refused to comply? Logically that is what ‘the law must be the same for all’ implies.”

“Certainly not, such a law would be an historical anachronism. It would be just a matter of time before it was overturned so prosecuting anyone under it could only be a malicious act by religious diehards.”

“It follows, then, that the judgements of history are superior to those of the State which in turn are superior to those of the individual. The supreme arbiters of right and wrong become those who understand the direction of the historical tide. To which high priesthood you so fortunately happen to belong.”

Pierre’s face darkened as it suffused with blood.

“You are simply being facetious,” he snarled.

“A little, perhaps, just a little. Anyhow, moving swiftly on. You used the word ‘progress’ a little earlier. To say that the world of humans has changed greatly is to state the obvious. To call this ‘progress’ contains an implication of direction and purpose. That is, change has been from bad to good, from good to better and ultimately it shall be from better to best. Is that a fair assessment?”

Slightly calmer Pierre nodded.

“I wouldn’t say purpose because that suggests a god of some sort but certainly we have progressed from less civilised to more civilised with the prospect of continued improvement ahead of us.”

“Leaving aside the question of what standard we use to measure ‘less’ or ‘more’ in relation to civilisation and how we happened to acquire that standard I would ask why, in the absence of a divinity, have we made this progress and not remained static or gone backwards?”

“Undoubtedly the growth in education and advances in science have made these gains possible,” Pierre seemed more assured now as if on familiar territory.

“What precisely is the necessary connection between increased knowledge about the structure of the atom, the ability to manufacture more consumer goods more quickly than ever before and a growth in equality?”

Pierre was about to scratch his head but, remembering his fragile quiff, desisted at the last possible moment.

“The more knowledge is spread the more people can see the absurdity of these outdated notions of inequality.”

“Hmm, I don’t see it myself. A lifetime spent in gaining knowledge about particle physics or in advertising techniques doesn’t automatically equip you to understand the inherent qualities of people whom you have never met. That requires empathy rather than knowledge surely. It seems to me more probable that the need of advanced capitalist economies to produce ever more goods and services and to have ever more consumers requires that previously excluded groups enter the market place in ever larger numbers in order to produce and to consume. Corporate capitalism needs equality so equality becomes what we get. But this is not of the kind which you activists expect or want but simply the equality of the drones.”

“As for your last point there may be something in that, but it is up to us to make a more humane world than the 1% want to create. When it comes to empathy that’s outside my sphere. You would need to talk to a spiritual leader like Pavel Colenso who is building up networks of kindness and gentleness in the world.”

“Yes, certainly the rise of spirituality without religion is an important aspect of the way our world is changing. I would very much like to be able to speak to Pavel Colenso.”

“Nothing easier,” said Pierre sensing an opportunity to get rid of this troublesome interviewer. “I know him well and can give you an introduction. I’m sure he would be delighted to see you.”

“Thank you,” smiled Étienne “I’ll take you up on that”


To Be Continued…

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2. The Newsreader


Marianne ran her fingers through the tightly curled black hair that surrounded the perfect oval face she presented to the world and crossed one elegant leg over another. Like all newsreaders she was employed because of her intelligence, education, articulacy and talent. Aesthetics, however, thought Étienne were always an unspoken factor in such appointments.

“Thank you for agreeing to see me,” he said.

“Not at all,” she answered “I’m always pleased to help research. Besides I’m a big fan of your brother’s work.”

Having a famous relative, Étienne had found, was something of a mixed blessing but it certainly could be worked to his advantage on occasion. He decided to open diplomatically.

“Do you see your work as having a purpose other than the mere reporting of facts?” he began “What I mean is that you are a citizen as well as a journalist and so you have a certain amount of obligation towards society at large in both capacities.”

“What a good question!” responded the newsreader without consciously intending to be patronising. “Yes, the maintenance of good order and the building up of a just and fair society are part of my responsibilities as a human being in this society at this time.”

“And how is that reflected in the way you report the news?”

“We don’t avoid  reporting things which may damage the fabric of society but we ensure that reports are sensitively worded and that constructive voices are always heard clearly while destructive ones are questioned closely.”

“That involves you having a positive vision of what society should be like going forward as well as what it actually is like at the moment doesn’t it? I mean, for example, that when interviewing or showing images of scientists, judges or soldiers you might show a disproportionately high percentage of women to act as role models and signposts to the future you would like to see,”

Marianne toyed with one of her earrings for a moment.

“Yes, I suppose that is so,” she replied “Equality is the direction of travel of our society. We are not reshaping it through journalism but we are at its cutting edge and that is reflected in the way we choose our subjects for interviews and discussion panels and so on. Not just women of course; in our multicultural, multiethnic world we need to show all the diversity which exists and which will increasingly replace the old stale monocultural and male dominated world of the past.”

“You think that equality of opportunity necessarily leads to equality of outcome?”

“If the playing field is level yes. Why wouldn’t it?”

Étienne rubbed his nose with the palm of his hand. It seemed to him that the time to edge away from diplomacy had arrived.

“The playing field is never going to be level,” he said didactically “The barriers to success in this country are not necessarily those put up consciously or unconsciously by the country itself. They may have a prior existence in the minds and desires of individuals or communities who have no wish or intention to succeed in the terms which society ordains for them to aspire to. Some sub-cultures may put a premium on family or collective advance over individual achievement for example. And/or many women might put a higher priority on parenthood than on career because their experience of becoming and being a parent has a radically different root from that of men. What I mean is that equality of outcome requires not only a level playing field but also a uniform understanding of what constitutes success or failure. You can have diversity or you can have uniformity but you can’t have both.”

Marianne gave her hair another pummelling.

“I see what you mean,” she said hesitatingly “but I’m not clear what you would like me to do about it?”

“Neither am I really,” Étienne was nothing if not candid “I do think though that you need to bear in mind that being on the cutting edge doesn’t guarantee that you are slicing away in the right direction. In fact, if you are headed in one direction and society beyond the confines of its leaders and teachers is heading in another you may not only fail to accurately report it but actively antagonise it and set up the conflicts which you are seeking to avoid.”

Marianne felt she was on firmer ground now

“Essentially, you are accusing the mainstream media of liberal bias, isn’t that so? The only people that criticise us more heavily than the Right is the Left so I think we must be doing our jobs well.”

Étienne frowned.

“It’s not really that straightforward. There is no doubt that most broadcast journalists in your position go out of their way to be scrupulously fair. The problem is that the concept of ‘fair’ is not in itself unproblematic. It possesses itself of all sorts of assumptions not all of which are necessarily accurate or uncontested. Take for example your coverage of attacks by jihadis which is the thing which prompted my interviewing you today.”

Marianne bridled, ready to take offence at the drop of a hat

“What about our coverage?” she said defensively

“As I see it,” Étienne began “A conscious decision is made by your organisation when an atrocity is committed by someone pledged to Islamic State and shouting Allahu Akbar. In order to be fair to the vast majority of Muslims in the West who are peaceful and law abiding you decide to put a wedge between them and the terrorist. To do this you begin by not reporting anything which cannot be verified and locked down as certain fact. Which means that, for example, you say that the motivation for the attack is ‘unclear’ or ‘unknown.'”

“Now, it is perfectly possible to justify this approach on purely journalistic grounds, only reporting facts not speculation. However, what your viewers know and what you know is that you do not adhere to this policy on every single story. Where violence involving sports fans or vandalism at an abortion clinic are the matters in hand then you are much less rigorous, allowing a narrative to emerge from the testimony of witnesses and interested parties at an early stage in your reporting. By contrast the narrative of an Islamist atrocity only filters out days or weeks later when government or police sources make official statements.”

“Clearly an editorial decision is being made that fairness to innocent Muslim citizens and social cohesion are high priorities whereas that does not apply to, say, sports fans. Now it is perfectly possible to justify such an approach. It may even, for all I know, be the best possible thing to do. What is more difficult to justify is concealing or denying that this is what you are doing as a deliberate choice based on your assessment of the needs of society as a whole rather than simply upon the news value of a particular story as it presents itself to you.”

Marianne leaned forward and spoke earnestly

“So, what you’re saying is that our editorial policy needs to be more transparent. That with some reports we should flag up our reasons for reporting it in a particular way. In theory, it’s not a terrible idea but in practice we need to keep things as simple as possible. There is only so much complexity our general audience can handle. If we go into too much detail about our process they might tune out and miss the actual news itself.”

Étienne looked sceptical.

“What you are really saying is that in order to protect Muslims you have to protect the image of Islam because it is too complex for your viewers to differentiate the two things. Therefore you distance Islamic State killers shouting Islamic slogans and quoting from the Quran from Islam itself by saying that their motivation is not known. A while later when all the shock, horror and outrage has died down you can admit that Islam is a factor but only when you have captured enough images and quotes of condemnation from Muslim leaders and members of the public to balance the news.”

“In The Republic Plato suggests that the Guardians of society should tell a Noble Lie which will have the effect of leading the public to behave in more moral and virtuous ways than would be the case otherwise. You, the media, are in effect acting as Guardians today. Unfortunately for your strategy however the public now simply disbelieves your Noble Lie. When an incident happens they not only assume that Muslims are behind it they further assume that the authorities are engaged in the business of covering up for them. This does not lead to a lessening of community tensions but a sharp upward spike in them. Worse than that is the associated belief that if you are covering up for one minority you are likely to be covering up for others so visible minorities of all kinds get viewed less favourably.”

“In seeking to make things better you run the risk of making them worse. The people do not understand what is really happening, because you do not report it, neither do they believe the Noble Lie any more because multiple experiences contradict it. What you create is a population who are alienated from the authorities who lie to them, angry at being deceived and suspicious of minority groups whom they perceive as being unjustly favoured.”

Marianne looked a little shell shocked.

“There may be something in what you say. We can’t control how people interpret the news we broadcast. It is right for us to apply the highest standards to the most sensitive issues and, yes, we do have to make a judgement about what is or is not highly sensitive. What you overlook though is that the society to whom we report is not itself a static thing. The prejudice and Islamophobia which allows people to misinterpret things in the way which you suggest is being challenged all the time not by the media as such, it is outside our remit, but by social activists like Pierre Lethatch. They change the climate of the public opinion and can correct the errors of those still trapped in the bigotries of the past.”

“Yes, activists do play a crucial role in how this society is changing under the challenges it faces,” conceded Étienne “I would like to speak to Mr Lethatch if I could”

“Nothing easier,” said Marianne sensing an opportunity to get rid of this troublesome interviewer “I know him well and can give you an introduction. I’m sure he would be delighted to speak with you.”

“Thank you” smiled Étienne, I’ll take you up on that.


To be continued…

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1. The Journey Begins


A priest had been murdered. The killers shouted Allahu Akbar before cutting the old man’s throat as he knelt by his altar.

The motive for the attack,” intoned the newsreader with apparent sincerity “is not yet known.

Étienne rubbed the tip of his nose with the palm of his hand, a characteristic gesture when he was perplexed. Was a refusal to name truth when it danced naked in front of your eyes the sign of an irredeemably decayed society he wondered. Restlessly he walked to the window and looked out at the Gurdwara and Polish owned shop across the road. They were fixed points in his ever changing neighbourhood and he rather liked them. The Sikhs gave out free hot meals to those who were hungry and Étienne was glad that they were there just in case he might one day be in need himself.

This refusal to say on Day One what even a particularly dull six year old knew had to be admitted by Day Three or Four did not spare Muslims from one jot or tittle of suspicion or fear. What it did was add to it a belief that the powers-that-be conspired against the public to cover up crimes committed by minorities, a belief which was ultimately as harmful to Sikhs, Poles and others like them as it was to Muslims. It was a wholly futile exercise.

Besides, he remembered the day when planes had fallen out of American skies killing thousands, and other days when Australian tourists, British commuters, French journalists and Parisian Jews had died by bomb or bullet. Had these events led to rioting mobs committing pogroms and exacting a vicious ‘revenge’ from innocent Muslims for the crimes of their guilty brothers? No of course not, but the authorities continued to give the impression, rightly or wrongly, that they were more concerned to prevent hypothetical backlashes than actual murders.

Murder. Étienne’s mind circled back to the image of the old priest kneeling in peaceful adoration before his God as his throat was slashed open by men invoking their deity. He knew that the shock and horror he felt would be echoed in Temple and Mosque, Synagogue and Church, winebar and lecture room. The revulsion would be at least as widespread as it had been for all the other atrocities and still they kept happening. Was Western society so denuded of intelligence that it could not find a way both to defeat this horrible conspiracy of wickedness and cherish the heterogeneous societies that the modern world inevitably created? Did ineffectual efforts to pretend that ‘the motive is not yet known‘ in incident after incident really represent the peak intellectual response of a tired civilization devoid of the energy to even name a truth yet alone by opposing so end it?

Rubbing his nose more vigorously than ever it occurred to him that he was mirroring his societies failures within himself. Asking questions which never got answered, half-glimpsing truths but declining to think them through. More was required if the needs of the times were to be addressed. But what did this ‘more’ consist of? Either someone somewhere already knew the answers or else Étienne would have to work them out for himself. Perhaps there were none and simply drifting along until the wyrd of the epoch had worked itself out was all that could be done.

No, his human urge for teleology was too great. There just had to be a comprehensible direction of travel. And what could be understood in human affairs could be changed. Étienne came to a decision. He would understand and then he would speak. No doubt he would be ignored but his mission, it seemed to him now, was simply to warn. If the wicked world refused to turn from its wickedness and be saved then the fault lay with the warned not the warner.

Where to begin? ‘The motive for the attack is not yet known.’ The palpable nonsense which had set of this train of thought echoed once more through his head. The newsreader’s air of conviction when delivering this absurdity could not have sprung from a belief in its truth. Perhaps she sincerely believed in the Noble Lie which underlay it. Étienne knew that it must be such a lie but what its full purpose was he could only partly guess. That, he decided, was where to begin. He would meet the newsreader, Marianne Lafranc, and ask her to tell him what it was she thought.


To be continued….

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The picture is of Father Jacques Hamel painted by Moubine a believing Muslim.

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Think Philosophical, Act Local

who wants to change

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it  (Karl Marx, 11th Thesis on Feuerbach)

This thesis of Dr Marx is accurate so far as it goes I would however propose to alter its ending, thus-

“The point, however, is to change oneself and then the world for the better.”

The idea of philosophy as a discipline which changes the philosopher as a prelude to her philosophising has been largely lost over the past several centuries. The prevailing philosophical method is to cast oneself as an objective observer of an objective world or cosmos. This involves creating a degree of intellectual detachment from oneself as a subject; and from a universe populated by subjects.

While this certainly constitutes a form of self-discipline it has two fundamental flaws from the perspective of what we might call the classical philosophical method. Firstly it is erroneous to think of humans as objects. Each individual human adult is a unique subject. Arguably human collectives could be regarded as objects but this would be at best an hypothesis and acting upon it as if it were an incontrovertible fact is a profoundly unphilosophic thing to do.

More to the point for the purposes of this blog such detachment is a purely mental exercise. No philosopher can make themselves so dessicated that they become purely thinking machines. The whole person is involved to a greater or lesser extent in everything which we do. Therefore I would suggest that dispassion is a better stance to adopt than intellectual detachment. This is not a distinction without a difference but a radically different approach.

To become dispassionate is to struggle against oneself and therefore to know oneself in a more profound way than if no such struggle had taken place. Giving over the initial part of philosophical training to the exercise of becoming dispassionate is to move the subject out of the realm of pure academic theorising into the realm of practical transformation. One becomes aware of the surges and tides of the emotions, that is, one recognises both the power they possess and their transient nature. The student discovers also the limitations of the passions, they are beatable, and their persistence, they do not ever fully depart from us. Equipped with such knowledge as well as the skill of dispassion one is in a better position to start to enquire into the fundamental questions of philosophy.

If the conceit of contemporary thinkers is that, by virtue of their detachment, they view the world from a position outside of it then the corresponding conceit of a dispassionate observer would be that their perspective is outside of time. The passions of envy, avarice, anger, gluttony, lust and so on are all products of the phenomenal universe, they come into existence, endure for a time and then pass away. Conquering them necessarily involves a heartfelt (as opposed to merely intellectual) comprehension of the impermanence of everything which we can know and experience by normal means. The dispassionate philosopher, then, reflects on everything not with a view to its existence as an object of study but with a view to its frailty as a subject which will cease to be.

The mini-revival of Stoic thought and the apparently growing appeal of Buddhist and Vedantist practices among some Western intellectuals, university graduates and students is, I think, an indication that there is an unmet need among those exposed to current academic approaches. People might be willing to detach themselves from themselves if they have faith that the process will lead, ultimately, to greater understanding. It becomes, however, harder and harder to acquire this faith the more that academic philosophy loses itself in labyrinthine speculations about words and meanings.

And here we come to the for the better part of my proposed addition to Marx. While classical or oriental approaches may lead one to be a transformed observer of the world and the struggle to become dispassionate helps one to be compassionate also towards those still caught in the toils of the samsaric world these things do not naturally promote social activism. What is needed is a philosophic approach which both encourages the acquisition of dispassion and a transformative involvement in the world aimed at improving most the lives of those who suffer the most. Or, to put it another way, we need a philosophy which incarnates itself in the sufferings of the world and works to redeem them. The question is, where could we find such a philosophy?



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The painting is Christ of St John of the Cross by Salvador Dali


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Tolerance & Indifference


29 May 2007, London, England, UK --- Londoners wait for an subway in central London. Known for it its frequent delays, engineering works and cancellations, the tube challenges the patience of the Londoners who greatly depend on it.  --- Image by © Andy Rain /epa/Corbis

Tolerance is one of those words which have changed meaning over the course of the last half century or so. Formerly it essentially meant putting up with a thing which you didn’t really like but which getting rid off would cause more problems than it was worth. Now it is used to mean accepting a lifestyle/culture/religion/community as being worthy of respect and of equal value to every other lifestyle/culture/religion/community. In it’s new guise tolerance has become perhaps the defining civic virtue of contemporary Western societies.

To an extent this is simply making a virtue out of a necessity. Global economic inequalities combined with absolutely rapid and relatively cheap long distance transport inevitably leads to huge population movement. As a consequence wealthier societies cannot help becoming more and more heterogeneous.  More subtly the instantaneous transmission of ideas around the world allows for communities of, say, Buddhists in Chipping Norton or Zoroastrians in Peoria to spring up overnight after a charismatic person is converted via the internet. This prompts old style tolerance but since it would be manifestly impolite to say so to the new minorities it is rebranded as something more positive.

Another strand, however, exists to new tolerance which is relativism. This holds that the different ways of being human are all equally valid because there is no absolutely correct way of living universally applicable to all. More precisely, it holds that the dominant Western paradigm of the last several centuries, that Christian beliefs and moral values are normative, is oppressive of freedom and that tolerance is a weapon which can dissolve this consensus by the expedient of creating a patchwork coalition of minorities which adds up to a majority. As a strategy (unconsciously followed in most cases) it has been remarkably successful. Any argument which suggests that there is an hierarchy of ways of being human with some ways, the more Christian-like, as being objectively superior to others is decried as intolerant. Since tolerance is the characteristic civic virtue of our times intolerance necessarily is its evil opposite which civic society is invited to drive out of the public square with execrations ringing in its ears.

This is the raw material for many of the culture warriors of our epoch to fight over. I would argue however that these conflicts absorb the attention and energy of small minorities of activists who are misled into proclaiming victories or defeats because public indifference is interpreted as tolerance. The one thing, indifference, can act as an effective simulacrum for the other, tolerance, but  is a wholly different phenomenon. It proceeds from apathy so that it neither cares enough to feel irritated in an old fashioned way by a lifestyle/culture/religion/community but tolerate it anyway nor does it positively respect such lifestyles/cultures/religions/communities. It fundamentally doesn’t care.

It appears to me that among those sections of the Western population that have been settled in the same country for, say, five or more generations indifference is the new normal. By this I mean that they may be passionately concerned about themselves, their nuclear family, their friends, their work and their favourite sports club but beyond that they simply shrug their shoulders in unconcern. Not only do they feel nothing much about people with different lifestyles/cultures etc they often know little and care less about their near neighbours who share the same lifestyle/culture as themselves. This, I think, is tied in with the long slow auto-genocide of these populations by abortion, contraception, divorce and the adoption of necessarily sterile relationships. In short the, for want of a better word, native populations of the West have reached the end of their long creative phase and having run out of energy are dying of apathy.

This is not a new thing nor necessarily a bad one. Very often in the past civilisations have succumbed to internal languor and external invasion only to emerge in modified form re-energised and reinvigorated by new blood and the fusion of new ideas and ways of doing things with the old. Europe in particular has faced a series of invasions from the East which have first destroyed before rebuilding Western society and culture. What is novel is that today the infusion of new blood is not accompanied by fire and sword. Western countries are being renewed from within by peaceful incomers who possess the energy, fertility and communitarian outlook which their hosts are dying for the lack off. A recent study in England and Wales, for example, has shown that one in four new babies have foreign born mothers. This is hugely disproportionate to the percentage of migrants in the country and indicates that native and incoming populations have fundamentally different ways of viewing the world and what is important in it.

Very often when we talk about the success of migrants the focus is upon their individual effort and entrepreneurial spirit. Beneath this though are generally strong family bonds and community solidarity from which individuals benefit and in return for which they invest their gains in strengthening those families and communities. Simple and ancient values which Western native populations have become too atomised, tired and indifferent to practice. Almost invariably, though, these values are associated with an absolute standard, an assessment that some ways of being human are objectively superior to others. Usually this is based upon a religious belief.

It follows, then, that those cultural relativists who are promoting the new tolerance as a way of undermining one paradigm, based upon Christian belief, are preparing the ground not for a state of normlessness but for a new paradigm also based on religious belief. The vigorous, communitarian, religious and fruitful incomers will not be converted to Western values by an actively tolerant and welcoming society they will be left to get on with it by an apathetic and indifferent one. And this ‘getting on with it’ will lead to huge societal change and, I suspect, a total defeat of relativism. What is likely to emerge, out of necessity, will be societies based on old-style tolerance. That is, people will hold that there is an hierarchy of rightness and wrongness and that they are sitting at the top of it but that they need to accept the existence of rival notions because co-existence is preferable to all other options. It is not offensive to be told that you are wrong, it is only offensive to lack the freedom to respond in kind. Peacefully competing visions of truth are a sounder and livelier basis for society than a tolerance born of relativism or an indifference born of existential weariness.


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The picture is from a photo essay on the London Underground

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The Structures-A Poem

offshore windmills

We chanced upon them

In the early morning.

One lay, crazily tilted,

At an impossible angle.

The others, white and upright

Stood in their curved straightness.


Above us broken blades thrummed

Struck by constant sea-breeze buffets.

Why, we asked, did they-

Our long dead forebears-

Why did they build these things

Here in the wild free ocean?


Did they seek to honour

The gods of wind and tide?

Or were they hurling defiance

At nature? Building what storm

Could not destroy. (Nothing,

We said, will defeat time.)


Well, the structures had survived;

Wind and tide remained,

But they, the builders, had

Long departed, names forgotten

Purposes unknown, carried away

In hurricanes of human anger.


Our wise-woman pondered

These things (it was her way)

Man proposes but God disposes

She said. Greed destroys

What vanity builds and

Wisdom comes too late to save.


The folly of construction puzzles us

The folly of destruction is nearer to our heart

We will repeat their foolishness because

Already we have forgotten it.

Our business gave us no time to linger

For we carried important messages.


From the Holy Father in Rome.


(Acknowledgements- Thanks to @CatholicEcology who tweeted the picture, to Edwin Muir for his poem The Horses and to Thomas Babington Macaulay for his New Zealander in London between them they inspired this poem. The failures in execution are all my own work.)

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Plato, Kipling & Safe Spaces

soviet propaganda poster muslim women

(Trigger warning- this post mentions without condemning Rudyard Kipling, a Dead White Man)

In one of his poems, The Disciple, Kipling wrote-

HE THAT hath a Gospel
To loose upon Mankind,
Though he serve it utterly —
Body, soul and mind —
Though he go to Calvary
Daily for its gain —
It is His Disciple
Shall make his labour vain.

Although couched in Christian terms and first published at the end of his story The Church that was at Antioch clearly the author had a more universal application of the principle in mind. This is shown by the final verse which references both Islam and the religions of India-

He that hath a Gospel
Whereby Heaven is won
(Carpenter, or cameleer,
Or Maya’s dreaming son),
Many swords shall pierce Him,
Mingling blood with gall;
But His Own Disciple
Shall wound Him worst of all!

The point is a simple one which is that visionaries and pioneers have their hopes wrecked most of all by their successors. That which drives people to create great movements such as the world spanning religions or the great ‘isms’ of the 19th and 20th centuries- Socialism, Communism, Zionism, Nationalism, Fascism etc etc- is the internalising of some partly seen glimpse of one of the Platonic ideals. That is, an Idea in its perfect abstract form is seen and then an heroic attempt is made to make that form a lived reality here upon earth.

Such revolutionary impulses are something of a mixed blessing since all too often they contain strong procrustean tendencies and merrily proceed to hammer rough edged human pegs into ideally shaped smooth holes. The advantage which they sometimes bring is that caught up within the scope of the grand vision are a myriad of lesser issues which touch upon vital matters of ordinary life and great changes for the better occur during the process of the long march towards the New Jerusalem. Whether Fascism is a price worth paying to get the trains to run on time or Communism to achieve universal literacy in Russia is of course another question.

The Soviet experience, indeed, is an instructive one. The Lenin’s, Trotsky’s, Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s, a generation of deep thinkers and sharp debaters, were succeeded by the dull and pedestrian minds of Stalin and his acolytes. Leaving aside the historical peculiarities of 1920’s Russia we could generalise that the attempt to impose an ideal vision into the interstices of daily life for millions of people requires a focus on the banality of the every-day and only banal minds can or will perform this task. If one reads, as I did in my misspent youth, the debates and speeches at Soviet and Comintern conferences one is struck by the way that years of genuine argument about ideas and underlying principles is succeeded by unanimity and an abandonment of intellectualism. The process has happened, I think, so often in history that one is justified in thinking, as Kipling clearly did, that it more or less amounts to a universal law (unless human frailty is overcome through divine assistance as, I believe, is the case with the Catholic Church.)

So, what has all this to do with safe spaces? One of the phenomenons of recent years has been that students activists have made two significant demands. They seek to exclude from debate and discussion, to ‘no-platform’ in the jargon, those whose views they deem to be grossly offensive and, since this can never be 100% successful, they also try to create safe spaces where no unpleasantness may ever by any chance occur. Among those whom they aim to no-platform are often pioneers of the very ideas which the students endorse, people such as Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell and others of that generation. This is an experience which the Danton’s and Trotsky’s of history would recognise. In one sense it means that the revolution has been won. The feminists, LGBT activists, social liberals and cultural marxists of the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s have made their ideas a part of the social, legislative and intellectual framework of the Western world.

The downside of this for those who support these ideas (and I don’t) is that leadership has now passed into the hands of the Kiplingesque disciples. Unanimity is sought, intellectualism is cast out, banal minds regurgitate half-digested ideas which they have passively accepted not arrived at through ratiocination or debate. The ground, in fact, is being cleared for the revolution to defeat itself. The question is what legacy will it leave? There is much, amid the idiocies of current student politics, that is worth salvaging out of the vision of the pioneers, that women’s status and viewpoint are never secondary considerations, that people should not be persecuted merely for their sexuality and so on. This legacy question is as important for us as the “what happens next?” question and it is up to us to answer both of them. And, also, to hope that we are never cursed by having disciples.


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The picture is a Soviet propaganda poster from the 1920’s aimed at Muslim women



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