Friday, 21 January 2022

Am I a canceller? Free speech, institutional boundaries and healthy academic culture

Last year an old friend of mine gave me a book for my birthday. Not an unusual occurrence; but this relatively short and conversational volume has kept bouncing around in my mind over the last few months. It was written by an American academic named Zena Hitz and is called Lost In Thought: The Hidden Pleasures Of An Intellectual Life. It is an endearingly enthusiastic and unashamedly personal paean to “the life of the mind”, i.e. wide and deep reading, careful thought and contemplation, serious conversation, and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding.

The gift was well chosen. This was partly because, although the friend in question is not quite on the same page as me politically or philosophically, we are united in our belief in the value of open discussion and friendly disagreement. But in addition, the book caused me to partially reconsider my position on a topic which hardly ever seems to leave the headlines nowadays: the meaning and significance of free speech.

Last November saw the announcement of the University of Austin – a planned new private university, based in Texas. Its founders, including high-profile names such as Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, intend it to be an oasis of free inquiry and open debate amid a desert of censoriousness, groupthink and political dogmatism.

I’m instinctively sympathetic to such a project. Only the most obtuse or dishonest of observers would deny that recent years have seen a clear narrowing of the limits of acceptable opinion in many areas of public life. You can call this cancel culture if you like; it doesn’t really matter. What is important is not the name we give to the phenomenon, but the phenomenon itself, and so I can quite understand someone wanting to pursue their discipline in an institution where they can be confident of minimal ideological interference with their research, teaching or public statements.

Thursday, 24 June 2021

A conservative case for a black Anne Boleyn


Anne Boleyn was not black.

The Boleyns were old East Anglian gentry, servants to the Crown, prosperous merchants, clerics. They had been prominent, in a quiet way, for more than two centuries before their entanglement with Henry VIII’s dynastic troubles led to their downfall. Families like them - embedded in their localities but also plugged into national and even international networks of power and influence - were the administrative backbone of late medieval England. One thing they were not was African. It is noteworthy, then, that the part of Anne in a recent TV drama went to the black British-American actress Jodie Turner-Smith.

This casting decision has been in and out of the news for a year or so now, and the responses have been fairly predictable. Progressives rejoiced at a victory for diversity and inclusion against the sinister forces of bourgeois reaction and latent racism; conservatives protested against what they saw as a historically nonsensical casting that would render the entire programme ridiculous.

I do feel an instinctive sympathy with objections to the progressive attempt to project present-day multiracialism into the past, a clear object of which is to neuter objections to twenty-first century demographic change by falsely implying that ‘twas ever thus (it very much wasn't, as I showed in a 2016 post).

Until the mid-twentieth century, the number of people in Britain from non-European ethnic minority backgrounds was extremely small – far below one per cent of the population. Historians such as Professor David Olusoga (Black And British: A Forgotten History) have done valuable work in highlighting the neglected experience of ethnic minority Britons in earlier eras than our own. Nevertheless, however fascinating the individual stories, the tiny numbers mean that their broader historical significance was generally minimal. 

It matters that we properly understand the history of ethnic minorities in Britain. The alternative, at a time when a principle US export is racial neuroses, is that Britons of all colours come to see the UK race relations experience as more or less akin to that of the USA, i.e. a single numerically significant minority enduring long and systematic oppression and civic exclusion, enforced by brutal and constant state violence.

But their history is not ours.

Without wishing to minimise the racial prejudice and racial violence that has existed and continues to exist in Britain, it is quite unlike the American experience. The USA saw literally thousands of racially motivated lynchings of black people during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; there was nothing remotely comparable in Britain during the same period. By and large ethnic minority Britons are people who have freely chosen to come and live here, or whose parents and grandparents did; in the USA millions upon millions of African-Americans are the descendants of slaves. Britain has sometimes treated minorities poorly but has never had legally enshrined racial segregation and there have never been formal racial bars to voting or other forms of civic participation (the first Indian to sit in the House of Commons, Dadabhai Naoroji, was elected for a London seat in 1892 and was permitted to swear his oath of allegiance on the Zoroastrian holy book). There is a fascinating book about the Second World War in Britain titled When Jim Crow Met John Bull, which explores the culture clash between the racially divided US Army and the frequently – though not invariably – more easygoing British civilian population.


All that said, I do think there is a conservative argument for colourblind casting in historical dramas, even if it is initially jarring to see a prominent English person from times past played by someone of non-European ancestry. And yes, I do know that these kind of casting decisions are often taken by media types to own the cons and get a controversy going in a bid to improve their viewing figures.

I’m still working this through in my mind, so take this as the barebones of a possible argument, not a settled impregnable position. But I think it comes down to a dilemma: what will hold Britain together in the years to come? Is there any prospect of maintaining a trusting, orderly, peaceful society despite historically unprecedented demographic change? Most Western countries are staring down the barrel of this problem in some form or another, whether explicitly or implicitly, scrabbling around for some idea of what their country is about, what it is for.

There are a number of things which might form the underlying bedrock of a social order. I am not saying this this is an exhaustive list but the main possibilities, it seems to me, are these:

Monday, 25 January 2021

The Royal Oak (with apologies to George Orwell)

Shortly after the Second World War, George Orwell wrote a paean to his ideal London pub, in an essay called The Moon Under Water. The titular tavern did not exist - it was a composite, a fantasy, a dream. But Orwell described it beautifully and memorably all the same. 

I rather fancied trying my own hand at a similar exercise, focusing on a rural inn, especially in these strange days of shuttered pubs and social distancing. So here it is - The Royal Oak...

The Royal Oak is a little outside the centre of the village, within walking distance of any house in the parish. It sits just beyond a small but picturesque area of woodland that screens out most of the traffic noise from the annoyingly busy main street. It is set back from a quiet and little-frequented road, a few steps up, with a tidily-kept lawn at the front. In spring and summer this lawn is set with wooden picnic benches.

Saturday, 26 December 2020

In praise of an old-fashioned hero

“I'll tell you how l feel about Prohibition. lt is the law of the land.”

So proclaims Eliot Ness, Treasury agent, at the start of The Untouchables (1987). Ness, played by Kevin Costner, has come to Chicago to lead the fight against Al Capone’s violent bootleggers. It’s not that he has any strong commitment to Prohibition as a moral cause – in the very last scene, a newsman asks him what he’ll do if they repeal the Volstead Act, and he replies wryly that “I’ll have a drink”. Rather, it is a statement of intent, an indication of Ness’ high view of the law and its importance in society.

In the film, the US Treasury have dispatched him to Chicago because local law enforcement is wracked by corruption. Money from the gangsters has perverted not only the police, but politics and the judiciary. Ness, by contrast, is the clean man in a dirty world, an avatar of integrity and nobility in a swamp of corruption and cynicism. He cannot be bought – when one of Capone’s cronies attempts to pay him off, the Treasury man not only refuses but refers the crony to the robust capital punishments supposedly used by the Romans on those who attempted to bribe public officials. And Ness’ probity extends to private life. He does not have a secret gambling addiction or a mistress or a drinking problem. He goes home every evening to his wife and children and listens to wholesome comedy programmes on the radio.

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

First thoughts on the "burning lab" objection to Christian life ethics

(NB This is not, and doesn't claim to be, an exhaustive discussion of this issue, merely some notes towards a response. Also - I've used 'Christian life ethics' here to describe the orthodox and historical Christian moral teaching about early human life, i.e. that it is inviolable. I'm aware some modern Christians don't hold to that teaching but they are wrong to have abandoned it and I'm not willing to include incessant qualifications to accommodate their wrongness.) 

A few weeks ago I had a short exchange with someone on Twitter about a thought experiment employed by opponents of the Christian idea that early human embryos should be regarded as inviolable. A building is burning down. Inside the building is an IVF laboratory where there are five human embryos. In another room a baby is trapped. You have enough time to rescue either the baby or the embryos. Which do you choose?

Most people, including most adherents to Christian life ethics, say that they would rescue the baby. “Aha!” says the interlocutor, “that means you don’t really believe that an embryo and a baby are equally valuable!”

This is a neat little trick, and I’ve seen Christians struggle to respond to it more than once. They appear to be caught in a trap; choose the embryos, and you appear cold and clinical, willing to condemn a baby to an awful death to uphold an abstract ideal. Choose the baby, and you appear to be conceding that embryos aren’t really equally valuable as babies after all.

Friday, 4 December 2020

Christmas, ghosts and MR James

Quis est iste, qui venit? 

Who is this, that is coming?

An unsettling question from ‘Oh Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’, by MR James. It is one of the inscriptions on the side of an old whistle found by a certain Mr Parkins, in a ruined Knights Templar chapel on the remote east coast. The story does not really provide us with an answer. Parkins is pursued and menaced by a silent and malevolent presence, but we are never told what precisely he has encountered. James rarely felt the need to over-explain his apparitions.

Parkins is a typical James protagonist; a bachelor academic, sceptical and firmly materialist, visiting an out-of-the-way spot who, through a combination of ignorance and foolhardiness, summons a terrifying and unholy visitor from – well, from Elsewhere. He escapes from the spirit relatively unharmed; this is the norm for well-meaning people in the Jamesian canon, though there are exceptions, like the unwise Mr Wraxall from Count Magnus or the doomed Paxton from A Warning To The Curious. Grisly ends tend to be reserved for genuinely villainous characters. One thinks of the magnificently sinister Karswell from Casting The Runes, or John Eldred, the antagonist of The Tractate Middoth.

Thursday, 3 December 2020

Techno-noir: a review of James Wilson's "Coyote Fork"

(I was sent a review copy of this book by the publisher.)

What is social media doing to us? You don’t need to be a relentless pessimist to see Twitter and Instagram and Facebook as in many ways dangerous and divisive, encouraging us to be snide and snarky, to view many of our fellow human beings as simply a bundle of opinions and characteristics rather than as whole individuals with their own strengths and hopes and personal dramas. More seriously the instant feedback loops enabled by Twitter in particular both enable and encourage the terrifying pile-ons which are a large component of what has come to be known as “cancel culture”.

Behind this question lurk others; enormously important dilemmas about the future of public debate and reasonable discourse and whether anything approaching private life will even be possible in the coming surveillance society. 

It is these issues that the thriller writer James Wilson has picked up in Coyote Fork. I’ve seen it described as techno-noir, and I think that term captures its general feel well. The noir element is there in the twisty story full of characters who may or may not be trustworthy, and in the figure of the lead character, a cynical and despondent middle-aged journalist - not an anti-hero exactly but certainly not a hero, an old-style ink-stained hack adrift in the new world of clickbait and engagement and #content. As for the “techno” component, the action of the plot centres on the founder of a vast and powerful social media platform, Global Village, which may or may not bear a strongish resemblance to a real-life corporation launched in 2004, with the ambition and the means to reshape human communication and interaction on a global scale.   

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Old school

On the recommendation of a Twitter friend, I recently watched a film from 1948, The Guinea Pig, starring Richard Attenborough. It follows Jack Read, the 14 year old son of a London tobacconist, as he takes up a scholarship at Saintbury, a (fictional) English public school, under a scheme to encourage what we’d now call social mobility.  

As you might expect, Read faces bullying and snobbery (the latter from masters as well as other pupils). He struggles to adapt to the social expectations of Saintbury, and his Housemaster, Mr Hartley, a long-serving reactionary, makes life difficult for him. Back at home old friends joke that he might get above himself. Read does eventually manage to flourish, with the help of a sympathetic master, Mr Lorraine.

Monday, 16 March 2020

Books read Q4 2019

The Golden Age Of Murder
Martin Edwards
This is an absolute delight. Edwards is not always the most reliable judge of quality in Golden Age fiction – or perhaps it would be better to say that our tastes don’t coincide, or even that he goes out of his way to be charitable in his assessments – but his knowledge of the genre and its practitioners is outstanding. This book is loosely based around a chronological account of the heyday of the Detection Club, from its genesis in the late twenties through to the post-war decades, and biographical information about many of the key members – not just the well-known names like Christie and GKC but the Coles, Anthony Berkeley, ER Punshon and so on. As with his previous book, The Story Of Classic Crime In 100 Books, he takes the reader on a tour of the genre, its nooks and crannies, its fashions and trends, its development and decline. Some of the biographical speculation is a little fanciful, especially when it comes to his theories about how authors’ personal lives affected their storytelling (he is very keen on the notion that the difficult or unusual love lives of people like the Coles, Sayers and Anthony Berkeley were clearly reflected in their books).   

Thursday, 21 November 2019

In praise of the bourgeois virtues

Let me tell you a story you've heard before - at the cinema, or on TV, or in pop music. A young, clever person chafes at the tedium, stasis and bigotry of their community and family, whose representatives exhibit a combination of unpleasantness, ignorance and dullness. Some of these representatives are well-meaning, but all are a barrier to achievement, colour, adventure, real life. Through a combination of circumstances, and a meeting with a roguish but good-natured and attractive representative of the wider world, the person strikes out into that world and becomes happy and fulfilled, away from the stultifying expectations of their traditional milieu. This happiness is explicitly achieved through repudiation of, and hostility to, that traditional milieu.

I am not describing a particular film or TV series or song. But in a sense, I am. With various tweaks as required, this is the general framework of many of the stories our culture tells, especially those aimed at children and young people. If it is not the main story, it is a sub-plot or a background assumption. To find happiness and contentment, you must break away from the world into which you were born, and from the people who formed you, and seek your "real self", which is to say the pattern of living that delivers the experiences and sensations which give you pleasure. Rules and ways of life which you did not or would not choose for yourself have no validity or authority; you must decide your own path, in accordance with your own feelings.