Saturday, 6 March 2010

Fancy opting out of Western civilisation?

I'd hoped we in Britain had mostly been spared Cheneyite pant-wetting hysteria, the sort of emotionalism and disproportion that can be used to justify any number of transgressions, even crimes (torture, of course, included). But sadly some sort of editorial by Daniel Johnson on the Standpoint magazine website exhibits features of the syndrome.

There isn't much of substance to work with, and that is a major part of its weakness. It's not short of portentousness, though. It begins by stating that 'the British people will soon have to make a momentous choice': do they
...want to continue to belong to Western civilisation or not? If they do, are they ready to defend that civilisation? And if they are, will the British be bold in standing up for the values that underpin the West?
Is this really a question that needs answering after Britain has fought two overseas wars in recent years, spending both blood and treasure? And before that we can point to military interventions in  Sierra Leone and Kosovo that were undertaken with reference to promoting values.

On reflection, it's actually a bit sickening to read a journalist querying our boldness. I'm sure the parents of all those soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan don't keep themselves awake at night wondering whether we've been quite brave enough.

So how does our editorialist validate his portentous challenge?
For much of their history, the British were leaders, not followers. Britain was a model to be respected and imitated by all who loved liberty. That is no longer true. Listen to the writer Wole Soyinka — the grand old man of African literature, the first to win a Nobel Prize, and a man who has been imprisoned by dictators in his native Nigeria. Soyinka recently declared: "England is a cesspit. England is the breeding ground for fundamentalist Muslims." Note the definite article in "the breeding ground": a great writer does not use words imprecisely.
To take the last, first. 'The breeding ground'? More so than Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and so on, not to mention Northern Nigeria? Anyone with any knowledge of these places should know that the use of the definite article here is stunningly wrong. Perhaps not a big deal in itself but nevertheless an indication of the ridiculous disproportion of this worldview.

Johnson declines to continue to quote the strictures of the 'grand old man'. I posted on the whole of what he had to say here. Suffice it to say that Soyinka managed to impugn freedoms of religion, association and speech as well as the institution of political asylum whilst blaming the lot on the evils of imperialism. Tolerance, for him, appears to be a tainted word. There's no thoroughgoing love of liberty here and Soyinka's certainly not someone to cite as a credible critic of our lack of commitment to Western values.

Johnson's hysterical, largely contentless screed doesn't improve:
The causes of the British reluctance to choose between civilisation and barbarism run deep. Among the deepest is the loss of any firm conviction that life is sacred — that to be human also means to be humane. In challenging the increasingly fashionable case for assisted suicide, Nigel Biggar [a Standpoint writer] invites us to re-examine our moral and cultural assumptions — among them the assumption that only bigots object to abortion, eugenics and euthanasia. Last month's plea for religious freedom by the Pope met with a spasm of hostility. It was as if Benedict XVI had just launched a second Armada to overthrow the second Elizabeth. The British once knew how to distinguish between what the Pope called "the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs" and what Soyinka called "apocalyptic violence". No longer: fear now clouds our judgment. 
This 'loss of any firm conviction that life is sacred' begins a Catholic line of argument (currently the orthodox one but not by any means the only one - it's also one adopted by fundamentalist Christians in the US), which culminates in a particular set of proscriptive conclusions. I don't happen to subscribe to this package, in good part, as I'm not a Catholic and I'm not a fundamentalist Christian.

I wouldn't describe those who hold such views as 'bigots' along, I guess, with most people (but then to admit this might mitigate the sense of siege Johnson clearly cherishes). However, I do resent their being used as the benchmark for Western values: there are other principled traditions that take a different approach. I also note how the eliding of 'British' and 'Western' is quite helpful to our editorialist's argument. It may come as a disappointment to him but, frankly speaking, I couldn't give a fig what the Pope thinks. And surely this is perhaps one of the earliest definitions of what it means to be British?

And we're living in fear of 'apocalyptic violence'? Craven bullshit. Everyone I know took the tube as soon as they had to following 7/7. I really hope those inadequate, little Islamists don't stumble across the Standpoint website as they'd be rubbing their hands at the impact of their pathetic so-called holy war. Take them at their own estimation? Not just cowardly but foolish.

Don't get me wrong - I think the authorities need to come down hard on those who incite violence. This is the law and it should be rigorously enforced. What's more, state funding needs to be more closely vetted. However, this is about tougher policing and more stringent bureaucracy not an existential crisis.

And apart from a glancing but still overblown reference to how the British university 'has now abdicated responsibility to civilise those in its care', that's it. He rounds off with:
We come back to the choice: do the British wish to survive as an independent nation, upholding the values that have evolved from the unique amalgam of Judaeo-Christian, Classical and Enlightenment ideas that we still call the West? Or are the British content to abandon their identity and their values? If the party leaders refuse to put the choice to the people, events will sooner or later force us to decide.
Some choice, eh? Like you, I'm plumping for the survival, independence, upholding values and retaining identity option. And I think we've shown we mean business, what with all the invading, occupying and bombing we've undertaken over the last ten years or so.

But I also strongly believe we've demonstrated our choice through not being deflected from living our lives as we see fit - keeping calm and carrying on, as someone once said. Living well (in every sense) is the best revenge and perhaps the most effective propaganda. In contrast, the working up of a siege mentality could be used to justify - if Soyinka had his way - the sacrifice of our traditional liberties (not to mention the beginnings of full-blown religious war). This would represent a profound abrogation of our principles and way of life.

In any event, I'm certainly not going to die in a ditch to defend the moral codes of those our editorialist cites as his guides: a twisted anti-imperialist and seemingly opportunistic friend of human rights like Soyinka, on the one hand, and on the other, the Pope. If they're wholly representative of Western civilisation I'm forced to pause over the choice offered. Better to ignore it and carry on being British.


Simon said...

Well said. I felt the same when I flicked through Standpoint in W H Smith but my reaction was not as well phrased and earned me some funny looks.

Kevin Musgrove said...

Nicely put.

Most of these people write of an England I have never experienced and would struggle to cope with everyday reality.

Gaw said...

Simon: It is a cry-out-loud shocker, isn't it?

Kevin: Truly a parallel universe. In fact, other than online I don't know anyone who raves on like that. And it's not because we all live in ivory towers.

Brit said...

Great stuff, Gaw.

Gaw said...

Thanks - I felt strongly over this one, even if the rationale and motivation of the writer is rather mysterious to me: it's a message from another planet. I would actually welcome a defence and justification of the piece so I could understand more.

Anonymous said...


Sorry to spoil the party but consider: not one of our major newspapers was brave enough to publish the Jyllens-Posten Mohammed cartoons. Real fear of physical violence does not declare itself but hides or uses comouflage and gestures of preemptive appeasement. This is pervasive now - especially from the institutions and in the media. We have little alternative to using the tube...

Gaw said...

Anonymous: I think it would have been unnecessarily provocative to have reprinted them. Or perhaps more like bad manners?

Re appeasement, don't you think it's strange to refer to 'preemptive appeasement' whilst we're actually fighting a war in Afghanistan against Islamists? An actual, real, bloody war is literally as far from appeasement as you can get. We're also regularly arresting and prosecuting Islamist terrorists.

However, as I've said a number of times on this blog I do feel strongly that the state needs to ensure it provides no support of any sort to Islamist front organisations and the police need to rigorously enforce the laws on incitement, notwithstanding the wails that provoked the post.

BTW here's my take on the other side of this coin:

Anonymous said...

"Unnecessarily provocative" or "bad manners"? And yet there was (andstill is)a death threat against the cartoonist, and he, along with many others (such as Ayan Hirsi Ali)in Europe and this country, remains under constant threat of death with armed guards and so on. This is the pass we have come to. The student editor of the college journal at Clare College in Cambridge has to hide away from death threats and make cringing apologies to Muslim fanatics (the discourtesy argument again). Gaw, this 'unnecessary provocaion' looks dangerously like rationalised fear.

There is an intriguing little poem by Norman Cameron, written in 1931, that might serve as a timely reminder. It's
called The Compassionate Fool:

My enemy had bidden me as guest.
His table all set out with wine and cake,
His ordered chairs, he to beguile me dressed
So neatly, moved my pity for his sake.

I knew it was an ambush, but could not
Leave him to eat his cake up by himself
And put his unused glasses on the shelf.
I made pretense of falling in his plot,

And trembled when in his anxiety
He bared it too absurdly to my view;
And even as he stabbed me through and through
I pitied him for his small strategy.

Gaw said...

But isn't this tit-for-tat sort of gesture just what the Islamists want?

I think the best way to address the violence and threat of violence that was supposedly provoked by the cartoons (as we know, it was mostly manufactured well after the event) is to use police and the security services to do whatever is legal to come down like a ton of bricks on anyone associated with it. I do worry that this government doesn't have as rigorous an approach in this area as I'd like.

But the idea of participating in a game of who can be most provocative - started by our enemies with the precise goal of escalating a wider cultural/religious conflict - seems to me to be playing into their hands. Why take these creeps at their own estimation?

By the way, arguing with an Anonymous Entity is disconcerting. Any old invented moniker would be better.

Anonymous said...

"But the idea of participating in a game of who can be most provocative - started by our enemies with the precise goal of escalating a wider cultural/religious conflict - seems to me to be playing into their hands."

This sounds reasonable, Gaw, but how true is it? If, say, a UK newspaper had regarded it as its duty to show the public what the fuss was about, and had wished to publish the Mohammed cartoons, should it not have braved the death-threats and published? Was it right then, is it right now, and will it be so in the future, to submit to gross intimidation and remain silent? Of course, so many do so now because,as the Irish columnist Kevin Myers says "in our culture, we can call Jesus Christ a sodomite son-of-a-whore without legal consequence. But I would not even jokingly use such language about Mohammed for fear of Islamic death-squads." How can you square this with simply not being 'provocative' when all the restraint clearly comes from one side only? Is there not something terribly repugnant in this talk of 'fairness' and politesse and leaving it all to a police force (itself easily intimidated by the Islamists and the race relations watchdogs) in the face of the most bullying threats of violence? We cannot delegate this duty of courage. It is up to all of us. And first, off, I suggest we try to avoid using euphemisms to justify fear or rationalise cowardice.

Gaw said...

It's a bit rich to be told one needs to stand up and be counted from someone who retains their anonymity! It doesn't seem to set a very good example of fulfilling a 'duty of courage'.

I wrote something critical in relation to fundamentalist Islam and its sympathisers the other day (not for the first time) despite my identity being clearly visible to whoever wants to look. What have you done recently?

Doing what you'd do anyway in accordance with your principles is not giving in to intimidation.

I don't think we should aim for equivalence with the 'other side'. We didn't with the IRA (mostly) and we shouldn't with this lot.

It's down to the police to enforce the law. I don't see the problem with this. However, we must ensure the political will is there to ensure they do so.

If you're accusing me of using euphemisms to rationalise cowardice, you can fuck off (I refer you to my point above). I'm speaking frankly and honestly.