Reader Ian emailed me a question and was kind enough to hope it would provoke a post. It has. His email was long but the crux of it was this;
Why do you think commentators are so keen to present the "anti-vax" side as deranged?
The entire public debate seems to be "they work" so "you should take it" and if not you are an idiot who wishes harm on others.
It's a good question. I won't debate the pros and cons of the various vaccines, but will try to analyse why rational debate is so difficult. I have never been shy of expressing my views but even I have gone quiet during COVID.
My first thought is that it's a function of how un-nuanced public discussions have become. Many now conduct political debate at a comic book level. If your opponent is evil rather than misguided, your response is more severe. Ian and I thought about the vaccines and took different decisions but think no less of each other for that. If we functioned quasi-religiously, we'd cry heretic at each other and threaten hellfire.
It reminds me of an old post called Credo in which I lamented my loss of faith. As a first-generation atheist, I am still functionally Christian. I feel guilty if I break one of the commandments, even though I don't believe they came from God. The fully godless however tend to seek substitutes. Religion fills some need in our psyche and when it's gone we are vulnerable to other nonsenses-on-stilts. As Chesterton said;
When a man stops believing in God, he doesn't then believe in nothing, he believes anything"
Whatever the rights and wrongs of any given issue; political, societal or economic, it cannot be good if they can't be discussed. Traditional Marxism, for all its faults, was (at least in Western academia) a genuine attempt to analyse social and economic interactions rationally. Its thesis was finally discredited when the fall of the Berlin Wall was followed by a rapid and undeniable improvement in the lives of Eastern Europeans. Free markets delivered in a few short years what had been denied for decades and Marxism (as Marx understood it) died out in sane circles.
Yet its former adherents did not return to the free market fold. Like those atheists they sought a new faith that met their same needs. There is a certain type of human – aspirant alphas we might call them – who will not accept the rewards and prestige that the market offers their skills, endeavours, risk-taking and luck. They yearn – whatever the consequences – for a new order that ranks them higher. My MP had no power or prestige as a sociology lecturer in a crappy ex-Polytechnic. Her life quest – camouflaged by screeds of turgid prose – is for a new order than rates her as highly as Bill Gates.
Denied the old Marxism as an intellectual excuse for their aspirations, these types have constructed others. They had already been doing it for some time because, while they were still pretending the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact were defamed paradises, the proletariat in the West was rejecting their ideas. They had long sought new justifications for revolution and targeted new revolutionaries. Because, let's face it, the marshmallows of academia are never going to man the barricades themselves.
Different races and sexes, heterosexuals and homosexuals, the able and the disabled; all these and more "identity groups" were to be herded into opposing camps and incited to mutual hatred. Why? For the same old reason. To create problems that only an almighty state staffed by a clerisy of aspirant alphas could "solve".
It's not working so far. We rub along nicely for the most part. To the extent there's significant hatred it's mostly what they've cynically generated. They are going to fail again, but like their classically-Marxist predecessors they are going to do it slowly while ending a lot of lives prematurely and making the remaining ones poorer in every sense.
The main cost of their ideology at present is its intensification of divisions in debate. Their reduction of everything to simplistic binaries has crippled thought in the home of the Enlightenment. Whether talking about issues that affect every family (like the response to COVID) or recherché stuff like transgenderism, it's always now "the righteous" versus "the heretics". A crypto-religious fervour has people berating their families and friends when all should be focusing with calm, scientific rationality on the best way to preserve/improve the most lives.
I hope Ian can forgive his angry friends one day. In the middle of a witch-hunt, it's safer to cry "witch" than deny witchcraft exists. When I look back on my own conduct, I fear I shall not be proud. No I didn't cry "witch", but I lurked in the background trying not to be noticed while HM Government committed democide and HM Opposition bemoaned their lack of sufficient enthusiasm. I had no appetite to have "die, heretic!" screamed at me. Meanwhile, innocents died in care homes, of untreated cancer or heart disease or suicide. No I didn't take those lives, but I didn't save any either.
Let's hope the democides in the state apparatus – and friends who screamed "heretic" at their behest – have similar moments of self-reflection. Let's hope we see through the incitement to hatred that permeates critical race theory and its sister-doctrines and embrace the Age of Reason again.
I don't normally go for podcasts, as I can take in information faster by reading and don't spend much time in traffic these days. This however, is worth your time.
My last post was, I confess, a bit defeatist. I certainly felt defeated. Douglas Murray does not. On the contrary he is optimistic that the forces of evil are vulnerable and makes convincing arguments for going on the offensive. Rather than bemoan "cancel culture" he thinks it's overstated and urges the "silent majority" to speak up.
Referring to Kay Burley's ludicrous smears in relation to former Aussie PM, Tony Abbott, he is hilarious. He points out that she once grabbed a female fellow journalist by the throat in anger, squeezing so hard that she left a bruise. Playing her own game, therefore, it's possible to say that Kay Burley once grabbed a woman by the throat and injured her. Anyone who appears on her show is condoning the strangulation of women. By her own logic, she should be cancelled!
No right-thinking person wants Kay Burley silenced of course. Her bluster turns people off every argument she tries to advance and she serves a useful function in exposing the weakness of Tory ministers, but it takes Douglas to pierce the pompous veil so elegantly. I commend him to you.
I cannot be sure and must beware of the post hoc fallacy, but I think I may once have done some good in the field of public education. I asked a question of Trevor Philips, former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission at the "Battle of Ideas" conference at the Barbican in 2012. He had wondered aloud why boys and girls from Chinese and Indian families do so much better in Britain's schools than white children, whereas black boys do far worse. I ventured to suggest that, whatever else it proved, it showed the Left had been wrong for decades in accusing teachers and/or "the education system" of racism. What kind of racist, I wondered, favoured Indians over Pakistanis, or Chinese over whites? He asked me, "if it's not racism what is it?" and (as the crowd shouted me down) I said it was culture. I said I had lived in China, where education was regarded as the most valuable of goods and I suspected the same was true in India. "If black British mothers treat their boys like Indian and Chinese mothers treat their children, they will get the same results," I said to howls of derision. That may be the least racist sentence I have ever uttered, but the cries of "racist" didn't abate until I retreated into my happy obscurity.
At that point Trevor was a lifelong, much respected member of the "Labour movement". Now he is discredited, spurned and has been denounced as an "islamophobe". I hope I helped him on his way that day. I was reminded of that moment when reading Hans Rosling's book "Factfulness" recently. This passage in particular brought it to mind;
In 1972, as a fourth-year medical student, I studied at the medical school in Bangalore. The first class I attended was on examining kidney X-rays. Looking at the first image, I realized this must be kidney cancer. I decided to wait awhile before telling the class, out of respect. I didn’t want to show off. Several hands then went into the air and the Indian students one by one explained how best to diagnose this cancer, how and where it usually spreads, and how best to treat it. On and on they went for 30 minutes, answering questions I thought only chief physicians knew. I realized my embarrassing mistake. I must have come to the wrong room. These must not be fourth-year students, these must be specialists. I had nothing to add to their analysis. On our way out, I told a fellow student I was supposed to be with the fourth-years. “That’s us,” he said. I was stunned. They had caste marks on their foreheads and lived where exotic palm trees grew. How could they know much more than me? Over the next few days I learned that they had a textbook three times as thick as mine, and they had read it three times as many times. I remember this whole experience as the first time in my life that I suddenly had to change my worldview: my assumption that I was superior because of where I came from, the idea that the West was the best and the rest would never catch up. At that moment, 45 years ago, I understood that the West would not dominate the world for much longer.
Rosling tells the story against himself and dates his understanding of the outdatedness of "Western" ideas about "developing countries" from that moment. It's a good illustration of that, certainly, but it's also an explanation of why, for example, there is a higher proportion of both Indian and Chinese doctors in British hospitals than of their respective ethnicities in our general population. It's a disparity that literally no-one is attributing to "structural racism" and there is something to be learned from understanding it.
No doubt some were better-educated elsewhere from a textbook three times as thick that they read three times as often. Others had mothers not yet fully assimilated into our culture who would have taught them at least to read the thinner text book more times. Just as I am optimistic that Pakistani-origin Muslim girls in Britain will be easily lured from misogyny into the local way of thinking about women, I am pessimistic that - in a generation or so - Anglo-Indian/Pakistani/Chinese boys and girls will have dumbed-down like everyone else in our state-organised schools and colleges.
Dumbing down our education system to protect our coddled young from “pressure” was not a good idea. As Rosling's story (and my own sad experience of "mixed ability teaching" and "Cuisenaire rods" in my bog-standard state schools) tells us, it’s been going on for a long time now. We now have coddled students taught by coddled teachers who were themselves taught by the first of the Western coddled. Without the "tiger mothers" in our immigrant populations we Brits whose parents couldn't afford private education would have no collective memory of what it is to be taught with rigour, free from concern for our fragile "self-esteem." The tiger mothers have been distant enough from local culture throughout to resist and so continued to demand more – thus scoring all those boast-worthy offspring in white coats and lawyer suits.
The young lawyers I worked with in China were the product of a culture that has valued education above all other things for millennia - since the power of the Emperor was first quietly supplanted by a mandarin class appointed by competitive examination. A Chinese mother, however humble, could see her son (admittedly only her son at that stage) rule the greatest nation on Earth if she pushed him hard enough at school. That kind of ingrained notion dies slowly. When I visited India for the first time to meet the parents of Mrs PII before our marriage, I was struck on my six hour road journey from New Delhi to their home by the sheer number of roadside advertisements for educational institutions – far more than for consumer goods. She tells me that many of them are scams and rip-offs preying on the hopes and dreams of poor parents, but the fact remains the demand is there.
The educational success of Chinese and Indian children in our system is due to the sheer bloody vigour (going on ferocity) of their parenting. We all, black white and beige, need to learn from that. If the post-war changes in Western education have proved anything it's the wisdom of the old adage "Spare the [now of course metaphorical] rod and spoil the child." Spoil too many of your children and you may doom your civilisation. Would legislators with any intellectual rigour have passed this resolution in the California State Senate? Would anyone educated with any rigour be committing the crimes against history, commonsense and reason occurring daily on the streets of Britain and America?
I say to any parents reading this – your children are neither fashion accessories nor playthings; they’re humanity’s future. Get on their case and give them no damned slack at all. For all our sakes.
I am reading an excellent book at the moment, "Factfulness" by Hans Rosling. I remember enjoying this, his first, fantastic TED talk in which he turned statistics into entertainment to great effect.
I am enjoying the book and recommend it to you. I have already taken two graphs from it and put them on my smartphone so that I can produce them at a moment's notice. They are updated versions of the amazing "bubble graph" with which he opened that famous talk. They refute most of the assumptions of my friends when they talk about the world and what should be done to make it better.
Here is global life expectancy in 1965. The developing world has "big families and many children die".
Here is the same graph from the latest figures, in 2017. All Rosling's statistics are from sources (the UN, the WHO, national statistical agencies) that people on the Left usually choose to believe. He was an expert in his field and I trust him, even if I don't always trust them.
It's a different world, but our public policy on such matters as overseas aid is still based on the first graph. Why? because the "facts" most deeply seated in our minds are the ones passed on to us by our parents and teachers. We in "the West" (a concept with which Rosling has a lot of fun in the book) behave, with squirearchical condescension, as if the world was still that way. Worse, we cling to the binary; us vs them, black vs white, rich vs poor, views of the world that the first of the graphs coloured, but which the two of them – taken together - disprove.
We cling to our familiar world-view not just because we don't see new data but because we like simple patterns; ideally with binary choices. We survived in the wild as early humans by making – and instantly acting upon – rapid and necessarily crude evaluations of our surroundings. Fight or flight depended upon an immediate decision based on imperfect data often acquired from peripheral vision. That's why we like our action movies, with unblemished heroes and irredeemable villains. Simple binary choices are what we are comfortable with – and the more important and frightening the choice – the more we crave them. That may be the reason for the appeal of political ideologies based on struggles between opposing forces. It may be why in the present pandemic we have formed into two rival factions between freedom and safety. That kind of dialectic appeals to us.
On that same theme, to the extent it doesn't confirm our ideological stances, we tend to ignore new data This is the lethal "confirmation bias" that prevents intelligent discussion and makes us cling to the apron strings of the familiar ideas we grew up with. I have changed my mind a few times in my life. I have been a member of left, centre, right and liberal parties before I reached my present view that they're all parasites on the make and to be avoided like lepers. That may suggest more open-mindedness than the average, but I don't delude myself. It only involves a few extraordinary moments of my life. Most of the time, I cherry-picked the available data to support my current thinking just like most people. If I am honest, when my mind did change, it was not as a result of study or academic debate. It happened because of personal experiences that so shook me up as to cause me to read different books and listen to different experts. The change of heart came before the change of mind. The new reading then came in search of academic underpinnings for my new view. I may worship at Reason's altar, but I am as unworthy as any.
Child mortality and life expectancy are good, reliable indices of human progress. Judged by those indices, the world is unarguably a better place than it was in 1965. The old West got richer during this period but that didn't stop the Developing World from living up to a name originally given to it, let's be honest, as a euphemism. In fact, it has advanced relatively faster. Given the low base from which its people started, those advances have also meant much more to them than ours have to us. Conversely the pie-slicing, economic illiterates among us like President Trump are wrong to believe that the developing world could only get richer by impoverishing us. All those newly-rich Chinese did not pick our pockets and we don't need to pick theirs. We can all get richer by delivering the goods and services to each other that we are best-placed to supply. Adam Smith is still right.
We get richer either by having more money with which to buy more things, leisure or experiences or by them becoming cheaper so that the same money buys more. We can also get richer by having stuff that our predecessors couldn't have at any price. If (God forbid) forced to choose between them, my smartphone is now probably more valuable to me than my beloved car. Yet my grandfather never heard of such a thing and my father still doesn't value it at all. To go further back, King Henry VIII considered himself one of the wealthiest men in the world, despite having fewer material goods, leisure, healthcare facilities, cultural opportunities and scope for travel than a poor person on benefits in his Kingdom today.
We are all getting richer by combinations of all those things and more but the point is we are getting richer and our world is getting better. The dark, Guardian- or NYT-reader narrative in which the world is becoming a steadily nastier and more divided place is both stupid and malicious. At some level they must know their narrative is false. They advance it not for the noble reasons they state but because it justifies political changes that will give them more power.
We must therefore try to get past what people say they want politically and judge them by the fruits of what they actually do. Calling yourself "anti-fascist", for example, counts for nothing. It's how you would behave that counts. Asking me to support "antifa" because of what they named their movement is like calling a bullet "nourishment" and asking me to expect a tasty meal when you shoot me. Handsome is as handsome does and all else is what a late Polish friend called – when faced with biz-speak – "piramidalna bzdura!" (a great pyramid of shit).
I miss Hans Rosling and I am glad he left us this book. I don't know what his politics were and I don't need to care because, whatever they were, he did good science well. He dedicated his last years to writing this book in an attempt to finish his life's work, which was "...to show more people, more convincingly, that their opinions were no more than unsubstantiated feelings." If we can all read it, and then wrench ourselves away from exchanging those "unsubstantiated feelings" nastily with each other on Twitter and elsewhere, perhaps we can help Humanity do even better?
I try not to be provoked by ill-judged political outbursts by my friends on social media. Life’s too short to fix everything someone gets wrong on the internet. Or so my wife tells me. Today, for example, I almost wasted an hour of my life responding to attacks on Jacob Rees-Mogg on my personal Facebook page. This was from friends (one of whom is an English journalist in Russia) commenting on this article in The Independent about the style guide JRM issued to his parliamentary staff, which was leaked to ITN.
My journalist friend said it reminded him of the forlorn attempts of the Académie Française to hold back changes in the French language. One of his friends essayed a witticism by posting this image
Fair enough, that’s a mildly amusing comic exaggeration but JRM, while not a libertarian, is very much a small state man. Unlike his authoritarian opponents in both his party and others, he wants fewer rules and less state interference with personal choices. It’s ridiculous to compare an office memo to the control-freakery of the Académie Française. He’s not laying down the law, just giving stylistic guidance to his employees. Write to him in your preferred style and they’ll now politely respond to you in his. Where’s the story here?
Yet class-obsessed (though disproportionately posh) journalists have apparently spent hours counting how many times Hansard features JRM using expressions he’s asked his staff to avoid. I understand they’re bored of Brexit. Aren’t we all? But if a free press has value (and I think it does) this strikes me as a poor example of it.
JRM is eccentric. He’s different. He adds to the rich and varied warp and weave of our wonderful society. He very much enhances its cultural diversity, in fact. But as his politics don’t suit the media hive mind, look how intolerant of “difference” journalists truly are. One extra space behind a full stop and he’s a dangerous reactionary!
Let me try to match my friend in Moscow in the field of OTT analogies. It reminds me of how the gentlemen of the press piled in behind Carl Beech when he falsely accused many Tories (and one — Jewish — Labourite) of sexual abuse and even murder. Never mind the facts, never mind the effects on the people concerned and their families. There’s the hated “other” in our sights. Attack!
So much for the kinder, gentler politics the Magic Grandpa promised
These of course are the very same journalists who first systematically ignored and then, when the story broke, downplayed statutory rapes by the thousand so as not to criticise cultural difference in England’s poorer towns. These are the same journalists so carefully weighing the pros and cons of the Jessica Yaniv story in Canada (or in the case of Canadian media so carefully ignoring it). Such courage! Such independence of thought! What was that old rhyme again?
You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there's no occasion to.
There. I haven’t wasted that hour. I’ve made a blog post from it. Now shall I send my friend in Moscow a link to it on Facebook ....?
Back in the ‘90s, when I lived with my family in Warsaw, we had a lovely young babysitter who took care of the then very young Misses Paine. We got to know her well as she also came on family holidays with us. One evening when she came over she had clearly been crying and we asked what was the matter. Her history teacher had that day been reviewing recent history under the new curriculum mandated by the country’s first democratic government since the fall of the Communist Party. When she got home from school she had asked her father, a lecturer at Warsaw University, if he had been a member of the Party and had rebuked him when he admitted he had.
Her tears were not of disappointment but of remorse. Her dad had patiently explained to her the realities of life under a regime he had never dared to hope would change as it did. As far as he could tell, Poland would be Communist forever. He had to take care of his family as best he could in the actual circumstances in which they lived and advancement in his career required he be a party member. To refuse the invitation to join might have worse consequences than not being promoted. He had wept at the earnest teenage contempt of someone he had been trying to protect and — to her eternal credit — she had been distressed at having hurt him
Were it not for the happy coincidence of Reagan and Thatcher’s terms in office overlapping as they did, he would have been right in his assessment of democracy’s chances in the East. For all its pomposity about its values, the West had mostly appeased the Soviets. Its academics were traitors almost to a man and its leftist politicians yearned for their comrades to get it right and prove socialism actually worked. I am told by one who researched there for a Masters thesis on Politics that the joint archives of the British Communist and Labour Parties in Manchester document the role of “Moscow Gold” in our politics.
The nearer the Western democracy to the Iron Curtain, the more inclined it had been to kiss the Kremlin’s nether regions – as witness the shameful Östpolitik of West Germany, initiated by Socialists quietly sympathetic to the USSR. There were probably more true believers in Socialism in the West than the East. Years later my Russian teacher in Moscow would laugh at my stupidity when she learned I had been one of them. “Didn’t you know what was happening here?” she asked. Told that I’d dismissed all reports as capitalist lies, she said scornfully “I can’t believe you actually fell for their bullshit. No one here did.”
I am beginning to understand what it must have been like for my babysitter’s dad. Don’t get me wrong. I know full well that I am lucky to be a free born citizen of an ancient democracy. I’m also financially independent in retirement and don’t need to worry what HR or Marketing make of my utterances any more. Even when I did worry, I never checked my tongue before holding forth. I just sheltered behind my easily penetrated nomdeblog when putting my views in writing. I don’t even need to do that anymore and links in the sidebar will take you to pages with my real name but there are more of you now who know me as Tom.
So I must not overstate my case. While I was horrified to find on returning to England after 20 years in the post-communist world that our police now patrolled the internet for “wrongthink” and that perfectly respectable concerns about, say, immigration and its perceived threats to local culture were often characterised as “hate speech”, the consequences of wrong speak are still (mostly) more social than criminal. I need not yet fear the deadly knock on my door in the night.
Our equivalents of the Saudi Arabian Mutaween are not the Metropolitan Police in London, but self-appointed brown shirts of the Guardian, Left-Establishment point of view; posh leftist ladies and their cuck husbands telling hostesses that they must never invite that dreadful “Nazi” again if they expect to move in polite society. Or, damn their traitorous eyes, marketing sorts at Gillette or Facebook peddling Marxian lies to set class against class, race against race, sex against sex, young against old and Muslims (God help them) against everyone
Yet I am beginning to check my tongue — and to despise myself for it. I am ashamed of never defending that misguided but essentially decent and well meaning young chap Tommy Robinson, for example — even when he is occasionally as clearly in the right as on it. My views are more sophisticated than his and far far more liberal in the true meaning of that abused word. He has associated with bad people (though no worse than the violent totalitarian leftists of my youth) and has made (and still makes) political, legal and moral errors. But when he is wronged I should have the balls to speak up for him. And I don’t. Yes, he’s closer to being a “fascist” than I am, but not nearly as close as those leftists screeching for his blood.
He’s a wrongheaded but good natured working class bloke of the type I grew up with. He holds opinions shared by most of the men who fought real Fascism and he is trying in his often clumsy way to preserve what they fought for. He sometimes deserves help that it seems I am too afraid of the West London Mutaween to give. Goodness knows how many of my less independent fellow Brits are biting their tongues and toeing the Party line just as my babysitter’s dad once did
I have a beautiful life and I am grateful for it. I say and do pretty much as I please and I know I am lucky. Britain is still a long way from the horrors of the USSR and Warsaw Pact days and I don’t want to be a libertarian analogue of those Corbynites screeching “Nazi” by screeching “Communist” at them. Name calling entrenches differences. It never changes minds. The sensible, decent, intelligent people from both sides of our various divides are at some point going to have to talk. While at my age I can’t expect to be at that table I would like at least not to be one of the fanatics raging outside their windows and distracting them from their dirty, but necessary, work.
People storm a fence in order to cross a border and attack the locals, as they have frequently done before. They have been warned that if they enter the no man's land before the fence, they will be shot. They do. And they are. They care so little for their children that they bring them along to be shot to gain sympathy for their cause.
The IDF does not play silly games, because it cannot afford to. It defends Israel; a nation that, since it was founded, has been under permanent attack by undemocratic barbarians who hate it and hate Western civilisation as a whole.
Meanwhile, in the safety of Westminster, the Marxist muslim sociology lecturer from a third rate university who "works for me" as my Member of Parliament is calling on the British Government to recognise the genocidal terrorist group instigating the attack as a legitimate government.
She may work for me, but she is not on my side. She is not on our country's side. She is not on the side of Western Civilisation or of human decency. That comes as no surprise to me as one of her constituents, but it's a great disappointment to see the Government's mealy-mouthed response.
Just what is Conservative about this government, precisely?
I never encountered anti-semitism until I went to work in Poland in 1992. I was a partner in a Jewish law firm, by which I mean it had been founded by Jewish lawyers and most of the partners were Jewish. I don't remember considering the matter when deciding to apply for a job and it didn't occur to me that it might feature in their decision to hire me. Clearly, it didn't as they didn't even ask. My new boss sent his secretary to my office on my first day at work to ask if I would be free for a meeting on a certain date. I remember thinking that it was a dumb question as I had just arrived and my diary was empty. I went through the motions of checking and had my pen poised to write something in when she said, "No, that's fine. He'll get back to you." He didn't. When I mentioned to a Jewish colleague that I thought it was a puzzling episode he laughed and said "That's a holy day. He was checking." Even then it didn't occur to me that my faith, or lack of it, might affect my future career. It didn't. Within two years they offered me a partnership.
So I was surprised when a colleague in Warsaw told me that the general counsel of a Polish client kept asking him whether I was Jewish or not. "Why does he ask?" I said and my colleague told me that the guy was something of a Catholic Nationalist anti-semite and was probably unhappy that his company had hired us. "What shall I tell him?" he asked me and I said he should say he didn't know. "Let him wonder", I said. "Let any assholes to whom it matters wonder and if it matters enough for them not to hire us then screw them!"
Years later, I was invited, by a Jewish friend who had project managed the restoration, to the re-opening of a synagogue in Oświęcim (better known to the world by the name, Auschwitz, that it bore during its darkest days under German occupation). For the first time in my life I was wearing a yarmulke, handed to me by the Chief Rabbi of Poland, whose daughter was in the same class at school as Miss P the Elder. The event attracted international coverage and I apparently appeared on the television news as, at two metres / 6' 7" tall, I towered above the crowd. When I got to the office in Warsaw the next day, the colleague who had asked what to say to our anti-semitic client during my first month in Poland laughed. He said this had finally answered the question and that the office was buzzing. I was the office managing partner by this time and was rather shocked by the idea that there might be anti-semites in our own ranks. So I made a point of leaving my yarmulke on my desk as a kind of talisman to scare them away.
It was about this point that I came up with one of my jokes to use at Warsaw parties. "How does a Jew become Polish?" it went. "He wins the Nobel Prize." That's unfair to most modern, reasonable Poles, you understand, but satirises a tendency even for them to distinguish "Jews" from "Poles" when they mean to distinguish Jewish from Catholic Poles. If you ever want to wind up a less reasonable Pole, you might try mentioning the arguably Jewish heritage of their "Shakespeare", Adam Mickiewicz. How hard they defend him from such a "slur" is a jolly good litmus test of their anti-semitism.
I don't really get racism. I never did. It's fairly obvious that we are all Homo sapiens and that evolution has simply varied our skin tones to adapt to the intensity of the sunlight where our ancestors lived and ensure us paler people get our Vitamin D. Who could possibly care about that? Racism based on skin colour, however, at least addresses visible difference. It doesn't make sense but it's a stupidity the origins of which can at least be understood. Jews on the other hand are indistinguishable unless (as in the case of some Orthodox) they make a point of standing out. The one moment when I understood how anti-semitism might arise, occurred when I was celebrating a deal-closing in NYC at the offices of a famous Jewish real estate guy. We were drinking champagne out of paper cups and when I asked why they were cheaping-out on glassware I was told that the boss couldn't drink from a vessel that might previously have been used by a goy. That didn't make me anti-semitic you understand, but it did make me think "... these guys could use some PR".
Polish friends patiently explained to me, during various conversations over my decade+ living in their country, that Christianity, and specifically Catholicism, had created anti-semitism in Europe. I remember a colleague who had grown up in a backwards rural area of the country telling me that his own Catholic priest had ranted from the pulpit about "the killers of Christ". "But the Holocaust happened here!" I exclaimed, shocked, "... how could a post-war priest still be an anti-semite when the Church has denounced the idea?" He couldn't explain it and I still don't get it. Ideas persist despite evidence and experience to a very shocking extent. As witness the young Poles who are Social Justice Warriors today when their parents were inoculated against leftism by growing up amid its terrible consequences and their grandparents are mostly still there to tell them precisely what socialism was like. "Clogs to clogs in three generations" as Sir Keith Joseph told a young me when I said I was bothered by the idea of inherited wealth. "The hog cycle" as economists call it, when people fail to remember history.
So if a warped interpretation of Christianity is what gave us anti-semitism in Europe and if an accurate interpretation of the teachings of Mohammed is what brought it back by way of Muslim immigration, how come such a mind-bogglingly stupid idea is now most evident on the Left of British politics rather than on the Right? Marxists oblivious to the ethnicity of Marx and Trotsky? Atheists informed by religious medievalism, for goodness sake?
"But it's not about Judaism", they say, "it's about the State of Israel". The wrongs of the Holocaust, say those Momentum-ites who don't deny it, don't justify the misconduct of modern Jews in the Middle East. Fair enough. I am a supporter of Israel, for the good reason that it's the only democracy in the region and that its Arab citizens have the vote and equal civil rights. It's a tolerant place where dissent is permitted, gays are not thrown off roofs and apostasy (from any religion) is not a criminal offence. That kind of liberalism is rather unusual in the Middle East, to put it mildly. I also support Israel because of the thought experiment posed by one of my Israeli friends, an eminent lawyer who is also, as it happens, on the Left. "Disarm Israel's enemies" he said, "and you will have peace. Disarm Israel and you will have genocide." A cursory read of the Hamas Charter or a few minutes spent watching videos published by MEMRI suggests he is right. Nonetheless I would not suggest that Israel never does wrong. Nor, obviously, would I seek to prevent it from being criticised.
How then to distinguish between being anti-Israel and anti-semitic? They clearly have the potential to be two different things, even if they do often seem to coincide in the same people. One of the wisest chaps I know (sadly not personally) Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explained it like this.
Not liking Jews is not antisemitism. We all have people we don’t like. That’s OK; that’s human; it isn’t dangerous. Second, criticizing Israel is not antisemitism. I was recently talking to some schoolchildren and they asked me: is criticizing Israel antisemitism? I said No and I explained the difference. I asked them: Do you believe you have a right to criticize the British government? They all put up their hands. Then I asked, Which of you believes that Britain has no right to exist? No one put up their hands. Now you know the difference, I said, and they all did.
The speech to the European Parliament in which he told that story can be viewed in full here.
Pace the good rabbi, if anti-semitism was "only about Jews" it would still matter. Jews matter not because they are Jews, but because they are human. No different qualification is required. That anyone thinks a better qualification than being a human is required to enjoy particular human rights is precisely what is wrong with our society today. Every time someone speaks of "Gay Rights" or "Women's Rights" or "Black Rights" or "Muslim Rights" or uses the phrase "hate crimes" I am immediately on my guard. Such people are more than likely to be a threat to human rights in general.
Damn it, how often does this need to be said before tribalists stop blathering? The whole point of the post-Enlightenment West is that every individual matters, regardless of who they are. Not just anti-semitism but tribalism in general is the virus that, as Rabbi Sacks says, keeps mutating. The only valid reason to regard an individual as better or worse is, as Dr King famously said (but as the Left seems to have forgotten) "the content of his character." The only valid reason to treat an individual differently before the law is his or her conduct. Amen to that.
Sympathy for the underdog is one of the most agreeable Anglosphere traits. I am prone to it myself; instinctively cheering on West Bromwich Albion or Stoke City against the likes of Manchester United. Fans of the Red Devils will bitterly tell you of the phenomenon known as "ABU" - Anyone But United, which is the same trait viewed from their perspective. It's logical then that we Brits should empathise with the downtrodden and – depending on our analysis of how they came to be underfoot – seek to right their perceived wrongs.
Humans have always been too quick to analyse their problems in terms of perceived malice from "the other". For example, I grew up in t'North in a heady atmosphere of victimhood. There were plenty of logical reasons for the relative poverty of our post-industrial towns and cities. Many of them would simply never be built in modern circumstances. They are there for long-gone reasons but their communities, bound together by tribal loyalties, cling to them with ferocious sentimentality. It would amuse their ancestors who left rural poverty all over our islands during the Industrial Revolution to flock to opportunities in dark, Satanic mills. To seek betterment elsewhere, as their ancestors did and as I could not wait to do, is perceived as defecting to the enemy. Better to live on, more or less supported (as their plucky ancestors never were) by a Welfare State that subsidises such wilful victimhood.
Even after I had left, it took me years to shake off those ideas. At University my law tutors urged me to apply to the major London firms but I declined, having grown up with the ridiculous but unchallenged view that our capital city was a nest of predators living idly on the sweat of honest working folk. The flip-side ABU-equivalent is the way that London football fans sneer-chant at provincial supporters "We pay your benefits". Now that I live in "that London" I have also heard Londoners claim victim-status themselves, bemoaning the high cost of living (particularly housing) and claiming that the capital is the only city on these islands to make a positive net contribution to HM Treasury.
Humans are tribal. If a language is really old, like Chinese or the tongues of the Native American tribes, the word for ones own people is "human" and the words for other peoples are derogatory – "foreign devil" or the like. The names we use for the Plains Indian tribes are given by their enemies because their own names would all translate to the same word. More recently, even "Wales" and "Welsh", the English names for the place I was born and the people among whom I was raised, are from the Anglo-Saxon for "foreigner". I would argue that where things have begun to go wrong in the West is that tribalism and victimhood have converged and an identity arms race encouraged by the anti-discrimination lobby has set all the "tribes" against each other.
This, I would suggest, is what the present furore about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, the scandal about statutory rapes in Telford, the murder of an elderly Jewish lady in Paris, the emergence of the Alt-Right, Black Lives Matter and AntiFa have in common. In their game of "victimhood trumps" various would-be underdogs have both strengthened their own tribal bonds and awoken the tribalism of others.
It's dangerous to enjoy the sight of the Labour Party – home of cynical grievance-mongers for decades – hoist by its own petard over anti-Semitism. It's perilous to succumb to anger over the way that Leftist political correctness has thrown thousands of white girls in Telford or Rotherham to the wolves for fear of the juju word "Racist". Lives are being lost (and many more lives degraded) in the United States as the uncontroversial assertions that "Black Lives Matter" and "All lives matter" are used as tribal battle cries. The Alt-Right's so-called "fascism" would evoke snorts of derision from history's real Fascists, as it amounts to White people lamely joining the destructive game of identity politics.
When growing up in Wales I once told a fanatical Welsh Nationalist that if he really had nothing better to be proud of than his ethnic roots, he should take up macramé so as to have an actual skill to take pride in. I felt free to mock his parochial obsessions because I could never imagine him presenting a threat but that kind of thing is more dangerous now. At one of my first partners meetings at a law firm in London where most of my partners were Jewish, I was surprised when one said we had no chance of winning a bid for some work because of anti-semitism. I told him, truthfully, that I had never heard an anti-semitic remark in my life and doubted the thought would even cross the potential client's mind.
That anti-semitism is back in Britain, as it clearly now is, is due to the Labour Party's attempts to use identity politics to build its own base. Rejecting (or rather rejected by) its traditional base, Labour has sought to put together a coalition of victims, including – though socially and economically there is no more "conservative" group around – British Muslims. To do so it has become uniformly pro-"Palestinian" and anti-Israel and thus attracted into its midst many members reared with a hatred of Jews as unchallenged as my early hatred of "the South".
I reject the Alt-Right because fighting fire with fire just doesn't work. The answer to the poisonous ideas of identity politics is not to join in. It's to reject them for what they are– inimical to the best values of Western Civilisation. Our highest value is the Rule of Law – a much misunderstood phrase, particularly on the Continent where it's often used to mean "shut up and do as you are told or we'll set the police on you". The best way to explain it is in the resonant phrase – "Be you never so high, the Law is above you". Your social status, your ethnicity, your family background, your education, your political power and your wealth are all irrelevant to the Law, in the august presence of which we are all (as we are not in any other context) equal. When you say your favourite class of "victim" deserves special protection from the Law, you are shattering the only important equality – the one on which our civilisation is built. We in the West have done that repeatedly and with the terrible consequences that are now emerging as we have sought to signal our virtue by "protecting" various underdogs.
The Labour Party will not extricate itself from its present mess by re-ordering the hierarchy of victim-groups. I hope and believe that was not what the British Jews protesting yesterday were asking for. Nor by classifying her murder as an anti-Semitic hate crime will we bring back to life the murdered Parisienne or protect future such victims. We can all only emerge from this destructive and hateful shambles by restoring equality before the law and abandoning the damaging notions of identity politics in general and "hate crime" in particular.
Human progress is driven by free competition of ideas. It is hindered by the sort of tribalism that means you must know someones race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender before you can evaluate the credibility of their ideas, their rights to express them or the correct punishment for someone who hurts them.
I used to read David Thompson‘s blog back in the day when blogging was the future. You remember, that time before Twitter admitted the ADD types, the narcissists, the shriekingly thoughtless conformists and (thank goodness) the occasional pithy wit to the online conversation. I found my way back there this morning thanks to a Facebook link from another legend of those days, The Devil.
The post will make you laugh or cry depending upon your predisposition to optimism or pessimism. My first reaction was to laugh. Then I pondered the idiocies of my own student days. We thought we had trounced the authoritarian leftists of the “no platform for fascists and racists” campaign with our support for free speech. But then we went off into the real world to generate wealth and they stayed in the fact-free fairyland of academia and the public sector. Yet they won because here we are thirty years later with their regime of “hate crimes” and “political correctness”. Here we are with a police force that openly states it will not investigate real crimes against us and our property but WILL show up mob-handed to arrest dissident tweeters.
The great challenge of our age is to purge academia and the state of the enemies of Western thought. Alas that’s not funny at all.