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The New Victorians

In Britain at least, the Victorian era has often been revered as a time of imperial and industrial advancement, when the nation’s influence (for better or for worse) spread round the grateful globe to the sound of shiny, marching boots and patriotic anthems, while at home there was increasing prosperity and social harmony. People went to church regularly, wore their dresses long and their corsets tight, doffed their caps and top hats to their betters, paid their bills, disciplined and raised their many children right , abhorred divorce, adultery and any other deviance, politely tolerated foreigners as long as they spoke English and stayed in their own benighted countries, worshipped God and the Queen Empress in equal measure and generally knew their place. 

 

Beneath this façade, however, the reality was somewhat different. The vast fortunes of the industrial revolution were amassed at the expense of slaves or cheap labour in unsafe factories not unlike the slums inhabited by the uneducated, unprotected workers. The degradation, disease and barbarity of the Crimean War may have produced the saintly Florence Nightingale, but it would be another century before a new, secular age created a universal health service for the nation. Many marriages were a stifling sham with women forced to bear children almost yearly – at the risk of their own and the child’s life – while the birch-wielding paterfamilias amused himself with mistresses or prostitutes, not infrequently importing venereal disease into the marital bed. Capital and corporal punishment were the order of the day, as were the workhouse, the poorhouse and debtors’ prison. But appearances were rigorously maintained; unalloyed and visible virtue reigned supreme. 

 

It is well over a century since Queen Victoria died, but the spirit of her long, strictured reign is once again at large. A new breed of Victorians is vociferously setting the tone via social and other media, casting a suffocating blanket of boundaries, regulations and glittering perfection over society. These virgins of the second millennium strive to police every aspect of daily life, both public and private: conversation, vocabulary, dress, relationships, education, finance, food, transport, energy and reproduction – the list is endless. Bathroom, bedroom, living room, dining room, kitchen, school, workplace, bar and high street are all subjected to their self-righteous gaze. Not content with controlling our outward behaviour, they also demand to regulate our thoughts; to bring them into line with their own. No deviation is permitted; their vision of perfection is homogeneity on their terms. In California, one of their High Places where speaking your truth is an obligatory fashion, zealous female consultants now dictate how sex scenes are scripted and filmed, while grammatical lexicons impose rules about every word, phrase and tone of voice. Failure to observe these apparently liberal constraints results in calling out, cancellation, media storms and death threats; they have reintroduced the death penalty for the slightest breach of their black and white Code. 

 

The quest for perfection has always existed and brings many positive advances – when tempered with self-knowledge. But self-knowledge is something the New Victorians lack. They claim to be perfect, or ‘correct’, in every aspect of their lives: emotions, ecological and cultural awareness, relationships, diet, dress, opinions – this last in particular. It is compulsory to think correctly. And they demand that we lesser beings should be equally perfect. 

 

There is one significant area where they closely resemble the original Victorians: hypocrisy. Despite their strident claims to virtue, they themselves fall far short. And in one vital way this is where they also differ fundamentally from Victoria’s subjects. As Christians (often inwardly as well as outwardly), the people of Victorian Britain were often painfully aware that they were hypocrites in many parts of their lives. Sometimes they tried to put this right, but mostly they contented themselves with preserving a respectable appearance. 

 

Being ignorant of any religion except their own, be it one of the Feminisms, Me Too, BLM, Wokeism or a constantly growing number of other sects,  the New Victorians see only the faults of others, never their own. 

 

 

Pity the Nation

When Kalil Gibran wrote these lines in ‘The Garden of the Prophet’ in 1933, he might have been thinking of the inward-looking island that now floats offshore of Continental Europe: 

 

‘And Almustafa was silent, and he looked away towards the hills and towards the vast ether, and there was a battle in his silence. 

Then he said: “My friends and my road-fellows, pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.

“Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave, eats a bread it does not harvest, and drinks a wine that flows not from its own winepress.

“Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero, and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.

“Pity the nation that despises a passion in its dream, yet submits in its awakening.

“Pity the nation that raises not its voice save when it walks in a funeral, boasts not except among its ruins, and will rebel not save when its neck is laid between the sword and the block.

“Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox, whose philosopher is a juggler, and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking.

“Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings, and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another with trumpetings again.

“Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years and whose strong men are yet in the cradle.

“Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation’. 

Strangers bearing flags

30 Mar | Philosophy

Since the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, it has been common to see a Union flag – sometimes two – in the background when members of the British government appear on television. This is not unique, however: when heads of state meet formally the flags of their nations are almost invariably on display, while at international gatherings such as the United Nations and the EU, the flags of all countries represented are flown. 

 

Yet in the case of the post-Brexit UK this symbolism is more marked, particularly since the recent proposal that government buildings in London (and perhaps elsewhere on the Island) should permanently fly a Union Jack. Ministers point out – not entirely correctly – that in cities on the continent of Europe it is common to see the relevant national flag outside official buildings. So why should a newly ‘independent’ UK not do likewise?

 

One of the original purposes of a flag is to unify those who belong to the entity which it represents. Since the time of the Roman Empire, and perhaps before, armies have used flags as a means of rallying troops in the heat of battle; to visibly signal that the commander is still present and in command. For these flags, often called colours or standards, to fall into enemy hands is a sign of defeat, and many soldiers have died to prevent this disgrace befalling their unit. Similarly, to burn or deface someone’s flag is a profound insult, even a declaration of war.

 

But flag waving can be divisive and dangerous, a symptom of an ‘us and them’ mentality. In the USA, the Stars and Stripes is the subject of the national anthem, and children swear allegiance to it daily in school, while the Confederate flag regularly appears as a symbol of revolt and racial segregation, even white supremacism. In Communist China, flags are used in ceremonies of all kinds, and are also seen in the autocratic regimes of present-day Turkey and across the Middle East. ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups display the black flag of Islam as a symbol of their ‘holy war’. 

 

Recent history also underlines the intoxicating danger of the flag. In World War II, every unit of Stalin’s Red Army carried a red flag, which was hoisted above captured territory; and during the Cold War the communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe were obliged to fly a hammer and sickle alongside their own national flag to affirm their allegiance to Soviet hegemony centred on Moscow. In Fascist Italy, Mussolini’s blackshirts marched under the Fascist flag (as did Oswald Moseley’s followers in 1930s Britain), while in Nazi Germany the cult of the flag reached a sinister apogee, with torchlit rallies led by thousands of flag bearers and the wearing of the swastika and Nazi eagle on uniforms and civilian dress. 

 

The instinct to wave a flag can be due to national pride, such as in sport, but it is also a sign of insecurity, of uncertainty about one’s identity. If you aren’t sure who you are then a flag can lend you a sense of belonging to something larger; a form of comfort blanket. 

 

So the nationalist government of England should beware of flags and the cultish, divisive attitudes that they so often incite. If the Union is under threat of breaking up, as seems to be the case, it will not be preserved by a piece of coloured cloth flown prominently in people’s faces; nor by Union Jack symbols on ‘British’ goods in shops – another recent trend. As history regularly shows, regimes and empires built upon flag waving are like houses built on sand, and end in ignominious collapse. 

 

 

Bon débarras

19 Jan | Philosophy

When, in 1963 and 1967, Charles de Gaulle, then President of France, vetoed the United Kingdom’s application to join the European Economic Community, later to become the European Union, he was right to do so. He correctly predicted that the English in particular would be a thorn in the side of the other member states, and would act as an infiltrator for American interests. In his view, the ‘anglosphere’ would always be more important to them than their continental neighbours, whose languages and cultures they could not understand, and who they subsequently feared. 

 

The UK’s vote to leave the EU would thus have been no surprise to de Gaulle. He would almost certainly have supported it; and, had he still been in power, he would have proved an intractable negotiator of any future relationship. ‘No deal’ would have probably been his preferred option. 

 

Of course, de Gaulle’s reasons for rejecting Britain’s application were more complex. As President, France’s economic interests were paramount to him, as was building a strong partnership with what was then West Germany under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, with whom he became close friends. He believed that a UK membership would have compromised this. 

 

So England has now got what it voted for. It has left the European Union and all its institutions, as well as the Customs Union and the Single Market. It has regained its sovereignty and its dark blue passports. Having always been a semi-detached member of the European project, it is now completely detached, and bobs around in the North Sea like a piece of flotsam.  It also has the English Nationalist government that it deserves, led by an incompetent liar whose mismanagement of the response to the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in far more deaths and infections than would otherwise have occurred, as well as an economic and social catastrophe. Compounded by the exit from the EU, these will leave deep scars on the nation’s finances, productivity and well-being for decades to come. 

 

Be careful what you wish for.

 

Already there is muted talk of a future membership of the EU. But even if rejoining were to be possible (and acceptable to the other member states), it will not be for at least a quarter, perhaps half a century, by which time the United Kingdom may no longer exist in its present form. Scotland may be independent, as might Wales, while Northern Ireland may have reunited with the Republic of Ireland. All these are real possibilities.

 

While those three nations should be allowed to rejoin the European Union, where they would be welcomed, England has no place there. It is neither suitable nor worthy, and would only cause more disruption, bringing its misplaced sense of superiority to any future relationship. The EU is better off without the insular, mono-lingual island of England: bon débarras – good riddance.  

The War of Identities

Every human being is unique. Each of us has specific characteristics, qualities, shortcomings and life experiences that make us who we are: an individual and important part of the vast tableau of humanity. We all have a role to play, however humble, and in our different ways, often subconsciously, we are all striving to be divine. 

 

Beyond our uniqueness, however, yet inextricably entwined with it, we all belong to a diverse collection of communities. We are part of a family, a tribe, a city, town or village; we are citizens of a country, state and region, an inhabitant of a continent. We are daughters, sons, brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and cousins. We are part of an ethnic group, a social strata, a caste, a culture; a speaker of a language or group of languages; we belong to a profession, vocation, trade, religion, faith community or other organisation; we are a member of a race, a majority or minority, our skin is a certain colour, we have at least one gender or none, at least one sexual orientation or none; we are a friend, a colleague, a partner, wife, husband or confidant; a competitor, a collaborator, a helper, an enemy; we are part of the problem or part of the solution. The list of groupings and associations to which we belong, and where we intersect with others is almost endless. This is what makes up our identity; it is what creates our connections to other living beings and the rest of the world, perhaps even the universe. 

 

But the bridges that connect us to other people, places and cultures are being torn down. Boundaries and barriers – walls – are being built. Our individual uniqueness is being increasingly used to separate us from others, to set us apart from those who are ‘not like us’; to make enemies, not friends. 

 

Identity is fast becoming a weapon. It is frequently a political allegiance, an act of faith or ethnicity; or membership of a cult such as Woke. We are ordered to define ourselves as members of a particular and separate grouping or sub-set, not part of wider society or humanity as a whole. To be different. 

 

The theory of intersectionality has contributed to this situation. It explores in detail the many ways in which it is possible to discriminate against someone on the basis of one or more elements of their identity, thus drawing attention to hitherto concealed forms of prejudice. Although enlightening, this has also helped set in motion a politics of identity that has seized control of public discourse, especially in the West. It is a mindset which, far from celebrating and cultivating our natural uniqueness as a gift, perverts it into a means of sowing discord; of taking offence at other people’s difference, accusing them of being ‘not one of us’. While justifiably attacking the social, hierarchical, racial, gender and class prejudice of the past (which still exist, albeit to a lesser degree), it seeks to replace them with new forms of discrimination and victimhood. 

 

Identity politics is inherently destructive and divisive. Like the populist demagogues who it reviles, it creates, invents and encourages difference, incites suspicion and loathing, sees enemies everywhere, turns away love, kindness and friendship. It is demolishing the bridges that connect us to one another, the creative, inspiring uniqueness of each and every one of us, and replacing them with a new, Iron Curtain of hatred. 

 

 

The Ivy League

08 Dec | Philosophy

In the not-too-distant past, universities, particularly the more selective, research universities often referred to in Anglo-Saxon circles as the Ivy League, were places of bold, rigorous debate. The most extreme, even extremist opinions could be publicly expressed without fear of censorship and were subjected to merciless scrutiny, counter argument and rebuttal, sometimes complete demolition. 

 

This is how theories, ideas and inventions are tested to destruction before being published, marketed to the public, implemented as government policy or adopted as societal norms. It is a legitimate function of a community of intellectuals. Politicians have frequently consulted academics in order to get an informed opinion from the world’s leading authorities to help them formulate economic, political or social strategies. An effective head of government, such as the Chancellor of Germany, Dr Angela Merkel, takes a syncretistic approach to a range of views from specialists then moulds them into policies. This is a wise use of expertise. 

 

But the recent decision by the University of Cambridge (one of many such moves in higher education) to change its official policy in order to ensure that everyone’s views are treated with equal respect is yet more evidence of the decline of universities as places of debate over the past few decades, during which time students at UK – or more specifically, English – universities have been charged increasingly high tuition fees, transforming them into customers who, rightly if not always successfully, demand value for money.

 

By acquiescing to this commodification of higher education, universities have chosen to become corporate institutions with significant PR, marketing and financial strategies. They have discovered, often to their discomfort, that they are now subject to market forces; and to that old adage, ‘the customer is always right’. 

 

They live in fear of the financial and reputational consequences of not giving in to the demands (even the whims) of the legions of activists and interest groups – some quite marginal – who throng their campuses in a permanent state of seething rage and entitlement, poised to take offence at the slightest thing and whose battle cry is, ‘I find that offensive’ – clearly unaware that it is a sin of pride to be offended. 

 

These agitators, many of whom are from privileged backgrounds and have never experienced discrimination or harassment, insist that universities must respect everyone’s opinions. But ‘respect’ means different things to different people. From this basic fact, misunderstandings and perceived injustices are guaranteed to flow. By their very nature, academics thrive on reasoned, informed debate and defend everyone’s right to express their opinion – as well as their own and other people’s right to disagree with and counter that opinion. This is the lifeblood of academia; it is how discoveries that change the world for the better are made.

 

Academics now often complain that they are no longer consulted by politicians and policy makers; and, if they are, their opinions are disregarded. But if they allow the censorship or suppression of valid, albeit unfashionable opinions in order to protect their image and their balance sheets, then they should not be surprised if they forfeit the ‘respect’ that they so cravenly accord to the personal and often corrupt playground agendas of their students. In this context, the wearing of masks imposed by the coronavirus pandemic become symbolic gags. 

 

So perhaps the term ‘Ivy League’ is apposite? Ivy is an invasive species that chokes other plants and damages the buildings to which it tenaciously clings, giving a superficial appearance of distinction. It bears no flowers, harbours dust, dirt and creeping things, and has to be trimmed back regularly. In the end it is often cut down and uprooted.

 

The answer to the perpetually offended is this: if you want respect, be the first to show it.

 

 

Wooden tongues

27 Nov | Philosophy

The professed aims of the code of speech and behaviour now commonly referred to as political correctness are noble ones. By establishing societal norms about how people, groups and identities (for example) should be referred to and treated, it seeks to make us more reflective and inclusive in our choice of language, to regularly review and update our vocabulary and perspective as global society evolves (for better or for worse). 

 

Few people would disagree with this. The stigmatising and vilification of certain peoples has frequently led to violent persecution, wars and genocide, many of which are within living memory and in some cases ongoing. 

 

But from the admirable aspects of political correctness, dubious, self-seeking and hypocritical behaviours have developed and taken hold, which are contrary to its spirit and original intentions. This particularly afflicts the English-speaking countries, where the roots of political correctness lie, probably on a university campus on the west coast of America, a part of the world that dictates many social behaviours in what is sometimes referred to, with jingoism and a tragic lack of irony and self-knowledge, as the ‘anglosphere’. 

 

Just listen to one of the more vocal practitioners of this form of speech, which is prevalent among but by no means confined to those under thirty-five, who have come of age during its autocratic rule. Their carefully chosen, circumlocutory phrases come ponderously, accompanied by frequent attempts at eye contact and lemon-sucking expressions, as they try to ascertain if you are taking their valid point and are duly impressed by their unalloyed virtue. You can almost hear the pages of the dictionary turning in their mind as they search for the next, supposedly inoffensive and inclusive, but actually provocative and self-aggrandising expression for your education and general moral improvement. 

 

The vocabulary of political correctness is now extensive and constantly growing, ranging from ubiquitous evergreens such as ‘inappropriate’, ‘issue’ and ‘challenge’, to more specialised and arcane constructions lifted from anthropological and ethnological textbooks translated from a minority language spoken by only five hundred people somewhere in California, and then only at home. 

 

The French, who, due to the greater purity of their language and the watchful eye of the Académie Française, are spared many of the excesses of political correctness, have an expression for such ways of speaking: la langue de bois – usually translated as ‘cant’ or ‘waffle’, but more literally as ‘wooden language’ or a ‘wooden tongue’. And much politically correct comment is just that: it sounds as if the speaker has a tongue carved out of blackthorn or something similarly dense and unyielding, and which is obstructing their speech. Or perhaps the words themselves have been carved out of wood and force fed to them to be duly regurgitated as a scripted lecture. It is painful to listen to and violates the English language, reducing it to a lesser dialect or volapük, and not the great, poetic symphony it can be when used with skill, sensitivity and insight. 

 

Why do so many people speak this way? Have they ever listened to themselves? The answer to that is yes – because it is for their own benefit that they use such language, not because they are genuinely concerned about minorities, the oppressed, disabled or otherwise disadvantaged, but because they wish to be publicly and visibly virtuous, to feel good about themselves.

 

And that is the key word that underpins their entire discourse: self.  

 

 

 

Words we are not allowed to use

What began as a sincere attempt to eradicate or at least reduce discrimination, has for some time been having the opposite effect. Millions of people who no doubt regard themselves as liberal and tolerant, open to other beliefs and points of view, are proving to be anything but. 

 

The policy of re-writing history, dictating what people must think and believe, was integral to the Third Reich, the Soviet Union and the Communist regimes of East and Central Europe, and is also present, albeit to a lesser extent, in present-day Hungary under Orban and in Erdogan’s Turkey. But if you were to point out to the Thought Police of today  – the predominantly white, privileged, female social justice warriors who go boldly on the ether in their quest to make everyone as pure as they are – that they are behaving like Nazis, then you will be swiftly judged, found guilty and cancelled without trial. You might receive death threats, you could even be physically attacked – all for stating an opinion that they will not allow you to hold. But you are unlikely to meet these new Victorians in person: they rarely leave the safety of their keyboards.

 

The most recent manifestation of this new wave of visceral intolerance is being ‘woke’. This elastic concept has been adopted unreflectingly by a sizeable portion of the West’s most secure, comfortably-off citizens, and is increasingly used as a vehicle for their own prejudices and self-loathing, which they neither acknowledge nor confront.

 

To take but one example, there is the ‘N’ word. According to Woke Law, this deeply offensive word may never be used in any context whatsoever by anyone who is not Black. It must also be expunged from historical usage, including in books such as Huckleberry Finn, which reflects its era accurately and honestly. 

The Thought Police’s blanket ban on the ‘N’ word extends to non-Black people everywhere. Yet the vast majority of them would be unlikely to use it in any case, as it is almost wholly confined to the United States, with its history of legal segregation. 

 

When I was growing up in Britain in the 1960s, racial discrimination was an ugly but rarely considered part of life, even among reflective individuals. If questioned, most people would have admitted that it was offensive, patronising, divisive and uncivilised; that it should have been illegal, as it has subsequently and rightly become. Yet the most insidious aspect of racial discrimination at that time was its casual, often instinctual nature. It was simply the order of things.

 

There were many words to describe people of colour, all of them more or less offensive and shameful, and which do not need to be quoted here. We all know what they are, and if we are honest with ourselves, most of us have used them or acquiesced in their use. But in our individual ways we have also helped to make their use socially and legally unacceptable. 

 

But in the UK and the rest of Europe, indeed in most of the world, the ‘N’ word or its equivalent in other languages was and is not one of them. It is an American phenomenon, reflecting the deep fissures in their weak, spoilt, unjust and divided society, which appears to be becoming more, not less fractured; and more, not less stupid. For all its economic and military might, the USA seems powerless to address its many divisions. By prohibiting the rest of the world from using their homegrown racial insult, they are attempting to export their own problems rather than confronting and solving them themselves; lecturing others rather than putting their own house in order. It is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the mirror. 

 

Trying to dictate what people think is an ultimately futile pursuit; even a casual examination of the totalitarian regimes of the past will show this to be true. So don’t tell us which words we are or are not allowed to use, particularly if they are not part of our usual vocabulary. As can be seen from the growing resistance to the Woke Cult, it is likely to have the opposite effect. If you tell someone not to use a particular word, they will promptly do so. Anyone who has told a child not to swear knows this. 

 

You can give us your love, but not your thoughts. We have our own thoughts.

Grenzenlos

Recently I was re-reading Henry Bacon’s insightful study of the work of Luchino Visconti, the Italian cinema, opera and theatre director. Among the themes that Bacon discusses is the vital necessity for an artist to be free of any kind of boundary, any limit that society or life itself may attempt to impose on them, their nature or their vision. He refers to Isaiah Berlin’s reflections on certain nineteenth-century intellectuals, which he feels apply to Visconti, and also to Stendhal, who of all the writers of the era most closely resembles Visconti in character and background:

‘…they belonged to the class of those who are by birth aristocratic, but who themselves go over to some freer and more radical mode of thought and of action. There is something singularly attractive about men who retained, throughout their life, the manners, the texture of being, the habits and style of a civilised and refined milieu. Such men exercise a peculiar kind of personal freedom which combines spontaneity with distinction. Their minds see large and generous horizons, and, above all, reveal a unique intellectual gaiety of a kind that aristocratic education tends to produce. At the same time, they are intellectually on the side of everything that is new, progressive, rebellious, young, untried, of that which is about to come into being, of the open sea whether or not there is land that lies beyond. To this type belong those intermediate figures … who live near the frontier that divides old from new, between the douceur de la vie which is about to pass and the tantalising future, the dangerous new age that they themselves do much to bring into being’. 

In his book on Schopenhauer, Thomas Mann made the not-dissimilar observation that art is the ultimate manifestation of immanence, aspiration, and their interdependence: ‘Conceiving the world as a colourful and turbulent phantasmagory of images through which the ideal, the spiritual glows is something eminently artistic and allows the artist to find their true nature. They can be sensuously and sinfully attached to the world of phenomenon and appearances, because they know they belong to the spheres of both ideas and the spirit, as the magician who makes appearances transparent for them’. 

For some time we have been witnessing an imposition of borders and boundaries of all kinds, whether physical, moral or intellectual, which reflect the desire of fearful, insecure individuals to control that which is not theirs to control; to stifle the creative impulse. Humanity only flourishes when boundaries are set aside and imagination is given free rein, in order for connections to be created, bridges built, similarities celebrated. 

As Rainer-Maria Rilke wrote, in ‘Imaginärer Lebenslauf’: ‘Erst eine Kindheit, grenzenlos und ohne Verzicht und Ziel. O unbewußte Lust’.