The spirit of this blog is perhaps summed up by something said by Karl Krauss, the Viennese satirist and habitual truth-teller: ‘Die Kunst dient dazu, uns die Augen auszuwischen’ – ‘The purpose of art is to wash the dust from our eyes’. To Central European intellectuals like Krauss, the coffeehouse was an essential part of life; a place of debate, conflicting ideas and ironic humour where it was possible to speak the truth in any of a dozen or more languages and be understood and welcomed by the other habitués, even if they disagreed with your opinions. Although the blog isn’t open for public comment, invited guests will occasionally contribute, in a language of their choice, on subjects such as literature, philosophy, cinema, music and European culture in general, as well as on the many different kinds of diversity.
When people or organisations speak grandly about their ‘values’, we can be sure that what they are referring to is their bottom line – the value of their stock.
Where social media goes, mediocrity is sure to follow.
Ignorance is only ever a click away.
Those who parade their virtue for all to see unwittingly reveal the vileness that lurks within them.
Speak loudly on social media and carry a victim impact statement.
Instead of being obsessed about the rubbish you put in your mouth, pay attention to the filth that comes out of it.
If hypocrisy could be bottled and sold, England would be the wealthiest nation on earth.
When all the snowflakes have melted away, it will be left to others to clear up the soggy mess.
People who take themselves too seriously only do so because no one else does.
Those who have nothing to say invariably do so at the top of their voice.
If you want respect, be the first to show it.
Those who take offence at everything are on a journey of discovery during which they will acquire no self knowledge, although other people will learn a great deal about them.
Education, particularly higher education, has ceased to have any significant pedagogic function and has instead become an exercise in arse-covering. The only knowledge it imparts is how to avoid all personal accountability, and wherever possible to shift blame onto someone else.
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
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.
The Impoverishment of the Anglophone
It is a warm, September afternoon in the Cișmigiu Gardens in Bucharest. You are sitting on a bench under the trees, watching people stroll, row on the lake, play backgammon outside a nearby café. From all around comes the music of the street: repartee and laughter in Romanian, Aromanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Albanian, Greek, here and there some German, French, even Russian. You feel at home among these familiar languages, how they intermingle almost seamlessly.
Then suddenly, there it is on the breeze: a whiff of entitlement comes floating through the park. The harmony is shattered. What else could it be but English voices?
It is often said that English is the international language. This claim, for some almost a dogma, dates back to when there were essentially only five versions of English: British, American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand. This cosy, extended family forms the basis of what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Anglosphere’, with its connotations of clubbable white men bestriding a globe which was then largely coloured pink; a club that no longer exists and probably never did.
Times have changed. There now seems to be a variant of English for every country in the world, whose users believe to be the one, true version, eagerly correcting others – including native speakers – whose grammar, pronunciation and vernacular they judge to be defective. They are not-infrequently encouraged in this pedagogic enterprise by native speakers, particularly the British, who absorb these new dialects into their everyday conversation. One only has to listen in a public space to realise how extensively these different patois have spread, becoming a many-headed hegemony.
English is now a citizen of nowhere; a language, almost a Volapük, spoken in every gutter in the world. Not dissimilarly to the public services, it has been sold off to the highest bidder: so much for taking back control. Rather than work itself into a frenzy about imaginary swarms of immigrants, perhaps the UK – notably the English – should reassert control over its linguistic borders, and reaffirm what the French refer to, with an admiration normally reserved for ‘la langue de Molière’, as ‘the language of Shakespeare’.
So in a very real sense, English has become too global for its own good, acquiring the unattractive sobriquet of ‘globish’, which sounds like a rare and fatal disease contracted by spending long periods in a dark, circular cave from which there is no escape. Yet the British have only their monolingual mindset to blame for this misappropriation of their mother tongue. For centuries they have travelled the world, their luggage full of their increasingly threadbare culture, speaking to (and often shouting at) everyone in English, assuming they will understand and comply. What wilful ignorance goes to another country and forces its inhabitants to speak the language of their visitor? The premise seems to be that English, a West Germanic language, is a form of ‘benchmark’. But a benchmark of what?
It cannot be denied, of course, that English has become a species of lingua franca, particularly for international institutions. Yet anyone who has been in meetings attended by people of different nationalities will know that this is not necessarily an advantage. In such situations, English is often used despite the fact that native speakers are in a minority; the resentment this causes can be palpable, particularly if the sole British or American attendee speaks too quickly, or uses obscure colloquialisms that are unintelligible to foreign colleagues who speak a purer form of English, filtered through comprehensive knowledge of their own and probably several other languages, none of which the Briton or American speaks. In April 2018, the French ambassador to the EU walked out of a meeting in protest because English was being used, despite the fact that everyone present was a French speaker.
The case of French is worth noting. Although once the language of European courtiers, and to an extent still the parlance of diplomacy, it has retained a higher level of linguistic purity and integrity than English by remaining within its geographical and cultural borders – the Francophonie of art, raison and the intellect; policed, of course, by the uncompromising Académie Française, from which there is much to learn – at least linguistically. For, while many French people lament the often brutish domination of English and their country’s perceived loss of international influence (Emmanuel Macron has publicly expressed a desire for French to be more widely spoken), they are unlikely to relish hearing their beloved native tongue abused by the rest of the world; as yet, French has no word for ‘globish’ – they just say … globish.
Over the past thirty years the relentless pace of globalisation has seen a concomitant rise in affordable travel, with millions now able to visit foreign countries that would once have been beyond their reach. Paradoxically, – in Britain, at least – there has not been a parallel or sustained rise in the number of schoolchildren learning foreign languages; in fact, recent trends show a decline, particularly in State schools. Although the figures for Independent schools have remained higher, with an increase in Mandarin and Russian, the overall trend appears to be down.
The reasons for this are undoubtedly complex. Are native English speakers responding to the increased, global use of English by not bothering to learn foreign languages, assuming more than ever that they will be understood everywhere? Or is this part of the phenomenon of misplaced, nostalgic nationalism, even xenophobia, which is now evident in Britain and the USA, along with many other countries? One of the numerous apocryphal tales to emerge from the EU referendum was that of a man who, when asked why he voted to leave, said it was because his daughter was turned down for a job in favour of someone who spoke Polish. ‘How can she compete with that?’ he complained.
Like it or not, the answer is that young people in the UK, who have grown up as EU citizens with the corresponding aspirations, advantages and challenges, compete for well-paid jobs with their continental peers, who routinely speak two or more foreign languages, often to professional level.
Those who have learnt foreign languages, particularly from an early age (it was once, and in places still is common to begin Latin at the age of seven), regard it as a seminal experience that laid the foundations of a lifelong love of language, which has the added benefit of improving one’s understanding of English. To master one or more inflected languages, with their genders, cases, tenses and often Byzantine grammatical rules, brings into focus the overlooked role of the subjunctive and pluperfect tenses, or the genitive, dative and vocative cases in English, which, like a palimpsest, lie hidden beneath everyday conversation.
Knowledge of other languages opens our eyes, our minds, fostering a cultural acuity that grows with each new language acquired. The study of Latin and Greek teaches us about our democracies’ origins, while European languages remind us of our intertwined history, a Gordian knot that no ‘exit’, however sharp, can sever. From Arabic, Hebrew and other languages of the Middle East we discover that their culture and religion are not the ‘Other’ that some like to claim, but have left an indelible imprint on our continent.
In short, speaking foreign languages removes barriers, especially at a time when troglodytes are frantically re-erecting them. Subtly but sometimes also forcefully they remind us, in ways that religion should but often fails to do, of all we have in common; the things which connect us. Multilingualism empowers individuals and transforms societies; anyone who has helped migrants integrate, interpreted at international forums, or simply talked in five or six languages to the other habitués of a Central European coffee house will know how exhilarating yet perfectly natural this can be.
We are often told that it is an advantage, indeed a privilege, to speak English. This is doubtful, and can lead to linguistic and cultural myopia; the most that could be said is that it is useful for those for whom it is not their mother tongue. But native speakers who do not have a working knowledge of at least one foreign language risk imprisoning themselves in their own culture, and remain reliant on others speaking English in order to communicate. This not only puts them in an inferior position, both socially and economically, it leaves them impoverished. Openness to others, on the other hand, brings riches.
Nor is the global pre-eminence of English guaranteed. By 2050 it is predicted that the USA, where 53 million people already speak Spanish as a mother tongue or bilingually, will be the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country, surpassing Mexico. The Hispanic population of America now controls a large proportion of the economy. In Britain, the children of former immigrants hold prominent positions.
It should be remembered that Latin, often dismissed by monoglots as ‘dead’, was once the language of the known world. Veni, vidi, vici …
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
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.
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 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 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 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 forms of speech: 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 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.