Tuesday, February 26, 2008

keep going left at the shibboleths

How Mumbo-Jumbo conquered the World
Francis Wheen
pp 338
Fourth Estate 2004

I was interested to be given this account of how the big ideas of the last 40 years arose more through a ping-pong game of necessity and luck, than through ideology.

For example, the concept of "Victorian values" was suggested to Margaret Thatcher in an offhand remark by her interviewer, the former Labour MP Brian Walden, in 1983. Prime Minister James Callaghan introduced the concept of monetarism to British politics in a speech to the Labour Party Conference in 1976 (a time when a policy could still be adopted by the British Communist Party one year, be put in front of the TUC the next, and osmose onto Labour policy books the year after that). And the greatest period of economic growth in modern British history was in the early 70's, a period of strong unions, power cuts, and a democratically-elected government brought to its knees by a union whose hubris set the scene for much of the strife of the 1980's. All of these are matters of public record, as is Francis Wheen's tenure at the New Statesman.

Wheen is a signatory of the Euston Manifesto, which aims to take the left-wing beyond socialism. One Manifesto point states, "We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently "understand", reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy." As a sign of good faith, he points out that somebody who read only the Reader's Digest for the best part of the last half of the 20th century would have a better idea of what was happening in the world than someone who exclusively read the New Statesman, because the latter would not publish essays criticising régimes that it judged provided an alternative to capitalist oppressors. Thus, we are told, Noam Chomsky wrote that the horrors wrought by Pol Pot upon his own people were in no means a genocide, but rather the result of frightened refugees telling interrogators what they wanted to hear, refined further by tame journalists to deflect Western attention from the effects of US military action in Cambodia. I would also note that a left-leaning philosopher who once had a good idea about the acquisition of languages, then spent a substantial part of his life at free lunches by re-writing his theory time and again, perhaps is not as much of a man of the people as he seems.

Chapters have invigorating titles like The Voodoo Revolution and Old Snake-Oil, New Bottles. A favourite theme is our distraction from the facts of history by various deconstructionist narratives wherein there are no lies, only differing perspectives. It's a prescient observation - three years after the book came out, Great Britain's "diversity tzar", Trevor Phillips, announced that history should be "rewritten" to show that the Turks saved us from the Spanish Armada.

Wheen certainly lives up to the Euston Manifesto's commitment to return to Enlightenment values.

And yet...and yet...

The text is ostensibly very reasonable and fair to all who are fair-minded, but an anti-religious theme surfaces occasionally. And, as in so many cases, for "anti-religious" read "anti-Christian".

For example, in the chapter entitiled The Catastrophists, amid a session where he debags various astrologers and fortune-tellers, Wheen tells us that Glen Hoddle's comment about disabled people paying for karma gained in a former life "was not discernably more offensive than the doctrine of original sin held by many...Christians."

More tellingly, he follows, for the most part, the convention of referring to somebody by their whole name for the first mention then by their surname, eg "James Callaghan" and thereafter "Callaghan". However, when Darwin's daschund pops up, he is only ever "Professor Richard Dawkins" or "Richard Dawkins", never just the surnominal reference reserved for mere mortals. One wonders what Wheen's Enlightenment values were to tell him about Dawkin's statement in 2006's The God Delusion:

"I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing up the child up Catholic in the first place."

It was puzzling, therefore, that towards the end of the book when he introduces Mohammed, Wheen refers to him as "The Prophet"; and the only references to Allah are within quotation marks, which allows him to report the speaker suffixing the name with "Subhana Wa T'ala", which means "may he be glorified and exalted". In my opinion, it would only be consistent also to refer to Jesus as the Saviour and God as the Almighty, but Wheen chooses not to take this step.

It's a maneuvre that's symptomatic of left-wing intellectuals' propensity to present themselves in surrender to a figure or group they perceive as being more powerful, more violent or more ideologically sound (or all three) than their own leadership - witness Edward Hallett Carr's repeated entranced mentions of "Mister Hitler" in his eve-of-the-war book "The Twenty Years' Crisis: 1919-1939."

The author is fond of referring to the "shibboleths" of those he criticises. In letting the mask slip as regards the contradictions between his withering views on religion and his wish to appease radical Islam, Wheen shows that his own shibboleths remain intact but, like the prettiest girl at a prom when the new football captain comes in, he has merely transferred his affections to the bigger player.

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