Saturday 20 July 2013

The free society and its enemies

Two stories in today's papers fill me with dread. 

The  Independent today is exercised about the choice of a former Playboy model as television presenter as successor to Barbara Walters, for a leading American show. Some years ago, and not so many, the fact that they she had modelled naked would have caused dismay, at one time from respectable people and later from feminists, but this does not seem to be, as they say now, 'an issue'. The problem is that the former model is opposed to vaccinating children against measles and other childhood ailments, which she thinks can cause autism.

I am not interested in American television presenters, except to note that they are often blonde and very pretty. I am slightly interested in autism but what is much more interesting is the sense that we are living in an increasingly closed society. I suppose that this lady's fears about vaccines are probably baseless, though no-one knows for sure. I have no doubt that by expressing them she will dissuade some parents from vaccinating their children and it may be that deaths of children will even ensue. Perhaps she should be told not to mention the subject on the air. Her employer is certainly within his rights to do so, but in that case what about freedom of speech?

Had she said she was opposed to homosexual marriage things would look much worse for her. Had she admitted in a sworn affidavit, as happened recently with another American television star, that she had used the word 'nigger' (at some unspecified point in her life) she would not have been given the job, although Miss Paris Hilton narrowly got away with it. And so it goes.

The other story is one that has run for several days in England about a sports commentator on the BBC who said of a woman tennis player that 'she is never going to be a looker'. This was probably true, though unchivalrous, but he is not in trouble for being inaccurate, unchivalrous or downright rude, but for being sexist. He has been publicly humiliated and might lose his job. 

I do not accept that considering, talking about and treating women differently from men is wicked, if that is what sexist means. I am also aware that women judge one another on their appearance, just as men judge women on their appearance, and that this is because appearances are very important. Especially for women, but for men too to a lesser degree. I do not think that the remarks were sexist, in any case, though by using the word one concedes ground to the feminists. Plenty of women make cruel remarks about men's appearance.

But this is about political power over people's lives, not courtesy towards women. The idea is to make sure people who have an old-fashioned, inarticulate liking for old ways of thinking, or not thinking, are kept in a state of low-level apprehension about voicing their opinions on the important things in life, such as sex and race. England's cleverest Prime Minister, Arthur James Balfour, said that society is perpetually persecuting, but this does not come from society spontaneously policing itself. It comes from powerful opinion formers, who prod people like cattle about what to think or pretend to think. How did they gain the power they now wield? I do not know, but I do know that, though it began in the 1960s, it largely happened while Conservatives like Margaret Thatcher were in office and Marxists were surrendering in the Cold War,

There are increasingly authoritarian societies on both sides of the Atlantic, and how far removed we are from those two great Anglo-Saxon (well English, anyway) virtues: a sense of humour and common sense. We are living in an age of compulsory niceness and, for people who fail to live up to the rules about niceness, things can instantly become very, very nasty indeed.

Witness Emma West, the woman on the train who ranted about black people not being British and ended up spending Christmas in prison, while her child was taken into care. It took them eighteen months, with the threat of her going back to gaol and losing custody of her child, before she agreed to plead guilty to whatever racially aggravated offence she was charged with. Witness the man demoted at work for saying on his Facebook wall 'Gay marriage in church would be a step too far'. Witness the Oxford undergraduate who spent a night in the cells for making a homophobic remark by telling a mounted policeman that his horse was gay, the Protestant missionaries who were told by the police that they were not allowed to distribute their leaflets in a 'Muslim area' of Liverpool and the man who was fined for revving his car 'in a racist manner' when two people from the Indian Sub-Continent walked past. He said he hadn't noticed them, but he lost his case.

Once, recently, English society had its own power structure, wholly separate from the state, expressed in sexual conservatism, the class system and social deference, which told people how to behave and stigmatised those who broke the rules. Britain's real religion, in Maurice Cowling's phrase, was low-key respectability. People kept an eye on their neighbours and sometimes tutted about things they did not care for. Some people cared about what other people thought and some did not give a damn. People's lives were narrower in those days, but they could say most things they liked. People sometimes used to reply, if you asked if you could sit at their table in a railway station café, 'It's a free country'. Now, instead, we have state-enforced means of telling people how to live their lives. In place of organic inequality we have synthetic egalitarianism, enforced by employment laws and the police. No-one says, even in joke, that this is a free country, because everyone knows that it is not and that this is no joking matter.

We were once a rational civilisation. How do we fight against all this?


  1. My view is that it was not the Sixties that changed everything, but WW1. Willis

  2. A.J.P. Taylor said: Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. Substantial householders were occasionally called on for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly £200 million in 1913-14, or rather less than 8 per cent. of the national income. The state intervened to prevent the citizen from eating adulterated food or contracting certain infectious diseases. It imposed safety rules in factories, and prevented women, and adult males in some industries, from working excessive hours. The state saw to it that children received education up to the age of 13. Since 1 January 1909, it provided a meagre pension for the needy over the age of 70. Since 1911, it helped to insure certain classes of workers against sickness and unemployment. This tendency towards more state action was increasing. Expenditure on the social services had roughly doubled since the Liberals took office in 1905. Still, broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.

    All this was changed by the impact of the Great War. The mass of the people became, for the first time, active citizens. Their lives were shaped by orders from above; they were required to serve the state instead of pursuing exclusively their own affairs. Five million men entered the armed forces, many of them (though a minority) under compulsion. The Englishman's food was limited, and its quality changed, by government order. His freedom of movement was restricted; his conditions of work prescribed. Some industries were reduced or closed, others artificially fostered. The publication of news was fettered. Street lights were dimmed. The sacred freedom of drinking was tampered with: licensed hours were cut down, and the beer watered by order. The very time on the clocks was changed. From 1916 onwards, every Englishman got up an hour earlier in summer than he would otherwise have done, thanks to an act of parliament. The state established a hold over it citizens which, though relaxed in peacetime, was never to be removed and which the second World war was again to increase. The history of the English state and of the English people merged for the first time.

  3. That is part of it. I have recently been 'reading', via Audible, John Keegan's 'The face of battle'. It is the first time I have just started at the beginning after listening once.

    I cannot do it justice in a few words, but everything was turned upside-down by Passendale, Verdun and the first day of the Somme.

    It was not what happened to the citizens on the home front that mattered, it was what happened to the citizens.

  4. Theology, Psychiatry, Art, Music...

  5. I agree but many of those changes would have happened without a war. I think WW I destroyed civilisation - gave birth to Communism, Fascism and a huge state, destroyed traditional societies like Russia Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. But do I blame WWI for recent authoritarianism? Perhaps via Frankfurt School.

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  8. UK is so much further down the Orwellian rat hole than I thought

  9. Liked the article. Well reasoned.

    I can attest to the radicalization due to the first World War. My grandfather certainly experienced that but I suspect that veterans were susceptible to political agitation after the conflict.

    Certainly between 1890 and 1914 was a more fanatical period that the sybaritic drug toking draft dodging culture of the 1960's. Once the Vietnam War was over it lost its head of steam. I think what we have experienced subsequently is an unconscious creeping of ideas — a self-righteous aping that became institutionalized as the young acquired the positions of power from their parents.

  10. I think your remarks in the comments on WOI are more interesting, you should an article about that. Jacques de Draak

  11. The past wasn't as tolerant as you're suggesting. The Lord Chancellor's office was busy censoring novels and plays, inconsistently and irrationally. Remember the trials of Ulysses and Lady Chatterley's Lover? The idiotic prosecution of Oz and International Times? Sexuality was persecuted in bizarre ways; the occasional periods of puritanism have never been representative of the broader English tradition, which is bawdy. And of course when pornographic magazines and videos were suppressed, inevitable corruption saturated the police force and sloshed through the corridors of power.

    This piece is, therefore, really just saying that the persecutions and un-freedoms you like have been replaced by ones you dislike.

    I'd prefer to see a genuinely free society.

    1. That sounds good to me; With all due respect.

    2. Works for me as well. But surely Mr. Risdon doesn't believe that the state was less intrusive then than it is today.

      Virtually every nosy librarian and offended civil servant is also a policeman in addition to all of the bristling apparatus of the surveillance state.

  12. I agree completely with the Wood comment about WW1 and gradual state encroachment. The AJP Taylor quotation is one to which I frequently refer.

  13. Do you suppose Popper had these kinds of people in mind when he wrote his books?

  14. Very interesting Paul, especially the comments on WWI which I admit to being ignorant of. This is priceless were it not farcical and worrisome. "Oxford undergraduate who spent a night in the cells for making a homophobic remark by telling a mounted policeman that his horse was gay." Seems like PC, political correctness is strangling free speech, causing us to live in some kind of nameless fear of offending people. Where are moderation and temperance?! Let them appear forthwith. England seems to be forgetting its identity. Alison