From Dejection: An Ode
|I met Murder on the way—|
|He had a mask like Castlereagh—|
|Very smooth he looked, yet grim ;|
|Seven blood-hounds followed him :|
|All were fat ; and well they might|
|Be in admirable plight,|
|For one by one, and two by two,|
|He tossed them human hearts to chew|
|Which from his wide cloak he drew.|
|Next came Fraud, and he had on,|
|Like Lord Eldon, an ermined gown ;|
|His big tears, for he wept well,|
|Turned to mill-stones as they fell.|
|And the little children, who|
|Round his feet played to and fro,|
|Thinking every tear a gem,|
|Had their brains knocked out by them.|
|Clothed with the Bible, as with light,|
|And the shadows of the night,|
|Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy|
|On a crocodile rode by.|
|And many more Destructions played|
|In this ghastly masquerade,|
|All disguised, even to the eyes,|
|Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, and spies.|
|Last came Anarchy : he rode|
|On a white horse, splashed with blood ;|
|He was pale even to the lips,|
|Like Death in the Apocalypse.|
|And he wore a kingly crown ;|
|And in his grasp a sceptre shone ;|
|On his brow this mark I saw—|
|‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’|
Many Christians maintain that their religion “set them free”, or liberated them. Whatever do they mean? I received a Catholic “education” and my descriptives would be far and away from glowing terms employed by the born again. In theory and practice that religion’s representatives meant to stupify the mind.
In keeping with Catholic tradition, separation by gender was implemented as far as was legally acceptable. Girls were expected and then praised to high Heaven for their deference and natural grace. (Tomboyishness – as in: personality – was actively persecuted.) As a reward, they were alloted extra “play time” and allowed to leave for home earlier. Boys were damned with the assumed tautology that we were too “boisterous” (yes, the staff were really that dense), and instructed that sports and a little mathematics were to be the extent of our purview.
John Erskine told students they had a moral, and attainable, obligation to be intelligent. Nothing so affirming here. We were informed regularly which of us was useless, which of us stupid and irreparably so, who was smart – not in the Erskine sense, but that pointed, accusatory way, as in, “oh, Mr Clark, I had no idea you were an expert in ark construction”. We soon learned that harsh words (usually with reference to Hell) and consequences were reserved for any who questioned The Doctrine.
On one occasion, I was told by a bucktoothed shag-weasel named Mrs Smith – her poor, browbeaten and well-meaning husband worked for the same institution – that no one in our class would amount to anything much: no successful businessperson or university scholar would escape the ragged crowd. We were working class and had to accept our lot. This sort of thing will, even at a young age, trigger an overwhelming sense of dejection. Children, we somehow forget, or pretend to not know, have a remarkable capacity for foreboding. It complemented what we were taught as a matter of course; we recited weekly:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate
This among a tsunami of verses in All Things Bright and Beautiful, an awful hymn that still retains the ability to sneak attack my consciousness. England has a long history of Christian moralists, working in service to power, excusing hideous societal failings by claiming that eternal bliss awaited their victims in death. That hypocrite Wilberforce arrogantly claimed to be doing God’s work, all the while stamping on the worker and hacking away at the Liberty Tree. Besides chattel slavery*, every terrible excess of the British capitalist class was justified: workhouses, the banning of workplace organisation, and government massacres, including Peterloo. Because, oddly, class distinctions were Heavenly ordained, and by extension contained, even if the racial weren’t†.
While he went on to preach about the perfectibility of the British State, with its damnable constitution — has anyone seen it? — and its heroic resistance to reform, starved bodies were being discovered in the Home Counties, half-digested daffodils in their stomachs. Hazlitt, perceptive and brilliant, put it tersely, “[he, Wilberforce,] who preaches vital Christianity to untutored savages, and tolerates its worst abuses in civilised states.”
William Cobbett satirised this type of Christian. The type who thinks suffering a holy virtue, and considers envy the very worst a pauper can experience.
Come, little children list to me
Whilst I describe your duty
And kindly lead your eyes to see
Of lowliness the beauty
‘Tis true your busy backs are bare
Your lips too dry for spittle
Your eyes as dead as whitings are
Your bellies growl for Vict’al
But, dearest children, oh! Believe
Believe not treach’rous senses!
‘Tis they your infant hearts deceive
And lead into offences
When frost assails your joints by day
And lice by night torment you
‘Tis to remind you oft to pray
And of your sins repent ye
Let dungeons, gags and hangman’s noose
Make you content and humble
Your Heavenly crown you’ll surely lose
Of here on earth you grumble.
But, as I’ve alluded to, this isn’t Christianity in toto, and I mustn’t allow the personal make me think so. Cobbett himself was a dedicated believer (he could never reconcile that his hero Thomas Paine was a deist), and despised those clergy that he felt were twisting the Good Word. And hasn’t it been the case that, just as there have been men citing the Old Testament when committing their terrible deeds, they have had their opposite, quoting from the Gospels? There are Bible verses that glory in the freeing of slaves, and there are those that revel in the taking of them – and indeed both sides of the 18th and 19th century debates on the question of owning of Africans made good use of them. There are other verses that teach followers to resist change and new ideas, and others still that seem to instruct believers that they should defiantly question, and if found lacking, overthrow the status quo.
Does this mean that there’s enough in the Judeo-Christian canon to make any condensing of it arbitrary? While the US-backed juntas of Central and South America paraded Family, Order and the Cross, independent priests and nuns were forming the vanguard of liberation theology. This movement which, until School of the Americas trained thugs put bullets into its leading figures, led with Jesus and made common cause with the socialists. The lies about unending joy following death were put to the wayside. They demanded salvation, in the form of land reform, democracy, adequate healthcare, and the pursuit of happiness, in the material here and now.
But the poor person does not existing as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.
So said Gustavo Gutierrez.
Well meaning as they no doubt were, there was – and will always be – a trap door awaiting all those wishing to employ Christianity for progressive means. It’s got a vindictive and selfish god, scriptural defenses of murder and plunder, it’s got heroes like Lot, and a historical connection to Rome that opens up an entirely new (and terrifying) avenue of dismay. It, in other words, it has baggage.
Cut out the bullshit and get right to the liberation. Real emancipation requires a radical change in the material realm, and to Hell with the spiritual (whatever that is anyway). If something requires an illusion – or is it delusion? – to sustain itself, surely there’s something amiss, the impartial must admit. Can’t people take the socialist pill without the sweet – and deadly – sugar coating of Christianity?
The great Richard Carlile, jailed for six years for fighting for an English free press, made the mistake of thinking that all that was required to revolutionise the masses was the propagation of radical literature. Once people read that there was an alternative to superstition and submission, then surely they would reach for the last priest’s entrails and strangle the world’s last king with them. The reasons why this wasn’t so are numerous, although principally it’s thus, people aren’t rational. To expect Man to be led by Reason alone, as he did, is like expecting a flower to be sustained entirely by starlight. It can’t, and we can’t – or at least, we had better not: John Stuart Mill was brought up to experience the world solely in terms of the rationalist utilitarian calculus, and by the age of twenty he found life weary and stale and was ready to die. His relief came chiefly from the poetry of the Romantics.
(And it was to the poetry of William Blake that Clement Attlee’s reforming Labour government turned to in 1951. Even this had its Biblical allusions:
I will not cease from mental strife,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.)
That’s not to say that Christianity must therefore be the vessel containing the germ of change. Only that appeals to reason alone will not suffice. Marx himself recognised this when, just before he wrote his famous line about the “opium of the people” (one of the best known quotes on the internet and one of the least understood), he described religion as, “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”. This leaves non-religious narratives at a disadvantage, because they haven’t the same recognition – in part because religious regimes have actively cracked down on them – and neither can they promise so much.
A Political Alternative
Yet attempts at an unifying, non-religious and emotive narrative have been made. These efforts (mostly communes), it could be said, have seen success by satisfying itches in those zones of the cortex usually reserved for the religious. Sin becomes alienation and oppression, the saviour figure of Moses, Jesus or Muhammad is replaced by the Collective or class, the moment of salvation and/or rebirth is The Revolution. Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, suggests that were his lead character – a devout and pious man of the cloth – to answer “do you believe in God?” with the negative, he would be a fervent socialist. He sees the overlap as significant, drawing particular attention to utopianism.
In the same way, if he had decided that God and immortality did not exist, he would at once have become an atheist and a socialist. For socialism is not merely the labor question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism to-day, the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to heaven from earth but to set up heaven on earth.
But we have to be careful here. Socialist and Christian groups share similarities exactly because they are groups, and all groups have their common objectives, vices and taboos. And it’s no surprise that a dedicated God botherer might make a committed politico – indeed, American politics is awash with those who manage to make an identity of both. More importantly, the socialist project is no illusion. It promises, rather than “spiritual improvement”, implementable solutions rooted in the world we can fairly assume exists. And in its quasi- forms it’s given us such boons as the welfare state, nationalised heathcare, subsidised arts, industries held in common, and trade unions.
What a socialist future can’t guarantee is vicarious redemption, or, for that matter, quick fixes. It won’t free you from the troublesome tendrils of reality. It’s unlikely to answer all of your prayers (yet what does?), and it certainly won’t grant you a personal Jesus.
What it may do is erode the binds of economic exploitation, eliminating what Oscar Wilde called the sordid nessessity of living for others. Allowing individuals to fully realise their innate talents, and the dreams that the pressures of work and capital, at present, suppress. It won’t be perfect, but it promises people a new, higher and more meaningful form of consolation: self-expression. (And if you insist on having concepts like “soul”, you might dedicate your freshly unmanacled mind and body to discovering or defining it. Perhaps without resorting to folk stories and clergymen.)
However, whatever the future brings – socialism or no – it’s unlikely to be “heaven on earth”. For this reason and others, Christianity will endure as source of false hope and sham freedom. Irrevocable as it and all religion may be though, can we at least begin to make them a little less necessary?
†Same for sex. On women agitating for the abolition of slavery, “[F]or ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions – these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture“.
‘Ukania’, as my old comrade Tom Nairn dubs it, has a monarchy that is now neither dignified nor efficient, a Church which cannot fill its pews or find a reputable or willing crowned head, and a ‘kingdom’ structure that reflects none of the centripetal aspirations on the peripheries – especially the Scottish and Irish ones.
How will a Brexiteered Ukania cope?
Let me admit that I am a bit late in my response to the Bret Weinstein incident, which prompted this post. Some of us have full time jobs and little time to spend on reading poetry and doing fuck all, Paddy. Anyway. I don’t want to spend too much time describing the situation. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, google it, there are plenty of news reports and youtube videos about it. In short, it is a story of a mass outcry over a faintest pretext blown out of proportion. Of students of a higher education institution shutting down any attempts at a reasonable discussion. Of professors and faculty members being shouted or chanted at, cornered by mobs and facing ridiculous accusations. All of it over, as I said before, the stupidest reason ever. All of it could have been averted if one side took of their social justice warrior ear muffs and listened for a second or two.
You might have guessed whose side I’m on. I support and agree with Bret Weinstein. But that’s not what this post is about. There is a force growing in the universities. A force, which the incidents at the Evergreen State College, Silliman College at Yale last year or University of Missouri in 2015 are symptoms of. That force is called Post-modernism.
As the name suggests, post-modernism is a school of thought concerning itself mostly with the post modern, born in 1960’s France. Postmodernists reject the existence of objective reality. They reject the Enlightenment and the scientific methods, logic and reason stemming from that era of human development. They are seen as Eurocentric, and in many cases tools of oppression and dominance created by the white man. There is more to it, and I recommend you read upon it. I don’t want to spend too much time on explaining that philosophy. I would however like point out one part of the postmodernist thought, that relates to issue discussed here. That is its approach to education.
Postmodernism rejects the perception that the main goal of education is to train students’ cognitive ability for
reason to produce a fully independent functioning citizen, but rather a citizen with a full social identity.
That is a quote from Chi Hong Nguyen, The Changing Postmodern University, 2010. She writes further:
It also opposes any oppression
that offers benefits and priorities to “whites, males, and the rich at the expense of everyone else” (ibid., p. 17)
because such a mode of education just serves the rights and interests of those in power. Therefore, education
must be recast wholly with a newer focus on marginalised groups and the voices of those who have traditionally
remained silent, and it should critically remind students of the historical sins and crimes of the colonial ones in
On the surface none of those concepts is dangerous. But if you dig a little deeper and consider what behaviour might be stemming from them, they become quite problematic. I’m not going to sing the hymn in praise of “cognitive ability for reason” and all it’s done for mankind. I’m pretty sure that’s self evident. So I’ll move on to the second part.
I’d be in favour of refocusing education on the marginalised people. If it means giving everyone equal rights, opportunities and treatment. Making sure that kids and adults from the historically disadvantaged and more vulnerable populations have the same chance to succeed as everyone else. Sometimes that means giving them a little extra help. Nothing wrong with that. But it seems that this idea is working towards creating a system of accountability. Wherein the white men of the present is doomed to pay for the “sins and crimes” of his ancestors. Some of whom had nothing to do with the colonial system, plantations, slavery etc. The payees of these reparations would be people who themselves have not experienced any of it. During his appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience #970 podcast Bret Weinstein mentions the notion put forward by some supporters of such ideas, that white people should vacate employment opportunities. All to make them more available to people of colour. Not all people of colour mind you. Asian men are apparently part of the problem. They too should make more space for black people. A sign of it can be seen in the idea of racial employment quotas (don’t know how else to call them). There is an idea that a certain number or percentage of an institution’s workers must be of ethnic minority. Now, I’m the sort of person who believes that people should be hired on basis of merit alone, not their race, gender or else.
I’ll move on to other possible explanations. Firstly, audit culture (something I ought to write more about). In simple terms it means bringing things like audits, performance indicators and quality control methods from the financial/business sector into the higher education institutions. Thus running them like business rather than academic organisations. In principle it aims to improve the quality of education provided by universities, and making faculty members more accountable to the stakeholders. Meaning the students and other investors. Hard to argue against better quality and accountability. But what it actually means is changing universities from places of learning and academic endeavour into factories. Yes, factories. Places where teachers are morphed into docile and productive little worker bees, who produce the next generation of docile and productive worker bees. What is really hidden underneath the aforementioned slogans is profit. The only thing that matters. Tutors and classes they run are rated on the basis of student satisfaction and outside indicators assigned by, well outside controllers. Therefore, any university officials are more likely to side with the students and sometimes throw their workers under the bus. Because doing otherwise could upset the stakeholders and switch off the investment tap. (Note: there’s more to it than I’m making it sound, but there’s not much more space left in this post)
Now if you allow me to sound like an old grumpy man. I blame social media. The ‘activists’ (I use that term lightly here) have been quite keen to record and post videos of their… social justice crusades. Sure, some of it might be to highlight the problem. Share their struggle with the world and bring attention to the problems they try to solve. I however see a different motivation there. What they are essentially doing is seek validation and approval. Their desire for attention drives them to gang up on their victims, shout and chant at them. All to show everyone how smart and brave they are. All so they can be showered with applause from their peers and likes and shares from the audience. One of the videos from the Evergreen State College shows students cornering Bret Weinstein. Afterwards they talk how they didn’t corner him and were very open to discussion, despite telling him to shut the fuck up moments earlier. Repeatedly one of them shouts something or does something that is followed by an ovation form other mob members. It appears to me that through those conversations the students have created a safe space. Where they are surrounded only by those who agree with them. Everyone who doesn’t, questions or challenges their ideas and arguments is viewed as the ultimate evil in need of utter destruction. It’s worth mentioning that most if not all the videos have been uploaded by the ‘activists’. Once they didn’t receive the desired response but the opposite of it, the petitioned for them to be removed from the internet.
Lastly. I have to admit that they might have a point. From a certain point of view. All these protests, mobs and chants might be a reaction to grievances coming from legitimate sources. We can agree that there is still systemic racism, especially in America, where most of the incidents have occurred. With all those police shootings in recent years. Still unresolved problems with water in Flint, Michigan, which mostly affects black communities. And the continuous bias of the law enforcement and judicial officials. Higher search, arrest and conviction rates of the non-whites. The students are aware of all this and are rightfully outraged. The problem is that their outrage is misdirected at a wrong target. Universities cannot defend themselves against accusations of racism and bias as well as police and politicians. That links us back to the whole audit culture rating and quality control methods. In going for the softer target, young people have found an outlet for their frustration and desire for change. But again, they don’t actually go against the source of that frustration.
Whatever the reasons behind all the actions of the social justice warriors, their methods cannot be condoned. If this trend continuous we might face a real threat to scientific discourse. We might lose the art of debating and discussing ideas, of putting ideas to the test. The students involved in all those incidents were too eager to jump on a band wagon and go on a social justice crusade. Universities should be the place were young minds are equipped with the best weapons against prejudice and hate, reason and science. After all it is science that now proves that there is no difference in intelligence between races or genders. Post-modernist universities are shaping up to be places were social justice overshadows everything else. Where people jump at an opportunity to impose their own views and will on others under the guise of political correctness. Where a portion of the population is more than happy to shout their views into the faces (literally) of their perceived oppressors. If only they just as eager to listen to the other side. To engage in a proper discussion. I’m sure the problems would’ve been resolved without making national news.
P.S. Isn’t it a bit ironic that the social justice warriors were fighting to make their universities into ‘safe’ spaces. At the same time making others feel threatened and unsafe.
William and Harry’s far back ancestors were the punks and warlords who lorded over the vicinty’s only watering hole, aided by a few plunderers elevated above the herd. (Father Time has saw to them getting uniforms and legitimacy.) The mainstream media’s equally ancient forebears were the weakling creeps that, from fear and syncofancy, sat astride amongst the trophies, telling the chief how astounding were his bloody exploits, and how fragrant were his farts.
Orwell considered the capacity to recognise and accept unpleasant facts a power. If he was right, and he certainly is, Francisco Goya’s work stands as testament to a man who elevated it to the level of a superpower. One doesn’t seek out Goya’s paintings or etchings looking for consolation. Here one finds the brutalities of war, the sadomasochism on which class and feudal relations depend, and the many ways Man can embody impotence.
Goya became an expert in the last of those when, at a relatively young age, he was struck by an illness that left him both blind and deaf. The former was temporary, the latter proved lifelong. This had the effect of turning the artist inward and further away from an idealised view of his country. Out went the beautiful scenes of picnics and salons, and in came the bull fighting, highwaymen and lunatic asylums in all their gory authenticity. See The Death of the Picador:
Ordinarily such scenes would depict a moment of triumph: man demonstrating his superiority over beast. A predictable assemble, with the tacit message, “this is the natural order of things”. But here is the bull, outnumbered and defiant, impaling the performer in a – although can it ever be contrary? – particularly undignified way. His horse is crushed beneath. In doing this, Goya shows Spaniards what they really wanted to see. (And if the tabloids are to be taken at face value, what they still do.) An articulate observer of this “sport” will tell you that, besides cherished tradition, it is the grace and pageantry that keep them coming back. But Goya knew that pueblo wanted gore, and lots of it.
There’s a question over whether anyone wanted to see inside a madhouse, however. This is where Spain dumped the mentally disturbed and its non-aristocratic eccentrics, and where the mantra “out of sight, out of mind” was cruelly followed. No one received care worthy of the name, and, with a architectural design George Carlin would be proud of, these prisons were open, chaotic. The resulting paintings by Goya convey a terrible atmosphere. If one were to take a peek into the cave of Michaelangelo’s The Last Judgement, I imagine one would see something like this:
It’s debatable whether or not he was a secret republican (many have taken his royal portraits as quite enough evidence, ignoring the fact he made the very best out of some very ugly sitters), but this scene would certainly suggest a sympathy. There is a man with a crown fashioned from feathers holding his hand out to adoring “courtiers”. Another wears a headdress made from cards, and a third sports a DIY mitre. This is the royal court depicted in one of the few ways possible. It takes skill and bravery to dupe most contemporaries, while leaving a clear subversive message for posterity. He saw behind the enchanted glass propped up to simultaneously dazzle and terrify, and found asses instead of lions.
He was a man of the Enlightenment, but unlike many of that tendency he never romantised “the people”. It is a failing of some liberals (and even more socialists) to assume that, if only the shackles were to be undone, most of population would rationally, and dutifully, get behind them. No, to Goya the reactionary inclinations of the hoi polloi were only too clear. It was they who, when the horrid Fernando VII consolidated his power – by employing secret police that hunted liberals like hogs – went to the streets chanting, “long live our chains, long live oppression; long live King Fernando, death to the Nation!”
(And it was the great mass that had urged along the monarch’s crushing of the 1812 Constitution, along with its liberating potential. This document was drawn up by the exiled Spanish government in Cádiz in response to Napoleon’s invasion. It promised the people a country worth fighting for: one with a free press, universal male suffrage, land reform, and checks on the monarchy. At one time – as the Peninsula War raged – it looked as if Spain would end up with either this indigenous liberalism born from war, or an enlightened absolutism imposed by France. Tragically, but in keeping with this troubled land, it got Fernando.)
There is a sense of disbelief, if not disgust, toward his victims of social inequity. In this image from the Caprichos, two proletarians lumber almost prostrate under the weight of asses, representative of the aristocracy. Their looks are one of complacency.
Here is Goya facing the unpleasant fact of power: in order for one to oppress, the other must choose to submit. Granted, this is the perspective of the artist: distant, if not disinterested. One with more sympathy – for either side of the dynamic – will be eager to point to Marxist or Humean theories of indoctrination, and the threats of violence contained, either latently or explicitly, within the dictates of tyrants. It’s not that Goya is unaware of these factors, but he isn’t so willing to absolve those who bend the knee. What bothered him, a man so use to questioning his surroundings, was the self-enforced ignorance of “the many,” that in fact makes a despot’s life so easy. The majority, by simply refusing to ask why, are more than complicit in their structural misery. Minds untutored in political philosophy are better placed to see this than their opposite. This is what Blake called “mind-forged manacles”.
This insight may seem blunted by the fact it comes from a painter of the court, though it shouldn’t. Goya maintained a fierce independence that got him in trouble with both the Inquisition and Fernando. And, besides, we can’t be certain that self-loathing wasn’t part of the impetus behind The Caprichos.
Another print, a favourite of Christopher Hitchens, shows a peasant groaning beneath the bulk of an overweight friar. The caption reads, “Will you never learn what you are carrying on your back?” This is, in part, one of Goya’s many shots at the clergy. A class of men he considered parasitic, stupid and dangerous.
Ever since the Moors were forced out, a particularly reactionary strain of Catholism was enforced on the Iberian peninsula. The climate of fear that began with the targeting of Muslims and Jews and their descendants, came to infect every corner of society: speak a foreign tongue? Suspect. In love a non-Catholic? Dangerous. A woman with aspirations above the convents or child rearing? Abhorrent. Known to read the latest treaties out of France? Traitor. And all knew the rack and burning poles awaited transgressors.
Though the Inquisition’s most tyrannical years had passed by Goya’s day, it maintained an ominous and persistent presence. For example, he was made to answer for The Naked Maja – the first Western painting to include female genital hair, according to biographer Robert Hughes – as well as The Caprichos.
During his early career he found himself at the whims of men of the cloth – a rare group with the capital to commission such works, and the bane of hundreds of artists before Goya and since. In a letter to a friend, he refers to his difficulties with them,
If you don’t watch out and even if you do, [these insects] will tear away your flesh and your hair out as well; not only do they scratch you and look for pretexts for quarrelling, but they bite, spit, stick you, and run you through; they often become food for other and worse ones…
As is classic of one who has made a deadly foe, Goya can’t even bring himself to consider his adversaries human. This colourful language prefigures later depictions of the clergy.
Hughes has suggested that even with this animus, Goya remained some sort of believer in the supernatural. But his pessimism runs so deep, and his contempt for religion’s representatives so great, that it’s hard to see him as anything but an atheist.
At his most pointed, he thought religion stupified the mind. The sleep of Reason brings forth monsters. Other times – as with the lore surrounding witches – he had an almost anthropological interest in the fantasies on which people build lives around. But this interest remained at a safe distance. See Plate 69 of Disasters of War, his second major series of etchings: A corpse faces away from the viewer holding a pen which, in rigamortise, hovers over a sheet of paper. It reads: Nada. Like that other great atheist David Hume, the everyday dreads of old age weren’t enough to bring about a late conversion. Goya remained steadfast, and kept the God-botherers from his bedside.
As well as that, not only does Christian imagery become absent early in his private work, but the motifs associated with such images end up being employed for notably secular purposes. Justice and reason, those cornerstones of the Enlightenment, look almost holy in Goya’s pen (see Lux et tenebris and Sol de justicia). While that symbol of revolution, and Spain’s wartime adversary, Lady Liberty, strikes a saintly pose in Allegory of the Constitution of 1812. (Old man Time has less hassle bringing her forth on canvas than “he” had in actual fact.)
This is a rare moment of optimism in Goya’s collection, which makes the knowledge that the 1812 Constitution was scrapped – and by a Spanish administration – so crushing. It’s hard not to think that, however courageous the resistance was – and Goya honored the everyday heroes of the struggle – a French victory would’ve been preferable to the outcome Spain was dealt. (The conflict has an odd parallel with the 2003 Iraq War: both began with foreigners citing enlightened progress as their casus belli, and both, in their own way, brought awful reaction.)
Although he clearly had a “side” during the war, he is surprisingly evenhanded in his coverage (a journalistic term that seems apt). The French are shown committing terrible acts of mutilation and savagery, but so are Spanish patriots. They are shocking.
At another time Goya said that he had hoped to document universal human failings. Looking at these prints today one’s mind is taken immediately to Syria in 2017, which is a strange compliment to the “most Spanish of artists”. One hopes there is enough left of that country in the near future so that a worthy heir might emerge.
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world; we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by that which is contrary.
Those who find the idea of safe spaces appealing ought to consider Milton’s electrifying prose. There is nothing inherently wrong (nor, for that matter, anything praiseworthy) with wanting to taking a holiday from the race that is the free marketplace of ideas. But there is something quite wrong with imposing this hiatus – for one hopes it is impossible to be sheltered from it totally – upon others: which is exactly what safe spaces on university campuses do.
It is at places of learning that the race ought to be at its fiercest and most competitive. For the relationship between thought and expression is, as Orwell knew, a dialectical one. The imposition on one silences the other.
(As nice as that comes together, it’s not at all true. Those with the least energetic minds are often all too eager to express what they’ve got.)
The established ideology is on its way out*. Going with it, for citizens of the United Kingdom (a compromise that may also be witnessing its twilight), is not just EU membership and long-inflated global status, but the very political foundation on which we depended. The old antithesis of Left and Right, socialism and Toryism, worker and capitalist, somehow survived 1989 and Blair, but not, it seems, Brexit.
The new political division that will shape this Banana Monarchy is, at present, lob-sided. The traditional Right wasted no time in adjusting. As the “Left” faltered (we will likely never completely shed ourselves of the shorthand gained from the French Revolution), the forces of reaction, authoritarianism and tribalism built up what is invariably described as alt-, new-, or populist-right. And who constitutes the bulk of this movement? The group progressives have often taken for granted: the poor. For working class supporters of the Leave EU campaign (as too, Le Pen and Trump), socio-economic loyalties are secondary to those of race and nation, if considered at all.
This urge to, as Kipling termed it, “think with the blood” is, for roughly 52% of the population, a strong one. But traditions matter, especially in a nation that holds them in place of rights. None more so than liberty.
Refreshing the Tree
I am aware of the pitfalls involved in defining national “traits”. I cannot in all honesty stand by the claim, inspired by Oscar Wilde, that liberty is to the English what scepticism is to the Jews. After all, a Tory government recently passed the horribly draconian, invasive “Snooper’s Charter”. And this, as if to make the literal-minded cringe, to the voiced dismay of the highest court of that supposedly authoritarian institution, the European Union (and their manifesto promises more, more, more!). Too, the so-called Jewish State has been spewing up governments which have been taking the decidedly uncritical, self-damning policy of annexing the West Bank1.
But the country that jailed Richard Carlile and William Cobbett for the crime of voicing unpleasant facts, and Milton for republican polemic, also provided a safe haven and a stage for Pax Britannia’s greatest critics – from Karl Marx and Ernest Jones to Gandhi – and that, without a Bill of Rights.
It was the Whigs, faced with radicals who would force reform violently if need be, that manned the green trenches against the ferocious assaults to free expression directed from Tory Front Benches. They kept up this up, to varying degrees, throughout the post-Napoleon I era, up until the transition to the Liberal Party. During the Victorian era – or, better yet, the age of empire (Eric Hobsbawm’s descriptive has the benefit of being both republican and expository) – it became capital L Liberals which came to fly the flag for free-trade, free-speech and, in the form of unions, free-association. Sometimes these causes had their roots in Bentham utilitarian thinking; but, more often than not, an American-like suspicion of government overreach.
In the excellent Strange Death of Liberal England, George Dangerfield charts how this Liberalism eventually fell victim to the chain reaction of Tory, Women’s, and Worker’s rebellion. The Liberal Party proved too moderate and, at base too conciliatory, to survive the ruptures of the modern age, much like the hereditary principle it had in part neutered2. He wrote,
When codes, when religions, when ideas cease to move forward, it is always in some shining illusion that an alarmed humanity attempts to take refuge
The shining illusions in the early twentieth century were grand ideologies which promised humanity a New Man. Those gleaming trapdoors, fascism and Stalinism. Now, aggressive nationalism is the illusion competing for the imaginations of little men everywhere. (In Britain that’s all we have – what is called “the Opposition” has swayed between ignoring the new political reality, and chasing working class jingoisms. Corbyn’s Labour Party has managed to lose everything, including, somehow, the moral high ground.)
The Importance of Being Liberal
The liberalism required to counter the alt-right will bear some similarity to the tradition Dangerfield chronicled the death of. Though to best represent contemporary progressives, anti-authoriatrians and internationalists – and it must – this new liberalism must learn to be more muscular and self-aware (read: critical) than what went before. It could also benefit from some pointers offered by Bertrand Russell. It’s worth quoting him at length:
- Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
- Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
- Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
- When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
- Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
- Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
- Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
- Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
- Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
- Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
The liberal order Russell envisaged bears considerable similarity to Polanyi’s republic of Science. That self-regulating and ever-expanding community – both in number and purview – that sets out to solve the puzzles of physics, chemistry and biology. In these fields authority isn’t inherited, and it isn’t derived from being the oldest in the room. It’s gained by being proven right and right again – and even then, as the best science educators will tell you, it’s to be scrutinised.
Admittedly, there would be difficulties transplanting the science republic framework to politics. The “science community” has proven to be remarkably egalitarian and dynamic, while most of the planet lives under despots with special rooms with tongs and electrodes reserved for those citizens feeling particularly sceptical.
(But what are liberals but triers: they try to be vegan, they try to be responsible consumers, they try to be good people – and, as fellow dinner guests will attest, they at least succeed in trying patience.)
Implicit in Russell’s list is the suggestion that “good” liberalism is more of a disposition than an ideology, and indeed that’s how it should be read (Goethe made a similar suggestion before). Liberal policies – freedom of speech and of movement, the right to privacy and debate, etc. – can exist in a variety of economic and political models.
It, as a tradition, must form the bedrock of a citizen’s outlook. Progressives take note: You only have to consider its nationalistic iterations to realise what humbug socialism would be without liberty.
Conor Cruise O’Brien noted the occasion, following a biting accusation by an African leader, he had the realisation that he was a liberal and not a socialist. This was a serious charge: at the advent of the postcolonial era, Western liberals had proven themselves to be false friends at best, and not much different from their conservative adversaries on the important questions of self-determination and justice.
He was in the Congo where the new government was attempting socialist reform. The odds were stacked against them – as it was for the great swath of post-colonised societies – and to achieve success certain liberties were being taken in the courts, and press freedom had been curtailed. The ends were noble and promised great things, but, nevertheless, O’Brien felt an instinctual unpleasantness toward the means,
Whatever I might argue, I was more profoundly attached to liberal concepts of freedom – freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom, independent judgement and independent judges – than I was to the idea of a disciplined party mobilising all the forces of society for the creation of a social order guaranteeing more real freedom for all instead of just the few. The revolutionary idea both impressed me and struck me as more immediately relevant for most of humanity than were liberal concepts. But it was the liberal concepts and their long-term importance… that held my allegiance
He goes on to draw an important distinction between truth and utility in politics. There are those for whom the former would, ideally, be the means as well as ends. For them objectivity rests outside of politics, and stands as a guide. For those which seek utility, what’s “best” is what best leads to some perfect end. Trotskyists, neo-conservatives and fascists will consider the objective an obstacle if it is percieved to halt or defer that end.
In this “post-truth” age, it is of vital of importance that the “new” Left (or whatever we will come to call the organised opposition to the alt-right) should regain the highground, and declare truth’s primacy over utility. The signals aren’t good: “progressives” were only too eager to jump into bed with the Central Intelligence Agency simply because it appeared to be working contra Trump. (It hadn’t mattered they provided no proof of his wrongdoing, and that all avaliable evidence suggests that shady Agency is no friend of progress.)
But it is only with the penetrating spotlight of Truth that we’ll be able to show those shining illusions for what they really are: the fossilized turds of monsters that have had their day.
*This ideology is often described as the “liberal” or “metropolitan” elite or establishment. This is a misnomer. There is very little that was liberal – classically at least – about the Thatcherite consensus.
1 How tragic that, just when the European Christians laid down the torch of imperialism, the Jews went to pick it up.
2 Resulting from Liberal MP’s ultimately successful battle to limit the powers of the House of Lords. Before then, the Lords – born, seldom earned – had veto power over Bills brought by the Commons.