The other day, as I was making my breakfast, I turned on GMTV. Usually I don’t register breakfast telly all that much – at that time in the morning, my brain can just about process Hi-5 or Elmo’s World – but this time I was brought up short. Who should be sitting on the sofa holding forth but this blog’s bête noire of the moment, Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society. (An enormous groan rises up from the broad masses.) Now, bear with me, because I’m not going to bash the NSS here. What interested me was a stylistic issue.
As far as I could figure out – I evidently switched on halfway through the segment – this was a discussion of PC councils rebranding Christmas as “Winter Festival”, or some such tabloid cobblers. Terry was banging on about how bad it was that schoolkids were being drafted into nativity plays. What struck me was how soft-spoken he was being. From his occasional TV or radio appearances, obviously I didn’t expect him to be shouty, but nor did I expect him to be quite as emollient as he was. Perhaps that’s because his argument was weak – Commercemas has so little religious content these days that it would take a supreme effort for him to find something to get upset about. Perhaps it was an environmental issue, as being lightly grilled by Emma Crosby on a comfy sofa is not the same as having Paxman barking at you across the Newsnight studio. Perhaps it was because he was debating with the Rev Joanna Jepson, who projects such an air of overwhelming niceness that it must have felt like being mauled to death by a cute ickle bunny wabbit. Or perhaps it was just too early in the day for a full-on rant.
What I mean was that the Sanderson on the TV screen, talking for all the world like a reasonable human being who is capable of seeing the other guy’s point of view, is a bit of a jolt if you look at all regularly at his written output, because he writes like Jim Denham on steroids. I assume that he’s not that bad in real life, when he isn’t sat in front of his keyboard emitting steam from his ears.
I was thinking about this in connection with what Andy was writing there about keyboard rage:
Face to face human interaction generates hormonal response, with the generation of low levels of Oxytocin that makes people like being with each other. Human interaction mediated by technology lacks that aspect of social bonding, and people become excessively rude.
What is more the rudeness generates a self-referential culture, where people are rude because other people are rude – it is a learned social expectation.
There’s a lot of truth in that. Sometimes people get into flame wars and forget that there’s a real person on the other end. But that’s on a basic level. There is also an aspect of how the internet has democratised writing, where the blogosphere doesn’t require any professional training nor submission to an editor – which is not an unmixed blessing. And of course political subcultures and the learned behaviours within them contribute as well.
Firstly, there’s a clear disconnect in attitudes between those who are engaged in politics with a big P, and single-issue campaigners. What to me most commonly distinguishes single-issue campaigners is an overwhelming self-righteousness. This isn’t meant as an attack on the characters of single-issue campaigners, it’s an observation based on the nature of their activity. Big-P politics is not merely about the art of the possible; perhaps more to the point, it’s holistic in nature, with its starting point being society as a whole. Even Marxist politics starts from the working class, conceptualised as being the majority of society. This inevitably means compromise. By way of contrast, the single-issue campaigner only has to plug away relentlessly on that particular issue – compromise is not only unnecessary, but is a positive hindrance. I’m sure there are plenty of Burma solidarity campaigners whose first instinct would be to denounce Aung San Suu Kyi if they thought she was going to compromise.
One interesting feature, though, is the inherent expansiveness of liberal rights theory. For instance, the NSS, which is supposed to be about separating church and state, makes detailed pronunciamentos on all sorts of issues like abortion, stem cell research and euthanasia, usually on the tenuous basis that, since lots of religious people are against these things then secularists must support them. And at this year’s Gay Pride march in Belfast, a platform speaker lambasted the Dublin government for its civil unions bill, demanding no less than fully-fledged gay marriage. The speaker was a representative of Amnesty. Bearing in mind Amnesty’s traditionally narrow remit around prisoners of conscience, and its former self-denying ordinance about getting involved in domestic politics – during the Troubles, it was nearly impossible to get Amnesty to say anything about Ireland – this was quite striking.
In extremis, you can get single-issue NGOs broadening their remit so they almost function like small political parties, only without the obligation to seek votes, and retaining the single-issue modus operandi, which is something the single-issue campaigner brings with him into party politics. A good example of the MO is Peter Tatchell. Since recent catfights on SU demonstrate how fraught it is to mention Peter in other than glowing terms, I should start by putting on record that, though I don’t always agree with Peter and I think he could choose his company better (if you don’t want people to think you’re Islamophobic, posting on Harry’s Place isn’t the brightest idea), I do admire his courage and salute his indefatigability. No, the thing about Peter, as I keep saying, is that his strengths and his weaknesses are bound up so closely. He’s incapable of seeing a case of oppression without setting up a solidarity campaign, and has enough nervous energy to run about a hundred of these at any one time. Some of them are perforce quite obscure – the canonical example being Peter’s solidarity campaign for gay Rastafarians – and, while you’re glad somebody is doing something around these issues, and you would sign a petition if asked, it would take some convincing to get you to do more. But Peter tends to assume that his hobbyhorse of the moment should be everyone else’s top priority, and no sooner has he set up a campaign than the raised voice and the jabbing finger are deployed, as he demands to know why the left isn’t dropping everything to campaign for the gay Rastas. Eh? Eh?
Perhaps it’s unfair to single Peter out, because there are plenty of other examples. One example of the clash between holistic and particular views of politics came about over the embryology bill, when Labour MEP Mary Honeyball got stuck into Catholic MPs who either voted against or abstained, using some unfortunate Guy Fawkes rhetoric about how it was intolerable that MPs should be guided by “the Pope’s whip”. This drew sharp responses from some Labour MPs such as Jon Cruddas. Now, the point here is not that Cruddas is a Catholic and Honeyball a militant secularist – that figures, but it’s not the whole story. Rather, it’s a question of whether you view the Labour Party as primarily a coalition of social constituencies or as a vehicle for progressive causes. Cruddas, who knows a fair bit about psephology, can give you the crude statistic that, at the last election, Labour secured 34% of the total vote but 53% of the Catholic vote. A lot of that is a function of class and ethnicity, but it’s also the case that the teachings of social Catholicism – anti-war, anti-poverty, anti-greed, communitarian – are rather a good fit for traditional Labourism. So you have an important part of the Labour base who don’t necessarily expect to have their concerns on issues like abortion written into the party manifesto – but they would like to feel listened to, and if you tell them to bugger off and take their custom elsewhere, they just might.
And the worldview ties into one’s experience. Cruddas is basically a party man, with close links to the union apparati. Honeyball was a feminist activist before she was a politician, in much the same way that Sanderson was a fulltime gay liberationist before he was a fulltime secularist. I don’t say that these backgrounds are illegitimate, just to point out that they bring with them a particular approach. Where the professional party man can appear like a chiselling opportunist, the single-issue campaigner finds it much easier to hove to the biblical injunction of come ye out from among them and be ye separate.
You find a similar tendency to separatism in the left-sectarian milieu. Which is odd, because of the holistic aspirations of Marxism, but it probably isn’t surprising that smallish far left propaganda formations without any real chance of achieving power have a culture that’s much more akin to the single-issue NGO than the mass party. The other factor is a stylistic thing, in that the Russian Marxists of a hundred years ago were great at giving the impression of absolute certainty in their own correctness and in the scoundrelly opportunism of their opponents – which creates a small problem for the Church of Latter-Day Trotskyism in that Lenin and Trotsky violently disagreed with each other much of the time, and they couldn’t both be right. But what’s much worse is when you get these group gurus who aspire to be Lenin or Trotsky, or journalists in the left press who want to write like them. Then factor in a culture where much of the left cadre is trained up in what can only be described as hate speech. Those people with almost the same views as yours? They aren’t basically sincere people you happen to disagree with on some minor matters – they are traitors, sell-outs, lundies, apostates, enemies of the people fit only to be smashed. The watchword is no compromise under any circumstances, and woe betide you if you leave yourself open to attack on that basis.
And internet keyboard rage only magnifies this. Take a look at the comments box here, below a fucking death notice. The double act of Father Jack and Morality Blog is especially obnoxious, but the same thing can be found elsewhere in milder form.
And again, one can find much the same thing with the Decent Left. There you get the single-issue aspect, some bad habits from the left milieu, and exacerbated by the fact that the Decents are not activists – few of them are even members of the Labour Party – but are extremely voluble pundits. This is what leads you to people like Cohen, Toube or Attila the Hun doing their perpetual Mr Angry routine, which gets enervating very quickly. I’ve never been as angry about anything as those guys are about everything. And here is where, for once, I’d like to praise Professor Geras. If Normski was just banging on about Israel and Zimbabwe and Human Rights Watch seven days a week, not only would it be intensely boring for his readers, but it wouldn’t be much good for him. That Norm goes off regularly to write about cricket or literature or country music shows that he, unlike most of his Decent comrades, has understood the importance of the mental health break.
There is a lesson here, you know. It’s that stepping back, taking a deep breath, perhaps having a cup of tea before you hit that “send” button is rarely a bad strategy. I try not to blog when angry, because it usually just comes across as peevish. Occasionally you’ll get someone who does anger well, though I hope young Laurie is sensible enough to know that you can’t only do anger. Approaching something coldly and calmly helps; and the odd bit of frivolity doesn’t hurt either. Too much anger and self-righteousness will just end up giving you aneurysms. And it confirms the prejudices of those (particularly women) who read the comments boxes of the left blogs and come away with the overwhelming impression that the left is just a Sargasso Sea of mentalism.