We’re with you, Sir Salman

A man lies in a hospital bed, struck with a sudden fury in the cruellest way. An aged man, to be frank. Put all wider issues aside in this matter for now:  pray for Sir Salman Rushdie and wish him the best care and a road to recovery.

He has already borne an intolerable burden: he has spent half of his life under threat and had not long since emerged from fear, only to have it descend upon him in the worst way.

The shock of the violence, the with murderous hatred, the outrage that anyone might attack a man old enough to be his grandfather. From outside we see it as the striking of a hero of literature for pursuing his bounden duty to enlighten and challenge. It is an attempt to murder free speech. Forgive me though if I can pass that by to remind myself that for all the symbolism of it, it was first of all an attempt to kill a man, a man who has a name and a family.

The fury of the attacker is predictable and familiar. Do not claim that the attacker was mad or that you do not understand him, because you do. An attempt at murder is so very Hobbesian that I must have written of it many times on this blog. The motive of power comes in the first place; then the need to claim a place above that of the common herd by an extraordinary act. Then it is just a question of picking an excuse from all those available, and so he did.

Raskolnikov struck his victims with this same fury, breathtakingly described in that novel. The fury was not out of zealous hatred but in order to shut his own mind up. All the lessons of being in society restrain a man, and he must fight his restraining instinct. Once the attack began, it had to be carried through to the end for fear of failure, each blow to come being restrained by the mind, but struck anyway by dint of shutting the mind by silent screams of rage and unrestrained action. It has not zealous fury and not aimed at the victim, but fury aimed at himself. Raskolnikov’s soft heart could not commit the deed, but he convinced himself that fate led him inevitably to it and even that he could do good by killing the woman, and then he let himself be led by that part of his mind which craved power by a trick that he had no choice. In the act, a subtle blow was not enough but the repeated, raging attack effectively on his own mind.

A hundred and fifty years later, not in St Petersburg but in New York, the identical story played itself out, but mercifully this time, the victim has survived.

The trouble came from a book, they say, but in truth it comes from the dark heart of man. I first read the book in question many years ago, and it led me on to reading more of his work. I have read mixed reviews of it, and I recognised from the first that it is not a book that will appeal to everyone, as we all have our tastes.  The story is weird and it has been observed that there is no discernible plot, which is true – such plots as the book has are there to lead the reader into the main themes. The themes themselves are tangled. Rushdie is an immigrant who has been hurled into British high cultural circles, perhaps not knowing what he is or should be, and here the book mirrors the confusion, with two unwilling immigrants cast ashore in opposite guises, experiencing the displacement and half-cultures they find. Darker within it is the dreaming subplot which caused all the trouble, looking back at a man displaced in that moment in Arabia, where cynicism may be life-saving or deadly. For one so uncertain of his own cultural heritage, one must question the foundation of that fount of heritage.

Some do not like foundations being questioned. It will show there is no foundation at all. Better to enforce silence than to open the inevitable fall of the whole untenable edifice.

What happened in New York does not suppress the ideas of book (of which sales have climbed).  Instead it reaffirms how right are the arguments and the ideas and the fears in the book. “From the beginning men used God to justify the unjustifiable.” wrote Rushdie. We certainly know that now.

I wish you well, Sir Salman, and I hope you will forgive a diversion into the mind. Our first thoughts should be for you.

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Moderation, in moderation

Extremist governments murder millions: moderate ones let them die of neglect. The idea of moderation in opposition to extremism though is a wilful deception. The only solution – is a dangerous fallacy.

The murderous fault of the extremist is his one-dimensional approach. Marx was one-dimensional in his theory and it led to evil beyond anything seen before him. Adam Smith (for example) looked at a huge sweep of data and effects and produced more benefit to mankind than any mortal man has done before. I could not call Smith ‘a moderate’ because when you step out of the single dimension, the word is meaningless – ludicrous in fact.

The faults in the infamous dictators of the twentieth century were worsened immensely by their belief in false theories of Marxism and racial  theories, which are still haunting us; as Churchill put it “a Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science”. Bad science is always with us and does not always lead to the death camps. My concern here is the nature of extremism or what we think of as extremism.

I have previously taken a cynical view of the demand that a political candidate  be a moderate candidate: commentators who use the word often mean ‘one who agrees with me’. It is worse than that though. The word ‘moderate’ assumes that the subject can be placed somewhere on a single scale, moderating between extremes. There is no single scale though, unless the ideologue sets one and refuses to look outside it, and that makes for what we call extremism.

The words “left” and “right” are one-dimensional words. They are nonsense for a thinking politician. You could define a specific spectrum and look at placement along the spectrum on a specific issue, but that tells you nothing of issues outside that spectrum.  The idea of a right-left spectrum running from Hitler to Communism is a spectrum only of socialism: most people and politicians are not socialists and have no place on that spectrum. One could try a spectrum of libertarianism, presumably from anarchy to Hitler-and-Stalin, but again that tells you nothing much of value, as attitudes to liberty depend on every other opinion and balance reached.

There is no moderation between left and right because left and right are without meaning.

The first cause of Absurd conclusions I ascribe to the want of Method; in that they begin not their Ratiocination from Definitions; that is, from settled significations of their words

I  have ranted in the past about America’s liberty to have guns taking away the practical liberty to walk freely without fear, and that is just one, narrow point of balance. Every element of political policy leans upon every other: spending priorities against tax against deficit management against economic effects against levelling-up, will be just one network of competing forces familiar to all. Effective law enforcement against liberty-and-due-process against efficient use of taxpayers’ money begins another.

The only solution is – no, it is not the only solution. The idea of there being one answer to any situation is in itself is a self-deception. It is adopted to avoid the horrible realisation that one may have to think and reason through a complex matrix of factors; but if a policy-maker does not think through that complex matrix, testing the interactions and likely results, he or she is not competent to make choices.

A journalist can catch a politician out by asking a one-dimensional question, as a simple answer may show the politician as foolish and a complex one as evasive. It gets a headline for a day, and provides something to wrap the fish and chips in tomorrow.

The deathly fault of those we call extremists is not their absolute belief in an idea, but that they have no other. He will take one aim and pursue it in spite of all the other factors, leaving millions slain in his wake and ruin for his nation. A responsible politician may be just as extreme in their belief in certain ideas, but will pursue the idea in the context of the web of factors affected by the pursuit. Those of us who campaigned from Brexit knew there were some in the camp who had no other idea and would have ruined the nation in its pursuit, but those who led with their heads knew that Brexit had to be just one outcome of a push for free trade and sensible government, without which Brexit would be an empty gesture.

The terms ‘extremism’ and ‘moderation’ are misnomers and I would rather they be abandoned where they offend against Hobbes and his requirement for sound ratiocination.  The distinction is not in absoluteness of belief or action as that belongs to both: it is the extent to which the politician takes account of the whole of reality and its multitude of factors.

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Aristotle was wrong about moderation

The main argument of The Ethics is that virtue is found in the mean between extreme positions. The idea has infused Western thinking ever since; but it is wrong.

He was wrong because he was a pagan. He had no anchor on which to ground moral reason, which the Greek religion lacked. He knew that Hesiod was a just poet and not a prophet of truth, and he had to find some ground for some ethical system of common good, and so the Golden Mean was a principle for want of any other.

The first to condemn moderation as a universal principle was Aristotle himself having just propounded it. He wrote that some ethical rules are absolute: there is no middle way between fidelity and adultery, for example, he wrote.

He was a wise man, far wiser than those who set out in later generations to turn his ideas into rules, but he knew no actual foundation grounded outside his own mind. He was a Greek, setting his thinking in order with no knowledge of the law and the prophets of Israel, let alone the teachings of Jesus which were to come centuries after his time.  The result was a philosophy inevitably flawed because it was built on no foundation.

there is nothing so absurd, that the old Philosophers (as Cicero saith, who was one of them) have not some of them maintained. And I beleeve that scarce any thing can be more absurdly said in naturall Philosophy, than that which now is called Aristotles Metaphysiques, nor more repugnant to Government, than much of that hee hath said in his Politiques; nor more ignorantly, than a great part of his Ethiques.

Greece in time accepted Christ, but did not abandon Aristotle for the better revelation, and there Western civilisation had a rot at its heart. Tertullian 200 years after Christ despaired: ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ he demanded, but to no avail.

Centuries which followed understood that there is absolute truth and absolute morality and a true basis for it, but still held to pagan Aristotle in philosophy, just as they did to Galen in medicine (it is frightening to think how many perished in pain because no one would apply science to disprove the suggestions of a Graeco-Roman physician).

Aristotle, and other Heathen Philosophers define Good, and Evill, by the Appetite of men; and well enough, as long as we consider them governed every one by his own Law: For in the condition of men that have no other Law but their own Appetites, there can be no generall Rule of Good, and Evill Actions. But in a Common-wealth this measure is false: Not the Appetite of Private men, but the Law, which is the Will and Appetite of the State is the measure.

Hobbes summarises his approach:

though I reverence those men of Ancient time, that either have written Truth perspicuously, or set us in a better way to find it out our selves; yet to the Antiquity it self I think nothing due: For if we will reverence the Age, the Present is the Oldest. If the Antiquity of the Writer, I am not sure, that generally they to whom such honor is given, were more Ancient when they wrote, than I am that am Writing: But if it bee well considered, the praise of Ancient Authors, proceeds not from the reverence of the Dead, but from the competition, and mutuall envy of the Living.

The argument to moderation then must fall. It has no basis. There is goodness in what appears to be moderation, grounded on reason and Christian teaching, but not from the straw Aristotle grasped at, and it is not really moderation.

The Golden Mean assumes a one-dimensional spectrum on one topic alone. No aspect of social relations can be one-dimensional nor go by with no consequence on an infinite network of bonds. Those bonds are restraints on the State of Nature, sometimes stifling; sometimes enabling practical freedom, usually both.  What appears to be moderation is to be balanced on thread of bonds and instincts and motivations to best advantage.  The result looks Aristotelian, but has nothing to do with his idea.

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The Moderate Candidate

The voters demand a moderate candidate, I read. (‘Think of the Red Wall!’) Moderates do not come out of party leadership campaigns though, do they? In any case, what is a moderate? Every commentator believes he knows, but the true answer is Einsteinian.

Extreme politicians put the voters off, it is commonly understood, but that is not quite true. Voters will say they want a moderate candidate, but  you cannot stop there: it is enough to get a headline, but the observation means nothing until  you examine why any individual voter says he or she wants a moderate and what they, as an individual, mean.

The average voter is put off by the arguments of politics: we want politicians to stop arguing and get on with doing the job they are being chosen for. The ideal politician in that view is like Jim Hacker – he was all tied up in wanting to keep voters on side but what was portrayed on screen was a minister who concentrated on actually doing the job, not on wasteful , childish political arguments and bidding wars with other people’s money. Jim Hacker is a fiction. Democratic politics is a long and complicated running argument which happens to spill government out almost as  a waste product. (In undemocratic politics though, it is the population who are treated as the waste product.)

Peace and compromise sound lovely – if however we have a balance in politics such that ministers and MPs are unable to put through decisive changes towards the ultimate expression of their own political beliefs, they are despised, and rightly so, for sitting doing nothing while being highly paid for their indolence and doing no good for the nation. For twelve years, Conservative-led governments have failed to do the things they promised, failed to dislodge the tax-fed social justice warriors we loathe, failed to cap immigration, failed to cut taxes much or at all – they could be praised as moderate, but that is wilful impotence.

What then? Is a virtuous, moderate politician one who does not get into constant playground fights? The fights are necessary though to argue a policy through and put it into effect.  Is the moderate one who listens to all sides, takes opposing opinions into account and finds a middle course between them?  That is the course of indolence and a refusal to do what that politician believes is actually for the benefit of the nation. Worse, it encourages the assertion of extreme positions in order to drag the middle ground backwards and forwards, or eliminates the middle ground.

A fish may see virtue in either of two adjoining lakes, but it may not, for the sake of compromise, lie on the path between them, the moderate choice though that is.

It should not need to be said, but ministers should do what they believe is in the best interests of the nation as a whole, and if the other side, or those within their own party, oppose that action, listen to their arguments so the minister can test his or her opinions and find flaws in the detail and likely outcomes, but still do what (on all the evidence) is believed to be right not a compromise.

Moderation is a virtue, Aristotle assured us (we gain nothing of real value from him and other antique writers as we know, but we can listen) but we must not take an extreme position on it: even Aristotle  treated the concept only as a starting point. The necessity of moderation appears demonstrated from the horrors we have seen born of extreme ideologies. Look closer though – those familiar examples, with their death camps and starvation, are evil not from extremity as an isolated concept but from false, murderous philosophy, usually of socialism. Extreme wrongness brings evil: extreme rightness need not, if only there were a way to judge rightness.

Actually, the word ‘extreme’ is toxic, but ‘staunch’ is positive. How different are they logically?

Let politicians shun extremist if they wish, as long as they are staunch. Refusal to follow their own beliefs is dishonesty, or a wilful refusal to do what they know to be best for the nation – provided that the key a keen eye on what actually happens not what they expect.

Re-reading the above there is a foolish error lurking. Please do not read the article only that far. The problem is that an ideology generalises, and reality and humanity are not capable of generalisation. A nation is composed of individuals, not systems.  Perhaps “extreme”, meaning wrong and dangerous, is actually a good way to express the application of ideology with too much generalisation. In that case one could conclude that a libertarian approach is the least extreme because it refuses to impose general rules on individuals.  There too though it can generalise itself too much and prevents the institutions of the Common-wealth from exercising the duties they have to defend the individual.

The hunt for moderation goes on,. and i did pose the question earlier of who is a moderate. We like moderates, but we like those who will do what is right, which is a logical inconsistency until we look at how the words ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ are actually used. The moderate candidate is praised by all commentators, and it is a different one, for different reasons every time. The truth is that moderation, like the speed of light, is a constant which is relative to the position and motion of the observer. In plain truth, a “moderate” to any given observer is “someone who believes what I do and will act accordingly”.

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