Open letter to the BBC

May I have some guidance on what you mean in recent political coverage? What is your definition of “right-wing” (or “left-wing”) or “right-wing extremist”? BBC reports have used the term for a disparate variety of characters with little in common.

Thomas Hobbes observed:

“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”.

Therefore, if I am to write any more about politics, I need to understand what is meant; and (if I may be so bold) so must the BBC.

You use the same term for collectivist tyrants, for liberal individualists, for social radicals and social conservatives, and for those whose ideas neither you nor I know. This is irrational.

I, at least, could not be described as “right-wing”, according the paradigms in your broadcasts, unless you change the definitions, or have none; in which case who could be safe from accusation?

As the term “right-wing” appears to be your favourite political epithet (the search bar on the BBC website is an eye-opener) it ought to mean something. The term has been used to describe certain of the blood-soaked tyrants of the early twentieth century who had a common philosophy. However you also attach it to those with no philosophy; to those who would seek the violent overthrow of our already fractious society, and to those who seek peacefully, prayerfully to restore it; and to just about any insurgent political movement in Britain or abroad, whatsoever its ideas, at least if some of those ideas might not be shared by the journalist.

This is inconsistent, and it betrays a lack of thought. My concern is that you have not thought about it: labels are a way to avoid thinking. That is unworthy of the BBC and the high standing of its journalists.

To the task though – from the first examples, if fascists are “right-wing” then you have a definition: an ideology which abnegates all personal freedom and in which no one is treated as an individual but accordingly to an arbitrary collective identity imposed on them. That would describe fascism perfectly, by Mussolini’s own definition, and socialism too of course. Then again, last week the BBC consistently described Javier Milei in Argentina as “right-wing populist”, though his declared philosophy is the polar opposite: excessive personal freedom and repugnancy to all forms of collectivism. If he is not “left-wing” either, perhaps by such a definition he is a “centrist extremist”?

Alternatively, you might intend the term to refer to expressions of hatred against classes of people. That is the constant theme of fascists, and of all sorts of socialists too; the more extreme the ideology the more extreme the hatred. The only distinction between them is the content of the graves they fill.

Regrettably, politics is pervaded by hate-fuelled rhetoric, in every party (you should hear LibDems when they get going – they are scandalous). For my own part, I shun hatred, and would prefer respect for all. That is one reason I dropped out of local politics, when I just wanted to serve the public, not attack anyone. From your perspective that might make me a dangerous centrist, and from the perspective of our political class it makes me totally apolitical. I would be content with that.

This has not got us very far with the point of the exercise, which is to define the BBC’s favourite epithet. Stepping back, if the spectrum is between “right-wing” as hate-filled, murderous fascists and “left-wing” as hate-filled, murderous Marxists, that is a spectrum entirely within tyranny, and few people are on it. Where are libertarians, or Tories? Nowhere near that deathly scale, thank goodness.

The term “left-wing” is used of socialists, but even that usage presupposes a single dimension going towards or away from a fixed point defined by Karl Marx. This gives the man and his philosophy too much credit. Marx had one creed amongst countless thousands, and he should not be permitted to define the whole spectrum of politics. He has done enough harm as it is.

If there is no definition then, the word is no concept at all, and no one – not you nor I nor baying politicians – have any business attaching it to anyone at all. I know that journalists need shorthand, but in a respectable publication that shorthand needs some substance, and here there is none.

Hobbes put it bluntly:

“There is yet another fault in the Discourses of some men; which may also be numbred amongst the sorts of Madnesse; namely, that abuse of words, whereof I have spoken before in the fifth chapter, by the Name of Absurdity.”

An undefined label at which you can direct hatred is madness indeed; the sign saying “Kick me” that you feel free to hang on the back of a passing victim. Labels are the tool of the despot and the lazy. As a radical centrist, if that if how you would label me, I refuse imposed labels (including ‘centrist’).

I would hope then that if the phrase “right-wing” ever passes the lips of a BBC journalist or appears on its website, you can define it, and if you believe you can define it, I will read that definition with interest, and may publish it for the edification of all.

Dictators and liberators alike; collectivists and individualists; social radicals and social conservatives and those whose ideas you nor I know. Until I receive better explanation, I can only deduce that in BBC parlance, “right-wing” means “someone I would not invite to join the Groucho Club”.

(This has also been sent as a letter to the BBC.)

See also


The Shallow State

It is said that if you stick an oily finger in a beer,  the head disappears as a single molecule’s thickness of oil chokes the surface. Lifeboats used to calm the mighty waves the same way:  all the welling depths of the ocean were stifled by the thinnest film upon the surface. Abandon your theories about the ‘Deep State’: it is the Shallow State which prevents change –  the fine layer upon the surface smothering action from reaching the nation.

The functions of the state interact with the citizen not through great councils or wise heads, but by the hands of junior officials. Wise heads are (on occasion) hired to look after great matters of state, but they are not the ones putting it into effect. They are at the mercy of those junior clerks. The junior staff are not privy to the policy priorities from on high, and not really interested – they just do their jobs. It can be a cushy billet by all accounts, so a good clerk will keep his or her head down and get on with a basic service.  Innovation is punishable.

This level is the interface with the public, which puts all into practical effect.

If an activist has appointed herself in a senior role, threatening junior staff with discipline for not following her agenda, they will go along with it for an easy life, though they may disagree, and even if that activist civil servant has no authority for her action.

More important are the natural processes of recruitment. Everyone has his or her own interests and priorities. There is a section of the Home Office dealing with nationality and immigration: one can imagine who would apply to work in it, and that is reflected in actual staffing. Likewise for many specialist areas. The minister may change, and have new, fresh ideas, but the staff implementing it have their own ideas and they have not changed.  It may be a molecule-thick layer on the water, but all the pronouncements of government are choked before they reach action and the public.

On occasion something dramatic happens:  when an immigration crackdown was announced not long ago, many junior civil servants protested and said they would refuse to implement it. It is rarely so explicit though: The Windrush Scandal was not caused by any order from the Home Secretary to deport those who had arrived here lawfully in a past generation, but by junior staff implementing a version of the rules, either idiotically or, one suspects, maliciously in order to discredit the whole scheme; and it worked.

I should not concentrate on that one areas though – it is not of particular interest, and serves only because of the scandal.

In many areas of government the same shallow-state effect is visible: stifling policy, stifling innovative thinking, and allowing just a few activist staff to have a wider impact. The government machine is too vast, too Byzantine, for it to be any other way.

Can fraud in social security or the National Health Service be curbed, as every government promises?  Not when staff are just getting on with their jobs to process applications as quickly as possible, and not spending time examining the minutiae or questioning suspicions, and not while they are kept afraid of accusations.  Ministers are as distant from the tasks for which they are nominally responsible as is the director of a multinational concern from the teenagers who serve their burgers. They may shout, but all the layers of insulation between them and the actual doers will muffle them entirely, and the junior staff will just get on with their jobs.

Kemi Badenoch has spoken to the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship that government should ignore extremist lobbyists – but she cannot do anything about it, because the real government are the junior staff at the public interface.

The opportunities for activists to fill the power vacuum is clear. They need not be in a supervisory role: someone in a back office wrote the coding that resulted in some government agency webpages having dropdowns that included ‘Islas Malvinas’ and ‘Occupied Palestine’. No one was tasked with checking and intervening. That at least appears to have been resolved after it was brought to higher attention. Many low-rankers are in the meantime still writing ‘guidance’ notes, enforced as iron law, forcing their own ideas on the junior staff, with no authority to do so.

We read of an employee of ACAS, a government agency, hounded out and slandered when he questioned critical race theory: race-hatred was to be enforced as unquestionable dogma, by the authority delegated by a Cabinet Minister. The tribunal was astounded, but ministers nominally in charge did not even notice. It is no part of government policy, and indeed has been condemned by ministers, so who is in charge, and why are they not removed?

The permanent, non-political civil service is not then to be seen in the great mandarins treated nominally with reverence, but collectively in the most junior layer, whose hands do all, working away at their tasks, keeping their heads down, insulated from the politics afar off from them. They are the single, thin layer that interact with the public, collectively stopping anything from changing.

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Every story needs a villain

The villain of the piece is the most important narrative to a story, not the hero. The literature on the subject is wrong. Politicians, the great storytellers of all ages, know this well.

If you wonder why Moriarty appears in all Sherlock Holmes adaptations when he is only in one, short Holmes story; it is because the villain is needed to carry the narrative continuity. There are plenty of stories with no explicit villain, but it takes skill to keep it going. It more realistic with no villain – real life stories do not have a villain – but for momentum he drives it along, and can be used to explain the protagonist’s misfortunes. That is where it gets political.

It may be Ogmund Eythjof’s-killer in Odd’s Saga, popping up at various points to give flavour to an episode and make you hang on the skald’s words for his next appearance, or the Green Knight whom Gawain hunts (a warning against assuming anyone to be a villain), or the Sheriff of Nottingham, or Sauron, or von Stalhein, or that inappropriately appropriated Moriarty: with an individual as the focus, all can be explained in human terms.

There may be a collective villain in a faceless mob, like the Morlocks (although I prefer them), or a herd of monsters, but this rarely works in print or on screen and in these stories the real antagonist is the protagonist against himself.

Then come the politicians, and the stories they tell. They do conjure up collective villains: ‘the Rich’, or ‘Single-Mothers’, or ‘the Banks’ or ‘the J-‘: ah – there you what they did? It is falsehood, and malice of the highest order. A work of fiction can have a villain but telling such a story as if real life worked that way is evil and potentially murderous, as we have seen and wept for.

A wise politician knows that his fiction has a better narrative if the villain has a human face. Viktor Orban knew that a campaign against western liberalism was to wishy-washy to inspire and so, on advice from American consultants, he gave it a face; George Soros. Others obsess on Trump.

Battling a supernatural villain makes the ordinary man feel like a hero. It is inspiring, but not in a good sense when it crosses into the real world.

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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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Twit twit To-where?

A company takeover rarely hits the front page, but for Twitter, the biggest celebrity social media site and Elon Musk, the biggest celebrity tech entrepreneur, it fills volumes. (Wondering why does little good in the fervent political atmosphere, but that stifling atmosphere has something to do with it.)

Tesla and SpaceX are utterly brilliant: we have to ask then whether Twitter can become as brilliant too.

The gossip has concentrated on how freely one may speak on the platform. It is a private company and can make its own rules.  I know that if I ran a social media platform I would be worried about what people were saying on my site, effectively (to my mind) in my name. I would want it to be respectable, and to ban way-out material like Holocaust-denial, race-hatred, loony conspiracy theories and socialism.

My forum, I think, would not last long, turning away so much custom

The value of Twitter, financially, is in the volume and variety of commentary and bile spewed out on it, which produces data which can be sold. In the old days, a company with a product to sell might hire a marketing consultant to go round knocking on a hundred doors: now fora like Twitter have the unfiltered brainspills of millions of customers available to analyse. In a decade or so, marketing departments might learn how to read the data properly. Bans and threats of bans will skew the data. Liberating speech is a most noble motive: it should also be a profitable one.

The new owner might just leave Twitter ticking along with a few adjustments to its policies, and commentaries have made that assumption, with perhaps too a few tweaks like adding an an ‘edit’ button. It works as a business model at the moment. That is thinking very small though, and Twitter is shrinking so business-as-usual means decline.

At the moment it works on the surface with simplicity. You might think that no revenue stream goes untapped, but it looks flat, suggesting that there is more that could be done to expand the Twitworld in more dimensions and bring in more facets than ever before. I would not know where to start, but I am not Elon. It is only a petty sideshow for him, but if he shows that vision for which he is famed, his new sideshow may become something so good that even I might be interested in it.

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