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.)

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Good Wit, Or Fancy; Good Judgement; Discretion

And this difference of quicknesse, is caused by the difference of mens passions; that love and dislike, some one thing, some another: and therefore some mens thoughts run one way, some another: and are held to, and observe differently the things that passe through their imagination. And whereas in his succession of mens thoughts, there is nothing to observe in the things they think on, but either in what they be Like One Another, or in what they be Unlike, or What They Serve For, or How They Serve To Such A Purpose;

Those that observe their similitudes, in case they be such as are but rarely observed by others, are sayd to have a Good Wit; by which, in this occasion, is meant a Good Fancy. But they that observe their differences, and dissimilitudes; which is called Distinguishing, and Discerning, and Judging between thing and thing; in case, such discerning be not easie, are said to have a Good Judgement: and particularly in matter of conversation and businesse; wherein, times, places, and persons are to be discerned, this Vertue is called DISCRETION. The former, that is, Fancy, without the help of Judgement, is not commended as a Vertue: but the later which is Judgement, and Discretion, is commended for it selfe, without the help of Fancy.

Besides the Discretion of times, places, and persons, necessary to a good Fancy, there is required also an often application of his thoughts to their End; that is to say, to some use to be made of them. This done; he that hath this Vertue, will be easily fitted with similitudes, that will please, not onely by illustration of his discourse, and adorning it with new and apt metaphors; but also, by the rarity or their invention.

But without Steddinesse, and Direction to some End, a great Fancy is one kind of Madnesse; such as they have, that entring into any discourse, are snatched from their purpose, by every thing that comes in their thought, into so many, and so long digressions, and parentheses, that they utterly lose themselves: Which kind of folly, I know no particular name for: but the cause of it is, sometimes want of experience; whereby that seemeth to a man new and rare, which doth not so to others: sometimes Pusillanimity; by which that seems great to him, which other men think a trifle: and whatsoever is new, or great, and therefore thought fit to be told, withdrawes a man by degrees from the intended way of his discourse.

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A behemoth rises twittering

Convulsions at Twitter do not excite me, except that it is Elon Musk, whose works are always fascinating. He creates the best cars in the world, the best rockets in or off the world and co-created the world’s on-line payment system.  Twitter is a step down, but that is because it has been run without vision.

For most, Twitter is a leisure thing; an opportunity to shout at the air without consequence, and no matter that no one is listening. Mary Wakefield in the Spectator recently called it a playground, so Elon Musk is the kid with the biggest bouncy castle in the world. Good for him. He deserves the childhood once denied to him.

For others, Twitter is a marketing tool – a part of their business or their political campaign. They cannot expect to get it for free any more than they could expect to put billboards up on the highway without paying. Those making a fuss at paying a tiny monthly subscription fee for a special position on a marketing tool worth far, far more to them are disingenuous.

It certainly needs more than the dribble from those $8 a month blue-tick payments. I was astounded to read of the depth of the losses suffered by Twitter – it is a wonder that investors had any faith in it with no hope of an income. It recalls the dot-com boom and bust, which recalled the bubble that burst in the Wall Street Crash, which recalled the South Sea Bubble, for there is nothing new under the sun. The dot-com boom saw countless millions of dollars hosed into start-ups whose only real asset was a slick-looking website, which could never deliver a profit; and the crash was quite foreseeable. Twitter has also failed to make a profit.

However, there were enormous successes from the dot-com boom, by companies which did deliver a paid-for service. The boom was a bust for most, but generalisation must not tarnish the whole era:  Amazon soared from this, and those which did provide the service they promised: delivery was the key.

Twitter though is something people do not pay to use, so what is its purpose? Its income, as I understand it, is that adverts appear, largely unregarded, and it sells data on trends and so forth. This could be a good income if the site could be set free with no work needed to be done on it, but somehow that does not work, and so a new master mind is needed to find and exploit the opportunities. Opportunities can hardly be far away when you have a billion customers.

Just being a billboard for people to spraying rude messages is pathetic. If Twitter is to be anything, then the μ-blogging is just the loss-leader to attract customers to the real business. There are things the billions drawn to the honeypot want to buy, and a trusted brand can make the most of this. The man who co-created PayPal will know this.  The man who realised that an electric car can be exciting and practical will understand. An app can do so much more, and we can only be shocked that those who created Twitter threw all those opportunities away.

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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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Of Anger in Rhetoric

The common opinions concerning anger are therefore such as follow. They are easily angry, that think they are neglected. That think they excel others; as the rich with the poor; the noble with the obscure,&c. And such as think they deserve well. And such as grieve to be.. hindered, opposed, or not assisted; and therefore sick men, poor men, lovers, and generally all that desire and attain not, are angry with those that, standing by, are not moved by their wants. And such as having expected good, find evil.

Those that men are angry with, are: such as mock, deride, or jest at them.
And such as shew any kind of contumely towards them.
And such as despise those things which we spend most labour and study upon; and the more, by how much we seem the less advanced therein.
And our friends, rather than those that are not our friends.
And such as have honoured us, if they continue not.
And such as requite not our courtesy.
And such as follow contrary courses, if they be our inferiors.
And our friends, if they have said or done us evil, or not good.
And such as give not ear to our entreaty.
And such as are joyful or calm in our distress.
And such as troubling us, are not themselves troubled.
And such as willingly hear or see our disgraces.
And such as neglect us in the presence of our competitors, of those we admire, of those we would have admire us, of those we reverence, and of those that reverence us.
And such as should help us, and neglect it.
And such as are in jest, when we are in earnest.
And such as forget us, or our names.

An orator therefore must so frame his judge or auditor by his oration, as to make him apt to anger: and then make his adversary appear such as men use to be angry withal.

– Thomas Hobbes:  The Art of Rhetoric

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