Let them sing

The Police are on the hunt for a dangerous gang, whose crime is – singing a traditional song.

The press have been reticent about naming the song in question but fans were Rangers supporters and it was the ‘Go Home Song’ otherwise called ‘the Famine Song’; a ditty which has for some years had the police and courts all of a flutter. The tune alone when played has caused apoplexy although it is a very popular song in the Bahamas (‘the John B Sails’).

The Famine Song can be hard-hitting, so I am not going to quote it all here, but it is not half as bad as songs belted out in stadiums elsewhere in the land (if you are of a sensitive disposition, do not listen to what is sung at Norwich City supporters, or between East End teams). Rangers’ song is a deliberate wind-up song aimed at Celtic.  The High Court itself in an appeal from the sheriff ruled upon singers of the song, condemning them for a public order offence.

Perhaps they should have considered more deeply than the faux outrage of insulted Celtic fans. After all, a court of law must recognise that Athenry Mike was indeed a thief.  Whether Large John was in fact fully briefed is an ongoing controversy, but that is another story. While that wee traitor from Castlemilk did turn his back on his own, going to play for Ireland instead of Scotland, it is only ‘traitorous’ in football terms, not legally, but we’re singing about football. The killer, for the court was not the verses about Glasgow Celtic’s great scandal and the misdeeds of the Irish Free State; it is the chorus lines, ending “Why don’t you go home?” Apparently that is an existential threat to all persons of Irish ancestry in Scotland.

A bit of background may be needed.

The man who wrote the song is no hot sectarian- he is an Ulsterman, born in a robust city, Belfast, and who grew up with good pals in both communities. He saw the sectarian divide yawning and growing in Ulster: to see it replicated in Glasgow was distressing. In fact there has been a divide in Glasgow since the ships landed in a fiercely Protestant city and disgorged thousands of left-footed Irishmen, but as it should have calmed down in the later end of the twentieth century, it was growing worse, as an echo of Ulster’s troubles.  The song-writer has explained the circumstances leading to his writing it. It was a kick-back response to the sectarians on the other side.

Trying to be more Irish than the Irish is a fault of many living this side of the sea looking back at a mythical past. (I try not to, but the Irish name was lost a couple of generations back so it does not leap out of the page.) The songs sung by Glasgow Celtic supporters were not, are not, direct attack songs, but sentimental songs of Irish nationalism, like the Fields of Athenry alluded to in the Rangers song. Really, the song condemned by the High Court in Rangers supporters’ mouths is not “the famine sing” as if it were the only one – Irish voices and would-be-Irish voices have many songs romanticising the potato famine and blaming all things British for it – that sounds like an attack upon the good citizens of Glasgow to me.

The “go home song” then is a response to the actual famine songs: it says “How much more ungrateful could you be for what your city did for your ancestors?” It does not delight in the dark chapters of modern history, but raises them to burst the bubble of sickly romanticism.

Rage at perceived injustice takes on an irrationality beyond the facts raged against; something we see in many social conflicts of politics, culture, religion or whatever, and reason will not calm the waters but only raise the tumult. I can write my take on the thing, and others will disagree, virulently. They are entitled to, and I can debate or seek nuances and find the common ground or each person’s ideas and unique emphases, because that is how a free and respectful society must work – not with cancellations and bans. You are free to be outraged too, and free to be outrageous.

Therefore, in the name of freedom, let them sing what they like and to mean the words how they like.

As to the line which so shocked Lord Carloway and even UNICEF, I see that as a challenge to the ‘Plastic Paddies’, those who are Glaswegian through and through and still pretend, on the terraces, to be Irishmen: ‘Why don’t you go home?’ has an answer: ‘because you are not Irishmen – you are Glaswegian – and this is your home.’

See also

Resisting neo-feudalism

Convulsion in the normality of society is a continuous process and only future generations will know whether the changes of today will be revolutionary or are just another bump on the road.

I am not convinced that the West is being taken over irrevocably by a new techno-elite, although I would accept that it may look like it. The next decades may be characterised by this dominance of the unwanted elite. There is a fascinating book out by Joel Kotkin which suggests that the West is becoming a neo-feudal society controlled as in the Middle Ages by an elite which defends its exclusive hold on power.

It does look as if the convulsions of the power structures in Western society are moving in the way Kotkin describes as tending to a new, neo-feudal settlement. It has been observed by reviewers darkly that while the grand lords in the Middle Ages accepted that society required the acceptance of mutual obligations between themselves and the peasantry, the modern technocrats do not accept the burden of obligations: they have no need to, as long as power is secured.

All this is too dark a picture though, too close to conspiracy narratives, and while that is not what the author alleges nor intends, it should ring warning bells, as should the generalisation inherent in describing a  social trend in general terms.

Nevertheless, we are living through changes. Technology forces a social change, and those who know how to use the levers of power that appear will look to secure their own power. That is not modern; the seizing of personal power starts with Adam and Eve disobeying and opening their eyes, and runs in a consistent thread throughout humanity.

Some commentaries will look at formal systems of government, some at the power structures operating beneath and in spite of the formal ones, but most of everyday life operates outside government, at least in a free country.

A free country increasingly means ‘an English-speaking country’: that Anglosphere freedom has allowed enterprise to thrive and find new forms from which the whole world has benefited. At the same time, free enterprise without restraint from jealous government has allowed power to accumulate in those enterprises. The power of businesses which are not responsible to the electorate has been the subject of much anguish amongst commentators, but the darker warnings strike a false note.

If you want to see the new technology used for real political oppression, look at China. The government controls technology and enforces dependency upon it amongst the urban population (the only ones who matter), and if no one can receive or make a payment without going through a single, government-controlled payment system, then dissent means starvation. Combined with universal surveillance, it is a tyrant’s perfect system. This works not only within the Middle Kingdom but amongst students and workers abroad, dependent on the same payment and social media systems.

Compared with this, fears about the power of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are petty.

Even so, corporate monopoly power is important and is a threat in the West. Books are not banned, but with just a few providers they can be delisted, and they are, for openly political reasons. Speech online is censored at the instance of activists intimidating platform providers and infiltrating their staff: all this has been too often discussed to need repetition.

This would not be an issue without technology-dependence: twenty years ago, few would bat an eyelid at someone being banned from an on-line forum, because they were the preserve of a few geeks . Really they should be still – the online world is not the real world.  It only gets serious when the online world is needed to access the real world, and those access points are limited.

A neo-feudal society would require permanent, exclusive control of  power and information. Activists do seek that, in the social, commercial and political realms, but unless they can achieve a monopoly, such a system cannot endure. The Roman Church was brought low by the printing press.

Many foreign nations may be damned in this respect: they do not have the millennium-old innate understanding of individual freedom that the English-speaking peoples do and if their language is spoken only in one country then technology and publication in that language can be controlled by one government and social structure. The Chinese are compelled to follow resources in Chinese, which are controlled. The same could be done for small national languages. Technology is written in English and translated into foreign tongues, which produces a choke-point.

English though is spoken throughout the world, in cultures which take government to be an add-on necessity, not a centre for direction. If one government clamps down, the words can be spoke in another country, the book published and read abroad, the opinion expressed; the monopoly-breaking enterprise can be launched elsewhere. When American politics was censored by Mr Zuckerberg and Mr Dorsey, new channels appeared. There is a free-market. It is not even hard to break in: Mark Zuckerberg began his world-dominating resource in a college room. If the near-monopoly providers try to regulate how we behave or speak, and what books we buy, they will not remain near-monopolies: the force of the market must liberalise them in the end.

Therefore there is good reason to think that although the new feudalism is a real trend, pushed fervently by some, they cannot prevail for long.

See also

Books

Gorchfygu’r Wyddfa

No one should fight their battles on Snowdon’s peaceful slopes. Battles of language are best confined to ivory towers and books, not here.

(The slopes do not seem peaceful in the height of summer as a babble of voices crowd to the summit from the Llanberis Path or the Cheats’ Railway, but away from there and then, it is a haven of peace I have long enjoyed as a favourite retreat.)

There is no popular campaign to rename Snowdon, whatever the BBC may have been led to believe: just a loud one by a tiny pressure group named Cymuned. Somehow they have managed to get the Snowdonia National Park Authority to take them seriously – this tells us a great deal about the National Park Authority. If it is ‘national’ it surely belongs to all the British nation, not to driven politicians.

It comes down to a name. Much has been said about names, all of it wrong but it is about romantic dreams, is it not?

The name ‘Snowdon’ is not as old in the written record as Yr Wyddfa is, but is close: it is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 1095, and it must have been used long centuries before then. The activists would cast it off as if it were one of those modern inventions which do dot the Welsh coast, but it has a millennium of establishment behind it. Neither is ‘Snowdon’ a purely English name, as its key element ‘dun‘ is Welsh, far older Welsh indeed than the modern, Latin-derived ‘mynydd‘, so perhaps in its suffix the name ‘Snowdon’ can claim seniority in time and genuine Welshness.

I have read arguments about it, from the scholarly to the deranged, and would not dismiss any out of hand. I have read that Yr Wyddfa has preference as the language of the mountain itself, but the villages around speak English as readily as they do Welsh, and the voices spoken on the mountainside and mostly in English, or frequently a gaggle of European tongues – all are welcome. If by this one means the language not of the folk about or upon the mountain but that of the mountain itself, well, in all my time on Snowdon I have never heard it speak a word. If it did, it would speak in a tongue more ancient that mankind itself.

There is no “true name”. Neither, as has been asserted, is ‘Yr Wyddfa’ the original name of this mountain – man has made his home here since those who chipped flints to hunt mammoths here, and Snowdon has cast his long, perhaps cynical, gaze over men, these antlike creatures, for countless ages – a timeless mountain standing for aeons since it burst with lava plumes from the young Earth, and wore into its shape over uncounted ages, and when man arrived late, these creatures living but the blink of a geological eye beneath its slopes, have been in many tribes and tongues, of which even Welsh is but a youngster, a newcomer, and English not too longer after it. Yr Wyddfa the original name? Not even close, not by millennia.

I must ask then where this attempt to banish English comes from, and can only find it not in timeworn local culture but a very recent sub-Marxist ideology that seeks to divide and accuse. There is no enmity between the concepts of Welsh and English: we are all one race, one people of one descent, and both languages are aspects of our common culture. To suppress or insult on one language is to assault the whole of our being and culture.

That there are two languages and two names is part of the wonderous diversity of our land, and long may it continue. The Welsh language is embedded in the names of the landscape, and should endure in the tongues of its people – now we have the technology, it must be harnessed to allow this equal diversity. It has a richness to it, where one tongue shall not dominate or obliterate the other. The authorities are commanded to respect diversity, and here they should indeed: the National Park Authority must give equal respect to Welsh and English, and not treat English as a language to be destroyed. It has as much of a right to be in these hills as its neighbour.

Different languages have different names. When I speak English I call the mountain ‘Snowdon’ and when I am speaking Welsh I call it ‘Yr Wyddfa’, because those are the correct forms of those languages. If we deny that different languages have different names, we deny reality and attack the culture bound up in that language. If we decree from on high that Snowdon may bear one name only, and that the Welsh name because it is in Welsh-speaking Wales, then it follows that a man speaking Welsh may not call London ‘Llundain’, and that if Anglesey in a generation or so becomes majority English-speaking, then the ancient name of Môn must be banished. This is wrong, and would be an insult to the most beautiful language in the world. Likewise banishing ‘Snowdon’ insults the second-most beautiful.

See also

Hate speech: the Denning Solution

The Law Commission have discredited themselves into irrelevance. The Police have lost the respect they need to bear authority. Power has passed to the unaccountable. Lord Denning had a solution ahead of his time to define what is truly hate-speech worthy of the law’s attention.

The tussle between freedom to speak and the maintenance of order is an old one, maybe as old as speech itself. The first Stone Age tribal chieftain who clubbed underling for speaking out of turn began an age-long train of action.

Not so long ago, freedom of speech was limited even in Britain, but there was liberty enough to grumble against it, and juries were not so willing to convict their neighbours for speaking against what the government or polite opinion insisted upon. The main crime of expression was one against the written word only: ‘seditious libel’, and on this charge many pamphleteers was put before a jury for insulting the King’s ministers and sowing dissention against the lawful authorities.

In the latter half of the twentieth century Lord Denning expressed his opinion of the offence:

The offence of seditious libel is now obsolescent. It used to be defined as words intended to stir up violence, that is, disorder, by promoting feelings, of ill-will or hostility between different classes of His Majesty’s subjects. But this definition was found to be too wide. It would restrict too much the full and free discussion of public affairs…So it has fallen into disuse for nearly 150 years. The only case in this century was R. v. Caunt…when a local paper published an article stirring up hatred against Jews. The jury found the editor Not Guilty.”

The Caunt case he quotes concerned a shocking editorial in a local newspaper: in 1947, the editor of the Morecambe and Heysham Visitor published an article virulently attacking all Jews and suggesting that violence against them would be understandable; and this just two years after the death camps had been opened. It was written as a response to the Jewish Insurgency in Palestine, making no distinction between the rebels in the Levant and Jewish people generally – its key paragraph would get any journalist sacked and disgraced from any respectable newspaper today, or promoted in the Guardian. It may have been a cause of anti-Jewish riots that followed in Liverpool. Nevertheless, the jury acquitted the editor, because free speech was more precious to them.

The acquittal burst the idea that racial hatred could be restrained by the law of seditious libel, and in time the first Race Relations Act was introduced. It made explicit as a crime to stir up racial hatred. That is not a problem for anyone: today’s issue is in imagined interpretations of the much later Equality Act, unwarranted extensions of the McPherson recommendations, and a hedge built about the law by those with a deeper agenda.

Lord Denning’s summary of the law of his time was perhaps a personal one, as ‘seditious libel’ was a common law offence not defined in statute, but is much quoted abroad, where sedition is still a live topic.

Denning’s summary gives us a what may be though the ideal standard not just for speech against races but against any portion of the population, whether one of the narrow categories of the Equality Act or any other group which has attracted the ire of an ill-disposed speaker, to persecute any minority or majority:

words intended to stir up violence, that is, disorder, by promoting feelings, of ill-will or hostility between different classes of His Majesty’s subjects

That should be simple enough, and it should be enough: stirring up violence. That said, the coda, in the idea of “ill-will or hostility” is itself very broad, which might be what made the old law a dead-letter in the hands of a jury. Political rhetoric today (on one side at least) is dominated by accusing opponents as a class of being fiends in human form, which is improper and to be condemned socially but finding the policeman’s boot at the doorstep of every Labour or SNP activist its likely to bring the law into disrepute.

The law steps in where it is necessary to protect society each individual in the society it governs, and guard the social bonds which keep order in that society. In a totalitarian society those bonds may be drawn tight and inflexible, but a free society needs elasticity, and that means mutual tolerance of originality and plain rudeness. It only steps over the line when actual violence is threatened. That is where a law of sedition has a place. In the Denning formulation then, the essence of what should be forbidden is “words intended to stir up violence”: the promotion of feelings of hostility is the method whereby violence is stirred or made more likely, not an additional offence: “promoting hostility such as to stir up violence”, not stirring up violence or promoting hostility.

See also

Books

We cannot win on social media

Social media belongs to the angry, the malicious, the conspiracists, the unreasoning corner of the brain. There is no point in discussing how to convert it to rationality any more than to moderate a rabid dog. Rage beyond the edge of sanity is fundamental to its nature.

Nutters will dominate social media because they are less likely to have settled jobs and responsibilities.  They have the time and presumably little sense or they would have jobs (or they are academics, which comes to much the same thing).

There is no need to recite yet again the ills of social media; the slanders, the wounding insults, the depersonalising expressions of hatred, the incitements to hatred or to violence (which are not the same thing), the threats. The conspiracy theories, well, those are a whole new topic. We know all this. There are articles aplenty on it, electronic jeremiads, bewailing the contents of YouTwitFace or whatever.

The big players of social media take the overwhelming bulk of traffic, though a discussion board or social exchange medium may turn up anywhere, for local groups. Where it is among friends, they will write rationally because they are known and judged by their peers; or there is the wilder tavern gossip we love which goes far beyond any moderation, because we are liberated from talking sense, and we know we do not mean a word. The internet takes it beyond even this. An anonymous board is licence for every explosion of the brain, and that dominates – be it on Twitter, Facebook, the BBC HYS columns, and many more.

This does not apply to profession fora where contributions are from those who putting their professional reputations and those of their companies on line in front of their potential customers and suppliers. You won’t get ‘Q’ trying to whip up crowds on LinkedIn, There is the distinction: the constraint of enforced respectability against the liberating sense given by anonymity.

There are many articles asking what can be done to clean up social media. My answer is ‘little or nothing’. We know what goes on, and what we also know, but do not want to admit is that all this is just a reflection of humanity. It Twitter is a sewer, it is simply because it reflects mankind.

Nutters will dominate because they are less likely to have settled jobs and responsibilities. The Devil makes work for idle hands: so does ‘Q’ apparently. Things said online have no consequences so there is no limit to what can be said, whether you believe it or not, and it could become addictive. Actions without consequences can be a dizzying liberation, as they were to the Washington crowd last week, right up to the moment that a shot rang out and Ashli Babbitt fell dead. That moment marked a sudden change in their dynamic, as it was the first time that a real world consequence struck, and with deadly force.

A way then to moderate, control or even eliminate the abuse of social media? There is none, while it lasts in its current form. The platforms might try to become active publishers, picking and choosing contributions, and they know that would kill their customer base and their business model.

Regulation of some sort would be barely different, and drawing the distinction between vigorous free speech and dangerous incitement is not something which I would entrust to any politician, frightened official or social media magnate.

(You must also ask yourself what sort of person would volunteer to be ‘Controller of the Internet’, and whether you would allow a person of those characteristics anywhere near the levers of power.)

If anyone wants to start fighting falsehood and conspiracy theories on social media, go ahead, if you have the time and resilience. Do not start though with things like QAnon, which is just too ridiculous, but with the most pernicious and commonplace conspiracy theory; the one which preaches that all your misfortunes are caused by rich people hoarding all the wealth to keep you down. Sometimes there is a racial slur added to it, and we all know where that leads. Can the champion of truth react to every post or tweet about ‘fat-cats’ and ‘Tories’, and who should do it? What fact-checker sites can be established to direct those caught in the delusion? It is a political issue, for politicians, and that is how they should be working.

Social media will continue though to belong to those who have too much time on their hands and no responsibilities. Bringing calm reason to bear with the aim of creating a space for respectful collaborative development of ideas is an impossible dream.

See also

Books