27 February 2010

Douglas the Digital Aye-Aye goes to Strathclyde...

Coincidentally, I was recently reading a post over at Andrew Sullivan’s blog at the Atlantic entitled “Pacifism is Objectively Pro-Fascist”. The title quotes an inflammatory suggestion made by George Orwell in the essay Pacifism and the War. Sullivan recants his own entanglement with such thinking in the context of American military adventures in Iraq. Moreover, he goes on to quote Orwell’s own subsequent rejection of the idea in favourable terms. Introducing a note of subjectivity, the second excerpt emphasises the primary importance of honesty which should check any honest inquisitor before he lodges easy accusations that pacificists are really pro-Fascist, or that those against an invasion of Iraq were objectively pro-Saddam. Argues Orwell, motives matter.

‘The same propaganda tricks are to be found almost everywhere. It would take many pages of this paper merely to classify them, but here I draw attention to one very widespread controversial habit: disregard of an opponent’s motives. The key-word here is ‘objectively”. We are told that it is only people's objective actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance. Thus pacifists, by obstructing the war effort, are “objectively” aiding the Nazis; and therefore the fact that they may be personally hostile to Fascism is irrelevant. I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once.

In my opinion a few pacifists are inwardly pro-Nazi, and extremist left-wing parties will inevitably contain Fascist spies. The important thing is to discover which individuals are honest and which are not, and the usual blanket accusation merely makes this more difficult. The atmosphere of hatred in which controversy is conducted blinds people to considerations of this kind. To admit that an opponent might be both honest and intelligent is felt to be intolerable. It is more immediately satisfying to shout that he is a fool or a scoundrel, or both, than to find out what he is really like.’

These remarks remained aptly ensconced in the back of my mind as I flicked through the politics pages in the Herald, only to find similar rhetoric emanating from the Scottish Labour Party. While the headline ‘Labour election warning over SNP’ hardly smelled of news or novelty at all, below, we find that the Chief Election Programmer is installing insidious software on the empty hardrives of the Labour Student drones at Strathclyde University. (Needless to say, I await Yousuf’s relaying of this data with mounting anticipation.) Since he is speaking to the educated young, wee Dougie Alexander MP will touch on the (presumably awkward) question of Labour’s position on paying for university education “At the last election, Alex Salmond asked students to invest their future in him, but in government he has refused to invest in theirs,” Mr Alexander will declare. No doubt Douglas the Digital Aye-Aye will declaim all of this with the only face he has got – a twitchily straight one – but surely this is improbable stuff from the party who actually opposed the abolition of the graduate endowment. Certainly, spank Salmond and Shoal for not realising their full policy goal of scratching student debt. That said, I don’t see how anyone with a pinch of irony could take a telling from this long-fingered Labour lemur on how to facilitate individuals of whatever background to obtain an education in one of the country's fine institutions of higher learning.

The particular anticipatory quote furnishing the headline, however, relates back to my sense of serendipity having encountered the Orwell quotation. ‘Votes for Alex Salmond’s SNP in May will strengthen David Cameron’s chances of becoming Prime Minister’, Alexander will conclude. Re-orientate that a snatch, and it can be more directly, more honestly expressed in parallel to Orwell’s formulation - the argument that voting SNP is objectively pro-Tory. This argument may be readily extended to encapsulate pretty much everyone – Liberal Democrats, Greens, Scottish Socialist Party, the Dungeons Death and Taxes Party. Of all of them, this sort of discourse must particularly rile the Liberal Democrats – speaking at a UK wide level. After all, if they’re to inch towards influence and power, the two-party frame of electoral reference has to change. The metaphor must shift from the flipping of a coin, with an inevitable falling on one side or another, to a more diversified account of democracy and decision-making that does not fetishise the executive centre and the incessant spiritualising of the prime ministerial position. Of late, reading the London media has been like been sitting through a particularly tedious Shakespeare play - for God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground, And tell sad stories of the death of kings -


  1. I suggested in my post that Dougie's time would be better spent evaluating the millions, nay billions, his DFID spends on suspect projects.

    What is the point of preaching to the converted other than to produce a press release?

  2. Subrosa,

    Although I accept that a sometimes an opportunity-cost analysis is politically virtuous and can put our choices in perspective - I have in mind, in particular, the trident quantum - I feel less comfortable about labelling these projects as 'suspect' without getting into the nitty-gritty and their potentially complex details. That said, we should certainly not be put off scrutinising them simply because they operate under the aegis of international development.

    On the second point - I suppose its a tit for tat media relationship. "Minister says x" probably isn't good enough to get your face in the paper, unless it is suitably scandalous line. Thus, you justify the headline by making a wee trip so the tale runs "Minister says x to group of random persons..." Must say something about the media's travelling feet - they like to get a look inside and try the seats in as many institutions of Scots civil society as possible.

  3. Interesting.

    The rhetoric of objectivity almost suggests the lexis of the enlightenment; yet here in fact as a form of political antinomianism it is more obviously redolent of that strain of fanaticism found (e.g.) in the Sanquhar Declaration, so coolly elaborated by the real Enlightenment, for example in texts such as Adam Ferguson's Essay on the History of Civil Society.

    Historically speaking, there is a strain of hysteria in Unionism that can shade into authoritarian solipsism and latent violence.

  4. Moreover, I'd say it flatters its audience in a cunning way. The web is testament to the allure of a cynical analysis. How often have we all read, typed up from the fingers of some fool, of how I see clearly, the solution is easy and all others who comment, lending alternative perspectives, are venal, stupid or both. Speaking as a chap with a health respect for cynicism, amongst the most tedious section of the commentating public is that which regards itself as privately Enlightened, in the club. The sort of consequentialist calculation which the Digital Aye-Aye seems to have expounded on is precisely of that character. The defencers of binary politics will nod, sourly, contend with their cheaply bought wisdom.