Monday, October 15, 2012

A day of judgment for Britain's liberal bishops

The strangest thing happened last week, though few people noticed it. America officially ceased to be a Protestant country. According to the Pew Forum, the percentage of Protestants has dropped to 48 per cent, down from 53 per cent in 2007. That’s a huge shift.

But, before Catholics start punching the air, let me point out that the percentage of Catholics has been flatlining for years at 22 per cent. The big jump is in unaffiliated Americans, including atheists – up from 15 to 20 per cent. These “Nones”, as pollsters call them, are laying waste to the religious landscape of the United States. And Britain.

Here’s the question that intrigues me. Once the old, routine churchgoers have died off, and now that “None” is the default position for liberal-minded young people, what will the churches of the future look like?

We’re beginning to find out. More to the point, the clapped-out Anglican and Catholic bishops of the English-speaking world are finding out, too – and it’s giving them nightmares.

Those youngsters who once went to church out of obligation are now spending Sunday mornings in the supermarket or the gym (body worship is a flourishing faith). That means that the only young people in the pews are true believers who really want to be there.

If you’re a “go-ahead” bishop, vicar or diocesan bureaucrat, this is a scary development. You’ve spent your career reducing the hard truths of Christ’s teaching – such as the inevitability of the Last Judgment – to carbon-neutral platitudes. Suddenly, the 20-year-olds in your flock are saying: no thanks, we’ll take the hard truths. Eek!

In the Church of England, young evangelicals are embarrassed by the thespian agonising of Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury. If there’d been a hand-wringing event at the Olympics, he’d have shattered all records.

In the Roman Catholic Church of England and Wales, the disconnect is even more stark. Young Catholics take their cue from the traditionalist Pope Benedict XVI, rather than from dreary bishops who only occasionally wake from their slumber to mumble something about renewable energy. (Remember Jack in Father Ted? You get the picture.)

Also – and I can’t tell you how much pleasure it gives me to report this – the Vatican has pulled a fast one by appointing two new diocesan bishops, Mark Davies of Shrewsbury and Philip Egan of Portsmouth, who are in tune with conservative youngsters rather than an English Catholic bureaucracy run by crypto-Marxist megabores trained in the public sector.

Bishop Egan has only been in his post for a few weeks, but already he’s been telling orthodox young Catholics what they want to hear: that they should adore the Blessed Sacrament, advertise their faith by making the sign of the cross, and even keep a rosary handy in the car. Cue barely suppressed shrieks from the old guard in Portsmouth, whose “director of liturgy”, the composer Paul Inwood, writes cod plainchant decked out in the harmonies of a 1970s cocktail lounge.

None of this should surprise us. When religions come under attack, they attract believers who invest in their more dogmatic, countercultural teachings – and who deliberately raise the degree of tension between themselves and society. There are few things more countercultural today than Bible-based evangelicalism or strictly orthodox Catholicism. For decades, Liberal bishops have droned on about how they wanted to draw young people back to church. But I don’t think this is what they had in mind.


“Tolerance is the basis of all our freedoms”

In a free society, everyone, even those we consider repugnant, must have the liberty to express themselves and their ideas

Frank Furedi

About three years ago, I was giving a lecture in Amsterdam. In the course of the lecture, I told the audience that if you believed in freedom, if you believed in freedom of speech, it meant that you should be able to say whatever you wanted and society did not have the right to censor the content of whatever it is you wanted to say.

An example I gave was the way that in many parts of Europe, Holocaust denial is deemed to be a crime. Even though a lot of my family perished in the Holocaust, I still feel it was totally wrong to suppress an idea bureaucratically. It is far better that it be debated, argued over and ultimately discredited. And at that point this guy gets up, puts up his hand, and says: ‘I’m really glad you said that Professor Furedi. I’m a Muslim and I too think it’s wrong that a Holocaust should be denied. The only thing I think should be censored is when someone like the prophet Muhammad is criticised or questioned. That should not be allowed.’

A week later, I was in Berlin on the same lecture tour, and a Jewish person got up to say almost the opposite: that it was perfectly okay to criticise the prophet Muhammad, but it was totally immoral that the Holocaust should be denied. And that’s really when I decided to write my book on the issue of tolerance. It became very clear to me that in many parts of Europe, tolerance basically meant tolerating the ideas that you agree with, but at the same time being intolerant of the ideas you disagree with. I thought it was important to explain why it is that European societies find it so difficult genuinely to be tolerant.

Tolerance is a very difficult accomplishment, it’s something you have to struggle with. To be genuinely free, and to be committed to freedom, not just on a rhetorical level but in real-life terms, is not an easy project to carry out. And I think that one of the problems we have in our society is that we are continually finding it difficult to be truly tolerant. We always find good reasons as to why some views are beyond the pale: they cannot be said, they cannot be expressed, while others are totally fine to communicate.

Recently, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, there was a very interesting exchange in the aftermath of all those Muslim riots about the American film that criticised the prophet Muhammad. The presenter, John Humphries, was talking to a Muslim speaker, and he put it to him that in the UK we believe in free speech, and yet we feel intimidated and scared to criticise the prophet Muhammad because Muslims react by burning down embassies and killing people. The Muslim speaker, who was defending some of the people who had been rioting and demonstrating, pointed out that in the UK there are, in fact, limits on free speech, like criticising troops in Afghanistan or speech that incites hatred of religion.

So, a Muslim speaker was defending the intolerant demonstrators for going around killing people and beating people up, but his was the same moral claim as that made by John Humphries; they were equally intolerant. We may believe that our society is liberal and tolerant, but when we scratch the surface, we always find good reasons why we shouldn’t listen to somebody we really dislike.

An objection I hear frequently is: ‘Why should we tolerate intolerance?’ The assumption is that tolerating views that you don’t agree with is like a gift, an act of kindness. It suggests we’re doing people a favour by tolerating their view. My argument is that tolerance is vital to us, to you and I, because it’s actually the presupposition of all our freedoms.

You cannot be free in any meaningful sense unless there is a recognition that we are free to act on our beliefs, we’re free to think what we want and express ourselves freely. Unless we have that freedom, all those other freedoms that we have on paper mean nothing.

Throughout most of human history, tolerance was not even seen as a virtue. In fact, until about the seventeenth century, the main virtue was to be intolerant. And most philosophers, for example Catholic and other religious thinkers, actually boasted about the fact that society was intolerant of any disrespect for religion. To be tolerant was seen as a sign of moral weakness. Only the really weak, pathetic individuals could be tolerant. Why would you tolerate a view that you held to be abhorrent?

The first person in the world who put forward an argument for tolerance was the liberal philosopher John Locke. I give his brilliant essay, On Tolerance, to all my students and friends to read whenever I see people being a little intolerant. But even Locke gave two cases in which we should not be tolerant. Firstly, tolerance could not extend to Catholics in England, because Catholics were not loyal to the king, they were only loyal to a foreign power: the pope. He also said that there could not be tolerance for atheists, because atheists are loyal to nobody. So even Locke had reservations as to how far tolerance could go.

It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that some of these ideas about tolerance were further developed. For example, you had with John Stuart Mill the idea that people not only had freedom of conscience, the freedom of belief, but also freedom of speech. Freedom of conscience meant nothing, he argued, unless you had the freedom to communicate that belief. The only way that your moral autonomy, your integrity as a human being, could be realised was through the capacity to speak out freely about what you believed and to take responsibility for the words that you expressed.

For Mill, it was far better to allow people to express erroneous opinions, and even lies, than to suppress them. Because it’s through having to struggle with erroneous opinions and lies that real clarity is gained, that individuals manage to work out for themselves what is right and what is wrong. Nothing can be worse than passively accepting an opinion that someone gives you, and merely repeating what society holds to be right. If all you do is mouth what society tells you to say, it becomes entirely external to yourself, you really are not a human agent.

These points still stand today. If we are truly to be free, moral beings, then we must demand tolerance for all – even for those who hold views with which we strongly disagree.


No ‘victims’ veto’ on press freedom

Celebrity demands for British PM  to back state regulation of the press have revealed the true mission of the Leveson inquisition

Being a victim of historical phone-hacking by the News of the World (deceased) entitles you to public sympathy (less so if you are a PR-hungry celebrity in the first place of course), and possibly to redress through the courts.

What it does not entitle you to is any sort of veto over the future of a free press in the UK. Yet that is what the celebrity anti-tabloid crusaders, and the illiberal campaigners who use them as voiceover artists, now clearly expect as a result of the Leveson Inquiry.

Hacked Off, the campaign for statutory regulation of the press, has written an angry letter to prime minister David Cameron demanding that he agrees to pass a new law to police the press if and when Lord Justice Leveson proposes it in his report, expected out next month. Anything less, it makes clear, would be a ‘betrayal’ of the victims whom Cameron promised to satisfy. The letter is signed by the usual celebrity suspects - Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan, Charlotte Church, Jude Law, JK Rowling, Max Mosley, etc - alongside more sympathetic figures such as survivors of the 7/7 London bombings and members of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign.

The outraged Hacked Off letter was written in response to press reports suggesting that Cameron might reject statutory-backed regulation even if Leveson backs it. In the most revealing passage, the signatories express their anger at backtracking remarks from the prime minister’s spokesman, suggesting that Cameron ‘had not intended to give a veto to any particular victims over the new system of regulation’. This is the ‘betrayal’ they are really talking about. They believe the prime minister promised to allow the victims of phone hacking an effective veto over the future shape of press regulation, and expect him to fulfil that pledge.

This ridiculous letter has done us all the service of spelling out what the entire Leveson Inquiry has really been all about. It was never about phone-hacking. That should have been left to the police to investigate (which they are doing on an irrationally grand scale). Instead, those historical offences linked with one (closed) tabloid newspaper employing a single private detective were turned into the pretext for Lord Justice Leveson’s judicial probe into the entire ‘culture, practice and ethics’ of the British media.

The Leveson Inquiry/inquisition has been a mission to purge the ‘popular’ press, using high-profile victims as human shields, high-ranking celebrities as voiceover artists, and high-minded talk of ‘ethics’ as a code for advancing an elitist agenda: the ‘ethical cleansing’ of the media. Thus the demand from the crusaders today is not for redress for the individual victims of specific offences, but for the government to set up a state-backed regulator to tame the entire press industry and wash the naughty newspapers’ mouths out with soap.

If it was not so serious it would be laughable to see the celebrity crusaders insist that Cameron must approach Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals with ‘an open mind’. There has been little sign of any such openness in their evidence to Leveson and public pronouncements, with Grant accusing the tabloid press of nurturing ‘a culture of pure evil’ and Coogan dismissing press freedom as ‘a lie’ made up by newspapers, while their snooty supporters in the liberal media declare that tabloid hacks are ‘a different breed’ and ‘not like us’. A more narrow-minded display of respectable bigotry would be hard to imagine.

Behind all the talk of protecting ‘ordinary people’, the elitism of the tabloid-bashing crusaders also shines through in the Hacked Off letter. Written in long-winded legalese by the campaign’s lawyers and academics, it refers to the celebrity signatories, without explanation, as ‘the Module 4 CPVs’. Who or what these might be, we ‘ordinary people’ can only wonder. It turns out to mean the Leveson Inquiry category of ‘Module 4 Core Participant Victims’, which might leave most none the wiser. This coded talk confirms that the letter is part of a closed elite discussion about how far to turn back the clock on the historic struggle for a free press.

What is most disturbing about this, as it has been all along, is not actually the antics of such risibly puffed-up characters as Hugh Grant or Steve Coogan. It is the extent to which the supposedly liberal-minded journalism academics and civil liberties campaigners who hide behind them have gone over to the other side in the culture war about press freedom. As ever, the shrillest voice demanding statutory regulation around the PR letter was not Charlotte Church but Brian Cathcart, the left-wing journalist-turned-professor of journalism who drives Hacked Off. Some might think that the way such people have abandoned the defence of press freedom in its hour of need is the ‘betrayal’ we should be worried about.

Campaigners for tougher press regulation have expressed their disgust that Cameron should be wavering on statutory-backed regulation for ‘political reasons’ to do with opposition within his government, and demanded that the new system of press regulation must be kept ‘free from politics’. What they mean, of course, is that politicians should intervene, but only to do as they are told and pass laws to set up a powerful new policeman of the press.

Nobody wants to see politicians regulating the press. But some of us think the idea of the press being policed by judges or ombudsmen or other unelected, unaccountable state-backed apparatchiks is just as bad, if not worse – at least we can still get rid of politicians if we object to what they do. Worst of all is the notion of a regulator handing an effective veto over a free press to any self-proclaimed victims of media misdeeds. That sounds like a sort of celebrity Star Chamber to decide what is fit for us to read and write, just as the King’s Star Chamber had to licence everything that was printed in the past.

It would be little wonder if the prime minister was having doubts about the prospect of statutory-backed regulation of the press. Setting up and operating such a system of indirect state interference could turn into a nightmare. This is of course Cameron’s own fault, having painted himself into the corner by setting up the Leveson Inquiry with carte blanche to give the press a kicking in the first place. In response to the letter, Cameron again indicated that he would agree to Leveson’s proposals so long as they were not ‘bonkers’ or too ‘heavy-handed’.

In any case, as we have argued on spiked, the ‘alternative’ proposals for a new system of ‘self-regulation’ are little better. They would set up an ‘independent’ regulator with more powers to investigate, expose and punish newspapers than those currently enjoyed by the ‘heavy-handed’ police teams.

All sides of the debate remain too much in thrall to the celebrity crusaders because they have accepted the central myth of the post-hacking furore: that the press is too free to be run wild and must be subdued and sanitised. It is high time those who care about the future of freedom of expression in our society raised a banner to declare that the press is not nearly free or open enough, even before a new regulator wades in.

Freedom of the press is for all, involving the right both to publish what you see fit and to read, see or hear all that you choose. That is far too important a liberty to sacrifice to anybody’s demands for special treatment and protection. There are many problems with the UK press. But the solution is never less freedom.

A free press must mean one that is free, not from being judged or subjected to the normal criminal law, but from being restrained or punished on the grounds of taste or ‘decency’ or offended feelings or outraged sensibilities. The misuse of our freedom by some is not an excuse for allowing the authorities to misappropriate it - or high-profile victims of phone-hacking to claim a veto over it. That would be seriously ‘bonkers’.


Spy writer Jon Stock: How I survived an online literary mauling

Far from throttling serious criticism, internet reviews can be helpful to authors

The review headline didn’t exactly mince its words: “Stock: misogynist and serial killer”. It was posted on Amazon at the weekend, in Britain and the United States, across all three of my recent Daniel Marchant spy thrillers. The wording was identical for each review and in each case the reviewer awarded me one star – the lowest. Ouch. That will teach me to look at my reviews. But as any author will tell you, comments on Amazon and on literary blogs are important and should not be ignored.

Sir Peter Stothard, chairman of this year’s Man Booker prize judges, thinks otherwise. Earlier this week, he warned that the burgeoning amount of internet chatter about books was damaging literature. “If the mass of unargued opinion chokes off literary critics… then literature will be the lesser for it,” he said. “There is a great deal of opinion online, and it’s probably reasonable opinion, but there is much less reasoned opinion.”

Tell me about it. And yet, although I am still smarting from my vicious mauling, many online reviews and blogs are written by educated lay readers sharing their views for the benefit of potential book buyers. They lie outside the clique of newspaper reviewers and, read alongside other genuine reader reviews, they can be more illuminating.

To be fair to my latest Amazon reviewer, she is not your average punter. She is a professor of English at the State University of New York at Geneseo, and her review was 700 words of well-reasoned, if flawed, criticism. I know this because I tracked her down. Without wishing to sound like a serial killer, I track down all my hostile reviewers, sooner or later, particularly the anonymous ones (although I’m still working on “FleetStreetMan”). In this age of “sock puppetry”, when authors attack each other online under false names, it’s a necessary part of the job.

Creditably, my reviewer not only used her real name, Julia M Walker, she also provided an email address. The online world would be such a happier, more informed place if everyone was obliged to put their real name beside reviews or comments. At first, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to say to her, given that she was “deeply annoyed and mildly furious” with me. Her chief gripe was that I had bumped off the two lead female characters in my trilogy. “Stock kills them both, even as each expresses remorse for her treachery, thus remaking the paradigm that’s been around since Boccaccio, at least: a good woman is a dead woman.” To rest her case, she had dug out and read an earlier novel of mine, The Cardamom Club, in which, er, the lead female also dies a horrible death.

I realised she was on to something. That evening, over a quiet supper, I discussed the review with my wife and explained what a misogynist was to the children. “Four novels, three dead women,” I said, quoting from the review. No one could argue with that. But, despite the one star, Prof Walker had found much to like in the books. The Indian elements were “fascinating”, Marchant was “vintage damaged-but-true with some interesting bits” and my female head of MI5 “gets better as the books go on”. I was also flattered that she had bought and read the entire trilogy in one sitting. I felt that she was someone I could do business with.

So that night, when the house was quiet, I wrote to her, explaining that she was, of course, entitled to her opinions and that she perhaps had a point about the dead women. I also asked if she might consider writing an individual review for each book, rather than using the same blanket comment for all three, as I thought this was unorthodox and unfair. The first two, Dead Spy Running and Games Traitors Play, had been widely reviewed and could look after themselves. Her comments would sit in the context of a range of other online opinions. But Dirty Little Secret had barely set out on its journey into the world, and hers would only be the second review on Amazon.

She couldn’t have been nicer. We had a civilised exchange of emails (“It’s great that the already dead ex-girlfriend in your next book won’t die again”), agreed on the cravenness of anonymous reviewers, and she offered to withdraw her review from Dirty Little Secret, “the one I like best, despite its passing strange conclusion”. And although she mainly teaches Milton, she also runs a course on thrillers and has promised to put Dirty Little Secret on the syllabus for the next class.

For me, the whole exercise was an example of the internet working as it should, a place where people with wildly differing opinions, in this case about books, can engage in constructive dialogue. The literary critic, as championed by Sir Peter Stothard, has its place, but so do online reviewers, even the hostile ones.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the  incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of  other countries.  The only real difference, however, is how much power they have.  In America, their power is limited by democracy.  To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already  very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges.  They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did:  None.  So look to the colleges to see  what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way.  It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH,   EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCHAUSTRALIAN POLITICSDISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL  and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine).   My Home Pages are here or   here or   here.  Email me (John Ray) here


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