I suppose it is asking too much of a writer called Francine Prose that she write prose anyone would want to read. But on the principle you can only track down terrible ideas by wading through terrible writing you have to endure Prose’s prose.
I spoke at a Guardian debate on free speech before an audience of students at King’s College London last night. I’ve argued with racists and Putinists in my time and – to put it as mildly as I can – these little bastions of academia were up there with them in their contempt for basic freedoms.
Contempt is perhaps not quite the right word. Most simply did not understand what freedom was, and could not grasp the need for universal human rights. They could not see themselves as others saw them, or understand that by giving up on basic principles, because they are difficult to live with, they had left themselves naked before their enemies.
One of the many delusions of the Right is the myth of conservative robustness. Conservatives don’t play the victim card, they say. They tell it like it is, and don’t care who knows it. They stand on their own two feet, and take it on the chin. They have guts and backbone too.
It’s easy to mock the anatomical clichés, but middle-class leftists should worry. Millions of people are about to vote for Ukip, in part because they resent a modern version of Victorian prudery that has stopped robust debate, and allowed sharp-eared heresy hunters to patrol the nation’s language.
If fellow citizens are prejudiced, then there is indeed a case for fighting them. But most people resent political correctness, not because they want to criminalise homosexuality or send women back to the kitchen, but because of the trickery that comes with it.
If the cries of ‘Je suis Charlie’ were sincere, the western world would be convulsed with worry and anger about the Wallström affair. It has all the ingredients for a clash-of-civilisations confrontation.
A few weeks ago Margot Wallström, the Swedish foreign minister, denounced the subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia. As the theocratic kingdom prevents women from travelling, conducting official business or marrying without the permission of male guardians, and as girls can be forced into child marriages where they are effectively raped by old men, she was telling no more than the truth. Wallström went on to condemn the Saudi courts for ordering that Raif Badawi receive ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up a website that championed secularism and free speech. These were ‘mediaeval methods’, she said, and a ‘cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression’. And once again, who can argue with that?
The backlash followed the pattern set by Rushdie, the Danish cartoons and Hebdo. Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador and stopped issuing visas to Swedish businessmen. The United Arab Emirates joined it. The Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, which represents 56 Muslim-majority states, accused Sweden of failing to respect the world’s ‘rich and varied ethical standards’ — standards so rich and varied, apparently, they include the flogging of bloggers and encouragement of paedophiles. Meanwhile, the Gulf Co-operation Council condemned her ‘unaccept-able interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’, and I wouldn’t bet against anti-Swedish riots following soon.
Yet there is no ‘Wallström affair’. Outside Sweden, the western media has barely covered the story, and Sweden’s EU allies have shown no inclination whatsoever to support her. A small Scandinavian nation faces sanctions, accusations of Islamophobia and maybe worse to come, and everyone stays silent. As so often, the scandal is that there isn’t a scandal.
Islamic State allows its adherents to be both cultists and psychopaths: an L. Ron Hubbard and a Fred West rolled into one. The reasons why young men want to travel across the world to fight its wars and lend a hand to the murder of its victims ought to be brutally and boringly obvious.
Psychopaths are always less complicated, less rewarding, less interesting than their victims. They’re not hard to explain. Where is the difficulty about Abelaziz Kuwan , for instance?
Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English UsageOliver Kamm
Weidenfeld, pp.301, £12.99, ISBN: 9780297871934
In a cheeringly Dickensian fashion, the names of our supposed experts on grammar imply they want to bind writers (Lynne Truss); send them awry (Kingsley Amis); besmirch their prose (H.W. Fowler); deafen them with moos (Simon Heffer); or snort at their legitimate constructions (John Humphrys).
At first glance, Oliver Kamm appears happy to keep them company. A leader-writer for the Times and its resident authority on style, Kamm is the most small ‘c’ conservative man I know. If he has ever left home without cleaning his shoes — and I doubt that he has — he would have realised his mistake before reaching the end of his road, and rushed back to apply the polish. Instead of joining the pedants, however, Kamm batters them. Accidence Will Happen is a joyous and joyously liberating assault on ‘rules’ of grammar which are little more than a hodgepodge of contradictory superstitions.
A few days ago Imtiaz, a solar engineer; Aliya, a campaigner for secular education; Sohail, a gay Somali in his twenties; and Sara, a bright student, went to Queen Mary University of London in the East End and made an astonishingly brave stand.
Astonishing because they volunteered to step forward to the front line after the Islamist murders of satirists and Jews in Paris and Copenhagen. Before an audience and in front of cameras, they explained why they had left Islam