From the Spectator 24 May 2016
In England after the Norman Conquest the worst insults you could throw were class insults. So long has feudal prejudice survived that we unconsciously echo the Anglo-Norman aristocracy when we use ‘villainous’ (from villien) and ‘churlish’ (from ‘churl’).
The churl of the 1300s might have reflected that, however miserable his life, it was not his fault that he had been born into servitude. His suffering was the result of an unjust society not a real reflection of his worth. No one shouts ‘churl’ or ‘rustic’ or ‘villien’ today. We live in a meritocratic country and feudalism is long gone except for a few gaudy spectacles around the monarch. So they shout ‘loser’ instead.
Norwegian daily VG 6 June, 2016
Never since the German attack on Norway in 1940 destroyed Neville Chamberlain’s premiership and brought Winston Churchill to power, has your country been so discussed in Britain. Supporters of Britain staying in the EU warn of Norway’s ‘fax democracy’. The ‘leave’ campaign denounce Norwegian politicians who tell us about the dangers of following the Norwegian example, as liars bought with EU gold.
There has been propaganda from both sides, of course, but the sheer lack of substance behind the ‘leave’ campaign is stunning. The right-wing politicians, who dominate the anti-European cause, want the British to take an extraordinarily important decision. Yet they offer us no coherent plan about what we should do if we leave the EU.
From the Observer 30 May 2016
Freedom is worthless if it is not lived. However important rights are in a constitutional democracy, they will wither unless you use them. From John Milton’s polemics against the Presbyterian attempts to enforce Calvinist censorship on the England of the 1640s, via John Stuart Mill’s rebellion against the conformism of the Victorians, to Salman Rushdie’s argument with the Islamists, the urge to defend and expand freedom of speech has been created by the threats of its enemies
What applies to great writers applies to everyone else. No one thinks hard about freedom of speech until they are forced to. In Timothy Garton Ash’s case, the pressure came from within. Continue reading
The Observer 22 May 2016
Radical tourism is no different from sex tourism. In both the political and the coital, the inhabitants of the rich world go to the poor to find the thrills no one will give them at home.
Western men and women with nothing to recommend them except their wealth escape their sexless lives and buy prostitutes, who are not like those indifferent boys and girls who pass them in the street. They will play their part and pretend for a few hours or days to find the westerners sexually desirable. Sex tourist guides, in print and online, feed visitors’ illusions. In the Caribbean, readers are told that prostitutes aren’t prostitutes, just “nice” girls looking for a good time. In Thailand, bar girls aren’t exploited but engaged in a “fair trade”. Continue reading
The Observer 7 May 2016
Today’s populist movements attribute limitless malice and almost supernatural power to their opponents. They can rig markets, manipulate the media, fix foreign governments and call on unlimited resources as they plot to deceive “us”, “the people”.
The “people”, on this reading, are sweet and decent. Everything populists do, they do on our behalf. But the people are also rather thick. If it were not for the tireless efforts of populist parties, the elite would take us for the trusting fools we are, and herd us sheep-like into its pens. Continue reading
Standpoint April 2016
You have to go back to Victorian England to find a match for the neurotic prudishness of contemporary culture. The BBC refuses to call Islamic State “Islamic State”, even though “Islamic State in the Levant” is its name. Instead of reporting neutrally, the broadcaster breaks its own rules against editorialising by pretending that religious terror has nothing to do with religion and calling it “so-called Islamic State”, to avoid offence.
The BBC is hardly alone. Everyone everywhere apologises to everyone else. Everyone demands the banning of everyone else. Societies where citizens bite their tongues and retract honestly-meant statements are neither particularly free nor particularly happy. And I don’t think our one will last. Continue reading