Judge the past at your peril – who knows what we’ll be maligned for

Who knows what we will be judged for in 2118? It’s simply impossible to know.

And then there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Well, sort of. The hit 90’s American sitcom “Friends” recently hit Netflix, some people tweeted some things, and it all well and truly kicked off.

Apparently, some so called ‘Millenials’ (a group to which I, apparently, belong having only been witness to around 4 months of the 80’s) pointed out some ‘problematic’ things about one of the most popular television shows of all time. The lack of racial diversity, apparent sexism, transphobia, toxic masculinity – a veritable feast of modern Twitter cliches poured onto the internet like a spilled tub of organic houmous.

The reaction was no more enlightened. A howl of rage quickly countered, quite disproportionate to the initial crime, and blasted and smashed its way through the rather bewildered twentysomethings.

Now, let’s be clear. Friends is one of my all time favourite shows, it suited its time perfectly, and I can’t stand this horrid modern view that all things at all times must reflect all things and all people (except of course if they aren’t liberals). But that’s what it is – a MODERN view. Whilst the reaction was over the top, the silly, self-serving sobbing over how Chandler treated his dad deserved at least some of it.

I have been rather amazed, having watched some of my favourite classics again recently, at just how much things have moved in this direction, though. One episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ has Uncle Albert use the term ‘paki shop’ and ‘that paki’ (in purely descriptive terms, you understand, certainly not as an insult). I was quite shocked. But that is a relatively old show, most of it made before I was born. While such language makes me bristle, it was of its time (if you don’t believe that, the mere fact that it was broadcast with that word in it should make the case for you).

The IT Crowd has a whole episode devoted to the discomfort of the main characters while attending a ‘gay’ musical. Not much politically correct language there, and this from a trendy lefty writer and producer.

And herein lies the problem. Shows like Friends, the IT Crowd, The Office – they were written by as right-on lefty liberals as you would have been able to find at the time. So how can they be judged by the standards of 2018? Setting aside for a moment that the standards of 2018 are stupid and ridiculous, surely we must never watch anything from the past again?

Moving away from television to more serious matters of the past, some recent issues have involved attempting to remove statues of major historical figures from public view, and lamenting the views of otherwise heroic persons. This again is going to cause issues if we seek to constantly judge the past by the standards of today.

We judge the Victorians for sending children up chimneys. We judge the 1920s for restricting universal suffrage (despite the whole concept being, apparently, up for debate again following the referendum). We judge many previous centuries for overt racism. We judge the slave trade. But how many of things were obvious to the masses to be wrong? Demonstrably none of them.

The problem we will have is that a future generation will slam us – and it is next to impossible to work out what that thing is. The comedian Jimmy Carr once said “I know one of my jokes on my tour will land me in serious trouble – but there’s no way of knowing which one”. Clearly, we’re not trying to be deliberately offensive as Jimmy certainly is, but the outcome is the same – how can we know which of the things that we do or say now will be judged harshly by the standards of 2118?

There may be some obvious candidates. It could be our treatment of animals raised for food, but then that is already permeating pretty far into our consciousness. How about the supply chains for our clothing and electronic devices? Well again, we’re pretty aware of them. Driving around vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine? IN CITIES?! Again, it’s being addressed.

It could be that referring to any baby or child as a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ will be seen as monstrous. “How could those ignorant people have assumed their child’s gender before they had a chance to work it out for themselves?”, they may cry. Or perhaps keeping an animal inside a domestic dwelling will be looked back on with shame and anger. “Can’t believe my grandma jailed a conscious creature and referred to it as ‘hers’ – #disowned”.

If that sounds alarmist, consider this. People quickly forget the speed at which some things have entered our consciousness. Who would have guessed even 2-3 years ago how controversial it would have been to claim that there are two genders? Slightly further back, that a marriage is between a man and a woman? I remember the word ‘gay’ being used as a pejorative on the playground at school, quite unchallenged. Sure these things are changing now (and fast), some rightly, others questionably – but should that give us a warning sign?

I don’t want to stray to far into predictions – I think I’ve made my point. Maybe those things will never come to pass. But the point remains – we simply cannot know. And we’re for the most part going about our lives as best we can, just like our ancestors did. If we want to be remembered fondly as people who tried, but were of their time, the biggest favour we could ourselves is giving the old great-great-grandparents a break. They tried their best.

The predictability of opinion – what makes people interesting

What makes a person interesting? Can I predict your opinion? Yes? Then you’re not interesting.


Let’s take an issue to start with: gay marriage.

You’re in favour? Ok great. Now let me guess:

  • You’re ‘pro-choice’ in the abortion debate
  • You’re in favour of ‘gun control’
  • You read the Guardian
  • You hate the Daily Mail
  • You’re broadly pro mass immigration
  • You voted Remain
  • You, shall we say, ‘display negativity’ towards the state of Israel
  • You’re in favour of legalising marijuana
  • You don’t want any private money in the NHS/healthcare
  • You want the railways to be nationalised
  • You’re in favour of proportional representation of some kind
  • You would abolish the monarchy
  • You think the BBC is broadly right wing
  • You are against the death penalty, even for heinous criminals

Oh I do beg your pardon, you’re against gay marriage? Ok great. Now let me guess:

  • You’re ‘pro-life’ in the abortion debate
  • You’re against ‘gun control’
  • You read the Telegraph or the Mail
  • You hate the Guardian
  • You’re broadly anti mass immigration
  • You voted Leave
  • You, shall we say, ‘display positivity’ towards the state of Israel
  • You’re against legalising marijuana
  • You don’t mind private money in the NHS/healthcare
  • You don’t want the railways to be nationalised
  • You’re against proportional representation of some kind
  • You would not abolish the monarchy
  • You think the BBC is broadly left wing
  • You would favour the death penalty for heinous criminals


Now, these things are all very different issues. Some of them are moral questions, some political, some social. Some would reasonably require a lot of thought to come to a solid conclusion. And yet, with most people, just knowing their position on one of these things is a solid predictor of their opinions on the rest. Why should this be? I question how much anyone really understands the issues they have taken such a line on.

The neuroscientist and best-selling author Sam Harris sums it up best: “Knowing one person’s opinion on any political issue allows you to reliably predict their opinion on other issues. This shouldn’t happen because these issues are totally unrelated. Why should a person’s view on guns be predictive of his view on climate change, or immigration or abortion, it shouldn’t be but it is. This is a sign that people are joining tribes and groups, it is not a sign of clear thinking.”

Having a conversation with such a person is, for the most part fruitless and dull. It will inexorably end in subject changing, whataboutery and appeals to emotion, because they don’t understand enough about the issue. If their opinions are predictable, they are not interesting. The briefest trawl through Twitter will tell you this. Such people are not interested in listening, changing their mind, or accurately capturing their opponent’s position.

Listening to some professional women’s rights activist sound off about gun control is painful, particularly when they come up against someone who knows the facts, the stats and can back up a pro-gun position. Similarly, watching a right wing businessman chat on about immigration or ‘the lies about climate change’ can be made to look idiotic by a scientist with a full grasp of the facts.

You can tell instantly when a person clearly doesn’t read or even acknowledge anything on the opposing side. It’s painfully obvious when a Guardian reading Corbynista has never even seen the Telegraph, glanced at the Mail on Sunday or picked up a copy of the Spectator. It renders their arguments incomplete and turns them into an intensely vacuous shell. You’re not arguing the issue – you’re defending the tribe. I use an example from the Left here, simply because that’s what I experience most, and the Left is the side that claims dominion over fact, logic and reason. But if you can’t make your opponent’s case for them, you don’t understand it well enough. So how can you claim you understand yours? And where does yours come from?

Some of this is understandable. A high level belief that ‘big government’ is bad and that individual freedom is paramount will inevitably lead to a grouping of some issues under the same banner, because any misgivings at that lower level would be overcome by an overarching principle, in much the same way that the US constitution overrules many smaller changes in law because it is the overarching agreement that American citizens have with one another.

But what is really fascinating is when you come across a person whose views on some issues deviate from their home crowd. These people are much more interesting to listen to, because the only way they will have come to this deviant view is by thinking carefully and forming a solid conclusion. To express it in public would have required a complete conviction in their process and their argument.

It’s exciting, because when somebody puts a question to them, you have no idea what their response might be. But whatever comes, it will surely be well reasoned.

There are brilliant examples of these people from across the political spectrum. Liberals who voted Leave and vice versa is a good place to start looking. There are also shining examples of those dull, lifeless crowd followers all over the place as well.

Think of Farage – I could probably predict his opinion on everything. Similarly with Owen Jones. What fashionable lefty cause has he not jumped all over and furrowed his brow in that sincere way while appearing authoritative about it? It’s just so boring. He gave a perfect example of what I’m talking about during the referendum campaign when he penned a piece putting forward the case for a ‘left wing Leave’. This lasted all of 5 minutes before he retreated back into his herd, now consistently sounding off against Leave voters and Brexit itself.

Indeed, the whole tone of the piece should have foretold this. It opens with “at first, only a few dipped their toes in the water; then others, hesitantly, followed their lead, all the time looking at each other for reassurance.” Does this not show just how little he has really thought about it? He’s essentially saying ‘I’ll go if you go’. How courageous.

“The more leftwing opponents of the EU come out, the more momentum will gather pace and gain critical mass.”

“The case for Lexit grows ever stronger, and – at the very least – more of us need to start dipping our toes in the water.”

Except the second he dipped his toe, he saw it was freezing and promptly wrapped himself in a towel. Thanks mate, the rest of us who swam out into the deep are so grateful for this bravery now that the sharks are devouring us. Hope it was worth it.

True courage lies in expressing thoughts that you know full well will get you ostracised by your side. Others simply occupy their own space, not bothering to cultivate a base in a camp in the first place. I raise the example of Mr. Jones only because, having read his column for a while and getting bored of its predictability, I suddenly glimpsed a light shining through it. “This will get him into trouble – how exciting. How will he push through?” Alas, he didn’t, and his column has been as predictable as ever, ever since. It’s a real shame, because he is likeable, writes well and has a significant following.

On the other side of things, let’s take the Hitchens brothers as an example. Christopher, the darling of the Left – Peter, the darling of the Right. Neither, when you really look, deserves the title, nor would they want it.

Christopher, who sadly died in 2011, was one of the so called ‘Four horsemen of the Atheist apocalypse’ alongside Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris (this was later expanded to be the 5 horsepeople, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali joined the group). He exploded into public consciousness with his book ‘God is not Great: How religion poisons everything’ and was a vicious polemicist against religion. He was adored by students, atheists and left wingers.

But looking a little deeper, things aren’t as clear as they might be. He was an avid proponent of the Iraq War, never ever shying away from it. He blasted the Clintons (one of the most painful things about his death is not being able to see what he would have made of the 2016 presidential election), believed firmly in Israel’s right to exist (albeit with criticism of the Israeli government), thought that men should be the providers and breadwinners for their wives/partners and had serious reservations about abortion.

“My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, anyplace, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line and kiss my ass.”

Well, quite.

His brother Peter has a similar style, yet finds himself on the opposite side of most things. As a Mail on Sunday columnist and self-declared Burkean Conservative, you may think you could predict him. He hates Tony Blair, strongly opposes drug legalisation, believes criminals should be punished with prison, would reinstate the death penalty if certain judicial criteria could be met, is a fervent Monarchist, opposes mass immigration and believes the UK should leave the EU.

So how, then, does such a person also find more hatred for the Conservative Party than any other? David Cameron is a ‘slippery HR man’, Thatcher ‘overrated’. He would renationalise the railways ‘immediately’, did not vote in the referendum (indeed does not vote in elections), believes the UK should stay in the Single Market, that there should be a strong welfare state, that the Iraq War was a disaster (not difficult now, but opposed it when it was unfashionable to do so in media circles), that Trident is a ridiculous and out of date weapon that we should rid ourselves of and that Jeremy Corbyn is a good thing for the Labour Party.

These are the kinds of people you always want on your side, but they can never predictably be so. Simon Jenkins, Germaine Greer, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Douglas Murray (Matthew Parris recently said of him “[he] writes so well that when he is wrong he is dangerous.’) – these are the people you want to listen to. Not even necessarily to agree with them, but to see that they have thought clearly, express their view and sod the consequences. Some of the most interesting talks you can hear are broadsides against your firmly held beliefs, spoken by a heavyweight intellectual from the other side in firm and weighty tones. Who could fail to be stimulated by that? Dullards and cowards, that’s who.

The greatest joy is meeting someone in the flesh who can argue against your view with rigour and persuasion. A small group of us had a wonderful knockabout during the referendum campaign, a time that I look back on as a period that sharpened my thinking, forced me to back up what I thought and, in some cases, change my mind. They argued passionately for their side, and they could very well see what motivated my side.

That’s all disappearing. In this new world, tribes are king. There is simply no reasoning with most people. There is no ‘I disagree with you, but still like you and enjoy hearing your arguments.’

Well, screw it. I think what I think. Come at me. Let’s have it out. I promise you – it will be more fun than you think.

The greatest trick the EU ever pulled was convincing the world that it was ‘Europe’

I’ve always been struck by that line in The Usual Suspects where Kevin Spacey’s character quotes the old saying:

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist”

Religious or not, it’s a powerful statement. Its power lies in its inherent simplicity, a simplicity that makes you stop and question. For those who believe in the devil, it is a statement of terror. ‘People don’t even believe he exists, how can they know the true and cunning power being exerted upon them?’ For those who don’t, it makes you question. ‘If I don’t believe he exists…is it because he doesn’t exist…or because he has fooled me?’ Even if only momentarily, the power of the conundrum can jolt.

I started to realise very early on in the referendum campaign that, though not necessarily deliberately, the terms ‘EU’ or ‘European Union’ were being conflated with the term ‘Europe’. This is, of course, nothing new – for decades this conflation has been rife. But it started to matter seriously when the country was about to take a vote on it.

Now, the reason given is one of simplification. “Oh, you know what I mean when I say Europe.” But therein lies its power. Let’s just make it simpler…let’s just say Europe, it’s easier, ‘European Union’ is so cumbersome, ‘EU’ doesn’t really roll off the tongue…

All perfectly true. But let’s take a look at the two distinct terms.

‘Europe’ conjures up images of wonderful cheese, beautiful wine, fresh bread, trains that glide across serene countryside, alpine skiing, sandy beaches…it’s an emotional term.

‘European Union’, whether you’re for or against, puts one in mind of bureaucracy, not getting much done, huge expense, federalism, bullying of small nations, the migrant crisis…it’s a practical term.

During the campaign, I endlessly made this point, almost compulsively correcting the word ‘Europe’ with ‘European Union’, because it was important to me that we talked about the actual issue, rather than reaching for emotion. But I was drowned out. Much as many Leavers on television kept having to say “we won’t be leaving Europe, just the European Union”, I tried in vain to steer the argument toward accuracy, but it was no good. Being accurate was deemed to be simply providing a smokescreen in front of a deep seated hatred. The scoffing and the sliming was too overwhelming. The apparent effort it would take to change this language to be accurate was too much. But this is always a good sign that you’re right, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too worried.

And before I move on, that point is important. It is actually inaccurate to say that Britain is leaving Europe. Inaccurate. Not true. Lefties, I thought this was important to you?

Someone who really gets this distinction is one Jeremy Corbyn. Quiet as he is on his certain desire to leave the European Union (interesting that his followers don’t seem to mind this and let him get away with it, despite their almost worshipful adoration of the EU), he knows full well that Europe is not the same as the EU.

He gets it. His followers resolutely do not. And here is another point which I have been trying to make but cannot get through to anyone with…Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas CANNOT BE EXECUTED whilst Britain is in the European Union. It is impossible. Illegal. Not allowed. If you voted to Remain, but voted for renationalisation, protecting industries etc…you have cast two completely contradictory votes. And anyone claiming the EU can be reformed…well there really will be no convincing you.

It suits the monstrous EU to be called Europe. Much as it suits the wolf to be called Grandma. It knows that whilst people will look past its ugly associations and choose to hear German symphonies in their heads and smell French cheese in their nostrils whenever they talk about ‘Europe’, it is safe.

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist”.

The line was uttered by Kevin Spacey’s character, Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint. Well, that was who he said he was anyway.

Doesn’t really roll off the tongue though…does it?