Monday, 18 March 2019

The Catholic Herald, March 8, 2019

Diderot's self-centred rebellion
Patrick West on the 'utter scoundrel' of the Enlightenment Diderot and the Art of Free Thinking
By Andrew Curran,

Other Press, 320pp, £22/$29

The late, great, arch-reactionary Fr Jean-Marie Charles-Roux often began his sermons at St Etheldreda’s Church in Holborn, London, with a denunciation of that atheist figurehead of the Enlightenment, Denis Diderot, best known as the editor of the landmark Encyclopédie. Diderot was an appropriate target because he was a fervent atheist in the way we understand the term today. For the most part, thinkers of the Enlightenment weren’t atheists. Voltaire, for example, was typical of this movement, being a Newtonian deist and non-Christian believer in some higher power, designer and creator.

The paradox is that, like Friedrich Nietzsche, Diderot came from an intensely religious family, with many ancestors who belonged to the clergy. Diderot even became an abbé himself in youth, before renouncing religion, not primarily for theological reasons. His rebellion was principally one against authority.

While so many philosophes had been driven to reject Christianity by having read Spinoza’s anti-Theist theology, Diderot “had an ingrained tendency both to chafe at authority and to question the ideas upon which authority is founded”, writes Andrew Curran. He was particularly horrified by the bitter squabble between the Jesuits and Jansenists, which he saw as a ludicrous and appalling, akin to Jonathan Swift’s depiction of the wars between the “big-enders” and “little-enders”.

It was this propensity to cock a snook at authority which led Diderot to include in his Encyclopédie under “Cannibals”, cross-references to “Altar”, “Communion” and “Eucharist”. There is something almost juvenile in doing so, in what was purported to be a serious compendium of knowledge and progress in the 18th century.

As Curran explains in this marvellous and eye-opening book, Diderot’s life story was more nuanced than the reader might assume. He is remembered for clashing with the Jesuit order on account of the Encyclopédie’s perceived irreligion and potentially corrosive influence. But there were liberal, intellectual Jesuits – “priests of letters” – who objected to the Encyclopédie not for its dangerous atheism, but because they weren’t included: they had assumed that they were going to contribute to the endeavour.

“While some historians who have written about the ‘battle of the Encyclopédie’ tend to assign the Jesuits to an ‘anti-Enlightenment’ group,’’ writes Curran, “the truth was that this Roman Catholic order of priests had long considered themselves key players in the scholarly arena.” These liberal Jesuits objected to the perception that the Enlightenment was a project diametrically opposed to traditional religion.

The hugely industrious Diderot contributed 7,000 articles to the Encyclopédie. And despite some schoolboy lapses of taste, most of his entries are sober and serious, addressing subjects such as anatomy, architecture, astronomy, clock-making, gardening, hydraulics, medicine, physics and surgery. By the time the Encyclopédie was finished in 1772, Diderot “had carried the ideas of the Enlightenment forward in a way that no person, not Voltaire, and certainly not Rousseau, had done”.

By this time, Diderot had largely abandoned writing and publishing under his own name, having been spooked by his arrest and incarceration in 1749. His later works on sexuality, race, theatre, morality and politics would not see the light of day in his own lifetime.

Despite Diderot’s erudition, Curran details what an utter scoundrel he was in real life. He was a serial adulterer, sponger, dilettante and swindler.

It was perhaps destiny that he should have befriended Rousseau. We should not be surprised that these two selfish reprobates eventually fell out. A final ignominy came in the 1790s when the protagonists of the French Revolution that he had inspired came to denounce his writings. Diderot’s atheism was deemed incompatible with Robespierre’s deism and notion of a Higher Being.

Although Diderot influenced subsequent thinkers such as Marx and Freud, he never achieved repute as one of the finest exemplars of the Enlightenment. He is not a literary great, unlike many of his contemporaries. Yet his thought does warrant him the place in posterity that he was so keen to achieve, and he deserves to be remembered alongside Voltaire and Montesquieu as one of the giants of his time. He spoke out against slavery at a time when abolitionism was in its infancy and was in favour of tolerance for gay people at a time when it was deeply unfashionable in France.

What is more, he remains relevant in 2019, in a Europe in which the notion of democracy has come into question. As Diderot put it: “There is no sovereign except the nation; there can be no true legislator except the people.”

Spiked, March 8, 2019
Michael Jackson - why do we believe his accusers?
There has been a cultural shift towards a presumption of guilt - and that should worry us all

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Spectator Coffee House, February 5, 2019

The EU’s damning silence on the gilet jaunes protests

On Saturday, there was another wave of Yellow Vest protests in France. The focus was not the price of diesel, the carbon tax, the cost of living or President Macron, as has been the norm, but police brutality and their use of rubber bullets.

Thousands took to the streets of Paris and elsewhere instead in a ‘march of the injured’, calling for a ban on police weapons that shoot 40mm rubber projectiles (the interior minister, Christophe Castaner, has acknowledged that the weapon, used more than 9,000 times since the beginning of the protests, could cause injuries.) An estimated 10,000 turned out at the Place de la Republique, where they were met with police tear-gas and water cannons. Clashes ensued between police and protesters.

Since the gilets jaunes first emerged in November, more than a dozen people have been grievously injured in weekly protests – losing their eyes, or having their hands and feet mutilated. According to the government’s own figures, at least 1,700 people have been injured in the months of conflict.

‘They shoot at the population with a weapon of war,’ said Jérôme Rodrigues, a prominent figure in the movement, who suffered a serious and permanent eye injury in Paris last month. ‘Is that what France is like today? We just want to fill the fridge and we end up losing an eye.’ YouTube and Twitter abound with videos of police brutality, with one much-viewed piece of footage which appears to show French police smashing a protestor’s head on the pavement.
Aïnoha Pascual, a Paris lawyer who has represented several of the injured by rubber bullets, including one who has had part of his hand ripped off, and another left partially deaf and with facial injuries, told the Guardian that she has never seen so many injuries during protests. ‘These weapons are a very real problem. In the 1980s, if one person was hit in the eye at a demonstration there would be a huge reaction, yet now there is no reaction from government.’
Meanwhile, last week a collective of lawyers petitioned the French government to ban golf-ball sized ‘sting-ball’ grenades, which contain 25g of TNT high-explosive. France is the only country in Europe where police use such high-power grenades, which issue stinging rubber balls loaded with teargas.
Elsewhere, France 3 reported on Friday that an investigation has been launched in Toulouse after officers were caught on tape saying they wanted to ‘shoot’ violent gilets jaunes protesters. In the footage, recorded at a police command room during a rally in the city on January 12, one officer is heard saying: ‘There’s one on the ground there.’ Another comments: ‘What a bunch of bastards!’
Trained riot police officers have blamed much of the police brutality on mobile units of plain-clothes anti-gang police, drafted in to help cope with the weekend protests by masked gilet jaunes. But whoever is to blame, the fact remains that these protests in France have been the longest-running and most violent in living memory.

The EU has so far failed to publicly denounce a power within it. It has remained silent for the same reason it failed to condemn Madrid after Spanish police beat up voters in Catalonia in 2017 following the region’s unofficial independence referendum. The EU also failed to condemn the simultaneous incarceration of Catalan separatist activists, nine of whom are still in prison. On Friday, thousands held a protest in Barcelona on their behalf.

The EU has failed to denounce Spanish state brutality because the Catalan independence movement could destabilise or even tear apart the Spanish state. This could have knock-on effects in Europe, giving succour to Flemish and Scottish separatist movements, and destabilising the EU itself.
The EU has similarly failed to speak out against the French state because the gilet jaunes not only imperil the stability of the pro-EU French government, but because most of their numbers are openly hostile to the EU. They are often pictured bearing placards calling for ‘Frexit’. They are symbolic of a Europe-wide revolt against a perceived remote and privileged elite, which they feel the EU embodies.

The gilets jaunes represent the pan-European, left-behind ‘somewhere’ people, the deplorables who resent what they see as a neoliberal, pro-immigration, big business-friendly ruling class – also personified by the EU. The EU’s silence over the maltreatment of people who live inside its borders in France will only cement this perception.

The EU leaders pay no attention to such abuses because its unaccountable politicians cannot be voted out. And in the end, their inaction will further antagonise those who see the EU as a self-serving, detached overlord, a body which is interested foremost and solely in its own self-preservation.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Spectator Coffee House, January 29, 2019

There’s nothing ‘elitist’ about kids following in their parents’ footsteps

Children of doctors are 24 times more likely than their peers to become doctors. Children of lawyers are 17 times more likely to go into law, and children of those in film or television are 12 times more likely to enter these fields. The same pattern is repeated in architecture and in the performing arts. These are the revelations announced in a new book, ‘The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged’, by Sam Friedman, a professor at the London School of Economics, and Daniel Laurison. The book sets out to explore the "helping hands" that allow the well-connected middle-classes to retain their domination in elite professions. Dr Friedman calls some of these figures "staggering". But are they really? Historically, they are nothing of the sort. After all, there is nothing remotely new, abnormal or "elitist" about children following in their parents’ footsteps when it comes to career choice.

The acting world abounds in Redgraves and Foxes, Fondas and Fairbankses. The broadcasting world has its Dimblebys and Snows. Politics has seen more than one Pitt, Churchill and Bush. When it comes to writing we can talk of Amis the father or son, just as we can with Waughs, Corens and Mounts. Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus was an eminent natural philosopher. Pablo Picasso’s father was an artist. There was a whole host of musical Bachs.

It’s something we see in all classes. A nurse’s daughter is 3.75 times more likely to become a nurse than the rest of the population, according to a 2016 study. The research also revealed that a fifth of daughters whose mothers worked in offices and administrative support chose the same career, twice the usual rate, while a son who had a father in the military was five times more likely to enter the military. Sons of bakers and builders have traditionally become bakers and builders. That’s why the names of their businesses traditionally have the appendage "…& Sons." This is why we talk of "family butchers".

Farmer’s sons have historically become farmers. If you are immersed in the world of farming from the very beginning of your life, farming will be close to your heart, intrinsic to your identity. The same goes for children of actors, who will hear their parents talking about acting from infancy, meet other actors who have come round to visit, talk about acting to actors. A child of a journalist, who grows up with Radio 4 constantly and unrelentingly blaring in the background, in a home where the shelves heave with books on history, biography and literature, will one day pick up a copy of the many newspapers found lying on the kitchen table. And so the child’s fate is sealed.

Even Friedman admits the importance of this childhood immersion. "Who feels at age 14 that they are going to go on and be a doctor? It’s a pretty wild ambition. But if you’ve got a mum or dad normalising that world for you and saying it’s a distinct possibility, that’s quite emboldening," he told the Times on Saturday. Parents educate their children in the informal "rules of the game".

As David Grusky, sociology professor at Stanford university, and author of the study "It’s a decent bet that our children will be professors too", told the Financial Times in 2016, his own children were more likely to be academics because they’ve been "trained" from a very early age in the way professors "think, reason, and write". "Imagine the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse," Grusky said. "We can imagine the engineer’s family talked mainly about why the building failed structurally, whereas the sociologist’s family talked mainly about why there is terrorism."

This is not to say there isn’t something to be said for the existence of a "class ceiling". Friedman writes of the "inheritance of cultural capital" enjoyed by upper middle-class children. They speak and dress like those at the top of their chosen profession. Consequently they are more likely to have their careers fast-tracked by bosses. Working-class graduates of equal merit often lack the polished demeanour and confidence of their middle-class or upper-class peers, which can be a clincher in job interviews. (This problem could be remedied by teaching working-class pupils to speak with greater clarity, eloquence and confidence. But such a solution would face resistance on the grounds of "elitism".)

The real hindrance for children from working class families is that their parents are less able to subsidise that all-important period of work experience at the outset of their careers. But this is a consequence of a greater global phenomenon, of an era in which social mobility has decreased and inequality increased.

On the other hand, there remains nothing intrinsically odd or novel about children of doctors becoming doctors. It is the natural and historical way of the world.

Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017)

Monday, 28 January 2019

Spiked, January 25, 2019
In defence of walls
Borders are about security, not exclusion.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Spectator Life, January 24, 2019

Tintin turns 90: the secret to his appeal
One-dimensional and decidedly un-PC, Hergé’s Tintin is a blank slate onto which we project our own desire for adventure

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Spiked, January 11, 2019
Just say no to Veganuary
Veganism isn’t a diet – it’s a cult of purity.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Spiked, December 23, 2018

Nietzsche: an explosion in thought
Sue Prideaux has written a fine biography of this most misunderstood of thinkers.

Spiked, December 21, 2018

Leavers are the true cosmopolitans
Elite Remainers see immigrants as little more than economic units.