Passing Bull 322 – We need new stories

You will want to get the book by Nesrine Malik, We Need New Stories.  Nesrine writes for The Guardian, and she is super bright – the brightest commentator I have seen or read for a while.  I used to see her often on the panel of Dateline London on the BBC.  She just oozes authority.  She is Sudanese and her presence would make Cleopatra look like a streetwalker.    (After reading this book, I understand better the politics of panel selection on such shows.  They are very unattractive.)

The book looks at six myths.  You can see them all on any Saturday in The Weekend Australian.  Or hear them any night from Andrew Bolt and company on Sky After Dark.   Nesrine dissects all that nonsense about ‘political correctness’ or ‘identity politics’ – I have never understood what either is – with a precision I would describe as surgical – if a quondam barrister may be allowed that phrase.

This is how Nesrine starts her chapter on The myth of virtuous origin.

There is no mainstream account of a country’s history that is not a collective delusion.  The present cannot be celebrated without the past being edited.  If the United Kingdom is to have a sense of pride in its contemporary self, there is no way it can be acknowledged that the country was built on global expansion, resource extraction and slavery.

That is true – but the people I refer to will dismiss it with a slogan – about black arm bands.

If the United States’ large fault-line is race, in the UK it is immigration.

That is so here, too – at least since a soi-disant Conservative government put it there in terms that were as mindless as they were cruel.  And we as a people let both parties keep it there with moonshine about People Smugglers that made as much sense as the threat of the Yellow Peril or the Domino Effect in the 50’s and 60’s.

But there is no necessary distinction between hostility driven by considerations of colour, religion, or race and the politics of immigration.  The plain truth is that both we and the English did things to aspiring immigrants of colour or the Muslim faith that we would not have done to white people of any faith.  Possibly the most egregious example was the Farage ad with a throng of coloured immigrants marked BREAKING POINT.  I do not like the worst ‘racist’, but people who sink that low are not to be forgotten.  Farage would make a taipan look homely.

And we came a close second – and we have yet to come clean.  My firm suspicion is that all our blather about immigration is just a screen to enable us to walk over those we regard as inferior.  And the worst culprits are often those leading the charge to describe the nation as ‘Christian’ or the civilisation as ‘western’.

We know that we have a problem with the commentariat.  It is not as bad as in the US, but Rupert Murdoch is working on it.

…the impunity of Iraq War peddlers points especially to a media oligarchy.  Whether it was the Iraq War, Brexit or Donald Trump’s election, what has never really been reckoned with is the media’s role in reproducing the very myths that, when they finally took shape, bewildered its own members.  The media wrote all the stories that led to our age of discontent.

That last allusion to Burke occurred to me when writing of our present troubles.  But the comment applies to us in bloody spades.  There is hardly a worse sin a government can commit than to commit its people to a war on false premises.  Blair and Bush have paid a price.  The first flew too high.  The second never left the ground.  But our contribution to mediocrity just beetles on and about our little duckpond.

The author gives chapter and verse.  About two journalists I had had time for.  But David Aaronovitch comes across as a snitchy, spoiled sook, and Bret Stephens always looked to me to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Medicine for having an attitude to paling fences that could lead to a much-needed breakthrough on surgery for piles.  (This is from a victim.)

Then there is Niall Ferguson.  I was and am happy to defend the author of that wonderful book, Kim.  He was a man of his time.  Ferguson does not have that excuse.  He is a golden boy throwback who puts his paw out to collect the moulah from the fat cats he keeps purring. 

But the bullshit is far from harmless.  Ferguson said of Iraq, that in the interests of capitalism and democracy, ‘the proper role of an imperial America is to establish these institutions where they are lacking, if necessary …by military force.’  The arrogance is incandescent.  The bullshit equals that of the Evangelist Jean-Jacques Rousseau – who said that people could be forced to be free – which is up there with fornicating for virginity.

But neither Blair, nor Bush, nor our little bloke, nor Ferguson was reminded of the remark of Robespierre a propos of exporting the glory of the revolution throughout Europe by French arms – no one likes an armed missionary. 

Has the person been born who could rationally deny that? If a Russian peasant is being bayoneted or raped by a foreign invader, does it matter if the war criminal was sent by Napoleon or Hitler – for liberation or extermination?  (Which do you think Putin has in mind for the Ukraine?  He actually says it is a liberation – and he may as well claim the authority of Rousseau and Ferguson for the proposition that consent is irrelevant.))

It is therefore right that Ferguson gets the line of the book.  ‘He complained about white men being unfashionable while owning the catwalk.’  It reminded me of a remark by Tony Tanner.  It may have been about Richard II – he began to see the writing on the wall; the problem was – he had done most of the writing.

We see this all the time in the people I referred to at the start – like Andrew Bolt.  The poor buggers see themselves as victims – they have been misunderstood, either as members of think tanks, or the Roman Catholic Church, or as failed party hacks, or turncoats or Uncle Toms.  They live in the safest and richest country in the world and are paid a fortune to wrap themselves up in their cocoons and talk bullshit to the fading faithful – and play the part of victims!  For all I know they may say that Rupert is a victim of Jerry.

These label-floggers or standard-bearers tend to come in two varieties.  There are those who don’t really care, but who go along with the herd because that is safe and puts food on the table; and those who care deeply and believe what they say.  The first are boring but harmless enough – a kind of opiate for the masses.  The second are also boring, but potentially harmful – their minds tend to be warped by God, the cadres of think tanks (like latterday Jesuits), or the rich lady with all the coal who fills their coffers with her cash – and becomes a Life Member.  But they all mock the notion of journalism as a profession – and that is very sad.

This book is terrific.  We need as much of this as we can take.  But we also need to recall that most of the book is about myths – and a myth is a story about something that never happened.  The Oxford English Dictionary is prolix:

A purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions or events and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historic phenomena.  Often used vaguely to include any narrative having fictitious elements.

God did not create the world in the manner described in Genesis.  That we know as a matter of fact – unless we are one of those American zealots called creationists who prefer the romance of a myth to the proofs of science (until they get on the gurney for life saving heart surgery). 

Satan did not fall from heaven.  Eve did not bite the apple.  Achilles did not sulk in his tent.  Don Quixote did not shoot the breeze with Sancho Panza.  Don Giovanni did not wreak havoc.  Hamlet did not have it out with his mum.  But, for whatever reason, we in our human frailty go to those stories for a kind of comfort – or for a kind of truth.

The evidence is sufficient to allow us to say that we know that a Jewish man answering the description of Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the Romans.  The circumstances are muddy because of the nature and content of the gospels.  But what then happened is not a matter of evidence but faith.  That is the basis of any religion.  Only a small part of the world’s peoples believe that the executed man arose from the dead.  But that is the case for the faith-based beliefs of all religions.  

Most people believe that the stories underlying all religions are false.  There is only one difference between me and a believer – the believer believes all religions are groundless in fact – except one.  I don’t allow the exception.  But that does not stop most people pledging their faith to the myth they have grown up with.

Human nature therefore looks to have a need for fantasy – an ‘illusory appearance’ or ‘a supposition resting on no solid grounds.’  That would entail that our attachment to the value of truth gets wobbly.  And that is what bad people prey on.  And that is why we need books like this.

Nesrine Malik – Murdoch News Corporation – myths – logic.

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