Sunday, February 26, 2012

A ‘strong man’ or ‘democracy’? Peter Hitchens sticks his neck out (again). And three cheers for a man who refuses to play the game

Oh, if everything in life were as simple as it was when you were five, supper at 5pm, followed by bath, story and bed. We who are no longer six know what lies in store for all innocent five-year-olds. Most of us survive into and beyond adulthood more or less painlessly, learning and adopting along the way into our dotage various strategies which will make the transition from birth to death a little easier. Others, of course, have shitty lives. But what we all have in common is that for three, four or five years we were utterly innocent of the ways of the world.

I mention this innocence because, ironically, as we grow older, it is what lingers longest if life is reasonably kind to us. The usual knocks and bumps meted out to us as we hit 20, then 30, then 40, then 50 might hurt, but at least they teach us a little and the personal innocence diminishes by the year. But there is another kind of innocence which no amount of experience seems to be able to - well, I was going to write ‘cure’, but even for me that would seem cynical beyond imperatives which dictate the attitudes of a hack writing a blog. So I will settle for ameliorate. Often that innocence, or some aspect of it, is necessary if the kind of idealism which fuels the anger of the young is to survive.

For us old fogeys youthful protest - for a freer country, against this, that or t’other dictatorship, for lower college fees, the list of what the young want to protest against is endless - might often elicit a sigh of resignation, but without that youthful idealism, are sighs would, sooner or later, come a lot thicker and a lot faster. We might despair that ‘the young’ rarely seem to wash, listen to ‘awful music’, drink far too much for their own good, and never seem to get a good night’s sleep, but at the end of the day they are doing us all a very big favour. And it mainly down to the fact that more or less each and every one of them is as innocent as the driven snow.

The innocence which keeps the world alive occurred to me when I came across a piece by a certain Peter Hitchens in today’s Daily Mail. Peter, the brother of Christopher who died recently, prides himself on being right-wing. And there is nothing wrong with that. Whenever guys like Peter Hitchens are derided for their political views, I always reflect on just how intolerant are a bunch which regards tolerance as one of the cornerstones of its philosophy life. The irony is, of course, that they tolerate only what they sanction. Views which are wholly at odds with their own are not to be tolerated.

So Peter Hitchens is something of a rarity in our liberal society: a man utterly at odds with established thinking, but one who is not insane, evil or stupid. That Hitchens (I shall now drop his first name because it should be obvious that I am talking about Peter not the late Christopher) is not a member of the great liberal consensus is important because as far as I am concerned he is a vital counter-balance to a great deal of woolly thinking.

In his piece today, which you can find here, he is skating on thin ice. But that is something he always does anyway, as he is rather more inclined to speak his mind than many another commentator. Next week, Russia goes to the polls to choose a successor to President Dmitry Medvedev and his predecessor, mentor and prime minister Vladimir Putin seems like a shoo-in. And Hitchens, who worked as a foreign correspondent in Moscow for two years in the dying days of the Soviet regime, is backing Putin.

The headline to his piece in the Mail on Sunday will give a flavour of what he writes and works well as a neat summary: ‘If not Putin, who? It’s because I love my own country that I can see
A Russian democrat. He might even be a liberal

the point of this sinister tyrant who so ruthlessly stands up for Russia.’ You can see why I describe him as skating on thin ice. There were surely gasps of disbelief around Britain when many opened their Mail on Sunday or logged onto the Mailonline website and saw what Hitchens was writing.

I trust readers overcame their horror and went on to read what Hitchens writes, because I think he makes some very good points. Were one to be very unfair, and, it has to be said, dishonest, his thesis could be described as: ‘What Russia now needs is a strong man’. But he is not actually saying that, and it should be obvious to all but the dullest that Hitchens values freedom and the rule of law. He is not urging the Russia should once again be ruled by a dictator, but warning (yet again, as it happens, it is more or less the leitmotif of his journalism) that not only is a certain kind of liberalism rather less effective than it might consider itself to be, but that it can often prove to be quite dangerous. The innocents of this world will cry out: Russia/Libya/Syria/Burma and the rest must become democratic. To which I give two cheers. But the rather less innocent, those who have been scarred by life a little will also know that it is rarely that simple and even more rarely that neat.

In short there is a dilemma: neither arrangement is perfect (and the naive search for perfection has caused a lot of misery). A ‘strong man’ might well ensure that the lights turn on when you want them to, that food is in ready supply and that, generally, order is predominant. But you have to be very careful what you say, and the rule of law is rather fragile. In a ‘democratic state’ you are free to express your thoughts and feelings and, in theory, are protected by the rule of law, and that will keep the idealists happy. But such states are often chaotic, especially when they are in the throes of transition from a dictatorship to a democracy.

Don’t forget that for all our huffing and puffing and rather smug pride about living in a stable democracy, it took centuries of political evolution to get here, and the road could, at times, be very bloody indeed. And in the United States, which can, at times, be the most insufferably smug of all the smug democratic states, racism, poverty and unemployment make life extremely unpleasant for a substantial minority. Yes, they are free to vote for whoever they want, but if you are being evicted, you’re hungry or you’ve fallen ill and can’t afford health insurance, that freedom slips rather lower on your list of priorities. And, another irony, in a democracy too many citizens take their freedoms for granted: in the 2008 presidential election only six out of ten voters bothered to go to the polls. That’s not bad, I hear you say. Perhaps, but it’s not good either.

Here I must confess to a certain cowardice. I like to make out that I am neutral, neither proposing nor opposing ideas. When I write above of the eternal dilemma between, very broadly, a ‘strong man’ who brings stability and a ‘democracy’ in which too much tends to chaos, you will notice that I don’t come down on one side or another, which would be in keeping with my ‘neutrality’. I like to present myself as solely describing the dilemma. But therein lies my cowardice: at the end of the day none of us is ‘neutral’. All of us must make a choice. But we should also be fully aware of the consequences of that choice. That is one reason - there are many others - why life is just so much sweeter for a five-year-old. The trouble is none of us remains five for longer than a year.

. . .

Peter Hitchens is an interesting cove. Like his brother Christopher, he was a member of the hard left in his salad days, but quite soon drifted to the right of centre. Christopher did the same (though he would have denied it). There was a terrible sibling rivalry between the two, which began, according to Christopher, when Peter was born. Pyschologists could have a field day sorted out the roots of it all, but then psychologists could have a field day delving into the psyche of each and every one of us, and furthermore, as it quite a lucrative profession, at least, for private practitioners, psychologists treat themselves to as many field days as they possibly can.
As far as I can tell, Peter is a one-off. There are swivel-eyed, proudly right-wing Englishmen and women (and the women are twice as bloodthirsty as the men) who demand the return of capital punishment, flogging, the deportation of ‘immigrants’ (the irony being, of course, that we are all the descendants of ‘immigrants’ and insist to the point of apoplexy that garlic has no place whatsoever in an English kitchen. Peter is not one of these. In fact, I am often quite surprised that he calls himself ‘right-wing’. He seems to me less interested in the politics and rather more interested in highlighting the hypocrisy and cant which plays such and important part in our lives. I find I agree with a great deal of what he says, and I most certainly do not regard myself as right-wing.

His one failing might be that given we have to deal with the hand we are dealt, he is rather unworldy. For example, the Conservative Party under David Cameron has become as insufferably right-on as Labour and the Liberals. The point is that they really have no choice: no politician in his or her right mind would these days refuse to sing the praises of ‘green policies’ and ensuring ‘sustainability’ even though privately they think it’s all a load of cock. If you take part in the game, you are obliged to play the game. What I like about Peter is that he resolutely and honestly refuses point-blank to ‘play the game’.

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