Who’s Side am I On?

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How do I judge my own political opinions, or those of others? This brief essay is an attempt to find some arbiter of truth, at least that satisfies me. How do I know that what I believe to be self-evidently better than the opposite is actually so? As a baby boomer and child of the sixties, my political stance is much as it has always been, somewhere on the left, though revolutionary fervour has somewhat dulled with age, as it often does. I occasionally buy the Telegraph, even the Express and the Mail, to get the view from the other side, but the bad taste in my mouth persuades me back sharpish to the comfort of the Observer and the Guardian. For Scottish flavour, I prefer the Herald, especially the pro-independence Sunday version to the more portentous Scotsman. For a view from afar, and the latest on that scoundrel Trump, the new York Times. Al Jazeera has recently started sending me clips of news on Facebook, and I find their take on things quite refreshing (bearing in mind of course that their journalism is funded by the oil state of Qatar). Being a small business owner gives me some sympathy with free enterprise, and most of my right-on friends no doubt still see me as being under the sway of my middle class background, though erstwhile boarding school contemporaries would no doubt class me as lost to the left. Am I purely defined by circumstance?

During a conversation the other day, sat in the sunshine outside of the pub, my friend next to me groaned, “not more politics! I’ve heard it all before and nothing changes”. While it is doubtful the revolution would have started once we left the pub, I could at least say that since the run up to the vote on Scottish Independence, we had all been agonising about these questions … the relationship of the individual to the state, whether it was worth voting, the nature of money and the media etc etc. And that during this period I had at least started to form my own opinions. That I should be aware of the presumption of such a claim shows, I hope, some level of political sophistication.

So what conclusions have I come up with, that makes me so bold as to pick up a pen? There are swathes of argument of which I know very little, such as the culture wars of the old liberal hegemony and the ‘alt right’.  I am struggling to understand Angela Nagel’s ‘Kill all Normies’ at the moment, lent to me by an ardent friend. At first I thought it was just old age, or the onset of Alzheimers, then realised that I literally didn’t understand a lot of what she says, terms familiar to the on-line generation. Transgression? She opens chapter 2 discussing this, presuming the reader knows what she’s on about … surely not just ‘sin’? Not being familiar with the context, or even the meaning of some of her terms makes it difficult to understand. She seems to be saying that the right have somehow usurped the left as the ‘cool gang’. She may well be correct, I can’t say, but as a political animal, which Aristotle says we all are, I must only argue as I can.

Israel bombs the Gaza Strip … where should our sympathies lie? The Jewish State, they say, has God on their side, and the homeland of Israel is ordained in the Old Testament. Any dissent is described as anti-semitism. You might expect memories of the Holocaust to give the Jews some sympathy with the excluded, but to hear young Israelis, safe within the borders of their country describing Arabs as ‘vermin’ smacks of exclusion in the most extreme. Almost next door, Saudi Arabia bombs the hell out of the Houthi rebels, reinforced by their history of being the descendants of Mohammed, anointed keepers of the Muslim flame, while even within the ranks of Mohammedenism, neighbouring Iran growls at the Saudis from across the Persian gulf that no, the Shia tradition is the true expression of the Prophet.  Meanwhile the Buddhists of Burma ethnically cleanse the Muslim  Rohingya from within their borders, the slopes of Mt Sinjar still reek from the blood of slaughtered Yazidi, while the Catholics and the Protestants battle out their differences on the football terraces of Glasgow and the streets of Belfast. Yahweh and Allah really should get together sometime, perhaps invite Jesus and Buddha along for a night out, 

Left and Right is the principle way we describe our political inclinations, with myriad subdivisions, no doubt proliferating even as I write. For these I would like to substitute Inclusion and Exclusion … not quite exact, but I find these terms have greater use for me. Within the exclusive camp are those who are concerned with the dangers of immigration, wish to fortify national borders, and even protect trade especially from outside those borders. They tend to be suspicious of the unknown, so suspect scientific method. They are conservative, looking to literally conserve the past. Institutions such as royalty, the class system, religion are preferred to the unknown. But also in this camp are systems of thought that are inherited  without question, such as Creationism (I’ve dignified that with a capital C, though science continually rebuffs the idea). But dogma (as we might call this) is not restricted to the right, and there is plenty of evidence for unthinking sloganeering from the Left. By its nature dogma excludes, and though religious dogma excludes the ‘unbelievers’, so the Left tends to exclude any who do not hold to a particular theory, whether it be Marxism, Trotsksyism or whatever ism is deemed truest at the time. The whole idea of ‘truth’ is exclusive, banning any dissent as lies, and confusion as prevarication.

Extreme positions themselves tend to be exclusive, so if we follow the principle of In or Out, we had best do so with some moderation, and I would suggest common sense as being a useful arbiter. I tried applying the principle to the recent royal wedding, of Harry and Megan, and tied myself in all sorts of knots. Who could deny, or exclude, the cheering crowds? But what if the notion of  ‘royalty’ itself excludes all not born into the correct lineage from ever ascending, or being associated with the throne? So there is a certain amount of inconsistency if the test is thoroughly applied .. but is such inconsistency actually bad? Despite our best attempts, life tends to be inconsistent, muddy and messy. 

The exclusive view tends to find what’s wrong with something; to be suspicious, negative. If we receive two reports of a film that we are considering going to see, we are best to give weight to the one that enjoys it rather than the miserable carpist. In reading Art History, certain writers depressed me, while others enthralled me. I found Wolfflin, the Swiss authority on Durer and the Northern Renaissance hard going, whereas E H Gombrich, another Swiss writer, never failed to lift me. It is a rather grand generalisation, but I found that those who write about art to illuminate life to be much more readable than those who write just within the discipline, that is, to illuminate Art. The specialist will tend to language that excludes the common man, and even practising artists, whatever their democratic intentions can end up in this self-referential world, where only the cognoscenti are included. I visited the graduate shows in Edinburgh and Glasgow last year, and was on the whole baffled …. thirty years seems to be too long to be out of the game; I certainly got the feeling that I or the common man was not the destined viewer, that the aesthetic was too rarified for any but those familiar with the current language. I would like to make it clear that this should not be regarded as a touchstone for excellence … that the more inclusive something is the better it might be, or vice versa; otherwise we end up with the lowest common denominator, a race to the bottom. It should merely be used as a tool to assist judgement.

What of ‘the tribe’? Whether it be a football team, a religion, a country or a class, the tribe has many elements of both inclusion and exclusion.  It is great to feel part of a gang, but by its nature it must have boundaries; being part of the in-crowd necessarily excludes the un-cool. We are social animals, and love to create gangs. I could not possibly outlaw gangs, or even the idea of them. But we can chose not only which gangs we would like to join, but if admitted still have the ability to affect their nature. To be part of a Nazi group, which extols, for example, purity of race is fundamentally different from joining a Union, which argues on behalf of the working group it represents for better pay or conditions. And the principle of inclusion/exclusion can help decide which is the band for us. To hear the Kop in full voice, or see the jubilation during the World Cup which has just finished when a team scores is pretty inarguable. The few looters who took advantage of the celebrating French, in the Champs Elysees were roundly condemned by all, and made no dent in the spirit of national generosity on the night. Opium of the masses? So what? Sometimes drugs are great.

A friend has just given me a copy of Alienation, Jimmy Reid’s passionate address to the University of Glasgow on being made Rector in 1972. A drive along the Clyde now is very different from then. All the shipyards closed down and landscaped, that whole ‘work in’ ethic that Reid and others led apparently lost forever. But his words and sentiment are as strong and relevant today as then. Alienation for him was not just of the working man from his trade or fellows, but of the capitalist or bureaucrat from the springs that actually give us life. Alienation is a more specific term, and more powerful than ‘exclusion’; it refers perhaps to the effects, or results of ‘exclusion’, so is perhaps further down the line. But that the mean-minded become their own alienated victims of the race to the top … he even has pity for them. A very un-exclusive bit of writing!

So the excluder shuts out the unfamiliar and the rough, preferring to live in exclusive neighbourhoods, even gated communities for the very rich. Their children will be sent to private boarding schools, and discouraged from mixing with the local kids. A club or hotel may actually pride itself on being ‘exclusive’; most religions shun unbelievers as being heretics, and heaven is reserved for those who follow the rules. Atheists on the other hand, can sound a bit shrill in their condemnation of religion (I’m thinking particularly of Richard Dawkins, whose arguments are convincing, but he does go on!)

… And the human race? If we admit that we are merely another type of monkey, but not that dissimilar to deer and ducks, elephants and prairie dogs, and as dependent as the lowliest beetle on water and sun light, would we then exclude the concerns of all other life? It would seem sensible to include the rest of the planet with our own interests. 

Yes, I find it quite a good touchstone, when politically challenged or morally confused, and I find myself preferring the company of those inclusive types rather than those who would shun or exclude. I hear you say, ‘Ah, but perhaps that reflects on your low social skills, that it is only the forgiving who admit you’. That may well be the case, but if so there is little I can do about it; I have left it too late to earn the entrance fees, and must content myself with just being another of the great unwashed, and take pleasure wherever I can find it.