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The Hunt for the Joker

Imagine you’re a Nobel prize-winning scientist.

You’re really good at science. So good, you were knighted and made a fellow of the prestigious Royal Society. You’d think you’d be most known for your big breakthrough, wouldn’t you?

Cyclin, C-terminal domain (not to be confused with Cyclin, N-terminal domain!)

In your case, you discovered a family of proteins called cyclins. Nice one! (You called them ‘cyclins’ as a joke, because you were into cycling at the time. Ha ha.)

You might hope that the vast majority of your Wikipedia page would contain a lengthy explanation of your discovery and how it teaches us a lot about the mysteries of cell division.

But no. You made a joke.

And it wasn’t a joke about cycling. It was a joke in 2015. About girls. In an improvised speech at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, you said that the trouble with having girls in the lab is that “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”

People decided that it wasn’t funny. They either didn’t know about the context, in which you framed your comments by saying self-effacing things like “It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists” and that “Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.” Or, more likely, they didn’t care.

Hunting for the Joker

The next day, it was decided that what you said wasn’t just unfunny but grossly offensive to anyone who wasn’t there and isn’t interested in the context. And that’s pretty much everyone.

So you were forced to resign from your position as an honorary professor with the University College London’s Faculty of Life Sciences and from the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee. You were reinstated to that committee a while later, but let’s face facts. You won’t be known as Sir Tim Hunt FRS, FRSE, FMedSci, MAE but ‘that guy who made that sexist joke’ for a long time.

And here’s the real kicker, and perhaps why it was so offensive. What you said is factually and scientifically true. People do fall in love with each other in the workplace, and women are much more likely to cry at criticism than men. You might think scientists and science journalists would be able to process those facts rationally and understand the joke. Apparently, they can’t.

Instant Meltdown

None of this should be a surprise. It is possible to set fire to your career and reputation in the blink of an eye, or the refresh of an app. It just takes a few words and a hitting ‘send’. Roseanne Barr’s tweet about Barack Obama’s adviser Valerie Jarrett caused her successful comeback sitcom to be cancelled. That one lousy joke might have cost her tens of millions of dollars.

You don’t even have to be famous to be disembowelled by the twitchfork mob. Justine Stacco only had 170 followers when she tweeted a very dubious AIDS joke before getting on a plane to Cape Town. She thought she was among friends, but apparently not. Unaware, high in the air, she became a global sensation. Nothing could have prepared her for the whirlwind of rage that greeted her when she landed. There was even a hashtag for that moment: #HasJustineLandedYet Jon Ronson wrote about her in his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

And here’s the kicker for Justine Stacco. Her joke wasn’t nice, but it was considerably nicer than similar AIDS jokes in the award-winning, critically-acclaimed, Broadway smash-hit show, The Book of Mormon. But that was written by the creators of South Park and Team America: World Police, so everyone was expecting jokes in poor taste. So that makes it okay, right?

Holy Writ

The Book of Mormon is an interesting case of how to take a joke well. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints could have had a serious sense of humour failure over this commercially-successful broadside attack on their faith. Instead, they smiled (Mormons are good at that), took it on the chin and suggested people read the real book for themselves. That was the suggestion in the adverts the church took out in the official show programme. Nice move.

This pragmatic and gracious reaction of the Mormon church is surprising because it’s so rare. Religious people are not known for their sense of humour. One immediately thinks of Mary Whitehouse counting swear words in TV sitcoms, or the painful discussion between John Cleese and Michael Palin with Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark about The Life of Brian in 1979.

More recently, consider the reaction of mainstream Christians to Jerry Springer: the Opera, which attracted over 50,000 complaints for its BBC broadcast in January 2005. Most of these were received by the Corporation before the performance was even transmitted. There was legal action and a private prosecution for blasphemy. This is not a surprise. Christians often fail to see the funny side.

All of the above is nothing compared to the reaction to cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo. The deaths of 12 people and the injury of 11 others in broad daylight on 7th January 2015 was a distressing reminder that jokes can have very serious consequences.

The Sacred Art of Joking

I’m a comedy writer. And a Christian. And I love jokes. What’s more, I think Jesus was funny. The Bible is full of comic moments, images, stories as well as a talking donkeys and bushes. Christians should be laughing more, both at themselves and the idiocy of the world around them. After all, God laughs at us (Psalm 2:4), so we might as well join in and see the funny side. (It’s pretty basic advice: When the boss laughs, you laugh.)

All this is why I’ve written a book called The Sacred Art of Joking. In it, I explain how jokes work, how they can go horribly wrong, especially in the realm of religion, and what Christians can do about it. You can pre-order a signed copy from me HERE (UK Only), or Amazon if you’d rather.

But this is the internet, so I have to write a list.

Here’s one about extreme measures you can take when navigating the potentially fatal waters of making a joke anywhere other than inside your head.

  1. Before you make any joke on Facebook or Twitter, assume everything you write publicly online will be available to all people across the universe for all of eternity. Seriously.
  2. Before you send a mean-spirited joke on a private message or email, read it back to yourself. And then imagine how it would sound when read aloud in court.
  3. When making an off-the-cuff speech, remember it might be recorded on someone’s phone. So think about what you’re saying and imagine how it will sound when a Newsnight presenter reads a transcript back to you in the least funny way possible, in front of a member of a lobby group who is professionally offended. How’s that speech looking now?
  4. If you go ahead with the joke, and it causes wide-spread offence, and your motives were good, consider not apologising. An apology will never be enough for the twitchfork mob. They don’t really care about the joke. They are lonely keyboard warriors looking for someone to bully. And the pundits are using you to virtue-signal for their own ends. It’s not about you. It never was.
  5. If you’re a celeb or a politician and you torch your career with a joke, there’s always I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

This list sounds drastic. But it’s actually excellent advice.

But you won’t follow it. And nor will I, because we instinctively know how important jokes are. They are too precious to be handed to the shrieking mob and the Thought Police. We were made for jokes. We were made for joy. We were made for laughter by the God who laughs. So Keep Joking, Carry On and Buy My Book.

I will also be performing part of the one-man show based on the book at The Museum of Comedy in Bloomsbury, alongside Paul Kerensa and Simon Jenkins, on 19th October at 6.30pm. Come on down! You can hear a sample of The Sacred Art of Joking show here.

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Springtime For Pug Dogs

One of my favourite movies of all time is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Perhaps it’s because it was 1989 and I was 14. I’ve always loved Harrison Ford’s lone hero persona. Everything is up to him. If he doesn’t get it done, it won’t get done. This is encapsulated at the start of TheLast Crusadewhen the young Indy is separated from his troupe of scouts. He is all alone and concludes “Everybody’s lost but me.”

When Indy grows up, he has enemies: Nazis. When he sees them for them for the first time in The Last Crusade busying themselves pushing counters around maps with long poles, like they do in movies, Indy mutters to himself, “Nazis. I hate these guys.”

Nazis are the action movie’s greatest friend. They have fantastic, distinctive uniforms, some of which even have a skull and crossbones on them. (See the brilliant Mitchell and Webb sketch on this) They are fanatically devoted to their cause, and their Fuhrer. And they have really good, well-engineered kit. The most important thing is this: Your hero can kill as many of them as you like and still be a goodie. You would have to go a long way to invent better baddies than Nazis.

That Belongs In A Museum

Of course, at the time, Indiana Jones could not have known what the Nazis would be capable of. The first three films are set before the Second World War and so his actions against German soldiers are not entirely justified. The worst thing about the Nazis to Indy is that they were terrible archaeologists, plundering relics that ‘belong in a museum’ in a vain attempt to co-opt the power of God, in whom Indy scarcely believes in. But we take what we know now and superimpose it on the Nazis of the 1930s and cinematically, all is well.

That is significant. We don’t watch films rationally. We watch them emotionally. This is why common sense, assuming humanity possess such a thing, and cool-headedness are thrown out of the window when we get YouTube videos like the one made by Count Dankula. So what did he do?

A Dog Called Buddha

Count Dankula, the avatar of Mark Meechan from Lanarkshire in Scotland, decided to annoy his girlfriend by making a video about his girlfriend’s sweet little pug dog called Buddha. What’s the most offensive, least cute thing a pug dog called Buddha can do? A Nazi salute whenever someone says ‘Seig Heil’. So that’s what he did. He trained her dog to do that. He made a three-minute video of the fruits of his labour and put it on YouTube in 2016.

Now, we have to be very careful here and use speech precisely lest we merely respond emotionally. That will not suffice in a court of law, since that is where Meechan ended up. He was arrested for the video in 2017, appeared at Airdrie Sheriff Court to defend himself against the charge of perpetrating a hate crime under the Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. We’re not going to discuss here whether that is or is not at a good law. Adam Wagner makes a case here that it is dangerously vague and unnecessary law.

But what had Meechan/Dankula done? One could argue that he had only done what Steven Spielberg and hundreds of other movie directors have done. He co-opted Nazism for its extremity of wickedness in order to make a piece of entertainment. Spielberg grabbed the Nazis to make a movie about an archaeological hero. Dankula grabbed the Nazis to make a sick joke at the expense of the girlfriend and her dog, Buddha.

Indy Meets The Fuhrer

One could argue – and I’m not sure I would – that Spielberg is being a little disingenuous. In The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones finds himself a Nazi rally in which books are being burned. He himself is disguised a German soldier and is holding a book which will reveal the key secrets about the Holy Grail. There is a surge from the crowd and Jones is buffeted along until he ends up being face to face with Adolf Hitler himself. They both look at book in Indiana’s hand. Everything stops. Hitler holds out a hand and a flunky hands him a pencil. Hitler signs his autograph in the book and moves on.

If one was being obtuse, one could argue that this is making light of the most evil man of the 20thcentury. It’s not in the same category of the long-forgotten short-lived sitcom Heil Honey, I’m Home, commissioned by BSB in 1990 (before it merged with Sky) in which Adolph Hitler and his wife Eva live next door to the Goldensteins, who are obviously a Jewish couple. Again, the joke there was not really about Nazism. There was a caption card at the beginning explaining that Heil Honey I’m Home!was a long-lost US sitcom recently re-discovered in some archives in Burbank, California. The joke is that in the 1950s and 60s, the Americans were used to turning any domestic situation into a sitcom. Again, Hitler was used to create the worst possible domestic sitcom imaginable. The show was cancelled after one episode. Artistically this might have been a mercy since the ideas sounds more like a three minute sketch than six half-hour episodes when the joke might run a little thin.

The Producers

The makers of Heil Honey I’m Homemight have been mystified that they were cut so short given the lengthy career of Mel Brooks, who portrayed Hitler himself many times and wrote numerous sketches about him, such as Hitler on Ice, from the movie History of the World Part 1. His biggest hit, however, must surely be The Producers, originally a film from 1967 starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. It was remade as stage musical in 2001, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, winning 12 Tony Awards. This musical was in turn shot as a new movie in 2005.

But what is the premise of the story? Thanks to a timid accountant, a dishonest, washed-up Broadway producer realises he can make more money with flop than that closes on the first night than he can with a hit. Therefore, he needs a show that will have to close immediately. They trawl though script after script before they find the perfect show called Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. The producer says that it’s virtually “a love letter to Hitler”. The play is written by deranged ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind. The play is given to the campest and worst director on Broadway, Roger De Bris, and it is rehearsed and presented to an audience who are initially opened mouthed. A few storm out saying it’s in bad taste. This is, of course, true. It is. But the remaining audience see the outlandish portrayal of Hitler and mistake it for a satire, finding it hilariously funny. The show is smash hit – and financial catastrophe for the producers who go to jail for fraud.

In short, the movies and musical of The Producers, Mel Brooks shows a character using Nazism as a convenient shorthand for something offensive that is guaranteed to produce a negative reaction. In his video, Count Dankula did essentially the same thing, except he was arrested, tried and prosecuted for a hate crime. Brooks won 12 Tony Awards. In one awards speech he publicly thanked Hitler. Even Dankula could not expect to get away with that. Why is that?

Who is Who

The joke is only part of the story. There is a wider context here which includes the identity of the joker. One cannot help but notice that Mel Brooks is at least two things that Dankula is not. Firstly, Brooks is a highly respected comedian with a long career and proven track record in comedy. Not only is The Producerson his CV, but also The Young Frankenstein, Space Balls, History of the World Part 1and Blazing Saddles (but let’s not get into that last one right now). Before that he was a writer for numerous hit TV shows.

Mel Brooks is a comedy institution. Dankula is not in that class and does not claim to be. On his Twitter profile, he describes himself as a “Professional Shitposter.” This seems a fair description. He’s some kind of internet contrarian who pushes the limits of free speech and says anti-social things purely because he can.

With Friends Like These

Moreover, some people who rushed to his defence did are not held in high regard in polite company. High profile comedians like Ricky Gervais and David Baddiel were vocal in their criticism of the court’s decision, but it there more visual support from Tommy Robinson, formerly of the controversial English Defence League. He was always going to create certain associations in the minds of those looking at Dankula’s case. Regardless of the law and his credible supporters, Dankula was never going to look good in the media or in court.

The second pertinent different between Dankula and Brooks is that the latter is Jewish. Should that matter? Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does. It matters because when Brooks portrays camp goose-stepping Nazis and comic versions of Hitler, it is not credible to say that he is secretly in sympathy with the Jew-murdering fascists. Some may find Brooks’ comedy to be in poor taste, as some friends of mine did when they went to see the Producers, partly on my recommendation. But they did not come away feeling they had been to a covert Nazi rally or recruitment drive.

An Odiuous Criminal Act

The prosecutors of Dankula, who is not Jewish, were able to suggest that perhaps Dankula’s video was “an odious criminal act that was dressed up to look like a joke.” His motives were mixed, they argued, or could credibly be construed as such. Therefore, he must be found guilty. The judge agreed. I do not.

The joke was misjudged, and abhorrent. If you watch the video, you see that Dankula is continually referring to what Nazis did to Jews in death camps. That’s really dark. Technically, it works as a joke, given the incongruity with the pug dog called Buddha. But it’s not a joke I would do. But that doesn’t mean that he should not have done it. I do think less of him for having done so.

I would have no problem with YouTube, as the host of the video, taking it down since they are a private company (although they are often unclear on their rules and apply them inconsistently). I do think the Communication Act of 2003 is a bad law that will already be having a chilling effect on free speech. I can testify to that as I’m wording this article extremely carefully. Many have applauded the prosecution of this nasty contrarian, but may yet live to see this law enacted against people they like and respect. That is a discussion for another time.

But the comedy writer in me would argue that in essence, all Dankula has done is the well-worn comedy trick of grabbing the Nazi trope that many have done before him and will continue to do in the future. Should that be a crime?

 

A longer version of this article will appear in my forthcoming book about how comedy goes wrong, especially in the realm of religion. To be kept informed about that, please sign up for my mailing list below. While we’re thinking about inappropriate comedy, consider buying A Monk’s Tale, an hilarious take on the Martin Luther and his Ninety Five These. You can also listen to me actual voice on my regular podcast with Barry Cooper on Cooper and Cary Have Words.



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The Professor of Awkward

When a half hour interview from the Channel 4 news team gets 800k views in a couple of days, you know that something strange is happening. Another 45k people watched it the time it took for me to write this blog post. This sort of thing is normally the slow televised death of a political career. But not this time.

People are rubbernecking the interview of clinical psychologist and professor Jordan B Peterson by Cathy Newman, who is promoting his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. On the Spectator website, Douglas Murray calls the interview ‘catastrophic’. That may be pitching it rather strongly, even though the interview comes to an actual stand-still at 23 minutes when Peterson risks a ‘gotcha’ at Newman’s expense. It’s fair comment, given she’s just spent 23 minutes try to ‘get’ him.

Good On You, Channel 4

It is to Channel 4’s credit that they showed Cathy Newman’s embarrassing speechlessness at that point rather than cutting back Peterson. And it is further to their credit that they put up this interview on Youtube in full. It seems that they’ve taken this one on the chin. If one impugned their motives, like Newman repeatedly does during the interview, you could say that they can’t take the interview down now, since it would look even worse. And given the video will probably get another million views in the next 24 hours, and be ripped and reposted, the toothpaste is well and truly out of the tube.

Catastrophic-ish

Maybe Channel 4 don’t think the interview is all that bad, and here is why I hesitate to use the term ‘catastrophic’ about the interview. Newman approached this interview and asked the same sort of questions that she would a politician. Every question is heavily slanted and loaded with preconceptions that relentlessly assume the worst of the interviewee’s motives and character.

This is rather brutally known as the ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ approach. The interviewee is then stuck with the dilemma to defend their character or make a constructive point. If they refuse to allow the character slurs to pass by and defend themselves, they’ve normally used up too much time and breath to make the point – and the interview moves on to the next phase of the character assassination. The Left should classify such relentless questions micro-aggressions, but of course the rules are different if it’s a Channel 4 Journalist saying them.

The big difference here is that Newman is not interviewing a politician who doesn’t know what they think from one day to the next, who, for example, voted to Remain and now has to defend Brexit negotiations. This is not a camera-shy bumbling academic who is grateful for and embarrassed by the attention. She is interviewing a steely professor of Clinical Psychology who knows his stuff, and has had far worse thrown at him with far worse consequences for him than public embarrassment. Newman’s interviewing him cat-and-mouse style as if she knows what he must really think, but he’s playing a completely different game in which he turns out to be the cat.

So here’s the interview. I highly recommend watching all of it. It’s a slow-burn but well worth your time. And here are few thoughts on it below.

 

The Breakdown of the Breakdown

Let’s just break things down briefly as a few of Newman’s questions popped out at me when I was watching the interview. At the very beginning, Newman asks an open question.

“You’ve said that men need to grow the hell up. Tell me why.”

She lets him speak. Her tactic may be to give himself enough rope to hang himself, since he’s clearly written a book that she finds objectionable. He doesn’t seem shifty or repentant, but confident and well informed for a couple of minutes.

1m53: She sticks with the plan and asks another open question about the male crisis that Peterson is putting forward.

“What’s gone wrong then?”

2m32: Newman asks:

“Does it bother you that your audience is predominantly male? Isn’t that bit divisive?”

This question assumes that having a predominantly single-gendered audience for a Youtube Channel is regrettable in some way. This is an odd question given there are plenty of TV shows, books, industries and celebs that veer towards one gender or another, including many TV shows on Channel 4. They sell advertising partly on that basis.

But it is odd that Newman can’t take a book seriously unless it’s aim squarely at both genders. This seems a bizarrely proscriptive approach, but this becomes very much the motif of the interview.

2m45: When informed that YouTube is used more by men and Tumblr more by women, for which I’ve seen no evidence but I’m happy to take Peterson at his word (Pinterest I would have no problem believing is predominantly female), Newman says:

“So, that’s the way it is”

She says this as if internet platforms should all aim for a 50/50 gender split of usership. This fits in with what comes later. Newman is after equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity. At this point, she seems unwilling to make that distinction. Perhaps she’s never been required to before. Let’s keep going.

3m08 Newman says:

“So you’re saying women have some sort of duty to help fix the crisis of masculinity.”

Watching the interview for the first time, this was the first comment from Newman that really jumped out at me. It’s not a huge logical leap she makes, but a subtle, disingenuous hop that Peterson’s theory of the crisis of masculinity needs to be solved by women (as if they didn’t have enough to do). Peterson has not said that at all. He has said that if women want men who aren’t overgrown children, they might like to take some action. In response to Newman, Peterson doesn’t jump on the word ‘duty’ but again, pushes things back to free choices. We are the product of the choices we make. I wonder if, fundamentally, this is what Newman can’t accept.

The interview moves on to some deeply awkward issues of male and female gender dominance, low expectations of relationships and general dysfunction.

4m17 Newman says:

“But what gives you the right to say that? Maybe that’s how women want their relationships, those women. You’re making these vast generalisations.”

Actually he’s not. He used the phrase ‘there’s a substantial minority who do that’ (4m07).

“I’m a clinical psychologist”

This is Peterson’s reply. Credentials stated. Newman replies (4m27):

“You’re saying you’ve done your research and you’re saying women are unhappy dominating men.”

Peterson replies:

“I didn’t say they were unhappy dominating men. I said it was a bad long term solution.”

These differences are very minor, but significant and Peterson is showing that he’s not going to have words put into his mouth. That’s very much going to be the pattern of the rest of the interview.

Five minutes in, they start talking about the toxic issue of the gender pay gap, and Peterson will not give an inch of ground. Peterson flatly refuses to over-simplify and Newman clings on to her assumption that there is only equality when everything, every single thing, is 50/50.

6m06 Peterson start to talk about uni-varied analyses. Uh oh. This is complicated whereas the 9% figure that Newman repeatedly returns to is much simpler and more TV-friendly. She knows this. But again, we return to Newman’s unwillingness (or inability) to see that Peterson is trying to describe the world as he sees it, evidentially. And that his descriptions and explanations are not necessarily approval. Newman must be assuming that he can’t possibly bring himself to describe the Gender Pay Gap in this way unless he must, in some way, be in favour of the gap, impossibly sexist or just callous. This is reflected thus:

6m18 Newman says:

“But you’re saying basically it doesn’t matter if women aren’t getting to the top because that’s what’s skewing that gender pay gap, isn’t it? You’re saying ‘Well that’s just a fact of life. Women aren’t necessarily going to get to the top.'”

Peterson replies:

“No, I’m not saying it doesn’t matter, either. I’m saying there are multiple reasons for it that aren’t being taken into account.”

Newman goes on:

“Why should women be content not to get to the top?”

Peterson replies:

“I’m not saying saying they should put up with it. I’m saying that the claim that the wage gap is only due to sex is wrong. And it is wrong. There’s no doubt about that. The multi-varied analyses have been done. Let me give you an example-“

Newman doesn’t let him. And she talks about how unfair the 9% gap is, and his attempts to say that she should be interested in why the gap exists is irrelevant.

Earlier in the interview, Peterson acknowledged that the gap looked unfair but you have to dig deeper. Newman doesn’t seem interested in doing that, which is a pity because this is meant to be an interview. But it isn’t really an interview any more. It’s an interviewer with opinions telling an interviewee with data and analysis why he simply must wrong.

And then we hit a point at which demonstrates why Peterson has shot to fame in the last year, and we’ve seen hints of it already in this interview. And how he rose to prominence in the first place. He simply will not say the little thing someone wants him to say in order to avoid confrontation. It’s a tactic that normally works very well, especially with agreeable people. But Peterson is not agreeable. And nor, as he discovers, is Cathy Newman. That part of the interview (16m53) is rather delightful.

But this earlier salvo is revealing:

7m08 Newman is still clinging onto her killer 9% pay gap stat, regardless of Peterson’s interrupted presentations of multi-varied analysis, and says:

“But do you agree that it’s unfair if you’re a woman?”

She is hoping for at least a hint of compromise. Peterson’s already said it looks unfair. She’s got to come away from this is something.

But she’s out of luck. Peterson replies:

“Not necessarily.”

And so it goes on. He just will not say the thing that she wants him to say.

She shouldn’t be surprised at this. This is the man who made his name for his refusal to use legally required gender pronouns because he argues the state of Ontario has no right to insist that he do this. He has studied how this process played out in his book and lectures called Maps of Meaning. He is the Professor of Awkward. That’s his power.

That’s why this interview plays out as it does, and why Newman is continually set back on her heels. Her techniques, which are no different from those of many interviewers, normally work.

Not this time.

For more of this sort of thing, you might like to by Death by Civilisation by James Cary, a series of articles about politics, media, faith and culture. Available here.

You can also listen to James Cary talk about church, culture, media and everything in between with Barry Cooper on the Cooper and Cary Have Words Podcast.

Since this article was written on 18th Jan, some people have kindly corrected my error with univaried/univariate – but I left it incorrect as I don’t want to rewrite history. And also someone has edited the interview and gathered up every single time Cathy Newman tells Jordan Peterson what he’s saying. Worth a look.

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Merry Christmas, Sir David

The Living Planet (1984)

I was eight when The Living Planet arrived on BBC1. I remember looking forward to it all day at school and being able to stay up to watch in the evenings. You had to watch things live back in 1984 when video recorders were not common. It was thrilling to see the natural world as it had never been seen before. On TV, at least.

Somehow, Sir David Attenborough’s team have managed to repeat that trick every three or four years, wowing us with nature. Last year it was, Planet Earth II. This year it was Blue Planet II, which I watched with my daughters who are about the same age as I was when I watched The Living Planet. We are able to watch in installments throughout the week, thanks to Sky+. Unsurprisingly, the pin-sharp jaw-dropping footage has created gasps from our sofa, and across the nation. These programmes have been a ratings smash. The only thing that British people want to see in greater numbers is amateur bakers making cakes.

What does these shows have to do with Christmas? Two things.

The first doesn’t sound all that Christmassy at first, but it is. And it’s this: the most exciting and gripping bit of each episode is the hunt, on land or at sea. Every week, there’s always some poor animal running the gauntlet.  A giraffe trying to escape from a pride of hungry lions. A Cayman crocodile being grabbed by a jaguar. A poor lizard, only minutes old, running the gauntlet of those nasty snakes.

In these hunt sequences we see beauty and brutality. ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’ as the poet Tennyson puts it in his poem, In Memoriam. Red blood, flowing from the wounds made by the teeth and the claws of the wild animals.

Many of us will only ever see this kind of visceral physical conflict on television. But for the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks that we read about in Luke Chapter 2 (see? I told you it would get Christmassy), this brutal side of nature was part of their daily lives. It still is for many animal herds across the word. Shepherds watch their flocks to keep them safe from wild animals that would happily help themselves to a woolly lamb.

But we have to ask the question:

Following the birth of Jesus, why does Luke tell us about these shepherds?

And why does God choose to bring the news of Jesus’ birth to lowly keepers of sheep?

Okay, that’s two questions, but there’s a clue back in the Old Testament, in another firm favourite Bible story that’s told to children. The great shepherd, David, turns up in 1 Samuel 17, visiting his warrior brothers, only to find they are scared of this nine foot Philistine, Goliath.  David fancies his chances. King Saul suggest that this is not such a good idea, and doesn’t give David a hope. But David tells Saul that as a shepherd, he is used to dealing with ferocious beasts and wild animals.

“When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”

David can handle himself. Or at least, God has form in rescuing him from lions and bears. Why should Goliath, an enemy of Israel, be any different? You’ll know how the story ends. David slays the Philistine giant – and goes on to be a truly great King, the Shepherd King. From Bethlehem. That should sound familiar.

About a thousand years later, in the City of David, a new king is born in that family line. A king who will look after his sheep, go searching for lost sheep, and will lay down his life for his sheep. In so doing, he will slay the great enemy, Satan himself, and Death itself.

We can’t be sure, but that’s probably why the angels announce news first to the shepherds on the hills outside Bethlehem.

The second observation about Planet Earth II and The Blue Planet II is this. They’re not just some of the best programmes on the BBC. They’re also the most religious. More so even than Songs of Praise or The Big Questions with Nicky Campbell. The images of the natural world and the beauty of the creatures in their splendour are just astonishing. But of course, it’s not a natural world. God made it. God designed it. God sustains it.

Whether you believe in an earth that’s 6000 or 6 billion years old, or whether you look out from a mountain top or the bottom of the ocean, whether you observe the smallest insect, the most beautiful bird, or the sleekest big cat, you get a sense of awe and wonder. It takes you outside of yourself. We see, we experience and we know that there’s a God. Some don’t, of course. But many do. Historically, most have. We shouldn’t be surprised at this.

In Romans 1:20, the apostle Paul writes:

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.”

God’s fingerprints are all over the so-called ‘natural’ world. But Sir David Attenborough doesn’t see it that way. When asked in a TV interview if he ever gets ‘a sense of God’s pattern in creation’, he replied:

 “Well, if you ask…about that, then you see very beautiful things like hummingbirds, orchids, and so on. But you also ought to think of the other, less attractive things, [like]… tapeworms or the parasitic worm that lives only in the eyeballs of human beings, boring its way through them, in West Africa, for example, where it’s common, turning people blind…. And I certainly find it difficult to believe that a God — superhuman, supreme power — would actually do that.”

Sir David says that it’s one or the other. You can have a divine creator who made all the beauty. But that he also made the brutal bugs and the devastating diseases that cause so much pain and suffering. It’s a common sceptical conclusion for many, especially from those who have seen so much pain first hand.

But Christmas is good news for Sir David. Except it’s not news really. It was written about in the book of Isaiah about 2700 years ago. Chapter 11 says this:

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, [David’s father];

    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him…

He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;

  with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

The wolf will live with the lamb,

    the leopard will lie down with the goat,

the calf and the lion and the yearling together;

    and a little child will lead them.

The cow will feed with the bear,

    their young will lie down together,

    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

The infant will play near the cobra’s den,

    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.

They will neither harm nor destroy

    on all my holy mountain,

for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord

    as the waters cover the sea.

In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.”

They are very striking images. Wolves and lambs together. Cows with bears. Lions eating alongside oxen. A Clinton Cards classic.

What’s going on here? Is this what a descendant of David will bring?

Anyone with small children will know how brilliant they are at finding trouble and danger. I’m sure my youngest would find a viper’s nest given the chance, and plunge her arm down it. But in the new world that Jesus will bring, she will be quite safe. Pain, eminity, brutality and death will have passed away.

Sir David is right to question the suffering in the world. It doesn’t seem fair. It seems brutal and wrong. The good news is that if we have a problem with all the suffering in the world, so does God. If we think that God isn’t doing anything about the brutality of the world, or hasn’t, or won’t, or can’t, then we’ve not understood Christmas. We’ve not understood who this baby is. We don’t realise what this baby will do.

Jesus, God’s shepherd king, will bring peace when He returns. That’s what we should be thinking about in the season of Advent. Jesus will defeat the giants of death and suffering. In that world, shepherds will no longer wrestle with lions and bears. People won’t be given malaria by mosquitoes or blinded by tapeworms.

Sir David, “The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.” The God you want is the God we have.

Why not hurry off to Bethlehem to see this Saviour that’s been born?

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We Need to Talk About Harvey. And Mike.

The revelations about Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, are shocking and appalling. All the details and allegations are easily accessible so there is no need to repeat them here. But how did this happen? A powerful man abused his position, authority and sheer physical size to do things he has publicly admitted he should not have done.

Many women seeking the help or approval of a powerful man in a private closed meeting are made to feel nervous. My Facebook feed is littered with horrible #MeToo stories of women in such situations with creepy men who did, said or implied vile and inappropriate things.

(Official White House Photo by Benjamin Applebaum)

How could these situations be prevented? There is one way of sensibly avoiding many them. So can we talk about Mike Pence?

Now, many reading this might already have made up their mind on Mike Pence, because he’s an evangelical Christian, or a Republican, or because he is a consort to Donald Trump. Click here for the latest character assassination by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker. It’s a long article but you can probably tell what she thinks about him from the title: The Danger of President Pence Trump’s critics yearn for his exit. But Mike Pence, the corporate right’s inside man, poses his own risks.

Pick your reason to hate him. And the mainstream media were utterly delighted to find a new one back in March. It was revealed that he will not dine alone with a woman other than his wife. This was from a dredged up interview with Mrs Pence from fifteen years ago. (Note: What was Harvey Weinstein doing 15 years ago? Oh yes.) And, according to the New Yorker:

… if he attends an event where alcohol is served and “people are being loose,” he prefers that his wife be present and standing close to him. The recent Washington Post piece that resurfaced these details quotes Ken Blackwell, one of President Trump’s transition-team advisers, on Mr. and Mrs. Pence: “You can’t get a dime between them.”

Pence clearly adores his wife and doesn’t want anything to compromise that. In the view of the New Yorker, and the Atlantic, that makes him a sexist pig. Jessica Valenti agreed in the Guardian where she wrote:

Pence is a misogynist. We know it from his voting record, we know it from the things that he’s said about women’s rights and now we know it because of his odd personal rule not to dine with women alone.

Twitter and social commentators all joined in, gleefully pouring scorn on this right-wing jerk who is living in another century. And it’s not just Pence who adopts this code of conduct, rules that were conceived by the popular (in some circles) evangelist, Billy Graham. Olga Khazan, in the Atlantic, explains that this is more widespread:

An anonymous survey of female Capitol Hill staffers conducted by National Journal in 2015 found that “several female aides reported that they have been barred from staffing their male bosses at evening events, driving alone with their congressman or senator, or even sitting down one-on-one in his office for fear that others would get the wrong impression.” One told the reporter Sarah Mimms that in 12 years working for her previous boss, he “never took a closed door meeting with me. … This made sensitive and strategic discussions extremely difficult.”

So, how do we feel about all this now? The first person to publicly point this out post-Weinstein was a Trump/MAGA staffer, Sebastian Gorka who Tweeted: “THINK: If Weinstein had obeyed @VP Pence’s rules for meeting with the opposite sex, none of those poor women would ever have been abused.”

Gorka is, of course, tarnished by his association with Trump (who am I not, for a moment, defending) and so Vox immediately went out of its way to shriek at this entirely reasonable observation about Democrat donor, activist and friend of Hillary and Obama, Harvey Weinstein. If you want a lesson in defensiveness and weapons-grade impugning of motives, I’d have a look at it (you’ll love the bit about Caesar’s wife, which is obviously a parallel here) along with those articles from the Guardian, the Atlantic and the New Yorker.

VP Pence with Linda McMahon. Make of that what you will. (Official White House Photo by Myles D. Cullen)

In all of those publications, Pence’s motives for his rule are always portrayed as entirely self-serving, to avoid suspicion and “that upstanding, honorable men avoid creating situations that might be misinterpreted by supposedly hysterical, unstable women”, according to Tara Isabella Burton in Vox. Are you sure about that, Tara? Is that how you’d describe genuine victims of Weinstein, as opposed to imaginary victims of Pence? I guess not.

The downside of Pence’s rule is obvious. It appears to exclude women from private access to the Vice President in certain situations. It could perpetuate an old boys’ network. You would hope that Pence would go out of his way to grant greater one-on-one access to women on other occasions. I have no reason to suspect he doesn’t do this. He must realise that his ‘rule’ has a cost, and it must be deeply inconvenient to live by – and frustrating for female colleagues at time. But he is clearly willing to pay that cost in terms of being pilloried in the press for days.

As usual, we need to have a grown-up debate. This time it’s about the differences between men and women, which is clearly made difficult by the agenda of those who insist that gender is fictional, a construct or self-determined. And it’s about the trade-offs that have to be made over certain policies and practices. Such a discussion is sadly not possible in the deafening echo-chambers of vociferously stated public opinions.

Meanwhile, my Facebook feed continues to fill up with #MeToo stories of women (and men) who were victims of powerful people abusing their position for their own carnal gratification. It’s all very sad.

 

For more of this sort of thing, pick up a copy of my book, Death by Civilisation, available on Amazon, and as an e-book, here.

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You Are The Product

Some friends of mine have been coming off Facebook recently, partly as a result of this incredibly long and often interesting article by John Lanchester in The London Review of Books.

I first wrote about this phenomenon a few years ago in the now-defunct Third Way magazine. Here’s the slightly updated version, but the main point is the same: You get what you pay for. And if you’re not paying, you are the product.

This usually crops up when rumours circulate Facebook that they’ve changed the default settings and now your information is being sold to arms dealers, or somehow you’re internal organs are being auctioned off on the dark web. You get the idea. And we’re all supposed to alert each other and paste it into our status updates so we can pass it on. So why not try this:

 

IMPORTANT NOTICE ABOUT FACEBOOK: PLEASE CUT AND PASTE THIS INTO YOUR STATUS:

FaceBook has changed its default privacy settings. They did this WITHOUT TELLING ANYONE and so now ANYONE in the world can see that you’re hungry and want a biscuit, or check out an out-of-focus picture of your cat sitting by a bar heater.

This is GROSS violation of users rights and as governments, employers and advertisers can find all about you and target their marketing accordingly. But this CAN be prevented.

Simply go to your settings, at the top right, above the inappropriate advert for internet dating, go to ‘User settings’ and then ‘Information’ and then ‘Advance Information’ and then ‘Bit You’re Always Too Scared to Click’ and double-click ‘Privacy’ while holding down the space bar, and ensuring your computer is plugged into this mains at this point. You should see an information box that says the following:

 

Hello, Britishers. FaceBook here.

We’re like a usable, friendly, pastel-coloured version of the internet. Thanks to us, you can magically link up with friends all over the world, old school buddies, work colleagues (why?) and take a good look at someone you fancied when you were 15 now that they’re 37. Whoa. Scary. You could have married that.

But here’s the amazing thing. You can do this without having to write any Java script, Html or MaxiCom 9. There’s no such thing as MaxiCom 9. We made it up. But you had no way of knowing about that because you don’t know about computers, do you? But we do. And we built FaceBook. Using Maxicom 9, for all you know.

And you know what else we did? We wrote a smart phone app so you can use this social network 24/7. Some of you do seem to use it 24/7. Get a life! Ha ha (joking – we know how you Brits like a joke, right?). And do you know how much all this cost you? Precisely ZERO pounds. So let’s talk about that for a minute.

The fact is, we need to pay for stuff and we’re pretty sure you won’t spring for a monthly subscription. That would be the simplest and neatest solution, wouldn’t it? A few pounds a month doesn’t seem much for something you use all the time and that keeps you in touch with the people who make life worth living.

But you want everything for FREE. Even though you must know that nothing really is free. Your NHS isn’t free. It’s free when you use it, but you’re paying for it. Boy oh boy, are you paying for it?! (About £8000 per person per year. And you think our insurance system is crazy! (which it is, by the way. LOL.)) 

Someone, somewhere is paying for everything. And, yikes, do we have bills to pay? Programmers are not cheap. Especially not the ones in Silicon Valley who all want to drive Teslas. But then the upside of being a socially outcast geek is the whopping pay cheque.

Then there’s the eye-watering bandwidth bills, and huge energy-guzzling server centres that we built all over the world. And yes, now we have investors and shareholders who aren’t just expecting to get their money back but would like something like a return.

One of our investors is Bono. And you don’t want to see him when he’s angry. He clicks his fingers and people die.

So, we’re trying to make money because you’re not giving us a dime. (Do you Brits have an equivalent of a dime? Hey, I just read the word ‘dime’ out loud in British accent. LOL.) That’s why we’re always trying it on with the Privacy Settings. That’s why we’re trying to link other apps to FaceBook. Because we think somehow, this will make us some money.

That’s why we linked to your Spotify account and told your friends when you were listening to Rollercoaster by B*Witched. Why were you so embarrassed about that? They were a perfectly decent girl band and pretty good role models for little girls. (They wore denim, didn’t they?) And talking of Spotify, loads of you give those dudes £5-£10 a month. WHY CAN’T WE HAVE THAT?

Man, you people.

So that’s why we want you to click this box below. By doing so, you are agreeing with the following statement:

I understand that FaceBook is free. But I’m not an idiot. I understand everything has to be paid for. And so, I understand that I AM THE PRODUCT. And so I will stop whining. Or stop using, and being, the product.

Thank you.

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The Pointlessness of the Party Conference

or: Why we should all listen to Radio 3 in September

Sometimes, I like to have breakfast to the sound of BBC Radio 3. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that I like classical music. And I don’t like jingles. Much of Radio 3 is beyond me, but the Radio 3 breakfast show is about my level. It’s not for the die-hard purists as it plays single movements and shorter pieces, making at least some concession to the time of day. (No one’s got the best part of an hour to listen to Mahler’s Fifth while eating cornflakes. That many cornflakes is very unhealthy.)

The second reason is that I have young children, and being a middle class parent, I am keen that they appreciate The Arts whilst they have no choice in the matter.

The third reason is that the Radio 3 Breakfast show is mostly music, and very little talking. In particular, there is very little news. Radio 3 would always rather talk about a composer who died in 1723, than a politician who’s desperately trying to get us to eat healthily or vote for them.

On Radio 3, one can avoid the tedious, playground taunting that passes for interviews on Radio 4. One can avoid the incessant reading out of knee-jerk texts and emails from the uninformed listeners on Five Live. And being yelled at on Radio 2, most of the above coming with lengthy travel news reports, even though SatNavs have made this radio obsession almost entirely obsolete.
On Radio 3, you get no travel update, a nod to the news, and then it’s back to a string quartet or sonata. It’s lovely.

Why You Need Radio 3 in September

Radio 3 really comes into its own in September, when party conferences are in full swing. The Media Machine loves to give these events their full attention, grinding out hours of coverage and analysis, not least because they slot nicely into the diary and are easy to cover in depth. As always, the journalists relentlessly focus on politicians and their careers rather than policies that may or may not actually be moral, legitimate, reasonable or good for the country.

Fun times at Party Conference

The media miss the fact that these conferences are completely self-defeating. A party conference can only have two real purposes. The first is a feel-good knees-up with back-slapping speeches where politicians queue up to offer their praise to each other. The party faithful get to feel like they’re part of things and everyone goes home happy, inspired but basically unchallenged. A bit like a Sunday church service when it’s not quite doing its job. (It’s fine to be inspired, but we all know there’s more to it than that.)

The second more useful purpose of a party conference is an introspective search for the party’s soul, what it is and what it stands for. Difficult questions should be asked. Deep philosophical issues should be raised, and then examined, discussed and debated well into the night with a single malt (with someone sober taking notes in case the single malt wins the argument on the night).

The problem, as we have said, is that party conferences are open to the media, and frequently broadcast to the nation – or at least the parts of the nation whose TVs are stuck on BBC2 and can’t seem to get their Freeview/Sky box to change channel. Because the politicians feel under the glare of the nation’s gaze, they act on their mistaken view that the nation likes to see parties united and speaking with one, lengthily-applauded voice..

In the past, for example, Tories always thought people wouldn’t vote for them if they appear divided on the issue of Europe. In fact, those who don’t vote Tory do so for a variety of gut-felt, prejudicial or intellectual reasons, good and bad. Division over Europe is not really one of them. Divisions within religions usually look bad, especially when they end in obscene and hateful language or bloodshed. But everyone expects politicians to at least resort to the former, so why the big deal over presenting a united front on every single policy?

The result is a entirely self-defeating party conference in which every speech given is designed to have the following qualities; vague acceptability to the people in the room; a blandness that it appears is part of mainstream policy and therefore makes the party look united; a lack of verbal gaffes to avoid the attention of the journalists who will report verbal slips with pathetic childish glee; careful use of hand-gestures that cannot be misused to make them look like extremists; and an appeal to the people who aren’t there, aren’t watching on TV and were never going to vote for them anyway.

In short, it’s like trying to conduct a Presbyterian church service, in a synagogue, live on Al Jazeera. It is, at best, a waste of time.

How to accidentally ruin a perfectly decent society

Death by Civilisation

Party conferences should be private affairs, with doors closed and the press excluded. Politicians, SPADs and wonks should lock themselves in a big room and work out what they’re about and why – while the rest of us listen to Mahler’s Fifth eating cornflakes, which can’t be any harder work than watching The Daily Politics during conference season.

A version of this article, and many others like it, can be found in my book, Death by Civilisation, available on Amazon, and as an e-book, here.

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