Tuesday, 4 October 2016

I am that I am

We lived for a time in a place without limits. At least, that is to say, each and every day was our own to do with as we wished. It sounds like a blessing. It was. But it was also an effort. Each day had to be made from scratch.

I suspect many people would prefer boundaries and limitations of some sort, rather than be left contemplating a void that passes itself off as freedom.

But I was talking then about our daily world, with its need for daily bread. What of our spiritual world? Can we live without boundaries there?
Tolstoy said that faith was one of the forces by which we live.
So only with some difficulty then.
And so it is that most people on this earth retain their faith, despite the unflagging efforts of the proselytisers of reason.
The proselytisers of reason are left baffled by those who insist on retaining their communion with a spiritual reality.
The proselytisers of reason have small minds.
A life based on the answer ‘I don’t know’ to the question ‘Why?’ is hard to endure. Why are we here, to what end, for what purpose? Why must there be so much struggle in life—even in the midst of plenty—why so much suffering, so much pain? Why are my days filled with so much I care nothing for? Why so much drudgery? So much tedium?
‘What is missing from the misery of the world, as well as from its moments of happiness, is some principle by which they can be explained’—Camus.
Looking up at the countless stars of the heavens may well give you a sense of stupendous awe, but it will never give you a sense of meaning.
There is a certain irony, methinks, in all this, because we only have ourselves to blame—we have disturbed our own sleep by digging around so much in the earth, by insisting on prising open the secrets of the heavens. The more we have understood this universe and our place in it, the less secure we have become in it—and in ourselves.
We have reasoned ourselves into a state of terrifying doubt.
‘For humankind’s chief malady,’ Pascal once suggested, ‘is its uneasy curiosity about things it cannot know—and it is not so bad for it to be wrong as so vainly curious.’ John Stuart Mill said he’d rather be Socrates, sad but wise, than a happy yet ignorant pig. I think most would opt to be the pig.
But then the prophet of reason exclaims, now look here, I offer you freedom from superstition and myth, I bring light where there was darkness, I give you your liberty!—and the sane response of most is to curse the prophet of reason (who is too stupid and vain to understand why) as a destroyer of the foundations on which alone a tolerable existence might be constructed.
So much freedom, so much burden.
Better, they say, to pass our days according to precepts that tell us why we live as we do, suffer what we must and die as we will, than to believe that our lives and all that is attendant on them, the good and the evil, have no real meaning at all, or at least none that we can discern.
It does not matter in the slightest if what you believe is entirely fanciful—there need be no congruence between belief and reality for belief to be wholly real for the believer. And, if real, in that sense, then the dulling of the psychic pain such belief brings will be as real as that which a dose of morphine gives to the dying.
It is preferable, in other words, to live a life hemmed in, both from without and from within, than to be burdened with a life the entire responsibility for which lies with no one but one’s own self.
I read once of an Epicurean whose epitaph simply read NFFNSNC. It stands for non fui, fui, non sum, non curo—I was not, I was, I am not, I care not. I’m fine with it all until I reach non curo.
God telling Moses who He is.
I Am that I Am, announced the Lord to Moses, thereby setting the template for all of us (which, I suppose, is as it should be—we are, after all, made in His image). And so I am that I am, and I had no say in who I am—no one ever does, it is simply the fate of everyone that we must be someone—and so I am a devout unbeliever, an ardent atheist, who sometimes wonders if it wouldn’t be a fine and pleasant thing to have faith in a benevolent maker who watches over all of creation. But I have no such faith, and no means of conjuring it into existence—I am, perversely, to that extent exactly like that unbending believer Luther—‘Here I stand, I can do nothing else’.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Bully Hayes the Blackbirder

If I were inclined to become a smuggler of contraband—which I’m not, as the whole thing strikes me as being too much like hard work—this would certainly be the place to do it. It’s so isolated, so remote, so uninvolved with the rest of the world. And yet it’s also just a hop, skip and a jump to the voracious metropolis to the north. Provided you navigated the bar without mishap, all you’d need do is pull up at the jetty and off-load whatever goods you were importing. The only policeman in town would most likely be elsewhere—fishing. I swear you could deposit a boat-load of elephants on that jetty and there’d be hardly anyone around to notice, and anyone who was around would just offer to help you get them off. Of course, I’m not recommending anyone do this. Smuggling contraband, including elephants, is a low and disreputable occupation, with the exception of smuggling whisky during the Prohibition—then it was a point of honour and just plain good sense. Rather, my musings along this line are just a way of emphasising the beautiful, lonely remoteness  of this place. Also, it puts me in mind of W.H. Hayes, better known as ‘Bully’ Hayes. And I’ve been meaning to speak of him for some time.

Bully was born in 1827. Or 1829. You see, right from the get-go, Bully was mysterious and romantic. He died in 1877 when his cook, ‘Dutch’ Pete, shot him with a revolver, hit him on the head with an iron implement (a skillet, presumably) and then threw him overboard, to the very great distress of absolutely no one (indeed, Pete may well have been the recipient of rousing applause). Bully also died before then, but we’ll come to that in due course. Bully was someone you might describe as an adventurer. Also a liar, a cheat and a generally repellent sort of character. As a smuggler of contraband, his choice of cargo was mainly people, although he wasn’t averse to taking coconuts as well. He was, to use the nomenclature of the time, a ‘blackbirder’. He would visit the Pacific Islands and persuade, cajole, threaten, promise, lie and kidnap until he had enough  ‘recruits’ on his brig. Then he’d haul them off to plantations where they provided cheap labour. I don’t know if he enjoyed his work—sometimes we just have to take whatever’s available.

Still, to be fair, he hadn’t always been so bad, although he was probably never very good. He was born in Cleveland, Ohio. His dad plied liquor, an honourable enough profession provided you sell more of the stock than you drink. When Bully grew up, he went to make his fortune in Australia during the 1850s gold-rush. But while others found nuggets in the ground, poor old Bully just found dirt. With debts mounting as high as his dirt pile, Bully decided that it might be easier to find gold in New Zealand, so off he went to Otago. Instead of gold, though, Bully discovered the stage. He joined a troupe of vaudeville artists and toured the country. And he found love, a treasure much richer than gold, even if without the same utility. He married a widow, Rosa Buckingham, whose four sons were also vaudeville artists. In those days, it seems you were either looking for gold or doing vaudeville. He and his new wife opened a hotel in Arrowtown and called it ‘The United States’, but sensing that local sympathies tended more towards the Crown than the rebellious colonies, they renamed it ‘The Prince of Wales’.

Now, at this juncture, Bully might reasonably have expected to have settled into a pleasant and entirely unexceptionable life, seeing out his days serving up ale and the easy wisdom of a publican. And had he done so, he would surely have disappeared entirely from the pages of history. But anyone who’s been around the block more than once will tell you that you can have all the reasonable expectations in the world, but if Fate has something different in mind, you might as well relieve yourself into the wind for all the good those expectations will do you. And so it was with Bully. Although history doesn’t record the precise details, some happenstance set Bully at odds with the four vaudevillian Buckingham boys. Bent on vengeance, they wanted their pound of flesh, and they went after it in a particularly cruel manner—for a reward of £5, they invited anyone who could to cut off Bully’s . . . hair. Now, as history does record, the only noteworthy time that such an act, maliciously conceived, has been performed concerned the locks of the mighty Samson. It is, that is to say, an uncommon practice, but in the present instance it fit the bill—there was method in the madness of the Buckingham boys. Certainly, Bully’s hair, as far as we know today, was of little moment to his strength. Nor is there any suggestion that his hair was especially handsome, such that cutting it off would might have profoundly hurt Bully’s sensitivities. Rather, it was the case that Bully’s long locks concealed a dreadful secret—he was missing an ear! And why was he missing this most useful of appendages? Because it had been sliced off in California after he had been nabbed cheating at cards. O Bully, will your sins never be forgiven!

Humiliated before the world, made mock of even in the theatre, Bully gathered up the shabby remains of his reputation and left town. Finding his way to Port Chalmers, he acquired a brig and so began his wicked career as a blackbirder, a venture he got underway by abducting and then ravishing a young girl from Akaroa. By the late 1860s, Bully was, in the words of one report, ‘wanted by the police of nearly every country of the South Seas, on charges of almost every indictable crime on the calendar, from murder to common piracy.’ An exaggeration, possibly, but you get the idea. Then, in May 1868, it was reported in all the newspapers that Bully had met that most terrible of deaths—which is to say, an ‘untimely’ one. After a quarrel with his first mate, it was said, Bully had challenged him to a duel. Going ashore for this purpose in Fiji, the first mate had reportedly shot Bully, foolish enough to have gone ahead, in the back. The extent of honour among thieves and brigands and all the rest is well known, so no one would have been surprised by this. The only real surprise was that it wasn’t true. It seems it was just a story cooked up by Bully to throw the law off his tail. Indeed, it seems Bully quite enjoyed propagating tales of his own demise—a newspaper later wryly noted that Bully had turned up once again, in spite of the various reports of his ‘death by violence, shipwreck, and sundry other causes received from time to time’.

Now, you might reasonably say, this is all well and good, but what does it have to do with Kawhia? Well, Bully wasn’t averse to trading of a more legitimate kind, and one day, finding himself in the vicinity of this port, he determined to offer the wares he was carrying to the local Maori. As the country was then in the grip of war, he knew there would be a healthy demand for what he had to offer—firearms and liquor, both of which, any soldier will tell you, are essential for the successful carrying on of warfare. Then, when business was done, Bully decided that this quiet little spot was just the place to give his Leonora a much-needed scraping and cleaning. So the boat was hauled from the water and his men set about removing the barnacles.

You can imagine, as a man wanted in several jurisdictions and known to be missing an ear, Bully must have been at least a little uneasy about having his means of maintaining his liberty immobilised in this manner. And, as it turns out, he would have been right to have felt such unease. Fleet of foot, as ever, word of Bully’s presence in Kawhia soon reached the military authorities in the Waikato. Less fleet but still admirably fast, the authorities dispatched a sizeable company of militia to bring the wicked Bully Hayes to justice. Admirably fast, but not fast enough. The men of justice had barely broached the crest of the hill whose great height affords such a vista of the harbour when they saw a boat, all its sails raised and trimmed taut, tearing through the waters towards the harbour mouth and its promise of freedom eternal.

And so the brigand Bully Hayes lived to scheme, cheat and steal his way around the Pacific a few more years yet. Until, finally, in 1877, Bully really did die, at the hands of his cook, ‘Dutch’ Pete, and no one really did lament his passing, for he really had been a proper scoundrel and now the world was a better place.


Thursday, 1 September 2016

Logical to the bitter end

Before the dawn, as another front roared over us, I lay awake thinking about those men and women who came to make their lives on this land, and before them, the Maori who had lived for centuries on this land. I thought about how they would never have asked themselves why they did what they did. When almost everything you do is necessary for life, when the failure to do something means personally suffering the consequences and very often immediately, the question ‘Why do I do this?’ doesn’t even make sense. Even we, here, in a limited fashion, live like that—when we climb into the hills in search of dry firewood, we don’t stop to ask what the point of it is. There is an immediacy and a self-evident relationship between what we do and the life we live.

But today that is not how most people in the modern, industrialised world experience their lives. How many spend their days wondering what the point is of what it is they do, day after day after monotonous day? By far the greater portion of most people’s lives is spent working, and so it must be, if we are to live, but when that work is so divorced from living, when we spend our days merely doing the bidding of others, a bidding which all too often is patently absurd and merely emphasises with astonishing cruelty the pointlessness of it all?—cursed with self-awareness, what a torment it is to observe your life passing purposelessly in this way, and yet feeling helpless to escape it. We have unthinkingly made for ourselves a monstrous and exquisite trap, a maze from which we can never escape, into which we are born and in the midst of which we must die. We tell ourselves we are blessed with all manner of freedoms—and undoubtedly we are, in some senses, freer than our forebears—but for all our freedom, we remain enslaved nonetheless, compelled like the Red Queen to run and run without getting anywhere, chasing status, chasing wealth, chasing our tails.
There yet?

But we are idiots and fools, too, for we will not help ourselves. Instead, we drive and push our children like cattle so they can join us in this mad and endless pursuit of nothing, we compete ourselves into a state of stupor, worn out, numb, confused because when we lie down at the end of each day in exhaustion, we cannot understand how we find ourselves in this condition, confused because we constantly assure ourselves we can make of our lives whatever we will, only to discover we have almost no control over them at all—we simply wake up one day and find we are in a place we don’t recognise, as if we have stepped blindly onto a train heading who knows where and then slept throughout the entire journey. The masterful Russian storyteller Mikhail Bulgakov observed precisely this reckless squandering of life: ‘This, of course,’ he wrote, ‘is something that happens more often than not in life. A man may be engaged in some occupation for twenty years, such as studying Roman law, and then in the twenty-first year it suddenly transpires that Roman law is a complete waste of time, that he not only doesn’t understand it and dislikes it too, but that he is really a born gardener and has an unquenchable love of flowers’.

If flowers are your thing, go and tend them, but how many will?

Of course, of course, these observations are hardly new. People have been saying much the same thing for millennia—‘How much this fierce condition of eternal hurry . . . is likely to defeat the grandeur which is latent in all men’ (de Quincey), ‘Believe me, it is the sign of a great man . . . not to allow his time to be frittered away’ (Seneca), ‘It’s all a nonsense, and a man who at the behest of other people and not for his own passion or need works himself into the ground, for money or status or whatever else, is always a fool’ (Goethe), ‘To preserve his freedom he was prepared on countless occasions to throw away or reject things the world at large saw as advantages or blessings’ (Hesse)—I could pile quote upon quote, the wisdom is so old. But that is not the point. This is the point: for all we know it, for all our awareness of our situation, however much we regret it, we seemingly remain incapable of doing anything to remedy it. For all we claim to have freedom to make our lives as we wish, we act as if we have nothing of the sort. We pause only long enough to wring our hands and lament the miserable condition of our existence before we start running again, fearful lest we have fallen already too far behind.

We have not helped ourselves, of course, by killing God. He gave both reason and promise. Now we have neither. And so we spend our lives coming to terms with the fact we have lives to spend. Once we had answers, but now, with our reason—the reason we esteem so highly, the reason we congratulate ourselves on possessing, oh magnificent reason! oh wondrous reason!—with this we have stripped ourselves bare and wonder why life feels so cold. In this way, how many lives have become miserable and cheap and devoid of all substance! How many lives have contracted into little more than a series of conveniences paid for by days of monotony, one hardly distinguishable from the next!

And I needn't be reminded there was no Golden Age to which we might return. That is not the point either. Nothing is gained by romanticising the past. But there is something in the idea that when we are engaged in doing tasks that bear immediately on life, then we need not ask ourselves why we do them. If we would live, then we do them; if we would rather die, then let us be idle, and let that be our choice. But to spend your days at meaningless labour, enriching others at your own expense, without even the promise of a better life to come, there can be no surer way of skewering your own soul.

These are not uplifting thoughts, I grant you. But this is merely doing what Camus called being ‘logical to the bitter end’, something, he said, which it is almost impossible to be, because so often we find the end abhorrent, the more so because it was given us by logic, and logic will never take it back. But there remains this to be said. Our lives are not governed by fate. We do have a certain degree of freedom, some of us at least—it is merely a question of whether or not we wish to use it.



Thursday, 18 August 2016

Sauve qui peut

The modern world, this world we have so painstakingly created for ourselves, it is a terribly noisy place. There is an eternal din that greets us when we’re born. It ushers us out when we die. And I don’t simply mean, although it is loud enough, the literal noise of modernity. I mean, also, the noise of anxiety and fear, of hurry and haste. The noise of all our precious devices and newspapers and magazines and billboards, all with their endless demands on us, that constant bombardment we are forever subject to and which we can never escape, even in the sanctity of our homes—the noisy world slips in as we close the door and continues to hound us even as we try to sleep. And the result is that we hardly ever hear ourselves, hardly know ourselves, and live lives that are anonymous even unto ourselves. The world whirls faster and faster and faster, and we are spun, in the depths of the cacophony, into the deepest silence.

True enough that all this noise, this incessant doing, making, earning, losing and winning, it doesn’t bother everyone. Some would even be terrified at the prospect of a world so still, so quiet, they might actually hear their own minds, discover their own thoughts, contemplate their own existence. What was it that Pascal said, that the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me? Precisely. And yet, and yet, some there are who would hear their own voices, whatever the cost. And, for that matter, however banal, trivial, mundane or inconsequential the utterances their voices speak to them might happen to be. But that’s beside the point. It is not profundity that is at issue here. What is at issue is the possibility of being meaningfully alive. Just as we cannot be fully human if we are deprived of all autonomy, we cannot be autonomous if we cannot hear ourselves think. It may be an illusion that we are blessed with wills liberated from the bonds of cause and effect that enchain the physical world, but it is a precious illusion nonetheless, and one which is difficult to maintain if our own voices are forever drowned out. For some of us, at least, if we are not to go entirely mad, there must be some moments in each day—however few and however fleeting—in which we consciously choose this and not that.

Ah, but these are deep waters, and frankly, I might just as well say that Catherine, the dog and I, we were simply tired of all this noise, tired of rushing from one thing to another, and tired of doing the bidding of others. Quite simply, we wanted to turn our backs on it all, to walk away, to go to a place where we might, if we wished, spend our allotted hours pointlessly staring into the middle distance doing precisely nothing, a place where we would know nothing of what was happening in the world beyond our own little patch of existence. And, as it happened, we knew of just such a place, a place which the hands of fate had kindly delivered up to my family some decades ago. It hadn’t been lived in permanently for over thirty years, it was now only ever used as a temporary retreat from the world, but now it would do us perfectly as a permanent—or at least temporarily permanent—place of retreat, of exile. We knew it couldn’t be absolutely permanent—for one thing, the place belonged to the family, not to us, and for another, we planned on being gainfully unemployed, and the money we had stashed away would only last so long, even in a place so far removed from all the getting and spending with which we fill our lives today. So, it would not be forever, but it would be for a time, a year let’s say, a year in which we could be still and hear ourselves think, however terrifying—or banal—that might turn out to be.

For over two years we talked about doing this. And for over two years we found reasons for not doing it. Except they weren’t reasons, they were excuses, excuses for holding to the lives of safe predictability we had made for ourselves. They may have been lives that were growing a little stale, perhaps, stale while increasingly frantic, but most of us will tolerate considerable discomfort in exchange for security—the regular pay-check, the familiar faces, and all those routines that can be gone through effortlessly, automatically—thoughtlessly. And, to be fair, it’s reasonable enough to live like this—the great struggle of humanity, after all, has been to achieve a state of security, and the pay-off for having achieved it, the pay-off for all the dullness it brings, is a mind freed from anxiety and worry, a mind free to pursue more noble ends. That, at least, is the theory. But the practice? Minds that are too worn out by all that incessant haste and hurry our secure, predictable world foists on us. We never want for food on the table or a roof over our heads or clothes on our backs, but the price we pay is to be made slaves of our security, made slaves of the great machine we have created that delivers up to us our security in exchange for our freedom.

After all, if we asked ourselves, who is it that has the most secure, the most predictable life of all, the answer would have to be—a man chained to a wall.

So perhaps the pendulum has swung too far.

Perhaps it has, you say, but then what is the alternative? We can’t all just throw up our jobs and turn our backs on it all to go and live the good life somewhere far removed from the madness. The chains aren’t broken so easily, we have no Moses to lead us from captivity. True enough—but then I’m merely diagnosing the condition, I don’t have a treatment to cure it. Sauve qui peut, I’m afraid.
Eternal silence, infinite space.

Ah, but again, I can’t seem to help myself, off I go, straight into the deep waters where I’ll end up drowning myself one day if I’m not careful. So, let me just say this. I’m no Luddite, I’m not suggesting we break the machines and return ourselves to a lost golden age of the past. There was none, for one thing, and you can’t, as we know, repeat the past, for another. And it would be absurd to deny that our age confers all manner of genuine blessings upon us, the likes of which past generations would never have dared dream of. But the pendulum, as I said, it has swung too far—we can, as we know, have too much of a good thing.

So I am not suggesting we break the machines and hang the captains of industry from gibbets—although lord knows the temptation to do so is often strong—yet nor am I presenting this as a tonic for everyone. As I said, humanity has worked long and hard to attain the degree of luxury it now enjoys—at whatever cost and however few actually enjoy it—and most would think it madness to turn your back on all that luxury to live in remote, isolated, primitive seclusion, in a place so endlessly quiet you might actually hear your own mind.

I willingly concede—it is not for everybody.
But it was, most assuredly, for us.

Friday, 15 April 2016

(Ig)noble Suffering and the Persistence of Faith

I have suffered too much in this life not to expect another . . . . All the subtleties of metaphysics will not make me doubt the immortality of the soul for a moment; I feel it, I believe it, I want it, I hope for it, I shall defend it to my last breath. J.-J. Rousseau

Noble suffering we can endure. Perhaps it is for a worthy ideal that we suffer, perhaps at the hands of a brutish tyrant who would crush our spirit and vanquish our will. In the face of such suffering, we stiffen our resolve and harden our hearts and know that we will not be broken. We know that the pains we suffer today will be rewarded tomorrow with glorious redemption. Our suffering will be recognised as worthy and righteous. And knowing this, we can endure it.
But most suffering is nothing like that. Most suffering is appallingly mundane. Maliciously quotidian. Disastrously ordinary. Bills must be paid. Rent found. Mortgages kept up. We make our weary way to work. We are anonymous among the anonymous crowd. Our fellow-sufferers. We toil at our jobs, unsure why. We make our way home, minds numb, souls worn.

A bit late for prayer?

None of this produces the obvious and grand signs of suffering, of servitude, of punishment. There are no marks of the lash across our backs, no chains about our feet, nothing to suggest that here is noble suffering. There is nothing noble in eternal tedium and the knowledge that tomorrow will be unrelentingly like today. And this simply makes the suffering harder to endure. There is no promise of redemption, no promise that one day someone will say, ‘See how he suffered for his cause. See how he endured and how he fought for freedom or justice or something decent on the TV’. There is, that is to say, no point to our suffering, and it is this—this abject pointlessness—which so strips it of anything noble. The worst malady a human can suffer is an abiding sense of pointlessness. Without a reason why, the smallest pin-prick can become a torment worse than anything imagined in Dante’s hell. But give us that reason, explain to us why, and then we can endure.

Those latter-day prophets of rationalism like Richard Dawkins or the late (and tediously boorish) Christopher Hitchens who shriek hysterically about the evils of faith are like an excitable teenager who has just discovered Nietzsche and goes around daringly proclaiming to the world that God is dead. While it’s excusable in a teenager, it becomes less so once a person is of more advanced years, say twenty. From the comfortable and lofty heights which zealots such as Dawkins proclaim their message, it is easy to be unbowed by the meaninglessness of it all, but if your life is not quite so privileged, or yours is a disposition—unelected—which simply can find no comfort in science and reason, then faith in something unseen, glorious and transcendent may be all you have to make this life bearable. And so be it.

Monday, 4 April 2016

A Victory for Science? Hardly.

People are, as a general rule, quite willing to believe anything, without bothering too much with the details. If it has the barest appearance of truth, that will do. Actually, even the barest appearance of truth isn’t always necessary. It is, after all, always better to believe something than nothing, certainty is preferable to doubt, false belief better than no belief at all. So, visitors from outer-space travel improbable distances to speed through our skies (occasionally stopping over long enough to probe some (un)lucky individual) before leaving again (having, presumably, decided the trip was a wasted effort), molecules of water retain memories of whatever has passed through them (minerals, plants, faecal matter), and vaccinations unquestionably cause of autism (which explains why populations in which 85–90% of individuals are vaccinated have autism rates of about 1%).

Just paying a flying visit.

Now, that people might hold false beliefs is not, in itself, a cause for much ado. For one thing, much of the time false beliefs cause no great harm. If you want to stay up late watching the skies for passing aliens, that’s your business and no one else need be bothered (provided you don’t make any noise and disturb their slumber).

For another, even if we find people’s false beliefs entirely risible and feel a strong urge to point out to them the error of their ways, it is most often an exercise in futility. The thing about beliefs is they’re the one thing we can truly call our own and we cannot be easily dispossessed of them—chain me to a wall, tickle my feet and do all manner of dastardly things to me, have me confess to all manner of crimes and recant all manner of false beliefs, and yet I will still, in my deepest core, hold firm to those beliefs, and there’s not a thing you can do about it. It’s frustrating, but then, so too is watching Arsenal—that’s life.

Of course, it is also true that some false beliefs may impinge on others in ways that aren’t entirely tolerable. For instance, if you are curious as to whether or not the old lady next door really is a witch and decide to use the traditional mediaeval method of dunking (in which drowning is a sign of sweet innocence, bless), the old lady next door might, reasonably enough, raise some objections. If a common cold ails you and you decide to sip the elixir of homeopathy, that’s your problem, but if your child has leukaemia and you eschew ‘conventional’ medicine in favour of an ‘alternative remedy’, well, be it on your conscience. And, let it not go unsaid, if you refuse to vaccinate your child, relying on the willingness of others to do so to ensure we aren’t returned to a world in which fifty per cent of children die before the age of five, then you are a parasite on society (unless, of course, you choose to take yourself and your unvaccinated child off to a deserted island, there to savour the intoxicating deliciousness of a vaccine-free world).

Another not entirely inconsequential point to consider is that we live, nominally at least, in a liberal society. If the basic premise of liberalism is that all should be free to do as they wish provided they don’t harm others (to put it crudely), then people must be allowed to cherish and nurse their false beliefs to the utmost content of their hearts, provided only they harm no one else as a result. And if we struggle at times to determine whether someone’s beliefs do harm others—does not vaccinating a child actually harm anyone?—well, that’s the price to be paid for liberalism. No one said it was perfect.
And that, finally, brings me to the question of Vaxxed, a film directed by that disgraced and disgraceful demagogue Andrew Wakefield, the man who is so tirelessly working to raise mortality rates the world over. When it was announced that the film was to be shown at the Tribeca film festival—in the interests, said Robert de Niro, of having an open discussion—a powerful body of scientists and other right-thinking persons swung into action. No sooner had they mobilised than the film was withdrawn from the festival, the searing heat of righteous scientific rage too hot for the festival organisers. This, said Alison Singer, one of those opposed to the film, ‘showed the weight and heft of the scientific community when it comes together’. ‘It’s wonderful,’ she enthused, ‘that we are now seeing science triumph—to me that was the message of what has happened: science won.’
Now, you may well be able to discern my views on vaccination from what I’ve said above. I’m no friend to the Luddites. But was this a victory for science? No, of course not. Science didn’t win. Brute force won. The scientific community merely demonstrated that it can punch harder than we might have thought—the latex glove of the scientist concealed an iron fist. Science only wins when people accept the reasoning of science. If I wander about proclaiming that one plus one equals three, it is no victory for science if I’m taken off the streets and locked up in the loony bin. Singer’s suggestion that this was ‘not about free speech; this is about dangerous speech’ is merely laughable, if we really do live in a liberal society. This is the price we pay.
So, by all means, do what you want to stop people spreading a gospel of lies, but don’t pretend you’re doing science. As Diderot observed in the mid-eighteenth century, the ‘progress of Enlightenment is limited—it hardly reaches the suburbs—the people there are too stupid, too miserable, and too busy—there it stops’. In the early 21st century, nothing has changed—welcome to our world.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Willing Exiles

From time to time it happens that a man wakes up one day and decides he has had enough. Enough, but of what? Enough of everything, everything that is except his wife, his dog and his books. And so he shuts up his house and pays his last power bill and has the telephone disconnected, and then he takes his wife and his dog and his books and goes to a lonely spit of land jutting into a vast and empty harbour that most people have never heard of and here he settles down for a time to reflect on just what it’s all about.

Now, it just so happens, too, that a woman will wake up one day and feel the same way as that man I just described, and should she by a stroke of good fortune be his wife, then this makes for a smoother time of it for everyone. The days are well behind us when a man could simply pack up his wife along with his dog and books and carry them all off to the middle of nowhere. Nowadays, he needs her permission, and I suppose that’s the way it ought to be.

In any case, that is what we did. We came to a place no roads lead to, and where there are no roads once you get here. And that’s not all there isn’t. There are no shops, no cinema, no schools (although there remains a deserted school-house), no traffic jams or rush hours, no honking of horns or the blaring of sirens, none of that persistent background hum that all cities make which never ceases, there is no electricity and no phones.

What is there? Paddocks cut by a vast wetland, steep hills and grassy dunes, the tide that comes in and goes out, the mud-flats that appear and then disappear, the grazing sheep and the wild horses, the geese, the goats, the pigs. In the place of the ceaseless background hum of the city is the ceaseless background drone of the surf along the coast. The world here extends only as far as the eye can see, which is to the horizon in one direction, and to the hills everywhere else. It’s a small world but it’s more than big enough.


And so a man can sit and watch the tide come in and watch it go out again, he can listen to the warbling of the magpies and the droning of the surf, he can wake when the sun comes up and go to bed, after he puts out the lantern, when it’s dark. Maybe not for the rest of his days, but for a time at least, and for that time at least he can hear himself think. And what does he think about, now that he can actually hear himself think? He thinks about the insanity of the world beyond, a world no one meant to create but one which we all helped to construct, as if we were prisoners who had unwittingly built our own prison. And he wonders why he would ever return to that.

And yet he will. He’ll pack up his wife and his dog and his books and he’ll go back to all that. What a thing a man is.