Sunday, 5 September 2010

Busybodies and peeping Toms

When I first mentioned The Fifth Column blog, I thought the title sounded, at best, ill-advised, but I didn't look much further - like the bizarre slogans featured in the Meaningless T-Shirts blog, the title in itself was enough  to attract mockery and derision.

I'm indebted to Meridian for actually looking at some of the Fifth Columnist's posts and discovering that 'the name is only about half as disturbing as some of the content'. He's not kidding. If you look at a T-shirt with a bizarre message, what you see is all you get. Look behind the strange title of this  "orthodox Catholic commentary on current events" and a whole wondrous world of wingnuttery is revealed.

The "Fifth Column" blog beats a meaningless T-shirt slogan in an obvious, quantitative way - you can cram way more freaking weirdness into a blog post than will fit onto the front of a T-shirt. "The Fifth Column" also does just what it says on the tin, commenting on current events, a qualitative difference that takes the barking insanity to a whole new level. I'd even say that the blog provides an instructive new perspective on current events, although not in the way the writer intends.

One of the most depressing things about current public debate and journalism is vicious, voyeuristic and irrelevant intrusion into the people's private lives. William Hague's private life is a topical example and there are a couple of posts by the Fifth Columnist that, while they aren't about this specific case - neatly illustrate the sort of prurience and prejudice that feeds this sort of gutter journalism.

I'm not a political supporter of William Hague - the best I could say about him is that his political views are a bit less objectionable than some of the headbangers further to the right of his party. As far as I'm concerned, his policies and political views are fair game - he's entitled to believe what he believes, and anybody who doesn't agree is entitled to lay into his ideas without pulling any punches. All good clean fun.

But, love him or loathe him, I see no reason to think that I have any right to know the details of his sex life. Neither does anybody else (except - if he's in a committed relationship - his partner and, under certain circumstances very close family). He would lose this right to privacy if his sexual activities extended to rape, sex with minors or some such sex crime, but there is absolutely no suggestion by anybody that he's done anything of the sort. So as it stands, I've got no right to know what sort of sex (if any) William Hague is having, or with whom. It seems like normal good manners to me - after all, if I started quizzing complete strangers on a train about whether they were having sex and, if so, with whom I would, quite rightly, be regarded as some sort of creepy perv.

This is where the prurience comes in. Reactionary moralists often complain loudly about how sex-obsessed liberal, secular society is. Yet it's often the most reactionary moralists who display the keenest interest in other people's sex lives. In a disturbing reversal of Elizabeth I's famous declaration that  'I have no desire to make windows into men's souls', these people seem frighteningly keen to make widows into other people's bedrooms.

This is where the Fifth Columnist provides a perfect illustration of the reactionary moralist's smut-obsessed mindset. Take a look at his angry public letter to somebody called Janet Smith discussing such burning questions as the morality or otherwise of anal foreplay and the looming menace of people who claim that the Easter candle is a phallic symbol. It's a bit more unguarded than anything a professional journalist would write and, as such, gives a frightening insight into what "morally conservative" gutter hacks and their devoted readers really think about for a lot of the time.

From prurience to prejudice, the other driver of the William Hague non-story. I don't know or care whether William Hague is straight, gay, bi or celibate. But some people do still think this matters and want to discriminate against gay people just for being gay. They think, wrongly or rightly that William Hague is in the closet and want to out him.

What we're witnessing here is an interesting stage in the power struggle between social liberals and authoritarian reactionaries. It's a struggle that the reactionaries, at least in Britain, are currently losing, although they're fighting every inch of the way.

Not very long ago, it was almost unheard of for a politician, to be openly gay - especially in the Conservative party. To succeed in such an atmosphere of prejudice, many went to extraordinary lengths to conceal their sexuality, even entering into "Potemkin marriages" to evade the ever-watchful eyes of the bigots and busybodies.  Of  course, living this kind of double life was precarious and the ritual humiliation of outed MPs by the bigots and busybodies in the party and the press was routine.

Eventually, a brave few came out of the closet. Alan Duncan was the first Tory MP to come out openly as gay and Iain Duncan Smith, to his great credit, supported him. It was a significant step forward; just a year before, old guard Tory Norman Tebbit endorsed had Iain Duncan Smith in the party leadership contest because he was a 'normal, family man with children'. "Normal" - it's an innocent-sounding little word, but when it gets used by the powerful as a weasel word to exclude and demean people who they just happen to have take a dislike to, it can be as nasty as it is small. I don't know whether Tebbit viewed Duncan Smith's acceptance of Alan Duncan's sexuality as a kick in the teeth, but if he did, I do hope it hurt.

Now that more MPs are openly gay and not therefore vulnerable to exposure and humiliation, the vindictive bullies who used to enjoy bringing them down have lost some of their power. Easy prey is becoming harder to find, so when they do think they scent blood in the water a feeding frenzy ensues. 

The Fifth Columnist also seems to be a tireless witch-hunter, always keen to sniff out anybody who doesn't come up to his standards of normality, although one of his most striking the posts targets religious, rather than sexual, unorthodoxy. There are interesting parallels, though. In the UK, authoritarian reactionaries seem to have it in for William Hague because they suspect or hope that his private life may be unorthodox. In the USA, the same sort of people suspect or hope that President Obama's religious life may not be orthodox. I don't know how many Americans believe that the President is a Muslim, but a Google "obama" and "muslim" and you'll get about 46 million hits. Quite a few of these hits will take you to sites refuting the suggestion, but that still leaves a hell of a lot of crazy conspiracy theorists who believe that he is. 

There are important differences between a person's sexuality and their religion. The most important of these is that a person's sexual orientation is an integral part of who they are, something they are born with, like their race, gender or personality. Sure, like personality, it can be tweaked a bit by societal pressure and life experiences, but whatever it is, it comes from within.

Religion is a system of ideas and beliefs about the nature of things, bundled up with a moral code of one sort or another, defined by some external authority. People may talk about Christian children or Muslim children or whatever, but there's no such animal in reality - there are only children born to parents who subscribe to this, that or the other set of beliefs.Children may like the religion of their parents, or under various degrees of societal or parental influence, pressure or intimidation, more or less grudgingly accept it, or may reject it in favour of an alternative religion or none (provided they are lucky enough to live in a society where such freedom of choice isn't punished harshly).

However, in the reactionary mind-set, this distinction is often reversed. Sexuality is sometimes seen by some reactionaries as a free choice made by an individual, who can either "choose" to be "normal" or "choose" to be abnormal and sinful. Those "choosing" sinful sexual unorthodoxy can be "cured" by the pressure, example and prayers of the faithful.

To reactionary often seem to see religion, by contrast, not as a free, rational choice about the nature of things or which moral code makes some sort of ethical sense, but as something innate and tribal.

For all these differences, the reactionary mind seems bent on rooting out and eradicating the "abnormal" and the unorthodox. Barack Obama, was the product of a racially mixed marriage, born to a father from Kenya. He had an Indonesian stepfather and went to school in Indonesia for a time. To the liberal mind, this makes him the exemplar of the American melting pot. To the reactionary, this makes him unorthodox and therefore suspect.

Not having (or wanting) a window into men's souls, I don't know what Barack Obama's religious views are. He apparently professes to be a devout Christian. This may be perfectly true, or he might be exaggerating the extent and depth of his beliefs, in order to fit in to the culture he inhabits. Just as it used to be important for an aspiring Tory MP to be seen as a 'normal family man' (or woman), there's still a lot of pressure on US politicians to be seen to be church-going Christians. Whether he sees the Evergreen Chapel simply as a "Potemkin Church" for public consumption, I neither know nor care.

Devoutly religious or not, Barack Obama's position on religion sounds a lot more in keeping with the founding fathers' vision of a country where church and state were separate and the free exercise of religion was written into the constitution, than the reactionary rantings of those who demand a display of Christian piety from anyone running for public office:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

The Fifth Columnist, of course, produces his obligatory "Is Obama is a Muslim?" post. Apparently, we can't afford to rule out the possibility of an enormous conspiracy to keep the president's religion a secret - after all, the Fifth Columnist muses, "they"  manged to keep the establishment of Social Security a secret for years (and there are apparently still people stupid enough to believe that Social Security is 'some sort of social insurance program' when rather than 'part of an enormous Ponzi scheme'). "They" manged to keep The Manhattan Project and the cracking of the Enigma code secret. The Nazis kept their euthanasia programme secret for a whole year. Therefore...
Massive conspiracies are common throughout history. All it takes is well-motivated people with the same mindset who see themselves as fighting a common enemy.
Click the link and read the whole thing - it would be hilarious, if the number of people who apparently believe this stuff wasn't so worryingly large.

I've found the Fifth Columnist quite useful - his language is more revealing than the sometimes slightly coy euphemisms and weaselly dog-whistle words used by the Jan Moirs and Richard Littlejohns of this world. His his strange obsessions and fantasies are delineated in loving detail, he is reasonably articulate, knows some history and obviously has considerable knowledge in his chosen field of expertise (although as that field is theology, that's rather like saying that somebody has an impressive grasp of conversational Klingon).

Now, whenever I'm tempted to give some reactionary motor-mouth the benefit of the doubt, I think of the glance the Fifth Columnist has given me into the reactionary mind when it isn't trying to be accommodationist and respectable. I think of the many changes that brave and committed people have made on the way to building a more liberal, democratic society, in which tolerance and freedom of thought and conscience actually matter. There's a long way still to go, but a glance into the strange, narrow, deeply disturbing mind of the social reactionary makes me grateful for what those people have already achieved.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

If you liked that site then you'll love this one:

http://www.conservapedia.com/Main_Page

Of course they handily explain that you should read them because Wikipedia is biased:

http://www.conservapedia.com/Examples_of_Bias_in_Wikipedia

Andrew King said...

Thanks for the heads-up. Yes, I was aware that Conservapedia is a mother-lode of seething derangement. Conservapedia's recent post about the liberal bias in Einstein's work on relativity, for example, was a real corker:

http://skepticalteacher.wordpress.com/2010/08/15/conservapedia-disconnected-from-reality-einsteins-theories-are-a-left-wing-conspiracy/

To be fair, the Einstein kerfuffle reminds me that some self-styled "progressives" have sometimes come up with comments that are just as bizarre - as Francis Wheen pointed out, the post-modern theorist Luce Irigaray thought that E=mc squared was a 'sexed equation' that prvileges the speed of light over other [less masculine] speeds that are vitally necessary to us'. No, me neither...