George Bernard Shaw, Hillaire Belloc and GK Chesterton

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Jerk By Association

It is said that you can know a man by the company he keeps. This worries me because the company I keep would suggest that I am a jerk. But not just a jerk. Many different kinds of jerk. Allow me to explain.

Here is the problem. I live in two worlds. World One is the secular media. I’m a professional comedy writer, mostly for BBC. World Two is the Church. I’m a Christian, mostly C of E. In World One, I hang around with wiseguys and wisegals, where most are Lefties and plenty are atheists. People are socially liberal, pro-choice and defer to The Guardian. No joke is off limits. Having said that, this world is every bit as moralistic and judgmental as the other world I live in. In World One, I’m the kum-by-yah, insufferably naff, tragically gullible Christian guy.

In World Two, I hang around with people who really like the Bible, believe that Jesus came back from the dead, and is coming back one day to sort everything out. In World Two, people are socially conservative, pro-life and defer to The Daily Telegraph. This World doesn’t quite get jokes or irony. In this World, I’m the guy who writes those shows on the idiot-box TV that pollutes our living rooms with filth, swearing and strong sex references. (They’re kind of right in that I co-created and co-wrote Bluestone 42 for BBC3).

In both worlds, I’m the jerk by association with the other world.

These worlds are now converging because of a book I’ve written called Death by Civilisation. It’s a light-hearted paperback in which I'm going to look like an even bigger jerk since it’s a collection of articles (originally from Third Way magazine) about politics, media, money and anything else that comes to mind. All mixed with religion. That’s one heady toxic mixture guaranteed to bring any dinner party conversation to a grinding halt.

When you espouse opinions on politics, people associate you with other people with similar views. And these views tend to come in pre-ordained, clearly-labelled packages. People on the left tend to be anti-market, anti-foxhunting, anti-rich, anti-nuclear, pro-state, pro-tax, pro-immigration. Espouse any one of these leftie views and people will associate you with Polly Toynbee, Billy Bragg, The Guardian and Brighton. Espouse the reverse and you’re with Peter Hitchens, Jim Davidson, The Daily Mail and Tunbridge Wells.

So What's the Problem?

The problem is that I don’t feel part of either tribe. I’m most at home on the Right, which puts me in the company of David Cameron and George Osborne and therefore highly suspicious to most of my work colleagues – and my ‘right-on’ Christian friends. But I remain deeply unimpressed by the Tory party, not least because I’m not really a conservative. More of a libertarian. Oh dear, more unfortunate bedfellows can be found here. And in this country at least, people associate that libertarianism with two different groups of people, neither of which are very flattering.

Group One is slack-jawed, slow-witted religious extremists who stockpile canned goods and guns in their shacks in the Nevada desert in readiness for the apocalypse and rapture (because Satan and his demons can of course be repelled by legally available assault rifles). I’m not really that comfortable in this group.

Group Two is the over-educated, sharp-suited angry urban Neo-cons who demand deregulated markets and quote Ayn Rand to anyone who’ll listen. (Don’t listen.)

I’m suspicious to all of the groups listed above. I’m in favour of a small state, which makes people assume I thinks the Market will fix everything. I don’t believe the market will fix everything. The market is brutal. It should be policed. By the police. Properly funded police. Not private companies. The government should not be privatizing prisons – since the state’s main function is the protection of property and the punishment of criminals. The state gets to have guns. They should have the monopoly on violence. Citizens should not be allowed guns, so now I’m suspicious to the Neocons and hicks.

So I’m with the Left on guns. I’m also fine with immigration. I’m not much of a royalist. But I also think progressive taxation is immoral, so there goes any support from the Billy Bragg Brigade.

Despite being personally conservative in my own morality and sexual ethics, I’m reluctant to impose those views on others who don’t share my evangelical convictions. I’d like to quote the apostle Paul (I don’t call him Saint Paul, because I’m not a Catholic. See? This is not easy.) In 1 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul writes “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” I agree. If you and I disagree on why we should even listen to what the Bible says or what Jesus teaches, we’re going to struggle to have a useful discussion about morality. But conservative evangelical Christians get very worked up about public morality and standards. Clearly these things are important when there’s legislation at stake, but as a rule, I generally prefer to mind my own business. Which makes me suspicious to them too.

So, I can’t win. All I can do is cite people whose books I admire.

So Who Do You Want To Be Associated With?

An obvious starting point is PJ O'Rourke, the acceptable face of Republicanism in Britain. But I’ve never felt close affinity with him since he’s doesn’t seem to have any overtly Christian convictions.

I’m left with two inspirations. The first is William Wilberforce – a politician of great Christian faith, courage and principle. A gifted orator and popular parliamentarian, he could have been Prime Minister. But he wanted to do something far greater than lead his party and govern his country. He sacrificed his life and career for the liberation of slaves. He also wrote a book, which is almost as long as the title: A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country. It’s brilliant. He is brilliant. And I would be proud to be associated with him.

My other hero is also dead. He is the essayist and playwright, GK Chesterton. He appeals to me because he defended Christian orthodoxy in such an unorthodox way. He regularly sparred with the famous atheists of his day, like George Bernard Shaw, doing so with sharp wit but good grace. He was a preposterous figure – but no-one was more aware of it than the man himself. He also made a virtue of being impossible to pigeonhole and so I flatter myself that I identify with him. Not only that, I’ll finish by quoting him on the subject of politics and what happens when people gather into groups and parties:
The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types -- the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. And I haven’t. You really should read Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton. And if you have time, do please consider Death by Civilisation by confirmed Chesterton-wannabee, James Cary. You can read the book's introduction here.