Tom Bennett

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The Cult of Clever: Stephen Fry and the Next Generation

Aren’t other people just stupid? Not you, though.

I went to see Stephen Fry in what I was hoping was going to be conversation with the stricken muse of articulacy, Christopher Hitchens, at the Royal Festival Hall this week. Alas, the Hitch had selfishly developed pneumonia and begged out of the occasion, which meant that the evening, however charming, would be in deficit of a dialogue by a factor of one, which is often seen as fatal to the enterprise. But like the androgynous protagonists of Battle of the Planets, when Hitch unravels he is replaced by a fighting force of allies and confidantes: in stepped the Archbishops and Cardinals of atheism and reason, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Richard Dawkins, along with satellite contributions from Sean Penn (how odd), Lewis Lapham, Chris Buckley and others.

The loss was transformational; not that the night was a waste- it is never a waste to see such lions of loquacity prowling and strutting, and talking about themselves to a captive crowd- but that it became a homage, almost a video obituary taking place as the dying Socrates drank his carcinocidal cocktail in New York, and I could almost imagine the whole piece finishing with the operatic dénouement of Le Morte d’ Hitchens. To witness your own valediction must be a peculiar experience.

Fry was, of course, value-added; replete with anecdotes and morsels of amusement and intelligence so easily expedited from memory to mouth that I imagined they were simply stuck between his teeth from the last time he ate a copy of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus with truffle oil and the tears of a hippogriff. Amis was the headline act, so commandingly confident about the process of putting one word in front of another that Fry almost looked mute by comparison. He alluded nicely to he and Hitchen’s unconsummated buddy love, and we were introduced to a peculiar tour of the private snaps of the world’s most hirsute columnist since Robin Williams wrote Dear Deirdre. Rushdie beamed down on the audience from the enormous satellite link screen like a latter-day deity, which must have disappointed any jihadists with long memories who fancied a punt, owned a tyre-iron and could read Twitter.

Dawkins’ first ad campaign.

Penn impressed an audience of apparently easily impressed people by lighting a cigarette on screen; Fry commented that he couldn’t have shocked people more if he’d dropped his pants instead. Penn, looking bleary and autonomously wealthy, worried me for a minute when I thought he might do just that. A fortunate interruption of the signal spared us all.

Dawkins seemed somewhat underused; but everyone agreed that it was nice he was there; otherwise the whole thing would seem like a very odd documentary of beloved intellectuals punctuated by Fry’s sybaritic bon mots. It was a very enjoyable evening; a tribute rather than a conversation, and no matter that no matter was discussed more seriously than the average exchange on the Parkinson show, but it was what it was. Heaven forbid we should criticise something for what it is not: rather, criticise it for what it is. Negatives and non-existents are such frightfully slippery fish to catch, let alone cook.

This, my friends, is all you need.

What concerned me was the mood and fervour of some of the audience members; I noticed this before the show as I prepped my rusty brain with a Rusty Nail, and it was brought into sharp relief by at least one of the vox populi questions at the end. There was a hushed, awed tone of admiration and awe for the participants that was entirely understandable; great men are easy to admire, and men of great intelligence are great men. But the reverence afforded to them was what worried me.

As a teacher of philosophy and religion, I am immersed in the task of driving what I can loosely call structured thinking: the presentation of ideas and opinions as a process of facilitated justification, where mere advocacy and prejudice can be replaced by rhetorical syllogisms that can endure contest. I am also, as you can imagine, immersed in a lot of stupid. For every substantiated opinion, I hear ten knee-jerk outbursts. That’s fine: that’s what I’m there for- to challenge cant and bullshit, maybe even to have mine challenged once in a while by the rare outlier.

Children and adults both are sensitive to the vice of certainty. It is a weakness peculiar to humanity, that we are convinced intuitively of the following two premises:

P1: There is an objective moral truth
P2: I am the only one truly capable of perceiving it.

Letters to the usual address

Conclusion? Well, there are many. These two contestable, controversial contentions lead many to succumb to the weaknesses of tribalism, bigotry, and other synonyms for the parochial mind. Having an illiberal mentality is similar to public flatulence- it’s always someone else, never you. I can say this with the certainty of the chastened because I have had, on several occasions throughout my life, my personal dogma detonated irretrievably. As Descartes, the Patron Saint of even-handedness once opined, ‘Many of my previous, dearly held convictions, have proven to be false.’ His attempt to find a foundational, unassailable truth led him to destroy the entire edifice of his beliefs, before finding that when the smoke had cleared, only the Cogito was left in the rubble. Some destruction required, contents may alter from description.

Which isn’t to say that my own views and values are now somehow inoculated from assumption and self-deceit: merely that I am aware that such deceit exists in profundity. The epistemological Holy Grail of a fact known beyond doubt is such an eternal pilgrimage, that I appreciate how very uncertain most of our certainties are. In school, I feel it somewhat of a holy mission for me to challenge the beliefs of my students: not for the project of cynical assimilation, as if I were trying to sculpt every mind in the image of me, but rather as an attempt to put pressure on their beliefs to see if they buckle, bend or repel. What survives the fire is inevitably stronger; scar tissue may not please our aesthetic, but it is thicker than the untempered tissue from which it develops. And sometime, their ideas push back.

And that’s what makes me uneasy whenever I go to one of these Cultish rallies: the assumed righteousness of some of the acolytes, who are more interested in having their certainties stroked and oiled by the Greek Gods of secular humanism, or fundamental Romanism, or any one of a million shades of conviction. In a dialogue between Hitchens and Fry, one could hardly expect gladiatorial discussion; I was more looking forward to an evening of easy, well-expressed companionable wit, like port with a friend by the light of a fireplace. It became, as I say, a tribute, as if the Hitch’s Super Friends had joined to lay wreaths before his prehumous tomb.

‘Here we are- the next generation!’

But the evening was soured by an unbearable ponce of a man who exemplified everything that was wrong with the Cult of Anyone: he bounded up to the microphone in manner that suggested a foppish mime running on the spot, and did something guaranteed to make me want to jump off something high: instead of asking a question, he launched into a monologue about…well, himself mostly, although he camouflaged it with cringing flattery for the demigods before which he crawled. And, in response to an earlier query, ‘Where are the Hitches of the next generation?’ he replied, arms akimbo, ‘Here I am! We are the next generation, rational and ready for the …..’ blah blah. If I paraphrase, I care not a jot. He was lucky I didn’t spanner him with my handy spanner I keep for such occasions. If he was possessed of one vertebrae less than a full complement, I do believe he would have happily sucked himself off.

Certainty revolts me; self-congratulatory, infinite self-belief makes my entrails heave. The biggest danger for the New Atheist movement- and I applaud many of its intended aims- is that it becomes a new orthodoxy; that it disguises itself in the beard-and-glasses combo of open-mindedness, and by doing so, convinces itself that the battle for intellectual supremacy had been won. One’s own axioms need to be tested constantly; imagine how embarrassed you would feel if you discovered you were wrong, and it was too late to do anything about it?

Cogito ergo Zod.

No ideology or demographic has the copyright on truth; no one is immune to the human vices of self-flattery, egoism, narcissism and the desire to be right. I love reading the Hitch; I am happy to doff my cap and acknowledge a man of superior discrimination and intellectual perspicacity. Such admissions are the natural tribute demanded when one recognises a height greater by far than one’s own. But we should always be careful to assume that we are the keepers of the sacred flame; that our way is the only right way; that we and only we possess the revealed wisdom of the ancients. It is a flaw in most faiths, and increasingly it is a flaw in the non-faithful. And that is because it is a human flaw. We-I mean all of us- must be on constant guard against the villainy of congratulating ourselves. Aren’t we clever? Aren’t we intelligent?

People in every century have thought themselves more enlightened than their predecessors. Who is to say that we have acheived the Omega Brain State? What does their certainty say about ours?

‘What the F*CK did you just say?’

The best place for a scared cow is on a plate with a little butter.

The Death Penalty and whole class detentions

Every now and then I am asked what I think of whole class detentions. And I always answer the same way- I abjure them; they are abhorrent in mine eyes, yea, even unto the Last Days. There are a number of perfectly sound reasons to employ them, because no strategy is perfect, and no imperfect one is perfectly so. Every option, no matter how righteous or fallen, contains germs of its own salvation or damnation. Plato averred that the realm of the ideal was transcendent, and so we find. Nothing in this world is flawless, or flawlessly flawed.

Why would you want to keep a whole class behind? The answers are so obvious that it is fatuous to ignore them, so let us face them manfully:

  • It guarantees that the unjust are skewered, even if the ones you want are obscured by the noise and smoke of the classroom (the Fog of Wah!, as I call it)
  • It lays your vengeance upon them, as Mr S Jackson would agree. They can’t say that you didn’t punish the guilty.

So certainty and the need to sanction against are both satisfied. But what is lost?

Justice. The whole class detention is a carpet-bombing, a daisy-chain detonation that flattens the just and the unjust. It destroys what you work hard to create- the classroom relationship. Every child, guilty and innocent is treated alike, and the good realise, silently and certainly, that there is no reward in this life for kindness, compliance, dedication and application. Might as well, you can hear them think, go rotten. Good luck to you after that.

This reminds me, strangely enough, of the cavernous cement-mixer of moral reasoning that accompanies every debate on capital punishment, as another soul- a murderer, or not- receives the ultimate state sanction in Georgia. To ignore the obvious attraction of the death penalty, to claim that it is ‘obviously’ wrong, is to commit the sin of certainty, which is a death of a more abstract sort: the death of reason. The very human thirst for vengeance can’t be simply dismissed as an aberration of character, or the unsettled aspect of a mind speckled by sadness, grief and outrage. Not one of us would calmly forgive a monster who took some loved one away from us in the gruesome ways that such events inevitably happen. Not one.

But this very human, very understandable response cannot be sustained in the macrocosm of civil society; it cannot. The contradictions are too enormous; the weight of evidence almost unachievable. And even if they were, there is the prospect, however remote, that the guilty would dangle alongside the innocent, like Calvary. And mistakes there are, many, many over the years. Justice, we must remember, is not a utilitarian equation of cost versus benefit- it is an absolute, if it is anything. We do not achieve justice by razing the sinner with the saint; we do so by sparing them all from the irreversible terminus from which nothing returns. We build mercy into our vengeance, and allow ourselves to be imperfect. Because we know we are.

Christopher Hitchens, in a discussion of the Death Penalty, makes this point:
‘I used to debate these questions with the late Professor Ernest van den Haag, a legal scholar of the William Buckley National Review school. He was always admirably blunt and concise. In the case of an execution of an innocent person, he once said to me, the necessary point had nonetheless been made: the state and the community had shown that they were prepared to kill. It did not especially matter if they had or had not taken the “right” life: the demonstration had nonetheless been forcibly made. (You might remember the scene in Doctor Zhivago when Strelnikov says that the peasants understand who is boss once their village has been burned, whether they had been harboring the enemy or not. “Your point: their village,” is Zhivago’s.[……] reply.)’

Christopher Hitchens, From Lapham’s Quarterly

The hangman’s noose: the whole-class detention. As far apart in severity as the abstract concept of sanction can sustain without snapping. But both illustrating the same premise.

Your point: their classroom.