Tag Archives: stephen-fry

Stephen Fry’s fence sitting is dangerous but a stupid idea

Stephen Fry has pronounced the death of classical liberalism. As someone who watched their political party destroy itself after dredging up that ossified Victorian ideology up from the deep and find itself as coalition bedfellows with those who have always been liberalism’s (of all varieties) greatest opponents, I can only cheer. But I do find this mindset fascinating.

He was speaking at an Australian festival purporting to be about “dangerous ideas”, which predictably means trying (in vain in this case apparently) to give already triumphalist white supremacists as big a stage as possible – because apparently Steve Bannon’s already near-ubiquitous internet platform isn’t enough and he should be regarded as a victim of censorship. According to the Guardian:

“A grand canyon has opened up in our world,” Fry said. On one side is the new right, promoting a bizarre mixture of Christianity and libertarianism; on the other, the “illiberal liberals”, obsessed with identity politics and complaining about things like cultural appropriation. These tiny factions war above, while the rest of us watch, aghast, from the chasm below.

“Is this what is meant by the fine art of disagreement?” Fry asked. “A plague on both their houses.”

I’ll give him this: opting out and claiming that both sides are equally appalling is definitely dangerous; whether it counts as an actual idea is another matter. Since time immemorial there have been people who have claimed that all politicians are alike and dismissed any attempt to engage and change the world; we just didn’t use to pay them big sums of cash to sit in front of enraptured audiences and tell them that this is somehow a radical or heroic thing to think.

What I can’t quite figure out is how come people who ten, twenty years ago I would have considered myself as broadly aligned politically, can actually think that. How can you look at one side, calling for isolationism and the dehumanisation of certain already discriminated against groups, and another side which calls for human rights and an end to structured oppression which yes, at its extremes, has people calling for their opponents to be censored and even physically attacked, and see them as simply two sides of the same coin. How can a “liberal” of any shade look at an authoritarian and an “identarian” and genuinely be incapable of ranking them in order of desirability. I mean, I have my criticisms of classical liberalism; I’ve never understood how it can be liberal to sit back and let people starve. But there’s no version of J.S. Mill’s philosophy that ever endorsed white nationalism. And watching what is going on, particularly in the US, with the right in the ascendant, and declaring it impossible to take sides looks suspiciously as if you have taken a side after all. If you see someone raise a hand to someone else and declare that the person being hit is protesting too loudly, you really do start to sound complicit.

I mean, look: I’ve spent a huge portion of my life being endlessly disappointed by the left. I can’t see anything to inspire me about Jeremy Corbyn’s insipid posturing. I’ve witnessed friends beaten up for winning the “wrong” student election. I’ve sat in Stop the War planning meetings with people more excited than the protest opportunities military action in Iraq would give them than sadness that thousands of people were about to die unjustly. At it’s most extreme, I simply don’t think hard left ideology actually works. But it fails by its own standards; people abuse it. Totalitarian ideologies such as Nazism and white supremacism hurt vulnerable people by design. There certainly is a horseshoe, but you don’t avoid that by dehumanising the left; you avoid it by reminding the left of its humanity. Far right ideology is the rejection of universalism and humanism.

The fact that there are so many centrists out there determined to sit out the ensuing culture war says more about centrism and laissez-faire liberalism far more than it does about the people opposing Trump et al. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Trump and Brexit were offering people easy answers to issues that centrists were perfectly content to sit on their hands over. The reason the classical liberals of the Liberal Party failed one hundred years ago in the UK was because it offered the public little alternative but to give the nascent Labour Party a try. It failed, not because it was a radical or dangerous idea but because it had nothing to offer a changing world. If you look at the world burning in the way it currently is and can’t even distinguish between the arsonists and the fire fighters, then your ideology is similarly inadequate.

Crisis on Multiple Tweets

It seems a milestone has been passed. Just three months ago, Rory Cellan-Jones and – it seemed – half the professional journalists out there who were aware of teh internets (both of them) were upbraiding me for my “pompous” invasion of poor Rory’s privacy by quoting one of his tweets on my blog. Yet last week, Rory himself thought nothing about “invading the privacy” of Stephen Fry and his 20,000 close personal friends on Twitter by doing the exact same thing.

Suddenly, everything seems to be happening at once with Twitter, with Stephen Fry’s genitalia coming in for some exposure in the Metro. Meanwhile, Greg “Parkman from Heroes” Grunberg, arguably ill-advisedly, semi-offered Wil “Wesley Crusher from Star Trek (and let’s not forget the whole leeches thing)” Wheaton a part in Heroes, which Tim Kring later went on to semi-endorse. Not surprisingly, Wil Wheaton is now trying to dampen speculation about this serious departure from the usual let-my-people-talk-to-your-people convention.

All this brouhaha appears to have caught the attention on one Tony Benn (a keen Heroes fan, I’m sure), who this evening started tweeting himself. It seems, somehow, that the tool has finally reached another level in terms of public awareness. I expect it to explode in popularity now. Mark my words; if you don’t already have a twitter account, there’s a pretty high chance you’ll have one in six months. Remember back when you used to assure people you would never set up a Facebook account?

Ironically, many (including myself) would have predicted Twitter’s death, at least in the UK, back in August when they suddenly stopped offering their free SMS service (in the US, as I understand it, phone owners pay to receive, rather than send, SMS, which means the service was always more sustainable there). The opposite appears to have happened. Looking at my own experience with the benefit of hindsight though, it is perfectly understandable. I walked away from Twitter on two seperate occasions because I found the barrage of SMS was getting too much, yet using it via an app such as TwitterFox and TwitterBerry gives you the best of both worlds – all the brevity of SMS but without the obtrusiveness. Using it as a social bookmarking tool was also not obvious in the early days, but this has become ubiquitous (to some people’s dismay). Finally, I started to see its true potential as a communications tool.

So where does it go from here? Well, it sort of all depends on whether the lynchmob mentality which predominates comments on YouTube starts to take hold. If the celebs find themselves having to wade through thousands of comments about their parentage each morning, they are likely to walk away. Thus far, this doesn’t seem to be happening, although there have been some grumblings amongst the golden people. At some point it has to pay its way and there is already talk of Twitter adding ads to the service. Will that kill it? A lot of people seem to think so but I doubt it. Once the excitement dies down though I suspect it will mature into a system for chatting with friends and accessing newswires, helped along by third party services like FeedBlitz.

For the time being though, it is a pretty remarkable phenomenon to be witnessing in real time. Come and join us!

UPDATE: It turns out that the Tony Benn who started tweeting earlier this week was a fraud. Benn has apparently now started a twitter account himself, but it was all lies. Mea culpa – I shouldn’t have been so naive. But what is the point of impersonating someone when you aren’t even being satirical?

Stephen Fry and Charlie Brooker: important television

I’ve done an unusual thing for me this evening, sitting in front of the television. Normally I’m glued in front of the computer, often to watch TV programmes from the previous week, or watching DVDs of TV programmes that I watched years ago, so I should perhaps not try to claim the mantle of an anti-TV purist.

This evening though I watched two programmes which fine examples of TV – and the BBC – at its best.

First up was the second part of Stephen Fry’s HIV and me. I haven’t seen the first part, but I’m pleased I watched what I did.

A mixture of horror and hope, what I found most striking about this programme were the shocking testimonies of HIV-positive people being discriminated against on a daily basis. The inclusion of HIV status in equal opportunities statements is something that has become increasingly common in recent years. At the back of my mind, I admit, I’ve always felt that was rather politically correct and meaningless in real life. As someone who has grown up with HIV, I sort of take it for granted that people know you can’t catch it from toilet seats and that gay liberation has meant that no-one really stigmatises the disease any more. Stephen Fry himself alludes to similar assumptions. Yet in making the film he struggled to find HIV-positive people who were willing to go on camera. One woman who did agree to talk spoke of how she was asked to leave someone’s house simply for being HIV-positive and how a new boyfriend had been advised by his mates to avoid her when he had told her. Well, that’s another bubble of ignorance burst.

The other side which angered me was the report from Uganda. A country that was finally getting to grips with HIV, their plans have been undermined by the US government’s decision to cut funding on safe sex projects in favour of abstinence policies. These policies have comprehensively failed in the US and now they are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands in Africa.

(Meanwhile the Archbishop of Mozambique is claiming that condoms are deliberately infected with HIV by Western Governments. And the less said about Thabo Mbeke and Yahya Jammeh the better.)

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. The overall message of the programme is that HIV-positive people can live full and fulfilling lives. Sensibly I thought, Fry concentrated on the social aspects of the disease rather than the medical ones: this is where we need to make real progress now. His conclusion that 80s style “AIDS: don’t die of ignorance” style campaigns simply increase the stigma of HIV was sound in my view. Overall, it was enlightening, inspiring but not mawkish television.

Having watched that, I quickly switched over to Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe. Now, I’m a fan of this programme anyway, so he was preaching to the choir here, but this week’s episode, looking at the degradation of TV news, was actually quite an important piece of criticism. It’s one of the most forensic attacks on TV news I’ve ever seen. His analysis of the Kate and Gerry McGann coverage and the way the media stoked up the Northern Rock “panic” while simultaneously marveling what had caused people to behave in such a way was absolutely spot on. And being Charlie Brooker, also bloody hilarious.

Add to that a short film by Adam Curtis about how the role of TV journalism has changed over the years and you have a masterful piece of television, making a very serious and important point while still being entertaining.

And then a bit later, I caught a glimpse of the latest brainless programme as part of BBC Four’s “Why democracy” season about “what would make you want to start a revolution?” and went back to my usual dry heaving and having to resist the urge to punch through the TV screen. Oh God, and that “politicians must tell no lies” bollocks is on Newsnight tomorrow. Arg!