Herring Not So Red
Soft Student Brains (3)

Old Fantasies Revisited

Gail Herriot unearths John Ellis’ observations on Tacitus, Terry Eagleton and the political correctness of ancient Rome.

A sophisticated man of letters, disillusioned and even embittered by the flaws, inconsistencies, and retrogressions of a great civilization, deludes himself that a world of primitive innocence and natural goodness exists in peoples who are untouched by the advances of that civilization. So intense are his hostile feelings toward his own society that he is unable to see the one he compares it to with any degree of realism: whatever its actual qualities, it is endowed with all of the human values that he misses in his own. Consequently, he sees his own culture not as an improvement on brutish natural human behaviour but as a departure from a state of natural goodness… Tacitus wanted to see in the Germans the answer to everything that bothered him about his own society, just as the campus radicals of our own time are tempted to see in the contemporary Third World an absence of rank consciousness and hierarchy, of capitalism and greed, of the strong coercing the weak, and of men lording it over women and treating them as playthings.

The whole thing. Related. And. Also. Plus



A super-fast reaction on a speed-reading of the article.

My criticism of Eagleton's comments on, say, suicide bombers is actually quite different from Ellis's. I think Eagleton sees the whole planet as culturally western. He simply doesn't understand that there might be other cultures with home-grown ideas and imperatives in any significant way different from ours. This is actually quite bizarre for someone with Eagleton's educational background. But I read pretty well everything he writes, and I notice a category blindness towards the non-western. Ignoring high-controversy political topics, I can't think of one occasion on which Eagleton shows any awareness of, or interest in, say, the Tale of Genji (supposedly the world's first ever novel), the Mahabharata, Zhuangzi etc. As surprising as it may seem to those who haven't read him, Eagleton sticks to a meat-and-two-veg diet of western literary and intellectual fare. He's not Peter Brooke, he's not Margaret Mead, he's not even Peter Gabriel. He's not exoticising the other, he's treating the whole of humanity as differently-dressed Englishmen. That's why, when discussing Islamic suicide bombers he doesn't even use words like "jihad", or indeed any terms drawn from Islamic discourse. Instead he reaches for comparisons with things he knows about from his western literary background - the 19th century Russian anarchists, the people in Joseph Conrad novels etc.

I think there's a legitimate argument to be made that al-Queda and co are more westernized than we realize. But to even start on that argument you have to show some understanding of what their own cultural and political origins are.



The Ellis article is long and touches on quite a few issues, and the Eagleton mention is fairly incidental to what caught my eye. But the suggested resonance with certain contemporary attitudes is interesting.

Speaking very broadly, I think there’s actually a convergence of several attitudes. There’s a tendency, outlined above, to romanticise ‘the other’, or, as you say, to project one’s own concerns; there’s a misplaced nostalgia for some idyllic and supposedly egalitarian past – and an equally misplaced disdain for modernity and what it makes possible. (Here, we often see attempts to blame capitalism or modernity for the shortcomings of human nature - the “if not for capitalism, people would be so much nicer” school of thought.) And there’s also a kind of grandiose emotionalism, with which the previous phenomena may overlap, and which is often expressed as: “I’m unhappy with modern life, therefore everyone else must be.”

Environmentalist message boards can be good places to find examples of this convergence, but it’s also found in various forms in the commentary of Madeleine Bunting, Natasha Walter, Seumas Milne, Martin Jacques, Karen Armstrong, Decca Aitkenhead, George Monbiot, Oliver James and other Guardian regulars. In fact, the Guardian probably offers one of the highest mainstream concentrations of this outlook, which possibly tells us something.


Well, for starters, there's more than one "other". I remember when the (non-western) Taliban blew up the (non-western) Bamiyan Buddhas. A Buddhist guy wrote to the Times. He didn't say "slay the enemies of the Buddha" or even criticise the deliberate desecration. He simply said that, seeing the hole in the hill where the Buddhas once stood, he realized once again, that all the works of men were transitory.

I am not about to start on a hopelessly romantic, Alan Watts-inspired paean to Buddhism. I'm sure there's plenty of Buddhist-inspired stupidity in the world. But the Islam/Buddhism comparison is interesting. If it's possible to imagine a richter scale of religious offensiveness, blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas ought to rate pretty close to a "10". By comparison the Danish cartoons ought barely to count as "1". Yet compare the reactions to the two events. Also, compare the nonviolent Tibetan response to fifty years of Chinese occupation with various Islamic groups' resort to violence. Every day I go past the Chinese Embassy in London and watch the silent protest by members of Falun Gong. I haven't heard of one Falun Gong suicide bomber.

This has forced me to a regrettable conclusion. The Bunting/Walter/Milne/Armstrong set you mention defend Islamists PURELY because they're violent. If they renounced violence, the Guardianistas would stop finding them sexy. If Falung Gong or the Tibetan Buddhists want more support from the Guardian set they better start killing large numbers of people immediately...


“The Bunting/Walter/Milne/Armstrong set you mention defend Islamists PURELY because they’re violent. If they renounced violence, the Guardianistas would stop finding them sexy.”

You may be onto something there. Certainly, there’s often a sense of sublimated fear and displaced aggression (displaced from the jihadists to their critics), and, in some quarters, even a whiff of titillation. And violent urges can be expressed in some very peculiar ways, especially among people who affect a conspicuous concern for all living things.

By way of illustration, there’s an article in Saturday’s Guardian called ‘Plundering the Moon’, in which we’re told “no space programme has ever been about science.” (Our motives are always bad, you see, unworthy beings that we are.) The author, Andrew Smith, expresses horror at the idea of anyone exploiting the Moon’s material resources and low gravity conditions, even to facilitate clean energy production on Earth. Exploitation of this kind is, apparently, a very bad thing, though the reasoning to support this claim isn’t exactly clear. However, the word “plundering” is used a few times and we’re told that one of the possible processes might involve “chomping up the Moon” and “ripping up the lunar surface to a depth of… one metre.” (Yes, a whole metre.)


Some of the readers’ comments are particularly revealing and illustrate the kind of emotionalism, displaced aggression and pretentious self-loathing I’m talking about:

“Judging from how we have consumed oil we are going to carry on consuming until we destroy ourselves, much of the life on Earth and now the Moon as well. If we can do it, we will then consume Mars and the rest of the Universe and all other universes!”

Gasp. And,

“If I had a way I would destroy all of mankind’s ventures outside of the Earth, at least until he learns to appreciate and protect this world. We should stay here until we prove ourselves worthy of existence.”

You’ll find plenty of comments along very similar lines. Someone expresses horror at the destruction of the lunar “ecosystem” and, perhaps significantly, culling the filthy human species crops up more than once.

Feel the love.


Yes I followed that thread. Pure eco-nihilism.

If McDonald's were to stick a huge yellow "M" on the moon I would object. But harnessing the resources of the lifeless Moon to help the living beings on Earth is a good thing, surely. What's so noble about leaving it all to the vast empty silences?

The Thin Man

"we will then consume Mars and the rest of the Universe"

Let's think about consuming the moon.

Let's get out the old calculator and perform a three minute thought experiment and see how easy it would be to "consume the moon".

Lets say that we have the technology to start extracting mass from the moon at the rate that, say, Australia (the worlds biggest producer) extracts bauxite.

In 2003, Australian Bauxite production was 53 million tonnes (I am assuming this figure is metric tonnes, but on the scale we are discussing, the different tonne units are irrelevant)

53Mt is 53x10^10 Kgs or 53,000,000,000Kgs.

The moon has a mass of roughly 7.36 x 10^22 Kgs or

If we started today, in 1,388,679,245,283 years (1.4 trillion years - approximately 2.8 times the expected lifetime of the sun) we would have completely CONSUMED the Moon.

Lets try be a little environmentally responsible about this and limit ourselves to "despoiling" only one tenth of one percent of the moon.

Starting today, we would need to mine 53 billion kilograms of the moons mass per year for 1,388,679,245 years - 1.4 billion years in order to "CONSUME" that seemingly tiny fraction of that "little" orb.

Ah "Comment is Free". So little perspective. So much (allegedly) well intentioned passion. So little sense of scale. So little ability to use a google and a caculator before beclowning oneself. So much uninformed gasbaggery.

I think my favourite comment is

we don't know what new diseases will bring back to planet earth i.e. bird flu
we don't know the moon's contribution to our weather & gravitational forces i.e. like farming & desertification
we don't know the impact of hidden microbes that we transfer into our environment i.e. like the ships that imported rats.

Ah "Comment is Free". So much state education, so little comprehension.


Heh. Apparently, the Moon is also a “fragile environment.” Such are the insights of the defenders of lunar chastity. I feel a reward is in order for those calculations, by the way. And for using the words “gasbaggery” and “beclowning”. That’s got to be worth a small marzipan fancy.

The Thin Man

I don't like marzipan. But if you've got a small piece of fairy cake I could build a "Total Perspective Vortex" and throw the Guardian Staff and their readership in it.

That'd learn 'em.



The Thin Man,

They'd survive. They believe the whole universe is created for and revolves around them. Their egos are bigger than the universe.


The Ellis article is quite interesting and profound, but I think he is missing the most virulently poisonous strand in modern Politically Correct thought. Commentors Georges and David have already touched on it. Modern PC doesn't just hate "society." They actually _do_ hate humanity. They've romanticized and idealized non-sapient nature or inanimate matter as the ultimate Other. You see it often in environmental writings -- and not just on the fringes. Humans are a cancer on the Earth. Humans are destroying the environment. Sometimes they'll waffle and say it's only those wicked old Westerners doing the damage, but a lot of them are perfectly willing to damn the whole species. The ultimate expression of this is the "Voluntary Human Extinction Movement." They actually, openly, and explicitly want all of us to die.



I can’t claim to know for sure which inner demons trouble particular environmentalists, but it is quite remarkable just how often humanity is compared with disease, most notably cancer, or described as an “out-of-control parasite.” It’s also curious how often there are gleeful expectations of seeing the “mighty powers… brought to their knees.” I guess that’s the influence of vindictive old Marxists. Bless.

See the piece below (last 5 paragraphs) for the Melbourne environmental crusader, Dr John Reid, who wants to “put something in the water” that would “make a substantial proportion of the population infertile.” Dr Reid goes on to share his belief that, “The most affluent populations should be targeted first.”



Environmentalism is virtually never challenged, even by those who will challenge Islamism, multiculturalism etc.

Yet hardcore environmentalism often has a profoundly anti-human attitude. I once read someone saying we should stop having children, because all they'll do is emit carbon. The idea that they might also fall in love, dream, write poems, novels and symphonies, discover things, cure diseases, all this counted for zero to this eco-nihilist.

I think eco-terms need to be interrogated. The highest virtue is now supposed to be for things to be "sustainable". But that implies stasis. I'm really glad that most things, like Britpop, prove unsustainable. I'd hate them to go on forever.



See also this:


And then there’s the ‘conservationist’, Paul Watson, who describes humanity as (wait for it) “a cancer.” Watson thinks vegan diets are a step in the right direction, but “curing the biosphere of the human virus will require a radical and invasive approach.”


Again, feel the love.

Perhaps the Green movement serves as a new and roomier home for the far left’s more vindictive sociopaths. The dogma’s *slightly* different, but the resentment and authoritarian fantasies seem pretty much the same.

The Thin Man

Plus ca change....

As well as the longing for some (never existed) arcadia, catastrophism has also been pretty much constant throughout history.

From Senna the Soothsayer ("Woe, Woe and thrice Woe") in Up Pompeii to "The End of The World is Nigh" to "Catastrophic Climate Change" to me all seem much of a muchness.

I suspect that the majority of people simply can't get beyond a world view analogous to Gods, sitting atop a mountain occasionally loosing off thunderbolts at us as commentary on our behaviour or their own amusement; the only thing that changes is the vocabulary used to describe the mechanism of the catastrophe.

The Thin Man

Since we've touched upon Climate Change, I recently found a link to a brilliant video presentation on Climate Change and the statistics used to represent it.

Called "What is Normal?" by Warren Meyer, it is very well presented, beautifully argued, highly coherent and raises some very pertinent questions about statistical methods used to measure climate.

At 54 minutes it is not short, sound quality could be better, but this is extraordinarily good.


His website is http://www.climate-skeptic.com/

The Thin Man

A quote from the video linked above (which I have just watched again)

"We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest."
Steven Schneider
National Centre for Atmospheric Research

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