In Defence of Mo Farah…

The banning of Mo Farah’s former coach Alberto Salazar from competitive sports for doping violations has raised questions about Britain’s 2012 Olympics hero.

Or, at least, it would have done were it not for the fact that British athletes don’t cheat.

Salazar, who has faced accusations of illegal and inappropriate activity both from investigators and from former colleagues for years, coached from 2011 to 2017, during which time the British athlete endured his greatest years of success.

But that must have been a coincidence because Farah is British and British athletes play fair.

One could justly ask oneself how Farah, a talented but unexceptional long distance runner who did not make the 5000m final in the 2008 Olympics and finished seventh in the 2009 World Championships, could become so dominant once he had begun to work with Salazar. One could ask oneself if it was possible for an athlete to bloom so suddenly after years of futile efforts without some kind of chemical assistance.

Well, one could ask that if it was not that doping is something the Russians do, not our upright British athletes.

One could be sceptical of Farah’s claim that he missed a drug test shortly after he had started working with Salazar – his second missed test in around a year – because he was asleep and was not roused by the doorbell.

Or, at least, one could if he was a suspicious continental.

One could find it curious that Farah’s former “unofficial facilitator” Jama Aden has been arrested for possessing EPO, and that Farah appears to have either told fibs about the extent to which he was involved with Aden or suffered a devastating memory lapse.
One could find it curious, that is, if Farah was a scheming Yank and not an upstanding Brit.

It is not just Farah’s legacy that needs defending. One could find it very odd indeed that Steve Cram, British long distance running legend and voice of BBC athletics, dismissed investigations into Farah’s camp as a “witch hunt” in 2015 and still maintains, without qualification, that Farah has done “nothing wrong”. One could find extremely strange that Paula Radcliffe, another British running legend, has responded to Salazar’s banning not with condemnation of the disgraced coach but with questions about the value of the the US Anti-Doping Agency investigation. One could point out that Cram and Radcliffe both have ties to Nike and Salazar runs the Nike Oregon Project.

But they too are British.

One could have concerns about the fact that Neil Black, UK Athletics chief, claimed to have “looked [Salazar] in the eye” and decided that he was innocent in 2017, and that UK Athletics ruled there was “no reason to be concerned” about his relationship with Farah. One might find the mealy-mouthed reaction of Seb Coe, head of the International Association of Athletics Federations, somewhat disturbing. One might even point out that Coe spent almost four decades serving as an adviser to Nike. This seem like a conflict of interest.

But he too is British. Not a Swiss greaseball like Sepp Blatter.

Overall, there are some grounds on which to feel a little cynical about the 2012 Olympics. Its “clean” reputation was soon ruined by a tidal wave of failed drugs tests from Russian, Kazakh and Turkish athletes. It seems to be true that the Russians had the most systematic doping program. But some might ask whether British athletes are immune from cheating, and whether our sunny image of “Team GB” has blinded us to at least some level of grubby behaviour?

Of course the answer is no. British athletes don’t cheat.

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Peter Hitchens on Poland and World War Two…

Peter Hitchens’ The Phoney Victory is an interesting and challenging book that aims its argumentative arrows towards the sacred cow that is Britain’s idealised image of the Second World War. One of Hitchens’ arguments is that it was wrong for the British government to assure the Poles that it would declare war on Germany in the event of a German invasion of Poland. I am not sure that this argument is correct but I have sympathy with it given Britain’s obvious unpreparedness in 1939.

Mr Hitchens, though, supports his case against Britain’s 1939 declaration of war by denigrating the Polish state. He writes, in his book:

We went to war in defence of a territorially aggressive, anti-Semitic despotism. Sometimes one has to do such things. But it is surely foolish to pretend that they are benevolent or principled actions. The common impression of a simple war of good versus evil was (even at this stage of the conflict) completely mistaken.

Completely mistaken. Of course, it is true that the Polish state, like any state, was flawed but for the idea of a war of good versus evil to be completely mistaken one would have to think this was not even a conflict of the significantly better against the significantly worse, and this would be a mistake.

Mr Hitchens considers the pre-war Polish nation to have been “territorially aggressive” because of its annexation of the Czech portion of Cieszyn Silesia. I happen to agree this was a moral and tactical mistake – morally because the Poles and the Czechs should have set aside their territorial disagreements in the face of eastern and western enemies, and tactically because it led other nations to become unsympathetic towards Poland in view of what they saw as a combined German and Polish assault on Czechoslovakia – but certain facts should be acknowledged. The first is that the area had been controversially granted to the Czechs after the First World War, after which local Poles had faced expulsion and discrimination. The second is that the Nazis would have invaded the area anyway, and the Poles, as Anna Cienciala writes in The Polish Review, aimed themselves towards “preventing German domination of all of Czechoslovakia.” While none of this, in my opinion, precludes the annexation from being a moral and tactical mistake, it shows that the description of Poland as “territorially aggressive” is true in a very limited sense, especially if one compared it to its rivals to the east and west (or, indeed, in a lesser sense, to the British Empire).

Hitchens calls Poland “deeply anti-Semitic in practice.” Polish anti-Semitism had certainly become more radical in the 1930s, not only among the nationalists of “Endecja” but among members of the government which had begun to flirt not only with the idea of voluntary Jewish emigration – which made sense, in some cases, with the rise of Zionism and the widespread mutual indifference to assimilating – but actual expulsion. As Hitchens observes, though, these tendencies were never manifested in anti-Jewish legislation. There was, indeed, no Polish Der Sturmer, no Polish Kristallnacht, no Polish Iron Guard and no Polish SS. Again, “completely mistaken”?

On Twitter, Hitchens offers the belief that if Britain and France had not made assurances to Poland, Poland would have been an ally to if not a member of the Axis Powers (I know Twitter is a place for first thoughts more than firm conclusions but if something can be asserted it can be discussed):

Without the Anglo-French guarantee they might well have been on very good terms with Germany…Poland was among the first countries to sign an international treaty with Germany in 1934…Colonel Beck was love bombed by Hitler and Ribbentrop.

Poland had also signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in 1932. Are we to believe that had it not been for the British and French assurances, the Poles might have been allies of the communists? To be sure, the Poles preferred the Nazis to the Soviets – who, after all, had invaded Poland within memory and were ratcheting up their persecution of ethnic Poles living in their territories, which would, in 1937, culminate in quasi-genocidal mass murder – but they consistently refused to join a united front against Stalin. Stanisław Żerko writes in “Poland, Germany and the Genesis of the Second World War”:

Ribbentrop made the last attempt to convince the Polish in the second half of March 1939 after the final breakup of the Czechoslovakian state and the establishment of the Protectorate of Czech and Moravia. The reply passed on from Beck by ambassador Lipski on 26 March 1939 did not leave any room for delusion. “The Poles will remain our enemies” were the Führer’s words noted down by Goebbels.

This was before the Anglo-Polish alliance.

In short – and I am aware that this might be tedious to anyone not invested in Polish history – it is quite legitimate to argue that assurances the British and F the made to Poland were hubristic or insincere, but there is no reason to obscure the stark inequalities of evil that separated the German and Soviet aggressors from their Polish victim.

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Art for the Age of Social Media…

A YouGov poll on behalf of Homes & Antiques magazine has revealed that Banksy is Britain’s favourite artist. To be clear, I do not mean that he is Britain’s favourite living artist. I do not mean that he is Britain’s favourite British artist. No, he is Britain’s favourite artist of all time. Jog on, J.M.W. Turner. Goodbye, Vincent Van Gogh. Catch you later, Caravaggio. It’s Banksy for us.

Now, I have no wish to sound too much like a snob. I am not an art expert. As a matter of fact, I am barely an art beginner. Ask me to explain the difference between Monet and Manet and I’m liable to explain the difference between the letters “o” and “a”. Take me to the National Gallery and after an hour I’m likely to be grunting, fidgeting and recommending that we head out for a cool beer.

Still, it is grim to think that Bansky is the most popular artist among modern Britons. When I read the news I checked to see if the poll had been conducted among four people in a fashionable Soho bar but an impressive two thousand people has been polled. Banksy? Banksy.

Forgive me for quoting the editor of Homes & Antiques at length but I want you to appreciate her words in their full glory. “It is both surprising and exciting to see Banksy at the top of this poll,” she says:

His appearance in the top spot is reflective of the current popularity of street art, which is a burgeoning collecting area. This enigmatic character has done so much to make art accessible – he takes it out of the gallery walls and onto the streets, literally. And with his dark sense of humour and secretive approach, he truly has captured the hearts, minds and gaze of the nation.

If Banksy has made art “accessible” he has done so not just by putting his stencils of the side of buildings but by pandering. At best, his work is cute, filled with mildly counter-intuitive contrasts, like an anarchist throwing a bouquet of flowers, police officers kissing and Queen Elizabeth in David Bowie’s make-up. None of this is profound. It is cute.

Banksy has flaunted his rebellious credentials by, for example, setting up a picture frame that would shred a copy of his famous piece “Girl with Balloon” after it had sold at auction for $1.4 million. Why paying so much for the remains of the picture rather than the picture itself was much more absurd is vulnerable to questioning and, indeed, the art world proved that trying to satirize its appetite for junk is a futile endeavour, as the strips of paper increased in value.

Of course, the stereotypical fogeyish take would be that this is the nadir of modern art, of tendencies, that is, that gave us such grim, charmless cultural flotsam as Damien Hirst’s skull, Tracey Emin’s bed and the absurd creations of Jeff Koons. Naturally, I do think that is grim, charmless cultural flotsam. But Banksy’s work is very different.

Hirst, Emin and Koons have never had mass popularity. Joyless critics might test the limits of their vocabulary to rationalise their status as notable artists but the average man and woman has little time for their work, which is evident from their absence from the poll that Banksy won. While those artists have been symptomatic of the alienation of cultural elites from both popular taste and artistic tradition, Banksy represents the flattening of culture that has been enabled by the Internet.

While his fame precedes the rise of Facebook and Instagram, Banksy is an artist for the age of social media. If you scroll down the timeline of your preferred platform you will see a bewildering array of images: jokes, selfies, cat pictures, inspirational memes, “food porn”, political cartoons, real porn et cetera. You can click “like” and move on in the space of mere seconds.

Banksy’s stencils are perfectly suited for this inattentive time. None of them demand more than a moment’s thought. “Sorry,” reads one slogan, “The lifestyle you ordered is currently out of stock.” Oh, I get it. Click. Liked. “I don’t believe in global warming,” reads another, painted underneath a bridge so that the water covers the bottoms of the words. Oh, clever. Click. Liked. Someone might suggest that I am expressing my political prejudices here. Well, perhaps a little. But I do worry about the encroachment of consumerism on human meaning and identity, and I do believe in global warming. The problem is that his points are made in such a thunderously unsubtle style that one can only nod, or smirk, or grunt, or click like and move on. They will never haunt the consciousness like, say, The Third of May 1808 or Massacre in Korea, having none of their visual power or thematic depth. At most, they entertain it briefly, like Hallmark cards that grew up and went to art school.

To be fair, it is not as if Banksy has ever claimed to be a great artist. I think that the elusive cultural giant sees himself as more of an entertainer. It is hard to believe that his full-sized theme park parody, Dismaland, was created with as much earnestness as it was mischief. Pricing tickets at £3, and thus ensuring that the project was bound to lose him money, represented a genuine commitment to accessibility.

Accessibility, though, is not the same as quality. Banksy’s work critiques the shallow cynicism of our world but also reflects it. “Mobile Lovers”, for example, depicts a man and a woman embracing while looking at their phones behind each other’s backs. (We are obsessed with phones. Do you get it?) Banksy allowed the Bristol youth club owner on whose door he had painted the piece to sell it and, thus, save his club, again you have to admire his principles. Still, the work seems rather hollow when the man and woman could well be “liking” Banksy pieces on meme pages.

Conservatives are not known for their fondness for the Frankfurt School but it reminds me of Theodore Adorno’s theory of “pseudo-individualisation”. Standardised opinions are broadcast through standardised tropes, in easily digestible chunks of art, yet the viewer feels subversive for appreciating them.

We have been replacing a lack of cultural quality with cultural quantity. Instead than having rare moments of beauty, power and insight, we (or, at least, many of us) face a ceaseless barrage of the cute, the curious and the clichéd. Rather than seeking out artworks which flicker in our minds long after we have stopped looking at them, we browse past endless images that light our brains up like catherine wheels. Images are almost too accessible. We can see everything, and nothing matters. Like. Like. Like.

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An Emigrant Dreams of Cricket…

Around the end of March, cricket players emerge from hibernation. One can see them creeping out, these humble white-clad creatures, from the run-down sports halls where they spend their winter months. Nervously, they scan the skies. For predators? No, for black clouds. If it is raining then they loiter gloomily in their pavilions but if the p is fine they stumble out onto their pitches and begin their strange, competitive summer rituals.

I still miss it. I have been living in Poland for six years and cricket players are harder to find in Poland than Scientologists. The Krakow Cricket Club is a noble endeavour, which attempts to organise tournaments between expats in Poland’s second city, but my smallish hometown is not a participant and I have as much chance of convincing my friends to take up a cricket as I have of bringing them to teetotalism.

Sometimes I try explaining cricket to Poles. They are very nice about it. They smile and nod as I talk about bowling, batting and fielding but soon their eyes glaze over as if I am trying to detail the arcane theology of a distant faith. In a way, perhaps I am.

The longer I live here, the stranger that cricket seems to me. Who on Earth had enough time to enjoy a game that is determined over the best part of a week? How the hell did people take to playing a sport which demands that most players do absolutely nothing for most of a game? What spell did Britons put on their colonial subjects to ensure that they, but only they, would be cricket lovers? Such thoughts never occurred to me in England. Everything seems very normal when it is familiar.

Every year I notice the beginning of the cricket season. I look at who England are scheduled to be playing. I check where Joe Root’s batting average stands. I feel a little pang of sadness that I won’t be playing. But I take less and less interest in the actual cricket. I stopped keeping track of the English line-up about six opening batsmen ago. Cricket seems too far away to follow.

I’m not complaining. One could hardly move to Siberia and moan about the lack of fresh pineapples, or to Kuwait and whine about the dearth of breweries. Perhaps one reason I ignore the cricket is that I want to preserve the idealised image of the sport that I have: an image of lush cricket fields, and rust-nibbled pavilions, about which watchful players compete amid the sound of ball on bat and cries for LBW.

It is faintly absurd to have such an idealised image because I was not much of a cricket player. I had my moments, now and then. A five wicket haul against an older team is a happy memory. Sure, I think my less-than-medium pace seemed so unthreatening that the lads got overconfident but, still, it was five wickets.

Failure was more common than success. I was too scared of it. I was scared of being out, and batted awkwardly. I was scared of bowling wides and ended up bowling too straight. I was scared of dropping catches and invariably did as I overthought the angle and the pace of the ball. I made little changes to my batting stance or my run up in the hope that my performances would suddenly improve but my technique was not the problem as much as my attitude.

I was too stressed and analytical, in sport and in life, and minor adjustments only compounded that. So, I left cricket, as I would leave England, hoping that a change of circumstances would make a difference.

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Roger Scruton, and the Anatomy of a Hit Job…

Roger Scruton is the grand old man of English conservatism. Over four decades he has produced book after book, writing on politics, philosophy, music and architecture among other subjects. He has taken on the left (in Thinkers of the New Left), and libertines (in Sexual Desire), and philistines (in On Beauty and others). He smuggled books to Czech, Polish and Hungarian dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. He was knighted in 2016. Taking payments from tobacco companies in exchange for anti-prohibition represented a blip in an honourable career but overall the worst thing you can say about his life is that it is a shame his status as an English conservative intellectual has been such a lonely one.

When, last year, Scruton was appointed an unpaid adviser to the Housing Ministry there was a minor scandal. Buzzfeed and its energetic buzzybodies dredged up all manner of quotes to suggest that Scruton was beyond the pale. He said that there was a “Soros Empire” in Hungary! Well, yes, but he used “empire” in the sense that one might say “Koch Empire” not “Galactic Empire” and had even appealed to Viktor Orban not to close the Soros-funded Central European University. He said “Islamophobia” does not exist! He said it was a bad descriptor, not that there is no such thing as anti-Muslim hate. He said that homosexual relations are “not normal”. He said that only monogamous, heterosexual, marital relations were normal. That might offend many people with many different lifestyles but it is not “homophobic” any more than it is “cohabitophobic”.

For once, the Conservatives did not succumb to liberal and left-wing pressure. Scruton kept his place. Their fragile backbone collapsed less than six months later when Scruton did an interview with the left-wing New Statesman. Accepting the interview was a mistake, but understandable. Scruton had been the magazine’s wine columnist for years and imagined that he was in friendly if not comradely hands. Sadly, the New Statesman has become little more than Buzzfeed with book reviews.

The publication of the interview was announced to the world by the interviewer, New Statesman Deputy Editor George Eaton, who wrote that Scruton had made “outrageous remarks” about Hungarian Jews”, “the Chinese” and “Islamophobia”. Outrageous? I read on with interest.

The first sign that the interview is going to be mendacious comes when Eaton refers to Scruton calling his farmland “Scrutopia” as being “unintentionally comical”. Intellectual charity demands not only the presumption that our opponents can be honest and intelligent but that they can have a sense of humour. It is intentionally comical.

Eaton soon moves on to the “outrageous” stuff. He casually lies that Scruton had said “Hungarian Jews”, rather than some Hungarian Jews, are part of a “Soros empire” and asks Scruton if he still holds this opinion. He does. Eaton says that his words are “heedless of the anti-Semitic portrayal of the philanthropist George Soros as a Jewish puppet-master” but while Jew-haters have certainly exaggerated Soros’ power, influence and malice it is nonetheless true that Soros is a powerful patron in liberal causes in Central and Eastern Europe, including Hungary. Perhaps one should avoid the term “empire” if one is being cautious but it is a correct use of the term in a colloquial sense. (Interestingly, one left-wing magazine has published a profile of Soros with the far more overheated claim that he is “the uncrowned king of Eastern Europe” with a “financial stranglehold over political parties, business, educational institutions and the arts”. That magazine? Why, the New Statesman.)

Eaton moves on to the next charge on his rap sheet. Scruton thinks that “Islamophobia” is a “propaganda word” “invented by the Muslim Brotherhood”. I think Scruton is misinformed on the origins of the term. The claim that it was invented by the Muslim Brotherhood dates back to an unsubstantiated claim by the American author Claire Berlinski, and even Robert Spencer rejects it. Still, Scruton’s rejection of the term as being an attempt to pathologise concerns about Islamic theology is defensible. He does not deny that anti-Muslim hatred exists, and he does not hate Muslims or Islam himself, as Jibran Khan writes for National Review.

The next of Eaton’s claims is the most duplicitous. “Remarkably,” he writes:

…he commented of the rise of China: “They’re creating robots out of their own people… each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.”

This is the comment that Eaton claimed referred to “the Chinese”, as if it was a comment on the essence of their being. As any idiot can tell, however, even with Eaton’s convenient ellipses, Scruton is not talking about the Chinese character but the ambitions of the Chinese government, which has implemented extensive schemes for social control. It is not correct, of course, that their plans have been so successful that each Chinese person is “a kind of replica” but somewhat exaggerating the power of a quasi-totalitarian government is not a mortal sin.

The one real mistake that it appears Scruton made, unless he was misquoted by the shameless Eaton, was referring to the 2015 influx of Middle Eastern and African migrants into Europe as an “invasion”. There were hostile men among the migrants but to believe the migrants constituted an invading force is to believe they were hostile as a whole and deserve violence. I do not think Scruton believes this but in that case he should not have used the word.

Still, we are not invited to debate Scruton’s ideas and language here. We are being ordered to expel him from our ranks. The Conservatives caved in. James Brokenshire, the Minister for Housing, sacked Scruton within hours of the interview appearing. As a chorus of liberals and left-wingers denounced the great man, Tories rushed to join in. Tom Tugendhat MP announced, “Antisemitism sits alongside racism, anti-Islam, homophobia, and sexism as a cretinous belief that has no place in our public life and particularly not in government.” That is quite a list, Tom. Why did you not throw in transphobia while you were at it? Johnny Mercer MP echoed Tugendhat’s words. “No brainer,” he wrote of Scruton’s expulsion, “Let’s not take our time on this.” Eaton posted a photo of himself swigging champagne on Instagram to celebrate getting a “racist and homophobe” sacked.

It is pointless to complain about Eaton’s behaviour. Why waste one’s breath complaining that a fox eats chickens? It is unpardonable, however, that Conservatives were so keen to do his bidding. Tugendhat has meekly said that he was “misled” but “can only act on the basis of information given.” Why did he have to “act”? Why could he not have reserved comment until he had analysed the interview? Is he so stupid that he trusts the New Statesman automatically or such a coward that he will throw a man under a bus rather than risk being associated with them? Mercer has at least stood by his words, saying he objected to Scruton’s reference to “invading Muslim tribes”. Well, so did I. But what does it say about Mr Mercer that he will abandon Scruton, who has fought for the causes that MP represents for longer than he has been alive, over a single comment, in the face of left-wingers who consider Scruton unpardonably offensive despite being or associating with communists, friends of North Korea, IRA apologists and other such unlovely ideologues. What kind of masochistic puritanism is this?

Unlike Scruton, I do not believe in Brexit. I think it has been an enormous waste of political capital that will not bring a golden era of independence but a grim parade of embarrassing deals with obnoxious regimes. Like him, however, I have less than no hope for the Conservative Party. If it will not fight for a man who has been defending its ostensible ideals for four decades, in the face all manner of libels, then it will not fight for me and it will not fight for you.

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We’ve Given the Word “Mob” a Bad Name…

One of my favourite quotes from The Simpsons, and I have many, comes from when the dastardly Mr Burns whips up a mob to reclaim his teddy bear from young Maggie Simpson. Maggie weeps when the bear is seized from her grasp and the citizens of Springfield are moved enough to give it back. “We’ve given the word “mob” a bad name,” says one man.

Mobs, of course, are nothing new. Ritual denunciation, vigilante justice and mass hysteria has characterised everywhere from the Deep South to Stalin’s Russia. Happily, Western societies do not have lynch mobs any more. What they do have is shame mobs. Isolated tweets or clips of audio and video can stir up widespread, international outrage against people who breach, or seem to breach, our standards of propriety, and the targets of popular wrath face emotional and material consequences. Justine Sacco lost her job and sank into depression after tens of thousands of people denounced a joke she made online, prompting the British journalist John Ronson to write So You’ve Been Publically Shamed. Ronson wrote:

Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval, and that is what led to her undoing. Her tormentors were instantly congratulated as they took Sacco down, bit by bit, and so they continued to do so. Their motivation was much the same as Sacco’s own — a bid for the attention of strangers — as she milled about Heathrow, hoping to amuse people she couldn’t see.

I do not believe that public shaming is wrong per se. It can identify wrongdoers and provide a useful deterrent effect. Quillette‘s own Andy Ngo has in effect encouraged “public shaming” by releasing videos of activists who have threatened and abused him, but these people deserved to have their wrongdoing exposed and deserved to face some consequences for doing wrong.

If we are going to publically shame someone, however, two things must be kept in mind: the need to provide the full context by which to judge them and the need to seek proportion in our response. It is so difficult to meet these criteria that we must extreme care before exposing people to popular wrath. It is impossible to know how proportionate the response will be as once text, video and audio is released across the web we cannot control other people’s responses. While we do know the full context if we are initiating the shaming, meanwhile, it is difficult to know if we have fully grasped it when we are deciding whether or not to participate.

The weekend has offered another case study. As well as exhibiting our righteousness as we condemn real or alleged offenders against decency or justice, we can emphasise the malign nature of our opponents. Progressives smelled blood, then, as a video was released of young Catholic prep school students, some of whom were wearing MAGA hats, appearing to mock an old Native American man, and a veteran no less, as he beat a drum and chanted.

The backlash was fierce. One young man appeared to be smirking in the old man’s face, and he was singled out for vitriol. “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?” asked the progressive commentator Reza Aslan of a boy who cannot have been more than sixteen years old. “This image will define his life,” said the screenwriter Michael Green, “No one need forgive him.” Progressives often believe, and sometimes with justice, that the state offers violent criminals too little chance for redemption but a young smiling inappropriately was, it seems, a mortal sin.

“Names please,” posted alleged comedian Kathy Griffin, “And stories from people who can identify them and vouch for their identity.” Ms Griffin played the victim when she faced public backlash for joking about murdering the President when she was a rich adult but being irreverent to an old man as a child? Screw those kids. The school, its officials, the students, and, predictably, young men who had not even been there had their names dragged through the mud.

There was a palpable hysteria in some of the responses. “I fucking hate that smirk,” tweeted the editor Alex Cranz, “It says “I’m richer, I’m white, and I’m a guy.”” It was clear that progressives were not just outraged about the boy. He was an avatar of everything they hated. Donald Trump. A high school jock. Straight, white, male privilege.

Most reasonable people, I hope, could agree that the people I have quoted were overreacting. But most of us who watched the video, including me, did come away thinking the kids had deserved criticism. They were being offensive and obnoxious.

Or were they?

The story, as is so often the case, became less clear. A new video was released, providing more context. The Native American man was not surrounded by the boys but approached their group and wandered into the middle of it. The young man did not confront him but was confronted, and his smile seems to have been more embarrassed than smug. I do not know the kid, or what he thinks, or how he behaves, but nothing could change the fact that grown adults insisted he deserved lifelong shame if not violence for a smile that a few seconds of video proved was a young man’s innocent response to a strange situation.

More details have cast the boys in an even less shameful light. One of the Native Americans was swearing at the students and crying “go back to Europe”. One of the boy’s mothers had been derided for claiming that “black Muslims” had abused the students but extended videos show that members of the cultlike Black Hebrews group were standing nearby ranting about white people and “faggots”.

I should be clear that I am not trying to reverse the situation and demonise the Native Americans. It was a heated scene, between their group, and the Catholic boys, and the Black Hebrews, and there is no evidence that they were trying to provoke the students or get them in trouble. If anyone is at fault, beyond the ranting cultists, it might have been the boy’s chaperones for not taking them elsewhere.

Did some boys act inappropriately? Yes. One’s response to an old man should not be scream and laugh even if he is acting peculiarly. Yet my words about proportion are relevant here. This behaviour is cause for a responsible adult to have a stern word about being respectful in a public place. This behaviour is not cause for tens of thousands of strangers to insult, threaten and doxx children.

What could have been an unpleasant local situation with blame on all sides was blown up into a firestorm of international outrage that will, I’m sure, leave at least some of the teenagers with lasting emotional damage, and could easily, if the rebuttal had not been so swift, have endangered their future careers and relationships. All so adults, many of them rich and successful, could express their inchoate outrage for about as long as it takes to tweet. Now that is a cause for shame that should stick with them. We should make sure it does.

It is sad to see how people who should have at least given the boys a fair hearing threw them under the bus. “These actions are not Christian, not Catholic and not acceptable,” said James Martin of America magazine. Robert George, a Catholic professor at Princeton, echoed Martin’s words, though he has since apologised. The mayor of the town in which their school is based issued unqualified praise for a “tidal wave of condemnation”. The Diocese of the school was swift to clarify that it would consider expulsion. Almost no one who might have defended the boys from an avalanche of abuse challenged the case against them. What message does this send to young men? “You are on your own.” Nothing good will come of that.

Cases like this will emerge again. Text, images and audio will make people look as if their guilt could not be possibly, possibly be in doubt. The temptation to express our outrage, sincere or otherwise, will rise from our hearts and spread outward towards our fingertips. We should question it. A day can make a lot of difference.

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On Grifting and Grifters…

As the media has fragmented, its funding has relied on diverse sources of patronage. People who agree with me have offered excellent products and appealed to readers, listeners and viewers to support them in bettering the world. People who disagree with me have exploited herdlike fools with glib, crowd-pleasing nonsense for the sole purpose of self-enrichment. They have, in other words, become “grifters”.

Who is a grifter? A grifter is someone who puts themselves first and their cause second, third, fourth or fifth. A grifter is someone who smells profit like a dog smells stale pee. A grifter is a mountebank, a soulless salesman, someone who seeks out earnings and attention like an addict.

Yes, grifters exist. It would be pointless and divisive to offer examples. Needless to say, grifters are very clear about how to pay them and a lot less clear on why they should be paid. Needless to say, grifters produce content for markets like a tailor cuts expensive suit for wealthy customer. Needless to say, there are few depths that a grifter will not sink to in moral, intellectual and aesthetic terms for likes, shares and donations.

Still, the “grifter” charge has been misused, much as I misused it in my opening paragraph. It has become a quick way to impugn the motives of one’s rhetorical opponents, which, even if it complements rather than replaces a response to their ideas (which it often does not) demands justification, just like “liar”, or “fraud”, or “creep”.

Jamelle Bouie, the American progressive commentator, recently called Quillette’s Coleman Hughes a “grifter”. Elliot Kauffman of the Wall Street Journal saw some irony in this, as Bouie is a columnist for the New York Times while Hughes is a college student who writes in his spare time. I had the same thought when I read Matthew Yglesias of Vox snarking about how contrarianism of the “Intellectual Dark Web” variety is an easy route to riches. Mr Yglesias has earned millions of dollars as the in-house contrarian of websites like Vox, which are swollen from the proceeds of venture capitalism.

Still, Bouie and Yglesias could respond that they have earned their fame and riches through sincere, substantive arguments rather than, well, grifting. But where is the substance of Bouie’s accusation? I have never interacted with Mr Hughes, and have no special insight into his soul. Perhaps he was sitting around on campus when – boom – an idea struck him with sinister force. “How about I become rich and famous by, get this, writing long articles about African-American culture for an Australian web magazine.” Perhaps he was. But it seems unlikely, no?

Bouie called Hughes a grifter simply because Hughes disagreed with him, and “grifter” was a more modish, subtle and damning insult than “idiot”, “imbecile” or other insults that for all their crassness would at least have sullied his intelligence rather than his intentions.

It is easy to grow cynical online. As commentators steer their audiences towards Patreon, PayPal, SubscribeStar, crypto-currencies and other means of paying their bills and funding their vacations it is tempting to assume that they must be opportunists. Perhaps they are. But some things should be kept in mind. The first is that the media has always relied on patronage and it need have no less integrity if this comes from a wide range of backers than if it  comes from the pockets of a billionaire. The second is that patronage is not, at least in principle, the same as charity. Whether you like Jordan Peterson or Chapo Trap House, if you have supported their respective Patreons you have done so not because you want to keep them off the streets but because you want to keep them making new content. The third is that the alternative to patronage is inevitably advertising, and producing adverts for oneself might be preferable to hosting adverts for dubious sexual performance supplements and boutique handbags.

Even when someone is obviously not making full use their intelligence, they might have motivations other than greed: the desire for status, the desire to propagandise or just the unconscious urge to defend a cause they have emotional investment in by any means available. All this means we should be careful not to use the “grifter” epithet promiscuously and without just cause.

Still, there is a very different angle to see this from. The ability to monetise one’s interest in politics and society does add dangerous incentives into one’s work. Most of us who have found a place in the online media, thanks to magazines, or YouTube, or Twitter, have or have had normal jobs with less obvious potential for wealth, status and excitement. The desire to turn one’s hobby into one’s career does put a devil on one’s shoulder, whispering about what is and is not a good take, or style, or argument to monetise. As writers, comedians and documentarians increasingly depend on freelance work and crowdfunding, the desire to please one’s editors and audience is unavoidable.

Sometimes the consequences of this are minimal if not actually harmless. Occasionally, I choose a subject that my readers are interested in rather than a subject I find more interesting – but sometimes I look back and see that my readers have been right. More damaging is the temptation to make arguments that will be welcomed by one’s editors and audience, and to avoid arguments they will find misguided or offensive. There is no way to avoid this temptation. One can only ask oneself if it is better to die having contributed some small things of value to the world or as a hack with a slightly bigger house.

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