rod mclaughlin

Telegraph & Spectator articles (29 apr 21...02 jul 21)

Ella Whelan in - which is behind a paywall:

I am British: I was born in Homerton hospital in Hackney, and have lived most of my life no further than spitting distance from it. And yet I’ve always ticked the box for “Irish” when asked on forms for doctors or employers. Identity is complicated: first-generation immigrants are more likely to embrace “Britishness” in an attempt to blend in, but their kids are often nostalgic for the authenticity of the “home country”. I may hold a British passport, but I liked the fact that, behind closed doors, the flat in which I was brought up was a little Co Wicklow.

Something about Britishness, in particular, has become impossibly contentious. The novelist Jonathan Coe caused a stir on Twitter this week when he bemoaned the TV guide: “Great British Railway Journeys followed by Great British Menu, with The Great British Sewing Bee over on BBC1. Plus a Panorama report called Am I British?” Coe may be right that weeknight television is often dire, especially on the BBC. But he wasn’t just showing disdain for the never-ending series of cooking and crafting shows: his issue was that these exceedingly middle-class programmes were all tainted by the association with “Britishness”.

Ever since Bake Off hit our screens in 2010, hosted by that impossibly British duo, Mel and Sue, TV producers have been trying to cash in on a very distinctive, awkward, bumbling charm. Personally I can’t stomach anything twee, but not everyone is as sectarian as me. The formula of the ‘Great British Insert Here’ show is popular because people keep tuning in to watch it.

Even Gogglebox, for instance, might not have “Great” or “British” in its title, but there’s something identifiably British about it – all the families, whatever their cultural background, share the same desire to tear down the celebrities on the telly. It’s why the American version doesn’t work. Like all stereotypes, from the Irish loving a song to the Italians being great cooks, national identities can harbour both good and bad, true and false traits.

But the pathologisation of “Britishness” has come back to bite cringing Remainer types. Looking at this week’s election results from Hartlepool to Harrow, it’s clear that working-class people are turning away from the Labour Party and its cheerleaders precisely because of the thinly-veiled disdain expressed by those who deride the Brexit vote as a display of “Little Englanderism”.


Paul Dolan in

Academics must urgently counter the very real danger of groupthink across a range of issues, starting with lockdown

There is little room for ambivalence or nuance in modern debate. Any comment or piece of analysis will be taken as support for either of the polarised views on a particular issue. If you do not come down clearly on one side, then too many people are quick to conclude that you must support the other extreme. This makes it very difficult for us to steer an effective path through complex issues. In fact, it’s worse than that because one side of the debate will usually represent the prevailing narrative in society, and so any concerns about that perspective are greeted with much greater hostility than the other way around.  

Consider the case of the pandemic. The prevailing narrative, especially among academics like me, is that lockdowns are both required and effective. So, if I am not fervently supporting lockdowns, then I am assumed to be opposed to any form of restrictions. This has been the reaction from across the academy when I have variously suggested: that the stay at home messaging was so effective that it might have resulted in more life years being lost from missed cancer treatments; that middle-aged decision-makers might have been unduly influenced by their own fear of dying; that the life experiences of younger people have been seen as a luxury good whilst we focus on the life expectancies of older people; and that it unethical to scare people into believing that their own risks from the virus are higher than they really are. 

At no point have I ever endorsed a no-restrictions policy. At no point have other “lockdown sceptics” more prominent than me ever suggested that we simply let the virus rip. When Sunetra Gupta and colleagues argued for the focussed protection of older people (which is a long way from doing nothing), they were rounded on by many in the academy, and subjected to considerable personal abuse. Given all the uncertainties surrounding COVID, none of us can know with any degree of confidence what the right approach to the virus is, and I remain deeply sceptical of anyone who is so confident that strict lockdowns are best for social welfare in the UK.

One of the main reasons I became an academic was to help to shed light on difficult questions, and to be respectful of evidence that might lead to different answers. In the final analysis, I am pretty sure that many more people will conclude that younger people have been required to pay too high a price, but I am open to weighing up any evidence that speaks to this issue. What I am not open to are attempts to shut down academic debate and empirical investigation into these issues on the grounds that the right response has already been established, and that any dissent represents denial of the seriousness of the virus.

The academy must therefore urgently counter the very real danger of groupthink across a range of issues. Inter-group contact, where members of different groups are brought together to reduce prejudice, has been suggested as a method for tackling polarisation. While some research has shown that exposure to the ideas of the opposing group can increase polarisation, other research shows that inter-group contact works better in reducing prejudice if certain conditions are satisfied, such as prolonged exposure to more than one member of the other group.

I therefore urge academics to embrace adversarial collaboration, which explicitly brings together people with different prior beliefs to work on a research question. I have started doing this more in my own academic work, such as when we sought to value the intangible benefits of the 2012 Olympic Games. I absolutely loved the Games and thought they were worth every penny, but most of my dull economist collaborators thought they were a waste of money. For those that are interested, it was the basically the opening ceremony wot won it. 

None of us - not even academics - can avoid bringing our own biases and beliefs to an issue and the evidence surrounding it. At least politicians are explicit about their disagreements. There is an honesty in that which is currently lacking in the academy. The world is a crazy place when an academic is extolling the honesty of politicians. But it does feel like the world has got a little crazier – and more polarised – over the past year. So, let us all use COVID and other potentially divisive contemporary issues as an opportunity to accept different perspectives, and to reduce polarisation rather than to increase it.

Paul Dolan is Professor of Behavioural Science at the LSE and the creator and presenter of a new podcast, Duck-Rabbit: taking sides. 

Ella Whelan - Jess de Wahls’s forgiveness of the RA is a lesson in responding to cancel culture like a grown up

The Royal Academy’s decision to apologise to textiles artist Jess de Wahls for removing her work from their gift shop is a big deal. This isn’t some spat or mix-up. Like many other women with similar views, de Wahls had been targeted and smeared as a bigot because of her assertion that biological sex mattered when it came to discussions about gender, and, in particular, trans women.

The RA initially listened to calls of transphobia from zealous keyboard warriors, reacting with the kind of knee-jerk cowardice many of us have come to expect from big organisations faced with political controversy. But, after behind-the-scenes discussions and pressure from public outrage at de Wahls’ treatment, the RA seems to have seen sense. “We had no right to judge her views on social media”, the Instagram apology read. “This betrayed our most important core value the protection of free speech”.

But what is even more important than the apology is de Wahls’ public declaration of forgiveness. “I don’t want to go down the route that so many other you know, these woke warriors are doing, that the apology is not enough. I think it’s a big thing. I think it’s a big deal”, she said. It’s important to remember how severe the RA’s initial reaction was its initial Instagram post thanked those who had made complaints about de Wahls’s 2019 blog post on sex and gender “for bringing an item in the RA shop by an artist expressing transphobic views to our attention”.

In a phone call with the RA, de Wahls was told that eight people had complained, and was chastised for not standing with “the LGBTQ community”. Despite the fact that the terms transphobe or “Terf” are bandied casually about by many online, they still mean something very serious. To be able to forgive an institution for such a public insult makes de Wahls a far nobler and more grown-up individual than I could ever hope to be.

The reason why her insistence on forgiveness is so important is because it is so rare. In fact, the only other public apology after a viral hate campaign in recent memory was Christian Cooper’s acceptance of Amy Cooper’s apology after her racist attack on him during a dog walk in Central Park. Christian’s intervention was powerful because it came at a time when tensions were running extremely high. Publicised widely on Twitter, and just days before the murder of George Floyd, Christian said that he felt “uncomfortable” condemning Amy by “a couple seconds of very poor judgement.”

Not everyone is so willing to let bygones be bygones. Former lovey and Hamilton genius Lin-Manuel Miranda is still being hounded despite his grovelling public apology for allegedly committing the sin of colourism by not casting enough dark-skinned actors in his latest film In The Heights. Anne Hathaway’s apology for her portrayal of Road Dahl’s Grand High Witch didn’t satisfy many disability activists who objected to the use of limb difference to provoke fear in young viewers. The nature of cancel culture is that once calls for cancelling have been issued, they cannot easily be revoked. The aim of such public denunciations is to permanently tar the reputation of those involved. Apologies aren’t valued as sincere or relevant unless the perpetrator serves a lifetime of shame and embarrassment, justice isn’t served.

This is not a healthy way of conducting political debate, let alone what it does to our sense of the moral value of forgiveness. There is no point to public conversations or discussion if there is no space for mistakes to be made. This is a real problem particularly for the arts, which has a long and rich history of artists and curators brushing up against or smashing down the boundaries of what is considered to be acceptable behaviour. Perhaps the problem is that apologies have become worthless these days, with everyone from politicians to presenters issuing a mea culpa every time a couple of people on Twitter object to what they’ve been said.

Then again, De Wahls’s public display of forgiveness was important not simply because of her acceptance of the RA’s rather delayed and cautious apology, but because of her insistence that “woke warriors” are a hinderance to artistic flourishing. Absolution is not always to be celebrated some things are worth holding a grudge over. My mother used to warn me to forgive, but to never forget when I had been wronged. In politics you quickly learn that there is a difference between those who apologise because they mean it, and those who apologise to save their skin.

But if we are to defend a sense of flexibility and freedom in the world of the arts, we have to be ready to accept that clashes will occasionally happen, and that’s okay. Here’s hoping the RA’s celebration of freedom of speech provoked other arts institutions to fall to their knees and admit that they too have been guilty of the sin of censorship. Unless we all start being a little more honest about the intolerant nature of public debate, we might forget how important amnesty is for a progressive society.

'Fear and bullying' at the National Trust | The Spectator

3 July 2021 - Charles Moore

Is Winston Marshall — guitarist, banjo player, composer of Mumford & Sons, and father of the west London ‘Nu-Folk’ music that eventually conquered the world — a martyr to the Twitter mob? I find his story more interesting than that. He was trolled earlier this year for tweeting in favour of a book by Andy Ngo about the power of the far-left in the United States. (I haven’t read the book; I gather it is polemical, but in no way fascist.) Because of the difficulties this created for the band, he apologised, but later felt uneasy since he believed he had said nothing wrong. After consulting his fellow band members, he decided he wanted to be able to speak out. The best way to respect the mutual accountability by which they operate was to leave the band altogether. Possibly he felt it was time to go anyway; he was its youngest member, aged 17, when it started: it has taken up half his life. The striking thing is not the original Twitter storm — they are as common and brief as lightning — but the state of the music industry, particularly in America. Surely rock music must be subversive, yet now only one political tune is allowed by the promoters, radio stations etc — with clearly anti-creative results. Although Mr Marshall can easily afford his self-imposed exile, he is brave. He even dares to say on the BBC that he is ‘a man of faith’. I hope he is now free to reveal publicly how the industry operates these days. He will also spend more time with Hong Kong Link Up, the excellent organisation founded to welcome Hong Kongers taking up the British citizenship offer. I wonder if some of his trolls take their orders from Beijing…

The National Trust has its own Black Lives Matter web page for staff, even though BLM is an extreme political organisation which explicitly attacks ‘whiteness’ (and therefore the great majority of National Trust members). Its Race Equity Network aims to ‘inspire the changes needed so that the National Trust is truly for everyone for ever’. To this end, it will ‘prioritise joy and fairness’ and ‘seek to support and challenge the National Trust to eliminate policies, practices, attitudes, and cultural messages that reinforce, or that fail to eliminate, differential outcomes by race’. It is working with a ‘sister’ network of ‘white allies’ and ‘in solidarity with other marginalised groups’, such as the Trust’s LGBTQ+ network, which ‘breaks down geographical divides and hierarchical structure’ to make sure that ‘stories for everyone, including LGBTQ+ stories’ are promulgated ‘across the National Trust portfolio’. Much emphasis is given to the Trust’s Everyone Welcome programme for staff. But if the idea of welcome is defined by politicised pressure groups, most people will feel excluded. Joy and fairness will be in short supply. According to a current Trust employee, who naturally remains anonymous: ‘At interviews people are asked how they voted in the Brexit referendum, and rejected out of hand if they voted to leave.’ He continues: ‘There is an atmosphere of fear and bullying — not, as the upper echelons in the Trust would like to believe, among downtrodden minorities, but among anyone who holds a view opposed to the neo-Marxist model prevalent in the organisation… Since the Trust’s “Prejudice and Pride” initiative [an campaign to ‘showcase’ gay connections with the Trust], they have been in cahoots with Stonewall, whereby “LGBTQ allies” are recruited to spy on and weed out anyone who thinks, speaks or acts in an “unacceptable” way.’ In studying how wokery took over the Trust (and many other cultural bodies, notably museums), I think the key to it lies in staff recruitment and HR. It is the 2020s equivalent of the hard-left penetration of trade unions in the 1970s.

At the last two weekends, I have attended cultural occasions which had to manage Covid restrictions just at the point when everyone expected them to be lifted. One was Garsington Opera, the other, Chalke Valley History Festival. I was deeply struck by the skill with which the organisers overcame the obstacles. These occasions are fraught at the best of times. Large numbers of quite demanding people — both audience and performers — gather in rural settings always vulnerable to the English weather. This year, masked, they have to be shepherded, seated, fed and watered within the law; and social distancing rules mean lower takings at the box office. On both evenings, the quality and finish of everything were outstanding, so everyone was in happy mood, cheering the shows on (sometimes literally). Der Rosenkavalier at Garsington was captivatingly well imagined. When the Marschallin opened the box containing the rose, I thought I could smell its odour. Checking with the authorities afterwards, I discovered my impression had been a complete illusion — a tribute of sorts to the power of the production. Both these evenings were private-sector. They contrast strikingly with the grim reluctance of so much of the public sector whose ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?’ attitude seems only to strengthen as the danger recedes.

I recently wrote elsewhere about the replacement of cash by electronic payment and its unwelcome effects on human freedom. A friend emails to point out another aspect. People under the age of 30, he says, do not understand cash, and therefore are bad at mental arithmetic. He recently bought a sandwich for £3.45: ‘When the assistant finally grasped that I was not using a card, I handed over a £5 note and 45p in change to alleviate the weight in my pocket. She treated me as deaf. “No, £3.45!” she said and handed back the 45p, followed by £1.55 in change — exactly what I had been trying to avoid. Muffled behind a mask, I couldn’t be bothered to explain and jangled out.’ Perhaps the young are more confused about price, and therefore more easily gulled, than the generations which learnt to add and subtract for themselves, often using coins to learn.

Portland London