Thurifer realizes that not much changes
A problem of public discourse, highlighted and exacerbated during the pandemic and its febrile atmosphere was that reasoned disagreement was downed out by the mindless braying of slogans and clapped-out cliché. Being offended does not mean that you are right. Tools of suppression and weapons to silence dissentient voices and opinions that do not conform to the party line are the first to emerge in any tin-pot dictatorship or rigidly ideological regime. Holy Church is not immune as the auto-da-fé of heretics bear witness. The ruthless puritan period of the Interregnum in 17th century England is not forgotten. The Public Worship Regulation Act (1874), constitutionally and legally valid following all the democratic procedures of the day, purported to “put down ritualism.” It was not to be tolerated in the doctrinal economy of the Church of England. Dr Pusey was suspended from preaching for two years in Oxford University. It would now probably be permanent inhibition and dismissal in that citadel of academic freedom and discourse. Newman escaped censure by the non placet of the Junior Proctor, Richard Church. Although he may not have said it in precisely these terms, the Voltarian principle “I wholly disapprove of what you say and will defend to the death your right to say it,” is preferable to a policy of “no-platforming” – the crudity of the neologism should warn us of its totalitarian nature. The American jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, wrote in a dissenting opinion: “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought: not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.” It is not an easy principle to implement in the face of what may be to many prejudiced and distasteful ideas and there may be an instinct to ban, to foreclose debate, to silence but the higher principle of freedom of speech and debate is the greatest and most sure defence of the democratic, as opposed to the totalitarian, society.
The inauguration of President Biden brought to an end the attempted putsch, if such it was, by his predecessor. Democracy, however tattered and battered, emerged triumphant, if not unscathed. It was not ever thus. One of many problems with dictatorships, fascist, communist, or any betwixt and between, is the obliteration history by an approved, enforced narrative. Year 1 of the despotism is the new baseline. History, in its nuance, untidiness, it heights and depths, becomes irrelevant before the rigid might of the new orthodoxy. Today’s “cancel culture” has something of that despotic intolerance of a conflicted past. Consider, Michelangelo seems to have been unpleasant, surly, rebarbative but an artist who can touch the soul. Is there anything finer than his Pieta? Charles Dickens was a dreadful husband but a potent force for social good. Even that adamantine protestant, Cromwell, drew the line at Anabaptists.
Ploughing through Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (and one of the Tales) for A Level may have felt something of a chore before the fascination of Shakespeare’s Othello. It soon became apparent, even to an underwhelmed teenager, how important it was and how enjoyable. Even if Dr Coghill’s translation helped matters along. As if the world was not mad enough, it ought not to come as a surprise that one of our universities has now struck a blow for the philistine and the ignorant, the superficial and the supine. A friend put it better when he wrote: “It is pointless to expect any traditional standards or civilised principles from our universities. Degree courses are being sold as qualifications for a job with a bigger salary. I read … that the University of Leicester’s English department is proposing to scrap the teaching of Chaucer and mediaeval literature in favour of “a chronological literary history, a selection of modules on race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity, a decolonised curriculum, and new employability modules.” This, they claim, is what “students expect”. Quite apart from the fact that students should be taught literature they would not necessarily choose to read, an English department which espouses this gobbledygook is fit only to be closed.” Indeed so.
On March 18th last year, I was to have taken a friend for his birthday to Tate Britain to see an exhibition of paintings of the English Baroque, and to lunch amid the splendid Whistler murals. The evening before, the Tate announced its closure in the face of the rising tide of a new virus. My lockdown began then. Over 100,000 deaths and vast numbers of victims in hospital or ill at home later and we are still under its threat. Vaccines came to the rescue sooner than we could have hoped. My turn came mid-February and very efficiently executed it was. Fortunately, the centre was within easy walking distance. Several GP practices had combined in one large recreational hall. The volunteer and medical staff were first-rate. By chance, I was inoculated by staff from my own Practice and was enjoying a pleasant chat unaware that the needle had gone into my arm. The centre was busy and it took some 45 minutes. Fortune again smiled and I had no adverse reaction, not even a sore arm. Yet we look back on a plague year and a ravaged social, economic and personal landscape. And for the future? Pray.