It was always inevitable that one day my opinions would become anathema to the next generation, that I would find myself on the wrong side of the barricades, lumped into the same category as the conservative forces against which I have been ranting all my life; my commitment to a certain way of thinking or my approach to cultural activism or my expression of a particular idea will turn me unwittingly against those coming into the world, trying to make sense of it and create a future for themselves. If I were a young person now, if I were forty or fifty years younger, I would be mightily pissed off about how I were expected to make my way in this world, accumulating debt simply by being born, already slotting into economic processes. As before, I would certainly want now to drop the fuck right out of this, fall deliberately between the cracks and find another reason for having anything at all to do with these events. At least now I am blessed by the prospect of imminent demise, if I had another forty or fifty or more years ahead of me in this seriously fucked up world, I do not believe I would have much time for anybody like me telling me how to think.
I can remember times when I was very serious and passionate about subjects about which I now realise I knew very little, or at least not nearly enough to be so confident in what I was declaiming. There have been many occasions in my past when I realise now I was completely wrong; many times also I turned out to be on the wrong side of history. All those marches against rising right wing nationalism in the seventies were for nothing. All those lunchtimes rattling cans under noses in student unions in support of striking miners, local government workers and others came to naught. Arthur Scargill was defeated by the mighty Thatcher and an entire working class culture swept away, local government workers had just to put up with what they were getting. We lost those. Our struggles against homophobic legislation were maybe more successful, although I am sure this is debatable, and eventually we did manage to force the witch from her lair by mass revolt against the poll tax, with everything from supporting each other when the sherifs’ officers turned up to poind personal belongings in lieu of fines, to rioting in Trafalgar Square and seeing the South African Embassy burn. We won those. The poll tax was scrapped and Nelson walked free to lead the Rainbow Nation into a new dawn. But then we got more of the same with eventually Tony Bleugh’s New Labour, while Mandela’s vision was revised by South African reality. So really we lost those too. All a waste of effort.
Like the song says: the party of the left is now the party of the right; their beards have all grown longer overnight. It does not matter that the political experience of anybody of my generation could in principle illuminate many current struggles, unless we kowtow to the intellectual fashion of the day and defer to contemporary activist morality, nothing we say will be taken seriously, and we might even find ourselves put into polemical categories we do not recognise. These are not our struggles. Our experience is all history. Again I must admit to having done this in my passionate youth, in the first flush of discovery that I had a mind, which could be used to think about things and explain to others where they were going wrong, that all these oldies who refused to listen to my opinions were as bad as each other and not worthy of being taken seriously.
This is what it boils down to; young people telling previous generations that they got things wrong, seriously wrong, that we have to start again with a clean slate, right wrongs and rebuild against the prejudices of established power. It is what I once believed, that I had revolutionary aspirations, at least in theory. How well-thought-through this was is irrelevant, and it does not matter that my activist credentials are as clean as a whistle, my experience does not even begin to touch what it is like being brought into this fucked up world now. I remember that one too, that sense of entitled disbelief, the furious outrage that I was expected to accept this shit. It does not matter that I know my generation got it wrong, that it followed the lure of neoliberal political economy and sold its soul to capitalism. It is irrelevant that despite my fervent efforts to tell my peers that this was not the way forward, that this would lead only to crisis after crisis and eventual disaster, that capitalism was fatally flawed irrespective of how it tried to operate, the message was not received. Maybe I was right about that one, but sadly the bulk of my generation did not listen and history moved along through crisis after crisis into the slow motion train-crash of the moment. I may regret this deeply and I might even sometimes get a frisson of I told you so as I watch capitalism tear itself apart, but it is what it is and if I were not here it would still be so. My contribution was nugatory.
When I see young people fall prey to ideologies and ways of thinking that appear regressive and fire them up into activism against abstractions, when I read articles containing logical flaws, magical thinking and ahistorical anachronistic analyses, when I see ever more narrow categories of personhood rigidly defined in law, I now know that if I have anything to say about this, from the point of view of pure logic or while standing on some unrecognised intellectual high ground, my arguments will be ignored or understood as reactionary, which they would in fact be; reactions to tawdry intellectual laziness and McCarthyite control over thought and discussion remain reactions. I know that I will now be considered right wing for espousing certain opinions and that it matters not one fuck that this seems to me utterly absurd and nonsensical; despite my eagerness to refuse to analyse politics along this mythical spectrum, even my most indifferent enemies would put me on the left. If I were to be honest I would say that I often inhabit a place described by the late great John Peel as where left and right meet round the back, where I have arrived most emphatically from the left. To be branded nevertheless right wing for having what appear to be ordinary common sense opinions is to be reminded that we all become dinosaurs, that the older we get the more conservative we become.
But what about logic, intellectual standards, what counts as a valid argument, how are fallacies and delusions to be avoided? Or is it important only to be able to communicate with members of the same echoing chamber of retweeted soundbites, devoid of either intellectual substance or material presence, with limits defined by strict control of what is not allowed, who may speak and of what? If the latter, then there is no need for logic or any other intellectual standard that enables discursive connection between different or diametrically opposed viewpoints; fallacies and delusions are only visible from another place, so if all other places are excluded, then there are no fallacies and delusions to to be seen. Everything in the garden will be rosy. We will all think the same. Anybody saying anything about fallacies, delusions, (in)valid arguments, intellectual standards and logic will become at best a spoilsport and at worst class enemy.
Unless the current climate of sloppy to non-existent intellectual standards in public discourse and political life changes, unless it becomes widely recognised that for debate to take place at all and for society to function, it is necessary for people with different points of view to hold these in suspension and to communicate with civility and candour, without fear of recrimination and in the expectation that no opinion will be excluded and all subject to reasonable scrutiny, then we can all carry on shouting at each other and will no longer be in need of intellectual standards of any kind. Those of us still of the opinion that these things remain vitally important are destined to become dinosaurs.
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