Tuesday, February 26, 2008

James MacMillan on "unthinking dogmatism"

The Spectator has published an article by the Scottish composer and conductor James MacMillan which is a weakly argued diatribe against a so-called 'new cultural elite.' In the space of a few hundred words, MacMillan manages to give a rallying call for some old-time religion and weep crocodile tears for the passing of a glorious age of grand socialism, throwing in a few unexplained pops at the arts and education in the process, and ending on a hysterical claim about the 'deliberate dismantling of the family.' Phew. heady stuff. Let's examine this a bit more closely.

MacMillan begins by attacking the new-left elite:

A new generation appeared, whose interest seemed less in economic inequality and more in confronting the traditional values of people like my grandfather, whose beliefs had underpinned the very idea of social order.
This appears to be meant pejoratively, as though confronting the beliefs of a previous generation were somehow wrong. But how do we progress, unless we question? How does society advance? He goes on:

The Left, which had been shaped as much by the muscular Christianity of the 19th century as by anything else, was now being colonised by something very foreign indeed.
'Muscular' Christianity seems, to me, something very worthwhile confronting. What exactly is 'muscular' Christianity? MacMillan is a Roman Catholic so it will presumably embrace (although embrace is a word which suggests more sympathy than Catholicism traditionally musters) a hierarchical, authoritarian, joyless worldview that demotes love of humanity beneath adoration of a supernatural creation, that fetishises sin and leaves its adherents reeling in assumed guilt, that refuses to acknowledge, for example, such instinctual propensities as homosexuality, that forbids contraception or abortion and fails to understand the link between the two, that insists on keeping the world in some sort of moral and social time warp as dictated by an old man in Rome, that perpetuates its own moral superiority and promotes the sort of separatism that has seen my country (and his) blighted by bigotry and sectarianism for all of my life and for generations before me.

But I'm in danger of following MacMillan onto a demented ride on a personal hobby-horse, so I'll desist. Anyway, this is a far more interesting point:

I regret to say that the most eager acceptance of the new hectoring political puerilities are to be found in The Arts. This has its roots in Romanticism, of course, but a gradual systemisation of radical politics settled in the early 20th century.
What a curious couple of sentences. The first could have come from Rousseau – the Arts as dangerous manipulator of frail humanity, always preying on our curiosity and vanity and credulity. But then MacMillan blames all this on Romanticism, a movement which traces its roots back – of course – to the Savoyard Vicar himself, one M. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Perhaps MacMillan is conflating Romanticism and the Enlightenment?

Romantics were interested in human freedom, which should be expressed through life, philosophy, the arts. Many Romanticists, Rousseau himself, for example, were deeply religious, even devoutly Catholic. Blaming them for the debasement of the arts which leads to the corruption of humanity, which is essentially what MacMillan is suggesting here, is facile. But not as facile as the way, within a sentence, he manages to turn those pesky Romantics into 'Imagists, Vorticists, Futurists, Surrealists, Expressionists habitually declar[ing] their commitment to Revolution.' It's a breathtaking leap, that, from Hazlitt and Wordsworth to Marinetti and Breton.

So let's probe a bit further. What is it about the Arts that so alarms him? It's to do with a 'love of transgression,' apparently, which sounds fascinating. What does that mean? It is characterised by 'anti-bourgeois militancy,' he explains, amplifying this with the example of 'Harold Pinter's descent into infantilism every time he mentions the United States, or for that matter decides to write poetry.' Aside from the patent nonsense he next espouses that the art-establishment lauds rather than ridicules Pinter's poetry (I've never heard anyone say anything good about it, and am hardly alone in ripping it to shreds), how on Earth can one attempt to explain a 'love of transgression' by way of Harold Pinter's dismal war poetry? As a non-sequiteur it's right up there with suggesting Pinky and Perky caused the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Next, he turns his attention to 'arts criticism' (which he dismisses as a 'secular priesthood,' an oddly pejorative use of the religious office for a Roman Catholic arguing for religion and against atheism, but logic is an increasingly rare commodity in this article). He talks of a 'new cultural elite,' whose role is 'to attack the institutions and principles of our shared common life.' He goes further:

What we are seeing here is a cultural regime which adjudicates artists and their work on the basis of how they contribute to the remodelling, indeed the overthrow of society's core institutions and ethics.
Again, an arresting claim. Where's the evidence? He quotes the Guardian describing an introductory talk he gave to one of his performances as 'perilous.' In what way perilous, he asks, but does not do the Guardian the courtesy of going on to give their explanation. He leaves it hanging as an implicit rebuke, but a quote without context is merely an exercise in obfuscation. In attempting to prove or describe the 'new cultural elite' it achieves nothing.

In his next example he correctly trashes an idiotic statement from Lisa Goldman which is a lazy and puerile exercise in straw-man building. He is right to state that we should not assume that everything broadly to the right of the spectrum is of a muchness, and that therefore we should not caricature others' opinion thus. A useful lesson that MacMillan might profitably learn from himself.

Having managed only two examples of a 'new cultural elite', neither of which demonstrates how it uses its alleged powers to any malevolent intent, MacMillan concludes with another magnificent generalisation: 'There is a growing backlash against this bullying, hectoring and unthinking dogmatism.'

Bullying? Hectoring? Unthinking dogmatism? Let's remind ourselves of his evidence: The Guardian called him 'perilous.' Lisa Goldman gives a simplistic response to a query about a left-liberal consensus. That's it. Heaven help us when someone says something really nasty about him.

He moves on:

There is a growing resolve to confront a liberal establishment in the Arts, media and elsewhere, responsible for the systematic trashing of much that has been our common heritage, including authentic socialist values handed down from Keir Hardie and others.
Since he failed to give any evidence in the first place of the systematic trashing of our heritage, it was always going to be too much to expect him to provide evidence of the backlash either, so we just have to take this assertion at face value. Or not.

In his conclusion he tries to explain his anger in terms of being an ex-Socialist and a 'good' Catholic; he seeks to claim the mantle of old-fashioned socialism and assert the primacy of religion; he lambasts education, the media, the 'vulgarisation of society' and, (apropos nothing and introduced in the last act like the murderer in an Agatha Christie novel) the 'deliberate and planned dismantling of the family.'

All of this explains what is wrong with the article. It is completely muddle-headed. It is imprecise and unclear. MacMillan is clearly angry, clearly sees something which he regards as a threat to his way of life, but this diatribe is poorly focused, weakly argued and utterly confused. The frustrating thing is that I don't dismiss some of his ideas out of hand – I think he has a point about the appropriation of left-wing politics by idealogues whose allegiance is to their ideology and not to humanity; but he doesn't argue his case persuasively. He allows it to slip into the personal, he gives his own emotions too much intellectual weight, he allows his prejudices to colour his argument. It is unfortunate that a topic worthy of debate is given such shallow treatment.

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