“Stupid white men” and the philosophical gymnastics of denigration

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LETTER FROM PRAGUE

Scottish journalist Bernard Thompson – currently teaching in the Czech Republic – takes the year-end to reflect on fake news, mainstream media, and the true difficulties of generalising about the behaviour of “stupid white men”.

One of the experiences I most value, living and working in Prague, is the opportunity to lead English conversation classes at two universities.

Spending time with groups of highly-intelligent people from another generation to mine, with ideas shaped by different experiences and perspectives, is both enriching and a welcome modifier of my ego. Everyone, of every age has knowledge I do not possess.

Central Prague
Central Prague

At one institution the students are artists in the widest sense. It is not at all unusual to be in a room with dancers, actors, jazz and classical musicians, filmmakers, visual artists and more. They range from first-year undergraduates to PhD candidates already working at elite national level in their fields.

Which makes it even more of a challenge for me, though an especially stimulating one, because they really know what they’re talking about and very often I don’t – at least yet.

SCIENTISTS

At the other university, the classes are with scientists with a similar mix of academic levels. Chemists and biologists, including a couple of zoologists, and a parasitologist who has just published his first scientific paper.

It’s easy to discern predictable differences in their intellectual approaches, but there is no disparity in their levels of intelligence.

Many times, I’ve been thankful to remember the words of the former General Electric CEO, Jack Welch, that it is never important to be “the smartest guy in the room”.

But, in truth, there is a limit to my humility as, deep down, I feel smart enough to be there.

I’ve long recognised the value of diverse forms of intelligence – academic, emotional, practical and more. I have a couple of decades of experience that most of the students don’t have and I occasionally offer that as my part of the conversation.

For example, I often say that one of the most intelligent answers it is possible to give is: “I don’t know”.

To say, “I don’t know”, is not simply humble or self-deprecating; it is an acceptance that no one has perfect knowledge and that it is far smarter to willingly accept that fact than to let ego get in the way, resist learning from others and consequently make bad decisions, which quickly leave your ignorance writ large.

And yet, recently, two men of an age and education comparable to mine – one an editor of a legal publication, the other a sales executive currently working in the US – echoed a question that these same students often ask me when I caution them against accepting news from any source as fact.

“Where should we go for news that we can believe?”

My answer invariably disappoints: “Nowhere. Trust no one for your news.”

SATISFACTION

In fact, just last week, I flippantly asked a student if he trusted the BBC or me. He answered no on both counts, which gave me some satisfaction.

Withholding trust is not the same as being in a permanent state of distrust. Rather, it is to take the logical position of scepticism – that that which has yet to be proven cannot be accepted as fact.

To choose a default position of disbelief is to surrender the critical faculties just as surely as to put one’s faith in that elusive “trusted source”, which some say was brought to the sceptred isle by Joseph of Arimathea at roughly the same time as the countenance divine was shining forth upon a sacred land.

But to seek a single person or news organisation in which to invest all one’s faith would betray a naivety now largely lost to this hard-bitten world of internet (post-)truths and disinformation.

The advice I give is to read and watch as much as possible, from any source, and try to infer the truth that lies in-between.

Vladimir Putin: Shady relationship with media
Vladimir Putin: Shady relationship with media

Some say that Russia Today is a propaganda mouthpiece for Vladimir Putin. I strongly agree. But, armed with that perspective, I am interested in the reports emanating from its news site. I cannot, in conscience, praise Putin, especially on the subject of news. Because a number of journalists who have sought to scrutinise or criticise him have been found dead in highly suspicious circumstances.

On the other hand, “Auntie” BBC is the quintessentially British propaganda outlet. Historically, the British have been a curious breed in that they have so often tended to equate trustworthiness with a clipped public-school accent and random references to cricket.

MAINSTREAM

No wonder so many tuned in to Lord Haw Haw and his “Germany calling” radio broadcasts on behalf of the Third Reich, when the Beeb was reporting little or nothing of the progress of the war. You could practically hear the starch in his white Oxford shirt chafing against a salmon-and-cucumber tie in  William Joyce’s reports.

But while it was David Cameron who eventually disrupted the direct link between “Blighty Calling” – the BBC World Service – and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, few whimpers were ever raised in the mainstream media about the reliability of its output.

W1A
W1A

Don’t tell the conspiracy-theorists, but the BBC was still having certain journalism and engineering applications vetted by MI5, even after they had promised that they had stopped – and that fact is not contested.

But the Beeb, at almost 100 years old, remains the most trusted news source, and any of its alleged misdemeanours are to be considered mere whimsies, absolutely not inviting speculation as to its veracity. To do so would be to fly in the face of all received wisdom, accrued over generations of quality, objective broadcasting.

On the other hand, 2016 was the year in which “fake news” finally became accepted as “a thing”, largely thanks to Facebook and Barack Obama, whose 2008 “Yes, we can!” campaign for the presidency had included promises of major reform in Washington.

Neither Facebook nor Obama consider as fake news the output of Russia Today. No, that’s just propaganda, which we have always had and challenged with counter-propaganda.

You may think your vocabulary extends to a clear understanding of almost every four-letter-word. Fake that!

Fake news is the name given to websites that circulate the sort of stories that those holding a card saying “bona fide journalist” on the back most often rise above.

For news to be fake, it need not be untrue – simply from a non-established source. Newsnet, Bella Caledonia, Common Space, Wings and IndyRef 2, would be but a few examples.

No, fake news outlets are those that do not subscribe to accepted practices. They rarely have relationships with high-ranking insiders dripping carefully-placed leaks and scandals on the front pages.

Legitimate news relies overwhelmingly on contacts, which by definition means a personal relationship of some form. It doesn’t matter that, where there is a personal connection, there is the potential for bias emanating from personal loyalty or enmity, exploitation, bribery, blackmail or even planned and agreed manipulation.

AGENT

That’s what the legitimate media thrives on and is, in a sense, how the most notorious spy of them all – Kim Philby – could operate as an agent and journalist at the same time with barely an establishment eyebrow raised as to whether “one of our own” working as an agent and correspondent for The Times was even playing the game.

The legitimate media are remarkably tolerant of spies or others, like Richard Gott, using their profession as cover, even though it could seem to legitimise despotic regimes throwing the odd hack in jail on “trumped-up” charges that they were not all that they seemed to be.

To the majority who trust in the mainstream media, suggestions that fake news malarkey should be moderated may seem tedious and relatively benign. After all, there are cranks, zealots and worse out there manipulating our media, even to the point of deploying special algorithms to foment hatred of Jews.

But, set against the other dominant narrative of the year, fake news takes on another pallor.

Clinton: Won the popular vote, lost the election
Clinton: Won the popular vote, lost the election

Because 2016 was also the year in which the doctrine of the stupid white man, to use a term popularised by Michael Moore, was accepted into dogma.

There were no legitimate reasons for voting for the United Kingdom to leave the EU – only the base  reactions of the uneducated white male – the same demographic that could not see the sense of voting for Hillary Clinton because – well look at the other guy!

And before our eyes we have seen a case created for censorship by the only people we can be sure we can trust – governments across the world.

Taken together, the combination of stupid white men and fake news is being woven as a potent case for protecting the people from themselves.

And, in large numbers, the broad-minded, intelligent, elightened, people – the ones with degrees –  seem all-too-willing to agree.

DEMOGRAPHIC

And yet, I am troubled by memories of men who fitted a similar demographic.

My father had something of an education – a proud product of St Mungo’s Academy.

Raised in the poverty of Glasgow in the 1930s – that most hoped would never be repeated – the sort of tertiary education that is now so commonly enjoyed, almost as a norm rather than a privilege, was never a viable prospect.

Nevertheless, he was a lover of learning. He frustrated his children reciting Shakesperian soliloquies, and adopted “O tempore! O mores!” as his personal catch phrase.

He adored classical music, especially Beethoven, a small bust of whom he kept near his bedside. He taught himself good French, had a solid grounding in Latin and a smattering of ancient Greek.

He, too, was from another era, one in which there was often an acceptance that those interested in the “higher pleasures”, as defined by Mill and other Utilitarians should be accorded some intellectual status.

But my father would never describe himself as “clever”. Quite the opposite, he would defer, sometimes infuriatingly, to people with degrees, dismissing the wisdom of Oz that not possessing a diploma does not equate to a lack of intelligence and that the converse is also the case.

My grandfather, on the other hand, was a properly uneducated white man. He was the son of a theatre manager and a celebrated actress who had two children out of wedlock, both of whom they abandoned to pursue the limelight without scandal in Stoke-on-Trent.

UNFIT

My grandfather’s education was in an approved school, after the alcoholic grandmother in whose charge he and his brother had been left was finally deemed unfit to look after the boys.

He went on to be a baker, a wit and the wisest man it has ever been my good fortune to be in company with. He also did more than anyone in my life to convince me of the merits of trade unionism, the self-assertion of the working class and, by extension, socialism.

I don’t recall him using any of those terms and he was no political preacher. Yet, without a morsel of self-pity, he regaled his grandson with practical examples of the life of his generation, setting a powerful context in which to view the miners’ strike of the 1980s as a battle that must be won.

I have met a few truly learned and well-read socialists whom I have respected – and a lot more of the “politically aware” with degrees who seemed to see socialism as a lifestyle choice every bit as profound as hipsterism. But no one ever seemed to be as convincing as that quietly-spoken, tolerant man, who always fought his corner, offering simple logic and life experience, but never sought to convert anyone.

I can’t say for sure how either man would have voted on Scottish independence or Brexit. I suspect that my father would have chosen “the devil you know” on both counts.

My grandfather had greater confidence in his beliefs, perhaps because he was never afflicted by the insecurity of believing that his intellectual status was undermined by a lack of three letters and a sheet of A3.

But I can say with certainty that both of them would have had the ability to do what so many of the great degree-laden masses, who now see the acquisition of a degree as a membership card to an elite club, could not.

If appropriate, either man would have been able to say, “I don’t know”.

DECISIONS

Meanwhile the educated, “non-stupid” class waxes lyrical about the philosophical, moral, economic, legal and socio-political consequences of decisions made by stupid white men.

Three or four years at a university apparently endows people with remarkable powers. The ability to process advanced economics sufficiently to evaluate the relative arguments on which professors on the subject cannot agree, for example.

The educated class seems able to predict with certainty the implications for future world orders, based one a one-year unit in political history – or, in fact, a degree in accountancy, social policy, history, medicine, etc.

The terms, educated, intelligent, knowledgeable and wise are conflated, becoming virtual variants of the word, “worthy”.

There is an undercurrent to this that should be profoundly troubling to those who value democracy.

Gisela Stuart MP - one of the people who gave us the "£350m money" back bus...
Gisela Stuart MP – one of the people who gave us the “£350m money back” bus…

That is the implication that there are “wrong democratic choices”, that those who did not enjoy access to higher education have somehow less of a right to assert their democratic rights.

That stupid white men believed that £350m-a-week would be ploughed into the NHS; that the Tories, Labour or the LibDems would honour “the pledge”; that Donald Trump was not an agent of Moscow (which he almost certainly is not, despite the news.)

The logical extension of the “wise” accepting this narrative is that we take our knowledge from an elite class – the educated – much as we were once cajoled into accepting the word of the clergy who had the book-learning and moral rectitude to hand down their wisdoms to the dutiful throng below the pulpit.

That thinking invites exclusion of those who do not enjoy middle-class privilege, and reverses the advances made through centuries of toil and suffering.

EXPRESSION

The “War to End All Wars”, eventually led to the recognition of the right to self-determination; a right that was based on the free expression of the people, as a mass, not a trusted sector of society that would do the people’s thinking for them and benevolently define their choices and acceptable aspirations.

I suspect that the most powerful supporters of Barack Obama – the smart choice of the educated people, under whose watch Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street were considered necessary – care little more for what Donald Trump’s presidency will foist on America, than their British counterparts trouble themselves with lies about the funding of the NHS.

But they may care that an unanointed “outsider” (who is very much an insider) could symbolise the willingness of the uneducated white man to make a pro-active choice – to reject the smugness of those who believe that a lack of a university education is some sort of moral or intellectual defect.

The first groups targeted by Facebook’s purge of fake news were the “Alt-right” – a move which many educated liberals supported as they so often insist on “no-platforming” the extreme right, rather than having the confidence in themselves to simply win the argument.

What philosphical gymnastics are required to justify denigrating the majority and dismissing their choices as invalid, based on their perceived lack of education and the assumed superior judgement of the educated class that know what is best for them?

I am confident that the two uneducated white men, to whom I have referred, would have been able to make up their own minds when faced with the arguments of fascists – they lived through fascism in action, after all.

My educated peers, confronted with responses for which they were unprepared? Simply, I don’t know.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. If you are using the word Men as a term of abuse, then you are sexist.

    If you are using the word White as a term of abuse then you are racist.

    You are a racist Misandrist and deserve killing. You are the casue of Donald Fucking Trump becoming president and you still won’t admit your shame.

  2. Peter, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I don’t much like it. You may disagree with the author of the article, but I don’t find it acceptable for you to dismiss the whole thing with a few lines of insults. It is clear the author spent considerable time constructing and writing the piece and surely deserves to get reasoned arguments from anyone who wishes to make a different case. If it’s all some private joke, I’m sorry but I don’t think it’s appropriate for a public forum.

  3. Lucky Bernhard. He shall leave the Prague shortly as exchange for the then illegal aliens being repatriated under the #brexit agreement. Bernhard can then joyfully resume teaching english to the great but disadvataged white social class 5 beings from the english midlands. Though be warned, he might still find that, to paraphrase the former General Electric CEO, Jack Welch, he is not “the smartest guy in the room”.

  4. Thank you, Supply Ed.

    Small notes: Bernhard would be the German spelling of the name. As you wrote it twice, I am inferring that it was important to you to make this distinction.

    Bernard is actually used in Czech, though more commonly as a surname than a first name.

    (It would seem pedantic to mention that the definite article is not used with Prague but old habits die hard.)

    Secondly, you have made an erroneous assumption that I have not made contingencies that would allow me to stay in the European Union.

    Thirdly, like Peter, you appear to have commented on an article that you haven’t fully read, given your comments about “social class 5”.

    Otherwise, your comment was flawless in both logic and wit and I bow to your demonstration of your superior intellect.

  5. If only we had more men with the backbone of your grandfather and father , they were the kind of men this country was built on , they didn’t need university degrees , life was their teacher . May I suggest to the editor that reply 1&2 should have been censored , or forums like this we do not require moronic ramblings !

  6. Thank you Bernard for a thought provoking article – I am still thinking about it….but agree wholeheartedly that the privilege and wisdom which comes with some education and knowledge of the world is to be able to recognise and admit to what you don’t know. Bullshit is the enemy of civilisation…
    Frankly I really don’t know what ‘fake news’ means….but many with power are currently using the term to promote their own agendas – so we must all be careful to believe nothing but our own eyes and personal experience and take the trouble to research multiple sources to avoid being manipulated.
    The comments so far here serve as an apt and sobering reminder of what’s out there…..
    Good luck with your continuing work teaching the English language – it is a noble and empowering profession…. Words need to be used carefully and appropriately as they do frequently have as much power than the sword( as Trump has yet to learn…)
    Peter above appears sadly to have missed such subtleties….

  7. A very interesting article, and I am somewhat envious of your students, Bernard, for what must be fascinating lectures. What you say reflects to some extent what I have found in that just because someone has a degree, or two, or even three or more, it does not necessary follow that they are imbued with a higher level of common sense, wisdom, compassion, or morality than those without. My own journey from the schemes to house-painter and ultimately to a professorial chair leads me to conclude that the former is by far the more honourable profession. My mother, who was the wisest person I have ever known, was a dressmaker who made theatrical costumes including graduation gowns for the supposed ‘bricht mynds’ churned out by ‘elite’ universities.

  8. Thanks all.

    Julian Smith

    I appreciate the sentiments. It’s not a private joke between me and Peter. Anonymity can bring certain things out in people but I don’t object to it in the least and I think it’s vital to the propagation of free expression, however variable the quality.

    JohnW

    I have long thought it a pity that the experiences of those earlier generations weren’t better recorded.

    As you say, the graft was largely done by those without higher education, hoping for better for the generations following them.

    To explicitly recognise that has often seemed unthinkably socialist, though it is also a supporting pillar of the political right.

    I suspect that the moral is that, if the left can’t speak in a language that connects with the working-class majority, the right will step in.

    I sense a disconnect (to use a word I hate) between real experience of hardship and the contemporary comment on it that is so easy to express.

    That is absolutely not to say that there isn’t genuine hardship today but rather that the most-heard voices rarely seem (at least to me) to be those with the most direct experience to offer.

    And it may be no coincidence that Britain is lunging back to surrendering basic freedoms, undermining workers’ rights, the disintegration of the welfare state and the destruction of the NHS.

    Mojo 14

    I believe that emerging generations develop sharp instincts allowing them to quickly recognise the potential and the pitfalls of the technology of their era – as long as they feel inclined to be sufficiently engaged with the process.

    Perhaps it can sometimes seem expedient to make that process seem so unattractive as to appear to be irrelevant.

    I suspect that a lot of the focus on “fake news” is an act of desperation from those who are seeing the information and media norms that have worked for them being transformed too radically and too quickly.

    Coincidentally, I saw a Tweet from Kezia Dugdale asking if anyone was interested in Tweeting and getting paid for it, as part of Labour’s digital comms team. I wonder if Kez and her advisers have grasped the full array of challenges presented by the era of media they can’t control.

    Also, I’m not sure that I’m doing anything noble and I don’t feel that I am. We had a recent discussion on the IgNobel Awards, which may be more apt in my case.

    Alf Baird

    Also very kind, though I’m sure you have nothing to envy in any of my students. It’s a cliché but the adage that you learn more from your students than they do from you holds true in my case.

    I also get to meet people from various other walks of life and I’ve found that they share their stories generously.

    I don’t think I’d agree that your work as a painter was more noble than your work as an academic. (And of course, I’m not an academic.)

    But I do believe that it is a mistake to attach higher value to white-collar over blue-collar jobs (and logically it’s an obvious one, given the fact that economies require a wide range of contributions).

    I’ve done both.

    However, I can think of one very good friend who was able to transform his life immeasurably through access to education.

    From working as a labourer, with no particular encouragement, he decided that he would study for a degree (not at an elite university) and now has a high (white-collar) standard of living that would not have been open to him without accessible education.

    But again this leads me back to the denigration of the “uneducated class”.

    No one should need higher education in order to assert their democratic will. In my opinion, it is a betrayal of the working-class majority to fail or refuse to communicate with its members effectively.

    And that is not to suggest “dumbing down” but instead to simply state an intelligent case, which I see the political class as being increasingly unwilling to do.

    PS Though I mentioned Jack Welsh, I wouldn’t call myself a fan of his business methods.

    However, I did find myself reading his biography in a holiday apartment, once.

    He attributed the building of his confidence, as a diminutive child with a speech impediment, to the practical smarts of his mother – and based his motivational approach on her ability to praise him while urging him to better things.

    I’m sure there’s a lesson there, somewhere.

  9. Bernard wrote:

    “But while it was David Cameron who eventually disrupted the direct link between “Blighty Calling” – the BBC World Service – and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, few whimpers were ever raised in the mainstream media about the reliability of its output.”

    I lived abroad for 10 + years, did cameron severe link between the bbc and FCO? If so. why, when and how?

    I find the the bbc world service as bad if not worse than anything I have seen from Russia, China or the US.

    It promotes, provides support for and does not question London, royal family, English premier league, uk & US foreign policy and itself!

    Aleppo has been its focus for quite some time, strange no mention of Yemen, Libya, Iraq (especially Mosul) or wider refugee crisis brought about by illegal western wars and intervention in the Middle East.

    One could ask the question what is it for? The obvious answer is not people from the nations of the uk on holiday abroad or living abroad as the words “Scotland”, “Scots” or “Scottish” are never mentioned, we are indeed “north britain”.

    Curiously also, the bbc ws uses the dollar to describe and quantify anything they report on that a financial value can be attributed to. So much for the pound.

    Lastly, when it came to devolution of powers to Scotland, it is obvious why press and media were retained by westminster, the theme of London control continues with the Scottish Six to this day and beyond.

  10. Donnie
    The Coalition Government forced the BBC to take on the funding of World Service (previously funded by FCO) and it was effectively merged into the BBC’s other functions, principally BBC News, as a result. There was no change to this with the agreement of the recent Royal Charter renewal. Ed

  11. Thanks for response.

    I have however seen no difference in the garbage and propaganda the bbc ws spews out!

  12. The BBC has now pretty much been thoroughly discredited:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXQYuLUAbyw

    ‘And before our eyes we have seen a case created for censorship by the only people we can be sure we can trust – governments across the world.’ I would assume this is sarcasm or dry humour. It certainly is in the case of the Tories.

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