Saturday, August 18, 2012

Memo to Jeremy Clarkson: Britain abolished international slavery

Popular Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson isn't afraid of speaking his mind. That's increasingly rare and I commend him for it.

But his most recent comments are disappointing. Clarkson's dog had to be put down and some of this twitter followers responded with cruel comments. Which then led Clarkson to write the following in Top Gear magazine:
Britain is a nation of 62million complete and utter bastards. We are the country that invented the concentration camp, and international slavery.

Maybe he's being deliberately provocative. Perhaps he wrote it whilst still in a fit of anger and upset. Even so, it's a hopelessly negative attitude to take toward your own national tradition.

The jibe about inventing international slavery isn't even remotely true. Slaves have been traded across national boundaries for thousands of years. If Britain had a distinct role it was more for using its power to abolish the international slave trade rather than inventing it.

Which leads me to a theory about why so many Westerners have a self-contempt. One of my readers recently defended liberalism as follows:
Shame on both the conservatives and modern liberals and any “ism” for using the government to force people to act in ways they think they should act. The only thing that should be worth dying for is freedom from men using the government to force people to act out their ideals. Governments should only exist to protect peoples life, liberty and personal selfishness as long as their selfishness does not lead to stealing, cheating, lying or causing harm to another’s private property or themselves.

There is an assumption underlying such an attitude which is that there are no positive goods that can be known to us; instead, we are to think in terms of there being personal, subjective ideals. But this runs very close to a pessimistic nihilism, as it locks in the suggestion that real, objective goods either don't exist or can't be known.

The only thing that lessens the nihilistic blow is this: if you think that there are only personal, subjective ideals then you might be able to conclude that a freedom to pursue your own subjective ideal unhindered becomes the one significant good that can be recognised to exist.

Which perhaps helps to explain the tremendous emphasis placed on such a freedom by liberal moderns. It is something that is clung to in order to avoid an immediate descent into a nihilistic scepticism.

But it's not much to cling to. And hence the vulnerability to self-contempt and a desire for self-abolition.

The solution is to have the courage to discuss a mix of positive goods (which can include freedom and autonomy) and to develop these within the political, cultural and social framework of society. Obviously,  a society which does a better job of this will have a stronger foundation than one which doesn't, but ruling out the notion of positive goods ensures that you will fail.


  1. In 2007, I was amazed to see the "So Sorry" march in parts of England on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the the slave trade.

    Such contempt for self is both disturbing and sad to witness.

    I guess Clarkson's concentration camp comment comes from the Boer War when the Brits rounded up Boer women and children, though I confess ignorance as to what actually transpired. Stuart L

  2. Yes, he's talking about the Boer War. It is sometimes said that the British established the first concentration camps during this war. The Boers were fighting a guerilla campaign and the British response was to burn the homesteads to deprive the guerillas of support. The Boer women and children were placed in camps, but disease spread quickly and large numbers died - leading to an outcry and a change in policy.

    I don't think the Boer War was Britain's finest moment (it seems to have been motivated by a desire to control the mineral resources discovered in the Boer states).

    It's alright to look back and recognise what was done wrongly, but it should be in the context of a mostly positive regard for the achievements of your own tradition.

  3. @stuart L

    though I confess ignorance as to what actually transpired.

    It's quite easy to find.

    Here's the Wiki link.

  4. I can't say I'm a fan of Clarkson. Like Boris Johnson he just spits out indulgent comments thoughtlessly and thinks he's a hero for rocking the boat. He all too quickly comes back to heel when the pc pressure is on.

  5. Concentration camps were "progressive". In the old days they would just enslave the women and young children and kill the men.

  6. I wonder if everyone having a go at Jeremy Clarkson have actually read his article about this. If u haven't please read it before u continue to rant on about the guy. It's pathetic how we are all to quick to believe the crappy people write in the press!

  7. Anon,

    I couldn't find a link to the article, nor could I find anything at the Top Gear website.

    But if you've read the whole article and believe his words have somehow been misrepresented, then best to explain why.

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  9. Whilst I don't want to make too big an issue of this I can say that the image presented of Clarkson on his show is of an, "oh shucks I'm just a bit of a hopeless kind of peter pan male who likes cars" guy. This persona is then combined with a witty reactionary streak, largely put on for laughs, and voila you have your show. All up I believe its a fairly irresponsible, indulgent, and embarrassing image to promote and whilst its certainly sometimes entertaining, it never managed to win me over or seriously entertain me. I can also say that I've seen him shoot from the lip so many times that I'd believe he'd call down every denunciation under the sun upon his mother country for any disappointment greater than, and including, a parking ticket.

    Can we say that he's the equivalent of the Lefts John Stewart? I fear not. John Stewart has shown a real desire to lead political opinion and he takes this role seriously with or without a comic platform. Clarkson on the other hand seems to launch into fairly silly and spasmodic utterances and attacks, quickly followed by speedy retractments, with as much desire to cause general affront for personal acclaim or enjoyment, as he does to promote real conservative issues. Can't we do any better than this?

    I think we have a problem when conservatives hide behind ribald humor of the, "bring back the gallows and the public floggings" kind, in the name of political commentary or entertainment, as I believe that such efforts are essentially statements of powerlessness and irrelevance and lack the credibility to be taken seriously by anyone. Such comic approaches at heart seem to accept that the current political reality is settled and acknowledge that things can't really be changed for the better, so we can only whine about them. It's also delivered in an irreverent jester style of manner which serves to poke as much fun at the utterer as it does at the subject matter. So consequently when complaints inevitably start to come in after another anti-pc outburst Clarkson can simply side-step the issue with the reply that, after all it was "just a joke where's your sense of humor?". A statement which I would have thought serves to undermine any serious political contribution it might have made.

    Whilst Clarkson has many strong conservative instincts and expresses the general angst and opinions of many grumpy Britons, and Westerners generally, and he does also add value by bucking pc trends. As a leader of conservative opinion I believe he's clearly inadequate. He lacks genuine commitment, is inconsistent, and I fear taps into conservative concerns for the sake of cheap laughs rather than out of a desire to promote real change. After a while the laughs do have to stop and we should take these matters with the degree of seriousness which we believe they deserve.