A Mail on Sunday poll this week reveals that “more than half of Britons want a return of the death penalty,” and this prompts me to reflect on a recent prison visit I made, in order to read from, and discuss, one of my novels – a meditation on life and death. As I sat and discussed the themes of the work with a group of inmates, the majority of them lifers, it dawned on me that there was more truth here, in this prison library, than there was on the outside – beyond these cells, bars, walls and perimeter fences – in the offices of politicians and journalists.
The men before me, hard and troubled men who had committed violent crime, and in some cases had killed, talked frankly of what they had done, and why they did what they did. If the Mail on Sunday had its way, however, more than half of them would now be dead, their fates sealed with a lethal injection, the preferred method of the newspaper’s intelligent and compassionate readers. The rag prides itself on encouraging “public debate in a society where hardly anyone has been taught how to think, while millions have been taught what to think,” in the words of its chief columnist Peter Hitchens, yet at the same time profits from a populist, conservative and bigoted editorial line – for this sells the most newspapers – and is utterly intolerant of any opinion which contradicts its own. It would far rather its readers not think, because if they did, its sales would likely plummet.
Talking to these inmates and hearing their different stories, it was clear that their violent acts were not the product of evil, as the likes of Hitchens would have us believe, but rather were born out of a personal horror, of a kind that the privileged politician or journalist cannot, in his worst nightmare, conceive of, though he is still ready and willing to pass judgment on these fallen men, sure in the knowledge that they must be condemned not understood. When the inmate Jimmy pulled out a pump-action shotgun and shot the man who had sexually assaulted his daughter, he did so not in a cool gesture of premeditated evil but in a desperate fit of blind rage.
I am tired of the righteous rhetoric from the likes of Hitchens, who believes that the British justice system has been made soft by social liberals and cultural Marxists – of which I am one – prison a mere breeze for its inhabitants. It is one thing, Peter, to visit Wormwood Scrubs, but quite another to be incarcerated there. I doubt you’d last long, even with the apparent luxuries of a television set or video game console. You’re not mentally, or indeed physically, tough enough. In his work, A Brief History of Crime, Hitchens argues that poverty and other forms of social deprivation do not cause crime, that the former principle of “due punishment of responsible persons” be reinstated i.e. the reintroduction of capital punishment, and that we give up, once and for all, on namby-pamby modern theories of rehabilitation.
Hitchens, and other social conservatives, such as Theodore Dalrymple aka Anthony Daniels, insist that the only remedy for our increasingly criminal society is the abandonment of any notion of rehabilitation and an immediate return to Victorian justice and punishment in the Puritan mould. Hence, the only way to deal with a murderer is to kill him, and if the Old Testament’s eye for an eye cannot be met, then at the very least he needs to be hurled in solitary for the remainder of his despicable life with nothing but a copy of the King James Bible for solace. For in Hitchens’ world, moral virtue can only be acquired through the practice and discipline of religious faith, and capital punishment is consistent with the Christian belief in forgiveness – though God knows how!
The young Peter might have been an atheist like his older brother – he was also a Trotskyite – yet his growing disillusionment with socialism pushed him, first, to political conservatism, then, to God. This is an all too familiar path for the bitter Conservative, the liberal and progressive heart turned so sour that it now despises what it used to love. Hitchens and Dalrymple, though the latter is an atheist, are one and the same in this respect. They blame liberal intellectuals for minimising the responsibility of individuals for their own actions and undermining traditional mores, both of which have, according to the po-faced right-wing couple, contributed to the formation within Britain, and other rich countries, of an underclass afflicted by violence, criminality, welfare dependency and drug abuse. And yet was the inmate Jimmy – he subsequently died in prison – really a product of this new underclass, and did liberal intellectuals make it permissible for him to take revenge in the manner he did?
The answer to both is a resounding, No! Jimmy did what he did out of rage, a rage born out of love for his daughter, the thought of her violation unbearable. Was it more likely that Jimmy, a working class lad born into abject poverty in postwar Britain, would resort to violence in defense of his family, than, let us say, the privately educated Peter Hitchens, born in Malta and of sound military stock. Yes, of course it was. Jimmy was born into violence, it commonly employed by his family and class to resolve all manner of grievances and disputes, and though this does not justify what he did it surely goes some way to explaining it. And though the likes of Dalrymple would posit that Jimmy is the classic manifestation of this dreadful underclass – this mass of nihilistic, decadent and welfare dependent poor people given license by Champagne-sipping liberals to live badly and destructively – I would posit, rather, that Jimmy, far from brazenly taking the law into his own hands and acting with all the characteristic ignorance, arrogance and irresponsibility of the underclass to which he purportedly belongs, was consumed by such rage that he, quite literally, lost his mind and committed an awful act. He talked about what had happened to him when I met him, and wrote about his violence in subsequent letters, taking full responsibility for his actions, expressing deep remorse, and eager to make amends as best he could.
This is a difficult notion for social conservatives to grasp as they tend to be cold-hearted, unsympathetic beasts. Short of warmth and compassion in their own hearts, and hence the capacity to forgive, they struggle to comprehend how a man like Jimmy could be so swept up in the whirl and turmoil of anger and grief that he could do as he did. And so they then conclude – so sure are they that we must all live a certain way, their way – that something like capital punishment is an effective deterrent. Had the death penalty been in place, would this have deterred Jimmy from pulling the trigger of his shotgun? No, it would not. Because such was the state of his mind and heart that practicable and reasonable considerations about how he might be punished carried no weight at that fateful moment.
I pray that Hitchens never gets his way. For if he did, we’d be forever subject to his pedagogic discipline, the great fuminator demanding that we live differently i.e. his way, and that any other way is improper, bankrupt and immoral. But I also pray he does not get his way because I would rather live in a compassionate society, one driven to understand and forgive, not condemn and punish.
7 thoughts on “A Decadent and Murderous Underclass!”
Mr Taussig is of course quite entitled to his opinions , and I am used to having my views ( and my books) misrepresented by opponents, as he misrepresents and caricatures mine. Those who wish to form their own opinions are advised to read the works he cites themselves. Either he simply isn’t up to the job of describing someone else’s opinions accurately, a common failing, or he actively wishes to distort them. If the first, too bad. Not everyone is any good. If the second, it’s up to him and his conscience (if he believes in such things) if he wishes to betray his craft in this fashion.
But I have to object to direct falsehoods. Mr Taussig asserts that the Mail on Sunday ‘is utterly intolerant of any opinion which contradicts its own. It would far rather its readers not think, because if they did, its sales would likely plummet.’
I wonder if he ever reads it? My suspicion is that he doesn’t read it because he already knows he doesn’t like it. Thus he doesn’t really know anything about it. Not that this stops him.
My weekly column, for instance, is followed two pages later by that of Suzanne Moore, who has equal prominence to me, who also writes for ‘The Guardian’ and whose opinions are of the liberal left. Our op-ed page is given over to all manner of opinions, including those (for example ) of Trevor Phillips.
This seems to me to be a strange form of ‘utter intolerance’ of contradictory opinions.
I also doubt that Mr Taussig knows much about the MoS, for instance that it was the first British newspaper to draw attention to the shocking conditions in Guantanamo Bay, that it was highly critical of the Iraq War from the start, and likewise of the Afghan and Libyan adventures, and that is position has been strongly opposed to torture, rendition etc, and also against domestic state interference in our lives. But why let such things hamper him in his condemnation?
Oh, and I quite agree that I wouldn’t last long in Wormwood Scrubs. Nor, I suspect, would he, if he entered it as an inmate rather than as a well-protected visitor. God forbid that any gentle person should be put in such an anarchic place, rather than in the disciplined and austere prisons which I advocate. But so what, exactly? What’s interesting is how violent, ruthless and dishonest people do seem to manage quite well in modern jail surroundings.
Many thanks, Peter, for your response. I was unaware the Mail on Sunday was the first British newspaper to draw attention to the abuses in Guantanamo Bay, and for this it must surely be praised. I just wish, however, that this report had been motivated less by Dacre & Co’s pathological hatred of Anthony Blair – a hatred which you publicly share, as your piece made clear on 6th August this year – and more by a heartfelt and genuine moral commitment to expose the grave breaches of the Geneva Convention.
It is a falsehood that I have not read the Daily Mail or Mail on Sunday. I have read it frequently, hence why I object to it quite so much. Your citing of Suzanne Moore, who also writes for The Guardian, reads as no more than a rather unconvincing alibi, I’m afraid. You know as well as I do that the Mail, though it might claim to have an open editorial policy, has no such thing. It’s 95% right of the political spectrum. For Paul Dacre know his readers well, and caters expertly for their prejudices, a tone of consistent moral outrage interspersed with some playful items on fashion and entertainment seeming to serve them best. Hell, when I read today’s edition I felt I was being preached to from the pulpit, headlines dominated by expressions of violent disapproval, everything “shameless”, “woeful” and “bloated”. And I saw little liberal or left-wing sentiment there, only the usual Conservative, right-wing spew, be it “the league of shame of binge-drinking British ladettes”, Richard Littlejohn revelling in the fate of “those poor little toe-rags sentenced to four years for inciting a riot”, or the Daily Mail Comment, which declares that “Labour’s left the country in debt for generations to come.”
You seem to imagine yourself to be desperately misunderstood, the great social conservative Peter Hitchens, who is lampooned for his honesty, his commitment to the truth. Yet what is this truth, Peter? You’d do well to read Nietzsche and Viktor Frankl to find it, not merely the Bible. If only liberals like I would read your work more carefully, you insist. Rest assured, I have, and find little there, other than an angry and bitter heart, which you yourself confess you possess. “Bitter laughter is my main response to the events [the riots] of the past week,” you wrote last Sunday. You were delighted, as you had at last, as you saw it, been vindicated. But is this all that matters to you, Peter, your vindication?
Bitternesss can never be allowed to rule Britain. For this Britain would be far more ghastly than the one you despise so much, the one ruled by “Liberal Londoners” and “Left-wingers”.
Mr Taussig scores two out of ten. He knows nothing of our motives (though he is happy to presume them to be low), just as he knows little of what we do (though he is happy to presume that too, from an occasional embarrassed glance at some of our pages in which I imagine he searches with a trembling forefinger for ways in which to be offended, while hoping that none of his friends will come upon him while he is reading a ‘right-wing’ paper, in case he is thrust into the outer darkness along with people like me) .
My attitude towards Mr Blair is certainly hostile, though quite how it can be described as ‘pathologically’ so, I do not know. Nor is it hatred. I am not allowed to hate people, though I am certainly allowed to hate their actions, such as bombing civilians from the air or depriving the poor of education, or selling your country to foreign powers (I have other charges, but these will do for a start).
Perhaps Mr Taussig has qualifications of some kind which allow him to diagnose this condition at a distance and on the basis of episodic and limited reading of my articles and books ( does he know that I’ve written any books? Has he read them? He doesn’t say, though I imagine he will now say that he is a keen and detailed (if critical) reader of them. There will be a test at the end, if so).
Otherwise, he’s merely using long words to make a banal statement appear grand.
I’m sure (in fact, I know, since I met him before he was famous) that Mr Blair is a perfectly pleasant human being to meet in the flesh. That doesn’t alter the fact as the smooth and plausible front-man for a bloodstained and destructive government his actions seem to me to deserve a certain amount of criticism, plus a bit of mockery.
But to return to Mr taussig’s original charge. He said that the Mail on Sunday was ‘utterly intolerant of any opinion which contradicts its own.’
The phrase ‘utterly intolerant’ has only one meaning. ‘Utterly intolerant’. It’s not open to variation or moderation or shading. Either it is, or it isn’t.
I have demonstrated beyond doubt that the allegation is false. An ‘utterly intolerant’ newspaper does not permit any expression of dissent in its pages. (My goodness, he should experience the embarrassed, nervous contortions the ‘Guardian’ gets into, when it occasionally permits me to write for it, and the explosions of bilious rage which then occur on its letters page and its website. The MoS, by contrast, is wholly relaxed about allowing left-wing voices in its pages)
Does Mr Justice Taussig then honourably withdraw, and admit his mistake?
No. Left-wing persons very rarely admit mistakes (it is their chief failing, in my view – but then, if they did, they’d have to stop being left-wing, as I found myself long ago).
So Mr Taussig avoids admitting that his claim was either ignorant or dishonest (I am happy for him to choose which) by squirting out a lot of ink into the water.
I didn’t say anything about an ‘open editorial policy’, whatever that is (USA Today, perhaps?). The Daily Mail and the MoS are clearly and avowedly conservative newspapers and make no secret of it .
I said that it was false that the MoS is ‘utterly intolerant’, and I showed it to be false, but he hasn’t the simple courage or manners to admit that he boobed.
I’m not much of a Bible reader, to be honest ( I wish I read it more) and I think Friedrich Nietzsche, unlike modern atheists who refuse to see the real nature of their choice of belief, understood the horrors of a Godless universe rather well. But Bible or non Bible, truth is truth, falsehood is falsehood and admitting mistakes is always difficult.
As for his more general personal remarks, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I’ve been insulted by experts in my time. He’s not one.
Only a child would consider a godless universe horrific, and outside mathematics, truth is never truth any more than falsehood is falsehood. This assertion therefore asserts nothing. Subjectivity insists that all is grey: ‘reality’ is chromatic, if it can be considered to have any independent ‘existence’ at all. Because truth is the first casualty of discussion, in diatribe, surely there is only misunderstanding? Perhaps the Mail isn’t utterly intolerant, Nick (I haven’t read it for years because I’ve learnt to read); it’s probably fairly intolerant and fairly tolerant, (like me – though I strive and strive and. . .), or inwardly intolerant while outwardly PC. Or visa-versa. The Mail’s problem may be that it gives the impression of being largely inane, which renders it largely unreadable if one is of a subtle disposition.
The death penality is a mark of a the primitive society, surely Peter? Justice is never revenge any more than good judgement is judgemental. And nobody is guilty but everyone is accountable.
I hope Christopher is better, Peter; I much admire him.
A fair wind to your heart’s sail, Nick my dear friend.
So, will Mr Taussig admit he was wrongto describe the Mail on Sunday as ‘utterly intolerant’?
(I’ll take this opportunity to admit that I was wrong to say Mr Taussig didn’t know that I had written books He had plainly shown knowledge that I had written ‘A Brief History of Crime’, though I’m by no means sure he’s read it, rather than one of the abusive and hostile reviews it received. I am , for instance, very much against solitary confinement).
Dear Peter, my wife’s about to give birth, but I will write back to you in due course. All best Nick
Quite agree. Much more important. Hope all goes well .