Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Prim Britannia & Popular Britannia

Rough-Arsed Northerners who aim to die with their boots on!

IN A RECENT DISPUTE among British syndicalists over the use of the term 'Nazi' in modern political polemics someone invoked Godwin's Law to claim authoritatively that once someone refers to 'Hitler' or the 'Nazis' that ought to close down a discussion. It was further claimed by 'Becca', who I know and respect, that once these terms are used in debate that people automatically 'close their ears' to all further comment. Another contributor 'Nick D' was more aggressive, asserting that even if the terms were used in jest or genuinely in the debate, the discussion ought to end forthwith because the proponent's use of an 'illegitimate' term automatically disqualified all further serious debate under Godwin's Law.

Those of us not so well acquainted with website etiquette or protocol retreated from the scene of battle, licking our wounds and scratching our heads believing the Young Turks may have a point: the point being that it is inappropriate behaviour to challenge a British union boss armed with metaphors related to Hitler. It was as if suddenly someone had presented us with a proposition by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Closer examination of Godwin's Law (Godwin in this case is not the 19th Century English anarchist William Godwin of 'Enquiry Concerning Political Justice', but rather some American Joe Blogs-type 'Godwin': phantom of the internet) suggests that he didn't intend it as an absolute law, but merely wanted people to think carefully before using such terms as 'Nazi': he didn't want the word to become devalued by overuse. In this case the comparison between Chancellor Hitler and RMT union leader, Bob Crow, merely pointed out that both were in favour of nationalised railways (see Chancellor Hitler's speech of December 8th 1934).  In the eyes of some, to do this was seen as both tactically stupid and perhaps equivalent, in some people's eyes, to swearing in Church.

Ought we to swallow 'Godwin's Law' without complaint? Ought we to adopt a prim and pragmatic approach to our opponents and enemies as some people have said, including Nick D, 'Becca' and my old friend Dave Chapple? Should website threads and discussions be closed down at the first utterance of the term 'Nazi' or 'Chancellor Hitler'?

Those of us from the North who publish Northern Voices would refute such suggestions for a prim and pragmatic politics and debate. Ours is a more rough-arsed polemic rooted in the working class culture of the North of England. Those of us who come from this tradition still, I suspect, represent the majority in this country. I myself noticed it when I left school at 15 and became an apprentice on the shopfloor: in doing so I had shifted from the lower middle-class world of the classroom and the schoolmaster to the bold banter and vulgar abuse of the factory floor. Debates should never automatically be closed on account of some fancy protocol like Godwin's Law.

Nor is it the case as Becca suggested that people 'close their ears' at mention of Hitler or 'Nazi': some people might, but it is not typical. As evidence of this a recent program on Radio 4 hosted by Clive Anderson declared that in 2010 there were 850 different books published on the Third Reich, and that after books on celebrity memoirs and celebrity cooking, books on the Nazis are the most popular publications available. As Clive Anderson pointed out on Radio 4, perhaps in bad taste for some, a successful book would therefore try to combine celebrity with cooking and the Nazis: suggesting one on Celebrity Nazi Chefs. Northern Voices embraces whole-heartedly the rough-arsed culture of the Northern English working-classes. We seek to build our readership among working people rather than political activists. Hence we publish stuff on Eccles Cakes and Northern Cooking, Salford Matadors like Frank Evans, local murders, heroic forgers like Shaun Greenhalgh from Bolton, Gangs of Manchester, Walter Kershaw's nude study (see NV11) and Big Cyril's passions and corporal punishment on young boys; as well as the political views of Picasso, who had an exhibition at the Liverpool Tate last year, so we review 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' at the Liverpool Everyman or perruse the ideas of the anarchist social thinker, Colin Ward, and the Big Society.

We would reject Godwin's Law as a reason for closing down a thread debate. In this regard we would turn to the story of Wittgenstein who was visiting the philosopher G.E. Moore in 1944 after Moore had had a stroke. Under instruction from Moore's doctor, Moore's wife insisted that his friends must limit their visits to one and a half hours. Wittgenstein alone objected to this restriction saying no discussion should be cut off until it had reached its 'proper end'. Furthermore, Wittgenstein added that should Moore expire during such a discussion, then that would be a very decent way to die, 'with his boots on'. Despite the recommendations of our detractors employing  Godwin's Law, those of us at Northern Voices are determined to die with our boots on, and not suffer, and be struck dumb, under the prim pretext of the requirements of some fancy rule.

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