I wrote to The Herald last week, for the first time this year. Speech after long silence. I’d become scunnered by letters launching vitriolic political attacks on opponents, without any apparent provocation, and full of assertions devoid of any reasoned argument. I decided not to write to the newspapers unless I thought I had something constructive to say. Then an issue came up, and I felt a letter, like an illness, coming on. The issue was precisely that about which I blogged last week. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary in England, has suggested – perhaps even insisted – that remote consultation in General Practice be the new norm. Now I happen to think that that is A Very Bad Idea. Mr Hancock would call me a “naysayer” but there is nothing negative about the advocacy and the championship of the sanctity of the beautiful medical consultation.
But I raise the issue again this week, not to explore it further, but merely to provide an example of an issue over which people take sides. Why do we form one particular opinion over another?
Ever since I got chucked out of somebody’s house for expressing a particular political view, I’ve sought a means, in social situations, to lower the temperature when I sense that rigorous debate is beginning to get out of hand. A useful strategy, I have found, is to ask the person who expresses a view diametrically opposite to my own, “Why do you think that? What is it about that viewpoint that particularly attracts you?” It started as a technique, adopted simply to maintain a convivial atmosphere, but I have since found that – most of the time – I become genuinely interested in the origin and substance of the opposing point of view. I would go further. It seems to me that unless you have some understanding of, as it were, the opposite bench’s way of looking at the world, and even some sympathy for it, you probably haven’t thought your own opinion through, with any rigour. So I ask the question, and I try not to hope that my debating opponent will trip themselves up with their own inconsistencies; rather that I will find out what makes them tick. And who knows? Maybe their argument will convince me, and I will have to change my mind.
I have two books that sit uncomfortably beside one another on my book shelf: The Two Cultures, by C. P. Snow (Part 1 first published, Cambridge University Press, 1959, 50th Anniversary Printing, Canto, eleventh printing 2008), and Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow, by F. R. Leavis, with an essay on Sir Charles Snow’s Rede Lecture, by Michael Yudkin (Chatto and Windus, 1962). I periodically reread them, as I did this week. F. R. Leavis’ attack on C. P. Snow is the ultimate exemplar of a deliberate attempt at demolition, not only of an argument, but of a personal reputation, without any apparent attempt to acknowledge that there might be some legitimacy in the opposing viewpoint, and perhaps even something worth salvaging. I’ve written about this before and I don’t want to go over old ground. Actually when you strip away all the personal animosity the core of the argument doesn’t seem to amount to any big deal. Snow thought that scientific academics didn’t understand literary academics, and vice versa, and that that state of affairs was not good for society. Leavis, being a literary critic, did what literary critics do; he subjected Snow’s essay to a merciless analysis. He completely dismantled Snow’s argument, and left it in pieces. It’s a blood bath, if you are attracted to that sort of thing. Leavis characterised the broad sweep of Snow’s utterances as “panoptic pseudo-cogencies”. He might have taken the view that Snow had expressed himself very clumsily, and then sought to uncover that which Snow was trying to say. In other words, he might have asked Snow, “Why do you think that? What is it about that viewpoint that particularly attracts you?” But that would have gone very much against the grain of mid-twentieth century literary theory: if the text does not convey the meaning, the meaning is not there. Leavis rubbished Snow’s thesis that there existed “two cultures”. Yet paradoxically, precisely because he refused to concede anything to Snow, to engage sympathetically with him, because there was a total absence of meeting of minds, he rather demonstrated that Snow had a point. There can be no doubt that Snow touched a nerve.
The distinguished American critic Lionel Trilling thought that Leavis’ critique was broadly right, but he deplored Leavis’ tone. It was tantamount to his declaring, “Sir, you are not a gentleman.” The other essay included in the two books in question, by the biochemist Michael Yudkin, is in my view the best piece of writing in the collection, because it makes all of Leavis’ points, while still affording Sir Charles courtesy and respect.
A deeply contentious issue, of course, has dominated the news this week. A huge quantity of highly inflammable material has sat for years sequestered in a port in close proximity to a living, breathing city. An accident waiting to happen. When the explosion comes, those who survive are incensed at the incompetence of a corrupt government. I refer of course to the repository of nuclear weapons at Coulport, which happens to be 25 nautical miles from my house.
Hiroshima was remembered on Friday, Nagasaki on Sunday. In the current pandemic when live music has virtually been silenced, I was privileged to hear a live performance of Debussy’s Berceuse Héroique (1914) pour render Hommage à S. M. le Roi Albert 1er de Belgique et à ses Soldats. It is a sombre piece, of great strength and moral power, incorporating at its core La Brabanconne, the Belgian national anthem. Debussy was commissioned to compose it, and he said, perhaps apologetically, it was “the best I could do.” But I think he meant it. It’s right up there amongst his greatest works. A fitting piece to hear on Nagasaki Day.
Brian Quail, a retired Glasgow classics teacher who writes eloquent letters to The Herald and The National in support of dismantling the hellish contraptions at Coulport, used these sombre anniversaries to write again in furtherance of the cause. I am with Mr Quail – no, I can’t say that. I don’t have his guts. He lies down in front of the convoys en route to Aldermaston, gets arrested and goes to jail. But I agree with his viewpoint. His is a moral stance. Yet I must try to understand somebody like Mrs May, who does not look like a mass murderer (then again, what does a mass murderer look like?) standing in front of No 10 saying she would “push the button”. If I woke up tomorrow morning and found myself prime minister, would I really be prepared to alter the delicate balance of power, and unilaterally disarm?
Yes I would. Even pragmatically, I think Coulport is an accident waiting to happen. There has always been the possibility of detonation by mischance – a computer glitch (Failsafe), a terrorist heist (Thunderball), a rogue general (Dr Strangelove). Add to these now the curse of our own age, managerial pseudoscience as purveyed by IT enthusiasts in sharp suits. It’s about rebranding the CASD to keep our feet under the Top Table and lead the world going forward. Yah yah yah.