The Cult of Clever: Stephen Fry and the Next Generation
I went to see Stephen Fry in what I was hoping was going to be conversation with the stricken muse of articulacy, Christopher Hitchens, at the Royal Festival Hall this week. Alas, the Hitch had selfishly developed pneumonia and begged out of the occasion, which meant that the evening, however charming, would be in deficit of a dialogue by a factor of one, which is often seen as fatal to the enterprise. But like the androgynous protagonists of Battle of the Planets, when Hitch unravels he is replaced by a fighting force of allies and confidantes: in stepped the Archbishops and Cardinals of atheism and reason, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Richard Dawkins, along with satellite contributions from Sean Penn (how odd), Lewis Lapham, Chris Buckley and others.
The loss was transformational; not that the night was a waste- it is never a waste to see such lions of loquacity prowling and strutting, and talking about themselves to a captive crowd- but that it became a homage, almost a video obituary taking place as the dying Socrates drank his carcinocidal cocktail in New York, and I could almost imagine the whole piece finishing with the operatic dénouement of Le Morte d' Hitchens. To witness your own valediction must be a peculiar experience.
Fry was, of course, value-added; replete with anecdotes and morsels of amusement and intelligence so easily expedited from memory to mouth that I imagined they were simply stuck between his teeth from the last time he ate a copy of Wittgenstein's Tractatus with truffle oil and the tears of a hippogriff. Amis was the headline act, so commandingly confident about the process of putting one word in front of another that Fry almost looked mute by comparison. He alluded nicely to he and Hitchen's unconsummated buddy love, and we were introduced to a peculiar tour of the private snaps of the world's most hirsute columnist since Robin Williams wrote Dear Deirdre. Rushdie beamed down on the audience from the enormous satellite link screen like a latter-day deity, which must have disappointed any jihadists with long memories who fancied a punt, owned a tyre-iron and could read Twitter.
|Dawkins' first ad campaign.|
Penn impressed an audience of apparently easily impressed people by lighting a cigarette on screen; Fry commented that he couldn't have shocked people more if he'd dropped his pants instead. Penn, looking bleary and autonomously wealthy, worried me for a minute when I thought he might do just that. A fortunate interruption of the signal spared us all.
Dawkins seemed somewhat underused; but everyone agreed that it was nice he was there; otherwise the whole thing would seem like a very odd documentary of beloved intellectuals punctuated by Fry's sybaritic bon mots. It was a very enjoyable evening; a tribute rather than a conversation, and no matter that no matter was discussed more seriously than the average exchange on the Parkinson show, but it was what it was. Heaven forbid we should criticise something for what it is not: rather, criticise it for what it is. Negatives and non-existents are such frightfully slippery fish to catch, let alone cook.
|This, my friends, is all you need.|
As a teacher of philosophy and religion, I am immersed in the task of driving what I can loosely call structured thinking: the presentation of ideas and opinions as a process of facilitated justification, where mere advocacy and prejudice can be replaced by rhetorical syllogisms that can endure contest. I am also, as you can imagine, immersed in a lot of stupid. For every substantiated opinion, I hear ten knee-jerk outbursts. That's fine: that's what I'm there for- to challenge cant and bullshit, maybe even to have mine challenged once in a while by the rare outlier.
Children and adults both are sensitive to the vice of certainty. It is a weakness peculiar to humanity, that we are convinced intuitively of the following two premises:
P1: There is an objective moral truth
P2: I am the only one truly capable of perceiving it.
|Letters to the usual address|
Which isn't to say that my own views and values are now somehow inoculated from assumption and self-deceit: merely that I am aware that such deceit exists in profundity. The epistemological Holy Grail of a fact known beyond doubt is such an eternal pilgrimage, that I appreciate how very uncertain most of our certainties are. In school, I feel it somewhat of a holy mission for me to challenge the beliefs of my students: not for the project of cynical assimilation, as if I were trying to sculpt every mind in the image of me, but rather as an attempt to put pressure on their beliefs to see if they buckle, bend or repel. What survives the fire is inevitably stronger; scar tissue may not please our aesthetic, but it is thicker than the untempered tissue from which it develops. And sometime, their ideas push back.
And that's what makes me uneasy whenever I go to one of these Cultish rallies: the assumed righteousness of some of the acolytes, who are more interested in having their certainties stroked and oiled by the Greek Gods of secular humanism, or fundamental Romanism, or any one of a million shades of conviction. In a dialogue between Hitchens and Fry, one could hardly expect gladiatorial discussion; I was more looking forward to an evening of easy, well-expressed companionable wit, like port with a friend by the light of a fireplace. It became, as I say, a tribute, as if the Hitch's Super Friends had joined to lay wreaths before his prehumous tomb.
|'Here we are- the next generation!'|
Certainty revolts me; self-congratulatory, infinite self-belief makes my entrails heave. The biggest danger for the New Atheist movement- and I applaud many of its intended aims- is that it becomes a new orthodoxy; that it disguises itself in the beard-and-glasses combo of open-mindedness, and by doing so, convinces itself that the battle for intellectual supremacy had been won. One's own axioms need to be tested constantly; imagine how embarrassed you would feel if you discovered you were wrong, and it was too late to do anything about it?
|Cogito ergo Zod.|
People in every century have thought themselves more enlightened than their predecessors. Who is to say that we have acheived the Omega Brain State? What does their certainty say about ours?
|'What the F*CK did you just say?'|