Tuesday 24 April 2012

Iain MacWhirter and the closing of the Scottish mind

Combinations of things, even ones good in themselves, can often produce unfortunate effects. Many of us in our youth grow to appreciate the advice against mixing grape and grain through the hard lesson of the hangover on the morning after.

Iain MacWhirter's piece in the Sunday Herald admittedly would probably have annoyed me on its own. Directed at Muslim opposition to same sex marriage in Scotland, it's the usual claim that anyone opposing this legislation is homophobic and indulging in 'sexual apartheid'. But coupled with the usual rant are the oddities that a piece directed against Muslims describes their view as a 'gospel against gays' (my emphasis) and claims that 'The root of the problem is scripture and the fact that the Bible says people who commit sodomy should not be allowed to live' (again, my emphasis). I'd be delighted to think that interfaith relations between Muslims and Christians had advanced to such a degree that they were now turning towards the Bible for moral instruction, but I rather doubt it. It's quite obvious that MacWhirter hasn't managed to keep his mind for more than a few sentences on the task in hand of dealing with Islamic views on homosexuality and in a Pavlovian response to the word 'religion' has simply returned to a more familiar theme of bashing Christians.(Whilst of course still ignoring the differences between Catholicism's basis in natural law rather than Protestantism's sola scriptura.)

But what reduced me to a rather black despair over Sunday was the contrast between the vacuity of this article and richness of the central concerns of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind which was published twenty-five years ago. (H/T Ed Feser.) It was one of those books that I was dimly aware of, thought I'd probably sympathize with, but never quite got around to reading. Well, the twenty-fifth anniversary of publication seemed like a good opportunity to remedy this so, with the reckless simplicity of the Kindle, I found that I had downloaded it before I had time to reconsider.

Half way through it now. It is of course, like any narrative with a broad sweep, at times an irritating read: when he confidently asserts something about the content of this or that philosopher's thought, you find yourself thinking of a passage that doesn't quite fit the breezy picture portrayed. But its great strength is that it provokes and promotes debate: like Socrates in Plato's early dialogues, you may well find yourself thinking at times that you've been the victim of some intellectual sleight of hand, but feel confident that Socrates'/Bloom's greater purpose would still be served if you came back hard with an objection. Perhaps more final reactions on a later post, but for the moment, it is Bloom's specific thoughts on sex that provided such a depressing contrast to MacWhirter's whittering.

Bloom was actively homosexual and died of AIDS. Perhaps because of this, he writes most effectively about the role of eros in the good life, in learning and in male and female relationships. I don't know if I agree with much of what he says. As in the reading of classic literature, many of his ideas succeed not by convincing but by being entertained: depth is gained from contemplation of a possibility, not by a solution. But the contrast with the brisk dismissal by MacWhirter of the complexities of male/female relations, of the bringing up of children, of the place and negotiation of same sex desire is astounding and profoundly depressing: it is one thing to disagree on conclusions, but quite another when an interlocutor fails to even notice the problems. To take just one brief passage from Bloom as an example:

Very simply, the family is a sort of miniature body politic in which the husband's will is the will of the whole. The woman can influence her husband's will, and it is supposed to be informed by love of wife and children.

Now all this has simply disintegrated. It does not exist, nor is it considered good that it should. But nothing certain has taken its place. Neither men nor women have any idea what they are getting into anymore, or, rather, they have reason to fear the worst. There are two equal wills, and no mediating principle to link them and no tribunal of last resort. What is more, neither of the wills is certain of itself. This is where the 'ordering of priorities' comes in, particularly with women, who have not yet decided which comes first, career or children. People are no longer raised to think they ought to regard marriage as the primary goal and responsibility, and their uncertainty is mightily reinforced by the divorce statistics, which imply that putting all of one's psychological eggs in the marriage basket is a poor risk. The goals and wills of men and women have become like parallel lines, and it requires a Lobachevskyan imagination to hope they may meet.

The debate on same sex marriage in Scotland has been depressing both because almost all the chattering and political classes here are united in favour of it, and because the public reasoning behind it (entirely of the 'equal love' kind) just ignores the complexities and differences of male/female and same sex relationships. In this, the contrast with England and Ireland (let alone the US) is becoming striking. Even in the rather superficial world of blogging, there, Brendan O'Neill gets the problem about the assumptions of essentialism in sexual orientation.There, Quiet Riot Girl gets the problem with reconciling queer theory with fixed identities. There, Suzanne Moore gets the inherent conflict between the drive for same sex marriage and 'progressive' politics. And amongst others, Richard Waghorne understands that resistance to same sex marriage isn't homophobic.

And in comparison? In Scotland we get Iain MacWhirter: 'On these moral issues, what is needed is leadership – a clear and unequivocal declaration against discrimination.' No interest in or awareness of any of the complexities. Despite MacWhirter's bizarre suggestion, Muslims, Catholics and Evangelicals do not share a common moral foundation in the Bible. But they do share a history, a history of realism built up over the centuries in trying to negotiate the complexities of nature and culture. Scotland is just beginning to build a political culture in which decisions on the running of our nation are debated in that nation. But until that debate is supported by a wider intellectual culture which can do justice to the complexity, depth and conflict in human flourishing, our politicians and journalists will continue to look like five year olds posturing in the hand me downs of their olders and betters across the border.


  1. It's depressing, isn't it? There was that education consultation years ago. The shoddiness of the document was an embarrassment, really. An assemblage of trendy catchphrases and trigger words with no evidence that the compiler had any awareness at all of the many and extensive assumptions on which the questions relied.

    Have you heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? The article had me in stitches. I've met these people so often, and they caused me a great deal of perplexity when I was younger and readier to take people at their own estimation!

    1. Hadn't come across the term 'Dunning-Kruger' before (although I've certainly met the reality of it!).

      Anyway, I'm sure once the 'consultation' on same sex marriage comes out, we'll all be stunned by its careful analysis of the role of the family in modern Scotland...