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More Than Life and Death by Anthony Daniels

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More Than Life and Death

A view of football fans arranging themselves to form a ‘flag’ at Wembley Stadium in 2010.

Photo: Image courtesy of Matt Churchill, licensed under CCA 2.0 Generic.

The late manager of Liverpool Football Club, Bill Shankly, once said that football was not a matter of life and death—it was much more important than that. His little joke now seems more like a description of the world than a witticism, for in the bread-and-circuses dispensation under which we live, football does indeed seem of greater importance to many people than, say, the defence of the realm. For every discussion of the latter in a bar or pub, there must be a hundred about the former. To admit to little interest in football is not only to distinguish oneself from the People, but almost to become an Enemy of the People. 

Yet perhaps the two questions are not as separate as they seem. The recent European Cup has revealed how deep national sentiment still runs in European, and no doubt in other, populations. It is difficult to imagine a team representing the European Union arousing the same degree of passion in a match against a team representing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or even Mercosur. What this means, or what its political consequences are, I leave to political scientists to mull over. 

For example, one does not normally associate the Danes with ferocious xenophobia,  but a woman-supporter of the Danish team (I dare not call her a lady-supporter) was quoted in the Guardian newspaper as having said that she and the other supporters were fighting for the ones they loved—i.e. (presumably), their fellow-Danes. Her way of putting it seemed to suggest that she saw the world in terms of loved ones and the rest, the latter being enemies.

Of the English supporters I hardly trust myself to speak, so much do they appal and repel me. They behave not merely as barbarians, but (what is far worse) as joyously self-conscious and deliberately vile barbarians. They seem to me to be in revolt against civilisation itself. They do not behave badly because they know no better; they know better and decide to do worse. Among other things, not satisfied with the job that Nature has already done, they make themselves maximally ugly. This is not the first time in the history of civilisation that this has happened, but it is not altogether a favourable sign for the future. 

In the circumstances, the mass flag-wagging of the crowd horrifies me. The conservative Daily Telegraph opined that the patriotic enthusiasm of football fans is a perfect riposte to the Wokedom of the intellectual and political classes, but this is a crude way of looking at things: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Not so. 

Wokedom is almost certainly more dangerous than the decerebrate fervour of the football crowds. In the final analysis, it is the ideas of the intellectual—especially the bad ideas—that decide the future of a country or a civilisation. But flag-waving is no answer to, say, Critical Race Theory. It advances no good and  counters no evil. On the contrary, its very decerebrate nature is likely to encourage the Wokedomites: ‘See what our enemies are like!’, they will be able to say, not entirely without reason.

The world being a complex place, there are many different ways to be wrong. I won’t say that there is only one way to be right, but the paths to civilisation are certainly narrower and more difficult than those to barbarism, which impose little in the way of self-discipline or personal effort. Not all that is not Woke is right, therefore; it requires more than a poke in the eye of the Wokedomites to restore some semblance of cultural wisdom and political prudence. 

I no longer follow football closely. I did as a small boy, trembling to hear the results as they were read over the radio, and collecting cigarette cards of the heroes of those days, who were genuinely proletarian, modest and ill-paid. However, I did notice that the previously-mentioned conservative publication delivered itself of another terrible opinion on the subject of football. 

Apparently (I did not see it myself), England won their semi-final against Denmark by means of a disputed penalty kick. An English player called Raheem Sterling may or may not have been fouled in the penalty area and made an operatic gesture of falling over. This encouraged, or fooled, the referee into awarding the penalty kick that became the winning goal for England. 

Assuming that Mr. Sterling’s fall was thespian in nature, he was cheating. Surely a victory brought about by cheating brings no honour with it? All may be fair in love and war, but surely not in sport?

Instead of cleaving to this elementary principle of decency, however, The Telegraph argued that Mr. Sterling’s conduct was a sign of maturity and realism. After all, everybody else did it, and you would never win anything if you behaved like a gentleman. It was time to grow up and accept the world as it was, not as it ought to have been. 

This is an odious utilitarian argument, in essence that the end justifies the means. I concede that we cannot altogether do without utilitarianism. Kant’s idea that one ought even to tell a murderer his proposed victim’s whereabouts because one must always tell the truth is absurd (at least to anyone who has lived in the world for longer than a few years, which Kant never really did). The end does sometimes justify the means, but whether it does so depends on the importance of the end and the moral quality of the means. In other words, we must always use judgment.

To claim that winning a football trophy justifies cheating is the shallowest and most unscrupulous of utilitarianism. Without rules, football ceases to exist, and disobedience to them vitiates the glory of victory. If this kind of cut-price Nietzscheanism has infected even those who suppose themselves to be culturally and politically conservative, we may rightly be alarmed for the future. 

Meanwhile, undeterred by flag-wavers, Wokedom advances apace. A good example is the recent choice of the sculpture to place on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in London, which has had no permanent occupant since 1840. The statues on the other three plinths are of 19th-century British military heroes, no doubt of doubtful political morality according to current conceptions (which, however, may themselves change), but at least aesthetically dignified and a suitable perch for pigeons and seagulls. 

It has long been disputed who or what should be placed on the empty plinth. Of late, Wokedom has had it all its own way. For example, the plinth was recently occupied by the cream-coloured statue of a pregnant young woman with no arms or legs. She suffered from phocomelia, a rare medical condition in which a foetus’s limbs fail to develop in the uterus, most famously as a result of the mother’s ingestion of thalidomide early in pregnancy. 

A recent attempt to ‘fill’ the Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square.

Photo: Image by Anthony Parkes, licensed under CCA-SA 2.0 Generic.

It was never clear to me why the statue graced the fourth plinth. It clashed aesthetically with the rest of the Square, and if it had a message, it did not justify its disturbing appearance. If you objected to the statue because you found it disturbing and aesthetically jarring, Wokedom would accuse you of lacking sympathy for the handicapped (more properly called the differently abled) and also of an immature, Panglossian desire to avoid the more unpleasant aspects of reality, by excluding them from public display.

On this view, the most hideous aspect of reality is worthiest of display. By contrast,the beautiful, the glorious, the magnificent, are mere avoidance of pain, injustice and suffering. They are merely fig-leaves for the awfulness of the past and present.

Now it is certainly true that the hideous, the ugly and the bizarre exert an attraction, and by no means only on those of morbid sensibilities. As a medical student, I lived with a music student who would often look at my pathology or surgery textbooks. He exclaimed with disgust at the pictures of the most horrible conditions before turning over the page to see what was next. He was not a serial killer in the making; he was, on the contrary, the kindest, most decent fellow imaginable, who has since had an exemplary career.      

It would never have occurred to him to suggest that a person with elephantiasis, shall we say, should be memorialised in Trafalgar Square merely on account of his elephantiasis (a condition that had made him exclaim with fascinated horror). 

One of the recent ‘serious’ contenders for the fourth plinth was a sculpture by a Mexican artist consisting of casts of the faces of 850 transsexuals around the world. The sculpture was supposed to resemble the rack on which the Aztec displayed the skulls of sacrificed humans or prisoners of war—conveying, one would have thought, a not altogether unambiguous, or even an appalling, message. Further confusing the message, the sculpture is designed to melt away to nothingness in the London weather to become what the artist called an ‘anti-monument’

Assuming that the sculpture is not a call for the physical elimination of transsexuals, it is presumably intended  as a ‘celebration of diversity’—as if transsexualism were a fine human achievement or something good in itself, rather than an unenviable psychological state.

The story of fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square illustrates the capture of the public administration by the Wokedomites.That artists and their patrons in charge of public funds cannot find in  the whole history of their country, or indeed in that of the world, anyone or anything worthier of memorialisation than hundreds of transsexuals is indicative of a deep nihilism—deeper even than that behind the Telegraph’s feeble justification of cheating. What is at stake here is not merely football, but civilisation itself. 

A portrait of Dame Myra Hess ca. 1937.

Photo: Image courtesy of the Carl Van Vechten Estate via Picryl.

Why not, for example (I pluck from my mind just this one out of hundreds of possibilities), a statue of Myra Hess, the great pianist who played Mozart concertos in the National Gallery overlooking Trafalgar Square itself during the bombing raids during the war? Are not her efforts worthy of commemoration? Was not her life a beacon of civilisation in a landscape of devastation? You have only to hear her recorded interviews to realise what a marvellous person she was: brilliantly accomplished, modest, hard-working, humorous, cultivated, the servant of something much larger than herself—in short, the kind of person hated by Wokedomites and flag-waggers alike.

No amount of flag-wagging by uncouth or brutish xenophobes will reverse, or even oppose, the wilful undoing of an entire culture. But permit me to end on a faint note of optimism. 

An English football fan mounted an online petition asking that the England v. Denmark game be replayed because the winning penalty was so doubtful. Fifteen hundred people have signed it, thereby very slightly restoring their country’s honour. The embers of rectitude still glow—faintly perhaps, but they do glow.

Anthony Daniels writes from France.

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