Mind Over Manners

If you get rid of the midden of power control, special pleading, social engineering, fevered dreaming, spiritual zeal, do-goodery, vanity and dumb-thuggery, then, right at the bottom of politics, you’ll find its original idea, the founding purpose of governance: it’s to feed people, or perhaps to allow folk to eat their dinner in peace. It doesn’t need a manifesto or speeches or plebiscite or subcommunities or baby-kissing or flesh-pressing to understand politics, it’s just about breakfast.
– A.A. Gill

I don’t respond well to ultimatums. If I was ever in a situation where someone said “it’s me or the dog,” I’d pick the dog, precisely because the dog would never demand I make a choice like that. “My way or the highway” – the highway doesn’t insist I follow it. So when someone tells me “don’t donate/support/follow this individual, or you’ll hurt the cause of independence,” how do you think I’m going to respond to that?

This wasn’t No campaigners or champions of the British Establishment, by the way: it was other independence supporters, saying that I shouldn’t give my support, my time, or my money to another independence supporter, on the basis of their personal statements. Now, here’s the thing: I’ve made a point of being as welcoming as possible to all independence supporters, knowing fully well that people are going to disagree with each other – sometimes vociferously, as is their right and prerogative. I think every major pro-independence blog, site, magazine, or paper has said something I either disagree with, or find personally offensive, whether it’s specifically related to independence or not. Yet I still list them on my links on this site; I’ll still read, retweet, and support good articles; I’ll still congratulate them on work well done. I’m used to this in other areas of my life, be it Robert E. Howard scholarship, anti-sectarian work, or even something as broad as art & illustration.

I’m not going to shut out an independence supporter because I disagree with them, or because I find their opinions or actions offensive. I’m not going to suggest that anyone should adopt my approach, either: it’s up to you to determine who you interact with & support. All I can say is that my personal view is that I take great pride in the Scottish Independence movement being an open, inclusive, welcoming movement: ostracising or rejecting individuals or groups, even those who challenge your most fundamental beliefs and ideals, is not something I can get behind. As long as someone acts within the law, they are welcome – to be challenged, as well as accepted.

Those who know me well would be aware that I don’t tend towards using aggressive language, and that I rarely swear (except board game nights, naturally, then anything goes). I’m polite to a fault, and hate confrontation, which is why I find politics so frustratingly difficult to engage in – because in my experience, being polite and well-mannered tells you absolutely nothing about a person’s character.

And this is something that reaches far beyond the matter of Scottish Independence.

“Wait, is that… but he’s feeding that deer! I thought he was one of history’s greatest monsters! How can such a cruel beast show kindness to any living thing?”

Here’s Kevin Toolis talking about his harrowing experience with the late Martin McGuinness:

I was in Derry investigating rumours of secret peace talks between the IRA and the British Government. But just after I finished interviewing McGuinness at the Sinn Fein office, we ran into a British Army patrol cruising the streets of the IRA’s stronghold.

At the sight of McGuinness, the soldiers jumped out of their armoured Land Rovers and ordered him to open the boot of his car. The patrol’s intelligence officer, at last rubbing shoulders with the enemy’s chief general, struck up a false bonhomie.

‘How’s it going, Martin? Open the boot of the car, Martin… Nice day, Martin, eh?’ McGuinness turned away defiantly. ‘Open it your f****** self,’ he said as he walked back to the Sinn Fein office.

I jumped in behind him. McGuinness’s simple but absolute denial of British Crown authority shocked me. Heavily armed soldiers are not the type of people you tell to ‘f*** off’.

McGuinness had been irritated but not, I felt, frightened or intimidated by the presence of these enemies. But I was also struck by the crudity of McGuinness’s response; this street fighter turned guerrilla statesman had not moved far from his roots. His disdain for the Crown was still couched in the language of the rioter.

It was a stunning insight into the mind of the man who led the most ferocious terrorist movement in the Western world.

The title of Mr Toolis’ article was “The Irish Mandela? You must be mad! The day his mask slipped and I saw McGuinness the monster.” To Mr Toolis, “McGuinness the Monster” was manifested by… swearing at soldiers.

Bad language. A rude word. That was what made him The Monster to Toolis.

“But… But that can’t be… Surely nobody that handsome and dashing could ever be responsible for the deaths of millions!”

Compare this to how the same newspaper company described white supremacist group founder Matthew Heimbach:

The leader of a neo-Nazi group whose violent clashes with counter-demonstrators during a rally in Sacramento left 10 people in hospital has been described as ‘charming and polite’ but someone ‘who has read all the wrong books’.

Matthew Heimbach formed the Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP) to fight against what the group describes as an ‘anti-Christian degeneracy’.

But the 25-year-old father-of-one says he is not racist, and only seeks to gain more support and attention for poor and working class white people in America.

He claims his political leanings were moulded by his reading of Samuel P. Huntington’s ‘Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity’, which attributes Hispanic immigration and multiculturalism to the problems now facing white people.

Heimbach, of Indiana, has previously been quoted as saying he does not ‘hate anyone’ – adding: ‘I just love white people more.’

According to this paper, Martin McGuinness swearing at a soldier is “a stunning insight into the mind of the man who led the most ferocious terrorist movement in the Western world,” while the leader of an actual neo-Nazi group involved in a riot with multiple stabbings is headlined “‘I don’t hate anyone. I just love white people more’: The 25-year-old leader of neo-Nazi gang who provoked clashes in Sacramento and has become the ‘charming and polite’ face of white supremacists.

“Oh come on now, you can’t tell me the last Emperor of Japan was at one point an innocent little baby?”

But it clearly isn’t just activist groups and campaigns where the focus is on their manners, as this chilling Twitter thread from former journalist and academic Sunny Singh illustrates perfectly (I’ve taken the liberty of adding pertinent links):

Why are we still discussing this? Genocidal maniacs are often polite, even charming. So?

Lived in multiple authoritarian regimes. Dealt with sundry extremist non-state actors. All polite… Never stopped them killing.

Just because you elected a crass inept tinpot wanna-be dictator does not mean charming, polite despots don’t exist.

Saddam was v charming, when he needed to be. Gaddafi was very polite. De Klerk could be a gentleman. Means ZERO!

YOU lot normalised the Assad regime by focussing on his ‘stylishwife. YOU wrote desert rose pieces while hundreds died of torture.

How do you guys sleep at night after enabling such amounts of horror!

Reminder THIS was published even as Hamza al-Khatib had been tortured, killed, mutilated.

So can we stop w polite M*lo/Coulter/add your fascist f*ck here please. It reveals nothing about them and normalises the horror they unleash.

Other polite folk responsible for utter horrors: Franco. Pinochet – utterly charming even when deposed. Stroessner – fab form kissing hands.

Thinking back to high placed GRU officer I met in 1991. Impeccable manners. Beautiful manicured hands. Was known for torture in Afghanistan.

Also thinking of an Argentine general who complimented me profusely over a lavish lunch while I was chasing info on the disappeared!

A very handsome AND polite US officer who had been at Abu Ghraib. SO charming till he got too aggressive in his attentions.

Point being: I never mentioned how cute, polite and friendly these folk were. If I had my editor would have chewed me out.

A journo’s job is to get info that is not readily available. It is not gushing about how polite people w abhorrent policies/actions can be.

BTW this is also (why) access journalism is so hard and dangerous. Requires constant vigilance not to be charmed by power or flattered by access.

More importantly, it is utterly unethical for journalists to focus on off-camera/private manners when actions+policies are leading to deaths.

Also why those repeated M*lo pieces are such sh*tty journalism. Even if Guardian etc publish them. Journalists’ wide-eyed naivete costs LIVES

Am no longer a journalist+my views won’t get me 10k word commissions but if you are a one reading this, please think impact of your words!

Reminded that Gen Zia was very charming and his wife a wonderful hostess. Both were Amitabh Bachchan fans too.

If you’re uncouth and impersonal, crude and rude, born on the wrong side of the track, no-one will forgive you for it: look at how the press treated Mhairi Black during her election campaign, and indeed, how they continue to treat her. But by being polite and charming, minding your Ps and Qs, following proper etiquette and conduct, people will ignore all sorts of horrible things.

Just ask Michael Gove.

Lisa, a teacher, is almost everything a man could hope for in a daughter-in-law — pretty, clever, kind and funny. But she does have one fault, and one alone that I can identify: like so many in her profession, she seems to believe Mr Gove is the incarnation of evil, and that everything he does is wrong.

Now that she is to be a member of the family, I am determined to introduce her to the Education Secretary. For I defy anyone to spend 20 minutes in his company without realising that he is a thoroughly good man, driven only by a strong desire to improve the prospects of children who were born, like him, without life’s material advantages.

She will find that far from being Satan, he is a true gentleman. Which is a great deal more than can be said for his boss.

I’m sure if you spent 20 minutes with any of the above dictators, tyrants, murderers, and thugs, you would also find yourself disarmed and surprised that they are not the grotesque caricatures that their enemies’ propaganda presents them as: softly spoken rather than thundering barks; smiling & nodding rather than snarling and glaring; firm but comfortable handshakes or dainty kisses on the cheek, rather than grabbing your lapels and shaking you violently. It’s almost as if that’s a major reason they got into positions of such power in the first place.

Mr Gove is at least a few orders of magnitude below the genocidal despots, but the dynamic is the same: people expect, or pretend, bad people to be bad all the time, and are surprised when they turn out to be… human beings. They expect – they need – someone who’s evil to wrap themselves in perpetual shadow like the high priest of some ancient evil cult, hand ever poised to draw forth your beating heart from your shattered ribcage, gimlet eyes opened wide upon you with a transfixing stare. Then, when they meet this person who’s done all this harm, they act surprised when this monster is just an affable old man, or a shy art lover, or a strangely appealing young stud. It never occurs to them that history’s greatest criminals were just people, not cartoon characters. People like us. And if folk can write eulogies referencing the charm, the grace, the manners of the most terrible, evil people in history, then what chance do we have against the lesser evils?

Civil or discourteous, posh or not, doesn’t – shouldn’t – matter, especially in matters of life and death. And make no mistake, all politics is, at its core, about life and death – it’s all about breakfast. If someone would aid a just cause, then I don’t care what language they use, their rough edges, their rudeness, their personality: if they get the job done, then they get the job done. And if someone seeks to harm others through negligence, anathema, nonchalance, ideology, or simple cruelty, then no honeyed words or considered pleasantries will justify, rectify, or nullify the ruin you have wrought. Sometimes there are things more important than minding your language.

To recall the words of one of my heroes…

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.
– William Lloyd Garrison, “To the Public”, No. 1 (1 January 1831)

I am an Abolitionist!  I glory in the name;
Though now by slavery’s minions hissed, And covered o’er with shame;
It is a spell of light and power, The watch-word of the free;
Who spurns it in the trial-hour, A craven soul is he.

I am an Abolitionist!  Then urge me not to pause,
For joyfully do I enlist In Freedom’s sacred cause;
A nobler strife the world ne’er saw, Th’enslaved to disenthral;
I am a soldier for the war, Whatever may befall.

6 thoughts on “Mind Over Manners

  1. billy says:

    good article i think we need to follow William Lloyd Garrison, “To the Public”, No. 1 (1 January 1831) and make sure our views are loud, heard and put forward positively.

  2. Doug says:

    Al, I totally agree.

    Whilst my general mode is calm/professional/friendly, I do appreciate the power of directed righteous anger/passion. To each their own.

    I think it is WHAT a person is roused to anger by rather than HOW they express it that is far more important. That is the difference between the Mhairi Blacks and the Ruth Davidson’s.


  3. clipper says:

    Insightful article, and Doug’s second paragraph makes an excellent point.

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