Empty voices speak freely but not responsibly

A consideration of Twitter

When Bill Buckley met Gore Vidal in the summer of 1968, America’s conservative establishment came face-to-face with the counter culture. Over their many hours of courteous, if slightly heated, discussions, the exception was that moment when Buckley’s Cheshire cat grin gave way to an angry scowl and he threatened to punch Vidal in the face live on air. The point of the debates, well documented in the recent film Best of Enemies, was to take to two competing world views in late 1960s America and give them some breathing spaced through calm, televised conversation. But today, it seems the exception has become the rule. TV debates are now the realm of media provocateurs, whose aim is to provoke rather than consider. Yet the presence of a mediator, who might point out a logical fallacy, or simply maintain some level of decency between the two ‘personalities’, is still too much for some. In short, speaking freely is more important than speaking responsibly.

Was there ever a better medium for the irresponsible voice than Twitter? Free from the constraints of moderation, 140 characters is the perfect platform for glib generalisations about something or someone we take a disliking to. It is defended regularly as the modern bastion of free speech. This is not the sophisticated freedom of expression, protecting the writer from censorship, or the protester from harm. It is rather the freedom to share misattributed quotations from presidential candidates, or the freedom to instigate hate campaigns against Hollywood actresses who have too much to say for themselves. It is no surprise that the King, or in his own words the Nero, of all irresponsible voices, Milo Yiannopoulos, was so outraged at his banning from the website. And he has now substituted the approval of a hundred thousand cheering egg profiles with a physical re-enactment of the Twitter dynamic, trotting around university campuses with a series of pre-prepared riffs on the usual topics (evil feminists, ‘social justice warriors’, and the new President) to the thunderous applause of his paying fans, who shout down any opposition. Only on campuses such as Berkeley, outside of cyberspace, can we appreciate the ugliness of much of Twitter, where people throw sticks and stones in place of the words that might have hurt online.

Twitter is often inaccurately termed an ‘echo chamber’. Though the institution of the retweet facilitates the bandying about of a single idea without nuance, there is still a palpable atmosphere of argument in the comments below many a viral tweet. In shrill rage, people talk over rather than with each other.

The problem, perhaps, lies in the fact that Twitter was not conceived as a forum for serious discussion. In his documentary, How Videogames Changed the World, Charlie Brooker called the website one of the most innovative games of our time, but a game all the same. If we take Brooker’s analysis further, it seems that Twitter is incompatible with meaningful discussion. Not so much because of the character limit, which can be evaded with threaded tweets, but rather due to the system of reward on which the entire medium is predicated. All users are engaged in a search for likes, retweets, and followers. This is particularly the case for those journalists and commentators who understand the advantage a high Twitter following now brings to any job application, especially at publications with an increasing reliance on digital clicks. Generating content for an eagerly awaiting, but ultimately fickle, group of followers takes precedence over thoughtful analysis.

In one of its many infamous front page splashes, a few years ago the Daily Mail ran a headline titled ‘The Man Who Hates Britain’, in reference to the then Leader of the Opposition’s late father Ralph Miliband. The piece, which claimed the eminent Marxist writer opposed British values, was based on a diary extract from a 17 year old Miliband, where he angrily raged against English nationalism. Further to this, he thoughtlessly wished that Britain might lose the Second World War to the far more nationalist Axis powers. The fact that this misguided comment from an angry teenager might have done acute damage to his son’s career decades later is a testament to the power of the irresponsible voice. Many of us have said things that we would rather forget, and cringed at the memory of a past faux pas. Yet it was only by chance that the Mail stumbled across Miliband’s juvenile polemic. Now, the Twitter user actively records all of their fatuous comments and half-baked reactions in an easily navigable online database, often from a much younger age than 17.

There doesn’t seem to be much chance of Twitter going away any time soon, and it seems likely that we will grow more accustomed to, and even involved in, the online shrieking contests that masquerade as debate. It will soon become necessary to decide whether digging through the Twitter feeds of political candidates really passes as investigative journalism. If we choose to say yes, then we could possibly be faced in the next few decades with the most dull and sterile governing class ever. Or we can choose to accept the role of irresponsible online voices as an ever-growing part of our earliest engagements with discourse.


Cherwell, May 2017

A flawed man with a revolutionary aim

A review of Philippe Girard’s new Toussaint Louverture biography

In 1938, the publication of CLR James’ The Black Jacobins challenged decades of whitewashing that wrote the Haitian Revolution off as a parody of the French. That the slaves Saint Dominique might have had their own grievances and beliefs was a prospect best kept hidden for many, who slept better at night in the belief that the victim of colonialism could only imitate his oppressor.

When looking over the press release for Philippe Girard’s new biography of Toussaint Louverture, I wondered how successful James’ endeavour really was. Littered with clunky comparisons such as “the black Napoleon”, it seemed that scholarship on the subject of Haiti had gone back to the future, to a situation where black historical figures could only be evaluated through the prism of Europe’s annals. It was a relief then, on reading Girard’s book, to realise the fault lay with the cliché ridden jargon of public relations, and not the good professor, whose portrait of Louverture is rich in detail and scope.

Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life is foremost a useful book, updating the scholarship of the revolutionary period with the many developments and discoveries made in the near 80 years since The Black Jacobins. But it is also entertaining, as the historian wrestles throughout with the conflicting stories of Toussaint the idol, and Toussaint the man.

In some of Louverture’s actions, particularly those that have come to light in recent times, it is difficult to recognise the legendary hero of modern anti-colonial and socialist movements. We now know that at the beginning of the revolution, Toussaint came to the aid of his former owner, Bayon, who had freed him from slavery. With supreme duplicity, Louverture used rebel resources to hide the Bayon family, the only people who would be able to verify his status as a freedman if the revolution was stamped out in its early stages. In another example of Toussaint’s collaboration with the slavers, Girard reveals that he traded a 22 year old woman with the Breda plantation owners in place of his mother. These actions are not indicative of a ‘revolutionary life’, instead suggesting that he was a man fighting for himself and his family, rather than higher ideals.

With this in mind, Girard is slightly too imaginative at some points in the biography. Records show that through coincidence, Toussaint must have had some encounters in the pre-revolutionary period with those men who would go on to fight alongside him against the forces of European imperialism. Yet we can perhaps afford to call Professor Girard a little far-fetched when he writes: “One can almost imagine the revolutionaries-to-be whispering to one another in the courtyard.” Evidence instead suggests Toussaint was quite complicit and self-interested in the days before 1791. Far more heroic were the so-called ‘maroons’, slaves who (in a premature form of industrial action) abandoned their plantations for temporary periods if their limited rights under the 1685 Code Noir had been violated.

Under the horror of slavery, Toussaint’s questionable actions before the revolution can be justified. Saint Dominique was not a welcoming environment for idealism and moral fortitude. Yet at the turn of the century, when the revolutionaries finally expelled the western powers from their island, Louverture assumed the role of what was to all intents and purposes a military dictator. His work reforms, implemented from 1800, forced his comrades back onto the plantations in a system of mitigated slavery: the whips and chains were gone, but the threat of extreme punishment for dissent remained. The ‘military-agricultural complex’, as Girard terms it, soured the memory of Toussaint Louverture for generations in Haiti, and successor Jean-Jacques Dessalines was far more highly regarded by the people of the new nation.

In this biography, Girard never answers the central question of whether Toussaint Louverture led a truly revolutionary life. Instead, he provides us with a powerful illustration of one flawed man caught in the movement of history.


Cherwell, April 2017

Society divided: Dickens and revolution

The politics of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities

Though he is known in public consciousness for illuminating life in the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens wrote firmly in the shadow of the eighteenth. A Tale of Two Cities, his reflection on the French Revolution, is told not in grand political abstractions, but with a focus on the lives of French emigrants living in London, and their relationship with the old country. Originally published in 1859, A Tale of Two Cities constitutes Dickens’ first main attempt at ‘historical fiction.’

Dickens’ writing, constrained by serialisation, is perhaps uncharacteristically punchy. He takes us quickly through the historical timeline on which the plot is based, from the dusk of ancien régime Paris to the height of Robespierre’s terror.

The novel is half-remembered now for its famous opening line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” These words are the key to unlocking A Tale of Two Cities’ underlying theme of duality. They epitomise the struggle of holding to opposing things side by side. Dickens knows it is far easier to hop off the fence and pick a side, as the people of France did in 1789. The ‘two cities’ are not merely geographical (Paris and London), but ideological—aristocratic excess versus revolutionary zeal.

In A Tale of Two Cities, both systems of thought result in acts of evil. Whether it be the Monsieur de Marquis running over a child with his carriage and proceeding to pay for the infant’s life with a single coin, or the Jacquerie’s reign of mob rule and guillotine justice.

Dickens quite deliberately shies away from individual presentations of what it is to be ‘bad’. Characters such as Madame Defarge emphasise the point, but the prevailing theme is one of collective mentality. The revolutionary crowds who storm the Bastille prison fortress are referred to as ‘the sea’, a metaphor that plainly suggests these individuals, put together as one, are an unstoppable natural force. Later in the novel, Dickens uses the same technique by personifying the entire St. Antoine district of Paris. The arsonist revolutionaries, the Jacques, who burn down the Evrémonde country chateau are known only as points of the compass, and their Parisian counterparts are numbered rather than named.

This has a whiff of privileged ignorance, or even arrogance, about it. Dickens seems reluctant to venture even the tiniest investigation of their character or motivation, because they are proletarian delinquents. But his detachment from the French partisans is consistent throughout the novel, regardless of class.

In his preliminary sketches of the rancid ancien régime, Dickens uses the term ‘Monseigneur’ quite ambiguously. The descriptions are abstract, targeting no one person in favour of lambasting the entire pre-revolutionary social order.

This technique, a focus on the collective, is integral to Dickens wider tale of two cities, his depiction of fundamental division in society between two extremes. In the novel’s closing chapters, this is shown quite movingly in the face-off between Miss Pross and Madame Defarge. The two cities are in this instance two women, who somehow know they are determined enemies. Yet the language barrier renders them incapable of communication, and they resort to primal violence.

It is hard to identify one single protagonist in A Tale of Two Cities, but the antagonist is in plain sight—division itself. The tragic sacrifice at the novel’s climax is the price we pay for being zealous and uncompromising. Rather than identifying ourselves by ideology, or how we voted in a referendum, Dickens asks that, every once in a while, we adhere to that quaint tradition of keeping our ears open and our mouths shut.

Cherwell, February 2017