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Radio review: Gordon Brown on the Gospel of Wealth, Steven Pinker and Picasso, and The Inquiry

25 October 2019


The 19th century philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, whose ideas were explored in Gordon Brown on the Gospel of Wealth (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week)

The 19th century philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, whose ideas were explored in Gordon Brown on the Gospel of Wealth (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week)

IF YOU find yourself near the top of the Forbes list of the world’s richest, then shame on you. It is your moral imperative to give away more money and force yourself down that list. Thus do the contemporary disciples of Andrew Carnegie regard the accumulation of wealth.

Carnegie died 100 years ago, and his enduring legacy — other than the thousands of libraries, university scholarships, and pipe organs that he endowed — is his article “The Gospel of Wealth”, published in 1889, which set out the moral case for extreme philanthropy: “The man who dies thus rich shall die disgraced.”

One might feel similar distaste for the self-aggrandising title, but Gordon Brown on the Gospel of Wealth (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week, repeat) nevertheless provided a fascinating account of an old-fashioned, patrician do-gooder: an employer who could behave harshly towards his workforce, and most certainly believed that he knew how to look after their well-being better than they did themselves. If he merely gave handouts of cash from the profits of his wildly successful steel business, would they not just spend it on beer and fags, when what they really needed was a well-stocked library?

If our former Prime Minister’s gaining above-the-title status to Carnegie makes one blanch, then what about Steven Pinker and Picasso, part of the series The Way I See It (Friday, Radio 3), in which academics from various disciplines are invited to engage with works from New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) collection? Professor Pinker talked not about Picasso’s Charnel House, as billed, but about Guernica, which was formerly in MOMA, but is now in Madrid.

When you book a “superstar” intellectual (as described by the presenter, Alastair Sooke), then you should be thankful that he turns up at all. And it would be churlish not to concede that his one meaningful, interdisciplinary observation was genuinely striking: that the distortions of cubism might be related to the super-normal stimulation that can be induced in herring-gull chicks with regard to food-begging.

Just as super-normal stimulation tempts us to devour ever more super-sized burgers, so it may account for our increasing attraction to outlandish news, celebrity gossip, and conspiracy theories. In The Inquiry (World Service, Thursday), we were introduced to the world of QAnon: a multi-author internet presence whose postings about high-level paedophile rings and deep-state devil-worshipping has been entrancing the more gullible members of the blogosphere.

QAnon references are now making it on to placards and banners in the real world, and the question is whether we should be worried. The answer is, yes: if not for the specificity of this nonsense, at least for its corrosive effect.

QAnon is a canary in a coalmine — an indication of potential conflagrations to come.

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