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Press: Slavery, statues, and chronological snobbery

14 May 2021

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IT IS a cheap and easy jibe to point at the number of campaigners against slavery who use iPhones and other Apple gear manufactured under conditions that would be completely intolerable in Western countries, at least if they emerged into the open. The more interesting moral question is how many of us use much less expensive smartphones. They are manufactured further out of the public gaze, presumably under even worse labour conditions.

Then, of course, there is the problem of rare earths, on which so many of our modern electronics depend. The only phone that I know of which is entirely free of moral ambiguity in its production is the Fairphone, which is unflatteringly reviewed even by the sympathetic Guardian.

And it’s not just phones: our entire way of life is bound up with support for some of the most unpleasant regimes on the planet. Saudi Arabia and China have nothing to recommend them to Christian sensitivities, or even liberal ones.

This is a long way round to the discussion of slavery and statues, but I hope that it does something to remind us of the perils of chronological snobbery. Both of the possible reactions to the Church of England’s decision to examine statues of racist people proceed from the assumptions that we, today, are uniquely morally situated to judge our ancestors and just about as wonderful as human beings can be. It follows either that our ancestors were remarkably depraved (the Guardian view); or that they were just like us, and so on the right side of history, too, as the Telegraph would reassure its readers.

Harriet Sherwood got the story first, for The Observer, in a perfectly straight piece, and the Telegraph responded with the retired Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali and a West Country vicar to denounce them as “Orwellian”. This was lazy. I’d have thought that the term for removing monuments to past Christians for their mistaken views was not Orwellian so much as Cromwellian or even, simply, Protestant. The only Orwellian thing about the story was the discovery that the Church employs someone as “Director of churches and cathedrals”.

As it turned out, the policy announced at the beginning of the week was too sensible to sustain either reaction for long. Acting quietly and thoughtfully on local concerns is exactly the way to behave. The Revd Marcus Walker had obviously been teed up by the Telegraph for the proper denunciation, but he was too honest to manage one. He did denounce the Left as pharisees, but the trouble with arguing both that Jesus disliked hypocrisy and that the Church is made up of sinners is that you end up conceding that hypocrites — even Guardian-reading hypocrites — also belong in church and should perhaps be memorialised there.

This position is unsatisfactory in commercial terms at a time when the business of journalism is no longer advertising-based. Advertising-funded media must almost always aim for the largest possible audience, and so practises a certain centrist tolerance; but subscription-funded papers have the opposite incentive. They want committed readers, and committed readers want extremes. They want denunciations of the ungodly or, where applicable, the godly — and none of this nannying nonsense about our being all sinners.

 

SOMEONE who really does make an attempt to practise what he preaches is the philosopher Peter Singer, interviewed in a long New Yorker piece. This didn’t really conform to the stereotypes, partly because he is a consequential consequentialist. For instance, he believes that there is a moral imperative not to open borders, and his reasoning is simple enough. “In an ideal world, we would have open borders, no question about that. I think that would have many good consequences and certainly would enable refugees to move away from situations of oppression and genocide. Obviously, my parents [Austrian Jewish refugees from Hitler] did just that, and that’s why I exist.

“But I’ve seen the effect of regimes that do open borders, or nearly open borders. I was a founding member of the Australian Greens, which said that we should accept all the so-called boat people from Afghanistan and Iran and other places, who were seeking asylum in Australia in the eighties and nineties. . .

“But it was clear that those issues were exploited by the conservatives to suggest that Australia was going to be swamped by different people, and I’m pretty sure it cost Labor a federal election on at least one occasion. And then you see the other bad consequences of this: not only did the borders get closed . . . [but] the refugees were put in horrible detention camps.”

The willingness to consider realistically what voters actually want, whether it is cheap goods from China or restricted immigration, is not going to make him more popular on the Left.

Still less is his plan to launch a peer-reviewed paper in which controversial views can be put forward pseudonymously. Of all the reactions to “cancel culture”, this is one of the most interesting. It bewilders his interviewer, who asks: “Would it trouble you to publish an article about race, say, without being aware of the race of the author?”

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