"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

13 Jan 2012

Bron and Hitch: parrhesiasts par excellence

The premature death last month of Christopher Hitchens at the age of 62, reminded me of the death 11 years ago, aged 61, of Auberon Waugh (son of British writer Evelyn Waugh, to whom Hitchens has also been compared), which similarly surfaced its own share of obituaries from journalistic colleagues. What both these writers shared in common was that they defied efforts by their critics and admirers alike to place them either on the right or left of the political spectrum. They were modern representatives of the community of Cynics, not belonging to any tribe, parrhesiasts and troublemakers par excellence, they spoke their own truths no matter how outrageous; sticking it to liberal whimps and right wing bigots in equal measure. Not that I personally agreed with many of their views, but that is not the point. It is the style and delivery of the message that marked these two maverick journalists out from the mediocrity of many others in their profession. There is nothing much I can usefully add to the miles of column written on Hitchens over the past month, others who new him well have probably said all there is to say. So by way of tribute to Hitchens, I will devote the rest of this post to reviewing the 11 year old obituaries to Waugh. I’ve no idea if Hitchens would have identified with any of these, he might even have been a critic of Waugh, in his own more liberal past, but my instinct is that he would be touched by and smile at the tribute.
     Hailing him as a hero or castigating him as a villain, Waugh made many friends as well as enemies during his controversial career. A career that included working on such diverse publications as The Spectator, Private Eye, the New Statesman, the Sunday and Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mirror, and the Literary Review of which he was the editor. Often characterized as right wing, Waugh was in fact allied to no political interest group, he was fiercely independent and chose his friends from across the political divide. It was a tribute to Waugh’s contribution to journalism that his death triggered the bloody battle of words it did between journalists themselves: the Waughite tendency supporting the right to say it how it is, no matter how offensive, and the politically correct, idealist tendency who still believe that politicians are fundamentally trying to make the world a better place for us to live in, and how cheap it is of hacks like Waugh to prop up the bar at El Vino’s and pour scorn on their efforts.
     Waugh’s trade mark was to say it like it is, and one of the things Waugh did say, according to Charles Moore, editor of the Daily Telegraph, included being the only person outside of the IRA to publicly voice the opinion that he wished Margaret Thatcher had died in the Brighton bombing. Hardly the sentiments of a right wing bigot, unless the remark was read as misogynistic of which Waugh was also accused. The simple formula that made Waugh’s journalism so uniquely authentic, was that he had the guts and integrity to publish just the kind of heart felt rant that we shoot off to our pals every night in the pubuncensored. The following comments (from editors and journalistic colleagues) characterise Waugh as a figure in the mould of American columnist H.L. Mencken: someone who always spoke their own mind and was political hostage to no-one:

He greatly disliked morality wherever it came from.  Charles Moore

A writer with a talent for vituperation and a taste for vendettas . . . In his idiosyncratic way, he was part of an authentic mood of revulsion against the bossy authoritarianism from both left and right.   Geoffrey Wheatcroft

The irony is that he was more liberal in his attitudes than many self-proclaimed liberals. He simply couldn’t stand the bossiness of modern societyone group of self-appointed nannies deciding what the rest of us can and can't do.  Henry Porter

One of the reasons I think he was so good was that he never fell into the error of thinking that he was influential. In common with all the best journalists, he knew that what he wrote was here today and gone tomorrow and that its impact was minimal. Richard Ingrams 

By contrast, in Polly Toynbee’s obituary to Waugh published in the Guardian newspaper on January 19, 2001 under the heading ‘Ghastly Man’, we encounter the kind of scorn that Waugh produced in yet other journalists. Toynbee’s characterization of Waugh, once again, opens up the debate about who and what is a cynic. Toynbee casting Waugh as a cynic in the negative use of the term:

The world of Auberon Waugh is a coterie of reactionary fogies . . . Effete, drunken, snobbish, sneering, racist and sexist, they spit poison at anyone vulgar enough to want to improve anything at all. Liberalism is the archenemy . . . While do-nothing conservatism is their mode, they enjoy extremism of any complexion and excoriate the dreary toil of incremental improvement . . .  ‘Political correctness’ is the tired, lazy little label attached to all change for the better. . . . Knee-jerk abuse of any politician was Waugh's stock in trade when he was a political commentator. It was not, as he pretended, a badge of some kind of honesty but quite the contrary, an idle unwillingness to engage with any politician's attempt to make life better for anyone else. Polly Toynbee

That Waugh was a cynic there can be no doubt. However, when one contrasts Toynbee’s posthumous attack on Waugh with the responses her own commentary invited, it becomes clear that the kind of cynic he was, depends as much on the character of the witness as it does on the character of the accused. You either embrace cynicism or are repelled by it depending on your appetite for derision. Examine the case for the defence:

He stood for all the things that attracted me to journalism in the first place, all the things Polly Toynbee most disapproves oflong lunches and gossip and laughter and a mischievous (yes!), and above all irreverent (oh please!) response to pomposity and received opinion.  Lynn Barber

The writer's sense of the absurd would have been equally tickled by Polly Toynbee's reaction to his demise, last week. Writing in just the kind of ‘no laughs please, we're left-wing’ manner he despised, Toynbee bludgeoned the dead man from her high horse for-sin of all sinspoking fun at the ways of the world. . . . He thrashed bores and left them lying comatosed in a pool of ridicule.  Cristina Odone

There are many left wing people who take things at face value and many liberals who congratulate themselves on their moral superiority when all they are doing is restating the bleeding obvious. The earnestness of each of these groups is a signal that they don't really grasp what's going on. People who live on this level and never travel anywhere else are unlikely to make jokes about plane crashes . . . Their humourlessness is a symptom of their lack of judgment. . . . ‘They’he enemyare people whose souls are cold and whose bullet-point priorities close the window on imagination and genuine freedom of thought while increasing their own claims to ethical superiority.  Charlotte Raven

Auberon Waugh (despite a certain hedonistic streak) was a journalist of the Diogenes school: fearless, abusive, and witty. Moreover, the brouhaha following Waugh’s death provides a unique opportunity to study a modern cynic of the Diogenes mould. Not a cynic of Diogenes stature perhaps, maybe in the vast scheme of things a fairly jaded cynic. But a closer examination of Waugh’s public performance underscores, once again, many of the classical features that punctuate Cynic philosophy. Take the easy labelling of Waugh as a right wing bigot. Such a response to Waugh’s cynicism exposes its own form of bigotry, a bigotry symbolic of the kind of superficial objections used against better known cynics such as Diogenes, Nietzsche or Mencken. Such flippant characterization is frequently to be encountered among those made uncomfortable or even fearful of the cynic’s ridicule. In fact, like his cynic ancestors, Waugh’s politicsif he had anydid not shake out along narrow party lines, being entirely unpredictable. True cynics find their meaning outside of the narrow preoccupations of partisan politicking. If they stand for anything at all it is the right to say whatever they want, in whatever way they want, and to hell with people’s sensibilities. In terms of cynical irony, Waugh’s disinhibited remarks are just the kind of strategy used by the Dadaist, Richard Huelsenbeck, when he announced that he was in favour of war because ‘things have to collide’. This is certainly how Charles Moore sees Waugh when he comments that ‘as always with him it was done in a comical way but it was something nobody else would have dared say.’
       In terms of the discussion here, whether Waugh was a good bloke or a sneering snob is entirely irrelevant. It is simply a matter of taste and personal opinion best left to those who knew the man well. Toynbee may be correct that Waugh’s humour was probably pub humour, but that does not diminish its credibility and authority, if anything it enhances it. Toynbee in her denunciation of Waugh and defence of liberalism, attaches herself to the Icarian pose of sincere politics that cynics cannot resist but cast down. Whatever one may feel personally for a cynicand Waugh may well have presented to some as obnoxiouscannot, and does not, deny the essential role of those who disturb the propaganda of political ideologues from both the left and the right.  In fact, among the comments discussing Waugh’s personal attributes we are provided with a clue concerning what appears to be a common trait among certain cynics: 

I often wondered about this part of Bron’s character. It seemed so odd that a man who hated bullies and vindictiveness was capable of being both. Perhaps it was because he had so little self-pity and assumed that people were as robust as he was. . . . But surprisingly these [his obvious failings] did not actually include snobbery, racism and sexism.  Henry Porter  

There is certainly a robustness among cynics, a disregard for the way others perceive them, which makes them appear brutal and uncaring even when the opposite is actually the case. The mistake that most critics of cynicism make, is to focus on what the cynic says rather than what they show when they say it.
     Focussing on the person rather than on the performance is not the only trap that critics of cynicism fall into. By thinking purely in terms of the politics of left and right, commentators like Toynbee show a complete misunderstanding of what drives their cynical cousins: a basic distrust of all politicians. Whatever else Waugh may have been, he was a relentless cynical thorn in the side of liberal timidity and authoritarian morality. As such, he also bore one of the primary hallmarks of the ancient Cynics. What made his journalistic endeavours particularly unusual in today’s age of media control, was that he was his own person, he spoke on behalf of no one but himself. Contrary, then, to Toynbee’s assessment, the cynicism, as opposed to cynicism, of journalism today does not emanate from dissident’s like Waugh, but rather from those who serve powerful interests, not least their alignment to political interests. It is the Toynbees of this world, not the Waughs or Hitchens, who are the journalists most likely to have a corrupting influence on public opinion. They achieve this by reinforcing the rhetoric: the illusions, oversimplifications and empty slogans of whichever political party currently claims their editorial bias. 
     The negative use of the term cynicism, frequently applied to those hacks who hound celebrities in the hope of snatching a picture of exposed flesh or a story of impropriety, serves to highlight the more common usage of the term today. There are also journalists who display cynicism of another kind: our positive, modern cynic, those who seek to expose the public liesrather than the private livesof the rich and powerful. As the cynical journalist intrudes into the lives of the famous simply to titillate a voyeuristic public, so their cynical cousin seeks to expose the great lies with which powerful individuals and organisations hide dirty deals behind a smoke-screen of honest respectability. That is not to say, however, that in the final analysis, one type of journalist has a moral lead on the other. The distinction between cynical and cynical journalism is becoming increasingly hard to distinguish, not least those aspects of the profession typified by the foreign or war correspondentboth types clearly seek a sensational story, that is the business of journalism. As the philosopher Jean Baudrillard puts it, our own insatiable appetite for sucking out the destiny of others; our need to exploit the misery of other people in order to provide media nourishment for our daily lives, is proving a serious challenge for the objectivity and integrity of journalists of all persuasions. 

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