Sir: Vitriol and incivility seem to be everywhere in politics just now. In the last issue (27 October) John R. MacArthur linked a ‘rise in national coarseness’ to the election of Donald Trump, while Freddy Gray hints at a longer historical perspective when he writes that American politics ‘has always been unpleasant’. That ‘always’ is not hyperbole: in Alexander Hamilton Ron Chernow describes in vivid detail the ‘vile partisanship’ of the 1790s, stoked by newspapers that were often ‘scurrilous and inaccurate’.
‘Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,’ said Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States. The second president, John Adams, lamented the ‘sour, angry, peevish, fretful, lying paragraphs’ with which the press battered the government. By 1792, early America was already becoming accustomed to ‘post-truth’ public life.
According to Chernow, ‘anonymous attacks permitted extraordinary bile to seep into political discourse… The brutal tone of these papers made politics a wounding ordeal.’ Sometimes, the wounds were literal. Hamilton once asked demonstrators to show respect, and was instead greeted by a volley of stones, one of which struck him on the forehead. ‘If you use such knock-down arguments,’ he remarked, ‘I must retire.’ More shocking is the reaction of Jefferson: a bitter enemy of Hamiltonian policies, he was elated on hearing the news of the street brawl.
Sir: In response to Mr Skelsey’s animadversions on Nigel Short and the election for the post of president of the World Chess Federation, I fear that in trying to excuse the behaviour of the English Chess Federation, the correspondent misses the irony of his stance (Letters, 27 October). Had the ECF right from the start supported Nigel, arguably the most outstanding personality in the history of English chess, then he might well have stood a good chance. Instead, ECF officials chose not just to back a dubious rival candidate, but also to vilify Nigel in the most public fashion, thereby driving him into the arms of the least objectionable alternative candidate. So I maintain that the ECF vote was not just wasted, but squandered.
As for the largely unopposed reinstatement of ECF officials within a brief period after the elections for the world governing body (which Mr Skelsey considers a ringing endorsement of ECF policies), there was very little time for Nigel to organise an effective opposition to ECF incumbents hostile to him. Sometimes one has to pick one’s battles. I predict a very different outcome at next year’s ECF elections.
I never said that
Sir: Amid other more or less benign fabulations contained in Bruce Anderson’s column last week (Drink, 27 October), he attributes to me the view that non-Christians should not be permitted to prescribe the rules of a club to which they do not belong. I have never held or expressed this opinion, which is indefensible: of course one does not have to be a believer in order to be a theologian. The real issue between us turns on his assertion that the concept of truth usefully applies only to verifiable subject matters, whereas I maintain that faith is not purely a matter of reason, and one can defensibly believe in the truth of what remains mysterious. He says: ‘Mysticism may be beautiful; that does not make it truthful’, whereas I argued in my Standpoint article ‘The Devout Sceptic’ that ‘that which is mysterious is not for that reason untrue’.
The fact that this nice dispute has emerged for discussion under the auspices of The Spectator’s wine column is proof of your magazine’s ability to keep us all on our toes.
Definition of spending
Sir: Rory Sutherland touches on some very interesting points in his discussion of whether a four-day week would work in the UK (The Wiki Man, 27 October). My main qualm was his characterisation of government not taking tax from pension contributions as ‘spending’. By this definition, anything below a 100 per cent tax rate is ‘spending’. How very progressive!
Much Hadham, Herts
We need Abbott
Sir: Many thanks to Tony Abbott for reminding us of the key issues that we need to achieve in the Brexit negotiations and why we are still in a strong position, despite the endless variations on Project Fear churned out by the hard-line Remainers in Westminster and the media (‘How to save Brexit’, 27 October). If only we had a government able to follow his advice and actually believe in the UK. If Mr Abbott is no longer needed in his own country, would he like to come and show us the way?
East Lavant, West Sussex
Tracks of his years
Sir: Further to the correspondence about guests on Desert Island Discs choosing their own records, a couple of weeks ago Nile Rodgers chose five that he had written or produced. They were all classics, but it’s not quite in the spirit of the thing, is it?
Don’t forget My Face
Sir: I was disappointed, neigh, surprised that Robin Oakley omitted the apocryphal ‘My Face’ in his list of naughty horse names (The Turf, 27 October). Its owner allegedly delighted in shouting out ‘Come on My Face’ from the owners’ enclosure whenever it raced.
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