The Hurt Shocker: A Times column on pain, some bullshit about Spain, and Farage is at it again — British media is an endurance sport

Still, at least Giles Coren is still away.

Earlier this month, Joey Chestnut — one of the greatest sportspeople of his generation — retained his crown. At the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island, the competitive eater set a new world record for processed meat guzzling, consuming 76 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes.

Of all the athletes in the world, I feel the most affinity for Joey Chestnut. Day in, day out I attempt to consumed prodigious amounts of the British media — the informational equivalent of ground mystery meat — without making myself sick. It’s always a challenge and this week has seen a particularly vomit-inducing buffet of delights produced by the crazed chefs of Britain’s commentariat.

While yesterday’s Twitter main character role was snatched late in the day by Flora Gill (who suggested “Someone needs to create porn for children…” before deleting the tweet and being outraged that anyone was outraged), the early contender was someone else from The Times extended universe.

James Marriott, Times comment pages’ resident young fogey, wrote a piece with the headline If we want to live we have to suffer and weep. That was catnip to anyone pressing their face up against the paper’s paywall. I just thought it was an explanation for why there’s so much painful prose in The Times: It’s not merely the product of pretension and self-regard but, in fact, a philosophical choice.

Then I read the piece, which like so much of Marriott’s output, is predicated on taking a clutch of books he’s read and distilling them down to a glib kind of koan which will prompt nods and murmurs in the comment section. Marriott’s work is made to exist in the snowglobe safety of The Times paywall; it’s not designed to encounter the harsh air of Twitter where people will actually critique it.

The piece opens with a familiar columnist’s trick — introducing a fringe figure that many of your readers will probably not have heard of but whose opinions you will now unpick across 500 words of deathless prose. Marriott writes:

David Pearce, a leading figure in the transhumanist movement that obsesses Silicon Valley’s elites, is an “abolitionist”. Nothing so niche and small-timey as slavery; Pearce is an abolitionist with respect to the totality of human suffering. He believes technological advances mean that “states of sublime well-being are destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health”. The world’s last unpleasant experience, he reckons, “will be a precisely dateable event”.

That quote (“…states of sublime well-being are destined…” etc.) comes from Pearce’s self-published manifesto The Hedonistic Imperative, which was shoved into the world 26 years ago and whose ideas have not really taken hold since. But Marriott needs Pearce to be taken seriously in order for him to argue against him so he continues:

The scale of Pearce’s ambition qualifies him as an eccentric but the nature of his preoccupation identifies him as a man very much of his time. A unique aspect of the character of modern people — something that separates us from almost all other people who have ever lived — is that we view suffering as unusual. Not a part of the human condition but an affront to it.

Another of the great advantages of being a newspaper columnist is that you’re effectively debating against yourself so if you want to make blanket statements that sound profound but would disintegrate like Jimmy Webb’s cake in the rain there’s very little to stop you.1 So we have Marriott asserting that “modern people… view suffering as unusual” and that “separates us from almost all other people who have ever lived”. Citation very much needed.

Marriott turning to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, America's big book of bad things that can happen to your brain, doesn’t count. The DSM is less a book and more a battleground on which competing groups row over what should and shouldn’t be included, how conditions are included, and whether the publication’s cultural bias means its position is untenable.

When Marriott writes…

The fourth edition of the standard American handbook of mental illness, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, excluded grief from the diagnosis of severe depression. The present edition, the fifth, includes it.

… he is not uncovering some great truth about the way we see the world but noticing that the DSM is an inconsistent and highly political object.

Leaning on the words of a fringe philosopher and a line in a highly disputable diagnostic handbook does not justify Marriott’s excitable contention that:

There is something eerie about a society considering that human minds might need to be cleansed of grief. It is an attitude that regards human beings not as intrinsically flawed and suffering but as perfectible machines — evidence of the cultural retreat from Christianity, with its martyrs, crucifixion and concept of human life as “the valley of the shadow of death”.

Today we believe our bodies and our minds can be optimised for maximum efficiency, achievement, happiness and ideological purity. In properly calibrated environments, fed with the right inputs, we should function with the bland, bright corporate precision of a new MacBook.

Who is ‘we’?

The number of emergency food parcels distributed by Trussell Trust foodbank rose from just over 40,000 in 2010 to over 1.5 million in 2019, a 3,900% increase. Disabled people have spent the 11 years of Conservative/Coalition government under sustained attack from administrations that made getting the support they are entitled to increasingly torturous.

Two weeks ago, the DWP admitted that it had been cold-calling disabled people who appealed benefits decisions to pressure them into abandoning appeals and accepting inadequate offers.

I will never forget how my friend Lucy, who lived her whole life with the constant suffering that epidermolysis bullosa brings and died before her 30th birthday, spent much of her final years worried her benefits would be cut and subjected to reassessments despite having an incurable condition.

Suffering for millions of people in the UK is not a chin-stroking philosophical quandary but a daily reality. It’s understandably galling — maddening even — for someone struggling through every hour or every day to read a columnist like Marriott writing paragraphs like this:

Even with those advances, pain and grief remain fundamental to the human condition. Suffering will always rise from within us, no matter how many mental handrails and cushions the present cult of safetyism provides. Nobody put it more compellingly than Schopenhauer, who understood that “suffering is essential to life” and that it “does not flow in upon us from outside but everyone carries around within himself its perennial source”.

Schopenhauer — the scion of a rich family who spent his life causing as much suffering to other people as possible, including consistently feuding with his widowed mother Johanna2 and violently pushing a woman down some steps causing her to be paralysed on one side and him to be ordered to pay her a pension by the courts — was a tendencious prick. The Times would have given him a column in a shot.

Marriott concludes his column by saying:

This is the reason all great art and literature is about suffering and why the blandest people are always those for whom nothing in life has ever really gone wrong. We certainly do not need more of them.

It’s that columnist’s trick of making blanket statements of profundity again. There are just as many comfortable rich kids who have been able to make great art because they didn’t have to worry about anything so trivial as immediately making a living. The weeping artist in their grim garret is a cliche but then complexity rather than the ersatz version columnists tend to opt for doesn’t make for such tidy conclusions.

While suffering is apparently good for the soul, Marriott seemed to be blocking a lot of people who didn’t agree with his thesis yesterday. But then suffering is an irregular verb to the average columnist: “You suffer, they suffer, I observe your suffering for a column that my peers will assure me is masterful.”

As The Times was assuring us of the nobility of suffering, Ian Martin — another Times columnist, who shared Marriott’s column — was ensuring that his readers at Reaction, the reactionary website he edits, suffered through an ahistorical perspective on Spain and fascism.

In a piece headlined Spain’s leftist rulers gag the truth about their past, Gerald Warner — a former columnist for The Sunday Times and leader writer for the Scottish edition of The Daily Mail, whose Reaction back catalogue is peppered with jeremiads against the ‘woke’ and whose full name is James Gerald Warner of Craigenmaddie — writes:

… where did all Franco’s “fascists” come from? At the February 1936 election the Spanish fascist party, the Falange, gained a total of 6,800 votes, putting it at the bottom of the poll. So, how was this small cohort, presumably including women voters, able to put an army in the field five months later that eventually defeated the Republic? The answer, of course, is that it did not. The blanket term “fascist”, routinely applied to the Nationalist forces – actually a complex coalition of monarchists, Carlists, Catholics, assorted centrists and a majority of the Army – is testimony only to the political illiteracy of uninformed commentators who have swallowed the leftist propaganda narrative.

In the course of the civil war, the Falange grew enormously, many of its recruits being Anarchists in the Nationalist zone who exploited the proletarian pretensions of the Falange to save their skins by donning the blue shirt, nicknamed the “salvavidas” (lifejacket) by General Quiepo de Llano for that reason. Franco used the Falange, which he always kept totally under his control, to give an ideological flavour to the Nationalist cause, adopting the Roman salute as a riposte to the clenched fist of the left, since he wished to appear a “modern” ideologue, rather than an old-fashioned military dictator.

Yet that is what he was. His views were not fascist: his chief preoccupation was maintaining the unity of Spain against separatist movements. A dictator? Yes. A fascist? No. It does history no service to falsify the realities of the situation. There is much left/liberal agitation today about exposing alleged atrocities, exhuming mass graves and indulging in historical denunciation, as envisaged by the projected Law of Democratic Memory.

You always know you’re dealing with someone writing in good faith when they slot quotation marks around the word fascist in a discussion of General Franco.

The Law of Democratic Memory that Warner references in the last line of the excerpt I’ve quoted is a successor to a law passed in Spain fourteen years ago. The new legislation is designed to honour those who suffered persecution under Franco’s regime and cover a wider range of his victims and crimes, eliminating some loopholes that existed in the original law.

Warner focuses on the aspect of the bill that makes it a criminal offence to express support for Franco and his ideas as if that good policy is the only thing it’s designed to do. In fact, the legislation also aims to create two official remembrance days to honour Franco’s victims, set up an official registry of their names, and redefine the grandiose ‘Valley of the Fallen’ monument — where Franco was buried until 2019 — as a cemetery to hold the remains of people killed on both sides of the civil war.

The Reaction article is a cry of rage that the woke left have come to cancel General Franco now by accurately stating that he was a fascist. That Ian Martin is a judge of the Orwell Prize just adds a pinch of spice to this disgusting concoction. Orwell — whose own history was far from as clean as centrist obsessives would like you to believe — fought in the Spanish Civil War and called Franco’s movement what he could see it was — fascism.

Huw Lemmy wrote of Martin yesterday:

As a British writer for Tribune working in Barcelona, I find it a bitter irony that this editor is a judge for the Orwell Prize, not just for the political content of this piece, but for the poor quality of its history and journalism.

When I walk to my office I pass a mass grave of 4000 opponents of Francoism, including the only democratically elected European head of a government to have been executed. It’s revolting that an editor who would publish this would also hand out an award in Orwell’s name.

I’m not calling for him to be sacked or “cancelled”, just expressing my dismay that Orwell’s name and work (of which I’m hardly a stan) has been so depoliticised in the U.K. into an abstract reactionary position that someone pushing falangist apologia is deemed a worthy judge.

In a world where political journalism was not irreparably cursed, it would seem unthinkable that a man gleefully publishing falangist apologia would also be part of the judging panel doling out an award named after Orwell. But then you remember that Nigel Farage has a platform on national television, broadcasting four nights a week and a special slot on Sundays too.

On Wednesday, Farage used his GB News show3 to claim that…

…over the course of the last few weeks is it is to be regretted that the RNLI in Kent particularly, partly in East Sussex, increasingly is becoming a taxi service for the illegal gangs pushing migrants across into the English Channel.

It has effectively become an arm of the Border Force and that this is leading to division within coastal communities, questions which are being asked by the RNLI crew.

His words led to reports that RNLI crews had been verbally abused and a huge surge in donations to the charity. But Farage has predictably doubled down, taking the opportunity to claim his words have been twisted by the ‘woke left’ and that he should be praised for that time — he claims — he held a British beer festival in Brussels to raise money for the RNLI.4

On his show last night, Farage whined:

Yesterday, I did a big piece on the RNLI, in which I made very clear that I was a big supporter — a fundraiser, a donor, a believer in them — but that I understood the difficulty they were having at the moment. This was taken by some and twisted in the most extraordinary way…

Farage then went on to take credit for the surge in donations to the RNLI, while hinting darkly that other “more longer-term donors are also asking questions”.

Still, at least we’ve now got a suitable epitaph for Farage when his lungs, yellowing like an old pub ceiling, finally give out:

“Nigel Farage: Twisted In The Most Extraordinary Way.”

And in the hot dog eating contest of the British media, Farage will always be the most full of shit.

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1

Yes, yes, there should be editors but they don’t seem to care particularly.

2

The first German woman to publish books without using a pseudonym, making her arguably far more worthy of celebration than her snarling son.

3

“Show” is a grandiose word to use for televising the rantings of a flat roof pub fascist but there you go…

4

It feels like that ‘charity’ move was as self-interested as when Mark tries to persuade Sophie to go bungee jumping in Peep Show.