Getting Hysterical

‘People now live under the misapprehension that the hysterical attitude is the correct one and the pitch at which we should all conduct our lives’

My book continues to sell, and readers at book festivals and other venues continue to tell me how “timely” it is. This is not a pleasant thing to be told. Yet I continue to insist that none of this required any great foresight, just present-sight.

The atrocity in Barcelona turns out to be a case in point. A jihadist carried out mass murder using a truck. A larger cell of accomplices turned out to have been planning far greater atrocities. The identities of the suspects varied but centred around Morocco. Police searched for an imam believed to have been linked to the perpetrators, who also seemed to have known the 2004 Madrid bombers. After such atrocities it always turns out that the culprits or their cells are known to authorities who can only step in once the bodies are lying in the streets. And then the Chief Rabbi of Barcelona tells the country’s Jews that Europe is “lost” to the threat of radical Islam and that they should all prepare to leave for Israel. The story is always the same. The reaction never changes. And still no one in any position of power argues for a change in direction.


It isn’t true that I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed. But I’ve certainly seen plenty of them become hysterical. Everywhere there seems to be a sort of mania in the air — a resistance to restraint or perspective of any kind. In the US previously sane people are reduced to expletive-riddled rants against anyone they regard as an opponent. Crowds pull down statues of long-dead figures, spitting and stamping on them as though they lived in some third-world despotism rather than amid the most privileged inheritance in history.

In Britain some people have actually gone mad over the idea of the British government carrying out the will of the British people. People tell me endlessly of friendships ended and the intolerance of the self-professedly tolerant.


The main cause cannot just be that the times are unpredictable (when were they not?), but rather that people now live under the misapprehension that the hysterical attitude is the correct one and the pitch at which we should all conduct our lives. Demonstrating a wild-eyed concern for whatever the latest developments on the world stage might be denotes a seriousness of purpose and character. The 24-hour news channels, Twitter and the rest of the media certainly have a role in this ferment. But it is distracting, even when not wrecking, a good portion of people it shouldn’t.


For instance, over several days in August we had what turned out to be this summer’s Avian Flu story. The war of rhetoric between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un was meant to be about to develop at any moment into full-blown nuclear war. Of course I may be speaking too soon and between typing these words and any chance of your reading them we may all have been reduced to a pile of radioactive dust. But I would expect not. Some years ago I observed a military parade in Pyongyang. The screaming emotion of the crowd was — whether staged or not — perhaps the most frightening glimpse of totalitarianism I have witnessed close-up. Nevertheless, I came away fairly confident that while Pyongyang could do a fair amount of damage to Seoul, not many of their rockets would be airborne before the capital that ordered their launch was returned to 1953 levels of rubble.


Hysteria over the events in Charlottesville had better cause. The sight of actual neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching in the US was bad enough. I suppose we all knew the KKK had not disappeared, however much we hoped they were more reduced in number. But the sight of them was made even worse by the certainty that many of those rallying against them were from groups who had spent previous months rampaging across America in recognisably fascistic fashion, inciting the murder of policemen and setting fire to sites, including the campus of Berkeley.

The President’s willingness to condemn violence on all sides was appallingly mistimed, but it was not misinformed. Part of the Left has spent recent years aping what it claims to oppose, and that — coupled with a desire, or tolerance, for mission-creep in calling out the “far Right” — means that people believe the “anti-fascists” less and less. For instance, in the wake of Charlottesville much of the press once again cited the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This is a disgraceful institution which has labelled Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz as “anti-Muslim extremists” and calls everyone with whom it disagrees (such as churches which oppose gay marriage) “hate groups”. I regard all their pronouncements as junk, and know many others do too. Perhaps it is only when some actual fascists re-emerge that the damage done by “anti-fascists” to their own cause in their wilderness years will become plainest.

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