Is Cardinal O'Brien being used as bait?

Nuance, compromise, and ambivalence don't make 'good TV'. We've chosen this binary world.

It's hard to write about Cardinal O'Brien without writing about Cardinal O'Brien, but I feel I have to try.

I can't help reaching the conclusion that this kind of confected argument, this kind of outcry, this kind of reaction, serves no-one very well. Does it serve O'Brien well? Not really. Does it serve those who attack him well? Not entirely either, and some reactions have skirted close to being as intolerant as the person they're attacking for seeing a "tyranny of tolerance". Who, then, does it serve? Those who host the discussions, I suppose. People like me, who write articles about it. But not many others.

It's difficult to avoid thinking that there is plenty of delight to be had in some quarters about comments like O'Brien's, which are akin to Sheriff Bart saying "Hey, where the white women at?" to the KKK dudes in Blazing Saddles. I can't help thinking that this might just be a tedious bit of provocation, signifying nothing at all, designed to create heat and light (mainly heat), a few clicks on a few websites and a few circular custard pie fights in comments sections underneath blogposts.

Oh, but it keeps happening. "Gay marriage, wurgh!" yells the newspaper website. "Ooh, bad views, wurgh!" yell the liberals, and all pile on. And so it perpetuates a self-serving tedious circular debate of nothingness in which no-one wins, no-one says anything remotely insightful and no-one learns anything, other than that other people can be quite annoying when they disagree with you -- and I think we all kind of knew that anyway.

I'm not saying Cardinal O'Brien, god bless him, is a troll. As far as I'm aware, he isn't. I assume he believes everything he says, and really believes that it's right. Which he's entirely entitled to do -- and his views probably represent the views of a lot of morons, bigots, idiots and fools up and down the country. I don't imagine he speaks for all Roman Catholics, believers or otherwise. I'm sure there is nothing to doubt his integrity; I wonder if he's just being used as bait.

To me, though, this seems to be the way we often tend to conduct our intellectual debate in this country. We find a bit of an outlier who has some kind of authority, flatter them that they're more significant than they really are, and tease them into saying exactly the thing that will create the most shouty polarised arguments possible. This seems to happen more often than is healthy for a genuinely fruitful debate to take place.

Have you seen that programme that stains Sunday morning television like a suspicious map-like mark on a previously pristine bedsheet? The Big Questions, it's called. I can't work out if it's a mickey take of Mitchell and Webb's Big Talk or just someone's idea of how adults really should discuss things. If it's the former, it's quite good, although rather unsubtle; if it's the latter, it's a crime against brains. I rather fear that might be what it is, though.

I THINK THIS, says person A. WELL YOU'RE WRONG, booms person B. And then they annoy each other for five minutes while Nicky Campbell referees. It's deeply unsatisfying if you've tuned in expecting anything other than a fight, and I end up turning over. There's no room for people to find common ground or work towards any compromise. It's Team A v Team B. I wonder if our deliberately adversarial parliamentary system, exemplified by the boorish lowing of backbenchers at Prime Minister's Questions, has something to do with this; if this is the example you get from the people at the very top, the cream of the country's intelligentsia, why shouldn't everyone else do the same?

But this is the way these things seem to go. If you can't talk in sufficiently argumentative, snappy soundbites, you don't get invited onto television and radio to talk about things; dare to try and speak in nuance, or admit you don't know the answer to questions, and you'll be quietly dropped. Ever wondered why people come out with daft answers on gameshows? They're chosen to be the ones who'll wildly guess at anything, rather than say they don't know. And it's relatively similar with current affairs, I'm afraid.

Back to O'Brien for a moment. I probably disagree with what he has to say. So what? I'm bound to. That's what it's all about. Who wants to listen to some relatively enlightened religious figure (of which there are many) taking the modern world on board, when you can demonise some dozy old dinosaur instead, and imagine all godsquad types are the same? I think it's the selection of these people in the first place that's the key. We get the voices we deserve. If we wanted nuance, compromise or ambivalence, we'd probably get it. But that wouldn't make what's considered 'good TV' or 'good radio', or, in this world, 'good copy'.

So, on with the binary world. It's the one we've chosen, and it's the one we're stuck with.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.