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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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