Friday 20 June 2014

Two-part post about people talking nonsense

Part one:

Melanie Phillips has featured in two audio broadcasts recently. One was the BBC’s Jeremy Vine programme, in which she debated with Lord  Phillips of Sudbury (no relation!) about the prospect of aligning with Iran over the Iraq crisis, and the other was a Times podcast, the first part of which was devoted to the same topic. 

On Jeremy Vine we had to listen to the views of Lord Phillips, formerly the ‘legal eagle on the Jimmy Young Show” (that’s going back a bit, ) who referred to Israel in disparaging terms and needless to say seemed disturbingly willing to overlook Iran’s profound misdemeanors, which surely don’t need repeating here; he obviously views Rouhani through rose-tinted blinkers accordingly, while Melanie set out a nuanced and considered case against the west’s potential alliance with Iran with the customary eloquence and clarity for which she is renowned.

Afterwards the audience was invited to chip in with their ‘thoughts’. Predictably a woman phoned in to say, emphatically and in no uncertain terms, that the Iraq war, and the consequences thereof, were no-one’s fault but Bush’s and Blair’s.  

The tenor of the debate was inherently doomed to fail because each contributor was addressing a complex issue on two different levels, and never the twain could meet. They were just miles apart. Lord Phillips was shackled to the left’s blindly tolerant attitude towards the intolerant. Melanie had to try to engage with kindergarten naivety, and I’d go so far as to say the ignorance and clumsiness of her opponent.  I’d say the only redeeming feature of airing such a debate is that it would have united listeners of all persuasions in mutually assured exasperation.

That’s example number one of people talking about stuff they don’t know enough about.

The Times podcast started off on a more sophisticated level. The participants seemed to connect, which meant at least they were able to discuss the Iran/Iraq problem on the basis of reality. 

As it happens, Sarah Montague interviewed Dr. Yuval Steinitz on this subject yesterday morning, and he set out some of the issues that Melanie had explained in the podcasts. His accent was slightly difficult, and his phrasing a bit odd, but I’ve done my best to transcribe it here:

It’s now 9 minutes past seven. The crisis in Iraq has seen a remarkably rapid thawing of relations with Iran. Britain has re-opened its Embassy in Tehran and America is talking about how it can act with Iran to rein in Isis.
So how does Israel feel about that? Well, Dr Yuval Steinitz is Israel’s minister of strategic and intelligence affairs and joins us on the line, good morning Doctor Steinitz.

Good Morning.

One imagines that you believe that it is necessary, given what is happening in Iraq, for the Americans, for people to work with Iran on this.

Look you have first,  events all over the Middle East, events that are extremely disturbing, the level of turmoil and bloodshed and carnage and all over .... it’s very difficult to watch and very disturbing for little Israel in the middle of it. 
With regard to Iraq we think that two things should be avoided. One, you don’t want to see Iraq controlled or occupied by ISIS, by Al Qaeda. And two, you don’t want to see Iraq controlled or hegemonized by Iran, because there is clearly an Iranian attempt to create an Iranian / Shiite axis, stretching from Iran, through Iraq. Syria - Assad is getting the upper hand in the war, and Lebanon, which is partially controlled by Hezbolla, directly to the Mediterranean, and this is a threat to Europe, to Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, that should be prevented.

Even with thinking that, do you accept that Iran has a role to play alongside America in trying to stabilise Iraq?

Well, Iran is already playing a role, a significant role, within Iraq. Iran is already trying to increase influence within Iraq, as I said the strategic effort to create such an axis, and Iran is partially responsible for the events in Iraq because the tension between the Shia and the Sunnis within Iraq is partially the result of Iranian very strong involvement of Iran within Iraq, already.

Now you’re obviously in communication, a tremendous amount of communication with the Americans over their dealing with Iran, and one imagines, also with Iraq. What are they saying to you? What are they perhaps reassuring you about what they will or won’t do there?

Well, you have to ask the Americans about what they are saying, but we would like to insure two things. One, that Iraq is not becoming Iranian colony, or Al Qaeda state. Either or both are a nightmare for us and for the Iraqis themselves. And secondly that nothing, no  Shia interest in Iraq or elsewhere will make the west more flexible and will make an impact on the attempts to prevent Iran from becoming a  threshold  nuclear state, because this is a devastating threat, not just to Israel in the Middle east, but to the future of the world.

So do you fear that America may perhaps not, and perhaps Europe and Britain, not push as hard as it should on the nuclear negotiations, because of the separate dealings with Iran, over Iraq?

I must confess that there was some concern here about it, but we spoke of course with Britain, with France, with the European Union, with the Americans and -- we heard a very strong and clear statement that prevention of a nuclear Iran is top priority, and nothing will interfere with this, in this mission.
It is really top priority for the future of the world, not just for the future of the Middle East.

There are some people who suggest that if you have an iran that is extended in Syria, in Iraq, it may want to solve that separate problem more quickly, and maybe more happy to compromise and negotiate.

Well I have not considered that this is the case. What we see clearly is that Iran is trying to use the situation in order to go in two fronts, both to get closer to nuclear weapons, and to gain some kind of international consent to remain a threshold nuclear state, and this time without any sanctions and punishment. 
And the other attempt is to create this Iranian/Shiite axis, this area of Iranian influence stretching in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, engulfing the Arab peninsula and letting sometimes this access to the Mediterranean. Both Iranian efforts are very dangerous, not just to Israel and to the moderate Arab world, but to the future of the world, and you know sometimes, you might have several threats, ISIS is real threat to the  Iraqi people and to the region, Iran and Hezbollah are even a greater threat to the region and even to the western World altogether.

Dr Yuval Steinitz thank you very much.

I can just see people who listen to Jeremy Vine piping up indignantly that Israel has nukes, so why shouldn’t Iran?

People talking nonsense Part 2:

This is the second example of people talking knowingly about something they don’t actually know much about.

Still on the above mentioned podcast, he subject turned to ‘Gove‘ and the great education debate. I was not familiar Roger Alton before this podcast, but I heard him say:    
“There’s quite an interesting recent book by a woman called Mikey Cuddihy called ‘A Conversation about Happiness, and it’s about her - a memoir based on her time at Summerhill, which was the great liberal kind of free teaching place and it emerges as a place of virtual child abuse actually and the shocking, not abuse, neglect, sorry, dreadful dreadful.... very interesting little book.”

The words he emphasised - “Mikey Cuddihy” and “Summerhill” were expelled rather than spoken, which made him sound very like Peter Oborne does when spitting out venomous theories about Israel and the Jews. My ears pricked up and my hackles rose. I had only been half listening so I rewound and ran it through again. I do know this subject, and I promise Mr. Alton was talking rubbish. 

Blaming Summerhill for the failure of useless schools is exactly like the woman who blamed Bush and Blair for causing the Sunni v Shia war.  It’s ignorance on a stick. Using Summerhill as a scapegoat for poor state education is wrong-headed and very very lazy.

Summerhill was not the cause of the current school failings. The “great liberal kind of free teaching” that the panel and many others blame for the decline in overall standards of literacy, numeracy and academic excellence was not the fault of A.S. Neill. Nor was flower power, LSD, psychedelic shirts, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi or transcendental meditation.

Psychedelic stuff

Not responsible

I do realise that Summerhill School is frequently accused of engendering swathes of crappy, failing schools. But that’s just misguided. If any of these poor and failing schools have indeed been influenced by the ideas of A.S. Neill, they’ve merely been duped by their own mythical version of them. Our old friend ‘misinterpretation’ is the culprit; genuinely.  

Teacher training colleges did include a smattering of Neill’s ideas in the revised pedagogy of the 1960s, but in a misguided and half-baked manner. Their half-understood superficial interpretation of Neill’s concept of the ‘free’ child was transplanted onto an incompatible pre-existing system. 

Grafting a random selection of Neill’s radical ideas onto the conventional state school system was never going to do any good.  The aspirations of each were different in an apples and pears kind of way. Like putting lipstick on a pig, polishing a turd or giving Islamists in Gaza  the vote and expecting it to result in democracy.

Everything has a context. A.S. Neill’s philosophy was undoubtedly a reaction to his experiences of education and child-rearing at a certain time.   At the turn of the century a stifling, terrifying, ultra disciplinarian regime was rife in schools, particularly in Scotland where he was educated and began teaching. Cruelty abounded. In Britain left-handed children were made to hold a pen in their ‘right’ hand and physically chastised if caught doing what came naturally.  Information was drilled into pupils, who did learn, but by rote; creativity was likely smothered, and above all obedience was enforced by corporal punishment; in some cases in the form of the tawse.

Neill wasn’t an educator in fact. His philosophy of freedom was not to be confused with a “teaching method”. In fact the teaching at his school  was all but irrelevant. Neill said he could take it or leave academic study.  He sincerely believed that if and when a child wants to learn it will do so eagerly in its own time, but even if not, according to Neill, no problemo. 

Times are different now, and I’d be the first to acknowledge that such a deficiency is problematic in the materialistic world we’ve created. In fact I think this theory has many flaws and is not a one size fits all panacea. 

Neill valued and promoted  “freedom - not license”, a live-and-let-live principle that had nothing to do with anarchy, but everything to do with self-government and self-direction. There are flaws in this philosophy, but we must bear in mind that it was a humane and revolutionary concept at the time. It was nothing to do with the science of learning, or methods of instilling facts and figures into empty vessels for the greater good of king and country.
It was the publicity surrounding Mikey Cuddihy’s book rather than the book itself that turned it into something like a betrayal in the eyes of loyal acolytes of A.S. Neill. 
Criticisms of imperfect scenarios are fair enough, but in the case of a much maligned entity such as Summerhill, or, say, Israel, they’re best aired within the family, because criticism handed to one’s enemies on a plate only adds ammunition to their armoury of weapons of malicious denigration.

Mikey Cuddihy’s book is primarily about her own family, and the tragic circumstances that catapulted Mikey and her siblings into the care of an irresponsible relative who abruptly dumped them halfway across the world into a bewildering and unfamiliar environment. 

The neglect that featured in Roger Alton’s misfiring critique was primarily the responsibility of the adults in the Cuddihy family. Naturally the children felt abandoned; they had very good reason to feel that way. In Summerhill's defence one could only venture that the school itself was not designed as a parental substitute. A failing of the school, particularly for that unhappy family, was that the pupils were ‘left to get on with it‘ rather than nurtured and comforted, which was probably something any bereaved child would crave. The book should have been called “A Conversation about Unhappiness.” 

A brief, rather prurient passage concerning the school was picked out and embellished,(£) nay, sensationalised, in some of the newspaper reviews, including the Times, but the book itself was a personal memoir rather than a journal documenting the flaws of ‘That dreadful School’. There has always been a keen media interest in the school, usually seeking a scandal, real or imaginary that can be exploited to  titillate the reader, the kind of reader that is likely already hostile to what they think of as  the ‘Do-as-you-like’. (You could, of course, as long as it didn’t impinge upon the freedom of others.)

This somewhat rambling piece is here to highlight people talking bollox about things they don’t understand, and if that point was not made as clearly as I intended please remember I had an unconventional education. I thank you.


  1. I heard Melanie Phillips on the Jeremy Vine show, and I could have wept.

    It really frightens me that idiots like Lord Phillips can be anywhere near the levers of power ("blinkered" wouldn't even begin to describe him), even just as a Lib Dem peer, and I despair at Jeremy Vine's ignorance: THIS is what passes for serious political debate? At times, the two of them sounded like one of the brilliant current affairs parodies Chris Morris did all those years ago in On The Hour.

    However, I had some drying paint that urgently needed watching, so I didn't stay for the phone-in.

    In Ms Phillips's shoes I might well be constantly asking myself why I bother, and have given up years ago, so I totally admire her perseverance - and long may she persevere!

  2. You lost no time in losing me : the idea of Iran's profound misdemeanours being so clear as to not require elucidating did not fly at all.
    "tension between the Shia and the Sunnis within Iraq is partially the result of Iranian very strong involvement of Iran within Iraq" did not do any better.
    you believe that it is necessary, given what is happening in Iraq, for the Americans, for people to work with Iran on this.
    " you believe that it is necessary, given what is happening in Iraq, for the Americans, for people to work with Iran on this."
    There's a promising idea. Who remembers the actions of the US Army in capturing and torturing members of invited Iranian consulates in Iraq ?
    "Iran is trying to use the situation in order to.... gain some kind of international consent to remain a threshold nuclear state, and this time without any sanctions and punishment. "
    That would be naive, wouldn't it ? Dr. Ahmadinejad may have had his flaws, but he seemed reluctant to further compromise the treaty which Iran had co-sponsored and signed with 140 nations by recognizing the right of nuclear MWD armed powers to override the provisions agreed upon by countries wishing to not merely limit nuclear proliferation...but promote disarmament.
    And it would do this to limit the damage done by nations dishonouring their I.O.U.'s because they were fair to break their contracts and steal/control/pervert banking agreements.
    Watching paint dry might well be a better use of one's time than to sanction this garbage.

    1. Thank you for illustrating the fundamental point of my post so good-humouredly.

      There’s an internet saying that goes something like: Never explain what Mr. Google can do better. I’ll bend that rule slightly with these links:



      here, and


      May your paint never dry.

  3. I think Melanie Philips typifies the way the BBC takes a stance. You just know whoever interviews her and whoever is there to debate with her are not her intellectual equal and from a dumbed down basis treat her as though she is the fool. On QT the biased audience will not even consider if she is making a valid point, at home I can feel the hate before she even speaks.

    Congrats to you Sue on transcribing the interview. Is there a programme that does it or do you and Craig both sit with the iplayer on stop and start?

    1. Hi Deborah,
      I don’t know how Craig does it - probably the way I do - which is as you imagined- iPlayer, and stop, start, rewind, repeat.

      I agree about the BBC’s strange attitude towards Melanie Phillips. She does seem to be respected as a member of the Moral Maze panel, but I suspect most people are afraid to engage with her pessimistic analyses of world affairs.
      If you can’t face the truth it’s easier to show contempt.

      However, the general population’s defensive hostility to Melanie pales beside its universal hostility to any Israeli spokesperson, even those without an impenetrable accent. I’m afraid Dr. Steinitz was at a considerable disadvantage, what with his oh so “Israeli” growl.

  4. Heard the joyous Melanie on "The Moral Maze" last night.
    There is something marvellous about the lefty apostates like Mel and Peter Hitchens...I identify very strongly with them, and don`t even have to agree with all of it. I just know they`re doing Gods work in a wasted land.
    Giles Fraser was appalling-he sees Islam as merely an assertive strain of pre-Reformation Christianity...and his trashing of his own Bible was disgusting to me.
    He ought to know that there are two Testaments, the Christians have freedom via the New, but the Jews are our big brothers ans sisters-without them we`d have no Testament and no faith...and for Fraser to equate the O.T with the Koran was outrageous.
    A real angel of light masquerading as a liberal prelate.


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