Saturday, 25 July 2015

Freedom of Speech: Tony Benn ain't all that.

As far as I like any politician (and I don't), Tony Benn is okay. After his death, he has become the ghostly conscience of the left - whenever that Jeremy Corbyn is given props, he gets compared to either Michael Foot or the Benster.

However, Benn is still a politician. Something I love about him was his frank approach to power. His famous 'five questions' are text book examples of 'speaking truth to power'.

An absolutely admirable challenge to dictators, members of the British Parliament, that bloke who won't book my band in his pub. Benn's intentions are beautiful.

Now, let's see how he gets on putting his ideals into practice... the application of theory to action is called praxis, I believe.

Of course, I am being unfair: Benn wasn't meeting with Saddam to discuss power. He was trying to set up a dialogue with the Iraqi big man in an attempt to prevent Gulf War II.

But there is a huge FAIL here. I am a pacifist, but missing the chance to call a dictator to account, letting him claim that he is concerned with his people's Human Rights... come on Tony!

This is why I like Jesus better than Tony Benn. If we leave aside the question of whether Jesus was fictional, or CS Lewis' assertion that Jesus was either delusional or really The Son of God, Jesus didn't just talk about what we ought to do - he annoyed the hell out of people, gave local capitalists a proper slap for taking the piss out of The Temple before getting executed by the state.

Benn's radical politics, however, are contained within a very safe context - British democracy. I know there's problems with it, but a degree of protest is acceptable, especially if you are an elected politician who wears a suit and speaks well on the BBC.

To be fair to Benn, here is a video of him being more impressive.

This is a rare situation where I have more sympathy with the revolutionary socialists than the hard-working mainstream activists who seek reform, not replacement, of capitalism. The hagiography of Benn, where it happens, is dangerous. It not only ascribes a revolutionary energy to a man who did not have any, it suggests that revolutionary speech is more important than action. It is even possible to interpret Benn's life as an example of how the state can allow a degree of subversion, to give the impression that it matters.

Of course, it is possible to replace 'Jesus' with 'Guevara', 'Lenin' or 'Hitler'. My argument has weaknesses. And it's unlikely you'll see me telling a dictator off for abusing human rights on Channel 4. 

One last video and then I'll get back to trolling the Edinburgh Fringe. He's Benn chatting with a Jewish comedian. Response to this depends on whether the viewer is sympathetic or not to Benn's politics. Does Benn look cool or does Ali G take him to task?

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