Friday, April 01, 2005

Bernard Levin and the Single Issue Fanatic

The Times was my newspaper for many years. I took out a half price subscription when I was in the sixth form which I maintained through my University years. I was a daily reader for a long time until Rupert Murdoch subverted its "voice" and began to turn it into New Labour's Pravda.

One of the great pleasures of reading The Times used to be the columns by the late Bernard Levin. Levin was an unashamed intellectual in an increasingly anti-intellectual society. He was perhaps rather eccentric by today's standards. To me, at the time, he seemed civilised, erudite and simply confident in his right to be himself. His writing was crisp and his thinking clear. His sensibilties were liberal. And he seemed to know everything.

Levin coined the phrase "single issue fanatic" to describe the sort of person behind the "lobby groups" which were then becoming a feature of British political life. Animal testing, gay rights, political prisoners, anti-smoking, global warming - whatever the issue was, these groups found that an obsessive focus had a more powerful effect than broadly-based political action. The single issue fanatics who powered such groups provided the obsession, and therefore the focus. They have had an undoubted effect. Their success may have been a factor in undermining wider participation in mainstream politics, leaving the major parties themselves small and unrepresentative.

To a polymath like Levin, SIFs were particularly annoying. He found them tedious, offensive and dangerous. They were simply bores, organised into armies. No educated and intelligent person could possibly become so obsessed. Life was too interesting. There were too many things to think about for any sensible human to become stuck in one line of thought.

Being a SIF is the intellectual equivalent of having a facial tic. One can feel sorry for the person concerned. One can sympathise to an extent, particularly if their "single issue" is one of the issues one cares about. But it is nonetheless a disturbing and unattractive trait.

Levin's writing on this subject influenced me. Prone as I am to serial enthusiasm, I have always been conscious of the danger of becoming a SIF. This blog has made me conscious of it again. Levin's ideas about SIFs have come back to me every time I "post" some observation about habeas corpus and the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Of course, I could broaden my themes to cover politics generally. To be honest, it's hard not to take the odd sideswipe. This is not the only issue I care about. But it is a priority at this moment. It is also an issue that unites Left and Right, so why muddy the waters? This gives us a chance to build a coalition for liberty that no other issue could.

At this point in our history, this is the necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a return to political sanity. This is a point on which men and women from across the political spectrum can turn and take a stand against the ignorant and ethically-defective people who have taken over our political life.

Once our right to a fair trial is restored, we can - and must - move on to other issues. I cannot believe our people will cross this last ditch. Here we can - we surely must - turn and fight.


Albion Blogger said...

He makes a good point but all things in context...

Because you write a single-issue blog doesn't mean your private life revolves around your blog. And if it does - as mine has been since I started my blog a month ago - it's only a temporary imbalance. I'm weaning myself off the initial fervour and returning to the several other totally unrelated interests I also have.

The SIFs may very well have full lives outside their most visible interests. And I think that if you feel strongly enough about something - and particularly if you have to shift the views of a nation to make a difference - then allowing your attention to be diluted with other things renders you less effective.

Maybe Mr Levin was fanatical about learning?

Anyway, your recommendation is enough; I shall seek out some of his writng and see what he had to say.


Tom Paine said...

Thanks for the words of encouragement! I think you will enjoy Levin's writing.