For some, professions of egalitarianism and socialist belly fire are a kind of rhetorical chaff – a way to elevate oneself as More Compassionate Than Thou, while deflecting envy from below. (“Please don’t hate me for being richer than you. Look, over there – they have even more, or almost as much – let’s all hiss at them!”) Vicarious philanthropy – giving away freely other people’s earnings – is a remarkably effective ruse, so much so it seems to encourage a certain disregard for dissonance, as demonstrated, for example, by the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger in this comical exchange with Piers Morgan. And by the Guardian’s imperious class warrior Polly Toynbee, whose rhetoric was contrasted with her actual lifestyle and was promptly reduced to indignant spluttering on national television. Similar obliviousness is also displayed by the millionaire actor Jeremy Irons, who denounces consumerism and asks, “How many clothes do people need?” All while owning no fewer than seven houses, one of which is a peach-coloured castle. No, you’re not allowed to laugh. Because his wife is also very Green and “deeply socialist.”
Good knockabout stuff. It would seem that Piers Morgan has his uses.
But, there is always a danger with this way of arguing, where you challenge someone for not living in accordance with his or her own bad ideas. The danger being that you may forget to point out that they are bad ideas. Often, there is so much demanding that whoever it is should practice what he preaches, that it is forgotten what stupid preaching it is.
Thompson does not make this mistake, as his swipe at vicarious philanthropy illustrates, as do all the other postings on his site that criticise other bad ideas. But others do.
Polly Toynbee’s class warfare preaching would be just as wrong if she preached it while living in a cardboard box under a bridge, and it might also be worse, on account of being more persuasive. It is her preaching I object to, not her lifestyle.
Jeremy Irons owning seven houses isn’t going to cause our descendants to fry or starve to death, any more than will us masses wanting to have more frocks and suits and shirts than we could get by with. The fact that, having earned a ton of money in the movies, Irons chooses to invest in property in a big way, and then, having invested in it, chooses to live in quite a lot of it, is evidence that, despite the foolishness of his professed opinions, his actual opinions, the ones he acts on, are less foolish. This man certainly knows how to live!
If you demand consistency from people, be sure to be clear what sort of consistency you are demanding. I want Irons to carry on living as he wants to, using the money he has earned. I just want him to stop spouting unintelligent and uncharitable nonsense about how we poorer people ought to fret about our shopping habits. Let Polly remain unequally rich, and continue to enjoy her Italian holidays. Let her merely shut up about the goodness of enforced equality.
I am not saying that Thompson’s comments are wrong. Pointing out that the Toynbee and Irons lifestyles clash with their publicly expressed opinions is well worth doing. But the idea of doing this, which must never be lost sight of in all the complaints about hypocrisy, is not to shame these grandees into living differently. It is to shame them into talking less public nonsense.