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Jeremy Irons and Polly Toynbee say silly things but they know how to live

David Thompson’s latest Elsewhere posting ends very entertainingly. He quotes Matt Welch, Jonah Goldberg and Victor Davis Hanson, before himself adding this very quotable paragraph:

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.

17 comments to Jeremy Irons and Polly Toynbee say silly things but they know how to live

  • Laird

    No disagreement from me. But don’t forget that holding these people up to ridicule is valuable in itself. Not only does it highlight their hypocrisy (and bear in mind that most people are susceptible to ad hominem argument, illogical as it may be), but it can also provoke useful reactions from the target (“indignant spluttering on national television”). Per Saul Alinsky, in his Rules for Radicals (#5): “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It’s hard to counterattack ridicule, and it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.” We need to use all the tools in our arsenal, and logical argument isn’t always the best one.

  • Horace Dunn

    The point you make – that we shouldn’t focus so much on the hypocrisy of the likes of the Toynbee at Irons that we draw attention away from the stupidity of the ideas they expound – is a good one. However, I think that David Thompson is exposing more on his blog than the casual hypocrisy of socialists. What David Thompson shines light on is the extent to which rich socialists want to limit the freedoms and constrain the pleasures of less rich people (i.e. the sort of people that the BBC refers to as “ordinary people” – which is most of us) but clearly consider themselves above such restrictions. The future envisioned by Toynbee, Irons and co is not one that is “more equal” but one in which the lower classes have to manage with less (less freedom, fewer choices, fewer comforts) so that the elite can continue its extravangant and carefree lifestyle.

    The main point is not that rich socialists such as Toynbee are hypocrites – though they are – but that they are malevolent.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    There are degrees. We have Al Gore, who preaches that the world is ending, and simultaneously sells indulgences through which people can absolve their guilt, and gets rich off the doom he is preaching. We have Polly Townbee who says silly things in the Guardian and gets paid by the Guardian to say them, but whose fancy lifestyle probably comes mostly from other places. And we have Jeremy Irons, whose profession and income come from the fact that he is a very fine actor, and whose politics are probably just what they are because that is what politics generally are in the area whether he works, and he is largely going with the flow. I don’t actually think there is much malevolence from someone like Jeremy Irons.

    As far as actors, musicians and other entertainers are concerned, I long ago learned to enjoy the work (and to wish the entertainers the best with their lives, anyway) regardless of the silly politics. (Yes, there is some small amount of amusement to be had from the fact that Irons owns an actual castle). As far as Polly Townbee is concerned, I am not going to enjoy the work, so I shall be less charitable. And Al Gore should be despised.

  • Laird

    And Al Gore should be despised. Indeed.

  • Dom

    I’d like to repeat the important point that Horace made. Most leftists openly want a world in which others are constrained so that they can be in charge. It is based on a hatred of freedom.

  • Paul Marks

    Agreed people.

    The collectivists would be just as bad if they were not hypocrites.

    But the fact that so many of them are hypocrites is a useful weapon.

  • I have to agree about Al Gore – he is not entertaining, and thus possesses no absolving virtues.

  • Paul Marks

    The cartoon version of Al Gore in “Southpark” is entertaining.

    It is just the real one who is not.

  • FrankS

    Yes, such people are doubly-vile. First for their odious views. Second for their hypocrisy. But Gore, Gore belongs in a deeper circle of hell. Check out his family links with Hammer, and his with Soros. Check out Gore: A User’s Manual. Is it possible for a man not to have done one decent thing in his entire political life? Perhaps someone can correct my likely answer to that with a contrary for-instance?

  • RAB

    I have no problem with both approaches myself… First ridicule their arguements, then point up their hypocricy. But always get the ridicule in first, the hypocricy is just reinforcement.

  • Saxon

    AlGore is indeed entertaining; he just needs his ‘chakra’ released first.

  • “…despite the foolishness of his professed opinions, his actual opinions, the ones he acts on, are less foolish.”

    Indeed. And I’d like to think this is at least implicit in much of what I’ve written. Highlighting the hypocrisy of bien-pensant leftists – which is to say, highlighting their dishonesty – is a way to draw attention to the fact that it would be unwise to trust them. Or to give them power over others. There are of course other reasons to avoid doing so, not least that Marxism and its variants give license to all manner of unpleasant urges and dispositions, including explicitly sadistic and vindictive ones. But the extent of the dishonesty and basis for suspicion is often most apparent in the mismatch between professed ideals and actual lived values. It’s an obvious weak point, and an illustrative one.

  • Dishman


    I have no interest in the perversions of The Flying Fat Man.

  • pete

    It is to shame them into talking less public nonsense.

    They are not talking public nonsense.

    They are talking nonsense to a minority of their own kind.

  • TDK

    I think you set us an impossibly high standard.

    Polly supports Sure Start. Sure Start is advertised as being intended to help poor kids. Who can be against that. She establishes her moral virtue and sets opponents (and Libertarians in particular) as being heartless and cruel. The fact that Sure Start is now established as having no detectable effect is not seen as a weakness. Indeed it proves the need to increase the program, to spend more money and this must be repeated until that magic threshold is achieved.

    In this debate, our opponents are not setting out to be rational and amenable. No they set themselves up as virtuous. So to start from a position of arguing on their terms, sets us up to prove Polly’s contention that we are heartless and selfish. Rather we need to undermine that sainthood in order to start the rational debate.

  • veryretired

    I have long felt that the attraction to charity with other people’s money is a variation of Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy, a mental condition in which a parent causes illness in a child for the reward of being seen as long-suffering, virtuous, and deserving of sympathy and help.

    It is clear beyond dispute that most, if not all, of the collectivists’ allegedly compassionate programs not only are ineffective, but actually worsen the problems they are supposed to help, and create numerous negative side-effects as well.

    Meanwhile, as poverty increases rather than decreasing, and poor families find maintaining a traditional family structure is penalized, and their federally assisted schools are nightmares of disfunction, and their neighborhoods are violent war zones of gangs fighting the war on drugs, and their jobs have been destroyed by the costs of the entitlements they receive, and their politicians are routinely sent to jail for felonious corruption on a scale that makes their own crimes seem modest indeed, the great “look how compassionate I am” telethon goes on, uninterrupted, 24/7.

    The rule should be very simple—any proponent of a social format should be required to live within that format before any credibility is granted, or any suggestion is acted upon.

    Seems to me there was a fairly blunt response to another aristocrat who declared, when the dire poverty of the common people was mentioned, “Let them eat cake.”

    Maybe tar and feathers would be enough, but I don’t know…

  • Paul Marks

    Good comment from all.

    “Sure Start” is of course a copy of the American “Head Start” which, when one checks children at the END of their schooling, has been sure to be totally ineffective.

    The “Great Society” Welfare State programs of the 1960s (Food Stamps, Head Start…. and on and on) were supposed to transform America – and they did, but not in the way their supporters said they would.

    The Great Society took a country in the 1950s that had very real faults, but was (to use T. Parson’s word) “Functional” and have made it radically DYSFUCTIONAL. Where about half the entire population either work for government (at all levels) or live on benefits.

    In the case of some Great Society supporters (such as Cloward and Piven) this was deliberate. They wanted to create an unsustainable system – in order to create economic and social collapse (in the hope that a socialist society would rise from the ashes of “capitalism”).


    On tar and feathers – textbook example of how culture has changed occured a few years ago.

    An unelected judge in New Hampshre declared that the State must have a State wide property tax – in order to spend more money on the govenrment schools.

    A judge demanding more govenrment spending would have been met with laughter not so long ago.

    And, when they worked out he was serious, such as judge would indeed have been subjected to tar and feathers – as many people were in New England for defending taxation without the consent of the governed (the King’s judges were particularly detested). Even in the early 1900s citizens “taking the law into their own hands” (and where better place could it be?) were not unknown in New Hampshire.

    Yet the modern population just grumble – and OBEY.

    The collectivist ideology of the education system (and the media) have already given the population in wide areas of the United States a “slave mentality”.