Must we bury eccentricity under a cloak of political correctness?

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The Independent Culture
Is it more insulting to

believe disability is a

legacy of a previous life than that it's God's will?

"OFF WITH his head! Off with her head!" Let us call it Queen of Hearts syndrome after the bloodthirsty playing card monarch from Alice in Wonderland. It's an odd condition, this - distantly related to Tourette's - in which the sufferer loudly demands that a judge or a sportsperson - or a politician - should lose their job for something completely unrelated to their public function. And over the weekend two new figures, the England football boss Glenn Hoddle and the Tory MEP Tom Spencer, became victims of the rampant Queen of Hearts.

Hoddle first. On Sunday afternoon Margaret Hodge, the minister with responsibility for the disabled, described Hoddle as having uttered sentiments that those with disabilities would find "deeply insulting". In view of his comments, she said, she felt that it was "inappropriate that he should hold that place". Then, yesterday, Tony Blair added that if the reports were accurate Hoddle would find it difficult to stay. Brrrr! This is heavy stuff, the Prime Minister calling for a football manager to be sacked. It never happened to Terry Venables, even amid all the allegations about money and dodgy companies.

This isn't just a Labour thing. The Tory MP Peter Bottomley said that Hoddle's remarks were "not Christian, scientific or acceptable" (as if those three things had ever had anything to do with each other). Oddly, the previous month's victim of Queen of Hearts syndrome concurred. Former spin doctor Charlie Whelan argued in The Observer that Hoddle should resign because he wouldn't be able to stand up to all that pressure coming from those in the press calling for him to resign. An ingenious argument, but not, I feel, what Charlie was saying to Geoffrey Robinson all those months.

This is what nasty old Glenn is reported to have said. "You and I," he told a journalist, "have been physically given two hands and two legs and half-decent brains. Some people have not been born like that for a reason. The karma is working from another lifetime. It is not only people with disabilities. What you sow, you have to reap. You have to look at things that happened in your life and ask why. It comes around."

That's it. Glenn believes that things happen in this existence as a consequence of events in previous lives. But why, lamented one sports writer, "was it necessary to get involved in discussions about the hereafter?" The answer is because Hoddle was asked. What should he have said? "No, I only talk about football." At this rate no one except musicians will dare to appear on Desert Island Discs.

I am not big on spiritualism and all that stuff myself. I think that Hoddle suffers from an under-educated intelligence: he's clever, but he has never been trained to use his mind. But, my God, he's far from being alone. One of my best friends is an immensely talented, sensitive and charismatic man. He is also, in religious terms, a kook. He has clapped happy with the happiest of clappies, has hung out with the ultra-liberals at St James's, Piccadilly, and is certain both that he has been reincarnated several times and that he has healing powers. He believes what Hoddle believes.

Now go into your local bookshop. The chances are that the "New Age" section is about three or four times as big as that devoted to "Science and Technology". Look at them: books on how spacemen built the pyramids, best-selling ahistorical nonsense by the likes of Graham Hancock and Erich von Daniken, endless bollocks about Templars and Rosicrucians.

On telly there are credulous programmes with titles such as Strange But True and Mysteries With Carol Vorderman (a show that never explores the true mystery of modern British life - Carol herself) that practically invite viewers to visit their nearest faith healer or spiritualist. In newspapers there are special supplements on the crystal skulls of El Diablo and on how aliens built a giant sculpture on Mars. A complete tribe of astrologers lives off the notion that your star sign affects your destiny.

This pick'n'mix spirituality is the new religion. And why should I be more worried about terms such as pre-existence, rebirth, re-embodiment, palingenesis, metasomatosis, transmigration and reincarnation than I am about transubstantiation, resurrection and virgin birth? At least Hoddle has never forced a teenage girl to have a baby she didn't want or denied contraception to those needing it. Should we now fire all practising Catholics from their jobs? Why is it more insulting to believe that disability is a hangover from a previous life than to believe that it is "God's will"?

And yet Hoddle may well be gone by the time you read this, following the Tory MEP Tom Spencer (caught by customs with a rude video, two joints, a line and a strange costume) into oblivion. Mr Spencer fell on his sword at the invitation of Edward McMillan Scott, the leader of the Tory delegation to the European parliament, after having first had the whip withdrawn. Considering what was found in his suitcase this may be considered double jeopardy.

Mr Spencer had been on a night out in Amsterdam, where a chap had given him a few recreational drugs that he had kept. The video was a gay one. From Churt, in Surrey, Mr Spencer revealed that, though married, he was mostly homosexual. "My wife and I met at university and we discussed my homosexuality long before we got married. Part of our arrangement was that occasionally it was acknowledged that I would go away for the weekend."

This arrangement suited his wife, apparently, and the two have raised three daughters together. And it seems incredibly sensible and civilised to me. So here, too, I wondered just how much civilisation was threatened by a bloke who swings both ways and smokes a little dope from time to time? More or less than by all those politicians who get legless in the House of Commons bar on a weekday night?

For me the question is not whether Hoddle is right or Spencer behaved well. The question is: can we live with it? That's what tolerance means. If the answer is "no", then we are, by definition, intolerant. Can disabled people cope with Hoddle's views on reincarnation? Can the voters of Surrey deal with a man who occasionally takes drugs? Or shall we demand an end to difference, a uniformity of expression, a burying of eccentricity under a cloak of correctness?

If so, we ought to question our own motivation. As the Hoddle furore mounted, Roberto Di Matteo, the Chelsea midfield player, said he felt upset for his blind sister: "I'm angry and disappointed with Glenn. I am very close to my sister. I already feel guilty about her... she has done nothing whatsoever to deserve this or bring it on herself."

"Guilty" is the key word there. A lot of us are aware that we do precious little for the disabled; sacking Glenn is just a painless way of telling ourselves we care. So - off with his head!

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