There's none as intolerant as a liberal

Secretary of State John Kerry's defence of the 'right to be stupid' exposes our weakness. Plus, modern advertising, and confusing pop lyrics

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Scarcely a week seems to pass these days without yielding up some illustration of the hulking cultural and political divides that separate life on either side of the Atlantic. The most recent example came in a speech delivered by the incoming US Secretary of State John Kerry to an audience of German students. In the course of an impassioned defence of freedom of speech, thought and religious belief, and the obligation to allow people whose views you deeply disagree with to process through your township expounding them, Mr Kerry remarked that "you have a right to be stupid if you want to" as well as to "disconnect" from the world around you if you can do so without violating its laws.

There in a nutshell, you suspect, is another crucial difference between the way they do things in the Land of the Free and the kind of behavioural orthodoxies that prevail over here. Mr Kerry, it seems safe to conclude, is a genuine as opposed to a stage liberal, someone who may be appalled by his opponents' views and think their proselytisers almost criminally misguided, but is at least prepared to give them houseroom.

Set against this inclusiveness, the stance adopted by many a home-grown newspaper-column-writing liberal nearly always reveals itself as a sort of covert snootiness, whose subtext might be summarised as "You are perfectly at liberty to hold your wretched beliefs, but you would be extremely stupid to do so having read my enlightened views on the subject".

The professional atheist, for example, who dutifully files his 1,000 words on the horrors of faith schools or the absolute necessity to disestablish the Church of England would doubtless describe himself as a liberal, whereas the evidence usually suggests that he is deeply intolerant and seethes indignantly in his galoshes at the purblind idiocy of halfwits who don't agree with him.

On the other hand, stupidity has its limits. It was revealed last week that the Government is considering the advantages of imposing a ban on smoking in cars on the grounds of the well-documented health risks to non-smoking passengers. Inevitably a chorus of brave, libertarian voices will now spring up to protest that this is a denial of some intrinsic human freedom or other, whereas it is actually an enforcement of ordinary common sense.


One of the most amusing things about the modern advertising industry is the way in which a basic insight, suitably transformed by copy-writer and art director, goes mutating off into variant forms bent on promoting different products and services to different parts of the demographic. Having lately caught up with the idea that not all British families are nuclear, the agencies have been busy contriving a series of commercials that track the progress of a man whose relationship with his new partner is complicated by the presence of children from a previous marriage.

BT has been running ads on these lines for several years, closely followed by Renault with their four-year warranty version – this being the time taken by our aspiring suitor to worm his way into his new stepson's affections. The new McDonald's ad, on the other hand, takes this theme firmly downmarket. We first glimpse mum informing her son that she's thinking of asking "Dave" to move in. Junior, unimpressed, stares grimly back. Enter Dave, who looks as if his last job was humping amplifiers for Oasis. He does his amiable best but has every overture of friendship curtly rebuffed with a super-ironic "Na, yer orright" (in other words "No, you're not all right"). Finally the pair bond over a tentatively proffered French fry.

Good heart-warming stuff, naturally, but surely in the interests of social equality someone should now commission an ad that takes this conceit stratospherically up-market? How about a top-of-the- range car commercial in which the chatelaine of some stately home announces to her disbelieving son that she is thinking of marrying Viscount Voletrouser, whereupon that distinguished aristocrat, his offer of a trip to see the polo at Windsor Great Park dramatically spurned, makes good by volunteering to ferry young Jonty back to Eton after the vac? I offer this to Jaguar, free of charge.


David Bowie's The Next Day is not due to hit the racks until 11 March, but the critics have already begun to pore over its lyrics. According to the producer, Tony Visconti, several songs, and in particular the title track, were prompted by the singer's recent immersion in books about medieval history. Certainly a number like "If You Can See Me", with its lines about an invader who will "take your lands... slaughter your beasts..." looks as if it might derive from this source.

The arcane nature of many a pop lyric has always been insufficiently appreciated by those who fail to take the art form seriously. As a teenager, I was intrigued by Wire's haunting "Outdoor Miner", which I assumed to be about open-cast mining. In fact, investigation reveals that it was a paean to a breed of inchworm. Similarly, Suzi Quatro's immortal "48 Crash" is sometimes supposed to be about the male menopause. But pop aficionados often hazard that its true origins lie in a challenge issued to Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, who had bragged that they could write "a song about anything", to come up with a treatment of the 1848 United States economic crisis.

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