Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Suicide Of The Toynbee Name And Reputation

Last century, the brilliant Arnold J. Toynbee wrote that civilisations die not because they are murdered, but because they commit suicide. This was a profound insight, the truth of which is plain to all those now living in Toynbee's homeland who open their eyes to see.
Many seem to assume that Toynbee was a Marxist; if so, he's the oddest one I've ever read, because unless I've grossly misread him, the solution he proposed for the crisis of the West was the wholesale re-evangelisation of Europe.
This century, his grand-daughter Polly Toynbee, ever shallow where her ancestor was systematic, ideological where he was objective and frivolous where he was serious, publishes an article in praise of assisted suicide. The irony of this is almost impossible to gauge.
I am sure that bearing an illustrious ancestor's famous name must be a heavy burden at times, closing some doors while opening others; but in this case, it's probably not too strong to say that she should be ashamed of herself, and that if he could read what she has written today, her grandfather would be ashamed of her as well.
She writes in favour of assisted suicide because of her mother's suffering; I write against it through naked self-interest, as the sufferer of an incurable neurological disorder who's a likely candidate for the needle in the arm once 'assisted suicide' rapidly morphs into involuntary euthanasia, just as safe, legal and rare abortion rapidly became social abortion (of course, by that point I'll probably have been branded a political undesirable, greasing my path to the front of the eugenic queue).
That has been the track of modern history; there is absolutely no reason to believe that doctors will not euthanise with the same abandon that they have aborted.
Her reasons for supporting such an assisted suicide law are personal; my reasons for opposing it are also personal, and mine's are as good as hers.
But people like me never get access to the bully pulpit of a 'Guardian' column, and my paternal grandfather, God rest his great and beloved old soul, didn't write great works of historical analysis, but owned a boozer in Townhead; a livelihood to all intents and purposes stolen from him by local politicians of the Labour Party to which he belonged all his adult life.
Regardless of the motivation for its commission, the act of self-destruction is always the consequence of hopeless despair. Where there is life, there is hope. Hope, the forgotten virtue, is anathema to all those like Polly who would make the world in their own image. She really does seem to believe in her own exceptionalism; she would provide her grandfather with a rich seam of material on the folly of hubris.
Those who tout assisted suicide don't believe that where there's life, there's hope; however, they do believe in its converse, that where is no life, there's no hope, and that where they think there's no hope, there should be no life.
Accepting the act of self-destruction when it is perpetrated by others is one of the first steps towards accepting the destruction of everything about yourself; your person, your history, your society. Assisted suicide is not compassionate, but nihilistic. It is not just destructive, it is anti-creative in the same way that abortion is anti-creative. Being anti-creative, those who promote it expose themselves as anti-creative, people who have no fresh ideas. They cannot think of solutions to the problems they face, so they would quite literally prefer to lie down and die; and their pride and arrogance makes them expect the rest of us to lie down and die beside them. Shes not on.
If she were creative, she would expend her energies campaigning for awareness of the horrible suicide rate amongst young men in the Highlands of Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. She would write of the compassion which should be shown to those left behind, and the hideous trauma they have to endure. Her failure to do shows that where her grandfather was part of what he described as 'the creative minority', she is part of his oppressive, uncaring 'dominant minority'. She could have stepped off her grandfather's pages.
Polly is the product of a dynasty; and if civilisations die by suicide, then dynasties always die because the younger members are never as good as their ancestors. I have a grave suspicion that it has been many years since she read a word that her grandfather wrote, if she has ever read him at all; what she has written today is evidence that it's long past time for her to do so.
Dedicated to the memories of Arnold Joseph Toynbee (1889 - 1975) & Joseph Patrick Kelly (1907-1984). RIP.


Blogger Paulinus said...

Powerfully written and every word a true one Martin. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.

13 December, 2008 11:11  
Blogger Martin Meenagh said...

That was a deeply moving piece, Martin. Nil desperandum is a phrase as wise as it is livesaving, and you made me think of it. We live in a culture of false contrasts--hope against fear, courage against despair, when in fact the true opposition is the other way around.

I mention that because, if you're a Polly Toynbee, overcoming fear and being nihilistic is an answer to your uncomprehended idea of hope; maybe it even makes you feel 'Roman' in some dim recollection of the cultural history you have forgotten.

But of course, the oppposite, when you stare it in the face, of hope is despair. Not even she could willingly embrace it, so tergiversations and euphemisms and false contrasts are her stock in trade.

Do you really believe this culture to be on the eve of its own destruction? I think that every day and yet I have other feelings too--that the awful thing wouldn't be for this to end, but that it could go on like this, and that people of goodwill should at least try to reclaim it and regenerate it.

You're right about hope. Like love, it is a tough radical force if treated with respect. It stems from an understanding of ourselves, and is a gift. It propagates and endures.

I was just glad, on a rainy morning, to read such fine writing. Thank you.

13 December, 2008 11:59  
Blogger Shaun said...

It strikes me that you and I are in a similar boat; I don't know what neurological condition you have but I have Multiple Sclerosis which may leave me impaired but basically okay or it may leave me trapped, conscious in an immobile husk, possibly blind and enduring neuropathic pain for which treatment is limited. I do fully see your fear of involuntary euthanasia. The echoes of the 30s and 40s still loom large.

The problem is that I fear that living death much more. I know it would drive me insane. I have the legal right to end my own life but it seems that the exercise of that right is intrinsically linked to the physical capacity to do so. This, I contend, is de-facto discrimination against the disabled.

I'm hoping that my disease course won't take me there and that even if it does medical and assistive technologies will 'save' me from that fate. But if it doesn't, I don't want to have to suffer to preserve the notional life of someone else.

15 December, 2008 09:12  
Blogger Martin said...


Believe me, you have my sympathy and best wishes; but if you read very much of this blog, you will see why I cannot share your beliefs concerning the so-called 'right to die'.

Instead of agitating for the right to kill ourselves, the disabled' time would be very much more profitably spent combatting the rampant workplace discrimination which has developed in order to circumvent the workplace discrimination laws. One of my favourite examples is that having to deal with your condition is unfair on your colleagues.

15 December, 2008 20:50  
Blogger Shaun said...

TBH, workplace stuff is a bit odd. When I got diagnosed I was working as a developer for a firm in rural Sussex which I won't name for obvious reasons. From the moment I was in the diagnosis process (dunno what you know about MS but diagnosis is rarely straightforward but I was 'lucky' in that I got it done inside 3 months), nobody knew how to treat me. Conversations, totally unrelated to me, would stop when I entered a room. At social events, my (then) fiance (now my wife) and I got frozen out.

The principle concern among the Owners was to be seen to be complying with the DDA. Which was funny because I, and the other developers worked upstairs and they became obsessed on what happened if I fell down the stairs. I was the only employee, including the owner, who never fell down the stairs. If they'd really 'cared' perhaps they would have had their public and employee liability insurance up to date instead of displaying an out-of-date certificate in the toilet.

That said, I couldn't be a 'reliable' employee - at that time I was having visual disturbances and a web developer who can't read is as much use as tits on a boar. My capacity to turn up was in doubt.

In the end, I went freelance and now earn a larger hourly rate (double-ish), work from home and have adapted well. They shouldn't have to adapt to me - after all, its my illness. I am, luckily, capable of making adaptations to my life that work around my illness.

The problem, from my perspective is that the people I worked with had no experience at all of death or serious illness. Lucky them, but we're the same society that 40 or 50 years ago would lay out the dead in the drawing room for people to come and pay their respects. Our homogenised, sanitised culture has removed people's capacity to interact with life as it is.

For most people, life is a pristine shrink wrapped existence and the dead or disabled upset them because its a brutal reminder that it isn't.

As for the right to kill myself, well I have that after Suicide was decriminalised. My bugbear is that this 'right' or freedom or absence of sanction is, it seems, intimately tied to having the capacity to do it. This is de facto discrimination against the disabled who by definition, may not have the physical capacity required.

Honestly, if you end up immobile, blind and in pain that can't really be treated except, perhaps, with cannabinoids (neuropathic pain is a bastard and even my GP told me that cannabis would let me work while the drugs available 1. Aren't very good and 2. Leave you a bit of a vegetable), what exactly can you see making you want to live on like that? Even if I had stacks of money I suspect I'd be at pains to be entertained but by this point, I'd have lost everything through being unable to work...

16 December, 2008 08:30  
Blogger Martin said...


I was just debating this point on another thread.

A commentor advised me that I should have taken unemployment insurance. I am awaiting their response to my observation that I can't get unemployment insurance.

16 December, 2008 09:04  
Blogger Shaun said...

I was talking to one of these NHS top-up insurance firms the other day. Useless twunts! Even though I said I had MS and wanted to insure, not against getting the disease but the development of wi-fi CNS technology which has allowed a paralysed monkey to move its arm via a cybernetic Nervous System to a point where its suitable for humans (the US DOD is all over it for war-wounded and its expected to be onstream within 10 years) but the NHS may not expressly fund it. The guy waffled about it and then finally remembered that MS was a pre-existing condition.

I'm not insuring against MS, I said, I want to insure against a treatment being developed for MS that the NHS won't fund.

I think I blew his mind and his retreated to discuss the very concept with is superiors...

BTW, I too studied law and went to The College of Law (tho never practiced) so I'm an argumentative sod!

16 December, 2008 15:03  

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