The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s notes

26 November 2015

3:00 PM

26 November 2015

3:00 PM

Because, it says, of its ‘liberal values and respect for human dignity’, the Economist has put out a film about Emily, a 24-year-old Belgian woman, who wants assisted dying. She is physically healthy, and comes, the film assures us, from a happy family. She has suffered from severe depression since childhood, however. By her own account, her self-made video (two years ago), in which she says ‘I don’t want to live a lie’ and ‘It keeps feeling empty whatever I do’, made her feel empowered. It inspired her to seek death at the hands of doctors. Belgium is one of two countries in the world which permits assisted dying for psychiatric reasons. The Economist film shows Emily in her orderly and pleasant flat in Bruges, revealing the scars and bandages on her arms where she has self-harmed, sitting under a clock which says ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. We see her being interviewed by the three doctors who will approve her decision to be killed. They explain how the first needle will put her to sleep, the second kill her. ‘It’s going to be emotional for us too,’ says one of them smugly. Emily decides to be killed, and sets the date. She sits by a canal with her best friends, planning her funeral. At one point, one of the group says, ‘If it feels right for you, that’s the main thing.’

Is it really the main thing? Lots of dreadful things can feel right to people at one time or another which may not be, especially if the balance of one’s mind is disturbed as, in Emily’s case, it declaredly is. One of the purposes of human society is to temper what might feel right to an unhappy individual with a strong sense that there is a possible future and the existence of others to consider. Just now in Belgium the police are hunting Islamist men to whom suicide also ‘feels right’, and who blow themselves up as a result. Few would argue that this, in their case, is ‘the main thing’, and that their youthful desire to die should be encouraged by law so long as they do not kill others in the process. Most would think that they were deluded and would hope to help them escape this state of mind. In this respect, the Economist’s film is a libertarian version of one of those jihadi videos. It glorifies martyrdom in the cause of personal autonomy just as they glorify istishadd for Allah. It is near-crazy.

But just when the Economist film becomes almost unbearable with Emily’s approaching death and you think you are watching a snuff movie, she changes her mind. We are told that of the first 100 Belgians who applied for assisted dying on psychiatric grounds, 48 were ‘accepted’ (it makes it sound like a place at university) and 11 of those 48 subsequently postponed or cancelled. At the last minute, Emily follows that minority. ‘I can’t do it,’ she says.At this point, the film, having advocated psychiatric assisted dying, claims that the whole experience of being able to choose to be killed has ‘given some of them [the people who originally wanted to die] a chance to live’, and is therefore a good thing. This is a cheap trick. If Emily had chosen death, that would have been good, in the Economist’s view, too. Choice is a central and blessed fact of the human condition, but choice fundamentalists like the Economist do as much harm to the cause they espouse as Muslim fundamentalists do to the reputation of Allah, ‘the compassionate, the merciful’.

In Geneva last year, I noticed a small painting in a shop window. It was by a well-known 19th-century painter called Horace Vernet. It depicted a dashingly dressed Frenchwoman in a North African landscape firing a musket balanced on a rock at approaching Bedouin warriors. Beside her lay a wounded black soldier in French uniform: she was now defending herself alone. I liked the picture for its expression of woman power and its fanciful ‘orientalism’, so I bought it. Now I am reading a fascinating book called The French Intifada by Andrew Hussey (Granta). He explains, though with a subtlety that my précis cannot reproduce, how scenes like that of Vernet’s gave rise to the mentality which governed the attacks in Paris the week before last. The French conquest of Algeria in the 1830s, whose battles Vernet painted, ushered in the often hypocritical ‘mission civilisatrice’ which tried to make Arabs French. Most North African Muslims never accepted it. Today, underdogs in the former colonial power, they refuse their imposed French identity, and exact vengeance.

Sir Stephen Bubb is the chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, the trade union of charity fat cats. He is marvellously consistent in advocating large salaries for the chief executives of voluntary organisations and attacking any Charity Commission move to investigate any form of possible misbehaviour by any charity. This week, Third Sector, the magazine of the trade, reported his latest view: ‘Sir Stephen Bubb says Charity Commission has “disproportionate focus” on Islamic extremism.’ What would persuade Bubb Pasha that the question might be important?

According to Ofsted, a woman governor of a private Muslim school was made to sit in a separate room from her male colleagues and take part in their meetings through the door. This is considered wicked, but it could be seen as an advance that the school had a woman governor at all. In 1985, my wife became a governor (Fellow) of Peterhouse, Cambridge. She was the first woman on the governing body in 700 years. She was allowed to sit in the room for meetings, but controversy arose about Ladies’ Night in the college hall. She represented to the Fellows my strong hope that I, as her spouse, would be treated as a lady and therefore be allowed to retire with the women when the men turned to port and snuff. I wanted to know what women talked about on these occasions. This wish was refused, so my wife was treated unequally. Social change advances, however. Caroline is now a Fellow of Eton, which has double the number of women Fellows of Peterhouse 30 years ago, i.e. two.

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