fri 10/04/2020

Christopher Booker: Groupthink review – an uncritical history of political correctness | reviews, news & interviews

Christopher Booker: Groupthink review – an uncritical history of political correctness

Christopher Booker: Groupthink review – an uncritical history of political correctness

Love him or loathe him, the late author’s final work is a waste of time.

Christopher Booker

“Groupthink”, according to Christopher Booker, is “one of the most valuable guides to collective human behaviour we have ever been given.” But what is it exactly? It begins Booker’s final, incomplete and posthumously published work as a descriptor for behaviour dictated by the “group mind”, the fixations of the “human herd”, or a “collective make-believe”.

“Groupthink”, according to Christopher Booker, is “one of the most valuable guides to collective human behaviour we have ever been given.” But what is it exactly? It begins Booker’s final, incomplete and posthumously published work as a descriptor for behaviour dictated by the “group mind”, the fixations of the “human herd”, or a “collective make-believe”. It is, in other words, a worldview with a superficial importance, whose relation to reality is fraught, and serves as an explanation for much of our world today: from identity politics, or the European Union, to the “belief”, passionately held by an increasing number of people, “that the greatest threat facing the planet is man-made global warming”.

Booker’s climate scepticism, made patently clear from the book’s introductory chapter, offers an insight into the partisan nature of the “study” that's to come. The early stages of Booker’s investigation carry us through American and British counterculture, US civil rights activism, and the emergence of Second-Wave Feminism – earlier iterations of our contemporary “groupthink”, each operating in pursuit of a shared vision: to see white, male, euro-centricity consigned to the “dustbin of history”. Such assertions, however, come at the expense of evidence. The conclusion to the book, penned after Booker’s death by the political analyst Richard North, states that the majority of its preceding 183 pages have been compiled “with the lightest of editing”. It shows. Booker’s tendency to list rather analyse is repetitive; when he does pause for thought, he is more concerned with the rate of change than its value, repeatedly noting events that might, for instance, have played out differently “only five years earlier”.

Other passages are yet more puzzling. During a hashed examination of Darwinism, we catch Booker marvelling at the impossibility by which “the evolutionary process eventually produced just one [species] which displays those two absolutely crucial but seemingly contradictory attributes that mark it out from every other form of life”. Disappointingly, one of these attributes – that “[man] developed a brain much larger than that of any other animal” – is incorrect; the largest brain is found in the sperm whale, the largest brain-to-body mass ratio in the shrew. And, while we find Booker at his most engaging on Europe (perhaps not a surprise – North has compiled these “mostly from scratch”), his logic is often flawed. Booker’s discussion of the European Union begins with an attractive though typically under-sourced argument in support of the idea that a “United States of Europe” was incipient at the first conception of the economic zone. But his timeline leapfrogs blithely over successive decades, or is disrupted – by his frequent failure to distinguish so-called “groupthink” from its broader, and less interesting cousin: bad decision-making.

Riding a wave of extreme examples (of which, he declares, “none… were untypical”) uncritically cited from the Daily Mail and his former employer, the Daily Telegraph, it emerges over Groupthink’s course that Booker’s supposedly neutral principle of human behaviour is, in fact, a stand-in for a specifically left-wing “political correctness”. But if this helps to explain Booker’s combative stance towards the last seven decades of progressive activism, it cannot prepare us for a set of views that cross, with unmistakable swagger, into downright misogyny and blatant homophobia. During a passage on the 2002 Adoption Act, which legalised adoption for same-sex couples, Booker draws on the example of the 18-month baby girl Elsie, whose death in 2016 came at the hands of her male adoptive parents. Elsie’s case, Booker argues, was made worse by the fact that the authorities, bowing to the “ideological make-believe of the time”, entrusted her into the care of her eventual murderers. What he declines to say, though he knowingly implies, is that the fact of the couple being same sex in some way contributed to Elsie’s death – a more than controversial opinion that he nevertheless feels the need to disguise, with intentionally uncertain terms, as one of an unspecified number of “basic human realities”.

On this evidence, it is a small wonder that, in light of other instances of publisher-censorship in recent weeks, Groupthink has not garnered similar attention. But it may well be that the book is too farcical to cause offence. Booker’s contrarian credentials are well-known, and it is hard to account otherwise for how anyone with such concern for “objective reality” might display such indifference towards the integrity of his own methods. In any case, it begs the question as to what, if anything, is the value of this book? Proponents of Booker’s theories would be better served by Canadian "academic" Jordan Peterson, whose more astutely worded pop-science, along with his notorious Channel 4 interview with Cathy Newman in 2018, Booker is keen to both reference and – seemingly without knowing – contradict in the adjacent pages. Likewise, a scant account of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung is equally muddled, Booker doing a considerable injustice to a man and a set of theories he clearly admired.

If there are any lessons to be had, they are, rather, for Booker’s opponents. Many on the left would do well to note the willingness, typical of Booker’s brand of conspiracism, to utilise any example of leftist “scorn” or “abuse” against the right – relevant or not – to the discredit of its arguments, while his case against natural selection, set in opposition to a few half-hearted arguments in favour of intelligent design, make for an impressively sophistic spectacle. Otherwise, this aptly subtitled “Study in Self Delusion” offers only unsubstantiated polemic. Its crowning achievement is the proof, in Booker’s own words, that “we can’t all be experts in everything”. The dustbin awaits.

@danielbaksi

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