Decline of a Nation
© Gregorius Vatis Advena 2019, political essay by Gregory Name. A critique of Britain and the Brexit debate. Aetiology of a national crisis.
Gone are the days in which the progress of nations seemed to be their civilisatory fate. War, dictatorship and every kind of debasement have proved us wrong. There may be hope for the future, but what we have is this: Everywhere in the world, democracy, the rule of law and regard for human rights grow weaker. The world population is increasing, and so is social inequality. People are more likely to enjoy digital entertainment than to take to the streets for a protest. In this context, the United Kingdom is praparing to leave the European Union.
The human being is an animal like every other animal. Culture and civilisation are wonderful, but sickness, old age and death are coming for us. For each of us. Fate, nature, arbitrariness makes us equal despite the emergence of culture, society, nation, religion. These are fortuitous developments, fully contingent – what came this way could have come that way. Only this is a necessary development, by means of our very existence as animals: sickness, old age, death. Any sophistication of culture that, for whatever reason, makes us forget this simple fact, leads to self-delusion.
Nothing is worth adhering to. The mental creations of civilisation should be contemplated from a healthy distance, especially concepts that divide humankind into artificial groups: this and that religion, this and that culture, this nation and that nation. These distinctions are artificial because they are not given by nature. They are man-made, subject to change and debate. They are prone to abuse and misrepresentation. In this struggle of concepts, groups enter into conflict with each other. Destruction and war for the sake of a concept are the triumph of self-delusion against a natural understanding: We are worth nothing, and this is the insight most conducive to peace.
We have too much credulity and too many beliefs: God is on our side! Our culture is better! Our race is superior! If what defines a nation is the need to feel superior to others, the nation dehumanises itself – because humanity is based on a fatal equality, however unbearable. To take political decisions based on the most fundamental lies about human existence is a tragedy greater than humankind. Since humankind is composed of animals worth nothing, to conceive any part of it as something special is to try to make it greater than it is, adding to it the weight of an unnecessary crime.
Then came Brexit to get rid of immigration. Yet state, border and immigration are concepts. They are based on gross assumptions about humankind. For it is not written anywhere by nature, not even in people’s conscience, that this and that region should be assigned to this and that group. Borders between countries are fortuitous. Now they run here, then they ran there. They create an illusion of affiliation, an artificial feeling of belonging somewhere. But nobody belongs anywhere, nobody owns anywhere, and everything else is cultural conceit.
Yet human history is the tragedy of cultural conceit. The more convinced we are of our concept of civilisation, the more monstrous are the side-effects. With the superior race, the better culture and God on our side, we go forth on a mission to civilise the world. Until all the wars and destruction we bring for the sake of a lofty lie reveal our sickness. For delusions of superiority are nothing but a subtler mental illness which can only be treated by the shock of great calamities. Yes, the British Empire was a national disease, and a fundamentally evil institution. Yet since dear Albion appears to be angry at Europe, let us hold a mirror before Albion’s face that it may see what is truly worthy of anger:
Was there any country where the British Empire, setting foot on it, did not plant a lasting obsession with colour, class and creed? To this day, racism is dividing the United States as a consequence of the slavery brought in. South Africa is having the same trouble. The British Empire invented the concentration camp in the Boer war. The British Empire caused the death of millions during the partition of India. The native population of Tasmania is now extinct due to the Empire. It was the Empire that sent missionaries to Africa saying that God is a homophobe. It was the Empire that waged the opium wars in China. It was during the Empire that the East India Company mostly thrived in its utter contempt of humankind. The effects are still visible, and will last for a long time.
Are we omitting the benefits the Empire brought into the world? They are not worth mentioning. What is the use of all these benefits if they could not prevent racism and destitution, war, division, violence and genocide from prevailing? Adolf Hitler also built motorways and schools, and created jobs. What is the use of that? Not everybody in Nazi Germany was a monster, yet this is not enough to redeem it. Concepts of good and evil are not useful when their purpose is to make us feel good. After all, there may be some truth in Socrates’ view that nobody does evil knowingly. Yet the mere intention to do good does not make us good, nay, it is the worst possible guide.
The most reasonable people who lived on earth were convinced that they were utterly worthless in every regard. And this is, beyond any concept of good and evil, the safest ethical assumption. Everything else is prone to self-delusion. The more you believe it is your mission to do good, the more evil you will do, because your belief entails the assumption that you are good enough to do good. Think again. To do good you have to be good first. Are you? The greatest damage always comes from those who are not good but try to do good. The greatest benefit comes from those with the most uncompromising measure of self-criticism. The good they do will emerge as a side-effect of their critical self-insight, and the good they do is much more real than the good that comes from opinionated intentions.
The fatal fault of the British nation is a lacking sense of self-criticism. For most, the Empire was a force for good and unabashed pride is the order of the day. Critical thinking is a challenge. On hearing the least disapproval, many feel outraged: Look at France, look at Japan, look at Germany! Yes, they are full of faults. But they are doing something about that. You can go to a museum on war crimes, you can hear apologies from politicians, you may even see reparations being paid. It’s time for Britain to do something. Where is the museum of imperial crimes? Is there nothing to apologise for? There’s none more blind than he who doesn’t want to see. It is an ethical fallacy to believe that winning a war makes you morally superior to the losers. Why, Franco also won his war in Spain. The strongest are not the best, and wars are won by the strongest.
Not everybody has understood what the second world war meant for the United Kingdom. It has not helped as much as it seems. Victory in war often cements national bigotry: God is on our side! We can see the side-effects in British daily life, where there is an attitude of equating criticism with rudeness. To keep the veil of imperial harmony, politeness is more important than honesty. Yet without that old Greek virtue of parrhesia, the ability of “saying it all”, a nation is bereft of critical growth. Thus entire generations are educated into an auto-suggestion of historical embellishment. This has not changed. Yes, some urban new-age left-wingers may disagree, but they are far from representing the average citizen. The proof is Brexit.
Losers, on their part, are left with the task of reinventing and redefining themselves. Because they have to question everything about themselves, something better will emerge from their ruin. Yet winners become emboldened: Theirs must be the better life and better values. Everything is wonderful and perfect. Perhaps old Plato is right in that passage from the Laws: “While education brings also victory, victory sometimes brings lack of education; for men have often grown more insolent because of victory in war, and through their insolence they have become filled with countless other vices.”1 The word education is very well chosen. Education entails an attitude of self-criticism, as an antidote to self-obsession.
1. In the translation of R. G. Bury from: παιδεία μὲν οὖν φέρει καὶ νίκην, νίκη δ᾽ ἐνίοτε ἀπαιδευσίαν: πολλοὶ γὰρ ὑβριστότεροι διὰ πολέμων νίκας γενόμενοι μυρίων ἄλλων κακῶν δι᾽ ὕβριν ἐνεπλήσθησαν. (Laws, Book I, 641c)
On the other hand, the war has helped Britain immensely: It broke the British Empire. If the world is now a better place than in the age of empires, it is because of Germany. It was Germany that, at a time when the British Empire ruled mostly unchallenged, stood up and challenged it. Of course, the German ambitions were greedy and arrogant, of course it was not for love of humankind that it refused to comply with a world order dictated by the British Empire. Why should Germany, why should any country on earth take all that non-sense? Yet it was this feeling of injustice, however hypocritical in its equally unjust ambitions, that made Germany rise against the British Empire. And lead to an end of colonialism. It may not be the “proper cause”, as Aristotle would put it in his old-fashioned Metaphysics, but it’s still the “accidental cause.”2 It was certainly not the intention of the British Empire to put an end to imperialism.
Conversely, the United Kingdom is jointly responsible, to a great extent, for many an evil. For while Germany is responsible for persecuting and executing Jews during the Holocaust, the United Kingdom aggravated the situation by refusing to take enough Jewish refugees. It also has its share of shame in this. It became accomplice of a genocide. Before the war it was already clear that a catastrophe was happening, and Britain had no compassion on the persecuted knocking at its door.
2. This is, however, a broader application of the concept. What Aristotle states is this: “A thing may be a cause in the sense of an accident, and the classes which contain accidents; e.g. the cause of a statue is in one sense Polyclitus and in another a sculptor, because it is an accident of the sculptor to be Polyclitus”, translated by Hugh Tredennick (Metaphysics, Book V, 1014a).
Britain and Germany are winners and losers in different aspects. Britain has lost in terms of that civic truthfulness that is always able to process the past in a critical way. Just as two sick brothers might begin to quarrel, and in the course of their quarrel the weaker were accidentally cured by the stronger’s action, while the stronger remains ill – so Britain and Germany entered the last century suffering from the same disease. And Britain, that cured its brother through the remedy of war, could not cure its own self-obsession and obsessions with colour, class and creed: We won – God is on our side!
Brexit is the Dreyfus affair of British history. Incited by an inflammatory press, a reactionary movement is articulating a tremendous Dreyfus’ification of Europe. It is seeking to subvert a progressive order with a resentful agenda of militarism and revanchist imperialism: Rule, Britannia! Take back control! Britain first! Brexit means Brexit! Enemies of the people! Crush the saboteurs! Back then, the fuel was anti-Semitism. Now, the immigrant is the new Jew.
In this Dreyfus’ification of Europe and its citizens, Europe is the traitor: It is Europe’s fault that Britain lost its Empire, social inequality is growing and the infra-structure is crumbling. It’s Europe’s fault that one needs to go to a public school and Oxbridge to get anywhere in this country. The old imperial obsessions have not gone away despite some left-wing rainbow worshippers. It’s Europe’s fault that the majority only vote for parties that are not interested in social development. What’s new? This is a nation unable to take responsibility for its problems. It must be Dreyfus’ fault.
Of course Brexit was a democratic vote. The vilification of Captain Dreyfus was democratic too: At one point, the will of the people was to have him lynched – because it was a contemptible people. The voters inspired by Nigel Farage’s anti-immigrant poster, in which he just fell short of paraphrasing Adolf Hitler and calling refugees the “racial tuberculosis”3 of Britain, these voters, whether majority or minority, are contemptible people too. And if theirs be the nation, then let it be called a contemptible nation.
The imperial revanchists will dismiss that. They will argue naughty Nigel was a marginal figure. The final straw was the curvature of the banana: Who can cope with so much regulation? Vote Leave! Very well! As Britain is on a mission to settle accounts with Brussels, let’s do it properly and compare the records: After leaving behind your heritage of racism and destitution, intolerance, war, division, violence and genocide for more than two centuries, you now come forward to say that Brussels’ bureaucracy is unbearable – is that it? Oh, dear Albion, I do wonder indeed which man in his right mind will have the insolence to answer you!
Or is that picture too negative? We should not leave it for Winston Churchill to write and embellish British history. After all, it is a British saying: Self-praise is no recommendation. There is a consensus in the entire world about what the British Empire was, it is only the British that cannot see. This is a nation that will rather drown in its uncritical worship of the armed forces than recognise that something went wrong, and that the armed forces were part of the imperial crimes. What is the use of all this celebration, commemoration, infatuation with the dead if that does not make anyone better, if that cannot prevent Nigel’s contempt of humankind from prevailing?
3. From a military report in which antisemitism is recommended as a political remedy: The Jew’s action “wird in seinen Folgen zur Rassentuberkulose der Völker.” (Adolf Hitler, 1919)
Nothing illustrates this over-credulous naïveté as perfectly as the cult of the poppy: Every November, the mass believes to render a great service to the country by wearing those plastic poppies. Remember the dead! Gather around the monuments! But where is the poppy for the victims of the British Empire? Why is there no monument for the rivers of blood the Empire made flow in the world? There is no monument – because nobody demands it! How can people be so ready to cry for “war heroes” and not feel the least sign of guilt for millions of victims? Rule, Britannia, God is on our side! Plato was right: It is the insolence that comes with victory in war. No wonder that a nation with such a psychopathological baggage must struggle to fit the progressive values of the European Union.
The cult of the poppy has an aggravating aspect, for let us assume the dead were true heroes worthy of every esteem: Is this commercial exploitation of heroic sacrifice appropriate? After all, it is plastic, it is cheap, and and it is based on cheap labour. It comes down to a question of aesthetic sensibility: It is extremely disrespectful to the dead to remember, nay, to try to pay for the greatest sacrifice with a cheap, utilitarian and so easily disposable plastic artefact. Clearly, the dead deserve better than that. Yet this is a nation that struggles to challenge even that. Rule, Britannia! God is on our side!
Since the end of the war and the ironic loss of the Empire that came with it, Britain has been on a maddening Dreyfus-hunting. Even more ironic is that the Brexit proselytes realised only now that the better way is to engage in bilateral deals with third countries. Yet if that is so good an option, why were these deals not made in the 50s and 60s, when Britain was a wonderful and prosperous country, unencumbered with the burden of Brussels’ bureaucracy? Is it because politicians feared the memory of imperial crimes was still too fresh in the world? Sadly, the memory is very alive. Look at May’s last visit to India. The heirs of the Empire should think twice before claiming the world is waiting just for them! Even naïveté should have its limit.
Be that as it may, Brexit will bring one benefit: Boris Johnson will win the Nobel Prize of Literature for his creativity. Who would have thought it? After trying so hard with his cloying panegyric of Churchill so full of grandezza, it was standing on top of a bus that this man achieved the ne-plus-ultra of his prose: the weekly 350 million, a watershed of British literature. Who could be a better prime minister than Baby Churchill? Yet this is not all. If we are lucky enough, the Nobel Prize of Peace will go to Nigel Farage, for his relentless contribution in uniting and pacifying the country.
And since we are talking of ambitious trade deals, who are they that Britain is so ready to leave Europe for? Well, it is the wonderful team of Trump, King Salman, Erdogan, Jinping – and Putin (no wonder Corbyn is thrilled). It wants to leave a progressive union to join the Addams Family of otherworldly autocrats – in whose company the imperial revanchists feel more at ease than with Brussels’ banana benders. Unbearable! Yet even here caution is advised: It is a sign of maturity to recognise most people don’t love us as much as we think.
If what defines a nation is the need to feel superior to others, clearly foreigners will not be welcome. No citizens have been so vilified as those from Romania: They are criminals! They are taking people’s jobs! They are bringing disease into the country! And here we shake our heads and ask: What did Romania do to deserve this? A nation so long oppressed that never perpetrated an act of hostility against Britain. Or maybe it did? Very well then, but again: Shall we compare the world records? Romania would emerge as Gabriel. You should wash your mouth before you mention the name of Romania.
Old Albion should be glad it is not being judged in Christian measures. For if we were to believe the teaching of atonement for one’s deeds and take it seriously, every British citizen should make atonement for the nation’s crimes: They should carry a cross of fifty stones on their shoulder wherever they travel. They would go on pilgrimage with their cross throughout Africa, India and China. That would make a better impression than poppy-wearing and over-pedantic prayers: God is on our side – really? What about Romania? If you cannot forgive a country that has not even transgressed against you, how can you expect forgiveness from countries you have wronged in every possible way?
The millions of European citizens on the island have been reassured of their rights. They are expected to show much joy, relief and thankfulness for so much condescension on the British side, as if it were an unparalleled honour to live in this country. This is not how it is. It is Britain that should be glad: That any worker can condescend to come to a country with such a past, is truly worthy of celebration. With tearful applause, with firework displays and a tremendous obelisk – especially for Romania. The builders of the Olympic stadium did as much for this country as Winston Churchill with all his bragging, his sense of entitlement and his literary ambitions. The victory, yes, the victory, but any sensible leader would have done the job: From the outset, the German navy knew it had no power to land on Britain.
Brexit proselytism can be divided into three subgroups: (1) the anti-immigrants on the right-wing spectrum – i.e. Romania is ruining the country! –, (2) the anti-Dreyfusards in the centre – i.e. the banana benders are responsible for our ruin! –, and (3) the left-wing anti-Semites – Europe is a Jewish capitalist plot against the workers! –; these three narratives are running the country. What they have in common is that (1) all of them present a negative diagnose of Britain, and that (2) none of them sees the cause in Britain itself. In other words, the nation is a helpless victim.
Although groups (1) and (3) do not deserve an answer, we should still say: It would be morally unacceptable to say there are too many Jews in the country. In the same way, it is immoral to say there are too many immigrants. These are statements that should be punishable by law. They are based on discrimination and contempt of minorities. No wonder the Obergrenze-debate in Germany did not go anywhere, because an ethical line would be crossed: You cannot decree a fixed cap on the number of foreigners allowed to live in a country. At least not in the land of the Holocaust. In the land of the British Empire the matter doesn’t appear to be clear. One might object that calling someone an immigrant is just a legal distinction. Yet because it is just a legal distinction, it does not allow a moral distinction. This is where racism and bigotry start.
To call a referendum about immigration (be it of a particular group or in general) or to cover such purpose under the deceptive veil of a more important matter, is an attack on democracy, on the rule of law and human rights. It was immoral, nay illegal even to conceive a vote of such things. May we be forgiven for our parrhesia, but hate-preachers, far-right-or-left extremists, imperial racists, Jacobin anti-Semites, anti-immigrants and neo-fascists who want to use democracy as a tool of Terror need to be heard not by the polls, but by the police.
Yet in a country bereft of any intellectual articulation against demagoguery,4 what else could prevail? For the children of the precariate are not instructed towards critical thinking – they learn just enough to become obedient cheap labour, an Orwellian army of voting robots malleable to any gross manoeuvre of populism, guided by remote control by a bunch of Eton-boys – unable to challenge even the scandalous price of things in Britain. It is acceptable, for instance, that any decent product or service should be unaffordable for most, and that everything else is beneath contempt, while in any EU country higher standards can be found for half the price. With ten pounds, you buy a first class ticket for a thirty-minute train journey in Germany, any time of the day, with seats more comfortable than the National Rail’s. Or is it because of Europe that everything in Britain is expensive, while in every other EU country they are cheap and even better? Yet the demagogues agitate against the most ambitious project of peoples’ integration in human history for the sake of dodgy trade deals with unstable dictators. Has it come to this?
The demagogues who flatter the poor are not working for them. Yet even among academics no public articulation against demagoguery has been found. These are people obsessed with their own career, too lost in aloofness to show any social sensibility. These are not intellectuals, they are the learned technocrats of a more sophisticated business model, for-profit intellectuals – and yes, this does include the Oxford philosophy professor.
4. Not surprisingly, Aristotle writes that in democracies led by demagogues, the multitude is sovereign but not the law: “The demagogues and the flatterers are the same people or a corresponding class, and either set has the very strongest influence with the respective ruling power, the flatterers with the tyrants and the demagogues with democracies of this kind. And these men cause the resolutions of the assembly to be supreme and not the laws, by referring all things to the people; for they owe their rise to greatness to the fact that the people is sovereign over all things while they are sovereign over the opinion of the people, for the multitude believes them.” Translated by H. Rackam (Politics, Book IV, 1292a). In the UK, there are human-right and discrimination laws in force that should have prevented a referendum on immigration from taking place.
Since this is a country with no academic intelligentsia, we must resort to a desperate question: Where is the aristocracy of this country? We have around 800 hereditary peers in the United Kingdom. Yes, the seats were lost, but “noblesse oblige” applies regardless of a seat, and nobility binds towards democracy. What are they doing to promote a debate and articulate an intellectual reaction against populism? They could at least rally around the Duke of Wellington and show a degree of civic sacrifice comme il faut – at least out of respect for the Queen. Living up to one’s title takes more than running an estate. The current crisis is a call for the peerage to reinvent itself and emerge as a force of political mediation.
Yet let alone the peers, the academics and the precariate. Let alone (1) the anti-immigrant and (3) the anti-Semite factions of the Brexit dogma. To the Dreyfus-hunters of group (2) who believe Brussels is the traitor one must say: Responsible for Britain’s evils is not Alfred Dreyfus, not Angela Merkel, not Jean-Claude Juncker. Responsible are Theresa May, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, John Major, Margaret Thatcher, James Callaghan, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Douglas-Home, Macmillan, Eden, Atlee, Churchill, Chamberlain, Baldwin, MacDonald, Bonar Law, Lloyd George, Asquith, Campbell-Bannerman, Balfour, Salisbury, Rosebery, Gladstone and so on. Responsible are those who voted for whom they voted. Who are prepared to put up with anything and take any social non-sense for the sake of being polite and very British.
Eton College, Winchester College, Harrow School, Fettes College are responsible. Oxford University is responsible. Cambridge University is responsible. Those who complain instead of doing something. Those who want to solve their problems by changing others instead of themselves. And make no mistake: The Conservative party is responsible. The Labour party is responsible. It is those who rule that can run or ruin the realm.
We must go straight to the point: The Conservative party is defunct – for the sake of the good people in it, split it, break it up! People have the right to know what they are voting for. This requires an attitude of “one party, one policy” at the least in urgent matters. What we have is chaos, a divided house, an agonising undead fossil that has been spared its coup de grâce for far too long. Breaking up the party will formalise what is a fact already: The party no longer exists. You have a tragic throng of opponents sticking together for the sake of a front-bench. What we call the Conservatives are in fact two or three parties. They should now emerge formally out of respect for the public.
Is there anyone who can still bear the surreal scenario of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Kenneth Clarke as members of the same party? Not even a novel by Kafka would have featured such a thing. Break it up. Let Rees-Mogg’s imperial revanchists go to one side and the progressive liberals to another. Do the same to Labour! Let the social democrats go to one side and to the other side Corbyn’s national socialists, i.e the socialists of national isolation and estrangement from Europe that have hijacked the party. Break it up. From two parties, five should emerge. Oh, what a house of diversity this place will become:
On the one side, the Third Triumvirate of prize-awarded Baby Churchill guided by Winston’s spectre, the Ciceronian eloquence of Nigel Farage and his posters, and, as the brightest crown jewel, Jacob Rees-Mogg as the honorary Viceroy of India. On the other side, the futuristic Sixth International of Corbyn and Putin, supported by the Bolshevik alliance Jinping-Kim-Jong-Un. Those will be the times! Yet these will be fringe parties, ideologues having their fair share of fun. The important thing is, the people will know if they are voting for progressive liberals or imperial revanchists, for social democrats or national socialists, or even for the broad centre that will emerge from members of both fossils. Making a fool of the public kills democracy. If at the next general elections the Conservatives and Labour should still exist, it will be all citizens’ duty to turn each other away from the polls.
The United Kingdom is facing a turmoil that could have been avoided and is exposing the long-term decline of a nation obsessed with itself. Many troubles may enfold from an ill-conceived and ill-cast vote: increased poverty, economic recession, authoritarianism, the independence of Scotland and Wales, the unification of Ireland. The Irish question is complicated: To this day, and especially now, the United Kingdom is reaping what its obsessions of creed have planted on Irish soil. Yet decline is not demise – it is metamorphosis. What saves and dignifies a nation are not borders, flags and titles, which come and go as they did in France and Germany, but the integrity of single people. This is what saves humankind from itself.
In one point, Brexit will be good for Europe. It will accelerate the creation of an European army, which Britain has always opposed. Europe is emerging as an important force in a world troubled by autocrats and unstable regimes. It must be able to defend itself, yet Britain has a different opinion: It believes the European Union should continue to be at the military mercy of others. This is not an attitude of good-will towards partners that have deserved more trust. But there is still an option: The United Kingdom can stay in the European Union and proudly contribute to shape its army, rather than look on grudgingly and have no say in it.
In this exasperating and saddening crisis, one thing must be clear beyond any figure of speech: People and their opinions deserve respect. We were talking of worthlessness earlier: The human being is a fragile animal, and it is this frailty that makes all worthless in existential terms, i.e. as worth as dust. Yet this existential worthlessness calls for compassion, and from compassion arises dignity. Human dignity arises from the very fact that everyone is existentially worthless, hopeless and helpless. Yet existential worthlessness does not mean we must be ethically worthless. This is why we should face political challenges with a mix of courage and compassion. While there is a duty to respect all opinions, there is also a duty to warn that some opinions are unbeneficial to the general well-being. Even when they are widespread. Even when it is dangerous to warn.
Gone are the times of false hopes and easy solutions. Democracy, the rule of law and human rights are threatened. The world is teeming with problems of social, economic, political, diplomatic, environmental and demographic order. Tackling these requires energy and unity. Retreating from the main stage, however comfortable it may appear, seeking isolation won’t work. The world will come to you no matter how much you try to avoid it – the world and its problems, many of which were created by the United Kingdom.
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