Reasonably divergent at the radical centre

The ‘reasonable’ is a territory usually delineated not so much by the exercise of reason, as by particular interested accounts of where the exercise of reason should lead you. To someone whose livelihood comes from investing in or managing a capitalist enterprise, revolution looks decidedly unreasonable; to workers in under-regulated industries, subject to arbitrary changes in their working conditions, or to poor standards of safety, anything other than revolution might seem equally unreasonable. From my perspective, the unrestricted exercise of reason appears to lead to some entirely unreasonable destinations, to the sort of suggestions, in fact, that are likely to be shouted down with cries of ‘be reasonable!’ That’s what people say when they hear views that they interpret as peripheral or extreme, in contrast to their own, which sit, naturally, somewhere in the middle of the things it is reasonable to think. Of course when people say ‘reasonable’, they think they mean ‘proceeding from a rigorous exercise of reason’, but where reason will take you depends entirely on the premises from which you depart.

Mitch Benn departs from premises very similar to those from which I set out. He opens his current Fringe show, Ten Songs to Save the World, with a number called ‘Militantly Reasonable’, which seems to sum up his politics quite concisely – politics which I infer not just from the contents of this show, but of the four or five of his previous shows that I’ve seen, and of course his long tenure as resident songwriter for The Now Show on Radio 4. Benn has little time for fools, and delights in dismantling positions grounded in ignorance or illogic, but his own ‘centrism’ comes in for relatively little examination. He is a man of almost exactly the same age as me, who grew up with many of the same cultural touchstones. His reasonable centrism doesn’t diminish his enthusiasm for the unreasonable, mooning, anarchistic mischief of a publication like 2000AD, for instance, and his songwriting betrays a musical sensibility nearly as eclectic as my own. However, when Mitch Benn got on with his life and started developing his career as a comedian and musician, I radically destabilised my sense of self and place with drugs and spent most of the next twenty years doing very little except thinking things through as though wheels weren’t already a thing. This may explain the divergence of our interests: his in the centre, and mine at the peripheries.

Benn is apparently in a much happier place than he was when we last saw him two years ago. His material and delivery were both much less aggrieved on this occasion, although thankfully no less mordant or frenetic. His songwriting skills are as sharp as ever, deploying any popular music style that might be required, with lyrics that always sound like lyrics, rather than a comedy skit bludgeoned into rhyming meter and set to music (which is sadly what his successors on The Now Show usually produce). Of course he has plenty of material at the moment, as does every comic not entirely uninterested in politics, but although his general theme of reasonableness is ideally contextualised by the prevailing lunacy of Brexit, resurgent fascism, and post-truth discourse, Benn did not restrict himself to the public domain in his wide-ranging lecture/concert/routine/drag-race/rant.

He spent a while exploring his son’s autism diagnosis, and reflecting that many of the behaviours which had led to that point are also ones that Benn exhibits himself. That the general shape of ones relationships and social biography might be explained by some kind of neuro-divergent cause is an idea that has been entertained by several of my friends as they entered middle-age, and Benn mused that his restricted number of close friendships among his fellow comedians might be consistent with such an aetiology – I have to say that interacting with Benn at the merch table after several shows has done nothing to make me think this less plausible. Diagnosis is both much more likely and much more useful these days, but Benn seems to have managed to maintain the form of a well-rounded individual without it.

He is still, of course, extremely funny, but then I always feel a great deal more affinity with humour that is incisively intelligent than that which is simply daft or slapstick – Benn’s schtick is considerably more visceral than it is cerebral, but it’s always basically him thinking aloud. If only he wasn’t quite so centrist… but wait, what’s wrong with the centre ground? Well, if the centre ground is the place in which the most reasonable discourse is to be found, where ideas proceed logically from solid premises, in accordance with strong empirical support… isn’t it a bit of a coincidence that it also happens to be the place that is equally distant from the extremes, in all directions? I mean, are we in a unique historical sweet-spot right now, or was the centre also the most reasonable place fifty years ago? Is the centre the same kind of reasonable place in the USA? In Afghanistan? In North Korea? But then, I don’t really think that Benn is a creature of the centre. I think its a comfortable thing for him to say, but I don’t believe for a moment that he can’t see the need for radical change in multiple areas of society. And if I’m saying that he’s a ‘radical centrist’, that’s not a million miles away from the term he happily owns at the start of the show.

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