February 4, 2020

Liberals, eh? Dontcha just hate ‘em? Or should I say ‘so-called’ liberals, who aren’t really liberal at all because they want to silence their opponents. And whatever happened to John Stuart Mill? He’s been taken off the curriculum of course — because he’s a Dead White Male and the Cultural Marxists who control the universities don’t think their snowflake students will be able to read him without bursting into tears…Want to hear more? Sign up to my YouTube channel…

Of course, I don’t really have a YouTube channel, but a lot of people do. And this sort of Right-wing dissent from liberal orthodoxy proliferating on social media and video-sharing websites these days.

The raucous and antagonistic online culture has sprung up as traditional media’s gatekeeper role has diminished. And such are the financial incentives — rewarding controversy and gotchas rather than reasoned debate — that decent money can now be made from stoking the Right-wing id with jeremiads about millennial snowflakes and Cultural Marxism and post-modernist wreckers. It’s a problem.

The circuit of this alternative media is now pretty well established: mostly YouTube-based discussion programmes, broadly opposed to the progressive cultural consensus. There are different styles. For example, the Triggernometry podcast is presented by two very funny comedians and has a fairly informal approach, full of jokes and occasionally quite profane, whereas Conversations, hosted by former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia John Anderson, is more polished and old-fashioned. Nevertheless, the programmes have the same kind of guests, who tend to make the same kind of points, in the same kind of way. 

There are two topics that arise time and time again. First, cultural decline, i.e. the gradual loss of knowledge and understanding of the great art, the great literature, the great achievements of Western civilisation. This is usually ascribed to the dominance of the academy by highly politicised Left-wing academics with a bad case of what Sir Roger Scruton called “oikophobia”, that is a strong feeling of dislike and repugnance towards their own cultural and religious inheritance. 

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The second subject is the increasing censoriousness of culturally dominant progressives, who are keen to silence and delegitimise critics of the Current Year social consensus. A stern and humourless progressive piety reigns in the citadels of the British cultural establishment, empowered and encouraged by the dynamics of social media. 

These are important subjects. However, they cannot be the only topic of conversation. Clearly there’s a problem. What about the solutions? 

When I worked for a pro-life organisation, we used to grumble about media bias, how big broadcasters stacked the deck against pro-lifers in interviews and debates, and how the print media gave endless column inches to outright liars and propagandists. Such complaints were all rather futile. We should, instead, have been asking: “Given the media landscape, what are we actually going to do?” It’s hard to fight a battle on a field you didn’t choose, but you do still have to fight.

In his thoughtful piece for UnHerd after the death of Sir Roger Scruton, Ben Sixsmith noted, correctly, the lack of intellectual heft within British conservatism. The problem isn’t just in the academy; it’s in virtually every field of cultural endeavour. Where are the conservative painters and poets and sculptors and TV writers? Perhaps more importantly, where is the institutional infrastructure to support conservatives in the arts?  

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If conservatives genuinely want to challenge the progressive hegemony, they need to get serious and they need to get organised. They can’t afford to get bogged down in cultivating resentments. Resentment, as Scruton himself often noted, is a corrosive and dangerous dead end. 

Of course, tweaking the nose of the po-faced consensus, with its bizarre, ever-changing shibboleths and bureaucratic vindictiveness, is great fun. There is a glorious heritage in Britain of robust opposition to hectoring officialdom. People who stand at the back and hurl tomatoes at the stage will always be needed. But conservatism can’t be just about that. 

Sure, it might feel good to say the unsayable and to get hundreds of RTs for a devastating put-down of Polly Toynbee or some withering remarks about the suffocating piety of BBC drama. But, generally speaking, the juggernaut rolls on regardless. The task is not to make the drivers of the juggernaut feel embarrassed or angry, but to actually stop the juggernaut. This is one reason to be concerned by the preponderance of comedians among the heroes of the anti-woke counterculture; while comedy can advance dissident goals to some extent by breaking progressive taboos, it is ultimately a destructive force, not a constructive one.

Maybe conservatives should take a step back from the day-to-day combat of the culture war. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not one of those conservatives who retires to the fainting couch with a glass of sherry when the culture war is mentioned. 

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In Western countries in the modern era, it is entirely natural and reasonable for there to be culture war, i.e. a rigorous, ongoing debate about the attitudes, expectations and moral imperatives that should govern public and private life — especially in areas such as education, entertainment and the media. The alternative is so-called Tory pragmatism, the school of thought whose main principle seems to be “whatever the Guardian editorial page says, but four years after the editorial appears rather than 18 months”.  

The point is not that the culture war shouldn’t be fought; rather, conservatives need to fight smart, and remember the culture bit as well as the war bit. This means thinking about strategy and not just tactics. One tendency in the world of Right-wing podcasters and YouTubers is to seek out the latest person to fall foul of the dreaded libs and thrust a microphone in front of them. 

The problem is that those people don’t always have anything very interesting to add, and that giving them more publicity simply feeds into a reactive and antagonistic atmosphere of snark and counter-snark. It also contributes to a climate where grifters can flourish; it is very easy to carve out a niche for yourself as The Person Who Says What They Don’t Want You To Say, without contributing much of value to conservative thought and action. 

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Which brings us to another difficulty. There are really (at least) two factions on the Right-wing side of the culture war: classical liberals or libertarians, and traditional conservatives. They have overlapping concerns and shared enemies, but fundamentally they have quite different aims and so want to fight different battles in different ways. 

Traditional conservatism, my own part of the political forest, is not simply concerned with removing restraints on speech and clearing obstructions from the public square. It has a vision of the true and the beautiful, a particular understanding of what a good and orderly society should look like. For adherents to this philosophy, the future cannot simply lie in joining forces with the libertarian loudmouths and provocateurs. 

Imagine a podcast or YouTube video series that wasn’t content to condemn the decline of Western civilisation or the absurd censorship attempted by academic liberals, but actually sought out conservative artists to interview them about their work. Imagine a new media show that was not a lament about how X university won’t teach Dante or Plato or Shakespeare, but instead gave a voice to a young poet seeking to write within the great tradition, or an up-and-coming architect seeking to build beautifully and creatively, or a painter rejecting the sterile conceptualism of establishment art.

It won’t be enough on its own — not without the impressive and enviable institutional support available for conservative artists in, say, the USA — but it would be a big step in the right direction.

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