July 9, 2021

Gareth Southgate is the sort of man you’d want your daughter to marry. He’s reliable, conventional, high in conscientiousness. Of the big five personality traits, conscientiousness is the one that correlates with political conservatism, and conscientious people historically vote for conservative parties.

Southgate is the sort of footballer who, in team photos from the early Seventies, would have been the last one to sport a short, back and sides when everyone else was looking like Charlie George. A haircut to set your watch to, as Grampa Simpson put it.

That someone like Southgate would support England players taking the knee, the gesture associated with Black Lives Matter, is telling, then, about how far social attitudes have changed in the last few decades. Although Southgate felt the need to write an elegant defence, it’s perhaps more surprising how little opposition taking the knee faced, and how even most critics proclaimed to support BLM’s aims, if not methods. Indeed, it’s arguable that there has never been so little doubt in public life about what is morally wrong and right, at least in our lifetimes.

The past 50 years or so have seen a cultural revolution in western society comparable in scope to the Reformation. Most of us have known only that period of transition, when morality and norms were up for debate, but perhaps it is now over. Perhaps we have returned to the sort of world we lived in when England last reached a final, in 1966 – a world of strictly enforced social mores.

The year 2020 marked a convenient end to the cultural revolution, because of the vastly different nature of the protests that took place that summer, compared with 1968. In the late Sixties, student radicals were protesting against the system. American academia itself was politically mixed; there were around three Democrat professors for every Republican — it’s now about 15 to 1 — but the higher echelons of the Ivy League were quite conservative. The Boston Brahmin elite were still pretty traditional, as was big business (although, not coincidentally, far more egalitarian than it is now). The Army was obviously very Right-wing, and one of the causes of student protests was the prospect of being drafted into a war to defend the honour of a conservative American establishment.

In 2020, almost all the major institutions in the US, aside from the actual President, were loudly vocal along with corporations, charities and NGOs in their support for the BLM protests. Parts of the media were sympathetic to the point of actively playing down some of the violence, the phrase “mostly peaceful protests” becoming an example of American journalism’s Pravda-like bias.

The protesters themselves tended to come from America’s upper-middle-class, displaying a feverous zeal that felt alarming. And there was no debate to be had about race and policing, opponents simply had to educate themselves.

During those decades of social change, the problem of Left-wing “moral relativism” was often a complaint of conservative commentators, but look today at the young protesters demanding that  “Rhodes must fall” or “black trans lives matters”. They certainly aren’t moral relativists.

Relativism is a position you employ when you’re weak, to be abandoned when you win. On a wide range of issues, including race and gender, the Right has been more relativist for some time. Before the 1968 revolution those outside of power (the Left) argued for moral relativism, those in power (the Right) argued for moral absolutism. Now it is the opposite. Even things like claims to absolute truths (“trust the science”) have changed. Likewise with censorship, which is by definition a tool of the powerful.

Before the Sixties, book publishing was restricted on grounds of obscenity; I still have as a family heirloom, an early copy of Ulysses published in Paris because it was too obscene to be printed in London. It’s in fine condition, being unreadable.

But book censorship began to break down with the 1960 Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial; there were still a few obscenity cases afterwards, but this was seen as the end. Most famous of all in the public imagination were the prosecutor’s comments about this not being the sort of thing you’d want your servants to see, a comment so laughably out-of-touch that it made a mockery of the old ruling class – and no ruling class or moral order can survive being openly mocked in that way.

Yet liberals demanding a permissive society in the Sixties were pushing at an open door, with an establishment that was often sympathetic. At the time of the case the Bishop of Woolwich had argued, in pure Thought for the Day-ese, that “what Lawrence is trying to do is to portray the sex relationship as something essentially sacred… in a real sense an act of holy communion”. It’s hard to see a leading voice of morality today defending a play or novel that was seen as obscenely close to racism or homophobia.

But the British and American establishments of the late 20th century were historically quite unusual in allowing themselves to be mocked; from the mid-Sixties onwards, television regularly made fun of the habits and beliefs of the powers-that-be, with Monty Python — the most prominent product of the satire boom — pointing fun at the people who ran the country. Their 1979 film Life of Brian even mocked the beliefs of that old establishment. Two of the Pythons debated an Anglican bishop and Catholic writer Malcolm Muggeridge, but no one serious tried to stop the film.

Life of Brian couldn’t be made 20 years earlier, and neither could it be made now; its satire of Jesus, a prophet of Islam, would risk upsetting Muslim sensibilities, which it’s fair to say people have become slightly wary of doing. At the very least it would need to cut out the scene pointing fun at a man who, absurdly to the filmmakers and audiences, identifies as a woman; absurd in 1979, as it had been in 1879 and 1779 and in every year before that, but a sacred idea in 2021.

It’s sacred in the sense that its believers have captured the moral citadel where the most powerful ideas are protected by taboo, achieved either by emotional argument or intimidation (and both can be effective).

This is not some dark new age of cancel culture, however, it’s just a return to normality. Those who grew up in the late 20th century were living in a highly unusual time, one that could never be sustained, a sexual and cultural revolution that began in 1963 or 1968. But it has ended and, as all revolutionaries must do after storming the Bastille, they have built Bastilles of their own. The new order has brought in numerous methods used by the old order to exert control — not just censorship, but word taboo and rituals which everyone is forced to go along with, or at least not openly criticise. You might call it the new intolerance, or woke extremism, but all societies need the policing of social norms.

No one would satirise the transgender movement today; no one would dare point fun at BLM, or Pride month; no one would dare joke about George Floyd, because like the publishers of Gay Times in 1977, they might face jail for blasphemy.  Instead leading satirist Sacha Baron Cohen makes a living making jokes at the expense of the little people. Indeed the only satire made now pokes fun at the old establishment, like punching the corpse of a once-ferocious zoo animal, or the people who still hold the old beliefs; the elderly, the less educated, the rural and provincial. The powerless.

The Nineties and Noughties were a time of outstanding comedy partly because so much of public morality was up for grabs, and in transition; it was a period in between two quite rigid societies.

A sign of how the environment has changed can be seen in the changing tone of the word“controversial”. The term once had a neutral, or even positive, undertone, to denote cutting-edge artwork that challenged us. Now it is used entirely by the media to denote a policy or position they disapprove of, and which you are therefore supposed to disapprove of. It means something beyond the pale of acceptable opinion, a pale that has shrunk as the cultural revolution has ended, illustrated by neologisms like “problematic”.

The MeToo movement was to some extent an end-of-cultural-revolution moment. Janice Turner made the point that the Seventies and Eighties were the worst periods for abuse because sexual freedom had been achieved but not yet sexual equality. It was an ambiguous, revolutionary period, always fun times for abusive men, but that can’t last; someone has to police sexual behaviour in a species in which males have 40% more upper body strength than females. The stricter sexual atmosphere since then reflects that revolutionary period ending.

Revolutionaries who establish themselves in power inevitably start thinking about firming up that power. They have a vested interest in making the times before seems worse than they really were, which is why contemporary films or plays set before the Sixties must always show it as racially prejudiced or portray traditional marriages as unhappy. Revolutionaries also need to start thinking about public rituals that imitate faith, something the Soviets, Chinese Communists and Jacobins all imitated in various ways. Rituals in particular attract children and adolescents; just as young people across Europe once dressed up to celebrate Corpus Christi, run riot on Shrove Tuesday or flirt on St John’s Eve, now Pride month and the other new feasts of the calendar are increasingly popular with children, spread through TikTok and other social media.

The religious nature of the 2020 protest has been much commented on, with strange outpourings of hysteria and feet-washing, and with Floyd becoming an icon.

Perhaps the most powerful, and obviously quasi-religious, symbol of the new order is taking the knee. Indeed, intelligent people have even argued that taking the knee before games or displaying the rainbow flag at stadiums are not “political” acts, when critics have pedantically pointed out that they clearly are; because when you doubt your politics so little it barely registers as politics anymore. And to believers, something like racism or homophobia is non-negotiable; there is no moral relativism allowed.

Before the cultural revolution, public morals were patrolled by volunteers, believers in the dominant religion (Christianity) and typically women, Mary Whitehouse being the archetype of the disapproving great-aunt. Now the revolution has ended, public morality is patrolled by volunteers, believers in the public religion (and typically women, although gender differences are one of the taboos of the new age).

The way in which the Left had taken the role of the Right was best summed up by Scott Alexander, who asked what happened to the stodgy old conservatives who used to enforce public morality in the Fifties. Where would they be now? Of the archetypal disapproving great aunt figure, he said, it’s hard to argue she is “not a proud leftist by now, still chattering about how scandalous it is that people read books with the wrong values, still giving her terminally uncool speeches to the school board about how they had better enforce her values on the children”.

The revolutionaries were always going to create new rituals, new speech codes and new forms of censorship. England has changed a huge deal since our great victory in 1966, but in many ways it has barely changed at all.

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