Roger Scruton, and the Anatomy of a Hit Job…

Roger Scruton is the grand old man of English conservatism. Over four decades he has produced book after book, writing on politics, philosophy, music and architecture among other subjects. He has taken on the left (in Thinkers of the New Left), and libertines (in Sexual Desire), and philistines (in On Beauty and others). He smuggled books to Czech, Polish and Hungarian dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. He was knighted in 2016. Taking payments from tobacco companies in exchange for anti-prohibition represented a blip in an honourable career but overall the worst thing you can say about his life is that it is a shame his status as an English conservative intellectual has been such a lonely one.

When, last year, Scruton was appointed an unpaid adviser to the Housing Ministry there was a minor scandal. Buzzfeed and its energetic buzzybodies dredged up all manner of quotes to suggest that Scruton was beyond the pale. He said that there was a “Soros Empire” in Hungary! Well, yes, but he used “empire” in the sense that one might say “Koch Empire” not “Galactic Empire” and had even appealed to Viktor Orban not to close the Soros-funded Central European University. He said “Islamophobia” does not exist! He said it was a bad descriptor, not that there is no such thing as anti-Muslim hate. He said that homosexual relations are “not normal”. He said that only monogamous, heterosexual, marital relations were normal. That might offend many people with many different lifestyles but it is not “homophobic” any more than it is “cohabitophobic”.

For once, the Conservatives did not succumb to liberal and left-wing pressure. Scruton kept his place. Their fragile backbone collapsed less than six months later when Scruton did an interview with the left-wing New Statesman. Accepting the interview was a mistake, but understandable. Scruton had been the magazine’s wine columnist for years and imagined that he was in friendly if not comradely hands. Sadly, the New Statesman has become little more than Buzzfeed with book reviews.

The publication of the interview was announced to the world by the interviewer, New Statesman Deputy Editor George Eaton, who wrote that Scruton had made “outrageous remarks” about Hungarian Jews”, “the Chinese” and “Islamophobia”. Outrageous? I read on with interest.

The first sign that the interview is going to be mendacious comes when Eaton refers to Scruton calling his farmland “Scrutopia” as being “unintentionally comical”. Intellectual charity demands not only the presumption that our opponents can be honest and intelligent but that they can have a sense of humour. It is intentionally comical.

Eaton soon moves on to the “outrageous” stuff. He casually lies that Scruton had said “Hungarian Jews”, rather than some Hungarian Jews, are part of a “Soros empire” and asks Scruton if he still holds this opinion. He does. Eaton says that his words are “heedless of the anti-Semitic portrayal of the philanthropist George Soros as a Jewish puppet-master” but while Jew-haters have certainly exaggerated Soros’ power, influence and malice it is nonetheless true that Soros is a powerful patron in liberal causes in Central and Eastern Europe, including Hungary. Perhaps one should avoid the term “empire” if one is being cautious but it is a correct use of the term in a colloquial sense. (Interestingly, one left-wing magazine has published a profile of Soros with the far more overheated claim that he is “the uncrowned king of Eastern Europe” with a “financial stranglehold over political parties, business, educational institutions and the arts”. That magazine? Why, the New Statesman.)

Eaton moves on to the next charge on his rap sheet. Scruton thinks that “Islamophobia” is a “propaganda word” “invented by the Muslim Brotherhood”. I think Scruton is misinformed on the origins of the term. The claim that it was invented by the Muslim Brotherhood dates back to an unsubstantiated claim by the American author Claire Berlinski, and even Robert Spencer rejects it. Still, Scruton’s rejection of the term as being an attempt to pathologise concerns about Islamic theology is defensible. He does not deny that anti-Muslim hatred exists, and he does not hate Muslims or Islam himself, as Jibran Khan writes for National Review.

The next of Eaton’s claims is the most duplicitous. “Remarkably,” he writes:

…he commented of the rise of China: “They’re creating robots out of their own people… each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.”

This is the comment that Eaton claimed referred to “the Chinese”, as if it was a comment on the essence of their being. As any idiot can tell, however, even with Eaton’s convenient ellipses, Scruton is not talking about the Chinese character but the ambitions of the Chinese government, which has implemented extensive schemes for social control. It is not correct, of course, that their plans have been so successful that each Chinese person is “a kind of replica” but somewhat exaggerating the power of a quasi-totalitarian government is not a mortal sin.

The one real mistake that it appears Scruton made, unless he was misquoted by the shameless Eaton, was referring to the 2015 influx of Middle Eastern and African migrants into Europe as an “invasion”. There were hostile men among the migrants but to believe the migrants constituted an invading force is to believe they were hostile as a whole and deserve violence. I do not think Scruton believes this but in that case he should not have used the word.

Still, we are not invited to debate Scruton’s ideas and language here. We are being ordered to expel him from our ranks. The Conservatives caved in. James Brokenshire, the Minister for Housing, sacked Scruton within hours of the interview appearing. As a chorus of liberals and left-wingers denounced the great man, Tories rushed to join in. Tom Tugendhat MP announced, “Antisemitism sits alongside racism, anti-Islam, homophobia, and sexism as a cretinous belief that has no place in our public life and particularly not in government.” That is quite a list, Tom. Why did you not throw in transphobia while you were at it? Johnny Mercer MP echoed Tugendhat’s words. “No brainer,” he wrote of Scruton’s expulsion, “Let’s not take our time on this.” Eaton posted a photo of himself swigging champagne on Instagram to celebrate getting a “racist and homophobe” sacked.

It is pointless to complain about Eaton’s behaviour. Why waste one’s breath complaining that a fox eats chickens? It is unpardonable, however, that Conservatives were so keen to do his bidding. Tugendhat has meekly said that he was “misled” but “can only act on the basis of information given.” Why did he have to “act”? Why could he not have reserved comment until he had analysed the interview? Is he so stupid that he trusts the New Statesman automatically or such a coward that he will throw a man under a bus rather than risk being associated with them? Mercer has at least stood by his words, saying he objected to Scruton’s reference to “invading Muslim tribes”. Well, so did I. But what does it say about Mr Mercer that he will abandon Scruton, who has fought for the causes that MP represents for longer than he has been alive, over a single comment, in the face of left-wingers who consider Scruton unpardonably offensive despite being or associating with communists, friends of North Korea, IRA apologists and other such unlovely ideologues. What kind of masochistic puritanism is this?

Unlike Scruton, I do not believe in Brexit. I think it has been an enormous waste of political capital that will not bring a golden era of independence but a grim parade of embarrassing deals with obnoxious regimes. Like him, however, I have less than no hope for the Conservative Party. If it will not fight for a man who has been defending its ostensible ideals for four decades, in the face all manner of libels, then it will not fight for me and it will not fight for you.

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We’ve Given the Word “Mob” a Bad Name…

One of my favourite quotes from The Simpsons, and I have many, comes from when the dastardly Mr Burns whips up a mob to reclaim his teddy bear from young Maggie Simpson. Maggie weeps when the bear is seized from her grasp and the citizens of Springfield are moved enough to give it back. “We’ve given the word “mob” a bad name,” says one man.

Mobs, of course, are nothing new. Ritual denunciation, vigilante justice and mass hysteria has characterised everywhere from the Deep South to Stalin’s Russia. Happily, Western societies do not have lynch mobs any more. What they do have is shame mobs. Isolated tweets or clips of audio and video can stir up widespread, international outrage against people who breach, or seem to breach, our standards of propriety, and the targets of popular wrath face emotional and material consequences. Justine Sacco lost her job and sank into depression after tens of thousands of people denounced a joke she made online, prompting the British journalist John Ronson to write So You’ve Been Publically Shamed. Ronson wrote:

Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval, and that is what led to her undoing. Her tormentors were instantly congratulated as they took Sacco down, bit by bit, and so they continued to do so. Their motivation was much the same as Sacco’s own — a bid for the attention of strangers — as she milled about Heathrow, hoping to amuse people she couldn’t see.

I do not believe that public shaming is wrong per se. It can identify wrongdoers and provide a useful deterrent effect. Quillette‘s own Andy Ngo has in effect encouraged “public shaming” by releasing videos of activists who have threatened and abused him, but these people deserved to have their wrongdoing exposed and deserved to face some consequences for doing wrong.

If we are going to publically shame someone, however, two things must be kept in mind: the need to provide the full context by which to judge them and the need to seek proportion in our response. It is so difficult to meet these criteria that we must extreme care before exposing people to popular wrath. It is impossible to know how proportionate the response will be as once text, video and audio is released across the web we cannot control other people’s responses. While we do know the full context if we are initiating the shaming, meanwhile, it is difficult to know if we have fully grasped it when we are deciding whether or not to participate.

The weekend has offered another case study. As well as exhibiting our righteousness as we condemn real or alleged offenders against decency or justice, we can emphasise the malign nature of our opponents. Progressives smelled blood, then, as a video was released of young Catholic prep school students, some of whom were wearing MAGA hats, appearing to mock an old Native American man, and a veteran no less, as he beat a drum and chanted.

The backlash was fierce. One young man appeared to be smirking in the old man’s face, and he was singled out for vitriol. “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?” asked the progressive commentator Reza Aslan of a boy who cannot have been more than sixteen years old. “This image will define his life,” said the screenwriter Michael Green, “No one need forgive him.” Progressives often believe, and sometimes with justice, that the state offers violent criminals too little chance for redemption but a young smiling inappropriately was, it seems, a mortal sin.

“Names please,” posted alleged comedian Kathy Griffin, “And stories from people who can identify them and vouch for their identity.” Ms Griffin played the victim when she faced public backlash for joking about murdering the President when she was a rich adult but being irreverent to an old man as a child? Screw those kids. The school, its officials, the students, and, predictably, young men who had not even been there had their names dragged through the mud.

There was a palpable hysteria in some of the responses. “I fucking hate that smirk,” tweeted the editor Alex Cranz, “It says “I’m richer, I’m white, and I’m a guy.”” It was clear that progressives were not just outraged about the boy. He was an avatar of everything they hated. Donald Trump. A high school jock. Straight, white, male privilege.

Most reasonable people, I hope, could agree that the people I have quoted were overreacting. But most of us who watched the video, including me, did come away thinking the kids had deserved criticism. They were being offensive and obnoxious.

Or were they?

The story, as is so often the case, became less clear. A new video was released, providing more context. The Native American man was not surrounded by the boys but approached their group and wandered into the middle of it. The young man did not confront him but was confronted, and his smile seems to have been more embarrassed than smug. I do not know the kid, or what he thinks, or how he behaves, but nothing could change the fact that grown adults insisted he deserved lifelong shame if not violence for a smile that a few seconds of video proved was a young man’s innocent response to a strange situation.

More details have cast the boys in an even less shameful light. One of the Native Americans was swearing at the students and crying “go back to Europe”. One of the boy’s mothers had been derided for claiming that “black Muslims” had abused the students but extended videos show that members of the cultlike Black Hebrews group were standing nearby ranting about white people and “faggots”.

I should be clear that I am not trying to reverse the situation and demonise the Native Americans. It was a heated scene, between their group, and the Catholic boys, and the Black Hebrews, and there is no evidence that they were trying to provoke the students or get them in trouble. If anyone is at fault, beyond the ranting cultists, it might have been the boy’s chaperones for not taking them elsewhere.

Did some boys act inappropriately? Yes. One’s response to an old man should not be scream and laugh even if he is acting peculiarly. Yet my words about proportion are relevant here. This behaviour is cause for a responsible adult to have a stern word about being respectful in a public place. This behaviour is not cause for tens of thousands of strangers to insult, threaten and doxx children.

What could have been an unpleasant local situation with blame on all sides was blown up into a firestorm of international outrage that will, I’m sure, leave at least some of the teenagers with lasting emotional damage, and could easily, if the rebuttal had not been so swift, have endangered their future careers and relationships. All so adults, many of them rich and successful, could express their inchoate outrage for about as long as it takes to tweet. Now that is a cause for shame that should stick with them. We should make sure it does.

It is sad to see how people who should have at least given the boys a fair hearing threw them under the bus. “These actions are not Christian, not Catholic and not acceptable,” said James Martin of America magazine. Robert George, a Catholic professor at Princeton, echoed Martin’s words, though he has since apologised. The mayor of the town in which their school is based issued unqualified praise for a “tidal wave of condemnation”. The Diocese of the school was swift to clarify that it would consider expulsion. Almost no one who might have defended the boys from an avalanche of abuse challenged the case against them. What message does this send to young men? “You are on your own.” Nothing good will come of that.

Cases like this will emerge again. Text, images and audio will make people look as if their guilt could not be possibly, possibly be in doubt. The temptation to express our outrage, sincere or otherwise, will rise from our hearts and spread outward towards our fingertips. We should question it. A day can make a lot of difference.

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On Grifting and Grifters…

As the media has fragmented, its funding has relied on diverse sources of patronage. People who agree with me have offered excellent products and appealed to readers, listeners and viewers to support them in bettering the world. People who disagree with me have exploited herdlike fools with glib, crowd-pleasing nonsense for the sole purpose of self-enrichment. They have, in other words, become “grifters”.

Who is a grifter? A grifter is someone who puts themselves first and their cause second, third, fourth or fifth. A grifter is someone who smells profit like a dog smells stale pee. A grifter is a mountebank, a soulless salesman, someone who seeks out earnings and attention like an addict.

Yes, grifters exist. It would be pointless and divisive to offer examples. Needless to say, grifters are very clear about how to pay them and a lot less clear on why they should be paid. Needless to say, grifters produce content for markets like a tailor cuts expensive suit for wealthy customer. Needless to say, there are few depths that a grifter will not sink to in moral, intellectual and aesthetic terms for likes, shares and donations.

Still, the “grifter” charge has been misused, much as I misused it in my opening paragraph. It has become a quick way to impugn the motives of one’s rhetorical opponents, which, even if it complements rather than replaces a response to their ideas (which it often does not) demands justification, just like “liar”, or “fraud”, or “creep”.

Jamelle Bouie, the American progressive commentator, recently called Quillette’s Coleman Hughes a “grifter”. Elliot Kauffman of the Wall Street Journal saw some irony in this, as Bouie is a columnist for the New York Times while Hughes is a college student who writes in his spare time. I had the same thought when I read Matthew Yglesias of Vox snarking about how contrarianism of the “Intellectual Dark Web” variety is an easy route to riches. Mr Yglesias has earned millions of dollars as the in-house contrarian of websites like Vox, which are swollen from the proceeds of venture capitalism.

Still, Bouie and Yglesias could respond that they have earned their fame and riches through sincere, substantive arguments rather than, well, grifting. But where is the substance of Bouie’s accusation? I have never interacted with Mr Hughes, and have no special insight into his soul. Perhaps he was sitting around on campus when – boom – an idea struck him with sinister force. “How about I become rich and famous by, get this, writing long articles about African-American culture for an Australian web magazine.” Perhaps he was. But it seems unlikely, no?

Bouie called Hughes a grifter simply because Hughes disagreed with him, and “grifter” was a more modish, subtle and damning insult than “idiot”, “imbecile” or other insults that for all their crassness would at least have sullied his intelligence rather than his intentions.

It is easy to grow cynical online. As commentators steer their audiences towards Patreon, PayPal, SubscribeStar, crypto-currencies and other means of paying their bills and funding their vacations it is tempting to assume that they must be opportunists. Perhaps they are. But some things should be kept in mind. The first is that the media has always relied on patronage and it need have no less integrity if this comes from a wide range of backers than if it  comes from the pockets of a billionaire. The second is that patronage is not, at least in principle, the same as charity. Whether you like Jordan Peterson or Chapo Trap House, if you have supported their respective Patreons you have done so not because you want to keep them off the streets but because you want to keep them making new content. The third is that the alternative to patronage is inevitably advertising, and producing adverts for oneself might be preferable to hosting adverts for dubious sexual performance supplements and boutique handbags.

Even when someone is obviously not making full use their intelligence, they might have motivations other than greed: the desire for status, the desire to propagandise or just the unconscious urge to defend a cause they have emotional investment in by any means available. All this means we should be careful not to use the “grifter” epithet promiscuously and without just cause.

Still, there is a very different angle to see this from. The ability to monetise one’s interest in politics and society does add dangerous incentives into one’s work. Most of us who have found a place in the online media, thanks to magazines, or YouTube, or Twitter, have or have had normal jobs with less obvious potential for wealth, status and excitement. The desire to turn one’s hobby into one’s career does put a devil on one’s shoulder, whispering about what is and is not a good take, or style, or argument to monetise. As writers, comedians and documentarians increasingly depend on freelance work and crowdfunding, the desire to please one’s editors and audience is unavoidable.

Sometimes the consequences of this are minimal if not actually harmless. Occasionally, I choose a subject that my readers are interested in rather than a subject I find more interesting – but sometimes I look back and see that my readers have been right. More damaging is the temptation to make arguments that will be welcomed by one’s editors and audience, and to avoid arguments they will find misguided or offensive. There is no way to avoid this temptation. One can only ask oneself if it is better to die having contributed some small things of value to the world or as a hack with a slightly bigger house.

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The Slow Decline of the Loomer Generation…

The worst chapter in Christopher Hitchens’ patchy memoir Hitch-22 concerned his literary friendships. Packed with detailed accounts of booze-sodden lunches, and agonising explanations of in-jokes, it could have been summed up in five short words: you had to be there. Few if any of us can retell old drinking stories in a manner than is even sufferable, and a touch of nostalgia near what would turn out to be the end of his life can be understood, but if it left a sour aftertaste it was because the circle of friends that Hitchens held so dear had been an influential clique in British literature, and often, sadly, to its detriment. I call them the Loomers.

The Loomers included Hitchens, Martin Amis, Ian McEwen, Salman Rushdie, Craig Raine and Clive James. I call them “the Loomers” both because they have loomed over British letters and because they were all literary boomers, born around the end of World War Two and coming of age in the late sixties and early seventies. All were charismatic men with eye-catching prose and poems. All were critics and editors. All were fiercely ambitious.

In describing the Loomers as something of a clique I am by no means succumbing to conspiracy theory. They were described as such in Hitchens’ autobiography, and Martin Amis’ memoiristic Experience. Craig Raine’s long poem A La Recherche du Temps Perdu makes reference to “mutual friends/the Martins, Julians and Ians.” Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan that is. One doubts an obscure “Phil” or “Brian” would have earned a mention.

Now, the Loomers are in their senescence. Amis has been promising a novel about Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin and Christopher Hitchens, which has created the buzz of a dead housefly. Ian McEwan has produced a series of clever books which have produced diminishing returns. Rushdie’s last novel barely made a dent in the public consciousness. Unpopularity need not reflect quality. Amis might create a masterpiece for all we know. Yet how did a group of writers who were so famous end up with such indifference?

I should pause to make it clear that if I criticise collective tendencies of this clique I am by no means reducing its individual members to those features. The Polish football team has a problem with goalscoring but Robert Lewandowski does not. The Loomers’ novelists have had a problem crafting memorable characters but Martin Amis’ John Self remains one of the finest comic creations of the last century. Nonetheless, private and professional collegiality, and similarities, between the Loomers make them a just subject for generalisations.

One of the two main problems with the Loomers has been their often pompous attitude towards style, where linguistic cleverness has often been elevated above linguistic power. In his essay “A Criticism of Life” Craig Raine singled out as an exemplar of good prose Marianne Moore’s comparison of the top of a fir tree with “an emerald turkey foot.” This, he said, allows us to “see the fir tree more stereoscopically than before.” It does not. In fact, it diminishes the readers’ appreciation of the tree. With all due respect to Moore, the phrase has the novelty and cleverness that Loomers admire but is symbolically inapt. An “emerald turkey foot” is a comical image that degrades the dignity of a grand old fir. In another essay, Raine chided Bruce Chatwin for inaccuracy in saying that in winter “the frozen leaves of foxgloves dropped like dead donkey’s ears” but even if this is less accurate as a comparison of likenesses, which it is not by much, it has far more symbolic power.

What is clever has too often replaced what is effective. Thomas Mallon criticised Amis for calling Stalin’s slaughter a “census-slashing deformity” because the phrase was “a squawking bird perched on the cenotaph” (it was also too abstract, and reused after its appearance in Koba the Dread.) It was nothing more than a distraction.

I have no intention of defending stylistic clichés. The world could do without hearing of another “moody silence” or “heartfelt sob”. But the veritable holy war the Loomers have conducted against the hackneyed image has been far too narrow, pedantic and self-regarding. In an essay on the youthful Amis, Hitchens writes:

If one employed a lazy or stale phrase, it would be rubbed in—no, it would be incisively *emphasized—*with a curl of that mighty lip and an ironic gesture. If one committed the offense in print—I remember once writing “no mean achievement” in an article—the rebuke might come in note form, or by one’s being handed a copy of the article with a penciled underlining. He could take this vigilance to almost parodic lengths. The words “ruggedly handsome features” appear on the first page of 1984, and for a while Martin declined to go any further into the book. (“The man can’t write worth a damn.”)

Hitchens uses this to emphasise Amis’ love of language but while I have no doubt that this love exists it is also suggests to me a certain attachment to lording it over other people.

When Craig Raine reads Ian McEwan’s drafts, it has been reported, he scribbles “FLF” in the margins to remind the author of Enduring Love and Atonement of when he tried to use the phrase “flickering log fire” in one of his books. It is a sweet little routine. Yet I think the mortification that the memory of this lapse is implied to evoke symbolises the narrow attitude towards “style” that the Loomers have maintained. “All writing is a campaign against cliche,” Amis has suggested, “Not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart.” Fair enough. But contra the sub-Nabokovian theme of his work – where it is claimed that “cliché spreads inwards from the language of [a] book to its heart” – there is no necessary link between the three. Just a cough might or might not be a symptom of illness, a stylistic cliché might or might not be a symptom of imaginative or observational ineptitude. A scene around around a fireplace that refers to a “flickering log fire” might have more substantial characters, incisive dialogue, wittier allusions et cetera than a scene which refers to, I don’t know, “the mewling tiger cub on the hearth.”

While Amis and Raine have preached that style is substance, the Loomers have increasingly sought to be substantial. “He isn’t content to be a good writer,” wrote Tibor Fischer in a famously hostile review of Amis’ Yellow Dog, “He wants to be profound; the drawback to profundity is that it’s like being funny, either you are or you aren’t.” This was somewhat unfair. Amis can be profound when he is being funny, as in Money, or even the underrated The Information. When he tries to be profound, however, rather than allowing profundity to emerge through his wit, he has been neither. In Koba the Dread or The Second Plane – about communism and jihadism respectively – one faces a terrible combination of humourless self-importance and superficiality.

Amis is not alone. Ian McEwan writes powerfully, insightfully and interestingly about human relationships, but when he turned his hand to politics in Saturday the result was a lot of chin-stroking bourgeois moralism. Salman Rushdie wrote great novels about India but when he tried to do the same about the United States in The Golden House the result was a mess. The problem, I think, is not that these men are incapable of tackling great themes but that they set out, ex nihilo, with the aim of tackling them and the product is inorganic and ill-considered. They have wanted to define their age; to be on the cultural and ideological frontlines – like Orwell, Koestler and Bellow – yet have displayed more ambition than inspiration.

Their politics have not helped. Christopher Hitchens’ transition from full-throated Trotskyism to full-throated neoconservatism has been well-documented and his friends have followed suit, if, in some cases, in a waterier way. “Hussein was running a regime beyond evil,” Clive James mused in 2013, justifying his support for the invasion of Iraq, “What have you got to do with places like that?” Not make them worse. McEwan (like Amis and Rushdie) did not support the invasion but Saturday was disfigured by a lot of handwringing about anti-war protesters not being solemn enough, as if this would have made the slightest difference to anyone.

Rushdie earned a great deal of admiration for his courage during the hideous, fanatical backlash against his book The Satanic Verses, and his friends were admirable in sticking up for him. Nonetheless, it is regrettable that Islam became the great cause they had been looking for, not because they were bigoted (as critics from Terry Eagleton to the current author in his callow days often alleged) but because they were unable to understand or contextualise its influence on the modern world. I think they wanted political Islam to be their communism – an elitist ideology that was inflicted on the masses – but the invasion of Iraq and the death spiral of the Arab Spring proved that wrong. Martin Amis’ inelegant claim that he was not an Islamophobe but an Islamismophobe obscured the fact that there is no clear difference between the two, Muhammad, after all, being a religiously inspired statesman.

The desire to be, like the great authors who came before them, combatants in a showdown between liberalism and a force of tyranny has blinded Loomers to the tensions with liberalism itself, and with admirable exceptions – like Amis’ Money and The Pregnant Widow – they have had almost nothing to say about social stratification, consumerism, gender, mass migration and the Internet. To be sure, their books might be a haven from the identity politicking of progressives but their bland liberalism offers no defence against it.

The decline of the Loomers is not cause to cheer. Their successors have often been worse. Yet this has, to some extent, been no coincidence. The Loomers have not bridged the gap between tradition and modernity, but tried to float across on wings of ephemeral style and plunged, grousing, into the abyss.

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Minor Self Indulgence…

This is extremely, possibly excessively self-indulgent but I wanted to collect some of my favourite pieces from 2018. If one writes a lot one often forgets past articles and allows them to drift into the dark, unlovely wastelands of the Internet. These are some pieces I would not abandon.

1.Reading Chatwin in Silesia“, Front Porch Republic.

I’m very proud of this piece, for integrating my interest in the local and communal with my love of my hometown.

2.Poland at a Hundred Years of Independence“, American Affairs.

I tend not to write about Polish politics, both because my expertise is limited and because I have no wish to tell Poles what to do, but in this piece I think I offered clear analysis, which is often lacking elsewhere.

3.Confessions of a Jet-Set Conservative“, University Bookman.

Writing hatchet jobs is always fun, and filleting Max Boot’s lamentable if accidentally insightful cri de coeur for conservatism was especially so.

4.In Memory of the Spanish Flu“, Quillette.

This might have been one of the least read articles in Quillette‘s history, but the Spanish Flu is a historical phenomenon that deserves more attention, for the sake of its victims and its implications.

5.A Manifesto for Classical Liberalism“, Jacobite.

This was a mean little satire, but it made me laugh to write it, and laugh harder when people took it seriously.

6.What Conservatism Isn’t“, Arc Digital.

I don’t have a clear enough worldview to write a statement of principles but in writing what I disagree with I think I shed some light on my beliefs.

7.In Defence of Male Stoicism“, Quillette.

On what I think is an underappreciated psychological perspective.

8. ““Anti-Imperialism” and Apologetics for Murder“, Quillette.

Exploring the newly relevant history of left-wing third worldism.

9.The Architecture of Annihilation“, Wandering Near Sawtry.

No one wanted to publish this essay on futurism, urbanism and AI but I was quite proud of it.

10. “The Curious Case of Ron Unz“, The Spectator USA.

The “point and splutter” school of journalism is rather sordid but I thought the case of Mr Unz, a Jewish millionaire who attributes what he thinks was the invention of the Holocaust, the assassinations of JFK and RFK and the alleged “inside job” that was 9/11 to Jewish people was exceptionally interesting, and was glad I managed to explore and address his views without a lot of ad hominem attacks or intrusiveness.

Thank you for reading in 2018. Have a lovely Christmas.

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Reflections on Poland’s Independence Day March…

As we inched, with more than two hundred thousand Poles, from Rondo Dmowskiego to the national stadium, my companions checked their phones to see what lies the Western media were telling. “Two hundred thousand Nazis,” one of them chuckled, “That is what they’ll say.”

Well, there was no Nazism that I saw. The most extreme signs and slogans that caused international outrage last year were from a tiny group of neopagan Aryan supremacists who are as representative of the Polish right, never mind Poland, as a peace-loving pacifist was representative of the Mongols.

Still, for a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of national independence, the atmosphere was charged with confrontation. To be sure, most of the marchers were smiling men, women and children, kitted out in white and red shirts, scarfs, hats and jumpers. One father, with his son scurrying about his feet, struck up a conversation after hearing us speaking English. “You’re doing a good job with that flag,” one of my companions noted, nodding at the giant white and red banner he was wielding. “We’re trying to do a good job,” he grinned, “For our country.”

Nonetheless, some attendees were not so celebratory. Gangs of young men scaled the bus shelters that lined the route and bellowed slogans. Foreign journalists might have been baffled by their targets – which included the liberal TV channel TVN and the murderous Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera – but their sheer ferocity did seem out of place. “Young men and their testosterone,” a Polish companion shrugged.

“Wake up Poland and return to God,” one banner read. Another bore a hammer and sickle with a strike through it. To be clear, these sentiments are by no means obnoxious, let alone “extremist”, in themselves. What was obvious, though, was that cultural decay and political oppression were perceived by many marchers not as forces that had been defeated but as powerful enemies to be overthrown. Some marchers were celebrating. Some marchers were demonstrating.

The organisation of the march had been chaotic. The Mayor of Warsaw had banned the nationalist coalition Ruch Narodowy (the National Movement) from marching but a court had overturned her decision. The government had decided to cooperate with the nationalists in organising two slightly separate marches: an official march leading a larger nationalist march.

The nationalist coalition has been lazily described (including by this author) as “fascist”. This is neither true nor wholly untrue. Members of Ruch Narodowy who emerged from the all but defunct League of Polish Families can be more comparable, in ideology, to Salazar than Mussolini, and are too Catholic and conservative for fascism. Other elements, as illustrated by the presence of the explicitly neofascist Italian Forza Nuova party, are more liable to think fascism would have been tolerable if not admirable had it not been for Hitler’s anti-Slavic tendencies. It is morbidly ironic that Polish troops were honouring their forefathers as the ideological descendants of the people they did so much to defeat in the Italian Campaign lurked nearby.

The nationalists have never had electoral success. What they have is organisational prowess. They boast a vanguard of largely young and male supporters who respond to clear, antagonistic, anti-establishment rhetoric, and, due to national pride and testosterone-fuelled machismo, can be counted on to turn out for major demonstrations. Appealing to a wider audience demands a more substantive and inclusive ideology, and more sophisticated campaigning, and it demands that these goals be achieved without the coalition splintering. This is not impossible, but it is difficult.

If anything can make the movement more popular it is the government itself. Law and Justice, the ruling party, are firmly on the right wing of Polish politics in terms of public opinion. By accident or design, however, there can be a gap between its rhetoric and its results. Rhetorically hostile to mass migration, the government has allowed two million Ukrainians to settle in Poland. Rhetorically belligerent towards the European Union, it has, of course, no plans to leave. These policies have not been unpopular enough to harm Law and Justice but its politicians cannot grow complacent. In cooperating with Ruch Narodowa the government might have been hoping to appeal to its supporters, but if it allows too big a gap between its rhetoric and its reults to grow, its own voters might look for politicians whose platforms and policies are more consistent. It is now much easier to find them.

It was moving to watch the sea of white and red flags ripple down the street. Less than a lifetime ago, the city would have been in ruins. The Nazis demolished Warsaw after its brave yet doomed uprising, leaving 85% of its buildings destroyed and hundreds of thousands of its citizens dead. Stalin sat back and watched with complacent indifference before installing a communist government in Poland. The city rose again, like a phoenix out of flames, but was only freed from communism in 1989. Walking past a sign to Mokotów – a pleasant housing district – I grimaced inwardly on being reminded of Mokotów Prison, where Polish war heroes and dissidents were interned, tortured and executed. The Poles have reclaimed the city now. The sign “1918-2018” had been projected onto the former Communist Party headquarters along with a Polish flag. Now, ironically, it is the headquarters of banks.

Across the West, citizens of Britain, and the USA, and Italy and others resent their national dependence on other governments and institutions. There is some extent to which we have to learn to live with it. No sane person would accept the impoverishment and vulnerability that would come from abandoning the military alliances, trade agreements and international regulations that make peace and prosperity attainable. On the other hand, no patriotic person would leap into the arms of foreign investors, governments and institutions without thought for their long-term national interests.

Poland is navigating the boundaries of globalisation and nationalism. Its economy has gone from strength and strength, offering Poles unprecedented opportunities in terms of improving their livelihoods and lifestyles, but divides have been expanding over questions of the political and cultural costs of this progress, as well as the unequal distribution of its blessings. Conflicts over tradition and modernity, and oikophilia and cosmopolitanism, will mark Polish politics for the foreseeable future. Balance must be reached, and a balance that will last.

Still, this it is independence for you. When your country has been occupied it is easier to unite against a common foe. When there is no obvious oppressor, on the other hand, it is much easier to disagree on what should be done. Strolling through Warsaw, the morning after the march, I walked down the streets that had been battlegrounds but now bore tributes to the men and women who had brought them peace: kings, soldiers, scientists, poets and boy scouts. Few nations have struggled as hard to free. Few nations have had as much potential in their freedom.

Posted in Poland | 3 Comments

The Architecture of Annihilation…

A cathedral is a tribute to God. A skyscraper is a tribute to capital. Cathedrals reflect the glorious narratives of faith. Skyscrapers reflect the profits of capital. This could be an impotent anti-materialist moan. What interests me, though, is something these constructions share: the ostensible status of a human space and the actual devotion to a superhuman force.

In The Thirst for Annihilation, Nick Land writes of “the wild beasts of the impersonal”; thinkers are who are marked by “fatalism, atheism, strangely reptilian exuberance, and extreme sensitivity for what is icy, savage, and alien to mankind.” Perhaps excepting the initial adjective I can think of no more accurate a description of the author of the 1914 document the Manifesto of Futurist Architecture.

“The Futurist house must be like a gigantic machine,” the author insists. This was a prescient proclamation, coming as it did from the times before houses were wrapped in electronic wires. The author has even more ambitious ideas in mind. “We must invent and rebuild the Futurist city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard, agile, mobile and dynamic in every detail.” How man is supposed to live amid tumult goes unexplored. Does he care? Such details do not seem to trouble him:

The lifts must no longer be hidden away like tapeworms in the niches of stairwells; the stairwells themselves, rendered useless, must be abolished, and the lifts must scale the lengths of the façades like serpents of steel and glass.

There is that reptilian exuberance! In the Bible, of course, it is the serpent which tempts Eve with apples from the Tree of Knowledge, and the promise, “Your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods.”

Most researchers have concluded that the author of the manifesto – which followed Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, published five years before – was Antonio Sant’Elia. Dying before the age of thirty, on the battlefields, he designed little in his short and precocious life, yet influenced more fortunate, productive architects (as well as Ridley Scott, who modelled his designs for 2019 Los Angeles on Sant’Elia’s drawings.)

The manifesto bristles with a strange, inhuman energy, proclaiming a desire for skyscrapers that “soar up on the brink of a tumultuous abyss”; “the architecture of calculation, of audacious temerity”; “the use and original arrangement of raw or bare or violently colored materials.”

…just as the ancients drew inspiration for their art from the elements of nature, we—who are materially and spiritually artificial—must find that inspiration in the elements of the utterly new mechanical world we have created…

Why? For the sake of energy; for the sake of dynamism; their power and violence being their own achievement. “To transform the world of things into a direct projection of the world of the spirit.” One has the distinct sense of the people living for the city, not the city for the people; blood pumping around its great, metropolitan frame.

Futurism emerged in the 1900s, as radical theorists welcomed the industrial revolution and the emergence of the motorcar as a chance to shake the recently unified Italy from its stale, nostalgic state and give it fresh meaning and purpose. Enough with the “smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians.” It was time for bold originality and innovation. It was time to make the fatherland a fierce and energetic youth.

Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!

Led by the eccentric poet Marinetti, futurists insisted on the value of speed, and disruption, and, as George L. Mosse wrote in “The Political Culture of Italian Futurism”, “the spontaneity of experience.”

Futurists were antihumanists. “Man is something that must be overcome,” wrote Nietzsche, and that was a sentence Marinetti would have echoed. The first long, ferocious sentence of his Futurist Manifesto references the “electric hearts” of his colleagues (here, again, one finds the image of the serpent, describing “great tubes” on “racing automobiles”.)

Marinetti’s taste for the machine was fetishistic. He authored the Manifesto of Futurist Cooking and organised “aerobanquets”, at which, Alex Revelli Sorini and Susanna Cuttini write, the tablecloth was “replaced by sheets of aluminum and metal plates”, “the table was shaped like an airplane”, and diners roared, “We want fuel!” This is a vivid, if comical, demonstration of a transhumanist urge; a desire to soar, freed from the shackles of physical limitations and humanist sentiments, through the clouds of the unknown. In Marconi’s Wireless, Aaron A. Toscano writes that Marinetti held that humans should be “fast like cars, explosive like bombs, super productive like factories and as free as wireless signals.”

“His polemics rarely focus on concrete possibilities for new machines,” Toscano writes, “Instead he made bombastic claims about an unrealistic…utopia brought about through technology.” This is true enough, yet the utopian – and the dystopian – ideologue can have insights that the realist cannot in tracking implications of events through their potential evolution. One finds echoes of the futurists in the Big Tech enthusiasm for “disruption”, though this a far moderate form of social innovation. The dreams of the futurists had more to do with the Übermensch than with Uber. Their descendants have more radical ideas about the future of technology and men.

Futurism was something of a forerunner to transhumanist and artificial intelligence research. The Italian transhumanist Stefano Vaj has claimed Marinetti as an influence on what he calls “overhumanism”, a controversial synthesis of transhumanist science and anti-egalitarian thought. The “neoreactionary” sphere formed around the right-accelerationist Nick Land and the “formalist” ideologue Curtis Yarvin is a more explicitly right wing phenomenon that has been influenced by futurist ideas.

Futurism is irrevocably linked with fascism, not least as Marinetti wrote “The Fascist Manifesto” during his close though not untroubled alliance with Mussolini. He and others shared the fascistic lust for violence while rejecting its anti-modernist elements. They were also nationalists, reaching, as Mosse wrote, “to pull down a piece of eternity into rush and bustle of time.” Still, they were a more significant precursor to right-accelerationism, the idea that capitalism will, and should, become more powerful and innovative till it transcends its hapless anthropological managers in the form of the superintelligent machine. Just as futurists saw the industrial revolution as a thrilling vehicle for social dynamism, right-accelerationists see an intelligence explosion as a thrilling vehicle for evolutionary progress.

What can make futurism a closer relative to right-accelerationism than fascist politics is its clear emphasis on the machine over the man, either in an egalitarian or elitist sense. Marinetti held that there could be, in Eugene Ostashevsky’s words, “a humano-mechanical new man.” Unlike Marinetti, Sant’Elia ignores man in his actual or idealised forms. There are references to the places in which he is active, but there is almost no interest in his activity. Statues, theatres and opera houses go unmentioned, while he claims to stand for “the great hotels, the railway stations…[the] colossal ports.” (What happens there? It barely matters, as long as it is activity.) The art that he values is “the superb grace of the steel beam” and “the delicacy of reinforced concrete.”

It is interesting to compare Sant’Elia to a more infamous and influential architect who shared his passion for concrete and steel, his polemical style and his iconoclastic impulse. Le Corbusier had a similar taste for the skyscraper, but a clear, if totalitarian, emphasis on buildings as functional anthropocentric entities. In Sant’Elia’s image of the futurist city as an “immense and tumultuous shipyard” there is an inchoate antihumanist element. Man is not the ship, and we know from Sant’Elia’s anti-traditionalism that nor is civilisation. The ship is the spirit. And what if it leaves?

Recent years have offered eerily substantive analyses of the potential for a posthuman world. In “Meditations on Moloch”, Scott Alexander quoted Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Moloch”:

What sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?

Alexander reflected that as mechanisation increases further into the realms of artifical intelligence “capitalism becomes more and more uncoupled from its previous job as an optimizer for human values.” He sketched out a plausible situation where:

…most humans are totally locked out of the group whose values capitalism optimizes for. They have no value to contribute as workers – and since in the absence of a spectacular social safety net it’s unclear how they would have much money – they have no value as customers either. Capitalism has passed them by. As the segment of humans who can be outcompeted by robots increases, capitalism passes by more and more people until eventually it locks out the human race entirely, once again in the vanishingly unlikely scenario that we are still around.

It is obvious that cities can be immense engines of dehumanisation. Buildings – tall, dark and unenriched my history, myth or ritual – stand like alien statues. Streets, too big and busy for pedestrians or drivers, become navigable by systems of passenger trains. Heights, too tall to climb, demand the use of elevators. Work often involves the refinement of systems and products that will make labour and play easier, more efficient and more novel if outsourced, in whole or in part, to machines, not men.

Accompanying enormous economic and technological opportunities is a decline in fertility. Nick Land calls advanced cities “IQ shredders”. The IQ shredder:

…skims the human genetic stock…in large part due to the exceptional opportunity it provides for the conversion of bio-privileged human capital into economic value. From a strictly capitalistic perspective, genetic quality is comparatively wasted anywhere else. Consequently, spontaneous currents of economic incentive suck in talent, to optimize its exploitation.

“The most hard-core capitalist response to this,” he writes, “Is to double-down on the antihumanist accelerationism. This genetic burn-rate is obviously unsustainable, so we need to convert the human species into auto-intelligenic robotized capital as fast as possible, before the whole process goes down in flames.”

We know man and nature exist uneasily. We know that something has to change. We look, forlornly, across the “ingenuity gap” that separates our challenges our abilities and draw our own conclusions. Some advocate “uncivilization” as a Jeffersonian (that is, Robinson Jeffers) attempt to abandon humanist hubris and reconnect with the non-human world of animals, and plants, and landscapes. Right-accelerationists advocate ultracivilization, which aspires to abandon humanist hubris and await a posthuman world of superintelligences. Here, a city is as natural as a savannah.

Land wrote in “Machinic Desire”, collected in Fanged Noumena:

Machinic desire can seem a little inhuman, as it rips up political cultures, deletes traditions, dissolves subjectivities, and hacks through security apparatuses, tracking a soulless tropism to zero control. This is because what appears to humanity as the history of capitalism is an invasion from the future by an artificial intelligent space that must assemble itself entirely from its enemy’s resources.

The argument is not that capitalism is a conscious force but that “Gnon” – “Nature or Nature’s God” – proceeds according to remorseless evolutionary logic, driving ever more intelligent and innovative entities across the bones of their outdated predecessors. Capitalism, and its associated scientific and technological trends, unloosed its bonds. Anthropological redundancy is an inevitable end.

The city, in this narrative, is a posthuman factory, exhausting the economic value of its oblivious proletariat. Men walk streets and corridors but in the service of that which ensures their obsolescence. The gigantic machine, with its serpents of steel and glass, aims itself towards a faster, more dynamic and more powerful future.

Posted in Fascism, Futurism, Science, Utopianism | 1 Comment