A Review of Ed West’s “Small Men on the Wrong Side of History”…

One might think that few people were more annoyed by the 2019 British general election than the conservative author and commentator Ed West. Here he was, preparing to publish his book Small Men on the Wrong Side of History (Little, Brown and Company, 2020), which argues that “the Left is winning and we’re losing”, and the Conservatives romped to one of the most devastating triumphs in British electoral history. Had Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his scheming right hand man Dominic Cummings torpedoed West’s chances for relevance and, more importantly, sales?

Well, no. Firstly, there is nothing especially conservative about the Conservative Party. Johnson is a flamboyant Whig while Cummings is most interested in structural competence. There is nothing essentially wrong with this. Who would you rather have at hand when coronavirus strikes? People who know about science, probability and public health or people who know about Burke? Still, the fact remains that the government is more liberal than conservative, and slapped a formal warning on Daniel Kawczynski MP for attending the National Conservatism conference in Rome. Meanwhile, Britain’s academic, media and charitable institutions are solidly progressive. West’s book is as relevant as it was before.

But people should not just read this book – which, I should acknowledge, I read and commented on when it was in draft form – for the politics. West is one of Britain’s funniest political writers, and the book is rich with humour. “Mum had a column for the Catholic Herald, and so through sheer grit and persistence I had managed to get a commission to write for them.” “When reading this you have to imagine that I’m speaking in a heartless-sounding aristocratic voice.” “One morning in November my wife and I were blessed with a beautiful daughter, after a long and exhausting twenty-four hours; technically, Emma did the majority of the work, but it was definitely a team effort.” This dry humour keeps the pages turning far more smoothly than one might imagine a book about right-wing politics would. It is like going to watch a Scandinavian murder mystery and coming out with a big smile on your face.

West’s breezy tone helps his politics go down. His conservatism is moderate and dispositional, and more focused on outcomes than a priori ideals. Does a smoking ban reduce lung cancer? Very well, there is something to it, conservative anti-statism be damned. West knows preferences are essential to politics, though, and has data to explain them. His empirical inclinations and psychological interests make him a fascinating guide to the political subconscious, such as when he charts the decline of marriage and the rise of progressivism. I wonder if he thinks too little of philosophy – one sentence appears to imply that religious belief depends on “unprovable assumptions” – which makes the leap from descriptive to moral claims broader. Still, he offers a valuable matter-of-fact perspective, and it will be challenging for liberals and leftists who are used to their conservatives being shoutier or stodgier.

But of course, while Ed is entertaining he is no optimist. Progressivism, for him, is spilt religion, as the poet T.E. Hulme described romanticism. West agrees with the Polish political philosopher Ryszard Legutko that liberalism has “sacramental” qualities, and that its idealism is reinforced with hot intolerance of dissent. Yet West’s pessimism doesn’t end there. Thatcherite Tories encouraged “grotesque levels of wealth” and a “moronic public culture”. The populist right includes “some absolutely terrible people”. Brexit is at least something of a false hope.

None of this is wrong, I think, and West’s willingness to dissent from people whom one might expect to be on his “side” make for some of the best passages in the book. There is an excellent section in which West assails the dominance of cities by that “mechanical Jacobin”, the car, which “restricts people’s liberty through fear.” Conservatives who are high on their electoral success in Britain and America should take a shot of sour West as well, and consider his chapter about Conquest’s second law – that “any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing” and consider how much difference their political success is having given the progressive drift of other institutions.

Yet West’s pessimism about politics gives him too little confidence in his own. He is unnecessarily self-deprecating about his excellent Telegraph blog, which he suggests was all knee-jerk anti-leftism but which was sharper and funnier than he gives it credit for. He is acutely sensitive to right-wing hypocrisies, repeatedly qualifying his references to family values with jokes about Tory MPs boning their assistants. Those hypocrisies exist, of course, but how many leftists feel compelled to qualify their sentiments about climate change with jokes about self-righteously environmentalist celebrities quaffing cocktails on their private planes? If the arguments are right, the behaviour of their representatives is secondary.

In a hilarious passage, West recounts being interviewed for a job at Breitbart by Steve Bannon. Bannon, hopped up on Red Bull and tribal outrage, was ranting about how West could “weaponise” this or that current affair. The fireworks did not impress his English sensibilities, but he was also concerned about the hot-headed xenophobia that stewed in comment sections, talk radio and ill-written blogs. He opposed mass immigration, for example – and one of his first books is called The Diversity Illusion – but he had nothing against most immigrants and did not want to be associated with people who abused them.

Ultimately, West has little hope for politics. As Christopher Hitchens said of religion, it “poisons everything”. The death of his father and the illness of his child put stupid social media arguments into perspective, and realised they were “people making themselves upset about non-issues”. Well, perhaps. But while we can avoid Twitter, we can’t avoid politics. Twitter is only on our phones but politics is in our schools, and in our universities, and in our churches, and on our televisions, and in our books, and in our bank accounts, and in our streets. Politics is poisonous, but there are no easily available antidotes.

West has written an engaging, interesting, witty and even moving book, and I would not blame anyone for taking his advice and getting off the Internet, but if the principles defended in it are not taken up with energy and innovation then the book could be looked back on as a funny requiem.

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In Defence of Andrew Sabisky…

The first time I met Andrew Sabisky we walked through central London for hours and neither his energy or my interest flagged. This is a rare combination. There are people who can talk for a long time and there are people who can talk interestingly but the overlap between those categories is slim.

Some people who talk a lot are desperately self-absorbed. While I do not know Andrew well I do not think that this applies to him at all. The first thing he did last time we met was ask after my mum, who had been taken ill, and our mutual friends can attest to his great kindness.

Of course, there are a lot of kind and interesting people who should not be advising the government. But I think Sabisky has a lot to offer there. He has worked in the fascinating and important field of “superforecasting” but is also a critic of the cold excesses of the “rationalist” movement Dominic Cummings is so keen on. He has done significant research into what should be some of the Conservative government’s top priorities, like the need for more affordable housing. He has boundless energy and intellectual ambition.

It disgusts me, then, that dull-minded journalists are attempting to ruin this talented young man’s career. Hit-pieces in the Times and the Mail on Sunday are filled with quotes wrenched from their proper context and presented as being more inflammatory than they are. One comment that called media coverage of female genital mutilation a “moral panic”, for example, was presented in such a way that people could and did assume that Sabisky was excusing the act itself rather than claiming that it happens more rarely than we imagine. (The irony is that if Sabisky had been arguing that FGM is endemic, the same hacks would doubtless have been claiming that this represented anti-Muslim racism.)

Or take Sabisky’s alleged support for “eugenics”. Reading the article the quote was taken from, one can easily tell that Sabisky was talking about embryo selection. One can definitely disagree with embryo selection – and the article actually leaves it quite ambiguous to whether Sabisky himself was endorsing it – but one cannot equate it with Hitlerianism.

The Times reported that Sabisky compared women’s sports with the Paralympics, as if he was denigrating either. We know from the man himself that he was discussing the case of Caster Semenya and the need for “boundary policing” to protect women’s sports. Again, you can disagree. But it was not derisive. Hilariously, the Times also complained about Sabisky calling female politicians like Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long Bailey “dim”. Ask him for his opinion of Richard Burgon or Chuka Umunna and I guarantee that you will not receive a more respectful response.

Sabisky doubtless has ideas that would offend progressives. (He is, after all, working for a Conservative government.) But it is nonetheless true that journalists – and not even Guardian journalists but Times and Mail on Sunday journalists – have attempted to portray him in the worst light possible to stir up controversy and flex their media muscles.

We like to imagine that journalists convey the news. But journalists also create the news. A balanced piece on Sabisky would have been more honest but not as sensational. One is also reminded of the effortful manipulation of quotes from Sir Roger Scruton last year, or the recent manufactured controversy that surrounded the appearance of Daniel Kawczynski MP at the 2020 National Conservatism Conference. I am no fan of Kawczynski, thanks to his warm treatment of the Saudi regime, but he was attending a conference attended by major political figures from EU member states, like Orbán of Hungary and Legutko of Poland (the conference, incidentally, was also organised by the Jewish political philosopher Yoram Hazony). In an effort to create the maximum amount of fuss, journalists bombarded community leaders like the Board of Deputies with calls in order to extract condemnatory quotes and turn “MP attends international conference” into a scandal.

These journalists also want results from their meddling. Alex Wickham is a journalist who worked for Breitbart and Guido Fawkes before deciding to become an ultra-PC muckraker for BuzzFeed. Wickham hailed the disingenuous New Statesman hit piece on Roger Scruton as a “great interview”. He kicked off the campaign against Kawczynski and complained when he didn’t get enough credit for inspiring disciplinary action. He has called Sabisky a “nutter” and said that he should be “whacked”. This is not a troublemaker in the mold of Seymour Hersh. This is a troublemaker in the mold of a school tattletale.

Harry Cole, another reporter – who, coincidentally, also worked for Guido Fawkes – chimed in to salute the Mail on Sunday’s “brilliant reporting”. What part of publishing extracts from old tweets and blog-posts is “brilliant” escapes me but perhaps you need a finely tuned journalistic mind to appreciate it. Cole added that this controversy was “predictable” because the hiring process is “totally flawed”. This is like hitting someone and then blaming them for having their guard down. Whether or not they should have been more careful, you’re still hitting them. There was no essential flaw in the hiring process, or the hire, except inasmuch as it gave click-hungry, self-important hacks the chance to whip up hysterical outrage.

The tragedy is that the government is so responsive to this kind of thing. Of course, a government should be responsive to accusations of corruption or malice – at least if there is significant evidence behind them. The media’s admirable coverage of the Harry Dunn case is an example of that. But the Conservatives have been responsive to bad faith and censoriousness, which is quite different. Scruton was fired. Kawczynski was disciplined. According to Wickham, cabinet ministers are insisting that Sabisky be sacked. The sheer cowardliness of this almost defies belief. Why even give the time of day to such petty opportunism?

In his much-mocked blogpost, Dominic Cummings called for job applications for interesting, innovative and original thinkers. Of course, there are risks inherent to such a call. Mere eccentricity and contrarianism can be confused for valuable thought. But to have genuinely interesting people in government one must be prepared for them to have played with ideas that seem, or even are, outlandish and outrageous. If you are at all interested in reforming the status quo you should have some tolerance for that which is peculiar or even obnoxious as long as it is packaged along with something of value. Show me someone who has never said something that cannot be made to look scandalous and I will show you someone without an idea in their head.

Update: Sunder Katwala points to a 2014 blog comment in which Sabisky said “anyone who has researched the issue for more than 5 minutes” knows “there are excellent reasons to think the very real racial differences in intelligence are significantly – even mostly – genetic in origin” and that he thinks politicians should pay attention “from the standpoint of immigration”. Now, this was from 2014, when I think Sabisky would have been 21, so he may well not believe this any more. If you had met me nine years ago when I was 21 I would have had very different opinions. With that said, I think it is obvious that Sabisky was being youthfully arrogant in this comment. Many intelligent scientists who have researched the issue for more than five years do not think there are excellent reasons to think this. As far as I can tell, most informed people would agree that IQ differs between populations and that IQ correlates with significant individual and group outcomes. Where informed people disagree is on the rigidity of IQ. Someone like Arthur Jensen would have argued that little can be done to change group differences. Someone like James Flynn would argue that being largely environmental in origin, these gaps can close.

I’m not going to give a firm opinion on this because I’m not informed enough. If you are then go ahead, but I do not believe this is a case where scientific consensus is so vast and firm that even laymen can identify a crank solely by virtue of their belief.

That said, I think Sabisky was wrong to imply – again, six years ago – that IQ should be directly relevant to immigration policy. To be sure, I am the person who has said that “immigrants don’t come from Immigrantland” but I think that source nations should be considered according to how they actually are and not according to the alleged causes underlying their condition. If, for example, a society has low social trust, high rates of violence and a great deal of religious or political radicalism, I would argue against accepting mass migration from such a place. But that is because of the conditions, not the causes. (I would also add that however significant or insignificant IQ may be, individuals can be far more and far less talented than their average countryman, but I’m sure that Mr Sabisky knows this.)

So, I think this is a valid issue to be discussed and not a misrepresentation. Do I think it is a sackable offence, though? Absolutely not. It was a comment from his younger days, but also he did not propose discriminating against British citizens, or aggressing against foreign people, and he did not impute any kind of malice to a population. Those would be my boundaries, and I think they are good ones, though the reader is free to drawn their own.

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I began this decade in London, a physical wreck, mentally ruined, almost friendless and facing the grim realisation that not only was “creative writing” a titanically stupid course to pick but my writing sucked. As bad as all this was, I also had to realise that given that I had grown up with a loving, well-off family and an at least half-decent level of cognitive aptitude this was almost entirely my fault.

I end this decade in Poland, relatively healthy, relatively happily, having made a lot of friendships I treasure and having gone some way towards achieving my almost-abandoned ambition to be a writer. I am not sure how this happened, and am under illusions that life could get worse again, but I’m very grateful that the decade brought such blessings.

With those self-indulgent thoughts out of the way, here is a self-indulgent list of my favourite articles of the year.

1. “How Britain Broke its Funny Bone”, Washington Examiner
2. “The Fusionism That Failed”, First Things
3. “Kevin D. Williamson Has a People Problem”, Spectator USA
4. “What My Polish Town Taught Me About Localism”, Unherd
5. “The Lost Futures of Mark Fisher”, University Bookman
6. “The Right Needs to Grow Up on Environmentalism”, Quillette
7. “Why Pro-Wrestling is Great Americana”, Spectator USA
8. “Joseph Conrad – Between England and Poland”, Agonist
9. “The Limits of Liberal Universalism”, Arc Digital
10. “Bernard Henri-Lévy is the Comic Romance of Liberal Technocracy”, Palladium
11. “The Origin of the Secular Species”, University Bookman
12. “Happy Birthday, Simpsons, But I Wish You Were DeadAmerican Conservative

The quality of my work is not for me to judge but I am at least pleased that in writing about everything from history, literature and religion to the opioid crisis, mass shooters and the college bubble, to pro wrestling, talk radio and Jackass it has been an eclectic 2019.

Thanks to everyone who has published, edited, argued with or read me. Have a happy Christmas.

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Miller, James and the Cultural Spirit…

So, farewell then Clive James and Jonathan Miller. Rarely is the waning of a generation as dramatic as when two of its most talented and prominent members die on a single day. Jonathan Miller, the upper-class Englishman, and Clive James, the working class Aussie expat, were two of the most versatile and hard-working intellectuals and personalities to emerge from Britain’s post-1960s cultural life. Miller was a satirist, theatre and opera director and fully trained research fellow in neuropsychology and medical history. James was a critic, poet, novelist and television presenter. Both men had more careers than most of us have hot breakfasts. Undeniably, they left no talent on the table.

Miller was a driving force behind the influential satirical stage revue Beyond the Fringe. Peter Cook might have been the funniest member of the cast but Miller was the most earnest. In one article he wrote about creating:

…the weapons necessary for the final overthrow of neo-Gothic good taste…The ranks are drawn up and the air resounds with the armourer’s hammer. When battle is joined one can only hope that blood will be drawn.

Miller’s biographer, Kate Bassett, notes that this militant tone amused the less serious Peter Cook, who said that blood was only drawn when a lady smacked him round the chops with her handbag.

Miller was a gifted wit and performer, with excellent timing and a long-legged physicality that the younger satirist John Cleese would perfect, but he had serious intellectual ambitions. Soon, he was writing about Marshall McLuhan and Sigmund Freud, and presenting interviews with Susan Sontag, to the scornful amusement of no-nonsense British critics.

Britons have a not entirely unjustified reputation for being “anti-intellectual”. At its worst that can entail a pig-headed contempt for anyone who writes with more complexity than Daily Mail columnists. At its best, however, it involves a sense for when intellectual abstractions have transcended the world as it is and entered a realm of mere verbiage. Miller, who had been so enthusiastic about the role of satire in skewering the high-minded pretensions of Victorian good taste, was dismayed when its comedic spears were turned on his earnest intellectualising.

Miller took himself off the stage. He found lasting success as a director of films, stage and television plays and operas. Here, his artistic and academic instincts could be rooted in human lives. Lord Harewood, one-time chairman of the English National Opera, said that Miller’s medical instincts as well as theatrical flair were important in his directing, as a story, however fantastical, should still “fit the facts”.

If Miller yearned for higher intellectualism, Clive James embraced popular culture. The stocky, balding Australian could be found writing literary criticism in the London Review of Books or interviewing Boy George on his television show. His twinkling eye roamed across all aspects of human life, and he seemed as interested in a pop star as a poet.

For James, cultural variety was a rebuke to the dogmatic totalitarianisms of the Twentieth Century. In Cultural Amnesia, a book of essays about cultural and political figures James admired and deplored, he wrote about how the book’s theme was in a sense resistance to thematic unity. Man was too complex for any kind of rigid moral, cultural or political order, and humanism emerged from the sprawling and flexible amalgamation of his creative gifts.

James had an awful lot to say, and a tendency to want to say it all at once. His essay on Sophie Scholl, for example, veers off into an inexplicable digression about Natalie Portman. Like his colleagues Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens, he had a tendency to wield words like “liberal democracy” and “totalitarianism” less to add substance than to gesture towards it. His eclecticism had many admirable qualities, like curiosity and open-mindedness, but sometimes left one feeling that one’s cultural consciousness need not have rigid borders to have a more solid centre.

“There was never a time like this to be a lover of the arts,” James commented cheerfully in Cultural Amnesia. High and low culture were available to all. Yet he seemed increasingly disturbed by what popular culture had come to represent. His own adventures in pop music had produced sweet little songs like “Have You Got a Biro I Can Borrow” but now he saw “rap lyrics distinguishable from the “Horst Wessel Song” only in being less well written.” He could write a lusty savaging of Dan Brown’s Inferno but glumly accepted that Brown’s “complete lack of talent as a writer” would not prevent his books from being best-sellers. “Should you read this book? Of course you shouldn’t. Will you read this book? Of course you will.” Low culture is tremendously interesting, but one’s interest tends to be anthropological.

Perhaps what will survive of James is poetry: his poems, like “Japanese Maple”, but also his poetry criticism. This is a genre where the very name, never mind the work, is liable to send the reader dashing off towards the kitchen with excuses about unwashed plates but here James’ unbounded enthusiasm was an asset. He could write about Larkin and Auden with the excitement of a friend enthusing about the latest Netflix serial, and with no trivialisation of the poems. He wrote once that writing should “popularize without reading” and his essays achieve that. It is to his credit that with a direct line to publishers and producers he nonetheless insisted on writing about poetry, which shifts few copies and attracts few eyes. Here, in crystal verses, was a kind of clarity.

What should also survive of Miller and James is their seemingly inexhaustible creative energy. While one was a satirist and the other a critic there was never idle cynicism sneering through their work. Not everything they did came off, of course, but they were never satisfied with sniping from the sidelines, and never willing to be comfortably typecast. Where does it come from? Egotism? Partly, of course, as it does for all of us who make our work public. But I also think of a comment Miller made to James on a talk show about seeing joggers, “Pursued by death, always three feet behind, saying, “I can keep up.”” Both men knew they had a little time to let out their potential and to leave a little light for people who would follow them.

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In Defence of Mo Farah…

The banning of Mo Farah’s former coach Alberto Salazar from competitive sports for doping violations has raised questions about Britain’s 2012 Olympics hero.

Or, at least, it would have done were it not for the fact that British athletes don’t cheat.

Salazar, who has faced accusations of illegal and inappropriate activity both from investigators and from former colleagues for years, coached from 2011 to 2017, during which time the British athlete endured his greatest years of success.

But that must have been a coincidence because Farah is British and British athletes play fair.

One could justly ask oneself how Farah, a talented but unexceptional long distance runner who did not make the 5000m final in the 2008 Olympics and finished seventh in the 2009 World Championships, could become so dominant once he had begun to work with Salazar. One could ask oneself if it was possible for an athlete to bloom so suddenly after years of futile efforts without some kind of chemical assistance.

Well, one could ask that if it was not that doping is something the Russians do, not our upright British athletes.

One could be sceptical of Farah’s claim that he missed a drug test shortly after he had started working with Salazar – his second missed test in around a year – because he was asleep and was not roused by the doorbell.

Or, at least, one could if he was a suspicious continental.

One could find it curious that Farah’s former “unofficial facilitator” Jama Aden has been arrested for possessing EPO, and that Farah appears to have either told fibs about the extent to which he was involved with Aden or suffered a devastating memory lapse.

One could find it curious, that is, if Farah was a scheming Yank and not an upstanding Brit.

It is not just Farah’s legacy that needs defending. One could find it very odd indeed that Steve Cram, British long distance running legend and voice of BBC athletics, dismissed investigations into Farah’s camp as a “witch hunt” in 2015 and still maintains, without qualification, that Farah has done “nothing wrong”. One could find extremely strange that Paula Radcliffe, another British running legend, has responded to Salazar’s banning not with condemnation of the disgraced coach but with questions about the value of the the US Anti-Doping Agency investigation. One could point out that Cram and Radcliffe both have ties to Nike and Salazar runs the Nike Oregon Project.

But they too are British.

One could have concerns about the fact that Neil Black, UK Athletics chief, claimed to have “looked [Salazar] in the eye” and decided that he was innocent in 2017, and that UK Athletics ruled there was “no reason to be concerned” about his relationship with Farah. One might find the mealy-mouthed reaction of Seb Coe, head of the International Association of Athletics Federations, somewhat disturbing. One might even point out that Coe spent almost four decades serving as an adviser to Nike. This seem like a conflict of interest.

But he too is British. Not a Swiss greaseball like Sepp Blatter.

Overall, there are some grounds on which to feel a little cynical about the 2012 Olympics. Its “clean” reputation was soon ruined by a tidal wave of failed drugs tests from Russian, Kazakh and Turkish athletes. It seems to be true that the Russians had the most systematic doping program. But some might ask whether British athletes are immune from cheating, and whether our sunny image of “Team GB” has blinded us to at least some level of grubby behaviour?

Of course the answer is no. British athletes don’t cheat.

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Peter Hitchens on Poland and World War Two…

Peter Hitchens’ The Phoney Victory is an interesting and challenging book that aims its argumentative arrows towards the sacred cow that is Britain’s idealised image of the Second World War. One of Hitchens’ arguments is that it was wrong for the British government to assure the Poles that it would declare war on Germany in the event of a German invasion of Poland. I am not sure that this argument is correct but I have sympathy with it given Britain’s obvious unpreparedness in 1939.

Mr Hitchens, though, supports his case against Britain’s 1939 declaration of war by denigrating the Polish state. He writes, in his book:

We went to war in defence of a territorially aggressive, anti-Semitic despotism. Sometimes one has to do such things. But it is surely foolish to pretend that they are benevolent or principled actions. The common impression of a simple war of good versus evil was (even at this stage of the conflict) completely mistaken.

Completely mistaken. Of course, it is true that the Polish state, like any state, was flawed but for the idea of a war of good versus evil to be completely mistaken one would have to think this was not even a conflict of the significantly better against the significantly worse, and this would be a mistake.

Mr Hitchens considers the pre-war Polish nation to have been “territorially aggressive” because of its annexation of the Czech portion of Cieszyn Silesia. I happen to agree this was a moral and tactical mistake – morally because the Poles and the Czechs should have set aside their territorial disagreements in the face of eastern and western enemies, and tactically because it led other nations to become unsympathetic towards Poland in view of what they saw as a combined German and Polish assault on Czechoslovakia – but certain facts should be acknowledged. The first is that the area had been controversially granted to the Czechs after the First World War, after which local Poles had faced expulsion and discrimination. The second is that the Nazis would have invaded the area anyway, and the Poles, as Anna Cienciala writes in The Polish Review, aimed themselves towards “preventing German domination of all of Czechoslovakia.” While none of this, in my opinion, precludes the annexation from being a moral and tactical mistake, it shows that the description of Poland as “territorially aggressive” is true in a very limited sense, especially if one compared it to its rivals to the east and west (or, indeed, in a lesser sense, to the British Empire).

Hitchens calls Poland “deeply anti-Semitic in practice.” Polish anti-Semitism had certainly become more radical in the 1930s, not only among the nationalists of “Endecja” but among members of the government which had begun to flirt not only with the idea of voluntary Jewish emigration – which made sense, in some cases, with the rise of Zionism and the widespread mutual indifference to assimilating – but actual expulsion. As Hitchens observes, though, these tendencies were never manifested in anti-Jewish legislation. There was, indeed, no Polish Der Sturmer, no Polish Kristallnacht, no Polish Iron Guard and no Polish SS. Again, “completely mistaken”?

On Twitter, Hitchens offers the belief that if Britain and France had not made assurances to Poland, Poland would have been an ally to if not a member of the Axis Powers (I know Twitter is a place for first thoughts more than firm conclusions but if something can be asserted it can be discussed):

Without the Anglo-French guarantee they might well have been on very good terms with Germany…Poland was among the first countries to sign an international treaty with Germany in 1934…Colonel Beck was love bombed by Hitler and Ribbentrop.

Poland had also signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in 1932. Are we to believe that had it not been for the British and French assurances, the Poles might have been allies of the communists? To be sure, the Poles preferred the Nazis to the Soviets – who, after all, had invaded Poland within memory and were ratcheting up their persecution of ethnic Poles living in their territories, which would, in 1937, culminate in quasi-genocidal mass murder – but they consistently refused to join a united front against Stalin. Stanisław Żerko writes in “Poland, Germany and the Genesis of the Second World War”:

Ribbentrop made the last attempt to convince the Polish in the second half of March 1939 after the final breakup of the Czechoslovakian state and the establishment of the Protectorate of Czech and Moravia. The reply passed on from Beck by ambassador Lipski on 26 March 1939 did not leave any room for delusion. “The Poles will remain our enemies” were the Führer’s words noted down by Goebbels.

This was before the Anglo-Polish alliance.

In short – and I am aware that this might be tedious to anyone not invested in Polish history – it is quite legitimate to argue that assurances the British and F the made to Poland were hubristic or insincere, but there is no reason to obscure the stark inequalities of evil that separated the German and Soviet aggressors from their Polish victim.

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Art for the Age of Social Media…

A YouGov poll on behalf of Homes & Antiques magazine has revealed that Banksy is Britain’s favourite artist. To be clear, I do not mean that he is Britain’s favourite living artist. I do not mean that he is Britain’s favourite British artist. No, he is Britain’s favourite artist of all time. Jog on, J.M.W. Turner. Goodbye, Vincent Van Gogh. Catch you later, Caravaggio. It’s Banksy for us.

Now, I have no wish to sound too much like a snob. I am not an art expert. As a matter of fact, I am barely an art beginner. Ask me to explain the difference between Monet and Manet and I’m liable to explain the difference between the letters “o” and “a”. Take me to the National Gallery and after an hour I’m likely to be grunting, fidgeting and recommending that we head out for a cool beer.

Still, it is grim to think that Bansky is the most popular artist among modern Britons. When I read the news I checked to see if the poll had been conducted among four people in a fashionable Soho bar but an impressive two thousand people has been polled. Banksy? Banksy.

Forgive me for quoting the editor of Homes & Antiques at length but I want you to appreciate her words in their full glory. “It is both surprising and exciting to see Banksy at the top of this poll,” she says:

His appearance in the top spot is reflective of the current popularity of street art, which is a burgeoning collecting area. This enigmatic character has done so much to make art accessible – he takes it out of the gallery walls and onto the streets, literally. And with his dark sense of humour and secretive approach, he truly has captured the hearts, minds and gaze of the nation.

If Banksy has made art “accessible” he has done so not just by putting his stencils of the side of buildings but by pandering. At best, his work is cute, filled with mildly counter-intuitive contrasts, like an anarchist throwing a bouquet of flowers, police officers kissing and Queen Elizabeth in David Bowie’s make-up. None of this is profound. It is cute.

Banksy has flaunted his rebellious credentials by, for example, setting up a picture frame that would shred a copy of his famous piece “Girl with Balloon” after it had sold at auction for $1.4 million. Why paying so much for the remains of the picture rather than the picture itself was much more absurd is vulnerable to questioning and, indeed, the art world proved that trying to satirize its appetite for junk is a futile endeavour, as the strips of paper increased in value.

Of course, the stereotypical fogeyish take would be that this is the nadir of modern art, of tendencies, that is, that gave us such grim, charmless cultural flotsam as Damien Hirst’s skull, Tracey Emin’s bed and the absurd creations of Jeff Koons. Naturally, I do think that is grim, charmless cultural flotsam. But Banksy’s work is very different.

Hirst, Emin and Koons have never had mass popularity. Joyless critics might test the limits of their vocabulary to rationalise their status as notable artists but the average man and woman has little time for their work, which is evident from their absence from the poll that Banksy won. While those artists have been symptomatic of the alienation of cultural elites from both popular taste and artistic tradition, Banksy represents the flattening of culture that has been enabled by the Internet.

While his fame precedes the rise of Facebook and Instagram, Banksy is an artist for the age of social media. If you scroll down the timeline of your preferred platform you will see a bewildering array of images: jokes, selfies, cat pictures, inspirational memes, “food porn”, political cartoons, real porn et cetera. You can click “like” and move on in the space of mere seconds.

Banksy’s stencils are perfectly suited for this inattentive time. None of them demand more than a moment’s thought. “Sorry,” reads one slogan, “The lifestyle you ordered is currently out of stock.” Oh, I get it. Click. Liked. “I don’t believe in global warming,” reads another, painted underneath a bridge so that the water covers the bottoms of the words. Oh, clever. Click. Liked. Someone might suggest that I am expressing my political prejudices here. Well, perhaps a little. But I do worry about the encroachment of consumerism on human meaning and identity, and I do believe in global warming. The problem is that his points are made in such a thunderously unsubtle style that one can only nod, or smirk, or grunt, or click like and move on. They will never haunt the consciousness like, say, The Third of May 1808 or Massacre in Korea, having none of their visual power or thematic depth. At most, they entertain it briefly, like Hallmark cards that grew up and went to art school.

To be fair, it is not as if Banksy has ever claimed to be a great artist. I think that the elusive cultural giant sees himself as more of an entertainer. It is hard to believe that his full-sized theme park parody, Dismaland, was created with as much earnestness as it was mischief. Pricing tickets at £3, and thus ensuring that the project was bound to lose him money, represented a genuine commitment to accessibility.

Accessibility, though, is not the same as quality. Banksy’s work critiques the shallow cynicism of our world but also reflects it. “Mobile Lovers”, for example, depicts a man and a woman embracing while looking at their phones behind each other’s backs. (We are obsessed with phones. Do you get it?) Banksy allowed the Bristol youth club owner on whose door he had painted the piece to sell it and, thus, save his club, again you have to admire his principles. Still, the work seems rather hollow when the man and woman could well be “liking” Banksy pieces on meme pages.

Conservatives are not known for their fondness for the Frankfurt School but it reminds me of Theodore Adorno’s theory of “pseudo-individualisation”. Standardised opinions are broadcast through standardised tropes, in easily digestible chunks of art, yet the viewer feels subversive for appreciating them.

We have been replacing a lack of cultural quality with cultural quantity. Instead than having rare moments of beauty, power and insight, we (or, at least, many of us) face a ceaseless barrage of the cute, the curious and the clichéd. Rather than seeking out artworks which flicker in our minds long after we have stopped looking at them, we browse past endless images that light our brains up like catherine wheels. Images are almost too accessible. We can see everything, and nothing matters. Like. Like. Like.

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