One can’t avoid Brendan O’Neill. I think, in all seriousness, that even if one moved to Chad to escape his endless articles in the British, American and Australian press he would crop up in the N’Djamena Gazette. This is a shame, for me, because one of few constants in the strange, varied life of my political consciousness has been contempt for the brand of posturing libertarianism embodied by his writings and those of his colleagues at his online magazine Spiked.
Here is the blueprint for a typical O’Neill essay: raise a populist rallying cry against the liberal establishment and then advocate an even more extreme and even more unpopular liberal idea than these elitists have contemplated. He defends conservative opponents of the European Union from the charge of racism, for example, by maintaining that the European Union is racist: discriminating against Asian and African migrants in favour of Europeans. For conservatives to promote this “no, you’re the real racist” kind of argument is to promote that lame form of argumentation that critiques the inconsistent application of one’s opponent’s premises rather than undermining the premises themselves.
O’Neill critiques progressivism but with such bad arguments, in his attempt to outflank it as a liberal, that he is restricted to being a court jester – and not even a humorous one. He opposes gay marriage, for example, because of the authoritarian attempts to seal its public acceptance. Any fool can see that this is an argument against that authoritarianism and not against gay marriage. This is that pathetic form of contrarianism that is eccentric without being incisive.
Elsewhere, O’Neill relies on those pathetic forms of contrarianism that affirm idle prejudices while pretending to be rebellious, and that intolerantly oppose intolerance. Who thinks it is original to call vegetarians hippies? O’Neill does, and while he condemns the tendency of such “burger-dodgers” to believe that omnivores are bad human beings he also calls them “dumb” “irritants” who will “bore you stiff” as, to a man, they are “inexplicably full of [themselves]” and practicing “self-punishment in the name of trying to absolve [themselves] of the sins of flesh-eating mankind”. Who exactly “[sees] everything in black and white” here? This lazy polemicism tends to be characterised by a cheerful indifference to the truth, and O’Neill’s is. He claims that vegetarians are more likely to endure colorectal cancer than meat-eaters. The opposite is true.
The Spiked crowd are libertarian fanatics with a populist air designed to be attention-seeking. Its writers support late-term abortions, open borders and the abolition of the monarchy. They began life in a tiny Marxist sect and have converted their absolute faith in man under communism into absolute faith in man under capitalism. (One sees the Marxist influence, it must also be said, in the style – often as pompous, declarative and snide as Marxist manifestos.) Where once communists rhapsodised about giant, inhuman factories, these capitalists rhapsodise about giant, inhuman skyscrapers. This is a sort of fetish for human achievement that has uprooted itself from human realities, and that is true whether one’s Bible is Das Kapital or The Wealth of Nations.
Spiked! are free speech absolutists and, thus, could be helpful to thinkers who hold opinions outside mainstream politics. Nonetheless, respecting our mutual freedom to express opinions need not blur into respecting our opinions. No amount of criticism could prevent the spread of Brendan O’Neill across the media. One might as well lament the clouds spreading across the sky. But I wanted to express my irritation – even if is just scratching an itch in a literary form.