Andrew Sullivan’s Paper-Thin Conservatism…

Debating intellectual conservatism in the age of Trump may be like debating ethics in the face of an angry bear. Perhaps the bear will do some good. Perhaps the bear will feast on people who deserve to be consumed. But the bear is a creature of instincts, not ideas, and is immune to any kind of intellectual persuasion. What ideas can do is help us deal with the bear, and help us to envisage a post-bear world. Should conservatives harness Trumpism or reject it in toto? The first option is reflected in Julius Krein’s excellent magazine American Affairs, and the second is maintained by, among others, Andrew Sullivan.

Andrew Sullivan has been a feature of Western political debate for three decades. As an editor, blogger and polemicist he has been in the forefront of arguments about sexuality, race and war. He is an emotional thinker – as vociferously supportive of the Iraq invasion as he was soon vociferously opposed to it – but an independent one. He enraged leftists with his qualified endorsement of Charles Murray’s book The Bell Curve, liberal hawks with his criticism of Israel and Conservatives with his admiration for Barack Obama.

Given these emotional and independent-minded tendencies it is a shame that Sullivan’s explanation of his conservative views is so lifeless and flaccid. Republicans, he claims, in a column for New York Magazine, have deformed conservatism, and his article is an attempt to reclaim it. Fair enough. Yet “Sullivanism”, as I shall refer to it, is a milquetoast modernised form of the conservative tradition.

There is some good stuff here. Sullivan correctly observes that it is anti-conservative to idealise free markets or oppose environmentalism. He justly asserts that it foolish to resist all change. Yet his next sentence reveals the limits of Sullivanism in its implication that all change is, in fact, to be welcomed. “The goal is not to stand athwart history and cry “Stop!”, as William F. Buckley put it.” he suggests, “It’s to be part of the stream of history and say: slow it down a bit, will you?”

It is not. G.K. Chesterton, in a famous allegory, suggested that one might remove a fence in a field once one has realised its purpose and found it wanting. Sullivanism, on the other hand, implies that one can remove the fence as long as one does so piece by piece. Abolishing gender norms? Fine, but not too fast. Mass immigration? Good. Just rein it in a bit. Eroding the institution of marriage? Fair enough. Just remember that erosion is a gradual process.

Sullivan is a great admirer of the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who upheld the value of a “conservative disposition”, which, as Sullivan quotes without attribution in his New York Magazine article, prefers “present laughter to utopian bliss.” Much as I share Sullivan’s esteem for Oakeshott there was always a risk of the philosopher’s ideas collapsing into a vulgar kind of presentism that encourages would-be conservatives to welcome each new form of progressive society as the status quo, like a man lying on his bed and murmuring “there’s no place like home” as his flatmate repaints his walls and destroys his furniture. Oakeshott also said conservatives generally prefer “the tried to the untried,” and the least that a substantive conservatism should accept is that traditional institutions can be so valuable that conservatives should defend them against progressives regardless of how slowly or rapidly they want to undermine them.

Sullivan is right that conservatives vary from place to place depending on their cultural heritage. He is right that Anglo-American civilisation has some measure of liberalism baked into it. Sullivan just is a liberal, though, writing, for example:

The conservative approach to a multicultural and multiracial society is to keep our focus on the individual and do what’s best to help every individual, regardless of their race, gender, or whatever, to be part of our shared liberal democratic inheritance.

There is a danger of conservatives who oppose progressive (and Alt-Right) conceptions of racial and gender identity embracing the liberal rejection of identity itself. Conservatives support local, national and religious or at least moral norms, and the encouragement of those norms as features of a citizen’s perspective. While they have different beliefs on the extent to which those norms should be encouraged, they oppose, as T.S. Eliot put it, “dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents.”

Sullivan has some amusing asides. He says conservatism “relishes humour in all its forms.” Does it? Or does he? Much as I too believe that laughter is essential to life, I have not read Burke on obscene puns, Eliot on religious satire or Oakeshott on rape jokes. Sullivan concludes with a more specific program for Sullivanism. The conservatism he upholds, he claims, would be a conservatism that can:

…tackle soaring social and economic inequality as a way to save capitalism, restore the financial sector as an aid to free markets and not their corrupting parasite, a conservatism that will end our unending wars, rid the criminal justice system of its racial blind spots, defend liberal education and high culture against the barbarians of postmodernism and the well-intentioned toxins of affirmative action, pay down the debt, reform the corruption of religious faith, protect our physical landscape, invest in non-carbon energy, and begin at the local level to rebuild community and the spirit of American civil association.

Not everything here is bad, of course – though that might have something to do with its vagueness – but does it contain anything Hillary Clinton would disagree with? There is no mention of fatherlessness, divorce, abortion, drugs, crime, jihadism, pornography, attacks on religious freedom, transgenderism, feminism or, indeed, anything about which conservatives and social liberals disagree. Sullivanism is just liberalism stroking its chin and biting its nails.

Posted in Conservatism | 2 Comments

Against Boris Johnson…

A Conservative Party poll has suggested that party members support Boris Johnson to be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. If Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, faces Mr Johnson in the next general election it would pit Britain’s worst ideologue against its worst opportunist.

Where to begin with the terminally selfish, sleazy and inept Member of Parliament for Uxbridge and South Ruislip? I should admit that I have history here. I wrote for an anti-Boris blog back when he was Mayor of London and I was on the left. Ten years later, my politics have travelled rightwards but my esteem for Mr Johnson has not shifted an inch.

On a personal level it is obvious that the man has few redeeming features. His sense of humour and superficial charm have made him famous but it is a mask he wears in public. Behind closed doors, he is a serial cheat whose wife has just divorced him after one extra-marital affair too many. His previous flings, which have humiliated his wife, his children and his colleagues, have led to one child being aborted and another being born out of wedlock.

I am sceptical than one can draw clear distinctions between most men’s private and public lives. In this case, one cannot. Johnson’s opportunism, dishonesty and disloyalty is just as evident in his journalistic and political career. Sacked by the Sunday Times for inventing a quote, he began to edit the Spectator, the proprietor of which described him as “ineffably duplicitous” after he reneged on a pledge to put his political ambitions on ice.

In parliament, Johnson has cheerfully drifted with the winds of opinion. In his own words, he “wrote, spoke and voted” in support of the Iraq invasion, and he claimed in 2004 that George Bush deserved re-election because he “liberated Iraq”. Later, Johnson could be found criticising Tony Blair – who had, he claimed, “dragooned” Britain into the Iraq War – without the slightest self-reflection on his own role.

Johnson’s role in “Brexit” was infinitely shiftier. He wrote two articles prior to his announcement that he would join the Leave campaign: one in favour of Brexit and one against it. He had told David Cameron that he would support Remain but then flip-flopped, becoming an enthusiastic advocate for Leave. Well, everyone can change their mind, yet Johnson is never honest about what he thinks. A key theme of the Leave campaign was its fomenting of the fear of Turkish accession to the EU. One could never have guessed that Johnson had promoted exactly that in a film for the BBC. With striking shamelessness, he still promotes Turkish accession to the EU even after doing so much to pull Britain out of it.

One of the greatest assets politicians can have is the ability to make people think they share their thoughts even if they do not. Johnson is a master of this. Traditional Conservatives flocked to defend him after his mischievous comparison of niqab-clad women and letter boxes caused a hysterical response among liberals and leftists but a cynic – such as me – might suspect that Johnson engineered the episode in order to attract them to his cause. A bed-hopping libertine who describes himself as “broadly libertarian”, sees Brexit as a chance to allow more non-European immigrants and, in one first decisions as Foreign Secretary, lifted a ban on UK embassies flying rainbow flags during gay pride events, Johnson has nothing in common with traditional conservatives but has coaxed many of them onto his side with his façade of “telling it like it is” fearlessness.

Conservative columnists are struggling to cast Johnson’s potential leadership in an optimistic light. Quentin Letts describes him as “box-office”, which appears to mean that he is not dull. Great. We might as well give the job to Hulk Hogan in that case. “Give Boris his shot at the top job,” insists Sarah Baxter, “He’s earned it.” Perhaps only in the politics and the media can years of personal and professional disgrace make one a deserving candidate for promotion.

Some compare Johnson to Trump. I think that is unhelpful and unimaginative. He seems more like a bargain basement Berlusconi: a charismatic and opportunistic womaniser with few principles beyond his dedication to self-advancement. Sure, nobody can deny that Theresa May is a lame duck Prime Minister, or that Johnson’s clearest rival, Saajid Javid, is as inspiring as a salad made of undressed lettuce leaves. Sure, I prefer Johnson to Corbyn, just as a broken leg is better than a ruptured spleen. Still, what a disgrace for Britain that these are its choices. What an embarrassment for a once proud nation, sinking, as Peter Cook once suggested that it would, giggling into the sea.

Posted in Britain | 1 Comment

The Brexit Delusion…

I live on continental Europe and have no plans to return to Britain so there is a small but real personal risk, for me, attached to “Brexit”. Nonetheless, even behind the red, white and blue veil of ignorance I have what I believe are rational concerns with the concept as well.

I think Brexit is a waste of time and a dangerous risk. Firstly, it does nothing to address Britain’s gravest problems. Many voters were concerned about freedom of movement, and there are, indeed, problems associated with it, in terms of community upheaval and working class wages. Still, the worst problems with immigration and integration have nothing to do with European immigrants. GDP? Overall they add to rather than subtracting from it. Terrorism? There have been no Polish or Czech bombers. Culture clashes? There will be no major conflicts with European migrants if somebody, for example, draws a cartoon of John Paul II. Over the last year EU immigration has fallen and non-EU immigration has risen and I fear this is a sign of a post-Brexit future.

I appreciate concerns about national sovereignty but all the major recent errors in British politics have stemmed from independent government decisions. Iraq? The government. Banking regulation? The government. Dysfunctional state services? The government. I have no faith in our sovereign Parliament as it stands.

Who are its potential leaders? Boris Johnson, a prolific cheat, a fabricator and an opportunist. Sajid Javid? Nice enough, perhaps, but basically a liberal. Jeremy Corbyn? God help us if he gets his green fingers on the country. Again, I support national sovereignty as a general rule but its value is contingent one’s representatives.

Brexiteers are bursting with misplaced optimism. More precisely, it is toxic Whiggishness; flavoured with an idealised internationalism. Boris Johnson writes, in the Telegraph, that he wants a “Global Britain,” by which he means “a country that is more open, more outward-looking, more engaged with the world than ever before.” Of course trade, diplomacy and cooperation are essential features of our future but with grave domestic crises to focus on we should be looking inwards at ourselves as much as anything. Jacob Rees Mogg MP thinks, “Europe is the past and the future belongs to China and India.” Some conservative, writing off our civilizational cousins in favour of culturally different, geographically distant powers.

I fear that British Conservatives have poured all their outrage into their conception of the EU, and all their optimism into the idea of leaving. These, in general, are displaced emotions. Even if Britain avoids the economic damage that Remain supporters have predicted – and, frankly, I doubt we will – we gain extremely little. I am not a GDPophile and think that short-term losses are many cases justified by long-term gains. But the problem, I do not see the gains here. We are left with most of the same problems, and a government ill-equipped to deal with them, and perhaps the added annoyance of a thinner wallet. The “Brexit Delusion” of the title is not believing that Brexit is good – because while I disagree that seems like far too strong a word – but that it is a huge leap forward for the nation. At best it is a baby step.

Posted in Britain | 3 Comments

The Terrible Reality of Piers Morgan…

Insulting Piers Morgan is like whipping a masochist. He welcomes it. He thrives off it. It actually makes him stronger because he gets the attention that makes him successful. The only effective way to beat Piers would be to stop reading, watching or engaging with him, but this is a task that must be done be done collectively. An individual is a drop in an ocean of bile.

Piers Morgan is a hairy pink glove puppet, grotesquely inflated with self-righteousness and egotism. His politics, in essence, are whatever is self-serving; whatever, in other words, that will allow him to suck up to richer and more powerful people while also allowing him to grandstand as a bold moral voice. As a simpleton he has little idea of how to argue with intelligent people, and as a cog in a machine devoted to producing entertainment for the idle or idiotic he has never had to improve.

Today, he was arguing with Ash Sarkar of Novara Media; a successful little bandwagon for Corbynite polemic. The theme of the “debate” was Donald Trump’s visit to the UK and the protests that Ms Sarkar and others are promoting.

As a simpleton, Morgan has (a) an extremely superficial conception of people who disagree and (b) an overreliance on accusations of hypocrisy or double standards rather than a focus on what might be true and false or right and wrong. Thus, he charged Ms Sarkar with ignoring the misdeeds of her “hero” Barack Obama. Sarkar had a simple response to this: she was not a liberal, or even a social democrat, but a “literal communist”.

A smarter man would have seen this as a golden rhetorical opportunity. They could have pointed that in every case where its implementation has been pursued, communism has led to far worse human welfare abuses than Trump’s border policies. They could have pointed out that in every communist state that has ever existed, protests against allied powers would have ended in arrests if not executions. They could have noted the peculiarity of “communist” being an acceptable term to claim for oneself when “fascist” (which, even if one is willing to accept – as I am – that the Nazis were exceptionally evil also could have been applied to Mussolini and, perhaps, Franco, who were less destructive than many communists) would have one exiled from public life. They could have wondered why it is that Jeremy Corbyn, who is often described as believing in a kind of Scandinavian social democracy, is so often surrounded by “literal communists”.

Morgan didn’t. Seeing an open goal, he lashed the ball ten metres wide, huffing impotently about Barack Obama. If Britain should decline into a swamp of socialism and Third-Worldism one can hardly be surprised when such incurious, unprincipled and egotistic men and women have been guiding its national conversations.

Posted in Communism, Media, Personalities | 2 Comments


The comfort of eternity
In darkness. Neverending rest.
Unconscious to the fire, the cries,
The coldness of a silent breast.

The simple bliss of ignorance
We treasured. Which we now describe
And measure in the poetry
Of pleasures it would have denied.

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment

Jacobin Excuses Stalinism…

Being “anti-communist” feels like being nostalgic for a time I never knew. For all of the problems that I have with the economic and social ambitions of the modern left they bear little resemblance to those of Mr Marx. Loud denunciations of Stalin, Mao and so forth also feel a tad too easy for conservatives; allowing us to be righteous without confronting the problems that face is in the present day.

Still, sometimes we must recapture a bit of the Cold War spirit. Leftists rarely indulge in outright apologetics for Stalin and Mao but sometimes their attitude towards communist evil is so slimy and slippery that one has to pin them on the tip of a nail. Take an obituary of the Marxist historian Dominico Losurdo in Jacobin. Mr Losurdo had some interesting ideas but he was also a craven apologist for Stalin. Watson Ladd – a leftist – writes that in Losurdo’s view:

Stalin…is the Soviet Ghandi, fighting against colonialism with methods no more dictatorial than the global crisis of the 1930s demanded.

How one can align this supposed anti-colonialism with Stalin’s brutal oppression of Eastern Europeans, Kazakhs, Chechens and so on is beyond me.

Still, I would have no problem with a claim that someone had valuable and obscene ideas. What I dislike are disingenuous attempts to excuse the latter. For David Broder, a contributing editor for Jacobin:

Losurdo sought to recast our view of the twentieth century by centering it on colonialism. The Nazi war for “living space in the East” was a colonial war of aggression against the USSR…

It was a war of aggression against Poles, Czechs, Estonians and others too but Dr Broder doesn’t mention them, perhaps because Stalin’s swallowing of them after World War Two makes Losurdo’s thesis so ridiculous.

Why do we hear so much more of the Katyn Massacre or Holodomor than the slaughter of the Mau Mau or the Bengal Famine? In Losurdo’s view, to compare Stalin to Hitler was like placing Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian slave rebellion, on the same moral footing as the French slaveholders, simply because both sides had “authoritarian” leaderships.

This was, without doubt, a provocative reframing.

It is not “provocative”. It is absurd and obscene. First, in what universe are we often told of the Holodomor and Katyn? As Samuel Fawcett pointed out on Twitter, if you asked the average Englishman or American if they had heard of the Holodomor they would be liable to think it was a reference to a Game of Thrones character. Second, for all might one might say about Louverture he defended his own people. Stalin massacred his people and countless foreigners who had never done so much as pose a threat to him.

Losurdo was untroubled by treading on toes but was sometimes tinged with contrarianism.

Treading on bones, more like. And I’m sure David Irving is “tinged with contranianism” as well.

While he recognized the exorbitant, paranoid aspects of Stalin’s leadership, his efforts to relativize it were often governed by a polemical zeal unjustified by the evidence marshaled. This made his reframing of Stalinism more “interesting” than necessarily persuasive.

“Exorbitant” is an interesting adjective for a mass murderer. “Interesting” is also an interesting adjective for a man who excuses the mass murderer. I know history is not a child’s morality tale with “good guys” and “bad guys” but come on. This is a man who killed thousands after laughable show trials. This is a man who worked people to death in camps. This is a man who massacred Poland’s officer class in order that its people could not resist him. This is a man who deported millions of people and allowed millions more to starve. If history has monsters, he is one of them.

Now, I do not think that modern leftists have a keen desire to establish gulags and exterminate the kulaks. Having said that, I do think this miserable sliminess betrays a keen desire to rationalise left-wing atrocities in a manner that we be abhorred if conservatives did the same for Hitler or even Franco and Mussolini. I also think that it displays the scale of a delusional ideology when an insistence on analysing “material conditions” depends on minimising or ignoring historical facts.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

The Intellectual Dark Web…

The first and most obvious thing to say about the “Intellectual Dark Web” is that it is an awfully pretentious and self-serving name. The odour of smugness that it emanates is symptomatic of a deeper rot: a self-satisfied Whiggishness that encourages its adherents to think themselves paragons of epistemological rectitude. This means a lot of liberal and positivist platitudes are elevated to the realms of deep profundity, and glib bandwagon leapers like Dave “let’s talk about talking about ideas” Rubin are elevated to the realms of intellectuals. Perhaps this is a less political than aesthetic problem. Can you restrain your cringe when Michael Shermer tweets, of the uninspiring New York Times columnist Bari Weiss:

Do you have Weissophobia? There’s something you can take for it: reason-contin and science-codone. But be careful: [Wiess’] writings are addictive.

Am I petty? Yes, perhaps. But this self-satisfaction bleeds into IDW analysis, such as Sam Harris’ stubborn misunderstandings of moral philosophy, or Christina Hoff Sommers’ adamantine obliviousness to cultural trends.

Still, I like a lot of people on the Intellectual Dark Web. Quillette is an excellent magazine; not just because, and sometimes in spite of the fact, that they publish me. Jordan Peterson is an interesting man with a lot of valuable advice. Joe Rogan has a very entertaining podcast.

More importantly, the Intellectual Dark Web is right where a lot of other influential people are wrong. Its members are far from uniform in their opinions but there are basic premises they share. First, and most importantly, debates of factual matters should not be encumbered by censorship. Second, social inequalities cannot be wholly explained by structural discrimination. Third, social science has taken an anti-scientific, reductionist and authoritarian turn towards Marxian and third worldist analysis.

Those premises, which would be hard if not impossible to frame as controversial for the average man or woman, are still anathema for the contemporary left. It is obvious from Henry Farrell’s recent Vox essay that the enormous range of factual premises and moral preferences which people who accept these propositions might hold, ranging from those of the liberal Steven Pinker to those of the Alt-Right Richard Spencer, are, for him, if not equivalent then eerily similar in ideological terms. Farrell seriously thinks a movement helmed by Jewish intellectuals like Bret and Eric Weinstein, Sam Harris and Christina Hoff-Sommers might collapse into quasi-fascism. A challenge to the closed-minded hard left consensus that prevails in the universities and seeps into social and corporate life is welcome even if it is so far from being optimal. At least I can be sure most members of the Intellectual Dark Web would take my criticisms with good grace, whereas I suspect five minutes with the average leftist would be enough to provoke a storm of coffee mugs.

Posted in Ideology | 13 Comments