As you may have noticed, there’s been a war on recently.
I’m talking about The Culture War. In The Culture War, hostilities were never formally declared but, make no mistake, it’s a war alright. The entry from Wikipedia is as close as we can get to an official definition:
…the term “culture war” may imply a conflict between those values considered traditionalist or conservative and those considered progressive or liberal.
What were the clues there was a war on?
Well, did you notice that the election of Donald Trump created some disagreement in America? Did you notice that the Brexit debate seemed a little more more fiery than it needed to be for a question of customs arrangements? Did you notice the debate about the gender pay gap, #metoo and then transgender rights? Did you notice that comedians either became politically correct or got prosecuted?
What unites these different things?
Well, that’ll be The Culture War. They say that politics is downstream of culture. In other words, if you want “your side to win” in politics you first have to win the culture. If your cultural values win hearts and minds, then political power should naturally follow. So the theory goes anyway.
Whose theory is that? Well, here we need to introduce one of the world’s most important Marxist theorists. Antonio Gramsci may be the most influential person that you’ve never heard of. Gramsci was an Italian communist who in the 1930s wrote the blueprint for a gradual war of attrition to subvert Western democracies from the inside. This became known as “The Long March Through The Institutions”.
Gramsci argued that the Bolshevik revolution worked in Russia in 1917 because the state was powerful and civil society was weak. As such, a direct coup could be effective because there were no other significant institutions with political influence that needed to be overcome. In Western societies, by contrast, Gramsci observed the state is “only an outer ditch” behind which lies a robust civil society. This meant America, Britain and other western European countries would be tougher nuts to crack.
So to topple the Western democracies, the Left must first infiltrate civil institutions and dominate the culture. Depending on your political viewpoint, this observation may or may not help explain how many institutions currently work (if indeed they can be said to work).
Exhibit A: Gender Studies, Media Studies, Sociology and Humanities departments of Universities, former Polytechnics and further education colleges, Quangos, Regulators, the BBC, Channel 4 News, The Guardian, Big Corporate Charities, the Civil Service, teacher training colleges etc etc etc.
Information is power. If you win the culture war, you control the narrative. From there you can gain control of society, government, the military and The Commanding Heights of The Economy. As Dr Evil might say: Mwwaah-haa-haa!
I don’t believe in conspiracy theories but this one is an absolute zinger. As TV doctor House used to say: “it fits”; the diagnosis explains the symptoms. If nothing else, it’s a mental model that explains a number of features of contemporary culture and also has predictive ability (the 2019 election result was not a surprise).
The working class have always been a disappointment to middle-class Marxists and Toytown Revolutionaries. In Britain, the working class is generally patriotic and socially conservative (small c) in stark contrast to Marx’s theory of the inevitability of proletarian uprising. Middle-class Social Justice Warriors eventually realised that they couldn’t rely on the workers so they’d have to create their own revolution. It’s like that old saying: if you want a job doing properly, you have to do it yourself.
This is where the ideology of identity politics comes in handy, with its victim groups and oppressor groups. If you wanted to sow discord and create division, you’d push an ideology that encourages every group to think in terms of power dynamics and see themselves as victims or oppressors. Gosh, when you put it like that, it almost as if the neo-marxists designed this shit to set one group in society against another.
Polarisation in politics is nothing new. My earliest memories of politics was Margaret Thatcher coming to power in 1979 and The Left going batshit-crazy as a result. But something changed in the last 20 years. Maybe the Radical Left felt let down by Tony Blair (don’t mention The War) and Bill Clinton? Or maybe The Left just got bored with mainstream electoral politics and instead focused on The Long March Through The Institutions?
Either way, the Left seemed to turn its focus and attention away from winning elections (Exhibit B: Jeremy Corbyn & Dianne Abbot, Bernie Sanders & Hilary Clinton) and towards winning The Culture War. The Left may currently be out of (elected) government in Britain and America. But never before have the Left had so much cultural power in academia, Hollywood, Big Tech, in advertising and in the media.
For me, the defining moment of the Culture War was that infamous (20 million views on Youtube) confrontation between Jordan Peterson and Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News. The interview reflected an epic clash of world views. In the blue corner we had Peterson representing tradition, classical liberalism and free speech and in the red corner we had Newman representing post-modernism, identity politics and political correctness.
We can’t read Cathy Newman’s mind, we can only observe her actions and listen to what she says. But it seemed obvious to me that she was not a neutral observer seeking the truth. [For comparison, see the same interview done by a more neutral journalist]. No, Newman was there to take down Peterson (a clinical psychologist, not a politician). Journalists are now players of The Game not observers of The Game.
This is just my interpretation and others will see it differently of course. Scott Adams calls this “two movies playing on one screen“: the ability of 2 people to see exactly the same thing and interpret it completely differently. Regardless of your
bias interpretation, this was the front line of the Culture War. By comparison, debates between contemporary politicians were boring affairs. The Culture War was where the real action was.
Some historical context. During the twentieth century, The Left won all the battles that it deserved to win (stopping children working down pits and up chimneys, securing employment rights, health & safety at work, the National Health Service, a welfare safety net, equal opportunities, gay rights etc etc). Quite an impressive tally of victories.
Trouble is, The Left never knows when to stop. The Far Left will never be satisfied. Activists are, by definition, active. They need something to do, something to feel and something to protest against.
So on they went and, since 1979, the Far Left has been wrong about pretty much everything: from Greenham Common, CND, the Miner’s Strike, keeping coal mines open, supporting the IRA and other terrorists, open borders, all-women shortlists, quotas, Delors-style Euro-socialism, Venezuala, anti-semitism, the denial of gender and of objective biological reality.
Hhmmm…it’s almost as if the postmodernist left want to dismantle everything that makes up civil society. This includes marriage, the family, paternity, masculinity (Nice Guys are so much easier to control) and now gender itself. Why all the focus on the issue of transgender rights, something that affects only a tiny % of the population? Because that is the frontline of the Culture War.
The Far Right was also wrong about pretty much everything but they got wiped out. I used to live in Bethnal Green in 1991 and back in those days the last dregs of The British National Party would hold demonstrations in the street and stand for local elections. Now they are long gone and to me even the phrase “race relations” now seems outdated in a melting pot society where so many people are happily integrated and / or are of mixed race.
So the Far Right got annihilated and yet the Far Left not only survived but almost got Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street in 2017. Sure, the Labour manifesto didn’t say they would introduce communism. But how dumb would you have to be to believe a non-Marxist manifesto written by Marxists?
One of the big casualties of the culture war was free speech. The Left took it upon themselves to create a Politically Correct culture and then shame / shout down anyone that contravened their orthodoxy. University societies de-platform any speaker that challenges their PC orthodoxy. Post modernists believe in a weird blank-slate ideology where there is no such thing as objective truth, its all nurture over nature and anyone can be conditioned to believe anything.
Media and tech corporations act as gatekeepers for the information that the public sees. The Big Tech firms are oligopolies and the Left are strangely silent on monopoly power when Big Corporations are on their side. Facebook, Youtube and Google censor content and de-rank people whose views they don’t like. Imagine a world where screens everywhere beam politically correct news at you 24/7/365 as in Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984. Oh wait…no need, that already happened.
A great chasm opened up between the non-PC discussions held by ordinary working class people on council estates, greasy spoon cafes and in warehouses and the polite (but perhaps less honest) discussions in the media, academia and white collar offices. The middle class Thought Police could control broadsheet editorials, classrooms and offices but not everyday life…though that didn’t stop them trying.
Having succeeded to a large degree in shutting down free speech, imagine the surprise of The New Left when the Brexit and Trump votes went against them. It turns out that when you deny people’s legitimate right to debate, discuss and air grievances on sensitive subjects (see immigration control, grooming gangs etc) there are unintended consequences (Brexit, Trump etc).
This helps explain Brexit Derangement Syndrome: that visceral outpouring of shock from a media class used to getting its own way. The debate around Brexit was a weird experience for moderates. I voted Remain not through any great enthusiasm (I could see how Brussels was over-reaching with its federal ambitions) but rather because it seemed like the lower risk option for trade and European co-operation.
For me, once the referendum result was in, the horse had bolted and the result had to be respected. Democracy had to be respected. The Remoaners were like toddlers playing with matches with their endless talk of second referenda, their petitions and People’s Marches (quick maths lesson: 17.4m > 1m). Remainers in the London media bubble looked like petulant and privileged children, unused to not getting their own way and seemingly convinced that their vote should be worth more than some ghastly
gammon person from Doncaster.
I don’t claim to understand American politics but it seems like something similar happened with Trump. I winced as Hilary Clinton labelled working class Trump supporters “deplorables” like a modern day Marie-Antionette puzzled as to why the workers were complaining about the price of bread.
As the high point of the cognitive dissonance of the media establishment, I refer you to Robert Peston’s book “WTF” a whiney moan about Brexit and Trump served up with an unhealthy side order of passive-aggressive virtue signalling. Peston represents the high priest class of journalists that seem to believe in their divine right to be The Gatekeepers to public opinion. How dare those
plebs ordinary people form their own opinions?
The problem with The News is not that journalists are biased (we are all biased). The problem is the media pretending to be unbiased. This problem seems to have infected TV news (e.g. BBC, Channel 4, CNN, Fox News) particularly badly. They pretend to provide objective journalism but, as our friend Chloe showed, you can see how they’ve manipulated the Overton Window.
As someone brought up in a house where BBC Radio 4 was on much of the time, I’m a natural supporter of public service broadcasting. But I fear that Lord Reith is now spinning in his grave (perhaps still in his black dinner jacket?). The BBC and Channel 4 News have legal duties of objectivity but have stretched their credibility to breaking point. By comparison The Torygraph and The Guardian seem positively benign: they may be biased but at least you know where they are coming from.
So maybe it would be better if everyone just honestly declared their biases?
I’ll go first. The Escape Artist is unashamedly in favour of classical liberalism (see: John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith) pro-NATO (but against starting wars, especially in the Middle East) and pro-democracy. In short, I’m in favour of Western Civilisation.
Thank God for Western Civilisation, that unbroken yet fragile legacy of faltering progress (2 steps forward, one step back) that we can trace all the way from Ancient Greece, Rome, Magna Carta, the Renaissance, the Bill of Rights, the American declaration of Independence, the outlawing of slavery, universal suffrage, the Allies victory over The Nazis, peace in Western Europe, the managed withdrawal from the British Empire, the cold war victory over Soviet Communism and so on right up until the current day.
Thank God for secular democracy and the separation of church and state. Thank God for the right to challenge Catholic, Protestant and Islamic extremism. Thank God for the right to criticise the barbaric and misogynistic theocracies of Saudi Arabia and The Taliban in Afghanistan. Thank God for the right to religious freedom and to challenge the repression of muslims by communist China (to pick out just one of the human rights abuses committed by the Chinese Communist Party).
This brings me to the place where the origin story of Western Civilisation was popularised. Yes, I’m talking about Game of Thrones.
You may be under the mistaken impression that Games of Thrones was just some fantasy engineered for mass market entertainment. Wrong. Game of Thrones can be watched on multiple levels. The most popular TV show ever, Game of Thrones brought British history to life more powerfully than any book I ever studied at school.
The Left may have won the news media but their puritanical hypocrisy lost the ratings war in popular entertainment. Who knew that people would prefer real entertainment to fake news?
In case you missed the metaphor, Game of Thrones is the origin story of Western Civilisation. Westeros is Western Europe, The Seven Kingdoms are the United Kingdom. Kings Landing is London. The North is Yorkshire (Winterfell is Leeds) and beyond the wall is Scotland. If you didn’t get that The Wall was Hadrian’s Wall then really, were you even watching?? In the final episode Aya Stark is seen on a boat headed west across a vast ocean towards a New World (hint: that’ll be America).
The epic saga is based on a classical liberal worldview that includes an appreciation of the complexity of human nature which it shows in all its flawed range and complexity : the power games, the lust, the envy, the petty rivalries as well as great courage, generosity, altruism and kindness.
Danaerys Targaryen is the beautiful and privileged princess turned social justice warrior who frees the slaves of Yunkai, Astapor and Meereen and promises liberation of The Seven Kingdoms. Blonde and beautiful, with the fundamentalist certainty of youth and the haughtiness of the elite, she reminds me of internet Social Justice Warrior Titania McGrath (but without the laughs).
Game of Thrones is a warning of the dangers of authoritarianism, totalitarianism and religious fundamentalism. The epic culminates in the scene where Daenerys, The People’s Princess, launches her airborne attack on Kings Landing. Her admirers and advisers (who thought they could restrain and control her) finally realise that they have helped bring a tyrant to absolute power. The results are not pretty but you really have to watch this video to appreciate the point:
If you think that dragons burning civilians from the air is unrealistic, well you probably never saw the effects of an airstrike up close and personal. Lucky you. These days we pay professional soldiers to do our dirty work for us at a safe distance. In that sense, the violence of Game of Thrones was more real than carefully edited news coverage.
Daenerys almost captures unfettered power. But Jon Snow eventually steps up and does what needs to be done to restore peace and justice to the Seven Kingdoms. The saga concludes with a Magna Carta style meeting of the remaining barons & power players. They select a new King, choosing the only person that doesn’t want the job, advised by those that had proved themselves to be the wisest. Welcome to the origin of representative democracy complete with checks and balances.
Many of the fans didn’t get the ending because they misunderstood what Game of Thrones was really about. Game of Thrones was the story of Western Civilisation, the best (and most humane) form of civilisation ever devised in the history of our imperfect and often brutally unfair world.
Every generation has to relearn the arguments for free speech, democracy, tolerance and checks and balances on the power of elected governments. Every generation has to relearn the problems with populism and the potential tyranny of the majority. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Am I being paranoid? Well, maybe. But it’s only paranoia if they’re not out to get you. The extremists have revealed their intentions and published their game-plans (see here and here) so we can’t say we weren’t warned. And, as someone smart once said:
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
UPDATE: November 2020 : New podcast with The Good Life Guys: “The Culture Wars Are Upon Us”
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