Standpoint December/January 2016/17
In Cold War Manhattan, there appeared to be no greater enmity than the hatred between Victor Navasky, editor of left-wing magazine The Nation, and William F. Buckley Jr, editor of National Review.
The Nation was, if not pro-Communist, then at the very least anti-Nato. Buckley’s aim, by contrast, was to destroy the liberalism of the Republican party and build a red-blooded conservative movement in its place. (Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice.) They argued about everything. Navasky was right to condemn conservatives’ support for McCarthyism and their opposition to the civil rights movement. But history has vindicated Buckley’s attacks on the Left’s myth that Soviet agents in America were innocent victims of the state.
In 2008, after Buckley had died, Navasky confessed to getting on well with his old foe. They both edited ideological magazines that had an influence far beyond their small circulations. They both despised the profitable mainstream media, which stuck to the daily news schedule. They wanted to find new ideas and stories the big news organisations chose to ignore or simply did not see. They challenged rather than informed their readers. Above all, “whenever we found ourselves within drinking distance”, they shared a bottle and despaired of their backers, who in their innocence expected small intellectual magazines to make a profit.
Buckley’s commitment to free enterprise would have led to his magazine closing. But, Navasky explained, he would excuse his appeals for charitable donations by saying, “You don’t expect the church to make a profit, do you?”
Their world is dead. I don’t know if there are intellectuals left in Manhattan. Certainly, here in London, when cliché-ridden hacks throw around the insult “Hampstead intellectual” they show only that they do not realise that no intellectual has been able to afford to buy a home in Hampstead since Michael Foot’s day. Where there were once second-hand bookshops for inquiring minds, there are now boutiques for second wives.
Standpoint November 2016
“Are you not entertained?” boomed Alec Baldwin as he played Donald Trump on the US comedy show Saturday Night Live. We ought to have been. Baldwin’s Trump was a puffy-eyed pervert. He loomed over the actress playing Hillary Clinton like a rapist stalking a victim. He was entitled, bigoted and stupid. Baldwin’s satire appeared so good that the real Donald Trump tweeted: “Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!”
It seemed the ultimate compliment at a time when comedians appear to have replaced poets to become Shelley’s unacknowledged legislators of the world. No novelist, let alone a mere poet, can fill stadiums as he or she delivers a take on current affairs. After a scandal breaks no one thinks, “I must hear what Zadie Smith has to say.” Not the way they think, “I can’t wait to see how John Oliver or Have I Got News for You exposes these bastards.”
The Trump candidacy ought to have been political comedy’s apotheosis. Yet rather than affirm the power of satire, Trump has demonstrated its limits. Continue reading
The Observer 22 January, 2017
Hard questions for democracies have piled up with a speed we have yet to take in. After the cold war, westerners asked how to stand up to autocrats. Should we intervene to stop genocide in Bosnia? Or demand sanctions and boycotts to protect the rights of Tibetans? The rise of communist China, Putin’s Russia and Erdoğan’s Turkey changed the terms of debate. The question was no longer should we intervene, but could we intervene against powers more than able to resist pressure?
Now that the Trump administration has slouched towards Washington to be born and strongmen have muscled their way into the chancelleries of eastern Europe, the question is more basic: how are supposed democracies different from actual dictatorships? Continue reading
Observer 14 January 2017
Post-truth politics isn’t a coherent description of the world but a cry of despair. Propositions have not stopped being right or wrong just because of the invention of Facebook. Whatever the authoritarian cults who rage across Twitter say to the contrary, the Earth still goes round the sun and two plus two still equals four.
“Everything is relative. Stories are being made up all the time. There is no such thing as the truth,” cried Anthony Grayling. But unless the professor has abandoned every philosophical principle he has held, what Grayling and millions like him mean is something like this. Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and other liars the like of which they cannot remember, have made fantastical promises to their electorates. They said they could build a wall and make Mexico pay for it or make Britain richer by crashing her out of the EU.
Spectator 15 January 2017
The trouble with plebiscites is that they leave the plebs stranded. A complicated issue is reduced to one question: should we leave the EU, yes or no. Nowhere on the ballot does it ask whether we should leave the single market or currency union, crash into the WTO without trade agreements with the rest of the world, or tear up employment protections. There is just the deceptively simple question. It provides no guidance to which of the thousands of possible futures we could chose when it is answered.
The Spectator 3 January 2017
In the first days of January ‘17, the Arctic air frosted over London forcing even the most careless citizen of that metropolis to accept the mastery of those great elemental forces which shriek at mankind through the bars of his civilisation. Holmes would not move from his fire, and was as moody as only he could be when he had no case to interest him.
‘Why,’ said I, glancing up at my companion, ‘that was surely the bell. Who could come tonight? Some friend of yours, perhaps?’
‘Except yourself I have none,’ he answered.
‘A client, then?’
‘If so, it is a serious case. Nothing less would bring a man out on such a day and at such an hour. But I take it that it is more likely to be some crony of the landlady’s.’
Sherlock Holmes was wrong in his conjecture, however, for there came a step in the passage and a tapping at the door. Continue reading
The Observer, 7 January 2016
Nationalism always breaks its promises because nationalists hate enemies in their countries more than they hate the enemies of their countries. Millions of American conservatives proved it when they voted for Donald Trump, even though he was an open admirer of a hostile foreign power.
Local hatreds, not national security, moved them. They hated Obama more than they feared Putin. They hated political correctness. They hated – not without reason – the attacks on freedom of speech. They hated rich liberals and defence lawyers. They hated Black Lives Matter and immigrants speaking Spanish in the shop queue. They hated the “experts” who told them that fossil fuel caused global warming and gun ownership caused crime. For all their patriotism, when it came to the crunch, they cared as little for national security as the “reds” their ancestors condemned in the 20th century.