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
Standpoint October 2016
Can there be a culturally appropriate art? There is no shortage of activists arguing for one, and they are arguing for something new and sinister, in free societies at least.
Let me be clear about the stakes. Artists reflect the ideas of their times, and nearly all Western novels and dramas now treat, say, gays and lesbians sympathetically. They are a world away from the thrillers of the 1970s in which the lisping homosexual was invariably the villain. Such stereotypes are not the issue today. Nor is the argument about whether a male novelist can create convincing female characters or vice versa or a white novelist create a convincing black character or vice versa. Readers have always been able to complain that a novelist has produced inauthentic work. Rather than an argument about what is said, we have an argument about what right artists have to speak at all.
As Lionel Shriver put it in a speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival, “Ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic underprivilege and disability are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.”
From Standpoint March 2016
Students may not appreciate it, but there is an advantage in not having to pay upfront for their education or on taking their chances with the ration system direct state funding would bring. “Student loans” and “student debt” are misleading terms. In reality, graduates must pay an additional tax only when their annual income reaches £21,000. If it does, they are liable. If it does not, the taxpayer, who funded their courses, must bear the loss. Today’s young have more chances to fulfil their ambitions than any generation in history. But here’s the rub. The true scandal in higher education is that only a minority, perhaps a tiny minority, ever will.
Degree misselling is just as widespread as financial misselling, but no admissions tutor is ever arrested, and no university is ever forced to repay the money it has taken from the taxpayer or graduate. Because universities take no risks, they can recruit with abandon and condemn thousands of young people a year to disappointment.
Standpoint April 2016
The approval of former MI6 agent John le Carré has not guaranteed the authenticity of the BBC’s dramatisation of The Night Manager. Those who know about the Middle East could barely make it through the first episode. Continue reading