Sunday, 20 May 2018

Don't Be Mean to Conservatives

The lasting political legacy of May 1968 is to be found in language: the re-energising of rhetoric and the greater scrutiny of discourse that was embryonic in the slogans of the Situationists. What subsequent attacks on postmodern "mumbo-jumbo" and the strawman of po-faced "political correctness" ignored was the degree of irreverence and mockery that characterised this turn. 1968, at least in Western democracies, wasn't a revolution so much as a wind-up. This jeering spirit was quickly forced underground in the early-70s, not least by those who had appointed themselves the curators of the collective memory of the 60s, though it would periodically emerge on the cultural margins, as in Punk in the late-70s or the more confrontational strands of comedy in the early-80s. Though the "new reality" of the later 1980s and 90s appeared to have consigned this disrespectful tradition to history, or at least replaced it with a jaded cynicism and a vogue for nostalgic commodities such as Situationist t-shirts, the growth of first the Internet and then social media allowed it to seep back into mainstream political culture. The culmination of this is the hilarious sight of the British media debating whether "gammon" is a racial slur.

Though the right have predictably talked up the anti-white connotations and claimed that it is also an insult directed towards the Brexit-voting working class, so establishing a connection with the white van man trope that gave Ed Miliband such trouble, it is the efforts of liberals to arbitrate on what they consider to be the acceptable vocabulary of the left that has ensured the word's media prominence. The liberal case, outlined by Suzanne Moore, is an appeal to both principle ("If kindness is not part of the socialist vocabulary, count me out") and pragmatism (instead of alienating them, try "Persuading former Tories to vote Labour"). The counter-arguments are equally principled and pragmatic. Kindness is an attractive personal characteristic, but what matters in politics is policy. For example, the much-lauded Tessa Jowell was responsible for some very nasty policies in her time in office. That she had a better bedside manner than Theresa "hostile" May is irrelevant. As to winning over the reactionary petit bourgeois, as Matt Zarb-Cousin correctly notes, "despite their over-representation on TV programmes, the gammon block vote is not enough to swing an election, and most of them are found in safe Conservative seats in the home counties anyway".

US liberals have even got on the case: "It’s like calling a Jew a k**e or mocking African Americans for eating fried chicken. It’s like calling poor white Americans trailer trash. So much of this sounds like American culture wars transported, horribly and no doubt eternally, to England." Leaving aside the irritating equation of England with the UK (a very gammon move), the sleight of hand in this analysis is the conflation of social identities with political affinities, suggesting that the US culture wars are driven by bigotry rather than political disagreement. This conflation is necessary to make the charge that "gammon" is bigoted stick, even though the fact that you could call your own father a gammon if he showed an unhealthy interest in Trident suggests it is a matter of belief and behaviour rather than skin tone. Likewise, you could call your own son a "centrist dad" if he started quoting A C Grayling at you. Labelling a particular politics with a mocking term is hardly unusual, either in the UK or the US. Consider the term "Tory", which comes from the Irish for outlaw, or the way that the "Know Nothings" nickname of the American Nativist Party was repurposed as an insult.

Though this might appear to be just another example of liberal propriety seeking to delegitimise the left, on this occasion the pragmatic (a concern for the future action of right-wing voters) is more significant than the principle (a commitment to a particular style of discourse). Suggesting that the gammon tendency should and could be won over to Labour is strategically daft, so presumably something else is going on when people like Moore advance the idea. Interestingly, a similar manoeuvre is visible across the pond where centrist liberals have taken to blaming the left, and in particular its rhetoric, for fuelling bigotry on the right. Writing in defence of Bari Weiss's now infamous response to criticism of her New York Times piece on "The Intellectual Dark Web", Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic suggested that the left was hypocritical, accepting Obama's view that the violent extremism of ISIS shouldn't be labelled "Islamic" as this would alienate law-abiding Muslims, while blithely associating the centre-right with the alt-right, thereby alienating moderate conservatives and driving them to the extreme.

But this only makes sense if you see the world in terms of multiple political and cultural continuums, which is foundational to liberalism's self-image as the rational centre. The explicit assumption is that ISIS is way past most Muslims on this particular continuum, while the implicit assumption is that "we" (whoever that non-Muslim grouping might be) are to be found in the opposite direction. Ironically, this is an example of soft bigotry, which assumes that moderate Muslims are more vulnerable to being radicalised because they start from a position closer to the extreme. In fact, there is no continuum. To put this in analogous terms, despite the sociological basis of their support in the Catholic community, the IRA were not extreme Catholics, which is why it made no sense to label them as such. They were extreme republicans, but applying that label did not delegitimise republicanism. The reason why ISIS shouldn't be labelled as Islamic terrorists (though Islamist is legitimate) is that what they seek cannot be considered co-terminus with Islam, any more than the IRA's ambitions and strategy were co-terminus with those of the Pope or the Republic of Ireland.

Friedersdorf reveals the real worry when he quotes Claire Lehmann: "When you collapse the distinction between thoughtful classical liberals & centrists with those who openly advocate for a white ethnostate not only do you insult your readers, but you reward racists with prestige they don't deserve". The concern is not that the moderate right is being traduced but that centrists are under attack from the left. The "don't be mean to conservatives" line is actually self-defence, and an acknowledgement that their resistance to Trump has morphed into an attempt to win over the right by moving right, hence their sensitivity to attacks by the left on articles like Weiss's indulgent profile of the "IDW". Claiming that the left is responsible for the advance of the right is nothing more than a projection of their own guilt for decades of "legitimate concerns" and "bipartisanship". The conclusion must be that US centrists have rejected the idea of building a coalition out towards the left, despite the positive lessons of the primaries and the presidential election, precisely because they would be more comfortable with a government led by Jeb Bush than with one led by Bernie Sanders.

The idea of the political continuum is front and centre in the latest New York Magazine piece by Jonathan Chait, which is more explicit than articles like Friedersdorf's in pointing the finger not at a notional broad left that includes Hillary Clinton but very precisely at the radical left - i.e. those who didn't enthusiastically support Hillary. More than impropriety, Chait accuses the radical left (which he describes as "leftists and socialists") of a contempt for American democracy and its associated norms of behaviour: "they see Trump as the symptom of a deeper crisis of capitalism. The democracy movement is attempting to preserve a system that is being swept away." This is not only an overtly conservative vision, but one that considers norms and propriety to be constitutive of democracy itself, which is in fact deeply anti-democratic. As Jed Purdey, whom Chait misrepresents, notes: "A political science fixated on norms fits easily with a political ethics based on virtue, and the crisis-of-democracy literature really, really wants us to be better, more grateful citizens".

Ironically, the most insightful comment on the current vogue for left-bashing came from Jordan Peterson, though I should point out that this was inadvertent on his part. In a very entertaining profile (he comes across as a complete dick), the tech writer Nellie Bowles notes that "he was radicalized, he says, because the 'radical left' wants to eliminate hierarchies". This manages to capture in a short sentence the entirety of Corey Robin's book on conservative theory, The Reactionary Mind (though I'd still recommend reading the longer work). It's all about the preservation of hierarchies, and that desire is as evident in liberal as in conservative discourse. The "thoughtful classical liberals & centrists" who normalise the Intellectual Dark Web aren't giving space to iconoclasts and rebels, they are simply facilitating propaganda that preserves economic, racial, and gender hierarchies. Likewise, the offence contained in the term "gammon" is the derision directed at men (and women) of a certain (mental) age and social standing who believe that their views should automatically command respect. The centrist commentariat fear that we're actually talking about them.

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