Politics is not downstream from culture
Against Top Gear conservatism
A land war rages on in Europe, China’s totalitarian rule is trembling under the pressure of yet another COVID-19 onslaught, and Hell has frozen over in the US. Still, the BBC found space on its rolling news ticker to give regular updates on the rolling debacle that was Jeremy Clarkson vs the World after he wrote, and then apologised for, a crude column about Harry and Meghan.
Clarkson expressed the view of many when he said that he “loathed” her on a “cellular” level. It was a hateful piece, topped off with an apparent Game of Thrones reference when he admitted that he longed to see Meghan paraded naked through the streets with defecate pelted at her.
Clarkson eventually capitulated to the pressure of indignation and disgust that swarmed his writing. And in a repeat of a lesson that has been taught a thousand times but has still yet to be learned, Clarkson’s enemies were unsatisfied by this concession. The rich, iron taste of blood satiated none of his critics. His apology was a sign of weakness, a bowing of the head that revealed the smooth flesh of the neck, clean and primed for the swooshing of an axe. Soon the cavalcades of wit and beauty that make up our parliamentary backbenches were calling for changes to the “editorial process” that allowed his column to be printed.
Tory MP Caroline Nokes wrote a letter signed by dozens of other parliamentarians that lambasted the notion that it was “okay to use violent language to address a woman that you might disagree with.” Suddenly this debate felt like a return to the frenetic misery of 2018’s politics, when the media went into flap stage five over language that incandescent rural Tories were using in briefings against Theresa May, who has only recently lost her title as the most hapless prime minister of this century. During this kerfuffle, the media suddenly remembered that it also wanted to be upset with Labour MP Jess Phillips, who in 2015 had said that she wanted to “knife” Corbyn “in the front and the back”. She was, of course, using metaphor.
So was Clarkson.
I am loathe to criticise Jeremy Clarkson in any way because he is a critical voice of resistance. He stands firm against a modern popular culture that is cultivated predominantly by offence-taking patricians and authoritarian middle-aged HR middle managers with middling intellects. If they are the norm, Clarkson’s Top Gear-style “just blokes being blokes” style of life and commentary is a welcome respite.
But it does need some criticism, because it has many shortcomings when it seeps away from harmless mischief on motoring television and starts to offer commentary on culture, politics and society.
Clarkson’s Top Gear Conservatism is essentially the boomer generation’s form of the “own the libs” style of politics that was prevalent on social media during the reaction to the Great Awokening of the last decade.
This rustling impulse of getting under the skin — or “triggering” — left-wing opponents has occupied an enormous slice of right-wing media and political output for as long as I have been politically aware. I can see why Clarkson and other boomer generation commentators, columnists and media figures enjoy it: it is often funny, and there is great pleasure in seeing your opponents flustered and frustrated.
When I first switched on the politics and culture war issues, the only popular reaction against the massive left-wing advances made in every major cultural and establishment institution came from classical liberal commentators, youtubers, and some smaller media outlets such as Spiked. At petrifying risk of sounding like a decaying Gen Xer in a crusty leather jacket reflecting on his punk days over one too many whiskeys, there was a genuinely rebellious streak to that period from 2015, when students or young graduates reacting to the censorious culture rightly felt like they were standing up to a coddling totalitarianism that many simply endured without wanting to cause a fuss.
When I was a first-year student, I saw a headline from an event that Brendan O’Neill had spoken at where he said we had a duty to “go into a safe space and fuck it up.” I agreed with him then and I still do now. O’Neill has a clear and principled classical liberal political vision, which rightly involves the tarnishing of no-platform policies and safe space culture, both ludicrous and infantilising concepts. But as I continued to observe and act against these concepts and their proponents, it gradually became clear to me that lots of the lib-baiting conducted by many of the right-wing writers I read and commentators I watched wasn’t actually based on anything.
So when the writer Peter Lloyd sent comedian (?) Kate Smurthwaite into a flap after he said in 2017 “sticks and stones may break my bones, but there will always be something to offend a feminist,” many thought it was entertaining. Sadly, the cheap puerility of that line reflected a broader vapidity on the right, which at this point was taking much of its direction on the culture war from Milo Yiannopoulos — who has recently become “ex gay” and is supporting a new conversion therapy centre in Florida — and a man in Scotland who taught his pug to do a Nazi salute.
Earlier in December, Rod Liddle delivered the New Culture Forum’s 2022 “Smith Lecture”. Addressing a packed central London audience, Liddle spoke on “The Story of Woke: How the West Went Mad”. Much of the speech was a humorous, if perhaps unoriginal, routine that took us through some classic case studies in wokeness in sport, healthcare and language. But before he launched into his wokeness lament, Liddle stood up and started by saying that he wouldn’t address “what we can do about it, but where its roots lie.”
Liddle won’t address “what we can do about it” almost certainly because he doesn’t know where to start. His speech was full of classic anti-woke humour, basking in its anti-intellectualism, adding to the tragic tradition of right-wingers complaining about middle-class metropolitans who enjoy nice things, such as espresso-based coffee products, or avocados, or housing in the centre of the greatest metropolis on Earth. The audience might have been entertained by this rhetorical shadow boxing, but our left-liberal metropolitan opponents are organised, strategic and winning.
Liddle’s gags and targeting of middle-class graduates “moaning that they can’t afford a flat in Mayfair” is all little more than empty whining. But this is what you are reduced to when you have nothing to say about how to practically turn the tide and start to win the war.
For years, many on the right have falsely repeated Andrew Breitbart’s famous adage that “politics is downstream of culture”. This has allowed them to avoid doing the difficult, legalistic, structural analysis of our politics and what informs it. By misunderstanding every woke issue as being caused by Californian culture imported by Hollywood heiresses, conservatives can lazily position themselves as victims, crying out that there are no right-wingers in music, media, film and telly, and so our political institutions are doomed to follow the “hip” progressivism of the day.
Actually, the opposite is true. Culture is downstream of politics. Political actors set the stage and generate the conditions for the expansion of progressivism.
Why do we have a censorious, narrowing culture of speech? It’s not because Hollywood tells you what to think, it’s because Section 127 of the Communications Act (2003) criminalises speech and writing that is “grossly offensive” by law.
Why do we have an obsession with equality and that horrifying term “equity” in our professional classes? It’s not because some pop stars have suddenly decided that #representation is cool, but because we are burdened by a hugely influential law called the Equality Act (2010) that mandates identitarian communism in public life through a set of “protected characteristics”. The Public Sector Equality Duty reinforces this mode of thinking and thought.
Why is there an entire industry dedicated to “decolonisation” and “anti-racist” activism? It isn’t because lots of models on Instagram do posts about BLM, but because the government spends tens of millions of pounds every year directly funding Equality, Diversity and Inclusion mandates and programs.
What do Clarkson, Liddle and others have to say about this? Not much, as far as I can tell. The only prominent conservative who has come out against any of these laws or structural disasters in recent times is Lord Frost, who has this year called for the abolition of the Equality Act.
This year has shown a glimmer of what can be achieved when resistance to extreme progressivism is organised, strategic, tactical and smart. This thin ray of hope was demonstrated in the shutting down of the NHS Tavistock Clinic, a brutalist building in leafy Hampstead where doctors were found by a review to be delivering gender identity treatment under an “unquestioning affirmative approach”. The review warned that many of its patients reported complex healthcare needs, such as depression, anorexia and body dysmorphia, but once they were identified by the Tavistock doctors as having gender-related distress, other problems can “sometimes be overlooked.”
The Tavistock’s closure was a sudden reversal in an otherwise unceasing march of victory for trans rights activists. The Tavistock clinic’s referrals shot up to 5,000 in 2021-22 from under 250 in 2011-12, reflecting a social contagion as transgender activists won victories that would have stunned even the mildest of progressives just a decade ago. Biological males being cheered as they demolish the closest competition in a university swimming race? Yeah right!
The Tavistock closure is just one of many small victories in the battle against gender madness. The policy wins have also been matched by a shift in social attitudes, with the annual survey of Britons finding this year a significant drop in those who think people should be able to change the sex on their birth certificate. In 2016, 58 per cent thought this was acceptable; in 2021 it was 32 per cent.
But who succeeded in bringing this about-turn in policy and attitudes? Who can be credited with this long-overdue reaction against a movement that has crudely pillaged both rights and reality wherever it has been introduced? Was it a campaign by organised conservative groups, journalists and activists? No, it was achieved predominantly by politically leftish women and old school feminists.
The only conservative victory against wokery in Britain has not been won by conservatives, but by an alliance of mostly left-wing women. They achieved it by ceaseless campaigning, calls for structural reform, and fundamentally by organising.
When Jess Phillips said she wanted to knife Corbyn in the frontly and backly manner, she did so with a firm understanding of what she wanted to achieve. Her blazing attacks on the former Labour leader had political grounding, there was an alternative vision that she wanted to deliver. I did and still do find that vision extremely disagreeable and annoying to hear about, but no one can accuse her of lacking a grounding set of principles and a direct purpose.
But when Clarkson, Liddle, Littlejohn or any other “trigger the libs” voice goes studs up on some target, what are they doing it for? It is not entirely clear. Perhaps they do it for retweets, attention, and to bask in the fury of those they dislike. But I don’t think even they can tell us.
Top Gear Conservatism needs to be replaced by Conan Conservatism, named after Conan the Barbarian, who is asked in the 1982 classic: “What is best in life?” He answers: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.”
Until we reorganise and reaffirm what it is that the Right believe in, our media organs and loudest voices will continue to be loud but baseless, and our enemies will avoid being crushed and driven before us.
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