Photo by Giuseppe Lombardo
Artillery Row

The culture war is all around you

It is the philosophical water in which we swim

Simons is a Canadian department store chain — a more fashionable John Lewis perhaps. It sells trousers and tablecloths, coats and pillow covers, bras and bath towels. Recently, it released a new advertisement stuffed with all the usual tricks: swelling music, beautiful vistas, a thoughtfully measured voiceover and the brand name, complete with hashtag, appearing silently at the end. But it wasn’t the latest in winter fashions being advertised — it was suicide. 

More exactly, the ad was devoted, with all its glossy, professional skill, to glamourising the assisted suicide of a 37-year old woman named Jennyfer, who was killed recently in Canada. Meanwhile the Canadian parliament debates legislation to extend assisted suicide to children and the mentally ill, all in the name of diversity and equality. 

These are literally just the examples from the last week

At the same time in America, a high-end fashion house called Balenciaga released its latest advertisement, this time featuring a couple of scared looking children holding teddy bears dressed up in BDSM gear. Elsewhere on the site, a photo included documents discussing US legislation on child pornography. 

A few days later the New York Times, possibly America’s most prestigious newspaper, published an article attacking the Modern Slavery Act, Britain’s landmark legislation aimed at combatting human trafficking and modern slavery. The law is racist, the NYT argues, because it’s been used against black drug dealers in the UK, who coerce kids into carrying drugs across county lines. 

Meanwhile, in London, the Wellcome Collection, the museum founded by Henry Wellcome dedicated to the history of medicine, announced it was suffering an identity crisis. “What’s the point of museums?” it asked. To bring together items of historic or cultural importance so ordinary people can experience these artefacts for  themselves, you might think. No, the museum’s exhibition of Henry Wellcome’s personal collection may have “told a global story of health and medicine” but it has now decided the story was one “in which disabled people, Black people, Indigenous peoples and people of colour were exoticised, marginalised and exploited”, so it is closing its exhibition immediately, to avoid giving the public the wrong ideas. 

The Wellcome Collection is not the only London museum making a priority of broadcasting contempt for the founders, collectors and artists responsible for its existence. Across town at the John Soane Museum, a landscape by the renowned French post-Impressionist artist Paul Cezanne now bears a notice asking, “I wonder what this landscape would have looked like to us without colonisation? Would we care about Cezanne or his work? Better yet, would there even be a ‘Cezanne’ without colonisation? No, I have no idea what they’re talking about either.

So what, you may ask? Advertisers have always been creepy, and bored museum curators will be looking to make a splash. These are not isolated examples, however. They are literally just the examples from the last week, and you could write a similar list every week for the past few years. It would differ moderately from week to week, but the same themes would keep appearing. 

A year ago, I was surprised to hear people still insisting the culture war was a figment of the right-wing imagination, an illusion conjured up by conservative propaganda. So, I began cataloguing incidents of progressive weirdness in one big twitter thread for future evidence. Now I have more examples than I thought possible. I scroll and scroll, and still the endless trail of racist anti-racists, biology-denying misogynists, and grim advocates for a culture of death, dressed up with shiny, corporate aesthetics, stretches out before me.

When America sneezes Britain catches a cold

Amid the piles of craziness, certain patterns emerge. It is worse in America and Canada, for certain, but when America sneezes Britain catches a cold, and the condition is spreading rapidly here. The problem is not just the weird stories you see in the news; these are only the visible tip of the iceberg. The submerged majority is a progressive ideology that is remarkably consistent across the English-speaking world, and it is rapidly seeping into every aspect of society: into school sex and relationship curriculums teaching children that preferring certain toys or clothes might mean they’re the wrong gender. Into workplace DEI departments, mandating useless implicit bias training and requesting pronouns. Into women’s sports, prisons, changing rooms and shelters that have to accept males without question due to gender self-ID. Into museums, academia and media that increasingly denigrate every aspect of Western society before about 2013, regardless of how they must warp history or global realities to do so.

The individual instances may seem random and unconnected, but they reflect the same ethos, devoted to attacking the standards and principles that Western society held dear. For progressives, the transgression itself is felt as the surest guide they are moving in the right direction. The value of art, the sanctity of life, the importance of law and order, the right of conscience, the distinction between adults and children, the sexual binary: these are structural features of our historic ethos, that shelter and guide us through life. In progressive eyes that makes them tainted objects of suspicion.

When you put it that way, it sounds hysterical. I don’t think most people, even those who identify as progressives, even those who identify as activists, are consciously working to overthrow western civilisation. That is how a societal ethos works nonetheless — it is barely visible all around you, like the water you swim in, but it still profoundly shapes the outlines of what seems reasonable and right. The incidents you hear about are moments when the ethos crystallises into something concrete enough to get noticed. Otherwise, it’s just the solution surrounding you.

In fact, it is still common for progressive activists to deny they are engaging in a “culture war” at all. Sometimes this descends to farcical levels. After the Wellcome Collection received criticism for closing the Medicine Man exhibition, a Professor Dan Hicks (of Oxford University no less) declared on twitter that “colleagues at Wellcome are offering some of the vision and leadership we need in the UK arts and culture sectors”. He went on to describe the criticism as a “ludicrous and yet pernicious” part of “the Right’s ongoing War on Culture”. This appears on Twitter just below a banner for his latest book, titled The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution.

However progressives push the limits of censorship, or vandalism, or even sneering contempt for previously shared principles and values, they will only see the resulting criticism as responsible for stirring up tension. Some progressive activists are just cynically dishonest, but others, like many in any society, simply take their ethos for granted. Constant “progress” is their default assumption, which requires constantly transgressing new boundaries. They then experience any resistance to that “progress” as violent.

It never stops. Nobody in Britain today is making glossy corporate advertisements glamourising suicide, but neither was anyone in Canada five years ago. The Scottish Parliament is already debating legalising euthanasia. England, if the next election sees hundreds of conservatives replaced by progressive Labour MPs, will likely follow, and then we only need to wait five years. Ten years ago, nobody in Britain was confused about the definition of a woman; today the entire shadow cabinet, who in two years will probably just be the Cabinet, find that a very difficult question. The “slippery slope” is a logical fallacy, but it is also a well observed sociological fact. This is partly because the activists aren’t going to declare victory and lay down their arms; their entire self-identity demands that “progress” must continue.

The answer is not to become paranoid about every possible change or improvement in society. Don’t start seeing woke behind every tree. Justice, mercy, beauty, all that is good and true are still worth fighting for, and that can be done without embracing progressive assumptions. Don’t be complacent either, or emotionally blackmailed into embracing every demand labelled “progress”. You might not be interested in the culture war, but the ethos of cultural despair and destruction is surrounding you nonetheless. It’s time to wake up and realise it.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover