The great blighted north

Introducing The Dominion: trying to speak conservative to Canadians

Artillery Row

If conservative writing and thought is in a crisis, can thinking conservatives who hope to think and write credibly see a way out of the current mess? Allow me to give you a glimmer of optimism, or at least, a glimpse at a work in progress here in Canada called The Dominion. But first, how did we get to the place we really should want to get out of?

A few weeks ago now, lots of right-wingers announced they were deleting their Twitter accounts and switching over to Parler, a newish social media platform that markets itself as protecting free speech, unlike an increasingly censorious Twitter. As far as I can tell, few people have actually made the switch, they’re still tweeting away, but they’ve set up Parler accounts as well.

Imagine if the great Twitter exodus does happen, and Parler, or something else, becomes the new right-wing online hub, what would that look like? Would it produce a new kind of conservative digital forum where better online discussions and networks are built, or would it become a self-selecting echo chamber and isolated island of conspiratorial fringe voices that cut themselves off from the digital public square, but radicalise themselves and the people who find their way ashore? I fear the latter, and it says something about the unique challenges that we face in the digital age when so much of the world is moving online.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this challenge recently because, as I frequently comment on Twitter, I call myself a conservative, even though I’m extremely disillusioned with the state of conservatism here in Canada. Sure, Conservative parties can sometimes win elections, but to be conservative in Canada in 2020 means almost absolutely nothing substantive, and is largely just defined by what, and who, it opposes. What I have tried to start doing is to attempt to sketch out and help build a new kind of conservatism. One that is not just substantive, but distinctly Canadian. The lack of a truly Canadian conservatism is something we’re going to have to keep coming back to, not least as it’s one of the most distinctive things about: where else has the right sold the pass on nationalism to the liberal left?

I’m not hubristic enough to think that this is something I can accomplish alone, but where I might be able to contribute something significant is in the intellectual realm, which is why I’m canvassing the idea of launching an ‘ideas journal’: a serious publication designed to fill a vacuum in the abysmal conservative media landscape in Canada by providing a new forum for serious thinking and ideas, not one built just to generate calorie free partisan clicks.

But an important question from the outset of a project like this was how to avoid becoming the isolated and radicalising echo chamber so many such attempts end up becoming. Back in 2009, the journalist Tucker Carlson gave a speech at CPAC where he offered a sort of call to arms for conservative journalism. The crux of his argument was that conservative media needed to start doing real reporting, not just opinion writing. What he was in essence calling for was a conservative New York Times:

The New York Times is a liberal paper, but it is also … a paper that actually cares about accuracy. Conservatives need to build institutions that mirror those institutions.

The crowd booed at the mention of the NYT, which spoke to the challenge that Carlson was up against. A year later, Carlson launched The Daily Caller.

Relatedly, Vanity Fair recently ran an interesting profile of The American Conservative, one of the most interesting conservative magazines in America today. The whole piece is worth the read, but the most interesting takeaway is TAC’s ambition to ‘become The Atlantic of the right.’ But as the piece points out, TAC isn’t the first right wing magazine with this ambition, and other attempts have met little success.

My point here is not to praise the NYT or Atlantic, or attack the Caller or TAC (quite the opposite, I am a big fan of TAC especially). I bring this up because in seeking to create conservative versions of – whether you agree with them or not – such palpable intellectual success stories, conservatives are after something else too and we should face up to this. Namely an institutional prestige and legitimacy that means your ideas and propositions are simply treated as more serious, even by opponents, from the get go. It’s a way of legitimising thinking and ideas. But this is easier said than done, you can’t simply manufacture institutional prestige.

American conservatism, for all its flaws, still has an intellectual and media landscape that puts Canadian conservatism to shame. American conservatives have publications like The American ConservativeCommentary, American AffairsNational AffairsFirst ThingsThe New CriterionCity JournalModern AgeThe University Bookman, the Claremont Review of Books and this is hardly an exhaustive list. But it’s already one that puts countries like Canada and Britain to shame. What does Canada have? The National Post is arguably the closest thing we have to a serious conservative publication, and it is a newspaper, not an ideas journal. We have newspapers, tabloids, a few websites, and a few interesting columnists and voices, but, bluntly, nothing for the senior common room liberals like to pretend we, not they, occupy. There are many problems with Canadian conservatism, but at the intellectual level this institutional absence is critical. One of the reasons conservatism here is so morribund is that it is unable to generate new thinking and new ideas. And part of the reason for this is that there are so few spaces and voices that can do so.

When we talk about ideas and thinking, we aren’t just talking about public policy prescriptions. Thinking of conservatism as being reducible to little more than ten point policy plans, with policies that haven’t changed since the 1980s, and calling that conservative thought, is a pathology Canadian conservatism suffers from and at least part of the reason for this is because serious conservative thinking is non-existent, so policy papers is the closest you’ll get. There is more, much more to politics, than just public policy.

The lack of institutions to generate this kind of serious thought, and a lack of institutional prestige to help ensure conservatism is treated as intellectually serious means that conservatism is just taken less seriously, and starts from an immediate disadvantage.

We’re obviously a much smaller country than the US, so it would be foolish to expect us to be able to produce a plethora of such journals as they have there, but surely we could manage at least one? I think so, which is what I hope to do.

It isn’t just the conservative media landscape in Canada which isn’t exactly a healthy proposition at the moment. Canadian media, like so much of the press worldwide, is struggling with much that’s left increasingly dependent on public money to survive, if it wasn’t already sucking on the state’s teat to begin with. Part of these challenges are to do with the changing media landscape in the digital age, but there’s also another reason less talked about I think (unsurprisingly) that explains why Canadian media is struggling so much, namely its mediocrity and how repetitive and uninteresting so much writing in this country is.

There are two aspects to this. The first is that what is considered to be worthy of being written about is increasingly just perspectivist “feelings first” writing. In British terms, think colour writing washed out to grey, all to serve ever more solipsistic grudges masquerading as ideological concerns. Canada does still have some serious magazines and publications, but increasingly what passes for “good” writing seems to just be people telling you personal stories and experiences, especially ones that fit a certain ideological narrative. There’s no room for disagreement or interesting discussion of this kind of writing, all you’re supposed to do is share and describe it using words like powerful, stunning, moving, and brave. At best, you feel this stuff, rather than read and engage with it. It’s not that there isn’t a role and place for writing like this, it’s just increasingly this is all that there is. Like it or not (if that’s the intellectual foot you’re kicking with), there is plain market failure here.. The repetitiveness of this, even if every story is supposedly unique, is boring, self-regarding, and it automatically precludes discussion and debate because you aren’t challenging an argument, you’re challenging someone’s experiences. You’ll occasionally have done this in social life: you won’t have been in a hurry to do it again. The tyranny of emoting does a grand job in foreclosing intellectual debate.

The second aspect of the problem here in Canada – which may be the most particularist part of this story, feel free to tell me how different your problems are – is the ideological one. It’s not just that writing is now habitually repetitive, feelings first writing, it’s that this approach to “good” writing is itself ideological and has infected virtually all mainstream writing and media institutions in this country. I won’t bore you with yet another take on the war inside the NYT, but Bari Weiss’ resignation letter describes Canadian media as much as it does the NYT:

Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions.

Elite Canadian journalism increasingly, in the name of the values of the “successor ideology,” is written for a narrow audience by people who think and see the world in the same way, even if they are all ostensibly committed to a very specific ideological account of diversity. Weiss goes on:

Op-eds that would have easily been published just two years ago would now get an editor or a writer in serious trouble, if not fired. If a piece is perceived as likely to inspire backlash internally or on social media, the editor or writer avoids pitching it. If she feels strongly enough to suggest it, she is quickly steered to safer ground. And if, every now and then, she succeeds in getting a piece published that does not explicitly promote progressive causes, it happens only after every line is carefully massaged, negotiated and caveated.

This has infected both reporting and opinion writing, even in our newspapers which are ostensibly on the right. The stories journalists here offer about the types of people produced by journalism schools – the people who now fill newsrooms – should not encourage you to think sentimental things about the innately robust nature of the Anglophone press. Inevitably public subsidising of our media will exacerbate this problem; and don’t hold out too many hopes for what commercially bankrupt trophy legacy media owned by socially ambitious tech billionaires will amount to either.

Money is power, and the public money that now supports much Canadian media is only going to incentivise media organisations to continue down this path, not simply because it removes market pressures, but because the incentives to publish this kind of orthodox writing and reporting will be the best way to ensure the public money continues to flow. Think on the class of person doling out the subventions. Even if publishing heterodox writing or limiting how much space is dedicated to feelings first writing won’t lose organisations money, the subsidies will still subtly shape content and push it towards the moribund writing that ticks all the right boxes and doesn’t upset the small elite audience that want this kind of writing. It’s already bad, and it’s only going to get worse.

Obviously we also shouldn’t pretend that media that doesn’t take public money is superior or automatically produces better reporting and content. Some of the newer independent sites that have emerged in the last few years have survived by being little more than sensationalist clickbait factories designed to manufacture outrage and controversy to generate the traffic that provides the necessary revenue. It’s a model which works as a business, but does it work for ideas? If neither of these models are viable for the kind of serious ideas journal I think conservatives so desperately need here, what realistic hopes should conservatives like me entertain? One of the positives that is emerging as writing increasingly becomes digital, is that options for small and independent writing and writers are also growing. This is why I’ve decided to have a go at starting something old-fashioned in type – a newsletter – but supremely modern in form. You will not see The Dominion on paper.

A newsletter allows me to reach a smaller, but more dedicated audience directly. It doesn’t require me to go through editors, and it doesn’t require me to filter or write about certain things to make sure I can get writing published in mainstream media publications. As yet, shadowy gatekeeepers have not been able to get their hands on our emails. I’m not going to stop writing for publications, but this newsletter will give you more honest perspective from me, because I can write about things that I don’t normally bother about because I know there’s nowhere to publish them.

I want The Dominion to be the start of something useful and worthwhile. What I think newsletters have the potential to do is recreate some of the best aspects of the old blogosphere, allow interesting voices to emerge and valuable and cordial networks and communities to form around the newsletters. If this has any success I plan on expanding it, having more frequent newsletters (for now it will be weekly), perhaps a podcast at some point, and more. While The Dominion is not the journal of ideas I want to build, I’m hopeful it might become a good springboard for one, and perhaps The Dominion can emerge as a network and community that could support a publication like this in the future. Subscribe here if you’re interested.

Why have I chosen the name, The Dominion? Won’t it, even conservative friends here worry, be wilfully misinterpreted as being “alt-right” or a “colonial name? Dominion is an old word, and Canada was once a Dominion. Some people still like to use it as an ode to Canadian history. But increasingly, radicals in the throes of ideological derangement see these kinds of references as “dog whistles.” It’s part of the same conspiratorial pattern that sees the “OK” sign everywhere as a secret white supremacist hand gesture because a few 4chan trolls suggested it, or the suggestion that Canada’s pre-Maple Leaf Red Ensign flag is a white supremacist symbol because a few nasty white nationalist groups have adopted it as one of their symbols. It’s vital that we don’t give into this, and don’t cede our historic and traditional symbols to the nasty voices that want to claim them for their own ends on both the left and the right. They feed off one another: we need to cut off their supply.

The best way to fight back against this is simply to refuse to surrender these symbols and words and to continue to use them unapologetically. Calling this newsletter The Dominion is in itself a tiny part of the fight. Even its name is part of the unfortunately necessary battle to not cede these words and symbols. That’s how total the war is.

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