Discover more from Wrong Side of History
Return of the Mac(ron), terrible ideas from the 60s, and the (radical) Right Young Things
The best of April 2022
I spent the first week of April in the most beautiful, and miserable, country on earth. The French are a mystery to us; sitting in their gorgeous farmhouse in this earthly paradise of a country, blessed with incredible healthcare and generous pensions, drinking Premier Cru Bordeaux and eating the finest food known to man, with their heads in their hands feeling utter despair.
True, there is a certain darkness that hangs over France, a country with deep and lingering divisions and where the radical Right is closest to power of any western nation. Marine Le Pen won 42% of the vote this time around and in UnHerd, Christopher Caldwell reflected on how French politics is class war.
Much discussion of the presidential election has involved France’s “archipélisation”, after a concept developed by the political scientist Jérôme Fourquet. Increasingly, the elite and the non-elite political tendencies have no more contact with one another than if they were living on isolated islands. Macron is the candidate of rich cities, beach towns, ski resorts and the “instagrammable” parts of France.
But, 60 kilometres outside of France’s cities, Marine is the most popular politician. She is the candidate, writes Fourquet, of people whose work involves repetitive tasks, bad smells, irregular hours and loud noises. In the very richest neighbourhoods, though, it is as if she doesn’t exist. In the first round in the 6th arrondissement of Paris (the one that contains St-Germain-des-Près and all those cafés Hemingway drank in), she got 4% of the vote and finished sixth. Just 854 people ticked her box.
We live in an age of dispersion, meaning that most people behave in more extreme ways than they would have a few decades back. Far more people are very promiscuous, but far more are totally celibate. We read lots about the huge increase in people with no friends, but I suspect that social media has made many others even more hyper-social. The same is no doubt true of employment where, especially in the US, many more work intense hours. But record numbers of men also do absolutely nothing, and this is hugely concentrated in the lower social classes. As Rob Henderson writes on his Substack:
Today, one in six American men between the ages of 25 and 54 are unemployed or out of the workforce altogether: about 10 million men. This number has more than doubled since the 1970s.
Over the past half-century, the number of men per capita behind bars has more than quadrupled.
Among white American males in the bottom 30 percent of socioeconomic status, the number of prison inmates per capita has quintupled since 1975. For those in the top 20 percent of socioeconomic status, the rate has remained virtually unchanged.
Henderson, who came from a working-class background before attending Yale, blames the lack of social norms being enforced from above. He writes that
If you come from poverty and chaos, you are up against 3 enemies:
1. Dysfunction and deprivation
2. Yourself, as a result of what that environment does to you
3. The upper class, who wants to keep you mired in it
Like anyone who hasn’t spent the last few years in a cave in Tora Bora, I’m aware of the various problems overcoming academia, in particular the political intolerance. It’s hard to avoid noticing on Twitter that quite a few academics seem to have debilitating levels of anxiety, while others display symptoms of borderline personality disorder.
As an explanation for why that whole world has gone so strange, I would highly recommend Kathleen Stock’s account of how it all came about out of good intentions, and a desire to be more nice and less confrontational.
The most obvious manifestation of this change was that younger British members of departments started talking like fake Yanks. An implausible degree of positivity in talks became the norm, even amongst the otherwise morose. Upward inflection became commonplace, as did the intensifier “super”, an implied exclamation mark, and an unfeasibly perky demeanour (see, for instance: “Thanks for a great talk, that was super insightful!”, uttered enthusiastically by someone from Wolverhampton). Ostentatious expressions of folksy informality became more common - or at least, terminally uptight philosophers’ best attempts at them. So for instance, some audience members started - shudder - bringing knitting along to talks. Meanwhile speakers, under a guise of flattening the hierarchies, could show off to others about their acquaintance with powerful figures in the profession by discussing their work on a casual first-name basis (“So here’s what Crispin thinks about higher order vagueness!”).
But whatever the truth about its origins, the demise of the old approach meant that aggression was still knocking around - of course it was - but now it had to go somewhere else. As the numbers of Phds being disgorged into the philosophy job market every year increased, and the number of jobs available decreased, competition amongst philosophers, always high anyway, became even more intense than usual. Where that aggression had formerly been expressed and so somewhat contained within the combative rituals of the seminar room, it now sought new outlets. And what it found was the internet.
Stock is probably best known to many for her treatment at the hands of transgender activists, who pushed her out of her job at Sussex University. Many are driven by the confident belief that people being labelled transphobes today will be viewed in the same way as people who opposed gay rights.
I think that unlikely, and there’s a good chance its excesses might eventually be regarded as quite bizarre; such as this strange-sounding book which Brendan O’Neill’s writes about very amusingly in Spiked.
I’ve seen some gaslighting in my time, but the new book from transgender professor Grace Lavery takes the biscuit. It is almost entirely about Lavery’s penis – as confirmed by its title, Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis – and yet if any of you dare to refer to Lavery as a man you will be branded a bigot. It has page after depressing page about Mr Lavery’s cock – how shrivelled it has become since he started popping female hormone pills, how it ‘does very little but flop around’, how it occasionally ‘takes a stab at stiffening’ – and yet anyone who says ‘He must be a bloke, then’ will be denounced as a foul transphobe deserving of cancellation.
Why would you write a book about your penis? I really don’t that we’re looking at the Right Side of History here. Neither, though, will Julie Bindel or Janice Turner be remembered as feminist heroes who fought a great injustice; I think it’s more likely that the whole thing will be downplayed in the collective memory, because it doesn’t suit any vocal lobby to commemorate.
I’m a monarchist, although I have somewhat lost confidence in the royal family, and fear they have tough times ahead. But there is something impossible romantic about deposed royal families, as
Leka II’s other names pay tribute to the leaders who helped the royal household in its long exile: Anwar is for Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat; Reza is for Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran; Baudouin is for Boudewijn, an uncle of the current king of Belgium. Msiziwe is a Zulu honorific, derived from the word for “helper,” a reminder that when Zog’s grandson was born, in South Africa, the government symbolically designated the maternity ward as Albanian soil.
Leka lives modestly; the original royal palace was confiscated by the Communists in 1946, and the royal household today receives no funding from the state. He has no constitutionally recognized role. And he has only a minuscule chance of regaining the throne. In some ways, his story is quintessentially Millennial: In previous generations, a crown prince could look forward to a secure, permanent job, with a salary and great benefits. Instead Leka is performing royal duties for “exposure,” in hopes of being hired full-time.
One of the greatest functions of royalty is simply to be seen. That is why medieval monarchs held royal progresses, touring their lands, touching the sick, and hearing the grievances of the poor. They sent portraits of themselves to be displayed in cathedrals and countinghouses. They put their face on coins. The modern version of this is social media, and Leka has become a sort of, well, prinfluencer. His wife, Elia, is particularly popular on Instagram—she was a member of the Albanian answer to the Spice Girls before marrying him—and he posts photos of himself with extravagantly bearded religious leaders or in black tie at the weddings of fellow royals, and the occasional selfie at the beach with baby Geraldine. An internship in monarchy.
Put like that, monarchy feels incredibly well-suited to our times.
Last summer, when my younger daughter left primary school, there was as custom a leaver’s assembly — several of the children got to tell the gathered parents and teachers about their fondest memories of school and their hopes for the future. All but one expressed a desire that in ten years’ time, they would have their own flat, an almost universal wish for people to enjoy independence and freedom as they reach maturity. And inside I felt a sadness at the reality of the London housing market, and imagined Kristian Niemietz standing at the side with a loudspeaker announcing each time one spoke, ‘you vill never have ze flat because of ze nimbies’.
There is an existential crisis with housing and this Substack post, ‘The Triumph of Janet’ explains how the British economy works for the benefit of the older generation. I’m not sure how we really break this intractable problem, Street Votes being the best solution so far, because it aligns the incentives towards housebuilding. But this is the number one problem facing the country.
Immigration will soon be rising up lists of people’s concerns as well, though. Illegal crossings of the English Channel have now reached record levels, largely driven by the British state’s inability to remove people.
In The Critic, Niall Gooch points to a key problem with the debate over Rwanda — that many people are functionally pro-open borders, and oppose almost anything to stop illegal migration. Gooch was also writing in the Spectator, on how little Conservative-led governments have achieved in 12 years. Aside from Brexit, you might have woken up from a coma and had no idea who had been in charge; and even Brexit has not turned out how many people thought.
Take the Malicious Communications Act 2003, frequently used by the police and the CPS to harass or prosecute people who send ‘offensive’ tweets. It would not be difficult to amend or repeal this part of the law. Or consider the Equality Act 2010, which embeds in policy-making and institutional action the following assumption: disparity in outcomes among different groups is ipso facto evidence of racism. It need hardly be said that this assumption is antithetical to conservative thought and empowers a class of interfering commissars. It leads to absurdities like those police recruitment gender targets: it is now dangerous to the career prospects of civil servants and officers to even raise the possibility that there is a good reason for police forces to be largely made up of men.
Why is the Equality Act still a thing, 12 years after a Conservative prime minister entered Downing St?
On a similar subject, at the Critic Stephen Daisley writes about the killing of David Amess.
Home Secretary Priti Patel promised “big changes” to the law and pledged to “look at everything”, including a ban on online anonymity. Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Nadine Dorries admitted her Online Safety Bill “might not have changed what happened last week” but said Amess’s death had “highlighted” the internet as “the home of disgusting, often anonymous abuse, and a place where people are radicalised”.
Sir Keir Starmer urged the Prime Minister to “build on the desire shown by this House… to get things done and commit to bring forward the Second Reading of the Online Safety Bill”, while Speaker Lindsay Hoyle called on social media companies to “get their act together”, saying: “If it was up to me and I was in charge of legislation, I would have done something.”
When things are going badly, people have a tendency to focus on small, irrelevant but less daunting aspects of their lives rather than tackling the obvious problem, whether it’s substance abuse, toxic relationships or whatever.
Britain doesn’t have a problem with ‘online hate’, it has a problem with Islamism, the product of a naïve and thoughtless immigration policy based on the belief that ‘diversity’ was a good in itself. But, like the boozer who’s wrecked his life, facing up to the consequences of such choices would be psychologically too painful; so much easier to just focus on some completely imaginary problem that can be more easily addressed, such as online radicalisation.
On the subject of the failing Tory Party, Juliet Samuel in the Telegraph summarised the quite incredible lack of astuteness by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, in not thinking his wife’s non-dom status was a massive problem. He can be one of these things, but not both.
One is entirely consistent with non-dom status. It’s a lifestyle of moving around the world, retaining strong links to various places but only committing to a country on the condition that the financial obligations involved are not too onerous. We have a non-dom regime because we recognise that such people have a lot to contribute but can live wherever they want and, if we tax them too much, they will leave.
Then there is the other model. This lifestyle involves pursuing political power at the highest levels in a democracy. It does not mean you have to wear a hair-shirt, earn only the median income and obsess over the price of a pint of milk. But there are some basic requirements, and one of them is that one half of the household does not claim on a tax form that their stay in the country is merely temporary while the other half preaches publicly about his commitment to Britain, how “we’re all part of this whole” and then raises taxes on us all to prove it.
I know it’s quite low status to talk about elites being globalists who are out of touch with us real sons of toil working in journalism, but you do rather expect a couple living in 11 Downing Street to express some sort of commitment to the country.
The Shor case became famous, but anyone on Twitter had already seen dozens of examples teaching the basic lesson: Don’t question your own side’s beliefs, policies, or actions. And when traditional liberals go silent, as so many did in the summer of 2020, the progressive activists’ more radical narrative takes over as the governing narrative of an organization. This is why so many epistemic institutions seemed to “go woke” in rapid succession that year and the next, beginning with a wave of controversies and resignations at The New York Times and other newspapers, and continuing on to social-justice pronouncements by groups of doctors and medical associations (one publication by the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges, for instance, advised medical professionals to refer to neighborhoods and communities as “oppressed” or “systematically divested” instead of “vulnerable” or “poor”), and the hurried transformation of curricula at New York City’s most expensive private schools.
Haidt is a fair-minded guy so is able to point to idiocy on both sides; me, however, I bathe in liberal tears, I drink liberal tears, I.. you get the point. I just love to hear about the other side’s faults so that I can feel better about myself. So I obviously enjoyed Michael Lind’s piece in the Tablet about the intellectual decline of the Left.
If you are an intelligent and thoughtful young American, you cannot be a progressive public intellectual today, any more than you can be a cavalry officer or a silent movie star. That’s because, in the third decade of the 21st-century, intellectual life on the American center-left is dead. Debate has been replaced by compulsory assent and ideas have been replaced by slogans that can be recited but not questioned: Black Lives Matter, Green Transition, Trans Women Are Women, 1619, Defund the Police.
In the 1990s, you could be a progressive in good standing and argue against race-based affirmative action, in favor of race-neutral, universal social programs that would help African-Americans disproportionately but not exclusively. Around 2000, however, multiple progressive outlets at the same time announced that “the debate about affirmative action is over.”
It's true that the Left has grown more credal, demanding that its adherents sign up to a fixed set of beliefs on core issues, which is not true of the other side. I’m not sure he’s entirely right about it being dead; you just have to look in unusual places, such as First Things and the writing of Sam Kriss, who is certainly interesting and unorthodox. And, like any good public intellectual, he annoys his own side. His takeaway in this piece: the young are all commies now, although not, you know, real commies.
When people say that tomato sauce is political, what do they actually mean? In most cases, they’re not talking about the migrant laborers who pick the tomatoes, or workers in the canneries. They want the tomatoes to affirm that black lives matter. Like my younger self, they’re not trying to achieve anything in the world; the object is to be a certain type of person. This is how street movements like BLM can mobilize millions of people for an urgent and righteous cause and change nothing. No reduction in poverty or police violence, just a new kind of corporate branding. Food might be political now, and sitcoms, and novels, and every conversation with everyone you’ve ever known, but the sole exception seems to be politics itself. Today, being obsessed with politics is just apathy by other means.
Meanwhile, this Vanity Fair piece on young Right-wingers was interesting to read. I suppose the counterpoint is that I’m pretty sure I’ve read something similar in the past, and nothing really comes of these young conservative subcultures because they have very limited influence.
What Yarvin is, if one wants to be accurate, is the founder of neoreaction, an ideological school that emerged on the internet in the late 2000s marrying the classic anti-modern, anti-democratic worldview of 18th-century reactionaries to a post-libertarian ethos that embraced technological capitalism as the proper means for administering society. Against democracy. Against equality. Against the liberal faith in an arc of history that bends toward justice.
Instead, neoreactionaries subscribe to the classical idea that history moves in cycles. In an era when the iconic Shepard Fairey portrait of Barack Obama captured the HOPE of the nation, Yarvin and his followers were busy explaining why liberal democracy was already doomed.
Unlike some of the other neoreactionary writers that emerged in the last 20 years, Yarvin possessed a style that, even when discoursing at great length on the gold standard or obscure historical matters, never suggested powdered wigs. He wrote like what he was: a hyperintellectual Ivy League autodidact and wiseass tech geek masking his childhood insecurities with an aura of infallibility, who shared the same set of subcultural and sitcom references found in anyone else his age
At its best, this approach made difficult ideas accessible—not to mention viral. In one of his earliest blog posts, Yarvin birthed the now-ubiquitous meme of “the red pill,” a metaphor he borrowed from The Matrix movies and turned into a worldwide catchphrase describing the revelation of a suppressed truth that shatters progressive illusions and exposes a harsh underlying reality.
Yarvin is an exceptionally clever guy but I tend to agree with Siegel that his vision of the world lacks any real place for the human. ‘Even where his designs are most immaculate, they are somehow bereft — like a beautiful but empty city.’ I’ve read Moldbug’s great essay on neo-reaction and, while there is much of interest, I agree with Scott Alexander.
A neo-reactionary state is not the kind of place where anyone would actually want to live, especially not the young traditionalists looking for something in their lives. I’m all in favour of young people posing as reactionaries in order to shock their parents and upset leftie teachers, but in practice it would be hell.
He attracts less interest but Steve Sailer is probably a more important figure on what you might call the dissident right, probably the most influential thinker that no one admits to reading (but they all do). Sailer is a more straightforward Burkean conservative, just one who doesn’t abide with existing taboos about the blank slate; but being not so interested in obscure continental thinkers, he has less of a cult following of young people.
It’s a great source of interest to me that so many intellectuals — people who read a great deal and think deeply — are so often terrible human beings. So the Jacob Taubes story sounds fascinating. As Mark Lilla writes:
The most astonishing turn in his public life came in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when he was teaching at the Free University in Berlin. Muller, a specialist on Germany, is at his best in the Berlin chapters, weaving together perceptive accounts of the postwar intellectual scene and the political dynamics that led to radicalization and terror. Taubes, ever on the lookout for transgressive opportunities, had a central role in both. At one point the former yeshiva bochur declared himself a Maoist and could be found running teach-ins with the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse. At the same time he was cultivating a relationship with the disgraced legal scholar Carl Schmitt, the antisemitic “crown jurist” of the Third Reich, whose works he promoted for their radical potential.
The Sixties really were very weird, a period of unthinkably terrible ideas and social innovations. On that subject, the fantastic new issue of Works in Progress features a piece by Michael Dnes on the insane plans that developers had for our capital.
Today, London has only one ring road – the M25 – which runs through the city’s rural fringe, often over 20 miles from London’s official center at Charing Cross. But back in the sixties, the intention was to have three linked together with new and extended radial motorways stretching all the way into what would become Zone 2, which includes Brixton, Holland Park, Maida Vale, Bethnal Green, and Camden. The overall effect would have been to turn the map of London into a gigantic dartboard.
Each section of the project had its own plans for sacrilege. The outermost ring road, Ringway 3, would have been built next to some of London’s leafiest suburbs, not to mention across the remains of Henry VIII’s favorite palace at Nonsuch. In the middle, Ringway 2 would have crashed through the endless terraces of south London before crossing the Thames, putting the finish line of the river’s annual boat race in the shadow of a six-lane concrete bridge. One square mile of prosperous Chiswick would have played host to not one motorway, but three.
In a sensible world the people proposing this would have been sectioned, or placed on some government watchlist of Known Wrong’Uns, but the curious twist with this piece is that the unintended consequences of stopping these plans were also terrible. Can’t build ugly monstrosities if you can’t get anything built!
Richard Hanania writes some very interesting pieces on Substack, and this month he interviewed Gail Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego, on one of his favourite themes: progressive dogma being built into US law.
In her 2020 paper, she frames the issue of disparate impact in a way I hadn’t thought of before. Literally any practice you can think of has a disparate impact. Try to think of a way of hiring or promoting people that does not benefit one group at the expense of another. If everything is potentially illegal, and government does not have the resources to go after everything, then the government basically has arbitrary power to do whatever it wants under civil rights law.’
Also by Hanania – why you should be on Substack.
One of the recurring themes in our culture is that it’s dominated by people raised with a love of rebellion who long ago won their battle. So Conor Fitzgerald writes about why TV shows in the age of Apple, Amazon and Google present ‘oppressive corporate power IBM circa 1965’.
The forgivable reason is that this is just a fun style – it’s a little played out, but it gives the show a distinct feel; choosing to use purely a 2022 reference points you run the risk of dating faster, and making it look and feel forgettable. Visually, this style has been adopted to a degree by corporations in how they present themselves, and has filtered throughout the rest of society, demonstrated by the ubiquity of MCM furniture. The other answer is that Hollywood is incapable of challenging corporate powers of today because those powers leverage the core beliefs of Hollywood artists.
Our culture is essentially run by the children of the 60s, who are unable to accept that they are now in power, and have been for some time, so must permanently relive their rebellious youth.
In Reason magazine, Phillip Magness writes about the terrible emptiness of the 1619 Project, lauded by America’s establishment despite being obviously terrible history.
While the majority of the public discussion around The 1619 Project has focused on Hannah-Jones' lead essay, its greatest defects appear in the Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond's essay on "Capitalism." Hannah-Jones' writings provide the framing for the project, but Desmond supplies its ideological core—a political charge to radically reorient the basic structure of the American economy so as to root out an alleged slavery-infused brutality from capitalism.
Hannah-Jones' prescriptive call for slavery reparations flows seamlessly from Desmond's argument, as does her own expanded historical narrative—most recently displayed in a lecture series for MasterClass in which she attempted to explain the causes of the 2008 financial crisis by faulting slavery. "The tendrils of [slavery] can still be seen in modern capitalism," she declared, where banking companies "were repackaging risky bonds and risky notes…in ways [that] none of us really understood." The causal mechanism connecting the two events remained imprecise, save for allusions to "risky slave bonds" and a redesignation of the cotton industry as "too big to fail."
The theory that slavery is at the heart of modern American capitalism is so feeble, so easily disproved and such bad history — so expect it to be taught in British schools within the next five years.
I saw The Northman. It was visually spectacular and I couldn’t fault the acting, but found that I didn’t really care about the characters. But the film’s attention to historical accuracy, nonetheless, makes it very interesting to historians, which is hardly surprising when Neil Price was historical consultant for the project. William Buckner, an expert on hunter-gatherer societies whose work is fascinating and sometimes disturbing, tackles the subject in his recently launched Substack.
Everything has been in decline since the 90s — the 1890s that is, although much of British life has become worse since the Blair tyranny began 25 years ago. The young will never appreciate what was lost. As Alwyn Turner writes about in UnHerd, there developed a strangely cruel streak in British culture towards the end of the century.
There was a certain nastiness, a cold cruelty, that was becoming evident in culture. The new stars of comedy were those such as Jimmy Carr and Frankie Boyle, causing tabloid outrage with bad-taste jokes. Or there was sketch show Little Britain, with its blackface and its fat-suits, its skits on vomiting, incontinence and gerontophilia. The most recognisable creation here was Vicky Pollard, the chav schoolgirl who gets pregnant and swaps her baby for a Westlife CD. Similarly the character who made the most impact in The Catherine Tate Show was another chav schoolgirl, Lauren Cooper, with her catchphrase “Am I bovvered?” Mocking the working class seemed funnier now than it had back in the days of Cool Britannia, when Pulp had sung Common People.
Finishing with France and Ben Sixsmith explores the strange case of R.S. Archer, the Twitter account supposedly written by a British man across the Channel. Archer appeals to almost all Remainer prejudices, as well as general middle-class fantasies about France and ‘abroad’.
Sixsmith suggests that ‘The real RS Archer, whoever they might be, is not eating duck and scallops on their French estate. They are much likelier to be eating microwaved pizza in Hull. They enjoy wallowing in their fantasy of high culture and high living, and basking in the respect and admiration that it brings them.’
I’m sure he doesn’t live in Hull. It’s probably Luton.