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Sunday West: January 22
Canon clubs and nepo babies
Good morning, and welcome to all the new subscribers. This week I wrote about conservatives paying homage to MLK, about nepo babies and the industries which had become hereditary, and about my plans for ‘canon clubs’. It’s safe to say that there is lots of interest there.
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Elsewhere, Nicholas Harris at UnHerd wrote about Jeremy Clarkson.
But his spiritual and popular appointment to the English is a far tougher thing to dismiss. He is, like it or not, quite a lot of us men writ ludicrously, satirically large. Like a 21st-century John Bull: to paraphrase Auden, a self-confident, swaggering bully of meaty neck and clumsy jest. Whatever Clarkson’s professional fate, the question of whether our society can tolerate him has implications for the stomach and sensibility of the national character, of which he is a significant avatar and champion. And his rise and fall reads as a history of a changing English firmament, one in which public morality has come to supersede mere entertainment.
Plenty of time and work went into the germination of such a figure. Clarkson’s early life is a whistle-stop tour of the English class system. He was born rural, lower-middle class, Yorkshire. But, in a wonderful twist of fate, the Clarkson family came into money after his parents won the exclusive rights to sell Paddington Bear dolls, based on the ones they had made for him and his sister. With aspirational intent, Clarkson was sent to Repton, one of the North’s oldest private schools. There, he smoked, pranked and failed his way to expulsion, developing the likeable loutishness which is his career mainstay. And then he jumped social tracks again, entering the lowest rungs of the Fourth Estate at the Rotherham Advertiser.
Food for thought. I can’t help thinking that of the two stories involving Clarkson this past year, his inability to open a restaurant without NIMBYs stopping it probably says more about the state of modern Britain than his opinions on Meghan Markle.
This is very good, by Joe Hackett, on Sir Francis Drake and the ‘rewriting’ of history.
Once-respected figures from British history being ‘cancelled’ has been a trend at least since the rise of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement in Oxford around 2014, and it’s been turbocharged since summer 2020. Drake’s statue in Tavistock is now adorned with an ‘interpretation panel’ starting with a section about the slave trade. The local news article reporting on the panel’s erection repeatedly describes Drake as ‘controversial’.
Similar fates, from statues being toppled or ‘contextualised’, to establishments being renamed, have befallen a long and ever-growing list of historical figures. Multiple organisations, including the public and publicly-funded, have launched ‘audits’ aimed at identifying ‘links’ to the slave trade or the British Empire.
The last few years haven’t been about ‘teaching the whole story’, they’ve been about a conscious and dramatic shift in what parts of history we make a point of focussing on. The ‘slave trade’ section of Drake’s Wikipedia page, which didn’t even exist in its own right in May 2020, now amounts to 900 words, more than the same page manages about Drake’s role in defeating the Armada. The rest of Drake’s life is going the way of his laws regulating the pilchard trade, a footnote against the indelible stain of the words ‘slave trader’.
Similar stories are found all over Europe and America. Repatriation and reparation are the managerial buzzwords in stately homes, museums, and universities. New York museums have recently decided to return 161 artifacts to the Greek government, and Germany’s culture minister, Monika Grütters, solemnly stated that they “are facing up to our historical and moral responsibility to illuminate and come to terms with Germany’s colonial past.” Even France, arguably the most culturally proud Western country, recently published a government sponsored report titled “Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Towards a New Relational Ethics.”
He also mentions the Tate, which I’m afraid is completely lost to us.
A good Rob Henderson post on the success sequence
In a society in which decent norms have been undermined (primarily by the luxury belief class who themselves have benefited from such norms), prosperous and smart people are better equipped to navigate difficult questions such as “What behaviors will lead to happiness and fulfillment?” And “What family structure will ensure that my children have the best possible life?”
In the absence of powerful norms and their associated status incentives, high-IQ people still manage to adhere to habits associated with personal and professional success. If they are mired in severely dysfunctional and deprived situations (like I was), then it can take a bit longer for them re-direct onto their statistically likely trajectory (though having a decent life in adulthood does not compensate for their earlier experiences of dysfunction and deprivation).
Mary Harrington on women’s shaming powers. Her view: they’re good, but aimed at the wrong targets, that is people with different opinions rather than crims and pervs.
Wielding public shame has historically been women’s preserve. Arguably, it still is: not a week goes by without some unfortunate being pilloried on the internet for having a Bad Opinion - something that, again, Right-liberals are fond of denouncing. But the field of contest should not be the role - or necessity - of public shame, but its content. We are pointing an immensely powerful social force at entirely the wrong things.
The vanguardists of public shaming are, and have always been, bourgeois women. And at present, the loudest voices in this group insist that this tremendous power be wielded only in the name of ‘intersectional’ social codes, and not in defence of healthy lifestyles, public order, or sexual self-restraint. As long as this continues to be the case, Leviathan and its libertine denizens will continue to flourish - urged on, in different ways, by liberals of both Left and Right.
If you’re a conservative in public life, it’s very tempting to play the heel, says Aaron Renn. The heel is the baddie in American wrestling — when I was younger I remember there was some guy who had to dress up as an Iranian so he could get booed by the crowd before Hulk Hogan came along and beat him up. Because progressives dominate the media, they write the script and want you to play that role — don’t, says Renn.
The same storylines play out in real life too. In our society of mass media and heavily staged managed social media platforms, political, social, and cultural events are portrayed similarly to a pro wrestling storyline. These powerful institutions are able to write the story of how events are to be understood. This lets them create the drama, and critically to define which people are faces and which are heels.
As we know, the media is overwhelmingly establishment leftist in orientation. Thus they are almost always going to portray the person on the left as the good guy and the person on the right at the bad guy.
The conservative heel plays a key role in this drama, undertaking the actions that cause the average person, or the “normie,” and the major institutions of society to actively side with the left hero in the story.
I keep on promising to feature the best of readers’ comments, like Scott Alexander does, and so here they are.
Firstly, Ibsen didn't say "the minority is always right". Rather, he put these words into the mouth of a character, Dr Stockman, in An Enemy of the People. Granted, the play seems to take Stockman's side. But Ibsen took the other side in his very next play. Indeed, as critic Susan Taylor Soyars wrote, "Doctor Stockman is Ibsen's only hero whose uncompromising idealism never really threatens the happiness of others." In The Wild Duck, by contrast, Ibsen "mercilessly criticizes the messianic idealist," Gregers Werle, whose meddling leads to tragedy. Ibsen, Soyars writes, "praises Doctor Stockman for exposing the truth; but he denounces Gregers Werle for doing the same thing. [...] in An Enemy of the People, he completely supports the radical; and in The Wild Duck, he totally rejects him.”
In other words, it's false, or at least misleading, for Johnson to claim that "Ibsen preached the revolt of the individual against the ancient regime of inhibitions and prejudices which held sway in every small town, indeed in every family.” Ibsen endorsed Dr Stockman's revolt, and condemned Gregers Werle's revolt. He was a great dramatist, and no mere ideologue, because he understood that what might be the right course of action in certain circumstances could be the wrong one in others.
Irena, meanwhile, comes to the defence of Sartre:
Sartre definitely flirted (perhaps more than flirted) with totalitarianism, but he was a brave figure. He survived a couple of assassination attempts, which were due to his support of Algerian independence (a plus in my book, and if it's not in yours, then I don't know what to tell you), and he seemed unfazed. And of course, he was active in the French Resistance (he wasn't super effective, but he did what he could, and he could definitely have gotten himself killed). He was certainly a womaniser, but he was generous to a fault (as he got older, he lived in quasi-poverty despite his substantial income, because he supported so many of his former mistresses, which he was in no way obliged to do). None of that was in Johnson's book? Then there's a book that I don't need to read.
Theodore Dalrymple on Ibsen is also excellent.
And on Le Corbusier.
Reading Dalrymple first gave me the idea that there might be something very wrong with the figures venerated by my radical professors.
After the loss of Johnson and Scruton, who is left to carry the torch against the intellectuals? I am thankful every day for Ed West, Dalrymple, Christopher Caldwell and Helen Andrews. The trick is getting their writings onto the screens of the impressionable youth.
There is an "atelier movement" that attempts to provide worthwhile artistic training, not necessarily religious.
The Catholic Art Institute offers a prize for sacred art.
I especially liked that comment.
There were many comments on the canon club idea; I need to see if I can find someone who’s good at organising then I will get in touch with people who are interested.
NADFAS – the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts - already do a lot of this, Ed. I also belonged to a branch of the ESU English-Speaking Union which organised talks on the British in India, a recital of The Wasteland, snippets from Dickens and medieval poetry.
Gerry Box writes:
There is an extensive national free network of venues already available that is crying out to host more events….and the are much warmer (in heating) than most churches. The public library network would be happy to host such a venture. As a ‘statutory service’ even vicious funding cuts have not been able to eradicate it….it’s the one public service that receives almost universal public endorsement….even from non-users. People seem to know that such a service is valuable in and of itself. Most (not all) have community rooms that can be hired and lay on basic tea and coffee facilities. You are literally surrounded by books….many oh high culture, and anything that encourages users to actually take out membership (also free) and books (free again if returned on time) is actively encouraged. Librarians will help publicise and promote such events through websites national and local. They already host lectures by groups such as University of the 3rd Age ( laid on for us ‘coffin dodgers’), who provide their own speakers (some paid, some volunteers) on everything from art to bee keeping.
JonS suggests an eight-point line up, including Fall of Rome ‘(the most WSOH subject ever, we should probably start with this)’. (I have got another few fall of Rome posts lined up. It is one of my favourite topics)
(1) Needs much more structure/focus to work or people will be intimidated by the vastness. Maybe by century/topic to state the obvious ways of doing so. Universities used to specialise in this sort of thing e.g. the Harvard Classics, which the author succeeded in popularising to quite an extent.
(2) There’s obv. no possibility of the enterprise being apolitical given how hostile universities are to the very idea of Western Civilisation, even as far back as 1987 when it is said, “ Jesse Jackson and around 500 protesters marched down Palm Drive, Stanford University’s grand main entrance, chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go.” They were protesting Stanford University’s introductory humanities program known as “Western Culture.” For Jackson and the protesters, the problem was its lack of “diversity.” The faculty and administration raced to appease the protesters, and “Western Culture” was formally replaced with “Cultures, Ideas, and Values.” (3) Related to (2) one needs to be hugely mindful of Conquest’s Second law.
Ragged Clown suggests
Check out Level One classes on the Open University. A111 is a whirlwind tour of the humanities - poetry, architecture, ancient Greece, philosophy, art, music, history, literature. It's about 70-30 learn the thing vs learn how to learn things like this. My first exposure to the humanities in 40 years and I enjoyed it tremendously. There's no commitment to do the whole degree and none of that ideology stuff that you don't like.
David Cockayne says
I'm not sure you can entirely escape theory; it tends to be the inevitable result of asking questions. What matters, I think, is that theories (plural) should be regarded as a species of flora inclined to take over the garden unless confined, regularly weeded, and where necessary, entirely uprooted and burned.
They use weekly 1-2 hour Zoom based reading groups of 8-10 people who jointly read one of the classics over 10-12 weeks. Each group is lead by a tutor with a PhD.
Next idea. Arnold Kling’s Substack is holding weekly Zoom calls to review a popular book or topic. The next one in on Monday January 23 on ChatGPT and AI. ‘
I think that's where another necessary component to a canon club / salon (beyond its content) is something like the spirit it embodies (which would perhaps encompass things like accepted behavior and standard process).
To put it another way, a successful canon club would be a practice; or be composed of a cluster of practices. A member of the club wouldn't just be picking up abstract knowledge for bragging rights; he would be simultaneously cultivating habits that would permeate the rest of his life.
- Listening to understand, not to argue against
- Comfort with having assumptions challenged and framing broken and re-made
- Interacting productively with opposing ideas without damaging the relationship with the person(s) holding them
...all of which are habits that deeply need to be cultivated in society.
At the core of that would have to be a kind of dialogical process. John Vervake (along with others) uses the term "Dia-logos" to specify a kind of productive conversation where each person is able to arrive at a place they wouldn't have gotten on their own. If that is the sort of spirit a canon club is undertaken in, I think it would (mostly) pre-empt the shouting matches; and could be quite transformative.
I agree. The principle of charity would have to be central, a big absence in debate on social media and politics. The club would need to have an ethos: it would need to be, well, civilised.
Thanks for all the comments and I will keep everyone updated about any developments on the canon club.
There is no Sunday newsletter next week, but it will return on February 5. See you then, and thanks for subscribing! WSoH now has over 12,000 subscribers in 135 countries, and I can see in the analytics that there are now as many in the US as in Britain. A special shout out to my one subscriber in each of Somalia, Bolivia, Zimbabwe and Kazakhstan!
Wrong Side of History is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.