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Sunday West: October 9
The year that authoritarianism failed
Good morning, and a hearty welcome to all new subscribers. This week I wrote in defence of ideas unpopular with the British public, I did part 2 of people who cross historical periods, and a post on a book looking at the relationship between personality and politics.
As a further self-promotion one of my (very short) books is on special offer at just 99p, although it only applies to Britain (I have no control over these things).
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Old Vlad turned 70 this week but it hasn’t been the best of birthdays. Richard Hanania writes about how there really is no alternative to American-style democracy, and that China and Russia have both proved to be completely useless.
The end of history thesis was always as much about perception as reality. It wasn’t simply a matter of liberal democracies having the most robust economies and most stable governments, but that this view of their strengths was widely shared. Last year, Peter Thiel called China a “weirdly autistic country,” arguing that it is “profoundly uncharismatic, and I think that’s a very big limitation they have.” Yet autism is an extremely masculine trait, and can be appealing if it is combined with confidence and competence. One could have imagined a Chinese propaganda campaign aimed at the outside world that said “no, we don’t have Hollywood or Lizzo, but we’re doing amazing things in high-speed rail and quantum computing.” But an autist who is also a hypochondriac and won’t leave his house because he’s afraid of getting the sniffles doesn’t appeal to anyone. I used to think that China could be the kind of autist that builds SpaceX. Instead, it’s the kind that is afraid to look strangers in the eye and stays up all night playing with his train collection.
China is now a country where a citizen in a major city can go to an Ikea, hear an announcement on a loudspeaker that someone in the store has tested for covid, and have to run to the exit to avoid being locked in his house for days. Or a baby can be swabbed 70 times in her first year of life. There is something extremely depressing about a society that would do this to itself, and a people that would allow this to happen.
As for Russia…
The invasion of Ukraine has destroyed any prospect of that happening. This is not simply because it morally discredits the regime, but because the way the war has gone reveals the state to be fundamentally incompetent and lacking in appeal even to Russians themselves that live outside its borders. Most serious analysts and intelligence agencies thought that Ukraine would be crushed in the run-up to the invasion. That did not happen, and Russia has been forced to double-down on a strategy that will, in the best case scenario, leave it with more land and people but economically crushed and internationally isolated. It is losing influence and prestige even in the central Asian countries that the US either can’t reach or doesn’t care enough about to try and reform according to its own ideals. As the West cuts it off from advanced technology and Europe finds alternative sources of energy, Russia is certain to remain a poor, backward country indefinitely into the future, regardless of whether it adds a few million more pensioners in the Donbas.
They really have screwed up, lost tens of thousands of lives, and immiserated much of Europe in the process — but America keeps on winning. Although on that subject, this is eye-opening, to say the least, on the danger of escalation.
The “burning one’s bridges” or “resolve-signaling” theory of his recent initiatives is even more compelling for the most important escalation — the annexation of the four occupied regions of south-eastern Ukraine. The referenda and annexations dramatically raise the audience costs of Russian withdrawal from these occupied territories. In the same speech where he announced the reserve mobilization and referenda, Putin also issued very pointed nuclear threats, using the language of published Russian nuclear use policy to describe the Ukraine situation.
Precisely because it is such a dramatic break with precedent, even a demonstration detonation would radically change the character of the Russo-Western conflict over Ukraine. New Yorkers and Berliners etc, are likely to flee the cities. Everywhere, in Europe and America, supermarkets would likely empty within hours. Many local authorities may institute civil defense measures, even as federal governments everywhere urge calm. A widespread breakdown of law and order would be a real possibility; especially in America, where it would be attended by partisan passions and finger-pointing. Under such conditions, keeping the Western alliance together will become extraordinarily difficult. Indeed, it’s possible that even Nato would break under pressure, as anti-war and/or pro-Russian political forces emerge from repression and threaten to break the Western coalition.
This week I appeared on Matt Goodwin’s podcast, which should air soon, and we discussed the travails of the Tory Party. Matt also wrote about the space for a new party in Britain, in rough terms the top left quadrant where you will find the largest number of voters are, and almost no politicians.
Much of this confirms the story that was told by pollsters a few years ago, namely that the most fertile territory for a new party in Britain lies not in appealing to urban graduates but to a much larger number of voters who want a strong justice system, who are open to some immigration but want less of it —ideally a net migration figure of around 100,000 not 250,000- who want leaders to steer clear of disastrous foreign wars, who want to regulate (not deregulate) big business, who think the benefit system is too generous, and who are entirely comfortable with spending vast sums of money on the National Health Service if this means it actually works.
I tend to agree. Every country in western Europe which has reached a certain degree of multiculturalism has a right-wing populist party in double digits, and Britain will be no exception. I’d suggest the One Nation Party, although the Australian group of the same name might make it ‘not a good look’.
One reason to despair about conservative politics is people’s inability to get to grips with what it is we oppose or dislike; they say ‘woke’ to mean just liberal or even ‘nice’, when it applies to a specific worldview and has real-world effects (in particular with policing and education). This is in part caused by the Right’s performing monkey trap, and this week Jessica Gill at The Critic wrote about the problem of culture war as entertainment.
The right’s attitude seems to be trapped in 2016. The left are no longer fragile snowflakes. They are authoritarian extremists, commanding tremendous institutional power. Peterson’s and Shapiro’s talking points are no longer new. The right needs new vocabulary and arguments.
Instead of using their resources to build above the foundations, the right-wing broadcasting media insists on capitalising on the already existing culture war discourse. These media outlets seem less focused on trying to build a right-wing hegemony and more on pandering to their boomer audience, who sees the culture war as entertainment rather than something that impacts the real world.
Talking about Piers Morgan waffling on about bacon in Australia, she writes:
Is it any wonder that the modern British right is depicted as full of whiny, miserable gammons when the host of one of our main media outlets is getting triggered over health suggestions in another country? If this is the most pressing culture war issue that the right has to talk about, is it any wonder no one is taking it seriously? It is no longer the leftist college student but now the main faces of the conservative commentariat getting outraged over the tiniest disagreement. Instead of mocking the left, the right has become a parody of itself.
I think GB News does quite a lot of good things, and I suppose this is just the nature of the media, but — and I’ve said this before — what we really need is a conservative version of Radio 4.
This story about the Guggenheim, by Helen Lewis, is insane.
On the penultimate day of the exhibition, in November 2019, a panel was held at the Guggenheim to discuss the three overlapping exhibitions there, all of which included work by artists of color. The speakers included Ashley James, who had recently been hired as the museum’s first full-time Black curator—but, conspicuously, not LaBouvier. She went to the panel anyway, and stood up during the Q&A to say that “as someone that truly lives the politics of human dignity,” her omission was “so violent.” The panel’s multiracial makeup was itself a provocation to her: “To weaponize a panel of Black bodies of color to do your filth is insane. This is insane. And this is how institutional white supremacy works.” Elizabeth Duggal, then the chief operating officer of the Guggenheim, was also in the audience, sitting next to Spector. She stood up after LaBouvier, and said that the museum “does truly respect and appreciate your work” and that LaBouvier’s research had been acknowledged by the panel.
Read it all, and marvel how vulnerable institutions are. I have lots to say on this subject, but to quote José Mourinho, I prefer not to speak. If I speak, I am in big trouble…
At Quillette, Cory Clark and Bo Winegard write about the impact on academia of greater female participation.
The overall theme of these differences is that men are more committed than women to the pursuit of truth as the raison d’être of science, while women are more committed to various moral goals, such as equity, inclusion, and the protection of vulnerable groups. Consequently, men are more tolerant of controversial and potentially offensive scientific findings being pursued, disseminated, and discussed, and women are more willing to obstruct or suppress science perceived to be potentially harmful or offensive. Put more simply, men are relatively more interested in advancing what is empirically correct, and women are relatively more interested in advancing what is morally desirable.
One of the most overblown concepts in my opinion is ‘imposter syndrome’, where people supposedly underestimate their own abilities because, you know, you can do it; I’d say people have a pretty realistic view of their own abilities and often realise they’re just not up to the job. Anyway, Dominic Sandbrook would certainly not tell Liz Truss that she has imposter syndrome.
The Tories’ problems run deeper than Truss, of course, but since she’s such a colossal part of them, we can’t let her off the hook. I made a real effort this week to think of a Prime Minister who got off to a worse start, and the truth is, I can’t. Even Theresa May had a pretty long honeymoon until she blew it in the election catastrophe of 2017. Gordon Brown had a decent honeymoon, too, until he blew it by not calling an election. (Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.)
Perhaps the only vaguely relevant parallel is Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who succeeded Harold Macmillan at the end of 1963 after a very murky leadership fix by his Old Etonian Cabinet pals. As an unelected earl with, by his own admission, a poor television manner and a “face like a skull”, Douglas-Home was a ridiculous choice in the age of the Beatles and James Bond. But he wasn’t completely terrible. He had been a solid Foreign Secretary for three years, and to many people he represented a reassuringly tweedy kind of stability. In the Gallup polls, satisfaction with him never fell below 40%, which wasn’t bad for somebody at the end of a 13-year Tory regime. And Douglas-Home actually came pretty close to winning in 1964, with 304 seats to Labour’s 317. Does anybody seriously think Truss can win 304 seats? At the current rate, she’ll be lucky to make it into three figures.
Putting aside the structural, institutional and external issues, where does Truss stand in the pantheon of PMs? These are terribly early days, of course, but I think the answer’s pretty clear. Even if you admire what she represents — a kind of supercharged mock-Thatcherite free-market libertarianism — I think she’s comfortably the least impressive person to have become Prime Minister in my lifetime, since the advent of universal suffrage and perhaps even since the creation of the office under George I, or Queen Anne if you’re feeling eccentric.
By the way, this week’s Rest is History, on young Winston Churchill, is excellent. It actually makes me wish I hadn’t chickened out of calling my son Winston, because it was too unusual and too controversial.
Scott Alexander writes on predicting the future. The post contained this interesting point:
With the benefit of hindsight, everything about 9/11 and the War On Terror was a random blip in history with no broader implications. There was not a rising Islamofascism, there was not a clash of civilizations. There were a few guys in some caves doing terrorism, they got lucky once, the US got angry and invaded a few countries, and then everything continued as before. If people were ranking threats to the world order now, Islam and terrorism wouldn’t make the top twenty.
That is true, but perhaps only in an American context. 9/11 was horrific but a one-off, largely because there is no reserve of angry men to draw on. There aren’t American Muslim ghettos and Muslim immigration to the US is quite selective, while most Asian groups earn above the average and take part in the American dream. (The Pakistani urban middle class are, in my experience, among the best people on earth.) But in Europe the conflict is deeper, due to decades of large-scale migration; Western Europe endured a sort of intifada in the 2010s and I don’t thing the issue will go away, especially in France, even if religious attendance continues to drop. American conservatives have sometimes been hysterical about the dangers of radical Islam, vastly overestimating their risk of terrorist attack; but Europe is a different story.
Nate Cohn writes about how the emerging Democratic majority didn’t quite pan out.
Eric Kaufmann cited interesting polling about this in his book; a surprising number of Asians and Hispanics like the fact that America is majority white and culturally white. They want America to retain its European nature because that’s what makes the country what it is, and presumably because change will be destabilising. The huge destruction that followed the George Floyd protests obviously alienated many minority voters, too, voters who just want the people running their police departments and school boards to not be insane. But there is a certain sort of white narcissism among some progressives, who have come to view the world as white people and everyone else, and don’t realise that few see it that way.
An interesting substack, by Rian Chad Whitton, on one cause of national decline.
The answers to Britain’s economic woes won’t be found in a coworking space in Silicon Roundabout. Having large and globally competitive industrial companies is a standard that sets great economic nations apart from the rest. If you hope for any industrial strategy to succeed, it must be driven by companies that see themselves as distinctly British. It is time for Chesterfield Chaebols, Kidderminster Keiretsus, and Zone 6 Zaibatsus. It is time for Fomorian giants in Forest Green and Lovecraftian terrors in Lowestoft. Gogmaggogs in Guildford, Behemoths in Barnstaple, Grindylows in Grimsby and Leviathans in Leighton Buzzard. If we are to get back to Jerusalem, we should give the dark Satanic mills a chance.
Ben Sixsmith on how lots of things that were naturally left-coded are now right-coded.
Imagine someone who is dubious about vaccines, cares about eating natural, organic foods, and thinks that billionaires are messing with your mind man. Where would you place them on the political spectrum? I feel like ten years ago 95% of people would have guessed this person would be on the left. Now, I think most people would assume they are right-wing.
Finally, Samuel Hughes writes and tweets about architecture is such an interesting way that I predict big things for him, in particular on television. At Works in Progress he writes about the architecture wonders of Manhattan, including first-time exposure to a great modernist monstrosity.
One of the most famous buildings of New York is the Seagram Building, the vastly influential office block designed by the pioneer modernist Mies van der Rohe. The standard view is that the Seagram Building is a masterpiece that has attracted inferior imitators. I dislike many of the buildings inspired by the Seagram Building, but on the whole I like Mies, so this view has always appealed to me. On the other hand, I am slightly suspicious of accounts like these, which I call ‘evil imitator’ narratives. They remind me of the ‘evil counsellor’ narratives common in the Middle Ages, which allowed people to criticise the authorities without committing lèse-majesté by blaming all the authorities’ mistakes on the King’s advisors, rather than the King himself. Many people dislike steel slab blocks on empty plazas with facades of a single unvaried module, but it takes a lot of nerve to condemn the genius Mies himself. So it is easy to suspect a temptation to give a special exemption to the Seagram Building that it might not altogether deserve.
I would lack the confidence to articulate my opinions of the Seagram, which are essentially base instincts, except to say that, like much modernist stuff, it would look nice in a comic. But if the architectural establishment think it a masterpiece, that is enough for me, since they are guaranteed to be wrong about everything.
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