This post was inspired by Tiredofeulies, who lamented the fact (and it is a fact) that the younger generation seem so entirely unable to understand any concern the older generation might have for the direction in which our country is heading. As a member of that younger generation, I wondered if I might be able to help bridge the gap, and perhaps give some insight into the modern snowflake. For yes, a snowflake I was.
I was born in 1991. After the wall came down. After the Cold War. After Thatcher lost power. After the ‘end of history’. My first political memory was the funeral of Princess Diana. I was six years old. I dimly remember it because nobody talked about anything else the whole summer, and because when I returned to school I distinctly remember my headmaster asking, in a school assembly, “So, hands up, who’s fed up of hearing about Diana for weeks on end?”
At school I dropped history as soon as I could. I was better suited to the sciences. That means my official, compulsory knowledge of history was: Vikings (horned helmets, wot they did not have), the Battle of Hastings (“The Normans, so-called, because they were all called Norman.” t. Dennis the Menace), Henry VIII (divorced, beheaded, died…), WWI (evil imperialism’s fault) and the lead up to WWII (evil nationalism’s fault). Compulsory British school history ended in 1945. The empire was left awkwardly unmentioned.
After that, the next political event I remember is 9/11. Lots of people now will not own up to having supported the Iraq War at the time. I did. The men on the screens said that Saddam was a bad man and we would bring democracy to the Iraqi people. Well that sounded jolly nice to me. What amazes me now is that, unlike me, our leaders did not have the excuse of being twelve years old.
I went on to have very boring left-wing opinions. I was also heavily into the New Atheism movement, particularly Professor Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. So how did a good little liberal end up in the company of you depraved, unspeakable reactionaries?
Well, my upbringing was, in a way, quite old-fashioned. One side very working-class (Welsh miners), the other a particular kind of middle class (the colonies, East Africa). My parents encouraged me to read a lot. There was not much television (today my view of what my mother calls ‘the idiot box’ is pretty much that of T.S. Eliot, who thought it turned peoples’ brains to mush, most particularly those of children). I liked A. A. Milne, Enid Blyton, Dick King Smith, Brian Jaques, and then later Conan-Doyle, Tolkein and Dickens. I also started Orwell very early. I think I picked up Animal Farm at about eight because I liked stories about animals. I reread it several times over the years, because my childish self could not understand it, but knew there was something important in it. What was this strange book actually about?
I think this reading was probably the most important part of my escape from being left-wing. I really do think it was not so much what I read, but that I read, and that I read books that were published before the 1960’s. It was not even consciously political. Having read books that were written from a pre-cultural-revolutionary time, I was aware, even if only dimly, that there was another way to think. Stories about personal heroism and valour do not feature much in modern childrens’ writing. Most people my age do not really read, and simply know no other way of looking at the world than through a haze of imagined oppressions. They have their own Newspeak, which prevents them from thinking in any language other than snowflake. Indeed, many of them are quite physically unable to read, as they do not have the attention span. The time I read least in my life was at university where, to put it delicately, there were many other distractions. After university I tried to read properly again, and found I could not manage more than a page or two before my attention started to wander. I had to re-learn the art. But at least I was aware that there was something wrong with me that I could not read. What must it be like for those who never learned in the first place? Who had only ever been entertained as children with screens? Books must seem hopelessly dull to them.
The other factor was school. My parents sacrificed a lot to send me to an independent school. It was a C of E school of a type plenty of you will recognise, but few young people will. My first headmaster there used to address us all as ‘boy’ and called us to order for saying grace at lunchtimes by slamming a metal ladle on a table. There were shorts all year round, long runs in the cold rain, and lines. The older teachers were masculine (both the men and women). They weren’t afraid to tell us off and call us lazy. However, the newer teachers coming in were feminine (again, both the men and women). They ‘encouraged us’ rather than ordered us about, and ‘facilitated our learning’ rather than taught us anything. Many of them could not spell, and were annoyed at being corrected (yes, I was awful, I eventually learned to shut up and let them get on with it). By the time I left school, all the old teachers were gone. I did not really pay attention to all this at the time, but I realise now that what I experienced must have been the very last gasp of old-fashioned British education. Give me the child, and I shall give you the man, indeed.
Going for Woke
It was the free speech that did it. That and Islam. I guess I was always more of a liberal than an outright leftist. This is one thing for which I am very grateful to the New Atheists. They suddenly became ‘right-wing’ for criticising Islam, and criticising proposed laws against ‘Islamophobia’, or blasphemy laws, as they so obviously are. It was the first time I dared to wonder, maybe I’m not completely left-wing after all? After that, the change was fairly rapid. I am particularly indebted to Peter Hitchens and his ‘Abolition of Britain’. It begins by imagining a young woman transported back from the 1990’s (my time) to the 1960’s, and the things she might see and notice that were different. For the first time, I felt I understood just how someone much older than myself might view the world, and the changes they would have seen. Peter Hitchens, Sir Roger Scruton, Theodore Dalrymple, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and a number of others slowly transformed me into a conservative, and then, a downright reactionary.
I wrote this tiny autobiography because I think in it are contained some very clear lessons of just how our culture has been shifting so rapidly, and how such a disconnect has grown across the generations. There has been a colossal failure of the transmission of culture between them. Things that everyone over 40 knows, most under 40 do not. I was a teenage leftist like everyone else. I was able to grow out of it quickly because I already had embedded in me the knowledge of something deeper, more beautiful, and more true, even though I did not understand it at the time. Set aside against the intricacies of history, utopian ideas sound trite. I have heard it said (by whom I struggle to remember, Orwell? Rushdie?) that the English language is one in which the truth sounds more beautiful than a lie. I really do believe this. After you have read A Tale of Two Cities or Moby Dick, hearing modern politicians butcher English with their talk of inequalities, narratives, and oppressions is a bit like watching a man try to play a piano with an axe. They really do make me wince. I was inoculated against modern progressivism by being brought up with books, and not even political ones. Just good ones.
It has left me absolutely convinced that our problem is not about politics. It is about culture. Lenin believed the party vanguard could direct culture. There is perhaps some truth in this, but ultimately, Lenin’s revolution failed. Gramsci, and his long march, understood it better. But as Andrew Breitbart put it, politics is downstream from culture. I resent the communist (and feminist, and fascist) idea that all life is political, but it is in some sense inescapably true. Politics is not 650 apes sitting in a building on the Thames, rubber-stamping us into a police state without bothering to read any of the laws they vote on. Politics happens every day, out here, in the real world, around family dinner tables, machines that give you horrible coffee in offices, and in pubs (the mass closure of pubs is an attack on British politics all by itself).
So what is to be done? I am tempted to quote General Patton and say “nobody ever defended anything successfully, there is only attack and attack and attack some more”. On some level, the progressives understand this. Politics is their religion and it must be inserted into everything. They never have to defend their ideas, because they are always attacking. Much more fundamentally however, the lesson is that our political identity comes largely from culture, upbringing and an understanding of our own history. Many of these ideas are formed in our childhood. It feels presumptuous of me to try to tell you all this. Most of you probably already have children, or even grandchildren. I do not. But I must say it, because it seems as clear as the November sky outside, and because I cannot say it to anyone my own age. Children learn (or ought to learn) far more at home than at school. If you do not teach your children who they are, someone else will, particularly if they are left in front of a television or ipad screen for hours a day. I hate politics in schools, and watching children ‘striking against climate change’, chanting slogans they could not possibly have understood, and being lauded for boot-facedly shouting and swearing at the adults around them, gives me an almost visceral reaction. It is totalitarian. I strongly feel that if parents and teachers focus on teaching children to be personally good (not politically good, to this day I do not know how my parents vote, and do not wish to), and if they are able to guide children’s natural curiosity into learning about things that encourage deep personal reflection (that is to say, ‘high culture’), then they are given the best chance of becoming thoughtful and independent adults. Our opponents have only their wretched politics. We have all of Western Civilisation on our side.
Now, I’ve told you that I think politics is downstream from culture. So, from what is culture is downstream? I think I have an idea. That might be an article for another time.
© LePlusPetitViolon 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file