The new edition of Conflicted plus my thoughts on seeing McCartney in concert for the first time
Pleased to introduce you to the new UK edition of Conflicted, now called How To Disagree. It’s the same text but my publisher felt it was time for a more direct style of title and I did not disagree. (No change in the US or elsewhere).
It looks great, don’t you think?
Founding member (‘God tier’) subscribers are entitled to a free signed copy. Just hit reply and send me your address. Or upgrade and do the same.
How To Disagree is available to order from Amazon or wherever you like to get your books from.
And so, on the theme of productive conflict…
THE CASE FOR CULTURE WARS
For me, this tweet encapsulates the way in which the term ‘culture war’ gets used by commentators on the liberal left:
Background: the OCR, one of Britain’s main exam boards, is reorganising the GCSE poetry syllabus to introduce more ‘accessible’ and ‘diverse’ voices (I put those words in quotation marks because they involve some rather tenuous assumptions), at the expense of poems by Philip Larkin (An Arundel Tomb) and Wilfred Owen (Anthem For Doomed Youth). That, to me, is cultural activism, even if you agree with it.
The OCR is effectively lowering the status of poetic tradition and raising the status of contemporary poetry, in order to meet certain social goals. Just because the decision-makers sit in an office in Cambridge instead of waving placards in the street, and just because they deploy bland language, that doesn’t mean they’re not engaged in politics.
Now, I’m sceptical of the whole exercise - I broadly agree with David James - but even if I thought the OCR was doing something smart and necessary here, I hope I’d be honest enough to admit that this is a politically assertive move, and be willing to defend it as such.
Instead, what happens is that policies like this are presented by left-liberals as apolitical, common sense, quasi-scientific decisions, taken by experts. They’re just the way things are, or have to be. So if anyone voices criticism, as the education secretary does in this case, that can only be because they are unreasonably belligerent.
We’re just taking sensible decisions on your behalf; if you object, you are engaging in a culture war. I’m a moderate, pacific commentator; you are a ghoul.
I have long thought it’s a bit odd quite how much people on the left love to bemoan culture war discourse. They talk about it all the time, despite or perhaps because of the fact the left has made a lot of progress on the cultural battles of recent years and met surprisingly little resistance. But it’s always the other side which makes war, never ‘us’. Meanwhile, to most voters, it’s probably the other way around. The left comes across as more culturally aggressive than the right, the more likely to ‘call out’ incorrect language or behaviour. I don’t think trying to make or police cultural change is necessarily a bad thing, by the way - the left has changed society for the better that way in the past. I just think it’s a bad thing not to be honest about it.
It’s true that the current government pro-actively engages in petty, and frankly futile, provocations, but such tactics are very small fry compared to the way that political, civil, academic and corporate elites have engaged in a stealthy redefinition of what it means to be, say, racist, or a woman. In some ways the discourse around these issues has been changed for the better as a result, in other ways not. But however you look at it, significant changes in cultural norms have been introduced from above, sometimes under the guise of a false consensus.
I think we should stop using culture war as an insult. After all, culture is very important to society and worth arguing over. I’ve written a whole book about how conflict can be productive. But for conflict to be healthy it has to happen out in the open rather than under the table or behind closed doors. It shouldn’t disguise itself as something else. If you think ‘decolonisation’, for example, is a meaningful and necessary activity, then recognise it as a contentious political goal, argue for it on that basis, and welcome counter-arguments. Instead, it gets presented as a neutral, merely bureaucratic term, and the pearl-clutching epithet of ‘culture war’ is wheeled out when anyone questions it. All of the actual arguments are thereby avoided.
Have it out, people! Let’s fight our culture wars honestly.
After the jump, for paid subscribers only (free with a seven day trial):
What happened when I went to see Paul McCartney play live for the first time, last week, in New Jersey.
The pro-choice case against Roe vs Wade.
A clever way to help people put down their phones and focus.
One of the most astonishing live performances ever caught on film.
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