What Cold War?

The concept of the "common reader" is dead

A poll has revealed that young people know virtually nothing about Communism (© Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The great American educator E.D. Hirsch, whose book Cultural Literacy has been such an inspiration for the schools revolution in England since 2010, has a notion of the “common reader”. This is someone a journalist can confidently expect to know the things that pretty much every other literate person in the culture knows. The shared knowledge that these common readers possess can, consequently, be defined as those things that a newspaper writer or a broadcaster does not feel the need to gloss.

These things, of course, change somewhat as the years pass. There must be a year of birth on one side of which everyone understands Clarissa, Lady Eden’s remark about the Suez Canal running through her drawing-room, while on the other side most are baffled. It is vital for intergenerational communication of all kinds that such changes are not too sweeping or abrupt.

Early last year, I jumped out of my seat when the BBC began to explain in the course of a news report the term “Cold War”, saying that it was “a period of ideological confrontation between the former Soviet Union and Western countries” and that it “ended with the collapse of the Soviet-led Communist camp in the early 1990s”. Who didn’t know that?

It turned out that the BBC were quite right. In June, the New Culture Forum (NCF) published a report I had written looking at what young people know and feel about Communism. We had commissioned a Survation poll of ideological attitudes among 16-24 year-olds. The oldest of the post-Communism cohort we surveyed were born in the year of the dissolution of the Soviet Union; the youngest a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

They knew next to nothing about Communism. Half had never even heard of Lenin. Seven out of ten did not recognise the name Mao Tse-Tung. Eighty-three per cent had no knowledge of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This generation were much more likely to associate Tony Blair with crimes against humanity than Pol Pot. They have very warm and positive feelings towards socialism; but do not much care for capitalism or neo-liberalism.

The NCF was founded ten years ago and was born out of the realisation that although the Right had decisively won the important economic arguments, the Left was still winning the culture war. There was a need to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies in academia, the media, entertainment and education. Two years later, along came Standpoint with a complementary vision and mission to open a new front in the battle of ideas against Communism and other threats to the West, such as radical Islamism. All of us engaged in this noble enterprise need to realise that the generation who know little and couldn’t care less about the crimes of Communism have been enrolled in huge numbers during the run-up to the EU referendum on the nation’s voting registers. They will be helping to decide who is our prime minister and our government at the next general election.

Since they do not share our frame of reference, and are not “common readers” in the Hirschian sense, we are going to have a heck of a lot of explaining to do — even about things that seem obvious. Next year marks one hundred years since the October Revolution of 1917. That seems a good place to start.

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