Extremism gives us little reason to laugh
Woke politics offers conservative satirists an easy target, but the results neither sparkle nor shock
We ought to be living in a great age of conservative satire. The dominant faction in the rich world’s Left is throwing up an embarrassment of targets. Yet conservatives cannot land a blow. Let me measure the extent of their failure.
Left-wing culture is humourless and pious. The first duty and greatest pleasure of the best satirists is to deflate the self-important bourgeoisie. The British Labour party, the US Democrats, the European socialist parties (what remains of them) are now bourgeois movements. The cultural elite is posher still. Labour members may not be as middle-class as Tories but they are noticeably richer than the average voter is, and it shows. The vast majority of writers and artists are middle-class too. They should have the inside knowledge to puncture the pompous.
The worst of left-wing culture is also vicious. In academia and online, the loudest voices are intolerant to the point of being inquisitorial. They pile on shame and blame. They call out and cancel. Their first rather than last instinct is to ban contrary opinions and humiliate those who cross them: the modern equivalent of the stocks. If they cannot punish directly by persuading the police to arrest their enemies or employers to fire them, they mobilise the opinion of colleagues and online strangers to demand public recantations, like Chinese communists demanding capitalist-roaders abase themselves before a Maoist court.
Writers, above all others, have a self-interest in defending freedom of speech (for if others can be silenced, so can they). Yet though plenty of conservatives announce their support for freedom of speech, I cannot think of one who has made a convincing case in its defence.
An example of the failure of a genre is this passage from Woke: A Guide to Social Justice by “Titania McGrath”, the pseudonym for the right-wing comedian Andrew Doyle, who earns his popularity in conservative circles by adopting the persona of a PC heretic-hunter. I have not gone out of my way to find him at his worst, merely thrown his book in the air and seen what page it landed on.
The more white writers insist on straying into black culture, the more I’m convinced that burning books and works of art is occasionally the right thing to do. When I’ve said this in the past, I have been accused of perpetuating a similar ideology to that of ISIS who, as we all know, have destroyed historical artefacts in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Needless to say, I am no supporter of ISIS, I simply believe that problematic art needs to be expunged in order to preserve a free and civilised society.
Did that have you howling with laughter? Did it raise your anger against the absurdity of the anti-cultural appropriation movement? Or did it just provoke a tired sigh and an urgent desire to move to next business?
The best satire sparkles. But, like a TV producer or newspaper editor who assumes the audience is thick, Doyle clutters the text with laborious explanations, ensuring that his prose trudges at the pace of the slowest reader. ISIS has “destroyed historical artefacts in Iraq, Syria and Libya,” he stops to instruct us. Gosh, so it has.
The best satire shocks. A new reader of Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” may think they are reading a sympathetic tract on the plight of starving beggars in 18th-century Ireland, until Swift hits them by reducing utilitarian solutions to poverty to absurdity and concluding that the poor should sell their children as food. “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food; whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.” Doyle’s punchlines rumble from afar like freight trains and arrive with the inevitability of Christmas. As with so many left-wing comedians, the satire is no more than “yah boo sucks, my opponents are hypocritical idiots,” which partisans of every cause believe.
The toughest satirists know their enemy. George Orwell learned about both the terrors and, crucially, the appeal of communism before he wrote Animal Farm. Like the soft-leftists who went along with Jeremy Corbyn because they thought he was a decent man, however, the Right does not understand the anti-imperialist far-Left. It never acknowledges the crimes of Islamic State, Hamas or Iran or lists the destroyed “historical artefacts”. It deals with clerical fascism by pretending it doesn’t exist.
I am quoting Doyle because he epitomises so many others. Maybe there are brilliant, undiscovered writers, but judging from the Conservative press and websites he’s as good as it gets. The reason for the mediocrity ought to be obvious. We are not living in a great age of conservative satire because, in the age of Trump and Johnson, true conservatives are everywhere in retreat. When the worst of the Right is as dogmatic and intolerant as the worst of the Left, the one cannot satirise the other.
Before I explain why, let me deal with two objections. The first contains a great deal of truth: a liberal-left outlook dominates the arts, television, theatre and comedy. At the height of Corbynism, a well-known comedian told me there were only four comics on the political comedy circuit who did not support the Labour leader. “They all repeat as one, ‘we are not in a cult,’ and can’t see why that’s funny,” he said, before adding that for professional reasons he would be grateful if I did not name him.
You only have to visit the subsidised theatre to know there is a vast range of political opinion its managers have effectively driven from the stage. The paranoid conservative belief in a liberal cultural elite determined to silence dissenting voice is not fanciful. Soft-left artists live in fear too. Indeed, social media activists reserve their greatest hatred not for supporters of the British Conservatives or US Republicans, but for centrists who are not on their side. If you believe, for example, that white supremacism permeates Western societies then you expect to find it everywhere. The smallest example of prejudice on the Left is therefore worse than undisputed prejudice on the Right, because the Left is meant to be leading the emancipatory struggle. In practice, heresy-hunting is also a good career move. Outrage entrepreneurs know that denunciation destroys rivals—thus opening vacancies for them to move into—and keeps frightened supporters in line for fear of receiving the same punishment.
When all that is acknowledged, the press remains dominated by right-wing proprietors and publishing remains a capitalist business. If one publisher turns down a potentially profitable book for political reasons, another will take it with gratitude. Right-wing writers do not have to look too hard to find sponsors.
Leftists raise a second objection. They explain the failure of conservative satire by saying that no one likes a writer who “punches down”: that is, mocks people who are weaker than they are. (Although that does not stop them mocking “gammons” or maintaining that poor, uneducated whites enjoy more “privilege” than a rich, Oxbridge or Ivy League educated person of colour.) Do you want to go back to racist gags about Pakis and poofs, they ask?
It is a fair question. But with power, as with property, location is everything. After Islamists massacred the genuinely brave satirists of Charlie Hebdo for publishing cartoons of Mohammed, liberal writers said the reason they did not protest against terror, and against clerical-inspired misogyny, homophobia, racism and tyranny, was not because they were scared a similar fate might greet them. Heavens, no. They stayed silent when they should have spoken out because they did not want to “punch down”. They are right to say that a majority of Muslims in Western countries are at the bottom of society (it is equally true that a majority don’t support radical Islam). But in the Middle East, and much of Asia and Africa, ultra-reactionary religion has terrifying coercive power. Even in the West, you can ask who has the more power: the cartoonist, or the gunman preparing to blow him to pieces. Or, to rephrase that question for 2020, who is the true representative of the elite, whose ideas are in power and determining Britain’s fate: the anti-European gammon in his retirement home or the liberal academic in his ivory tower?
For all these caveats, the argument about “punching down” gets closer to the heart of the reasons for the collapse of right-wing writing. It makes you ask what conservatives want.
Satire, after all, is often a conservative genre. I don’t mean that it is always politically Conservative with a capital “C”, rather that it can draw its strength from contrasting modern ills with the solid values of the past. The Roman satirists pitted traditional virtues against the decadence brought by new money and outlandish Greek ideas. Swift contrasted a happy peaceful Britain with the pointless foreign wars the Whigs had imposed on a suffering country. Orwell contrasted the mendacity and cruelty of the communist intelligentsia with the decent socialism of the English working class. The left-wing satirists who laid into Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s contrasted the cruelties of unconstrained capitalism with the security of the post-war welfare state. As technology makes it impossible for anyone to understand how the world works, I expect to hear many lamentations for the loss of a simpler age. The point here is not that invocations of an idealised past are true, but that they are a powerful and seductive literary device.
If modern Conservatives were truly conservative, they would know how to tear into the faddism of the woke Left. Conservatives in the Anglo-Saxon tradition said they were suspicious of grand projects to redistribute wealth and radical schemes to remake humanity by abolishing the difference between the sexes. Conservatives were tolerant because they knew that perfect knowledge could not exist. They were empiricists, who valued facts above theory, and traditionalists who understood the danger of tearing institutions apart when you did not know how to replace them.
Traditional conservatives still exist, but everywhere they are in retreat. Power belongs to the radical Right, and it cannot satirise the Left because it exhibits the Left’s vices. A Right that imposes Brexit on Britain cannot pretend that it has a sensible suspicion of social engineering when it is tearing up Britain’s relationship with the European Union without a clear idea of how to replace it. Meanwhile nominal conservatives display a familiar hatred for all who might limit their power.
Boris Johnson purged pro-European dissenters from his party and unlawfully suspended Parliament. He threatens the independence of the judiciary and talks about dismantling the BBC. Right-wing vendettas mimic the persecutions of the intolerant Left. “Conservatives” in power do not content themselves with going after avowed opponents. They also find the smallest deviation from their ideology intolerable. However great the paranoia of the Right—which it shares, incidentally with the radical Left—broadcasters and the judiciary are not the enemy. Broadcasters ask ministers hard questions. Judges tell the government to obey the law. Both perform the necessary tasks of a liberal democracy. But for that they must punished.
Looking into Doyle’s background, I wasn’t remotely surprised to find that he is associated with Spiked!, an online journal that grew out of Living Marxism and before that the Revolutionary Communist Party. Its ideologues have moved from the ultra-Left to the ultra-Right (they campaign now for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party) without changing a single facet of their conspiratorial mentality. Right-wing satire is such an abject failure because, in their hearts, the “conservatives” in power do not want to fight the intolerance of the radical Left. They want to imitate it.