The culture of intolerant individualism preaches diversity but practises conformity
We live in an age of intolerant individualism. Anything goes — until suddenly it doesn’t. In the anarchy of identity politics, the absence of rules makes everyone feel insecure. And insecurity breeds intolerance, with all its attendant vices: safe spaces, virtue-signalling, no-platforming. The culture of intolerant individualism preaches diversity but practises conformity.
Closed minds can’t preserve an open society. We are proud that Standpoint has upheld the true toleration symbolised by the free press, as the historian Niall Ferguson acknowledges: “In the era of fake news, Standpoint provides authentic comment,” Professor Ferguson tells us. “A single hour of leafing through its pages is worth a year on Twitter.”
Yet even those who benefit most from toleration are unclear about its limits. Bari Weiss, a young New York Times editor, writes about “the Intellectual Dark Web” — a sinister-sounding coterie that apparently includes Jordan Peterson, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and our own Douglas Murray, although this is doubtless news to them. Ms Weiss wants “the institutional gatekeepers to crack the gates open much more”. Does she not realise that she is one of those gatekeepers? “I don’t, however, want to live in a culture where there are no gatekeepers at all,” she complains. This is the voice of a climate of insecurity, where even the civilised are too timid to defend civilisation.
We live in an era of abundance of methods of communication and sources of information. Two centuries ago, at the outset of the modern era, extending the boundaries of discourse was incomparably harder. The obverse of such limitations was the incentive to acquire vast erudition and to travel to the ends of the earth in pursuit of first-hand knowledge. The age in which Western civilisation became conscious of itself was also the age of the genius, the polymath and the explorer. How strange that, of all the European sages of the early 19th century, the one who has been most fêted by the European Union should be Karl Marx, whose spectre has haunted humanity ever since.
In the Berlin of the 1820s, a far greater man, Alexander von Humboldt, was one of the first (along with the Royal Institution) to use the public lecture to astound not only the republic of letters but the newly-educated middle class with his descriptions and discoveries. As Marin Meinhardt shows in A Longing for Wide and Unknown Things (Hurst, £25), her brilliant new biography, Humboldt was an entertainer as well as an educator, deploying all the rhetoric of romanticism to evoke the sublime vistas of the Americas, illuminated by the novelties of science. Kosmos, Humboldt’s unfinished magnum opus, sought to encompass the entire corpus of natural science to depict the earth and its place in the universe. Was this a Romantic or an Enlightenment project? Either way, Humboldt was perhaps the last man who knew everything — and knew how to explain it all, too. The late Stephen Hawking, who enjoyed a similar celebrity in our day, could not even make up his mind about his own subject, cosmology, let alone render it comprehensible. The age of the polymath is well and truly over.
For this reason, the role of intellectual magazines such as Standpoint is more important than ever. Our scope is wider than that of more narrowly political periodicals. Our ambition is not merely to provide a running commentary on the ephemeral preoccupations of the Westminster village, but to defend the values and explore the achievements of Western civilisation against the relentless onslaught of the barbarians and philistines. Michael Gove encapsulates the contrast with typical aplomb: “Standpoint is the Athens to the Spectator’s Rome.”
When this magazine was launched exactly ten years ago, many gave us months at most. They underestimated the appetite of a discerning public for the “thoughtful and provocative articles” in this “splendid magazine”, to quote Gertrude Himmelfarb, the doyenne of American intellectual history. Loyal readers and generous donors continue to support our stand against the consensus of those too lazy to think for themselves.
We have just witnessed a troubling display of near-unanimity in British public life, not against our enemies but our allies: against the United States for reimposing sanctions on Iran and moving its embassy to Jerusalem, and against Israel for defending its borders against tens of thousands of Palestinians. Standpoint consistently opposed the Iran Deal and supported the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Implied in the violence on the Gaza border, however, is a threat to civilisation that Israel cannot but resist. Recall what happened in the Gordon Riots of 1780, once evoked by Dickens in Barnaby Rudge and now again by Antonia Fraser in her masterly new book on Catholic Emancipation: The King and the Catholics: the Fight for Rights, 1829 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25). She reminds us that some 1,000 Londoners were killed in the Riots, hundreds of them by the Army; dragoons charged to the rescue in Downing Street; a mob 50,000 strong wrought havoc, burning, murdering and pillaging throughout the capital, all in the name of “No Popery”.
For 18th-century Protestants, think 21st-century Palestinians. Who can doubt that if mobs from Gaza rioted in Israel, there would be similar — or much worse — scenes of carnage? Prime ministers, leader writers and BBC correspondents should hesitate before condemning Israeli soldiers for picking off Hamas or other terrorists among the rioters in order to prevent the kind of pogroms that Jews have endured down the ages. It is an illusion to think that such a Day of Rage could not erupt again in London. Were religious riots to engulf Europe, not only Jews and Catholics but everyone would suffer. And our troops too would have no choice but to shoot.