by Benjamin Schwarz
In the interests of efficiency, I’ll start by asserting — not arguing — some propositions: In their discussions of cultural life and of societal trends, the organs of American educated opinion (the New York Times, NPR, the New Yorker, et al.); the faculty and students at our elite prep schools, colleges, and universities; and the members of the metropolitan class who read those publications and emerge from those institutions, frequently and increasingly assert, rather than argue, a set of vaguely interlocking propositions and slogans concerning (I’ll spare the scare quotes) white privilege, social justice, systemic racism, diversity, inclusivity, micro-aggressions, and the intellectual and cultural heritage — irrelevant at best, baneful at worst — of dead white males.
Although both the champions and critics of these propositions characterise them (and the attendant attitudinising) as ‘political’, they are nothing of the sort. They are merely gestural. Lacking subtlety and depth, they amount to the intoning of shibboleths unsupported by reasoned, detailed, systematic analysis and argument. An orthodoxy has taken hold of intellectual, cultural and academic life, an orthodoxy nurtured and protected by an overweening and aggressive sense of virtue and righteous aggrievement that permits it to go unchallenged by the scepticism and bracing scrutiny that used to characterise — in fact to define — intellectual, cultural and academic life.
A recent example of the way in which this orthodoxy of the bien pensant at once begets and buttresses intellectual slackness is a piece by Richard Brody on the horror-thriller movie A Quiet Place in the New Yorker. That magazine was once the home of the movie criticism of Pauline Kael, a liberal who was unsparingly, brilliantly hostile to the received wisdom and to drearily self-congratulatory progressive opinion. Today Brody holds a post as one of the magazine’s film reviewers, which is one of the most coveted cultural jobs in the world. The conventional if classy post-apocalypse sci-fi film, an earthbound Alien, that he reviews is set in rural upstate New York and depicts a family, the Abbotts, who are beset by sightless alien monsters with hypersensitive hearing. The aliens have already killed most of humanity, and the premise of the movie is that the key to human survival is to remain silent.
Brody chooses not to assess the aesthetics of the movie, or its technique, or its performances, or its effectiveness as a form of entertainment, but rather what he instructs his readers are its ‘politics’, which he insists are ‘regressive’. Why? Because, he explains, the protagonists’ ‘obvious public identity is as a white rural family’. Brody goes on to declare that the film’s viewpoint is racist: ‘In their enforced silence, these characters are a metaphorical silent — white — majority, one that doesn’t dare to speak freely for fear of being heard by the super-sensitive ears of the dark others.’ That the characters live in rural isolation is plausibly accounted for in, and essential to, the plot of the movie — the monsters had made short work of the noisy populations of urban centers — and, more important, the bucolic setting forms a visual counterpoint to the grim horror confronting the Abbotts. That they are white could very well be explained by the movie’s northeastern rural setting (black or Hispanic farm families being fairly thin on the ground in Ulster County, New York), and by the important fact that the movie’s director — for reasons that one could conceivably speculate run from the artistic to the workaday to the mercenary — cast himself and his real-life wife (both of whom are white) in the starring roles.
That the protagonists must conduct themselves in silence is a premise that efficiently enhances the tension that the movie is trying to achieve, and is a clever if standard cinematic conceit, since it perforce accentuates visual storytelling (movies being a visual medium), with a pedigree that dates at least as far back as Rififi (1955). Similarly, that the frightening aliens might appear ‘dark’ (though they have whitish heads) could perhaps be accounted for by the fact that most of the horror scenes — following horror-film convention established long before The Cabinet of Dr Caligari — take place at night (night being, since The Bacchae, a standard setting for scary scenes).
But Brody, hot on the trail of Hollywood’s hidden alt-right bias, is oblivious to such cinematic and commercial requirements and conventions, which would render straightforward and benign readings of an ordinary thriller. Instead, he concludes by ominously declaring, ‘Whether the Abbotts’ insular… way of life might put them into conflict with other American families of other identities is the unacknowledged question hanging over A Quiet Place, the silent horror to which the movie doesn’t give voice.’ Befitting a monster movie, the Abbotts are put ‘into conflict’ with… monsters, and it takes an imagination both dogmatic and elaborate to discern in that conflict, or in their manner of living as depicted in the film, any suggestion that the film’s protagonists wouldn’t get along famously with ‘other’ families, be they Muslim, gay, black, or Belgian.
How could this review have gone so risibly off the rails? To be sure, there’s a long critical tradition, from William Hazlitt through Orwell to Susan Sontag and beyond, of subjecting the artifacts of popular or mass culture to somewhat strained, if not overwrought, interpretation. But what Brody has done here — which is hardly atypical of his work or that of so many contemporary writers and intellectuals — is to contort his subject beyond recognition in a fit of moral preening and in service to a fashionable and flimsy set of attitudes. So convoluted a rendering of a conventional movie would seem to demand especially close analysis and an exceedingly carefully built case. But Brody’s review — at once fanciful and reductionist — is so overstated and under-argued, so crude and so relentless in its pursuit of its vacuous agenda, that it is not merely the antithesis of interpretive analysis, but of intellectual inquiry itself.
Those Americans who conceive of themselves as on the left might be understandably suspicious of those who castigate the New Yorker — a magazine now firmly in the progressive camp — for doctrinaire anti-intellectualism. After all, the ostensible commitment by some on the American right to such intellectual values as critical thought and free speech is often little more than a cudgel by which to beat the crazy campus-and-metropolitan progressives. Too many conservatives fail to recall that William F Buckley’s God and Man at Yale — the publication of which ‘marked the birth of the modern conservative movement’, as the historian of conservatism Lee Edwards rightly asserts — is nothing less than a manifesto against freedom of expression, open-mindedness and academic freedom, and for the proposition that teaching and scholarship (at Yale and similar universities) should be restricted to those who adhere to specific and — by Buckley’s lights — politically, economically and religiously correct dogma.
But luckily for those on the left — and for those on the right, for that matter — the best aspects of the left’s own intellectual traditions and worldview, themselves, provide the antidote to the sort of lazy attitudinising, the illiberal identity-group point-scoring, the grim-faced virtue-signalling — the wokeness — in which Brody indulges and that has become what passes for the left’s intellectual posture.
Bearing in mind the crucial distinction that attending to aspects of a tradition does not imply endorsement of an entire tradition, let us briefly consider two revolutionaries. The first is Karl Marx, himself. The second, CLR James — the black Trinidadian pan-Africanist and anti-colonialist activist, socialist political organiser, stalwart anti-Stalinist, founder of the Johnson-Forest Tendency within the Trotskyist Workers’ Party; a profound historian (Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution), a novelist (Minty Alley), an innovative and subtle literary critic (Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In), a film critic, a rigorous Marxist theoretician (Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin), and the greatest writer on cricket in history (Beyond a Boundary).
Given their concept of class struggle as the engine of history, what we now call identity politics was utterly antithetical to their worldviews (as James baldly put it, ‘the race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics’). Both shunned what we now call cultural relativism, and unhesitatingly grasped that, owing to economic and social development (not to racial differences), Western civilisation was vastly superior — in its literary and intellectual traditions; in its commitment to freedom of thought; in its political institutions; in its scientific method; in its treatment of the poor, of women, and of marginalised groups — to what was on offer in the underdeveloped world.
The minds of both were formed exclusively by the study of dead Europeans, specifically by a classical education. Both were trained rigorously and thoroughly in Greek and Latin, and could with ease and grace translate both languages into their native language and vice versa. Marx wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus’s conception of self-consciousness, which of course demanded that he fully grasp the intricacies of Epicurus’s philosophy in the original Greek, and fully absorb the complex arguments and exegeses of the later Latin commentators. As a scholarship boy at Queens Royal College, Trinidad’s elite secondary school, James prepared for what would be the life of a radical by immersing himself not only in Aeschylus and Euripides, Cicero and Tacitus, Horace and Thucydides, but in French literature, European history, applied mathematics, and the English classics — the King James Bible, Hazlitt, Thackeray, Milton, Spenser, Shakespeare, Dickens, George Eliot, the Romantics, Burke — which penetrated deeply into his mentality and intellectual style. (‘Thackeray, not Marx, bears the heaviest responsibility for me’, James, the supreme Marxist dialectician, declared).
As James recalled:
‘In my youth we lived according to the tenets of Matthew Arnold… we studied the best that there was in literature in order to transmit it to the people — as we thought, the poor, backward West Indian people… I didn’t learn literature… bathing on the shore and getting the sun of the colonial countries; I set out to master the literature, philosophy, and ideas of Western civilisation. That is where I have came from, and I would not pretend to be anything else.’
Although he worked to reinforce what he saw as the bonds of all peoples in the African diaspora, to James the Western canon was integral to the humanist universalism and progressive politics that ultimately animated his career. ‘I want to make it clear that the origins of my work and my thoughts are to be found in Western European literature, Western European history, and Western European thought’, he declared unabashedly. ‘I think the people of the underdeveloped countries accept me and feel that I have a lot to say that is valid… But… I didn’t have to be a member of an underdeveloped country… I didn’t have to be an exploited African. It is in the history and philosophy and literature of Western Europe that I have gained my understanding not only of Western Europe’s civilisation, but of the importance of the underdeveloped countries.’
But as James happily acknowledged, the West’s — really, Britain’s — influence on him was at least as much ethical as intellectual. James was a ‘cultural Marxist’ — really, a Gramscian — in the true meaning of that term. He grasped that values, outlook and ideology could take on an autonomous life, separate from the material conditions that engendered them, and separate from the material interests that they originally served — and that those autonomous values could both buttress and undermine those conditions and interests. Yes, he believed that Queens Royal College was the invention of a ‘colony ruled autocratically by Englishmen’, and that it was created to serve the interests of that regime, however broadly those interests were defined. Yes, he acknowledged that he could be fairly caricatured as ‘a sworn enemy of British imperialism’. But those values that his school inculcated in him, especially on the cricket pitch, allowed him to attain ‘a mastery over my own character’. As an adolescent, James explained, he absorbed and assimilated his school’s code:
‘Before very long I acquired a discipline for which the only name is Puritan. I never cheated, I never appealed for a decision… I never argued with the umpire, I never jeered at a defeated opponent, I never gave to a friend a vote or a place which by any stretch of imagination could be seen as belonging to an enemy or to a stranger. My defeats and disappointments I took as stoically as I could. If I caught myself complaining or making excuses I pulled up…. From the eight years of school life this code became the moral framework of my existence. It has never left me. I learnt it as a boy, I have obeyed it as a man.’
James’ outlook puts him in a long tradition of left-wing radicals — stretching back to the artisan radicals that EP Thompson illuminated in his grand study of The Making of the English Working Class and to Marx, and that later includes Orwell, Richard Hoggart, Aneurin Bevan, Thompson himself, Eric Hobsbawm, Eugene Genovese, Christopher Lasch, and Neil Postman, who have prized the bourgeois values of industry, sobriety, moral and social restraint, and fortitude, and who have recognised the inculcation and pursuit of those values as essential to any worthwhile individual life, social order, intellectual undertaking, and for that matter, revolutionary endeavour.
Moreover, that outlook allowed James to recognise that, even if British rule was ultimately repressive, it was not only repressive — and that one’s ideological opponents could be admirable, principled and courageous. Though his teachers were, he acknowledged, in indirect ways agents of an oppressive system, they were — high Tories and chauvinists among them — virtuous, dedicated men who bestowed on James the very instruments to oppose that system. Of his headmaster, James, the anti-colonialist, wrote ‘no more devoted, conscientious, and self-sacrificing official ever worked in the colonies’. And, yes, James’ colony may have been born in racial exploitation, but James recognised that the very ideals most prized by the exploiting class subverted that exploitation. The ‘race question’ was ever-present, ‘but it did not intrude’ on school life because ‘if the [teachers] were so successful in instilling and maintaining their British principles as the ideal and norm… it was because within the school, and particularly on the playing field, they practiced them themselves’.
Like his fellow old-school British Marxists, Hobsbawm and Thompson (and such old-school members of the British New Left, such as Perry Anderson), James prized good manners and civility, and like them he recognised that, committed activist though he was, vital human spheres existed outside of politics. They, unlike so many of today’s self-described progressives, refused to conflate the personal and the political, because, even to further their political commitments, they recognised that there were certain realms too important to leave to politics. So James, the black Marxist, was, thanks to his profound understanding of the game and the warmth of his courtly manner, the most esteemed figure in British cricket, a world that combined the white working-class clubs in Nelson and Sheffield, in the industrial north, the clubs in the broker belt of the Home Counties, and the toffs at Eton, Winchester and Lord’s. And all of them rigidly segregated their scholarship and teaching from their politics. At a practical level, they believed that their political goals would be furthered not by indoctrination, which only succeeds in producing revolutionaries (or social-justice warriors) with flabby minds, but by rigorous scholarship and adherence to bracing academic standards. Where today even high-school teachers believe it their moral duty to advance their social agenda in the classroom, Thompson, for instance, understood that his duty was to train minds and that, given the power and influence teachers and professors exercised, they should never push a political line in the classroom. For his part, Hobsbawm, whom I knew and liked enormously, may have held opinions regarding the theoretical costs and benefits of a hypothetical version of Soviet Communism that people of good conscience could find abhorrent (I did), but his scholarship was impeccable, as Niall Ferguson, a brilliant, painstaking historian who happens to be right-wing and to adhere to a neoconservative foreign policy view that I (and most of spiked’s readers), oppose, attests:
‘Eric Hobsbawm and I were friends… His politics did not prevent Hobsbawm from being a truly great historian. I continue to believe that his great tetralogy – The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of [Capital] (1975), The Age of Empire (1987) and The Age of Extremes (1994) – remains the best introduction to modern world history in the English language… Hobsbawm the historian was never a slave to Marxist-Leninist doctrine. His best work was characterised by a remarkable breadth and depth of knowledge, elegant analytical clarity, empathy with the “little man” and a love of the telling detail. He and I shared the belief that it was economic change, above all, that shaped the modern era.’
It should be noted, by the way, that social conservatives would applaud, and could learn much from, Hobsbawm’s unsurpassed analysis of the corrosive effects of modern identity politics, and the unrestrained individualism that engendered those politics, on social solidarity, moral restraint and family stability. James, Anderson, Hobsbawm, Genovese and Lasch understood that they could learn much from their ideological antagonists, and that their ideas would be honed by confronting the best ideas that their antagonists offered. As James wrote admiringly of TS Eliot: ‘He is of special value to me, in that in him I find more often than elsewhere, and beautifully and precisely stated, things to which I am completely opposed.’
That James could so deeply admire aspects of a system he resisted, that he could recognise the virtue and decency of those who were (objectively speaking, as the Marxists would say) his enemies, gave him the ability, at once steely and generous, to take the measure of his opponents. It gave to his politics a cool, analytical style wholly foreign to the emotive, self-regarding posturing of what passes for politics among what passes for the left today. In facing the ascendency of Margaret Thatcher, for example, James called for a response that demanded not vituperation of a figure for whom he had a more than grudging respect, but instead one that demanded ruthless self-assessment and a clear-eyed dissection of the conditions that brought her to power:
‘I believe Lenin was the greatest political leader, theoretician and organiser that we have known… How would Lenin have dealt with Margaret Thatcher? Lenin would have said, “She has won three times. Something happens once, that is an accident. The second time, maybe it is a coincidence. But the third time, that is an orientation. She has won three times, let me see why.” He wouldn’t rush into agitation to put up somebody against her. He would have said, “Bring me all her books and everything she has said”. He would have analysed them all and he would have said, “She represents this and this today is stronger than it was, and she sticks to that, and that is why she wins; and now to defeat her we have to get down to these fundamentals.”’
Now, as the passage above plainly demonstrates, it would not be unjustifiable (though I think it would be far too simplistic) to label, and for those so inclined, to condemn, James as a hardened Marxist. Fair enough. But things have come to a pretty pass when we must look to hardened Marxists — and not to the critics at the New Yorker or to the professorate — if we want to move beyond vacuous, self-aggrandising sloganeering to tough-minded, respectful and nuanced political-cultural analysis.