Walking up the driveway on my first day of secondary school I felt an added sense of trepidation on account of the dandyish slip-on shoes I was wearing. As I entered the school buildings I ran the gauntlet of a rowdy phalanx of students, giddy with first-day nerves. They smelt fear.
A piercing cry rang out: “check out the shoes on Armstrong”. A chorus of guffaws followed leaving me red-faced and mute. On returning home that afternoon I dolefully slipped off the offending shoes for the last time, recovering an old, innocuous, pair that would do service for another year. The following day no one noticed my change in footwear as I blended with the crowd, no doubt dispensing my own barbs still suffered silently decades on.
I suggest another damaging conformity emanates from a superficially progressive elite that hold back radical change in the UK and Ireland, mostly by controlling media pronouncements, that can ultimately be traced to the educational system
The alt-right which now whisper into US President Trump’s ear are a collection of misfits who hark back to a halcyon 1950s landscape of milk bars, jukeboxes, white picket fences and horn-rimmed glasses. The Fourth Turning they imagine is a fiction that invents an enemy in extreme Islamism that appeals to a similar myopic nostalgia among their equally deluded adherents.
Nonetheless, I am drawn to a term ‘the Cathedral’ coined by an otherwise abhorrent alt-right ideologue Curtis Yarvin, a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug. According to Paul Eliot’s superb account that recently appeared in Village: ‘The Cathedral describes a media-academic-cultural consensus with conditions for belonging: members must ascribe to the progressivist religion and must accept dogmas from feminism, multiculturalism and trans-rights activism.’
The alt-right are correct nonetheless that what used to be called political correctness excludes certain positions from expression in the liberal fraternity. Witness the former leader of the Lib-Dems Tim Farron being hounded from office for his Christian beliefs, and in Ireland the treatment of John Waters by his former colleagues in the Irish Times, as well as the “group-think” that impelled RTE Prime Time journalists to jump to conclusions about a missionary priest.
I agree with the Cathedral on social issues, although I find the shutting down of debate distinctly undemocratic. My difficulty with this broad liberal consensus is that their dogmas extend well beyond issues of personal conscience such as gay sex or reproductive rights. I suggest the Cathedral now occupies a position on the centre right that stymies meaningful distribution of wealth, and environmental shifts. In so doing it has ceded space for an atavistic right to thrive.
The Cathedral’s Presidential candidate in the last US Presidential election was Hilary Clinton whose victory in the Democratic primaries was stage-managed by party elites, against the surging appeal of Bernie Sanders, the first candidate in decades to declare himself a socialist. The Cathedral is backed by large corporations in the US who devoted billions to Hilary Clinton’s electoral campaign. A sufficient number of a traditional white working class recognised this, and fell prey to Trump’s scoundrel patriotism.
The global income gap between rich and poor has never been greater, and the social conscience which the Cathedral exhibits is rather like George Orwell’s description of the millionaire, “who suffers from a vague sense of guilt, like a dog eating a stolen leg of mutton.” Stark inequalities in the UK have been laid bare by the penny-pinching that appears to have led to the Grenfell Tower fire.
All of this amorphous Cathedral are not millionaires. But they are drawn from fields such as law, medicine, education and media, and have reached, or feel themselves capable of reaching a comfortable level of wealth. They have vested interest in maintaining the status quo, including the price of property.
Divisions in UK politics are less stark than the US at least since Blair and Cameron apparently brought their parties into the centre ground, but actually affirmed Thatcher’s social revolution. Both New Labour and Compassionate Conservatism fell in line with the broad thrust of the UK’s distinctive Cathedral. In the process, each “de-toxified” their brands from association with union-jack-under-panted jingoism and unabashed capitalism in the case of the Conservatives; and old-fashioned trade unionism and socialism with Labour. But through the Blair-Brown years, and less surprisingly under ‘Compassionate’ Conservatism, income inequality (magnified by rising property prices) actually increased.
The fingerprints of the UK’s Cathedral was glaringly evident in the UK (and Irish) media’s treatment of Jeremy Corbyn, an unashamed socialist, anti-imperialist and vegetarian, in the months after he won the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015. A Media@LSE report: “Representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Press” reviewed what was the very opposite of a honeymoon period.
Bias emanating from the Murdoch and other right wing press that include The Sun, The Mail, The Express, The Telegraph and The Times were predictable, but the approach of apparently centre-left publications is more surprising. The authors state at the outset:
The results of this study show that Jeremy Corbyn was represented unfairly by the British press through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy. Corbyn was often denied his own voice in the reporting on him and sources that were anti-Corbyn ended to outweigh those that support him and his positions. He was also systematically treated with scorn and ridicule in both the broadsheet and tabloid press in a way that no other political leader is or has been. Even more problematic, the British press has repeatedly associated Corbyn with terrorism and positioned him as a friend of the enemies of the UK. The result has been a failure to give the newspaper reading public a fair opportunity to form their own judgements about the leader of the country’s main opposition.
This would appear to vindicate Ralph Milliband’s (father of Ed and David) view that ‘the press may well claim to be independent and to fulfil an important watchdog function. What the claim overlooks, however, is the very large fact that it is the Left at which the watchdogs generally bark with most ferocity, and what they are above all protecting is the status quo’.
It is insightful that in the three apparently left or centrist newspapers, the Guardian, the Independent and the Daily Mirror a clear majority of articles were either critical or antagonistic towards him. Perhaps more concerning is the extent to which Corbyn’s own voice is absent: only 40% of articles in The Guardian and The Independent actually quote him. The authors reckon that up to one in five supposedly neutral news reports in the Guardian (as opposed to opinion articles) actually displayed bias against him.
The LSE authors conclude that superficially left-leaning and liberal newspapers provided an ‘extensive and enthusiastic platform to those forces in the Labour Party that aggressively contested Corbyn and what he stands for’.
It should be born in mind that censure in the apparently left-of-centre media was occurring at a time when the so-called ‘bearded socialist’ was being subject to an unprecedented level of attack by the right-wing press. The authors found that several commentaries moralised about Corbyn’s personal and romantic life. The ‘broadsheet’ Daily Telegraph heaped scorn on his former relationship with Diane Abbot folding a political critique with a questioning of what attracted the pair to one another: “Lover’s of what? Bolshevism? A warm vest to keep out the chill winds of the political wilderness?”
On the eve of the election a Guardian editorial on Friday 2nd of June reluctantly put its support behind Labour, but continued to question Corbyn’s fitness for office: ‘Many see him as a fluke, a fringe candidate who stole the Labour leadership while the rest of his party was asleep. In parliament he failed to reach beyond his faction. He is not fluent on the issues raised by a modern, sophisticated digital economy.’ He is thus portrayed as illegitimate, stealing the Labour leadership from a candidate who would presumably have adopted a more centrist position that preserves the status quo.
He is dismissed as ‘has been’ who doesn’t understand a sophisticated digital economy, including a neo-liberal arrangement in which transnational corporations successfully avoid taxation. Most damningly: ‘his record of protest explains why some struggle to see him as prime minister’; the Guardian would appears to be more comfortable with a Blairite willing to support a neoconservative administration in the United States.
Fortunately the public was given an opportunity to form their own opinion in the general election when broadcasting rules allowed the Labour leader to connect directly with the electorate. Policies appealing to the idealism of the young set off a social media storm that almost overcame a massive Tory advantage at the start of the campaign, and which actually displayed a very keen appreciation among his ranks of the power of the new digital medium.
To some extent the public service broadcaster was the saviour of democracy in the UK, but the BBC was not immune to the characterisation of Corbyn as being a Prime Minister who would give succour to the enemies of the United Kingdom.
During the election campaign David Dimbleby publicly asserted that the press had treated Corbyn unfairly, but his intervention during the Leaders’ Question Time would have pleased Conservative head office. Soon after coming to power Theresa May said that she would use nuclear weapons as a first strike, which presumably was designed to contrast her steely determination with the protest movement led by Corbyn.
After repeated questions from the floor on whether Corbyn would be prepared to use a nuclear weapon, Dimbleby as mediator twice pressed Corbyn on the issue. For the BBC’s most eminent journalist to place such emphasis on this issue is troubling. Either Dimbleby genuinely felt safer with a Prime Minister prepared to incinerate millions of people at the touch of a button, or this was being used to discredit Corbyn because he was simply dangerous to the status quo.
I am inclined to the latter view although Dimbleby’s response was probably reflexive rather than conscious. Nuclear war has not been a concern in Britain since the 1980s, and the Labour manifesto actually commits them to maintaining Trident, contrary to Corbyn’s own personal views. Nor was Theresa May questioned on this issue, and whether she could reconcile nuclear annihilation with her apparent Christianity. Rather, this allowed the Cathedral to portray Corbyn as unsafe, and foolhardy, as it became clear that the population were increasingly attracted to his economic policies.
The ‘steel’ required to unleash nuclear weapons, was also a major concern for another veteran reporter Andrew Marr when he interviewed Corbyn before the election. But, in an intriguing interview from the 1996 that is available on YouTube Noam Chomsky lays bare Marr’s own bias. The MIT Professor quoted George Orwell’s essay ‘Literary Censorship in England’ to him that “unpopular ideas can be silenced without any force”. He also referred to how the educational system makes you understand there are certain things you simply don’t say, just as deviations from fashionable norms are greeted with derision.
Chomsky outlines to Marr how there is “a filtering system” that starts in kindergarten which ‘selects for obedience and subordination’; removing the ones “who are mad to live”, as Jack Kerouac put it On the Road. Thus the troubled, and often artistic, student finds little encouragement amidst the dominant educational models, and viewpoints that deviate from established norms are held in check.
Chomsky referred to journalists he knew who regarded the media as a sham and played it like a violin: ‘if they see a little opening they will try and squeeze something in’. Marr protests: ‘how can you know I am self-censoring’, to which Chomsky laconically replies: ‘I am sure you believe everything you are saying’.
In the wake of the seismic shift in popular opinion over the course of the UK General Election it has been interesting to read mea culpa from leading radical journalists who abandoned Corbyn, writing him off as ‘unelectable’. A previously ardent supporter Owen Jones wrote after the election:
“I thought people had made their minds up about Corbyn, however unfairly, and their opinion just wouldn’t shift. I wasn’t a bit wrong, or slightly wrong, or mostly wrong, but totally wrong. Having one foot in the Labour movement and one in the mainstream media undoubtedly left me more susceptible to their groupthink.”
Another who deviated from his early enthusiasm was George Monbiot who wrote an article entitled: “The elections biggest losers? Not the Tories but the media who missed the biggest story”. He acknowledged: “the media has created a hall of mirrors, in which like-minded people reflect and reproduce each other’s opinions.” Thus:
“The broadcasters echo what the papers say, the papers pick up what the broadcasters say. A narrow group of favoured pundits appear on the news programmes again and again. Press prizes are awarded to those who reflect the consensus, and denied to those who think differently. People won’t step outside the circle for fear of ridicule and exclusion.”
It is interesting that our own Fintan O’Toole recently scooped a George Orwell press award for his coverage of English nationalism during Brexit. The Cathedral, in their favour, are hostile to racism; these atavistic tendencies are also bad for business, although a bullish secularism often leads to Islamophobia. Most, however, despair at Theresa May’s lapses which shows how the Cathedral is fracturing in the wake of the Brexit referendum.
Some weeks prior to the election O’Toole wrote an article entitled: ‘Corbyn’s nostalgia less of a fantasy than May’s’; note how Corbyn was being portrayed as a nostalgic fantasist just as the Cathedral would wish. He continues: ‘Corbyn’s Labour has been characterised by the overwhelmingly Tory press as a throwback to the early 1970s and there is some truth in the accusation.’ But what is this throwback to: less inequality? Job security? Public ownership of vital infrastructure? These all appear to be objectives to which O’Toole subscribes in Ireland, and he goes on to commend Labour’s manifesto while still insisting that Corbyn is ‘nostalgic’.
O’Toole concludes: ‘Corbyn is a highly problematic leader, not least in his inability to think about how to create a majority in England for this radical social democratic vision.’ The problem with Corbyn thus appeared to be his effectiveness in putting his point of view across; the old ‘unelectable’ jibe in other words, the has-been beardy-socialist of the wolf-whistling right’s portrayal.
The other slur levelled against Corbyn by the Cathedral is to blame him for Brexit because he didn’t campaign with sufficient vigour; this despite it being shown that the British media hardly report what he says, considering his brand ‘toxic’. He was also being asked to give unqualified support for an institution with many flaws from a left-wing perspective, and which had just imposed a cruel Austerity over Greece, and Ireland. He supported Remain but refused to lie through his teeth about how he thought everything was rosy about it, giving it a grade of 7/10.
In the UK the Cathedral are almost all graduates of Oxford or Cambridge. Whenever I watch programmes devoted to politics on the BBC I try to do an Internet search on the participants. Invariably the politician, journalist, writer or economist attended one of these institutions. I have also spent long enough in the company of Oxbridge types to know that directing the remark that someone attended a ‘redbrick university’ is a euphemism for saying he is an intellectual inferior. Corbyn did not attend either one of those institutions or any university for that matter. He’s an outsider with ‘cranky’ socialist and anti-imperialist views that the Cathedral doesn’t tolerate.
The furore over Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Change deal is instructive. That deal was supposed to have ‘taken care’ of the problem allowing us to return to giddy consumption. But the uncomfortable reality of the accord is expressed by the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh: ‘the Agreement’s rhetoric serves to clarify much that it leaves unsaid: namely, that its intention, and the essence of what it has achieved, is to create yet another neo-liberal frontier where corporations, entrepreneurs, and public officials will be able to join forces in enriching one another’. The agreement hardly addresses poverty or inequality and the principle of human superiority over nonhuman remains intact. Both drive Climate Change, along with the idea of economic growth-without-end.
The Irish ‘Cathedral’ has similar constituents and outlooks to its equivalent in the UK, and influence across the false centre of the political spectrum. We don’t have elite universities – however much Trinity graduates attempt to give the impression – so the social and professional networks tend to emerge in private schools. It is most obvious in the Irish Times, and to a lesser extent RTE.
In Ireland the Cathedral prefers to wage culture wars over issues such as gay marriage, and to an extent the right to abortion, that become overriding concerns which distract from structural and environmental questions. Both Enda Kenny and Bertie Aherne before him proved highly adept at managing the Cathedral’s concerns. The Irish Times now keeps Fintan O’Toole as a mascot for a social conscience, which also sells newspapers. In Ireland, it is only when a serious crisis is apparent – such as homelessness – that the Cathedral agrees to drop a morsel.
One wonders how long the broad consensus will last among the main Irish political parties who play pass the parcel with political power. At least Leo Varadkar’s unashamed neo-liberalism offers a degree of ideological clarity. Genuine radicalism may emerge within parties such as Labour and the Greens. In this respect the lesson of Corbyn’s success is clear: radicals should remain embedded in party organisations and work via constitutional means, relying on the clued-in and digital-savvy youth to bring about a political revolution.
The Cathedral despairs at the extremism that is evident in the disruptive era of the Internet, but the disenchantment reflects grotesque inequalities, particularly in the Anglosphere of which Ireland remains a part. Jeremy Corbyn seriously challenged these and he was hammered as a result but ultimately he found a way to get through to the electorate. Genuine socialists might take issue with details of his policies but surely not the thrust, which seeks to give a decent standard of living to all, and curb the excesses of the super-rich. This is also in harmony with an environmental movement seeking to curb consumerism.
Orwell wrote: “in countries where there is already a strong liberal tradition, bureaucratic tyranny can perhaps never be complete. The striped-trousered ones will rule, but so long as they are forced to maintain an intelligentsia, the intelligentsia will have a certain autonomy.” The disruptive power of the Internet is generating new politics that the Cathedral cannot control, and the intelligentsia have an opportunity to challenge “the striped-trousered ones”.
The Cathedral’s superficial centre cannot hold. Let us hope more beasts such as Trump do not slope towards Bethlehem to be born. These troubling times demand that the intelligentsia, who often wear odd-looking clothes, re-engage with politics and proudly assert the radical position.
(An edited version of this article appeared in Village Magazine in June, 2017)