A Conversation With Tim Stanley
On Covid restrictions in Britain, institutional hypocrisy, and the conservative conflict over the West.
Welcome to 2022! And a particular welcome to new subscribers. For those of you who are paying subscribers, this new year should bring increased opportunities for interaction and back and forth. For starters, I intend to start a book club within the coming weeks, with regular Zoom sessions for shared discussion… but more on that in short order.
In today’s edition: Tim Stanley, a columnist at the UK’s Daily Telegraph, has written a new book entitled Whatever Happened to Tradition?: History, Belonging and the Future of the West. A partial transcript from our conversation in my latest podcast is below.
Tim Stanley: The situation in Britain is very interesting because we were ahead of the curve when it came to rolling out vaccines. And there was a sense that the deal was we will jab everyone, and you should all get jobs. And as a result of that, you can go back to normal. And to a certain extent, that's actually what's happened. Britain has one of the most liberal regimes in Europe, certainly compared to some other countries. So essentially, society is still open here. We have some limited restrictions, things like mask wearing and what's happening, but over Christmas time, people will be able to go into each other's houses, and they'll also be able to go to pubs and restaurants to eat.
The strange thing is the government has has failed to give a clear message on what it really wants. So it's not just confused people by saying there might be more restrictions, there might be less, which to be fair is partly because no one's sure yet just how dangerous the Omicron variant is. We know it spreads fast. We don't know how deadly it is. So the government has hummed and hard without there will be more restrictions. But also, it hasn't been honest about the fact that it's running a relatively liberal regime.
And that's because although the government is in his heart of hearts not quite libertarian, but it's on that wing of conservatism, that is essentially what it is. It's also up against a vast scientific, medical and media establishment, which really wants the country to shut down which is convinced the only way through this thing is to shut everything down. So rather than incur the wrath of that, the government sort of playing a strange game of persuading people that its regime is very controlled, and that we're really we're really quite locked down. When the reality is if you step back from it, we're actually one of the Freer countries in Europe right now.
Ben Domenech: I think something similar is playing out here in America, not exactly the same, but you have the same media priority, health policy establishment priority, that that really is not reflected in the way people are living their lives. For instance, you may see, in popular media, the depiction of the senior health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, Rochelle Walensky over at the CDC and the like, saying, giving out advice regarding holidays that is simply not going to be accepted by the vast majority of Americans. A demand, for instance, that people show their vaccine proof before they attend family functions or that everyone be tested before you gather around Christmas dinner table — this is simply not the way that most Americans are going to live.
And that's evidenced by the fact that you know, in the midst of a college football and pro football season, you have all of these different sporting events where you have 10s of 1000s of people gathering together in one place, unmasked and and without having to show any kind of proof of any sort in order to attend such events, and having no reporting of such events resulting in major super spreader activity or the like. That is depicted every weekend for Americans and it stands at odds, creating this kind of cognitive dissidence with what they're hearing from health officials. I wonder why you think that is in whether it has anything to kind of reflect on the the unwillingness, perhaps, of citizens to become publicly confrontational in an organized way, but perhaps to use their own organic activity as a representation of a kind of quiet defiance of the policymakers at large.
Stanley: I think Britain is certainly split. You will have heard the phrase “An Englishman's home is his castle”. So on the one hand, we're very pro privacy and being left alone. On the other hand, we also have phrases like “keeping up with the Joneses”. And we have nosy Parkers, we are also very interested what our neighbors doing. So you pull up the drawbridge, but you were always looking over the castle wall to keep an eye on people. And that's definitely come out in this in this crisis.
An illustration of that is that the government is has been hit by a series of scandals that it turns out that last year, when we had a proper lockdown, some some people working for the government may have had a bit of cheese and wine after work. And the main media is playing it up and giving the impression that the country is absolutely outraged by this and some people are because the rules back then were mad. The rule said that you couldn't be with someone who was dying. Now why couldn't you be with someone who was dying? They were dying, what could you possibly do to them? There would be any worse than them dying.
So the rules were bad, but instead the media's focuses upon the fact that some people working for the government might have broken them, but also a lot of people I'm sure we're breaking those rules themselves. And I don't know how much this has to do with national character, or the Anglo Saxon way of doing things, or if it's just something which is universal, which is that when governments compel you to live a certain way, and when the media backs them up, you force citizens to become liars, and that's a really sad aspect of authoritarianism.
And I'm not dismissing all the measures, some of them are necessary, but one of the downsides of creating a fevered atmosphere in which people are keen to be seen to be behaving is they end up just lying. And it is kind of analogous to life in the Soviet Union. It's not nearly on that scale. I understand that. But it's a situation in which the government says this is not just the good doctors that the government says that this is working. It says everyone's on board with it. And because people are terrified of the consequences appearing otherwise people pretend to be all the while they're buying everything on the black market. So I just think this is what happens when governments try to tell people how to live.
Domenech: The book that you have written here focuses on a number of different questions and tensions at the heart of what is essentially a dispute within the Enlightenment values that we have inherited. As you see it. Today, there is a a real split that is taking place and that is that is being playing out in front of us with a number of different key players and voices arguing about tradition about liberalism, about the values of the West. And I want to ask one overarching question about this as you as you took up this, this task of writing this book there is among some corners of the conservative intellectual cohort today, a real attitude that I would describe as being anti Western. Yes, that essentially says, “The West is decadent. It had its time it has failed to live up to its values. And it will be replaced by by something that has that is less decadent, or has firmer values, is more grounded in tradition.”
You make reference to Houellebecq's “Submission”, for instance, in passing, but there are some that essentially would cheer that or at least are currently cheering it. I doubt they would be cheering it if it actually came to pass. The idea that “well, say what you will about the Chinese Communist Party, but they don't have trans drag twerking hours at the local library” or something like that. What is your attitude generally toward that cohort of the conservative intellectual conversation that essentially says: the West had it's time, that time has passed, and it's now going to either become something different or be truly destroyed by an alternative?
Stanley: I'm very skeptical. I can see where they're coming from that there is a divergence in conservative opinion at the moment over whether or not liberalism which is essentially the West political tradition, whether or not liberalism has just taken a wrong turn. So it can be rolled back and it can be returned to the state of what it was like in say, the 50s. Pre the 60s madness, or if that political tradition of liberalism. itself is is bad, if it has an original set if it is impossible to reform it, and that where we are now is where liberalism ends up.
And I am sympathetic towards that view. But I'm also terrified of it. Because if that's true, what is the alternative? Either the alternative is a system which is imposed on us from without, like Chinese communism. Either it's imposed from without, or we're talking about tearing everything up and start all over again. And I'm not sure we have the intellectual resources to do that.
I don't know what the alternative is. And I'm struck by the post liberal speakers, and by those who are most critical of liberalism, I'm struck by a lack of policy. They very rarely talk about economics. They usually raise legitimate complaints about culture. They often come up again up against a brick wall of the Constitution. It's unclear what you can do about many of the problems they identified because the constitution so and I think that the absence in particular of economic policy speaks to the lack of an alternative. I don't think you can escape that the West is liberal. That is what we are not one has to be clear. I don't mean in the American political sense of left wing, I mean, liberal in terms of strong institutions, democratic equality, individualism, etc. That's who we are. It has inbuilt flaws. I don't know how to fix them. I'm just saying, and through this book, that we need to perhaps look back to win it worked a bit better, and revive some of that, but I'm not sure what the alternative is to it. And in fact, the alternative could be quite frightening.
A Good Year for Putin, OPEC, and Trump
Walter Russell Mead’s winners and losers of 2021. “Vladimir Putin. Since taking power in 1999, the Russian president has had a good run. Mr. Putin’s winning streak continued in 2021 as Russian support helped Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko survive Western sanctions, Russian power grew from the Caucasus to the Balkans, and a late-year Russian troop buildup east of Ukraine put Moscow’s revisionist agenda at the center of world politics. Sagging demographics, a rising China and the continuing failure to diversify the economy away from overreliance on oil and gas make Russia’s future perilous in the long term, but for the moment, Mr. Putin and the country he rules are on the march.
“The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Much to the dismay of the world’s climate warriors, 2021 was a banner year for fossil-fuel producers. This year looks even better. Twenty twenty-one saw Saudi Arabia post its first budget surplus since 2013. The Saudis currently project a 10% rise in oil revenue in 2022 as the pandemic eases and oil demand rises. But it isn’t only about the money. Energy shortages enabled the big oil producers to make great powers dance to their tunes. The Biden administration had hoped to take a tough line with the Gulf Arabs on issues ranging from climate change to human rights. Instead, President Biden found himself begging the sheikhs to restrain rising oil prices to limit American inflation.
“Donald Trump. He started 2021 as one of the biggest losers in American political history: a one-term president, twice impeached, whose party lost control of the House in the midterms and lost the Senate two years later. His shambolic effort to overturn the election launched to universal mockery at Four Seasons Total Landscaping and culminated in the lasting disgrace of Jan. 6. During 2021, the momentum shifted. Mr. Trump has reasserted his power in Republican politics and is a credible contender for 2024. On China and on trade, the Biden administration has largely followed Mr. Trump’s lead. Even Mr. Trump’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” initiative has been revived by the courts. The trend of growing GOP support among working-class black and Hispanic voters attracted by Trumpian populism continues. With Covid still uncontrolled and inflation surging, Donald Trump plans to spend 2022 asking voters “Do you miss me yet?” Many seem ready to answer in the affirmative.“
Parents Give Up On Public Schools:
Joel Kotkin. “The West’s new educational mandarins, increasingly strident and increasingly influential, have no use for our liberal inheritance, which they consider little more than a screen for racists and misogynists…
“Likewise, only one in three Americans have confidence in their public schools, where the education establishment’s goal seems to be to obliterate merit. In my adopted home state of California, this “post-colonial” approach includes deemphasising the importance of tests, excusing bad behaviour, and imposing ideology on often ill-educated students. The San Diego Unified School District, meanwhile, is busily getting rid of mandates for such things as knowing course material, taking tests, handing in work on time, or even showing up; all these, the district insists, are inherently “racist”. This in a state that ranked 49th in the performance of poor, largely minority students. (Still, the situation could be worse: neighbouring Oregon no longer requires any demonstrable proof of competence to graduate.)
“In the past year, this blindness has incited considerable public outrage. Criticism of Critical Race Theory buoyed the Republican win in Virginia in November, and has become a rallying principle for parents around the country, including a recall drive against San Francisco school board members.
“Other parents are trying to opt out of the public system altogether. The pandemic saw the departure of more one million American students from public schools, while 1.2 million families switched to home-schooling last academic year, bringing the total number of home-schooled students to 3.1 million, roughly 11% of the total. According to the Census Bureau, Black and Hispanic families now have the highest estimated rates of home-schooling, at 16% and 12%, respectively.“
Dan Crenshaw’s Flawed Sec 230 Bill:
Rachel Bovard. “All of this brings us to Crenshaw’s bill, which is not only interesting as the latest addition to the 230 legislative canon, but also because according to the document file path posted by Crenshaw, it apparently was drafted in full or in part by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“The Energy and Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over Section 230 issues, and Republicans on the committee have been tasked by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to come up with a series of solutions related to Big Tech. These proposals seemingly represent the Republican platform for taking on Big Tech should Republicans take back the House majority.
“So with that in mind, the bill doesn’t simply represent a pivot in Crenshaw’s views or his response to Twitter banning a sitting member of the House (and his colleague), it may very well represent a component of the Republican leadership-driven Big Tech platform. If that’s the case, Houston, then we have a big problem, and not in the least because Crenshaw’s singular claim about the bill, that it would “prohibit political censorship,” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
“Digging into the text of the legislation reveals it to be a “discussion draft.” That is the early draft of a bill that’s not yet ready for introduction (or cosponsorship by other members, for that matter), but is being circulated for comments and changes. That’s good because it’s in need of some tweaks.
“The bill’s key section eliminates Section 230’s exception for platforms that discriminate on the basis of “racial, sexual, political affiliation, or ethnic grounds.” While good in the sense that discriminatory platforms would no longer have their highly prized blanket third-party immunity, the platforms would also no longer have an incentive to remove things like legal pornography (which also includes virtual child pornography). This undermines the central purpose of Section 230, which was to clean up the internet (read: take down porn).
“In its quest to limit censorship while maneuvering around the First Amendment rights of the platforms, Crenshaw’s bill falls into a common trap: over-reliance on the terms of service. Under Section 201 of the bill, political censorship would still be allowed if the policies are disclosed. That is, if the platforms disclose in advance their criteria for banning users and content (which no one reads), they have full license to do it.
“But this runs into a very obvious problem. As long as the terms are written vaguely enough, phrased in such a way as to not be “based on racial, sexual, political affiliation, or ethnic grounds,” then the platforms are in the clear. And the platforms are masterful at this kind of wordplay and terms tweaking.
“When Twitter banned the circulation of a New York Post story critical of Hunter Biden in the runup to the 2020 election, the platform justified it with an appeal to a vaguely worded and unevenly applied term of service about so-called “hacked materials.” It later clarified the policy after an outcry, but still refused to unlock The New York Post’s Twitter account until it deleted tweets about the story, which, under Twitter’s new terms of service, the account no longer violated. (In the end, Twitter blinked.)
“Ban first, justify in the terms later. Or, make the terms vague enough to encompass all manner of mercurial bans. This is the game and no one is better at playing it than Silicon Valley censors.
“In other words, Greene would still be banned under this legislation. Twitter would just say, as it did in her current case, that she violated some term of service related to Covid-19 misinformation (notably not covered by the Crenshaw bill’s exclusions) or represented in some ill-defined term of service about “threats to democracy” or whatever the tech giants are calling free speech these days.“
Items of Interest: