What I want to do in this piece is make some general claims about political language in our time. In Part I, I shall distinguish our language from the language of the enemy: namely, the politically correct language of the BBC, the Guardian, the universities, the church, the higher educated in general. In Part II, I shall make a distinction on our side, between the language of the blue pill and the language of the red pill. Part of my point is to explain why the continued encounter of Toby Young and James Delingpole is essential. Anyone who thinks that to say this is to leap from the sublime to the ridiculous fails to understand the gravity of our current situation. Or its grace.
Part I. Political correctness versus common sense.
One of my old professors at Cambridge, Quentin Skinner, has a line somewhere about how the surest sign that we have arrived at a new concept is the fact that we find ourselves with a new word. Certain places at certain times have thrown up extremely useful new words. In my own line of concern, the Greeks gave us ‘history’, ‘philosophy’, ‘politics’. The Romans gave us ‘constitution’, ‘liberty’, ‘empire’. The Late Renaissance gave us the singular word ‘state’ and also the dread word ‘policy’. The Revolutionary era of 1789 to 1848 gave us ‘liberalism’, ‘socialism’, ‘conservatism’. Since 1848 our political language has – believe it or not – mostly stagnated. What we saw in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries was a thousand-and-one commentators reconfiguring old terms, recolouring them, reordering them: trying to build a house out of cards printed before 1848, certainly long before 1914. Apart from one very important new word – ‘totalitarianism’ – our only innovations afterwards were a few combinations, such as ‘welfare state’, or ‘stagflation’, or ‘social justice’, and many weak or weasel words like ‘governance’, ‘innovation’ and ‘impact’ (and the two worst words in our contemporary political lexicon: passion and delivery: our politicians evidently seeing themselves as a cross between Christ crucified and Postman Pat). One very clever word was coined after the Second World War – ‘meritocracy’ – and gained currency. But I cannot think of any others. None of the other clever coinages (‘non-social community’, anyone? dux and rex? cosmos and taxis? societas and universitas?) gained currency. But this has changed since 2010, and a new language has emerged especially in the last few years: the years of 2016 (our 1789 – “bliss it was in that dawn to be alive” – Wordsworth), and 2020 (our 1793 – “the goaded land waxed mad” – also Wordsworth).
Something was prefigured in the 1990s when the astonishing phrase ‘political correctness’ entered the language – interestingly, at around the same time as the phrase ‘identity politics’. But it is since around 2010 that a genuinely novel language has exploded into the public sphere, including words wielded by those in the liberal centre, or on the Left, such as ‘post-truth politics’ and ‘populism’ and ‘far right’ and ‘decolonisation’ and ‘homophobia’ and ‘islamophobia’ and ‘transphobia’ and ‘institutional racism’ and ‘unconscious bias’ and ‘trigger warning’ and ‘safe space’ and ‘conspiracy theory’. But more importantly words wielded, for the first time, almost in jubilation by those on the right who have at last realised that there is a battle to be fought. We have words and phrases like ‘culture wars’, ‘cancel culture’, ‘deplatform’, ‘social justice warrior’, ‘virtue-signalling’, ‘mainstream media’, ‘twitter mobs’, ‘snowflake’, ‘woke’. These words are all designed to indict the opposition by characterising what they all too evidently do, and what they have all too evidently been doing since 2010, since 1990, since 1968 and quite possibly even further back than that.
Some of these terms are old and others have ancestry. The phrase ‘conspiracy theory’ dates from after the Second World War. Tom Wolfe spoke about ‘radical chic’ in the 1960s; Roger Kimball spoke about ‘tenured radicals’ in the 1990s. ‘Academic capture’ has been known since the 1970s but took off after 2010. ‘Institutional racism’ emerged in the 1960s then declined but took off again in the late 1980s. ‘Transphobia’ was invented in the 1990s but only took off after 2010. ‘Critical race theory’ was invented in the 1980s but only took off after 1990. ‘Decolonise the curriculum’ took off after 2010. ‘Safe space’ arose after 1990 but became common after 2010. ‘Trigger warning’ appears to have existed since the 1950s or so but was hardly known until it took off in 2010.
We have to suppose that political correctness originally emerged around 1990 as a consequence of the end of the Cold War. Liberalism no longer had the enemy on which it could project its fears and its own flaws. It had not seen the mote in its own eye because it saw the beam in the eye of communism. But after 1990, liberalism became self-critical and began to impose its strictures – whatever they were – on its own people. Then there was something else. Socialism in the West at the same time lost confidence in Marxism; lost confidence, that is, in historical materialism, economic determinism and the class struggle. So it turned its mad or opportunistic eye on other expressions of the politics of solidarity and equality and on other forms of the politics of exclusion – finding other classes (racial, sexual) to substitute for the old proletariat, which was, anyhow, rather retrograde in its opinions. Liberals and Socialists thus formed an alliance advocating various chastisements, sometimes against each other, but more often against the mass, the remainder, the rump, which it supposed should hardly exist at all – the un-higher-educated.
This all may explain the change of around 1990. But it would take someone more au fait with what has been going on than I am to work out why there seems to have been an acceleration of all this in around 2010. Perhaps it is a cyclical thing, a matter of generations, a Kondratieff cycle of political experience. (The reactions to the French Revolution were not exhausted until 1830 in France and 1832 in England.) Whatever the case, there was an escalation in language, and I think it was because various groups who had been afflicted by political correctness and had tried to respond to it politely were beginning to lose patience with it, and now sought a language to explain the phenomenon by which the society dominated by Liberals and Socialists began, like Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, to eat its own children.
I can do no more than sketch my grand theory of contemporary civilisation, but it is this: that there are three active bodies in politics at the moment. These are, first, the liberals, which includes almost everyone at the BBC, the Guardian, the Met Office, the Foreign Office, the Law Courts, the universities; second, the populists, which, outside the demonology of the liberals, are simply the mass of the population who either are resistant to the twin demoralisations of higher education and mass indoctrination or are beginning to think their way through them, or at the very least are getting irritated with the liberals and, at the very most, are positively hostile to them; and third, the wokeists, who unlike the populists are inside the liberal tent pissing out, and on, and in, rather than outside the liberal tent pissing in. Both the wokeists and the populists are trouble for liberals, but the populists are hostile or resistant to liberalism, and are finally coming into conflict with it as an honest enemy or rival; while the wokeists are trying to change liberalism from within by crying wolf, wearing no clothes, taking the magic beans etc.
The liberals want to send populists into exile, or silence them, or anyhow emasculate them, but they are troubled by the wokeists, and feel obliged to coddle them or incorporate them to some extent, since they are fellow liberals of a sort.
The populists want the liberals to wake up and realise that liberalism is meant to be capable of engaging with ‘the other’ rather than closing ‘the other’ down or ostracising it; and they want to kick the wokeists on the shins, or at least lock them in an unsafe space for an hour or two.
The wokeists do not even slightly begin to understand populists, who are something like an absolute enemy, but they also treat liberals as the enemy, though a far more comprehensible enemy, since responsible for the original doctrine which the wokeists are distorting, and anyhow they hope that liberals will take care of them. They are the parasites of liberalism, since they are never going to defend the order they so obviously depend on.
These complications have meant that liberalism, since 1990, as well as being put to the question has broken into two. There is a master-morality liberalism, which is the liberalism of Jonathan Haidt and Jordan Peterson, a.k.a. ‘classical liberalism’, or indeed, simply liberalism, which says, ‘Let us debate, let us argue, let us continue to venerate John Stuart Mill’ (and tends to find common cause, though somewhat warily, with populists against wokeists). And there is a slave-morality liberalism, which climbs into bed with wokeism and becomes the new liberalism of the virtuously indignant, extremely stupid and violently self-certain moralists who parade proudly in masks and always prioritise ‘safety’ and ‘security’ while breaking glass and assaulting policemen. They say, ‘Let us tremble, let us censor, let us remove this statue of Cecil Rhodes’. These two sides of liberalism are currently at war. There isn’t much room in this war for anyone else. Those of us who are high and dry, or like to affect aristocratic disdain, have found, to our chagrin, that, if we have to choose, we are, alas, in the position of having to unhesitatingly choose John Stuart Mill over whoever is the current icon of the identitarian Left.
Part II. Blue pill versus red pill
The discussion in Part I of the novelty of our language and our current political divisions brings me to the next subject, which is, loftily put, the emergence of what we would have to call a revived transcendental, transconsistent or quintessential politics, and its coming into tension with immanent or supposedly consistent or essential politics, and, less loftily put, but very visibly a consequence of this, the encounter between James Delingpole and Toby Young every week in ‘London Calling’.
The discussion between them is remarkable. It is civil, for the most part, though Young is insistently reasonable (he operates within the paradigm of ‘provability’), and very obviously operates with a speed-limiting device, while Delingpole refuses to admit doubt (he operates within a paradigm of ‘plausibility’), and is willing to indulge almost every possibility – as is also evident to those of us who listen to his podcast. So on the one hand we have the atmosphere of the Daily Sceptic, which is close to the edge of reality, looking only as far as the furthest visible boundary of that reality, and on the other hand, we have the atmosphere of the Delingpod, which is also close to the edge of reality, but looking beyond that boundary into the beyond.
The idea of a boundary is essential here. We have to imagine that ‘reality’ is a circle with a boundary at its circumference. In our current language we often refer to ‘liberal mainstream’, ‘mainstream media’, ‘legacy media’, ‘established voices’, ‘respectable authorities’, and ‘the science’ (in relation to which – Laughter). But in every case we actually mean what it is permissible to say, or in the standard 1990s term, what is ‘politically correct’. This is what is well within the boundary line. ‘Political correctness’ is a brilliant invention: for it hints – wholly wrongly – that what is politically sanctioned is correct in the sense of true whereas the truth is that it is only correct in the literal sense of regulated, ruled, decided, imposed, commanded. ‘Political correctness’, as a phrase, dates from the 1990s. But it was invented by Hobbes when he suggested that the sovereign would decide what every citizen or subject should publicly profess as their opinion. Locke and others were embarrassed about this, and invented a more ostentatious liberalism, by which opinion was meant to be free and by which government was meant to respond to the diversity of opinions in society, but Hobbes, while allowing that diversity was a good thing, did not think it should come into politics at all.
So imagine a boundary line. The debates between Toby Young and James Delingpole are on the boundary. Both are within the boundary, I’d say. Delingpole is not actually mystical or mad – as he would have to be to be without the boundary. He is eminently sane; the only difference between him and Young is that he interviews people on the other side of the boundary and is open to them and their visions. And what is interesting about this space beyond-the-boundary is that it includes at one end some very respectable reverends and yet extends out to all manner of exuberant muckrakers, speculative entrepreneurs, official doubters, underground reporters, conspiracy theorists – all of whom are willing to announce that ‘the narrative’ we are currently spun by the ‘powers that be’ within the boundary is false or deliberately misleading. This is a world in which anything may be true. So, for instance, Paul McCartney was replaced by a double in around 1968; Boris Johnson achieved Brexit by threatening to reveal to the world that the Vote Leave campaign won far more than 52% of the vote; and Bill Gates, Klaus Schwab, Larry Fink, George Soros, Anthony Fauci and various others have ensured that the needles contain either novel technology ‘vaccine’ for the proles or simple saline solution for the Hollywood elites. Plus they ensure that the state and media propaganda systems continually espouse a dreary sort of politics of continual world crisis plus musings on the exclusion of selected marginal groups plus the stupidity or malignity of everyone not adhering to the narrative. This is a dreary politics of ‘experts’ who have been imported or cultivated, as it seems, to chastise the English, to ‘decolonise’ the former imperialists, in almost every sense, including the punctuational and the anatomical. The result is a country stripped of colons and semi-colons: a very comma-ish country – and a country with no guts. The only way to avoid being designated a former imperialist, and thus guilty by association, is for the New Mostly White Establishment to, say, fund Black British History professorships, get Indian social scientists on television and in print, and make sure that every gathering of more than two people features at least one woman, one ‘person of colour’, and one person of indeterminate sexuality (except as ‘identified’ by him-, her- or it- self). And so on.
If you’ll excuse a bit of high political theory – which is my trade, after all – let me sketch a simple history of the world. Until the Axial Age of Confucius, Socrates, Jesus and the Buddha, the world was suffused with divinity. The world was one: microcosm was always macrocosm, so magic flowed through the universe and also flowed through our societies, usually through kings carrying out rituals on ziggurats. But then, during the Axial Age, there was a division, whereby the higher became remote from the lower. Now, often, it was said that there were two cities, a city of heaven and a city of earth. They were related through the word – logos in Greek – which could take the form of Moses’ Ten Commandments, the form of the rationalistic visions of the philosophers from Heraclitus and Parmenides onwards, then Socrates and Plato and then their many modern successors, or the form of the Son of God. So the word – and hence words – had to be studied. Hence our literate societies. Finally, between five hundred and two hundred years ago in Europe there was another division: the higher and lower were completely separated from each other, severed, so heaven dissolved in a puff of smoke, church and state were separated, with the state taking over the business of the church, and we were left with the problem of how to form states out of societies of atheists. Hence all the heroes of modern political thought from Hobbes onwards.
So in the first stage there was no distinction between religion and politics; in the second stage they were related but distinguished from each other; and in the third stage, which is our modernity, they were fully separated. What this meant was that our catchword became, as Nietzsche suggested, ‘God is dead!’ Or, as Feuerbach saw, everything we had formerly believed was the projection of our own experience outwards onto the heavens. Freud said the same thing; as did Marx. Everyone has repeated the same lines for a few hundred years (including my father, unaware that he was more or less quoting Feuerbach): ‘God did not create Man: Man created God.’
The consequence of this for language is that nowadays we assume that the word, in the sense of logos, does not exist. There are only words, which are strewn around in Wittgensteinian language games. Instead of the truth we have ‘My Truth’. And what this means is that any sense that words are guided by anything ultimate is gone. There is no way of getting beyond our own experience. We are alone in a world of our own creation. We are modern works of art, with ‘identification’ labels attached, completely inexplicable unless someone has read our pronouns. No one knows who he (or she) is; yet everyone is saying who he should be taken to be. Someone should rewrite the Bible – not A.C. Grayling – and show us a Woke Adam refusing to name all the animals, and then ‘identifying’ himself as something, maybe a woman, or a serpent, or perhaps even a god: ‘From now on, I refuse to acknowledge my Father; and I want to be known as Ishtar.’
Now the Young-Delingpole encounter is a microcosm of this diremption. Young, as a matter of necessarily contemporary mental propriety, goes along with the god-is-dead, society-of-atheists, mainstream-media construction of reality. Reality has a boundary and the boundary is, ultimately, the limit to what can be known, and within this boundary, broadly speaking, is everything that can be brought to some sort of reasonable understanding, if only we are calm, patient and amused. Young is carrying out the task that our official institutions should be carrying out but do not. Delingpole, on the other hand, has abandoned such propriety, and has made a virtue out of the impropriety of insisting on the necessity of positing not only the existence of ultimates beyond the apparent boundary of what can be known, but also of positing the possibility of narratives which subvert the standard, reasonable, consensual order of communal understanding we all share, courtesy of the BBC and other supposedly trustworthy but actually untrustworthy institutions. Delingpole is carrying out the task of pointing out that any task that our official institutions could in principle carry out is itself part of the deception perpetuated by those official institutions.
The blue pill attitude is always, ‘There is an explanation’, and ‘Such an explanation will involve unintended consequences, inadvertence, contingencies and corruption on a broad yet understandable scale since it can be made sense of if one holds on to one’s sense of human comedy, and analyses everything in terms of a Benthamite felicific calculus of Pleasure and Pain’. The red pill attitude is always, ‘That explanation is a narrative’, and ‘This narrative is being pushed by some actors who have an agenda’, and ‘The agenda involves, at some level, a level of mendacity which is positively demonic and thus requires us to understand it in terms not of Pleasure and Pain but of Good and Evil’.
The blue pill tends to favour the established narrative until evidence can be brought that it is wrong. It uses the language of common sense. The red pill assumes this narrative is wrong from the start, so evidence can only be confirmatory. It uses a different language, a language of rupture and subversion; a language of being ‘outside the Overton window’, or ‘down the rabbit hole’, or ‘awake’ (which emphatically means ‘not woke’); a language which hints at a somewhat hidden reality, another world behind our world. The blue pill is sceptical, hence the Daily Sceptic. And scepticism remains what scepticism should be, endlessly enquiring. The red pill sees such scepticism as a mere preliminary, as the rational establishment of a point of hostility to the standard stories of our society, from which we must then proceed to make sense of the world in some other, more positive, terms – and terms which do not eliminate recognition of the old need for magic and religion and the positing of absolute evil as a humanly uncaused but humanly encouragable or discouragable manifestation of the powers of the universe.
I think both Young and Delingpole are necessary. Young is the fundamentally acceptable face of a blue pill mentality: acceptable to us, on our side, because continually querying the evidence supplied by the spin-doctors, seeking counter-evidence, insisting on propositional truth. Delingpole is the acceptable face of a red pill mentality: acceptable because not on his own authority propounding any implausible hypotheses but exploring, like a sceptic, though an extremely generous sceptic, such implausible hypotheses, but hypotheses that it is now perhaps necessary to consider, even if only to indicate to the powers-that-be that we remain sceptical not only of the truth claims ventured by their agents but also that we remain sceptical of the entire foundation of the order out of which such truth claims are ventured. In other words, a true scepticism might occasionally require one to forswear one’s blue pill in the morning, and take a red pill instead, simply for the sake of one’s mental health.
There is wisdom on both sides and, despite the charm, scurrility, and I dare say we even have to add nowadays, masculinity; there is depth on both sides, in the deeply serious requirement that politicians be held to account in their own terms, and in the deeply serious requirement that everyone be held to account for the system which they appear to be defending. To face down the horrors of this novel variant of totalitarianism, we require the ability to be reasonable but also to be unreasonable. These are not stable compounds and this is not even a stable suggestion. But it is good to hear voices urging the essential perspective at the boundary, one vigilant about reality up to that boundary, and one vigilant about the possibility of a reality beyond it.
Dr. James Alexander is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.