ONE of the fondest memories I have as a writer is a brief internship I did at the Times in mid-2019 at the News UK building in central London. I bumped into many interesting characters, including new journos who admired Rory Stewart and several members of the now-defunct Dream Team YouTube channel.
I also noticed the (now former) columnist David Aaronovitch. I didn’t talk to him, especially given the vastly different politics we had – him being an overtly Blairite liberal and me the Faragist conservative that I was at the time would presumably only have led to an unpleasant confrontation.
In part this was also due to his rather obnoxious attitude when it came to his commentary, an attitude that bleeds profusely from his much-publicised last column for the Times, so much so that it could fill an elevator scene from The Shining. The headline is ‘Don’t be distracted by the drag queens’, and in the promotion of it, he noted that its message was to slam down ‘the culture wars and all who fight in them’.
This is already a hilarious proposition by itself – a ‘former’ communist who insinuated that working-class people who disagreed with him on mass immigration were racist and who celebrated the fact that his political opposition in Brexiteers were dying off is perhaps not the best person to call for cultural civility.
The column itself isn’t much better.
Its main focus is on the recent Turning Point UK protests against drag queen story hour events, in particular Calvin Robinson for supposedly being libellous about the men in question. He makes the same facetious comparison as much of the left between the queens and pantomime performers – there is little difference between the two, so why are you complaining, homophobe? Of course, this ignores the overt sexualisation of one as opposed to the other, which gets many concerned about it being shown to children (especially some of the more explicit performances one can find online), but that’s beside the point.
After spending most of the article making TPUK and Robinson his foil, Aaronovitch highlights his own stance on the matter, agreeing in full with the current hegemony about the culture war and its targets, but slyly objecting enough to some trends to make him seemreasonable.
Censoring Roald Dahl’s books is OK, but only because parents like himself have done so for J K Rowling’s works when reading them to their children, and the trans ‘allies’ attacks on her go too far. The Scottish National Party’s Kate Forbes should be shunned for her views on gay marriage, but only because she’s a religious fanatic, in the same way that the fundamentalist Muslims who sent an autistic boy and his family into hiding for accidentally scuffing a Koran are. The left-wing establishment sometimes overreacted to the George Floyd riots of 2020, hence the removal of anti-racist pictures of Philip Guston went too far, but the conservative worries about the National Trust’s colonialism smears and statue toppling are overreacting (and probably racist too).
You see, the culture war doesn’t exist – but when it does, it is fully justified in attacking the old staid establishment and norms of Britain in favour of the post-1968 secular Britain we now have; only when that is attacked does Aaronovitch feel that his fellow liberals and leftists go too far.
Sorry, but this won’t do. This is because Aaronovitch doesn’t seem to appreciate the gravity of the situations he speaks about, while his inherent argument is completely bogus.
No, parents toning down darker parts of children’s books for their kids at bedtime is not the same as publishers gutting a work that they did not create to be politically correct, whether it be against Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming or Enid Blyton. No, reasonable Christian objections to same-sex marriage (which Forbes doesn’t want to reverse anyway) are not the same as unreasonable brutes forcing people into hiding over a religious dispute – not least because polite society is perfectly happy to attack the former and not the latter. And no, anything being attacked or removed as part of a left-wing cultural revolution is good, not just the ones that are on your team.
This comes to a head at the end of the article, where he warns his readers to not listen to the culture warrior’s ‘hysterical schtick’, and instead focus on issues such as Net Zero and the future of AI.
This is the overall problem with the piece. Culture war debates are indeed serious ones – what kind of society that Britain becomes is always relevant, and despite such debates being individually trivial they are troubling in culmination.
Instead of all that, Aaronovitch would prefer us return to the political situation of the early 2010s when the only debates to have are about the economy and elite-driven issues, casting aside culture altogether to Tory backbenchers and those whom Aaronovitch would presumably consider bigoted reactionaries.
However, to paraphrase one of the inspirations of the cultural revolution, Leon Trotsky, you may not be interested in the culture war, but the culture war is interested in you. While Aaronovitch is right in that most people want ‘want little part in these conflicts’ and to be guided by ‘common sense’, they don’t have a say in the matter. Instead, they’re told that St George and the Royal Family are not actually British to stop complaints about mass migration designed to rub their ‘nose[s] in diversity’. That their favourite Briton, Winston Churchill, is an evil racist who should not be respected, with his statue disrespected on the 75th anniversary of D-Day to boot. That even saying that Britain should remain British is akin to fascism on popular TV shows, and waving national flags is undermined at every turn. In short, there is no point in being civil as Aaronovitch wants us to, when we can’t agree as a society what those civilities are – especially when one side is using its massive reach to push its message and silence everyone else.
Aaronovitch concludes fittingly by stating that ‘any idiot or populist charlatan can have an opinion’ to which ‘[w]e don’t have to listen’. Such an idea goes both ways, Mr Aaronovitch. While the polarised nature of Western politics is dispiriting, one good thing it is doing is making centrist blobs like you irrelevant. We don’t have to listen to the idiots or the populist charlatans, Mr Aaronovitch. But we don’t have to listen to you either. Your leaving the Times onlymakes that process so much easier.