I’m still trying to comprehend what I saw last weekend.
The Battle of Ideas is a series of talks and ‘debates’ (assuming one can debate an issue in an environment of rigid conformity) organised by the libertarian think tank the Academy of Ideas. I’ve been following this former communist cult for a long time. I first learnt of it when I used to listen to The Moral Maze. Claire Fox, the director of the Academy of Ideas, was a regular panellist.
It was an odd experience listening to her. Her demeanour and language sounded leftist and roughly progressive. But when I listened to the arguments she was making on topics such as right to strike, government surveillance, anti-capitalism, and the war on terror, I realised that she was firmly aligned with the hard right.
This ability to gloss reactionary arguments with left wing radical language is the raison d’etre of the Battle of Ideas. It attracts an assortment of conservatives, libertarians, nationalists, and far right figures. But it’s right wing ideology is carefully concealed in the language of resistance and transgression against the vaguely defined ‘status quo’. These are not ideas and positions traditionally associated with establishment conservatism. The event only achieves a semblance of intellectual cohesion by painting images of contemporary Britain as a country in the grip of ‘woke’ values. Real power no longer lies with the state. Universities and cultural institutions like museums and galleries now shape public opinion. The ‘left’ now control discourse and define who we are.
It’s all pure conspiracy. The Battle of Ideas is engaged in the politics of images not ideology. I have been to many conferences and none felt like this. It was more like a rally than an intellectual climate. All of the speakers, no matter what the topic, spoke of their utter contempt for the ‘authoritarian left’. The crowd instinctively understood who this enemy were: Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, Just Stop Oil, trade unions, Mermaids (who were the subject of sustained vilification over two days), the Labour party, students, academics writing about decolonising the curriculum, the National Trust…anyone or anything that posed a threat to sacred Enlightenment values (more on the ahistoricism of the Enlightenment in a future post).
But the greatest enemy were gender queer people. From the opening speech, the topic of gender identity was framed as the greatest sign that we were living in a time of cultural degeneracy and submission to the authority of the mob. Joanna Williams said that using one’s preferred pronouns made us ‘complicit in a lie’.
I kept thinking how terrified I would be if I were trans or non-binary in this crowd. They were spoken about like a contagion that was polluting young minds. It was very disturbing to feel the waves of hate eminate from the crowd. The talks were curated in such a way that concrete images of the enemy were painted in primary colours for the audience to direct their hate towards.
Some contributions that were particularly shocking were that ‘too many poor people are making art’, ‘Enoch Powell was right’, ‘I’m sick of having to treat black people like heroes’, ‘working class people don’t go to university’, ‘drag is pornography’, and a general refrain that British culture had achieved a kind of racial harmony that had been spoilt by the new fad of identity politics.
Lots more to unpack, mentally. It was an important event to attend as I continue to research the performativity of the culture wars. The appearance of debate has become a substitute for the antagonism produced through genuine cultural exchange. The politics of right wing images exist to deligitimise any other form of discourse whilst immersing people in a parallel reality where they can cast themselves as victims of censorship and gender ideology. They role play oppression.