A few days ago, Lindsay Shepherd, the Canadian free speech Joan of Arc, bloodied but unbowed by her brush with the grand inquisitors of Laurier University’s virtue squad, announced that she was no longer left-wing, and was taking up a position in the political centre. For months she had been courted and wooed by right-wing provocateurs and held up as an exemplar of courage in the face of her university’s nosey-parker thought police. She had been interviewed by Mark Stein, Jordan Peterson, and Dave Rubin among many other older and more sophisticated interlocutors in the wake of her dressing down, and vilified by some of the louder, more insistent puritans on the Left. This 23-year-old Master’s student quickly became a sensation on Twitter and YouTube, the newly made-up face on the prow of a ship slicing through choppy ideological seas.
At once defiant and confessional, Shepherd declared that she had grown to distrust the motives and aspirations of left-wing “social justice warriors.” She explained that actions and attitudes like bike-riding and worrying about the environment that she had once assumed were left-wing, she now saw were merely sensible, and intended to claim them for her new, centrist position. All that remained in the left-wing camp, she declared, was bullying and ideological purity-policing. Interestingly, one of her complaints about the Left was their inability to distinguish between white nationalism and white supremacy. This granular sidebar made her centrist bona fides a little hard to swallow.
During her conversation with Mark Steyn in March, a rather stilted affair during which Steyn spoke quite a bit and Shepherd mostly agreed, she did allow that her new boyfriend was “far right.” One wonders: does love conquer all, after all? Regarding her deer in the headlights attitude during the interview, I couldn’t help but feel for her. At 23, it would probably have gone the same way for me.
I’ve never been a joiner. An extroverted introvert, I’m temperamentally allergic to pinning name tags on my lapel and declaring myself a member of the group, no matter how laudable that group’s goals might be. I’ve always been drawn to the rebels in the room, the romantics, the artists, the smart and the grumpy. When I was young, I thought business was for greedy bores, and if I thought about capitalism at all it was as a necessary evil at best, a soul-destroying machine of environmental degradation at worst. People who worked in banks or toiled away for corporations were alien, half-alive wretches, and capitalists were frightening, power-mad philistines. Nevertheless, my first marriage was to a stockbroker, and then the tech boom happened, and entrepreneurs were elevated in the public imagination, and in my private one, to the artists and rebels of the twentieth century.
Today, in the Trump Age, the yin and yang of yore look like funny little antiques in a cabinet of curiosities. It’s no longer The Man against The People, or the Corporate State against Labour, or the assembly line against the artisan. Now, it’s The Man for the People against the Chinese assembly line, Western civilisation against the teeming hordes landing on our shores, Western civilisation against itself, Man against Woman against Man against the spongers against opiates against the law.
Western societies are riven in a way they have not been in decades. Automation and globalization have razed the rust-belt working class. Cheap goods from foreign lands have been a boon and a consolation, but not enough of either. The placid Pax Europa is curdling as national pride and xenophobia join hands once again, scowling at immigrants and open border die-hards. America has laid down for all her attention-seeking babies to snuggle up together in her lap with their smart phones and social media. Evangelicals, gun nuts, libertarians, America Firsters, white supremacists and white nationalists (if you don’t know the difference, ask Lindsay), trade protectionists, Big Beautiful Wall promoters, and the Putin-sympathetic are fighting for mother America’s love against Bernie bros, trans allies, Black Lives Matter, Planned Parenthood supporters, pro-immigration activists, Hollywood, and higher education.
But there’s a scrappy runt in there too, fighting for space with the only weapon it’s got: reasoned dialogue. It’s the centre, the eye of the storm, the gorgeous, calm place where Steven Pinker has set up an airy tent, open to anyone willing to entertain the idea that the red-faced naysayers are just alarmists who aren’t listening to the better angels of their natures. It’s where Bret Weinstein, hounded away from the fringes, has found a place to catch his breath, speak his mind and inspire the rest of us to think slow, not fast. For a small band of Republicans like David Frum, Rick Wilson, and Bill Kristol, it’s the no-man’s land across which they used to lob grenades as they took pot shots at their enemies, and onto which they have now stridden, hands extended toward the open-minded Left for a beautiful Christmas Day armistice. Like mustard gas, Donald Trump has driven them over the walls of their trenches and into the arms of their antagonists, if only for a brief while. The centre has also become a refuge for Leftists embarrassed by the hectoring, disapproving tones and ultra-progressive social engineering plans of their former comrades.
The fringes are circling around, trying to figure out what is going on inside. Many on both the Left and the Right feel stung by the departure of their former allies, deeply suspicious of their motives, convinced they were never really fighting on the same side. Frum, Wilson, and Kristol are derided as RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) by a drink-the-Koolaid-and-damn-the-torpedoes GOP. They also get flak from the uncompromising peanut gallery overseeing the Democrats’ interests, the disapproving nannies imploring their fellow travellers not to fall for the honeyed tones of the neo-cons. In the United States there are fewer well-known apostates from the Democratic Party as there’s nowhere good to go. As we’ve seen, however, a number of public intellectuals who identify with traditional leftist ideas have moved to the centre. It is where they can speak freely about the strident, anti-scientific fact-fudging and micro-issue focus of some of the more fanciful members of the contemporary Left.
In the UK, the Labour Party has been hijacked by a far-Left faction led by Jeremy Corbyn, gormless friend to Hezbollah and Hamas, and capitalism’s most implacable English foe. Reports from the north indicate that a number of party meetings have been segregated by gender, a tribute to the delicate sensibilities of the Islamic attendees. Corbynistas insist their leader is being maligned, that he’s the victim of a transparent smear campaign, but the evidence is stacking up against them. Aghast at what he views as Labour’s coddling of anti-Semites, the party’s most important donor, Sir David Garrard, has discontinued his funding. Thousands of Labour Party members have turned in their cards thanks to the organization’s humourless, melodramatic turn to the far-Left. The party’s promiscuous embrace of faddish progressive causes and scoffing at moderates has nudged out all too many of their own members. Meanwhile, Brexit has turned brother against brother and torn friendships apart. The fight between Leavers and Remainers has been vicious, with both sides trying to demolish the other, leaving may Leavers to keep quiet about their choice lest they lose friends and put their careers in jeopardy.
Canada – well-governed, sensible Canada – where Justin Trudeau’s handsome face beams good will and middle-of-the-road Liberal Party certainties from coast to coast to coast (as we like to say), isn’t immune from the tug of progressive piety or the sour yank of conservatives – not throat-clearing, bean-counting Conservatives, but the new breed of reactionaries; the type who cheer when social programs falter and elect the likes of the late Rob Ford and, now, his brother Doug. The Liberal Party deftly outflanked the New Democrats in the last election and won by a landslide. They’ve always been easy to vote for. To be a Liberal in Canada was to be sensible but compassionate. It was to champion a market economy while paying high-ish taxes to share the fruits of our prosperity with the less fortunate. But while the Americans have Donald Trump, we’ve got our own, pocket-sized, made-in-Canada populists.
Nowadays, there is reason to worry about the Liberals and their zeal to make good on their election promises and set an example of twenty-first century wokeness to the world. They may squander the voters’ goodwill on quixotic quests for gender equity and other progressive causes. They risk losing the ardour of the Left as they pursue oil projects with dubious environmental credentials, and squash the hopes of indigenous groups who don’t want to see their lands despoiled. On the other hand, the government is currently holding its own in financial negotiations with its aggressive counterparts in the US, and that counts for a lot. But, if in the end the Liberals can’t hold the line on utopia, what then?
Canadian universities, much like those in the UK and the United States, are dominated by left-wing academics and well-compensated administrators who, decades into the diversity and equity programs they have set up and run, continue to insist that their institutions are rife with racism and gender discrimination. Critical theory sends its tentacles into virtually every academic domain, including the sciences, questioning the fundamental principles of knowledge acquisition in service of a theory that says all truth is relative. Even true truth.
All of this weirdness – the relentless pecking away at reason and common sense, the indulgence of fantasy, the attempts at shaming, and the assaults on the sensibilities of common folk and educated people alike – is sending sensible people scrambling for the exits. The centre is growing, becoming populated with refugees from the places that used to contain certainties. A heartening alternative to the trenches, no-man’s land is making bedfellows of strangers who find themselves turning to their former antagonists for comfort in the night. It’s a place where a person can breathe, look around, and make new friends.
Social media, for all its flaws, is able to draw unlike-minded people together: a former owner of an anarchist book store who now calls himself a centrist with libertarian sympathies; a British filmmaker who was a committed socialist in the 1980s but turned away from the Left after too many encounters with their unyielding purity police; a Welsh DJ who was born kicking and screaming into Labour but has long since skedaddled; a former manager of progressive comedians who finally gave up on her charges when every second joke they produced contained the words “kill” or “destroy,” usually aimed at Trump or his supporters. The filmmaker sees echoes of the old battles among the Left in today’s social justice warriors and is only too happy to have set up shop, however discreetly, at the centre of the political spectrum. The DJ watched the Left become ever more po-faced and mean, and misses the days when the English could kid each other about their respective politics, rather than rage from their respective corners. The comedy promoter now runs a dinner and discussion meet-up group composed of evangelicals, progressives, conservatives, and liberals. Nary a harsh word is spoken as they hash out their differences and celebrate their shared humanity, and she is happier than she’s ever been.
A unifying theme animating the contemporary political centre is the sense that free speech is under assault. Right wing and reactionary forces have dusted off the art of the big lie, which Vladimir Putin and his PR minions have been using to great effect for years. Now it’s America’s turn, and Donald Trump is a natural, fabricating stories out of thin air every day for the sheer joy of it. For his critics on the Right, enumerating the lies and explaining why they are dangerous is heresy – never mind that everyone knows Trump is a fear-mongering fabulist. For its part, the Left has student radicals fired up with enthusiasm for remaking society, righting the wrongs of the past and, most significantly, anticipating future wrongs. This leads many of them to quell dissent in the womb, accusing outliers of thought crimes and assuming impure motives. High on high dungeon they publicly break with friends and gather mobs to attack their own kind when they step out of line. Many leftists view the very fight for free speech as a fifth-column attack.
https://t.co/o8CaFcvsof The process is complete. “Free speech” is now being used primarily, perhaps exclusively, as a right wing code for white nationalism.
— Amanda Marcotte (@AmandaMarcotte) April 2, 2018
In fairness, torrents of fact-free drivel pour through our communication channels every day. Protecting free speech requires caravans of patience and an ability not only to identify the lies and propaganda, but mount adequate defensive and offensive strategies. Wolves in wolves’ clothing do occasionally snarl their way into the centre, spitting out sophistry, trying to seize the banner of truth for themselves. But their teeth are far too big to hold such a delicate object in their jaws. The really dangerous interlopers are the prophets.
This isn’t the first time in history that the world has produced intolerable political and moral options, or that ideological camps have retrenched and become hateful to one another. But the mood, the aesthetics, the weapons, the players and the sheer scale of today’s ideological and culture wars are particular to the times. The Internet hasn’t brought enlightenment to quite everyone yet, but it’s certainly helped spread the gospel of the mad, the marginalised and the malevolent. Let us hope that the centre holds. We’ll be joined by people who are really only passing through, because where they’re headed is actually just to the opposite side of wherever they were coming from. Lindsay Shepherd may be one of them. The centre is contested ground, and as collegial as some of the new friendships and alliances appear, and while appeals to reason and civilised debate are hallmarks of the place, it is still populated by people with vastly different political and social views.
Today, neoconservatives like David Frum and Bill Kristol eloquently express their disdain for the chaos of the Trump presidency, but how will the centrist coalition also accommodate those who still consider opposition to the Iraq war a test of political and moral decency? Globalisation has built strong middle classes in places like China and India but brought pain and purposelessness to formerly industrial regions across North America and Europe, from which centrism’s populist opponents are now benefitting. Should free trade be allowed to spread the wealth across the globe, or should Western nations rally to protect and rebuild manufacturing and repopulate gutted towns and regions? Immigration continues to divide well intentioned liberals on Left and Right who recognise a strong humanitarian imperative to protect and rescue refugees and also the need to maintain and defend national borders from disruptive levels of migration. And the competing perspectives on issues like these are so at odds and so existential that they tear at the fabric of civilised society – even in the moderate and pragmatic centre ground.
The centre is home to the devout and to atheists alike. Yet believers in a God that created the world and granted human beings consciousness may have some trouble hashing out society’s ills and their solutions with those who can’t quite get from here to life eternal. The biologist and science populariser Richard Dawkins, for instance, is a centrist by his lights, yet his exasperation with religion brings tears to the eyes of ‘moderate’ believers of all religious persuasions. The rift between unbelieving materialists and the faithful impacts the sober discussion of complex ethical issues like abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research. It won’t always be easy to occupy or even to define the centre as these debates are hashed out, and strange bedfellows will elbow each other in the nose during the night.
Caveat emptor: as new fronts open up, and the centre ground shifts as the parameters of acceptable debate are established, some ideas will thrive and others will shrivel. But, in the end, the free speech defenders are right. Reason and discussion are preferable to the populist siren song of ideological certainty, and allowing opinions to come into the sun is the only way to judge their worth.
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