A Fortnightly Review.
The Smallest Minority: Independent Thinking in the Age of Mobs
by Kevin D. Williamson.
By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.
THE MONKEYS NEAR Hanuman’s temple in New Delhi, Kevin Williamson tells us, delight in flinging poo at the tourists who come to feed them. And they masturbate. They are, he says, “a gigantic pain in the ass.” And so, too, are the mobs who infest our public and internet spaces: gigantic, poo-flinging, masturbating pains in the ass. All those petty-minded little serfs in the media, the universities and corporations who cannot think for themselves but fling poo at those who do, usually by demanding they be kicked out of their jobs—eliminated, destroyed. They all constitute the ochlocracy, as Williamson calls it, mob rule “effected through the exploitation and domination of both private and public centers of power,” in other words, democratic government.
He’s right, though you may find his language too scatalogical and abusive to stomach. In which case Mr Williamson doesn’t care. He is not afflicted with the “abject, craven, humiliating desire to be loved by strangers” as most writers and intellectuals are. Their desire to be popular stops them from doing their job. Not so with him. He’s going to tell you what he thinks, with all the vituperative panache at his disposal, and if you don’t like it then you can kindly leave the room. Williamson is not going to address you in the polite formal mode of a Peter Hitchens or a Douglas Murray. Neither of those gentleman shows a craven desire to be loved by strangers but neither would come up with the following when describing the alternative to political discourse:
…a hokey luchador wrestling match between the mind-killed partisans, grunting modern primitives, talk-radio hucksters, cable-news-hustlers, purveyors of freeze-dried apocalypse lasagnas and mystical doggie vitamins, associate professors of being pissed-off and generally aggrieved, and the sundry other dambasstastical shitweasels who currently dominate our political conversation…
Luckily for us he gives us a great deal to think about apart from his scintillating venom and backs it up with a healthy dose of culture. Each chapter is larded with references and quotations: Aristotle, Eric Hoffer, Hobbes, Milton, Shakespeare, Dante, Bishop Berkeley, J S Mill, Scruton, Fromm, Hayek, Orwell (unavoidable, obviously), Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Adams, Julien Benda, William Whyte, etc. And Hitler, of course. The most frequently mentioned writer, however, is Michael Oakeshott, the British philosopher of conservatism, which struck me as unusual, since he is a rather recondite figure in Britain.
The book is essentially a psychological analysis of the herd-minded demos. The mob does not think, says Williamson, because only the individual can think, and the mob is a collective. “I come not to bury democracy but to bury it,” he states provocatively. What drives the mob (“lonely, enraged, and bored”) is weakness, a desperate desire to belong to an in-group. In order to secure their membership members must accept all the in-crowd’s dogmas.
This requires not vigorous debate but its prevention, not discourse but “antidiscourse.” Silencing contrary views is not enough — dissenters themselves must be personally cancelled (to use a term perhaps not in use when the book was written), hence the strategy of badgering employers to sack them: “The current model is single-serving suppression: Hit targets one at a time until those who have not been hit simply keep ducking from instinct.” Cue Damore being sacked by Google, Brendan Eich being driven out of Mozilla, Williamson himself being mob-ejected from The Atlantic (“THAT AUGUST JOURNALISTIC INSTITUTION,” as he calls it), and many more. When you see what happens to a colleague you keep schtum because you want to keep your job.
The key idea developed here by Williamson is the use the mob makes of the corporate, whether it’s a private business or a (semi-)public institution, such as a university. Corporations all work the same way — ie, they are “self-disciplining” and thus intolerant of conflict-inducing individuals. If the mob finds a heretic whose views they do not like, they target their employer, who will most likely not want the hassle and bad publicity of putting up a fight:
When — or while — the apparatus of the state is beyond the mob’s reach, the mob must turn to other organizations, grasping other cudgels with which to beat the dissidents and critics into conformity. In many cases, these private-sector organizations are much more effective instruments of suppression than are government agencies. It takes a great deal of effort to have someone convicted and imprisoned for a thought crime; it takes a lot less to bully that person’s employer into firing him, but the moral outcome is the same.
In the words of Stalin: no man, no problem. However, it is not as if governmental and quasi-governmental organisations are immune to this. Williamson goes on to mention the example of the late Sir Roger Scruton:
…the British “Building Better Building Beautiful” commission, whose chairman — Roger Scruton — also Britain’s most important living philosopher — was chased out of the position for thinking unapproved thoughts and uttering them aloud in front of people: The philosopher was fired for doing the work proper to a philosopher.
Chased out (initially, and then shamefacedly readmitted) by then-Communities Secretary James Brokenshire and other members of a Conservative government.
Just before you give a posthumous cheer to the philosopher, remember this section is footnoted with an acerbic comment about the demos:
I want to give the public the opportunity to have the kind of architecture they would vote for,” Scruton said, “not the kind that is imposed on them by the disciples of Le Corbusier and Mies.” Scruton here is being uncharacteristically generous to the masses in his assumption that what they would vote for would be any good…
I would argue that Sir Roger is right and Williamson wrong, even if most of the public are “dull, stupid, and weak.” Here in Blighty we may not know much about modern architecture but we know that we hate it. Any alternative we voted for would be better. It’s worth mentioning here Williamson’s creative and idiosyncratic use of footnotes as asides, qualifications, expansions and execrations — you’ll never see its like anywhere.
The desire by censorious leftwingers to target figures such as Scruton springs from a nexus of mental traits. Combined with the need to attack those perceived as enemies, there is the impulse to wallow in emotionalism (“Emotion sells, and extremism sells — and, on social media, the two are difficult to distinguish.”) and above all — this is a point well made by Williamson — exacerbated by a debilitating craving for tribal status, especially when powered through social media:
The dynamic has always been the same; the organizational structure of social media…only serves to exaggerate the tendency and to speed up its timeline. Status is stock, and social-media is high-frequency trading.
The mob gets high on dopamine and emotion, loving outrage, making it susceptible to the populism of both left and right. Antidiscourse empties out real discourse and politics no longer is about politics but, becomes, as the John Adams quotation has it, “a systematic organization of hatreds.” Fascism, for instance, can thus be seen as a “technique” for mass manipulation rather than an ideology, relying on the emotionalism stirred by panic:
Fascism, like many species of authoritarianisn, relies on panic, and on the related belief that extraordinary measures must be deployed in extraordinary times, that emergencies must be met with unity and — most important — with submission and conformity.
(I write this in the midst of the Coronavirus panic, during which we are forbidden to leave our homes except for essential purposes, and from associating in “groups” of more than two people unless they’re in the same household. Draconian and unprecedented infringements of liberty not even seen during the two world wars and passed through parliament without a single squeak of concern — because, of course, it’s for our own good.)
That’s the way populisms work, whatever form they take. So what is the antidote? Well, I’m slightly surprised that no mention is made of Jordan Peterson, who has constantly hammered away at the same message of the importance of the sovereignty of the individual and the need to resist submitting to a collective, especially of a nationalistic kind, This may be because the book was finished in 2015, before the rise and apparent eclipse of Peterson, but Williamson has nevertheless revised the text to take in Trump and other developments. Perhaps Peterson is not to his taste.
The antidote, however, in both cases, is much the same — some form of liberal democracy:
…liberalism – particularly the Anglo-Protestant liberalism of our own tradition – assumes that there exist in a society different kinds of people with different views, different beliefs, different values, different priorities, different conceptions of the good life, different habits of life and of mind, different hopes and different fears — and that all of these people can and should live together, neither as a family in the old tribal mode of blood-and-soil nor solely as trading and advantage-seeking strangers in separate intersecting orbits, but as friends and collaborators, as fellow citizens together engaged in the great business of being free men under their own government.
Yeah, right, as my grandson used to say when he was a sceptical ten year-old. Toleration of differences is a good thing, there is no doubt, but we tend to have fewer substantial differences and more in common than is made out. And however much any political grouping wants to discredit the impulse towards family, tribe and nation, they can never succeed, because that impulse is biological. The liberal society pictured here is in truth a fractured society, and we know that homogeneity is more desirable because more stable. The relationship between the sovereign individual and society is one of constant tension and conflict. Unfortunately the ochlocracy tends to prevail.
Non serviam, says the author in response: “I shall not serve,” repeating Satan’s words to God. So you came to destroy democracy, Mr Williamson, but how are you (we) going to replace it?
This disagreement aside, Williamson’s book is a fascinating read, full of arresting ideas and grandiloquent abuse. If you allow the latter to prevent you from appreciating the former you should visit Hanuman’s temple and have the monkeys fling poo at you.
Currente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. A Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lincoln University (2005 – 2008), his poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press). Sucks to Your Revolution is a collection of his Fortnightly columns.