Common Sense against Culture War — Thomas Paine’s Revolt versus Laurence Fox’s Reclaim

Statue of Thomas Paine. Photographe by Richard Croft

It might seem foolish to compare Enlightenment political theorist Thomas Paine and the bloke off the telly who plays a sidekick’s sidekick, Laurence Fox. But, aside from the fact I’d already started an essay about the culture war and Paine when Fox announced he was starting a new political whose only goal was to “fight the culture wars”, the two do share a common target for their revolts — Great Britain.

Before we get to Britain, it’s worth pointing out something very obvious. “Fight the culture wars” can mean two things — fight against or fight in. I’ve already argued that there is a way to fight against the idea of a culture war without bleating over song lyrics and other trivial issues, so I won’t thread over that ground again other than to say you don’t beat it by contributing to it and, that the very concept is borderline moronic. It boils down to society arguing over one set of beliefs versus another, and we have a word for that, politics.

Besides, it will become clear that Fox wants to fight in the culture, not negate the concept through the promotion of freedom of speech.

Keeping the government out of the culture

Anyone who tells you to keep politics out of art is an idiot. But, the same idiocy does not if you apply that prohibition to government. Fox’s first mistake in creating Reclaim (a name with suspect connotations of “taking back” or “making great again”) is a misunderstanding the point of government, particularly in its regards to society and culture. In Paine’s call to arms for American independence, Common Sense, he makes this distinction;

“Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining out vice.[…] Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one…”

Essentially, governments exist to limit some freedoms so that society can be enjoyed more fairly by all. Any potential government, including silly named celebrity parties, that want to fight in the culture war by legally alternating society, would be missing the point of the limitations of government.

By all means, the beliefs of society can be altered and debated( i.e. that’s culture war) but a government legislating those debates is a dangerous position to be in. The less a government dictates what we can think, the better.

The “Right” free speech

Fox’s screencap of his parties intentions (truly, we live in the noblest of ages) reveals a few unsolvable paradoxes. First, Great Britain is “borne out of a respectful inclusion of so many individual voices.” and “ diverse in the truest respect” but with a “shared heritage” and “our future is a shared endeavour, not a divisive one.”

These ideas can’t all be true at once. We can’t have a shared heritage beyond having lived in proximity to one another (forgetting migrants and ex-pats of course) and true diversity. Our personal family histories reveal our heritage are is varied. Someone with an Afro-Caribbean heritage has a very different relationship with Britains heritage than someone with an Anglo-Saxon heritage. It needn’t be as obvious as skin colour. Class, sex, religion, north-south divide — all of these distort any idea of one, shared history and it’s vital we remember that. Writing in 1776, Paine put it like this:

“Thousands are already ruined by British barbarity; (thousands more will probably suffer the same fate). Those men have other feelings than us who have nothing suffered. All they now possess is liberty, what they before enjoyed is sacrificed to its service, and having nothing more to lose, they disdain submission.” — (Highlight mine).

Though he was arguing against Britain as a state, it won’t take much imagination to conceive Paine, here, could be writing about the myth of the goodness of the British legacy. We don’t all feel the same way about Britain’s history or criticism of it, the same criticism which gave marginalised people rights and the same criticism they shouldn’t deny for the sake of Fox’s feelings.

Further, how can we avoid a divisive endeavour and include individual voices? I suppose if those voices were all saying the same thing that might work but Fox gives the game away far too quickly with —

“The people of The United Kingdom are tired of being told that we represent the very thing we have, in history, stood against.”

I’m reticent to invoke the spirit of Orwell too soon but aside from the rampant double-speak in this statement, “tired of being told” doesn’t exactly scream an open and inclusive manifesto. As Georgie-boy wrote, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Keep it simple stupid

The other issue with this statement is what it is everyone in the United Kingdom seems to be so tired of hearing. Like all nonsense political stance, Fox’s approach relies on vagueries to survive but if I’m reading it right, his general complaint is that Britain, The British and The United Kingdom is too self-critical. Reclaim’s summarising policy (after suggested reforms, which we will get to) is:

“To preserve and celebrate our shared national history, cultural inheritance and global contribution.”

Given the “tired” statement, “preserve” here, can be translated to “ignore any need idea about”, while “celebrate” certainly includes “ignore any criticism of”.

What Fox wants then is simple. More patriotism. But his concept of patriotism relies solely on a propagandist view of history. Despite his party slogan including “reason”, it seems he doesn’t want to engage that particular faculty. Again, I have written before about why a political party might want to reduce our real shared British history, simplifying it to the idea the Empire being tea swilling gents mincing about the world while handing our medicine and railways without asking nor taking nor raping anything in return. Paine also has a theory on the use of political simplicity.

“…the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered and the easier it is to be repaired when disordered […] Absolute governments (tho’ a disgrace of human nature) have the advantage with them, that they are simple; if people suffer, they know the head from which their suffering springs, know likewise the remedy, and are not bewildered by a variety of causes and cures.” — (Highlight mine)

Although we can be fairly certain Fox’s party is not yet “Absolute” as in totalitarian (yet), it is in the sense that it focuses on one issue, the culture war, and doesn’t take into account the complexity of the single issue it claims it wants to resolve. Simply put, the entire party line can be reduced down to “Britain was great and we don’t like hearing otherwise”.

Back to bias

Towards the end of Common Sense, Paine replies to a letter printed in the newspapers from some Quakers that states:

“…the setting up and putting down of kings and governments, is God’s peculiar prerogative; for causes best known to himself: And that it is not our business to have any hand or contrivance therein;” — (Highlight mine)

Paines simply points out that by publically saying we shouldn’t be involved the business of politics, you are involving yourself and trying to influence politics. Fox isn’t making the same claim, obviously, but the same problem of influencing thoughts is present.

By this point, it should be clear that the surface-level commendable ideas Fox has — “ full protection of freedom of speech, expression, thought, association and academic enquiry” — are immediately corrupted by the need to “preserve and celebrate” our past, create a future unified in thought and to legislate against what we are “tired of hearing.”

Fox pledges to reform government institution and media to remove bias. That would be more palatable if that’s all he said, that they should be without bias (although let’s just remember, for example, it isn’t be biased to say A) selling humans is wrong and B) there is pretty conclusive evidence a lot of Briton’s sold people). But it’s clear what Fox wants is to replace a bias he doesn’t like, with a bias he does — the causes best known to himself.

The rich man’s game

I want to make a point here about Reclaim’s being a single-issue party and just how dangerous that issue is. Firstly, if the only thing you are worried about is a culture war, then you are de facto privileged. Don’t get into a huff, what I’m saying is most politics revolves around much more prescient concerns.

But also Fox is privileged. This doesn’t automatically disqualify him from office or the right to express his opinions but it’s important to bear in mind in part of Fox’s statement:

“… it has become clear that our politicians have lost touch with the people they represent and govern.”

Normally I’d argue politicians have never been in touch with the people they govern but for now, I’ll point out that Fox, a white, middle class, privately-educated man born into wealth, oblivious to his privilege who criticises his working-class and BAME contemporaries, and who set up a political party on a whim, is not the voice of the people either.

Incidentally, I don’t think Fox is a racist, not in the sense he understands the word at least, but then I think it’s also clear that he has no concept of anti-racism. This is either because his identity is too fragile to deal with the concept or because the man is the pinnacle of the rise of the I-know-best-and-nothing-at-all commentator — someone gave a platform precisely because they have reacted to a societal change without bothering to learn anything about it. This, incidentally, is part and parcel of being privileged and why it is good to compare this approach to its opposite in Paine, who had this to say about it:

“Men who look upon themselves as born to reign, and other to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.” — (Highlight mine)

I’m certain Fox would reject this assessment of him, after all, he went to quite different private school than the Cabinet, but let’s not forget that in his statement he implies that he knows what all Britons are thinking and further, what the very concept of Britain should and should not include.

Stupid like a fox

The scariest part about Fox’s new party is that because he is so sure of his objectives while using the wrong tool to bring them about, deploying nonsense rhetoric to sell it and not understanding its inherent contradiction, is that it will work by opening the doors to utter shites.

Reclaim has already been described as “Ukip for the culture wars”, it is claimed the party has received millions in dosh from former Tory donors, and its mere existence has created a self-perpetuating battleground for the culture war. The party isn’t just trying to win the fight, it is the fight. The right is going crazy over it. Case and point — The Spectator, within three days, has gone from claiming Fox’s party is doomed, to heralding it as a political powerhouse.

They might be right. The culture war is addictive; for some is the illogical conclusion of progressive liberalism, for others, the desperate clinging on the dead ideals of conservativism and imperialism. It’s annoying either way. And because I hate to say it, I’ll leave you with Paine to explain why success for Fox will bring us more than we bargained for:

“If we omit it now, some Massenello may hereafter arise, who laying hold of popular disquitudes, may collect together the desperate and the discontented, and by assuming to themselves the power of government, may sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge.”

Journalist, author, comics writer and rambler. I like odd things. Comic found here — Support my writing here

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