Postmodern Conservative

How to Interpret the New Radiohead Video

The gen-x British rock band Radiohead was able to create a media splash for their first release in several years, in part by releasing this disturbing video featuring children’s show stop-action animation:

And here’s the statement made by Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos:

I have heard and appreciate the serious concerns of our many students and alumni who have signed an online petition calling for the suspension of Carol Swain….  Professor Swain’s opinions are her own.  They do not reflect the opinions of the university in any way.  They are not my opinions, the opinions of the provost, or the opinions of university leadership.

Vanderbilt University is committed to diversity, inclusion, and freedom from discrimination.  Ensuring that our campus is a safe, welcoming, and supportive environment for every member of the Vanderbilt community has been, and will always be, our top priority.  I firmly believe that every member of our community—regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age or disability [ed.  why isn’t “political belief” in this list also?]—has the same right to participate fully in the Vanderbilt community and have access to all of the benefits and opportunities that Vanderbilt offers.  I am saddened anytime I hear that any member of our community—in this case, as highlighted in the petition, our LGBTQIA community and our Muslim students, faculty and staff—feel excluded from our Vanderbilt community.

Then Zeppos goes on to mouth the usual boilerplate about academic freedom, but he can’t even leave it at that, adding “speech whose sole purpose or effect is to discriminate, stigmatize, retaliate, offend, foment hatred or violence, or cause harm has no place in this university” without at all indicating that Swain’s speech was likely not driven by this “purpose.”  

What a cowardly bully.  He essentially criticizes Swain for doing what he is saying his precious Vanderbilt community dedicates itself not to do.  We should give him no credit for not giving in to the petition’s basic demand, which he could not have without violating all existing norms on tenure and academic freedom.  He basically joined the petitioners in locking Professor Swain into the Wicker Man for some public shaming—“Vanderbilt Community”-style–, but he apparently wants us to respect his leadership because he did not grant permission to set it on fire.

And don’t believe Zeppos when he says that members of every religion “have access to all of the benefits and opportunities that Vanderbilt offers.”  Tell it to the members of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a very mainstream and widespread evangelical student group Vanderbilt “derecognized,” ending their access to campus funds, spaces, and much else, because they won’t submit to Vanderbilt’s “all-comers” policy for student-group leadership, which could prohibit IVCF from blocking, say, a Trinity-denier or an advocate of homosexual practice, from becoming a group leader. 

Similar policies toward IVCF were adopted by some other universities over the last few years, most significantly by the CSU system.  But at this one point, I do have one item of good news to report.  Last summer, CSU rescinded that policy, and re-recognized IVCF without its submitting to an “all-comers” leadership policy.  They…compromised!  With the evangelical Christian college group long notable for its efforts to stay-clear of Christian-right political causes, to foster multi-ethnicity in its chapters, to publish books pushing Christians towards more nuanced and open-minded—while still orthodox–positions on homosexuality, and which even displeased many by inviting a BLM-sympathetic speaker to address their big mission conference.  With a group that went out of its way to encourage its chapter members not to respond to the de-recognition policies with political protest.  With, full-disclosure, the organization I was a student leader in back in the 1980s, and that was fine with my at the time also being an attendee of meetings of the Democratic Socialists of America. 

For more on Vanderbilt and IVCF, you can go to this link-filled IVCF page, which led me to a fine recent editorial by Patheos writer George Yancey—he discusses the Swain situation as well. Oh, and here’s one of those books published by InterVarsity Press:

Well, do you want me to go on?  Look, there is example after example piling up these days, and they’re not just in academia.  (Academia simply shows you what progressives tend to do when they have decisive power.)  There’s what happened at Mozilla, what Oregon did to that poor cake-baker, etc.  Since Radiohead is a British band, perhaps we should talk about the even worse patterns there.  As everyone knows, exhibit A would be the career-saavy avoidance officials adopted when faced with the evidence of what was happening in Rotherham.  Exhibit B might be efforts of government officials, including members of Parliament, to squelch articles by global-warming sceptics.  We would easily run through the alphabet twice just dealing with cases from the last five years—and likely the same could be done with such cases in Canada, France, Germany, etc. 

Just one more example, then, again from American academia, involving the “T” in LGBT.  Poor Daniel Harris was until just a few days ago, someone who thought of himself as a progressive in good standing, being gay, for one, being connected-enough to get published in the prestigious Antioch Review, for two, and finally for being someone who, in his words, “fervently support[s] TGs’ rights to transition,” and who is “neither hateful nor transphobic. I am tolerant of all people, save Republicans.”  Surely such a good progressive would be granted the license to make some independent-minded and inconvenient observations about a) the pushy—say it, say it, Caitlyn is a woman—character of much Transgender activism, and b) the fact that the basic idea of transitioning might be not totally correct, even if the right to acting upon that idea had to be absolutely guaranteed.  Right?

Wrong.  So wrong.  Harris is now on the receiving end of a Google-docs petition denunciation drive, and both Antioch College and The Antioch Review have apologized for his supposed thought-crime.  He’s a good writer, but as for that career writing for progressive-friendly journals and such…well, that self-envisioned role for Daniel Harris has been locked inside the Wicker Man, and the fire lit.  

They devour their own, endlessly…

And did you notice that, without a trace of qualification, Harris tried to establish his progressive tolerance creds by indicating his refusal to tolerate Republicans?  Is that some kind of joke?  Part of his identity is an advertised commitment to hate and treat unfairly nearly half of his fellow citizens?  Well, however he meant it, in terms of progressivism today it is no joke at all, but elementary policy.

Leading progressive academic George Lakoff, a man praised by Democrat politicians, released four or so years ago a Handbook for Thinking and Talking Democratic, in which he told the liberal/progressive never to “repeat conservative language or ideas, even when arguing against them.” I.e., never apply the golden rule in your political debates with conservatives.  Never seek to convey how they understand themselves.  Four years ago, I was shocked and called upon liberals to denounce Lakoff for saying it.  I renew that call today.  But my hope that the call will be heeded, or that his statement even shocks our typical liberal/progressive, has diminished since then.

The conservative is the one who knows that’s become the policy, and that the long-advertised devotion of liberalism to foster open debate no longer inspires its putative adherents to actually stand-up for that creed against their progressive allies. So the conservative increasingly refrains from trying to make a home within “Model-Village” institutions, which increasingly are the most dominant institutions in society, unless he is in some sense a) armed, b) cloaked, or c) equipped with an escape device. 

The moderate-become-conservative might long for what he heard in the days when his liberal teachers taught him about the dialog, tolerance, free-speech, deliberative-democracy, and all the rest that would make a place for questioners in “Model-Village.”  He might cry tears for the vanishing of that place and prospect.  But he has seen too many Wicker Man burnings in the metaphorical career-killing or reputation-ruining sense, and knows that in the future, the children raised up by our present progressives could turn to confinements and burnings rather less than merely metaphorical. So he tries to live largely outside of Model-Village now, even as he can see no good way to entirely disconnect himself from it or the threat of future chaos/despotism that its deepening madness seems destined to unleash.

So again, it’s she who tries to live as a moderate, or as an old-school ACLU-ish liberal, or simply as an on-board progressive who has inconvenient observations about this or that, who is most likely to get burnt like a witch by the townspeople.  They feed their own sense of morality and self-worth by scape-goating others.  Today it’s “transphobia,” or “global-warming denialism,” or “white-privilege,” or “anti-Muslim,” but there will be newer and more advanced more thought-crime categories to add to these, and perhaps golden oldies like “petty-bourgeois capitalist running dog” to revive. 

Here’s Solzhenitsyn’s Lenin, p. 485 of November 1916, recollecting how it works:

…aggressive tactics had been essential.  His tactics were to whittle down the majority resolution as far as he could—and then still not accept it!  Either you record our opinion in the minutes or we leave!  …But you are in the minority, why are you dictating to us?  … All right—we’re leaving!  A breakdown! A public brawl!  A disgrace!…  That was how it had been at all those conferences, and there had never been a majority that hadn’t weakened.  The wind always blows from the far left!

Here’s Plato’s Socrates, describing the same thing from another angle at Republic 462d-e:

I suppose when a democratic city, once it’s thirsted for freedom, gets bad wine-bearers as its leaders and gets more drunk than it should on this unmixed draught, then unless the rulers are very gentle and provide a great deal of freedom, it punishes them, charging them with being polluted and being oligarchs.  …And it spatters with mud those who are obedient, alleging that they are willing slaves of the rulers and are nothings…while it praises and honors—both in private and in public—the rulers who are like the ruled… …as the teacher in such a situation is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of the teachers…the young copy their elders and compete with them in speeches and deeds while the old come down to the level of the young…and that’s so they won’t seem to be unpleasant or despotic.

Take those words from Plato of yore and Solzhenitsyn from just-yesterday, and filter through them what you know about grade inflation today, about diminishing literacy, and activist-driven propagandistic uses of social media.  Apply them to the cases I mention above.  You’ll see why folks like Andrew Sullivan are speculating about the possibility of Democratic Despotism lying just around the corner. 

Yes, progressive, I know that conservatives like the writers here at NRO have our big issue these days with the Trump phenomenon.  I know we are partly to blame for it, and I sure do not exactly know what to do about it.  I do know, however, that if you think none of the blame for Trump’s popularity falls upon you, that you have an impressive capacity for blinding yourself.

Yes, progressive, I know that one of the animators said Radiohead told him the video was driven by concern for the treatment of the refugees from the Muslim and African world.  Well, do you think Radiohead is dumb enough, knowing the typical rock fan, to openly espouse their having conservative thoughts and ideas, if they have such?  Do you think they would do nothing to cut against that suspicion? 

Yes, progressive, I know that the “witch-burning” temptation is one that all creeds and ideologies are subject to.  But do you really think Radiohead cannot see that the far greater threat of “witch-burning” in our day is coming from your side? 

Or maybe they can’t see it.  Maybe Radiohead won’t let themselves see how their video most obviously speaks to the times. 

But if so, progressive, is it not the case that the English majors in your ranks have often touted “reader-response” interpretive theory?  Listening to them, then, you’d have to take with dutiful seriousness my sincere witness that this is what the video most obviously means to me, and to my fellow conservatives.  And maybe your duty will lead you further, to the possibility that my interpretation, given the cold facts about what is happening in the cases of Kipnis, Swain, Harris, and in thousands of similar ones, is the more convincing one simply.

Oh, you think that is preposterous?  You want to find a way to dismiss what I write, these heartfelt fears of your fellow man? 

The most chilling moment of the video comes right at 3:31 or so—the mayor beckons the people to turn away from the burning of the inspector, and they all do.  And then, cheerily, blankly, they wave.  Everything is fine, see.  Everyone is happy.  Except for that nasty inspector, and people like Kipnis, Swain, Harris, and this Carl Eric Scott fellow.  But we don’t need to pay any attention to what is happening to them, do we?

Progressive, face it.  That is an image of you.  

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