It is important to read The Guardian, the British centre-left newspaper. It is not important to read it simply because as the journalist and historian Paul Johnson once put it: if you do not read the Guardian of a morning, what else would possibly get you so annoyed that the creative juices start pumping?
No, the Guardian – infuriating though it can be – has many terrific writers and a strong tradition of reporting and liberal-left commentary. In a country that is too London-centric, the modern Guardian is too North London-centric, but you still find flashes of the old dissenting and a willingness to take seriously what goes on north of Ottolenghi’s restaurant on Upper Street, Islington. A Guardian move back north to Manchester was mooted recently. The Guardian should have moved the entire operation to the centre of that city. Imagine the signal that would have sent! A media company getting out of London and back into the heart of Britain. The Corbynite Leninists of Momentum are strong in Manchester too, so many of the Guardian staff would have felt very much at home in a safe space.
Although my political and economic views are the opposite of much in Guardian, I was raised in a Guardian household and as a wannabe hack I was excited and fascinated by Peter Preston’s daring mid-1980s revamp of the paper.
I still read it, a lot. It is then more in sorrow than in anger that I mention a leader (editorial) published at the weekend on the subject of the pop singer Taylor Swift. Derision has been widespread, or, rather, several hundred non-leftie people on Twitter have pointed at it and mocked the Guardian for publishing a rather sinister epistle asking if she is an envoy for President Donald Trump’s values.
“In the year since Donald Trump was elected,” says The Guardian, “the entertainment world has been largely united in its disdain for his presidency. But a notable voice has been missing from the chorus: that of Taylor Swift, the world’s biggest pop star.”
After a lot of priggish nonsense about the company Swift keeps, she is further admonished for failing to do her apparent duty.
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“These days, even heartland country singers are mocking the president. Her silence seems to be more wilful: a product of her inward gaze, perhaps, or her pettiness and refusal to concede to critics. Swift seems not simply a product of the age of Trump, but a musical envoy for the president’s values.”
Declaration: I know, vaguely, who Swift is but remain wholly unfamiliar with her artistic oeuvre. But who the hell does the Guardian think it is to dictate to her? Running through the entire editorial is a bizarre assumption that Swift has a moral duty to agree with the way the Guardian views the world in general and Donald Trump in particular. She has, it should be fairly obvious, no such duty. In a free society she should, absent advocating violence, be able to say and think what she wants.
Increasingly, that is not how it works, which helps explain the ongoing populist backlash from people who have had enough of being bossed around and marginalised by a cultural elite that seems incapable of grasping that its ideas and values are not universally shared.
“The Guardian, you can’t even meet them halfway. They are like The Sun in 1972. So obstinate. They don’t want to talk to you. They want to correct you. You can’t simply say, ‘This is how I feel,’ because they’ll say, ‘How you feel is wrong.’ And they’ll say, ‘He’s racist. He should be shot, he should be drowned.’ It’s very difficult to sit down with somebody and simply convey your feelings. In a democracy you should be able to give your opinion about anything.
Old Morrissey exaggerates, but he has a point about the self-appointed cultural police persons and the shifting tide of opinion. It is symptomatic, I think, of a rise of a new puritanism. Although it is a puritanism that is intolerant of dissent, pious, bossy, and for the most part austere, it comes with a twist this time. In the age of digital “hook ups” and Tinder, apps designed for no-strings encounters, two things are happening simultaneously. Ultra-liberals are voraciously hedonistic and contemptuous of traditional forms and manners, which is fine if that’s your thing. Yet everything beyond their own sphere of enjoyment or gratification is sifted for the trigger warnings and micro-aggressions in the form of opinions they find offensive and want redrafted or shutdown. They are both licentious and intolerant. They are become illiberal liberals.
Not everyone complies, but increasingly dissenters have to disagree quietly. In the case of Taylor Swift, she is not even allowed – it seems – to say nothing. Silence is proof of her ideological crimes.
That Guardian editorial questioning Swift is a classic of the genre, but the message of intolerance is incessant in what Trump supporters, and many moderate critics of Trump, call the liberal media. The message of obligation to comply with the new norms is like a sermon, an ideological backing track, incanted constantly about what is or is not deemed acceptable, delivered presumably in the expectation that everyone who disagrees just gives up for the sake of a quiet and compliant life. For anyone who believes in a free society, it has become chilling.