The London Daily Telegraph recently ran an article in which a young history graduate recounts the political bias that threaded through all ten years of his education. A major module in his degree course—from a top flight university—was about “the ramblings of John Lennon and Yoko Ono”. The prescribed reading-list of Obama presidency critiques focussed solely on far-left ideologues like Tariq Ali. “Bitter and biased professors” regularly fulminated against conservative think tanks; and so on. His revelations will come as no surprise to anyone with an open mind who has worked in our educational institutions—the sad spectacle of teachers still mired in the soggy leftovers of their own adolescent “radicalism”. Thankfully there are relatively few students who will swallow this kind of stuff whole. In purely educational terms, it is perhaps what they have not been taught (because their study-time has been wasted) that is of more long-term significance than the faux “radical” nonsense as such. But the real cultural impact of “radical” group-think—a feature of academic life for seventy years and more—has been its long, gradual but relentless transformation—its gestation via the burgeoning medium of late 20th century mass culture—from something overtly ideological into a kind of (ostensibly apolitical) liberal mass folklore.
Any university graduate alive today will have been immersed for three years plus (and at an impressionable age) in a warm bath of academia radical chic from which relatively few will, in adult life, entirely wean themselves. (It is a funny business this student radicalism—by the way—because, of course, the cosiest and most conforming way to be, on a university campus, is to espouse the “radical” attitudes that everyone else does; attitudes which paradoxically have managed to keep on being the radical orthodoxy for many decades past now.) Moreover, journalists, scriptwriters, film-makers, comedians, creators of advertising copy, etc. (society’s unofficial teachers)—are typically just the kind to have taken to this student radical chic in a big way. Grasp this and you begin to account for the huge (unelective) power of liberal political correctness in Western democracies and understand how, once established, it became self-perpetuating. It would be a rare apostle of “reactionary” conservative self-reliance and individualism who would think to apply for a job at the BBC or MSNBC.
The, often seemingly apolitical, trickle down of politically correct “radical” group-think into every corner of the Western mind—into the cultural water supply—is the great flaw in our pluralist democratic system—of competing political parties, with alternative political philosophies, each taking their turn at the national helm. The Left bias in our education system never alternates with a Right bias and nor does similar bias in the arts, film and television drama, talks shows, comedy shows, documentaries etc. If conservative values like self-reliance and personal responsibility are in a secular retreat, this is not because these voices are absent. It is because the wider public has pre-absorbed a mental paradox that—whilst we in the West do cherish our Left/Right pluralism—Left equals kind (if perhaps sometimes naive) and forward-looking whereas Right equals selfish, atavistic and, well, just plain wrong. And once this paradox has become entrenched, politics will always be refracted through its prism. With the result that voices—battling against this head-wind—will come across to that wider public as shrill or anachronistic. It becomes a dialogue of the deaf, drowned out by fairytale narratives that keep voters voting, decade after decade, for failed nanny-state policies that have no track record of success whatsoever.
The facts of life may be conservative but “reality” as reflected in the big “old” media is—notwithstanding the relatively recent uncorking of (mainly U.S. based) conservative voices in the “new” media—still overwhelmingly liberal. (Americans should take note that no equivalent Left/Right intellectual rebalancing has occurred in Europe). And the old media—a virtual Fifth Estate—is still a very big wild wood of seductive liberal myth and folklore. The “staccato signals of constant information” appear, in large part, to be apolitical, making them all the more persuasive. But such is the relentless focus of conservative intellectual discourse on a current affairs agenda that conservatives—never mind liberals—often cannot see the wood for the trees. It is a wood with tangled roots deep in early 20th century socialist intellectual soil. Its filigree branches have since grown and spread into every corner of 21st century public consciousness.
Of course, to some extent, a memory of their student radical chic will linger in the mental recesses not just of graduates in an arts and media social milieu. As someone whose own working life has, at various times, brought me into close contact, not only with schools, colleges, and universities but also local government, the architectural profession, and the British NHS, I can attest that soft-left prejudices prevail in all of these. So the educational incubation of the professional, business, and mandarin classes is another part of the story of the rise of politically correct, middle-class, liberal orthodoxy.
It has also long been true that a great majority of school teachers will be Democrats/Labour Party voters. In varying degree they are likely to emerge from their teacher training with a soft-left baggage ranging from old-fashioned vaguely collectivist economic assumptions and Dickensian sentimental notions (like something called “The Working Class” being perennially victim of something called “The Rich”) to various newer relativist “liberation” and victimhood theologies. Plus a sympathetic take on various kinds of “anti-something-or-other” and “eco” militancy. It is small comfort that, in the school system at least, many of the pupils will be only half listening at best. The timeless phenomenon of schoolchildren’s partial rebellion against their schooling may even cause more crude forms of indoctrination to backfire. It was a salutary lesson for me one day in the late seventies when—as a long-haired teacher of the then, ever so right-on Life Skills—it suddenly dawned on me that the awful Punk teenager giving me grief was in fact in rebellion against—shock horror—1960’s “rebels” like me!
Thus the much more potent influence is that everyone born since the Second World War—university educated or not—will have spent a large part of their leisure time in Media Land—a virtual parallel universe, rich in sublimated myth and fairytale. Now Media Land is not some Orwellian Big-Brother conspiracy. It is in itself, too diffuse and anarchic to be a place of didactic political bias per se. Its quintessential characteristic is, rather, that it allows you—without any great effort on your part—to sustain the illusion that you know, and are entitled to have an opinion about, all manner of things beyond your direct experience. It is from these intangible, ego-flattering, seductive characteristics that its mind-bending power flows.
It is the great oracle from which we absorb not just “The News” (intrinsically an editorial semi-fiction anyway) but also the good-guy/bad-guy narratives of film and television drama, the satirical talking-heads panel show, the “shocking” lid-lifting documentary etc. So it is that—drip by drip—the public’s imagination becomes accustomed to the notion that the apparently law-abiding, white, middle-class dwellers in suburbia—though they may not in reality always be the one who have actually “done” the murder—nevertheless do have a dark side to their supposedly smug existence and their desk job in the City—which must, by the way, axiomatically be ignoble, venal and soul destroying. Whereas the violent teenage gangster turns out to have the soul of a poet buried under all those years of oppression. And the lardy, welfare-cheating couch-potato turns out to be quite a sound bloke underneath it all and good fun too. And anyone who takes to the streets in a “protest”—never mind how ignorant and bloody-minded—instantly becomes a hero whilst the target of the “protest” is instantly a villain. And so it is too that the alleged misdeeds of supposedly smug political and business elites are ruthlessly exposed and then wittily sent-up by even more smug, smartly-pants TV “personalities” whose own elite lifestyles remain relatively out of the media spotlight. I recall a radio interview once in which a famous ex-politician-come-media-personality, on some current affairs programme, was asked if he missed being at the centre of power. He laughed heartily and said something like “Oh come on now, all of us round this table know that we exercise far more influence than any ordinary politician”.
These are just a few random examples of a bias so ephemeral, so intangible, and yet so pervasive that it is near impossible to encompass its scope and influence. As Orwell so succinctly put it “people will believe what the media tell them they believe”.
And then there is “The News”. Whilst the current affairs output of the mainstream media is not uniformly politically biased per se, it does often have the same entrenched undercurrents as the rest. Underpinning all the day-to-day news ephemera are some enduring fairytales that are both highly seductive and at the same time so diffuse as to be almost subconscious. A major example is the one in which some big bad wolf (maybe “The Government” or “Big Business”)—and definitely not you personally—is either to blame for all your problems in life or has failed to solve them for you. You—a member of “the great mass of ordinary decent people”—are a victim of some or other system or institution. Another (almost certainly subconscious) fairytale is the one in which—by the simple device of espousing “progressive” liberal attitudes—you can carry on with your (and your family’s) own personal pursuit of happiness, just like before but now with the added bonus of feeling that you—unlike those nasty “Right-wingers”—are on the side of the angels. Now that is a really seductive one!
Even the so-called “Right-wing press” is not immune. Yes, of course the overt editorial slant is Right-of-centre (albeit Right of a very Left-wing centre) and its journalists can produce some penetrating and insightful analyses that briefly part the clouds on this or that particular one of the many Left-wing shibboleths that dominate our intellectual climate. But in many ways it inhabits the same mental universe as the rest of what—to paraphrase Eisenhower—one might term the Media-Academia Complex. Their take on things may be different but they broadly follow the same “news” agenda; they comment on the same offerings by the same overwhelmingly bien pensant celebrity culture.
It is also worth noting that, quite apart from any questions of political bias as such, “The News”, with its inevitable editorial selectivity can—at least in the minds of the uncurious and suggestible—actually help to spread ignorance dressed up as illusory knowledge. Where some murders warrant months of endless, repetitive “shocked nation” coverage whilst other equally (or even more) horrific murders get none; they have failed to “capture the public imagination” (a fairytale concept if ever there was). That editorial fantasy world where, weirdly, “Egypt” abruptly stops happening when “Syria” starts and vice versa and both courteously suspend hostilities when we get a really bad spell of weather. Meanwhile horrific untold mass slaughter, slavery, and assault go on and on in places unbound that have failed to “capture the public imagination”.
Mass media “news” may seem as intrinsic to modern life as electricity and motor cars—but maybe not. Everything changes. And maybe the post-internet generations are starting to get their (still highly selective) take on the world, at least from a less monolithic source. It may be that even the TV is losing its mass mind-bending power over the young, at least compared to their parents and grandparents. Having so many alternative gadgets to play with, they are less and less likely to watch it and especially “The News” and “Current Affairs”. But overall, the power of the Media-Academia Complex is likely to remain undiminished for a very long time to come. Its power comes ultimately from the illusion it creates that you can sit back and soak up all you need to “know” about the big wide world without actually having to be all that curious about it. If conservative intellectuals want to win hearts and minds, it is to the psychology underpinning this now ubiquitous mass-mediated liberal folklore that they must address themselves.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.