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Roger Scruton and the Fascists Who Love Him
Is an intellectual responsible for the people who choose to champion his legacy?
There’s too much good stuff to read it all, which is why every Saturday I highlight three newsletters that are worth your time.
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1. Arc Digital
Was “conservatism” always like this?
That’s one of the big questions we talk about here, and there is no correct answer. In many important ways, “conservatism” was not, 20 years ago, what it is today. You simply cannot draw a straight line from Reagan (or Bill Buckley, or George W. Bush) to Trump (or Tucker, or DeSantis).
But you can draw a reasonable best-fit curve.
This Alan Elrod piece in Arc Digital is a tough read for anyone who admired Roger Scruton, who was a beloved conservative intellectual of the previous generation:
In late 2020, the first Roger Scruton-themed coffee shop opened in Budapest, Hungary. Scruton, the late conservative English philosopher, is beloved by right-wing nationalists in Europe and North America, including in the Hungarian capital. More recently, I watched the newest installment of Vice News’s Breaking the Vote docuseries, in which the reporter interviewed American ex-pats Gladden Pappin and Rod Dreher, who are now in Hungary to study Viktor Orbán’s brand of illiberal Magyarism. They met in a Scruton café.
Roger Scruton was an admirer of England in all its glory as a green and pleasant land. He wrote often about English life and culture. He was an elegant writer and a profound thinker about the role of beauty and tradition in social life. But, as Anne Applebaum has noted, there was also a hard edge in Scruton’s nostalgic nationalism. In Twilight of Democracy, she describes his work England: An Elegy, as “apocalyptic” and an “outpouring of cultural despair.” . . .
That is what’s being celebrated in these coffeeshops, where great minds of the new nationalist right are meant to congregate.
Read the whole thing and subscribe. (Arc Digital is a fantastic publication. You should be reading all of their free stuff and they’re absolutely worth supporting if you can afford the paid subscription.)
Such sentiments—a wistful longing for the beautiful past—seemed harmless 30 years ago. They even seemed kind of beneficial: Reminding us that forced marches into the future aren’t always wise and that many established institutions have elements which ought to be conserved.
I should say here that Scruton was a true intellectual, that his writing extended far beyond political commentary into various fields of philosophy and the arts, and that his reputation was that of a gentleman. (I met him only once, but have friends who knew him well.) I have never heard anyone say a bad word about him.
That said, reading Scruton’s critique of liberalism from the safety of, say, 1995, with communism vanquished, liberalism ascendant, and Europe beginning to heal from an 80-year-old wound is one thing.
Reading Scruton’s critique of liberalism today, with right-wing illiberalism on the march both at home and abroad, is quite another.
Scruton’s argument in many of his essays and books amounted to a deep critique of liberalism as mistaken about human beings, about society, about politics. That critique was especially valuable when it could be read as a friendly corrective to liberalism’s errors, excesses, and contradictions. But today, with liberalism under threat, it comes across more like an indictment of liberalism—an indictment that has apparently been taken up as a foundational text by fascists.
I use the word “fascists” advisedly. Here’s more from Arc Digital:
The Scruton café is a salon for the Americans who have come to Hungary to study the Orbán œuvre, the ones who imagine themselves to be partaking in a new version of turn-of-the-century Vienna. . . . Interviewed by [Matthew] Cassel at one such cafe, Pappin extols Hungary as “a traditional Christian society,” going on to say “as an anti-liberal, I think that’s good.” Pappin then defends altering the Constitution to tilt power toward the right and strip protections from groups he feels have undermined American traditional values.
Would Scruton be horrified by all of this? By having his name affixed to a self-consciously revanchist coffeeshop by an aspiring authoritarian? By having fifth-rank, self-proclaimed “anti-liberal” intellectuals acting as if they are the champions of his legacy?
As I said: Scruton was the real deal in terms of intellectual horsepower and he was, by all accounts, a good egg. So it’s nice to think so.
But at some point, you have to start asking hard questions. In art, we divorce the work from both its creator and its legacy. You judge the work for the work and do not hold it responsible if the artist, or its fans, turn out to be bad people.
I’m not certain that this is how it is—or should be—in the world of ideas.
We’re all products of our place and time. In Scruton’s place and time, it did seem like liberalism was ascendant and that its overreach and failings needed conservative correction.
In our day, though, liberalism needs correction less than it needs protection—including protection from the would-be authoritarians sipping espresso in the Scruton café.
2. Galaxy Brain
Charlie Warzel has an amusing piece about Facebook’s floundering metaverse. It turns out that the worker bees at Facebook hate it, but the suits are going to shove it down their throats, just like they’re trying to do to the rest of us:
According to a leaked memo sent to Meta staffers last month, many Facebook employees “don’t spend that much time in Horizon and our dogfooding dashboards show this pretty clearly.” The memo asks why this is the case, then pledges to “hold managers accountable” and make sure they’re having their teams use Horizon at a minimum of once a week.
Here’s a section of the memo:
Everyone in this organization should make it their mission to fall in love with Horizon Worlds. You can’t do that without using it. Get in there. Organize times to do it with your colleagues or friends, in both internal builds but also the public build so you can interact with our community.
“Make it your mission to fall in love” with our crappy product is so . . . perfect. You should read the whole thing.
Here’s more from Warzel:
It is generally a bad sign for a piece of technology if employees of the company that makes it won’t use it. This is actually the opposite of the problem that Facebook had throughout the mid-2010s. When I interviewed employees of the social network at that time, many would talk about the old-school Facebook product and its spinoff tools as being truly useful. Staffers sometimes expressed genuine enthusiasm about quirky new services, like Facebook “Rooms,” that would quickly wither on the vine. This is because Facebookers were using these services to get work done internally in ways that didn’t quite mimic how regular users interacted with the platform. While the rest of us were observing our relatives in our feeds get increasingly hostile with strangers about politics, Facebook employees had a skewed, rose-colored perspective informed by their own day-to-day use of the platform’s tools.
But what’s even more grim than today’s employees failing to use the tools is Meta putting its head down and making Horizon use compulsory inside the company. It’s an effort to recreate the mid-2010s dynamic and trap employees in its own garden by making the walls so high they can’t see everyone on the other side snickering at them. And, hey, it might actually work. It’s at least worth a try.
I don’t think it’s going to work. I think Meta’s vision is doomed to failure because it misunderstands one key fact:
We already have a metaverse.
The internet is the metaverse. It’s an alternate, virtual reality. And it is incredibly efficient as it’s currently configured because the interface allows you to simultaneously exist in both real reality and the metaverse. You can text while you’re walking to work. You can watch a video while you’re doing laundry. You can answer email while you eat.
The Facebook vision wants people totally committed to the metaverse while they are using it. And there are some use cases where that immersion is probably an improvement on the current internet/meatspace hybrid model. (Gaming; exercise; some social interactions.)
But for the majority of use cases, an immersive metaverse is actually going backwards. Having to put on VR goggles and stay in one place isn’t much different than being told that in order to use the internet, you need to go to a university library and be tethered to a terminal in some sub-basement.
Facebook thinks that putting on VR goggles so that you can sit in a Horizon meeting is a different kind of metaverse than sitting at an internet terminal so that you can post to a usenet group. But that’s wrong. Fundamentally, both scenarios are about accessing a metaverse.
Facebook is trying to reinvent a concept that’s already here—and do so in a way that’s less efficient for users.
It’s not going to work.
Kate Lindsay has discovered a conspiracy theory I’d never heard of. It’s about Taylor Swift:
The YouTube and TikTok algorithms have long been criticized for how they are thought to radicalize users, steering them toward violence, hate speech, and conspiracy theories. “Family members spoke of their loved ones as if they were cult members or drug addicts, sucked in by social media companies and self-serving politicians who warped their views of reality,” a Washington Post article about QAnon reads.
What we don’t talk about enough is how these same mechanisms can lure our loved ones into less sinister but equally delusional ideologies. My friends, for example, who are suddenly being really weird about Taylor Swift.
I should start by saying I like Taylor Swift. I’ve supported her from the beginning, and through moments when I arguably should not have. When the ten minute “All Too Well” dropped last year, I cried! But recently my friend Hannah, who I previously believed to be a normal, well-adjusted member of society with an average degree of interest in Taylor Swift’s music, texted me to ask if I was on “Taylor Swift secret unreleased album Karma TikTok.”
“I need someone to talk about it with,” she wrote with the fervor and desperation of someone trying to score cocaine. “I’m in so deep and I am being radicalized.”
Read the whole thing and subscribe, just for the phrase “SwiftTok.”
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