Middle Class Saviours Against Brexit: The Arrogant #FBPE Movement

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Middle class #FBPE-ers of Britain unite! Talk to your Brexity, working class butchers, builders, plumbers, electricians and gardeners and educate them out of their superstitious dislike of the European Union

There are few things more irritating than being called ignorant and closed-minded by a group of people who are themselves at that very moment being monumentally ignorant and closed-minded.

Sadly, this is the daily fate of eurosceptics and Brexit voters as they endure a daily barrage of insult, invective and condescension from a segment of British society who seem to believe that their naive, childlike faith in (and often equally childlike understanding of) the European Union makes them both intellectually and morally superior.

This manifests in numerous ways, from the political machinations of establishment fossils such as Lord Andrew Adonis or philosopher/conspiracy-theorists such as AC Grayling to the patronising tone in which much of the prestige media covers Brexit, both at home and abroad. But it is perhaps most visible on social media, where attitudes toward Leave voters ranging from smug condescension to bigoted hatred gather under the banner of #FBPE – Follow Back, Pro-European.

While a number of decent, thinking people still use the #FBPE identifier in their Twitter or online biographies, it is increasingly associated with age, race and class hatred-tinged attacks on “gammons” – white, working class, middle aged men who dare to express an opinion supportive of Brexit, particularly if they do not have academic letters following their name. Intentionally or not, #FBPE is becoming a redoubt of middle class, establishment resistance to the supposed horrors of Brexit – a cabal of people who believe that their moral and intellectual superiority entitles them to look down on others (at best) or even thwart their political aspirations by underhand means.

A new Twitter thread today shows the extent of the sanctimony and assumed intellectual superiority at work. Helen Holdsworth, who goes by the handle “Bakehouse Cottage” on Twitter and whose bio indicates that they are an “EU citizen” and “political theorist”, relates what she clearly believes to be an inspiring and respectful anecdote about her recent interaction with a Leave voter:

Helen Holdsworth FBPE Brexit 1

Here we see the Educated Upper Middle Class Saviour phenomenon in full action as Helen Holdsworth proudly boasts about her ability to “rescue” a benighted, intellectually limited tradesman from the clutches of his Brexity superstition.

This modern day Cicero later goes on to claim that “every one of the repair people & tradesmen has come here a Brexiteer and left a Remainer“, thus deftly stereotyping Leave voters and boasting about her immense powers of persuasion at the same time. Naturally this tale was retweeted numerous times by the approving #FBPE army, thus amplifying the dubious tale of an ignorant working class soul saved among the Continuity Remain echo chamber.

We then see this delightful exchange between Holdsworth and David Woodhouse, one of her #FBPE followers:

Helen Holdsworth FBPE Brexit 2 - David Woodhouse

Take a second to appreciate the rank bigotry in Woodhouse’s tweet, and the unconcealable condescension toward Leave voters evident in Holdsworth’s response.

David Woodhouse is publicly proclaiming that he is in the habit of making fleeting impressions of people and then denying them employment if, on some arbitrary criteria, they fit the mould of what he believes a Brexiteer looks or sounds like. He proudly states that he engages in such discrimination, which while not illegal (and rightly so – the last thing this country needs is more protected classes) is certainly to be condemned.

But worse than this is Holdsworth’s reply, which truly reveals the dark heart of the #FBPE movement. While at face value Holdsworth seems to be conciliatory, she is effectively stating that tradesmen and people who work with their hands possess such a different and inferior skill set that they cannot possibly be expected to “understand the EU” or render an informed, reasoned judgment on whether or not Britain should remain in supranational political union. Furthermore, Holdsworth believes that only when such intellectually limited people have the EU explained to them “with examples” – and quite possibly sock puppets and colourful diagrams to aid their comprehension – can they be trusted to make informed decisions.

At this point, Mr. Woodhouse veers from the bigoted toward the profane:

Helen Holdsworth FBPE Brexit 2 - David Woodhouse profanity

In other words, it is just about acceptable to not hold the same unquestioningly worshipful opinion of Britain’s European Union membership as David Woodhouse, but acting on one’s scepticism by voting to leave the EU is akin to killing a child while drunk driving.

I would like to be able to say that these attitudes are rare, and that they do not represent the wider #FBPE community or the broader Continuity Remain campaign in either tone or sentiment – but I cannot do so, because these tweets are remarkable only inasmuch as they are particularly frank and unguarded expressions of a very widely-held attitude toward Leave voters. Similar exchanges can be found on social media every day, and similarly arrogant attitudes toward Brexiteers heard from members of the general public to elected politicians or esteemed academics.

Only this week, David Colquhoun – a prominent academic from University College London – after realising that I supported Brexit and failing to defeat me in open debate, decided instead to mine my blog for “opposition research”, lie about my political beliefs to his thousands of Twitter followers and then slander me by falsely accusing me of belonging to the far right:

David Colquhoun - UCL - slander of Samuel Hooper - Brexit - Far Right

What power do I have, with my relatively meagre social media following, to push back against the false narrative peddled by public figures who are taken seriously and unquestioningly quoted in the media? Fortunately in this case, public ridicule and the vast overreach of his argument was sufficient to protect me from any reputational harm, but it could quite easily have been otherwise, had Colquhoun been more tenacious and less sensationalist in his attack.

While Brexiteers have their fair share of trolls, unpleasant and untruthful characters – some of them in government – the Remain camp purport to hold themselves to a higher standard. Their entire self image is one of well-intentioned, educated experts seeking to hold back an uninformed, dangerous populist tide. The entire rationale for casting doubt on the EU referendum result and agitating for a retake is predicated upon a conception of Remainers as sober-minded rationalists making benevolent decisions based on an evidentiary assessment of all pertinent facts. Yet in their rage at being defied by the electorate, many of the #FBPE crowd are taking to ad hominem attacks and conspiracy theories even more enthusiastically than the most unhinged of Brexiteers.

All of this might yet be understandable (if not justifiable) if only the #FBPE, Continuity Remain crowd truly were intellectually superior and possessed of a deeper, fuller understanding of the European Union and the necessity of supranational political union. But again, this is simply not the case, as aptly demonstrated once again by Helen Holdsworth:

Helen Holdsworth FBPE Brexit 3 - EU collaboration

Here we see that the intellectual and rhetorical wonder who claims to have convinced a whole army of humble Brexit-votin’ tradesmen of the error of their ways has still not moved on from childlike, simplistic tropes about “collaboration” and the need to “work together”, as though such international cooperation were only possible through the European Union.

Remainers have had nearly two years to engage in some introspection, to revisit their old campaign talking points and ask themselves what worked and what failed, and yet the #FBPE collective are still muttering exactly the same basic talking points as ever before. One of their bedrock arguments remains the facile claim that the European Union is the only significant means of international partnership and collaboration. Still they have not produced an effective response to the quite reasonable rebuttal that other countries cooperate deeply on a whole range of issues – and even manage to avoid going to war with one another – despite not dissolving themselves into continental political union.

Remainers have had every opportunity to realise that they lost the referendum because the values and facts on which they built their case were not the values and facts which mattered most to Leave voters; because their hysterically exaggerated warnings of economic catastrophe had tipped over into the realm of absurdist bullying; because one cannot win an argument about democracy and national identity by shrieking about reduced GDP growth or wailing about the supposed lost opportunities of a privileged and increasingly divergent segment of British society. And yet they have not moved on one inch from the “holding hands beneath a rainbow” crayon portrait of European political union which led them to abject and deserved defeat in June 2016. And these are the people to whose intelligence and expertise we are meant to defer?

Is it clear to you yet that Brexit has become part of a much larger, deepening culture war, with the #FBPE crowd viewing themselves as part of the Tolerant, Open and Educated group (whilst ironically behaving in a most intolerant, illiberal manner toward those in the out-group) facing off against what they consider to be the benighted savages of Brexitland? Because the dripping contempt evident in the typical #FBPE Twitter threads shown above should make it abundantly plain.

If you voted to leave the European Union (and increasingly if you deign to hold any political or cultural position not in full accordance with current progressive identity politics dogma) then the #FBPE, Continuity Remain community do not see you as a fellow citizen with differing political views. They see you as a stupid, backward and dangerous force for evil, someone who might potentially be worth educating out of your reactionary views if you seem like a sufficiently reformable soul but otherwise as someone to be ridiculed, sidelined, excommunicated from polite society and quarantined from the political decision-making process by any means necessary.

They consider you stupid, gullible and prone to influence by shadowy villains. They tell one another behind your back that you are borderline evil, and strongly imply the same to your face. They publicly shake their heads in resignation at your lack of education and intellect, whilst having repeatedly failed to deploy their vaunted intellect to address the genuine issues which prompted the Leave vote, or even admit the legitimacy of those issues. They comport themselves as though they are the magnificent, enlightened, moral centre of the universe, basking in their avowed tolerance while shrieking “gammon!” at anybody who disagrees.

Remainers who eschew the #FBPE moniker, attempting genuine dialogue with Brexiteers – and there are many such people, though regrettably they tend to enjoy a far lower profile than their extremist culture warrior brethren – should be given a respectful audience and deserve full respect as fellow citizens diligently acting according to their conscience.

But the #FBPE collective – they whose delusions of moral and intellectual superiority are belied by their rank bigotry, illiberalism and dogmatic regurgitation of basic pro-EU propaganda – fully deserve the crushing defeat they endured in 2016, and which they now beg to relive.

FBPE - Follow Back Pro EU

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Journalists Buying Fake Twitter Followers, Another Symptom Of Institutional Decay

Journalists buying fake Twitter followers - fraud

Some journalists and political pundits choose to buy artificial Twitter followers because being good at their job matters (and is incentivised) less than appearing like the Next Hot Thing.

I’ll admit it – in earlier years, in my weaker moments as a struggling political writer, I have idly thought about purchasing Twitter followers. But I have not and never will do so, and deplore those in journalism and politics who choose to sell out in this way.

The New York Times recently reported that a company called Devumi was offering dummy Twitter followers (either fabricated individuals or the fruits of identity theft) to those seeking to boost their social media stature for mere cents per follower. A whole swathe of celebrities were implicated (most of whom promptly rolled over and blamed their managers or PR people) but so too were a number of journalists at supposedly respectable outlets of the legacy media.

From the New York Times:

Genuine fame often translates into genuine social media influence, as fans follow and like their favorite movie stars, celebrity chefs and models. But shortcuts are also available: On sites like Social Envy and DIYLikes.com, it takes little more than a credit-card number to buy a huge following on almost any social media platform. Most of these sites offer what they describe as “active” or “organic” followers, never quite stating whether real people are behind them. Once purchased, the followers can be a powerful tool.

“You see a higher follower count, or a higher retweet count, and you assume this person is important, or this tweet was well received,” said Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz, a company that makes search engine optimization software. “As a result, you might be more likely to amplify it, to share it or to follow that person.”

Twitter and Facebook can be similarly influenced. “Social platforms are trying to recommend stuff — and they say, ‘Is the stuff we are recommending popular?’” said Julian Tempelsman, the co-founder of Smyte, a security firm that helps companies combat online abuse, bots and fraud. “Follower counts are one of the factors social media platforms use.”

In some ways, this temptation is just one of many ways that using social media can warp our behaviours and motivations, as Jacob Brogan writes for Slate:

Twitter is a machine designed to generate ugly feelings. Here everything is subject to quantification: the number of people who like the things you tweet, the number who share your words with their own followers, and, perhaps most of all, the number who follow you. If you spend too much time on the platform, those numbers quickly become an index of your own self-worth, and no matter how high they get, they will always be too small.

Purchasing fake followers is thus rather grubby and slightly pathetic, but perhaps still fair game if you are a TV star looking to make a bit more money sending promotional tweets for haemorrhoid cream. But what if the person deceiving the public is somebody whose job it is to inform, educate and tell the truth? Surely then it becomes quite unambiguously wrong?

Well, lots of political journalists clearly don’t think so, according to NBC News:

Big media outlets have embraced Twitter as a distribution platform but still struggle with how reporters and editors use the social media service, particularly when they appear to be breaching journalism ethics.

This sizable gray area came into clearer focus this week, after a New York Times exposé revealed that more than a dozen news media figures had paid to artificially pump up the number of followers they have on Twitter.

Journalists and commentators, who presumably joined the platform to enhance their stature, instead found themselves grasping to explain why they had paid for counterfeit supporters. When contacted by NBC News, the journalists identified by The Times as having bought Twitter followers had a range of responses: Many ducked requests for comment, others blamed associates, while just one sounded chastened.

This practice doesn’t bother me so much when it takes place in other fields; if you’re a mediocre provincial stand-up comedian who wants to pretend you have an audience of half a million eager people hanging on your every word, so be it. Good luck to you. Same if you’re a B-list actress, a celebrity chef, an unremarkable footballer or a giver of lousy TED-style talks about personal development. I expect no realism from such people, and personalities from these fields who choose to over-inflate their popularity do no real harm.

Not so with journalists and political commentators, both those who parade around beneath the banner of the blue-tick Twitter verified logo and those scrambling for the Ultimate Recognition. Political Twitter is a nasty swamp of obnoxiousness at the best of times, but those of us who choose to lurk within it do so in the vague hope of coming across useful information or commentary once in awhile. And since nobody has time to vet every account that crosses one’s timeline to determine whether they deserve a follow or a clickthrough, a quick glance to see whether they have a decent (or at least a baseline) level of followers is a useful first line of due diligence.

Is this person for real? Well, their profile picture is the default egg icon and they have eleven followers. Hmm, probably not going to click that link or believe their sensational “report” about Theresa and Philip May using a ouija board in the Downing Street basement to seek inspiration and advice from Britain’s failed prime ministers of the past (plausible though that one actually sounds).

Buying Twitter followers makes a mockery of what the rest of us are trying to do, and undermines one of the few metrics left for gauging success (financial reward having long since ceased to be either a possibility or a useful indicator). I have a mere 2,500 followers on Twitter. However, unlike the cheaters, I earned my entire following by providing consistently useful or entertaining (intentionally or otherwise) content to my audience. Whether it is links to my blog, links to bloggers in my circle, flagging news articles of interest, engaging in feuds with trolls or writing in-depth threads on a particular topic, around two thousand people care enough about what I have to say to stay tuned on an ongoing basis (I imagine that many of the remaining 500 are either businesses or largely dormant accounts).

A study from 2016 suggested that of those people who had tweeted once within a six month period, their average number of followers was 707. This figure seems a little high to me, as I routinely interact with people whose following/follower figures are only in the double figures – but this may be a function of swimming almost exclusively in the political niche rather than venturing out into the deeper oceans of celebrity Twitter. Anyhow, the study would suggest that anything over 707 is then a pretty good sign, and in lieu of an affirmative action-gifted writing gig for The Spectator I am proud of my 2,500 followers as a sign that my hours in front of the keyboard are not entirely wasted.

Ultimately, all this predictable scandal tells us is what a fraud so much of journalism and political commentary has become. Portentously spewing words into the void of Twitter knowing that most of your audience is actually imaginary can’t bring positive feelings of journalistic pride, since one would be aware of the fraud. All that those followers can do is burnish one’s reputation and make one seem like an important person to get drinks with or be seen talking to at one of the many insufferable events that take place every day in Westminster or Washington, D.C.

And the problem is that for those journalists who buy Twitter followers, that’s just fine. They don’t want to organically build an engaged audience of followers who find what they say to be genuinely insightful. They may not object were it to happen, but actual professional accomplishment is clearly no longer the prize to these people. What they want is the aura of success, to be seen as uniquely knowledgeable, titillating or controversial without putting in the labour to do it themselves.

We see the same thing with many of our politicians. Twenty months on from the EU referendum and the number of MPs who have even a basic grasp of the technical issues relating to trade arising from Brexit can probably be counted on two hands. An even smaller number have paid much thought to the constitutional ramifications and the opportunities and threats to our future governance, if any at all. The most significant political development to happen in Britain in decades, and only a handful of our parliamentarians have bothered to stop spouting slogans from the referendum campaign to actually master the issues at hand.

Why is this? Because sitting down with books and consulting advisers in a spirit of humility and willingness to learn is boring and unsexy. The personal payoff just isn’t there, particularly when one can do so much more for one’s career by bleating an angsty speech about the Evil Tor-ees in the Commons chamber or going viral on social media with a well-timed quip on Question Time. And the only reason that our star journalists – the ones who pull in the big bucks and now get terribly worked up at the thought that their celebrity pay packets might not be “equal” – have not rumbled the politicians and revealed the extent of their ignorance is because much of the legacy media is in an equally benighted state.

The whole reason our politics are currently so dysfunctional is that being good at your actual job is no longer adequately incentivised. Looking good and frantically maintaining all the appropriate outward signs of success and positive momentum are what matters most, not solid work diligently performed in the spirit of self-improvement. That’s why people cut corners and do things like participate in Twitter follower-purchasing frauds – because they believe, often correctly, that the rewards which flow from mastering an issue or having an original idea are far less than those which flow from being on some insufferable “Westminster’s 100 people to watch in 2018” list.

You can write for months or years before establishment journalists (as I did) that the Tories were going on an ideology-free jaunt into political oblivion, or that Jeremy Corbyn ought to be taken seriously because the public responds to conviction and consistency, but it doesn’t matter. You won’t get the slightest credit, because nothing has officially been thought or written until it has come from certain approved sources within the Westminster Bubble. And even within the bubble exists a hierarchy, with all of the attendant temptations to level-up by artificially boosting one’s standing.

And that’s why I never have and never will buy Twitter followers. It represents everything that is rotten, sleazy and stupid about modern politics, and the alarming frequency with which people who shouldn’t be within ten promotions from the top of their respective fields end up prancing around at the pinnacle, lording it over the rest of us (be that the prime minister, whole swathes of Parliament, the editors of several newspapers, numerous television news personalities and various assorted celebrity columnists).

We will never live in a perfect meritocracy, and it is stupid to set unrealistic goals which ignore human nature. But one thing you ought to be able to trust in this day and age is that the Very Serious Journalist with the blue “verified” tick next to their Twitter account name is not perpetrating a fundamental fraud every time they broadcast their news, analysis and opinions.

I earned my Twitter audience, and my follower count rises and falls according to the value I deliver. Anything short of this basic standard of behaviour is akin to selling a used car having first tampered with the odometer. And while social media juicing may not be illegal, we should look upon those who engage in it with the same scorn and distrust one might reserve for a convicted fraudster.

 

Twitter for journalists

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Upset An MP On Social Media? Prepare To Lose Your Voting Rights

Intimidation in Public Life report - Committee on Standards in Public life - Parliament - Britain - UK - online social media abuse

Hurt an MP’s feelings and lose your civil rights. This could be a reality in the prissy, authoritarian, neo-puritanical Britain we inhabit

Having learned nothing from the past three years of populist insurgency, rather than facing up to their shortcomings and accepting the validity of justified criticism (and the inevitability of unjustified criticism) the political class is instead preparing to further insulate itself from public accountability.

A new report published by the Committee on Standards in Public Life proposes punishments such as barring people from voting or removing them from the electoral register as suitable punishments for the “new electoral offence of intimidating
Parliamentary candidates and party campaigners during an election” – which if enforced with the same arbitrary capriciousness as all other UK speech laws would inevitably see many people unjustly stripped of their basic civil rights while other, worse “offenders” who happen to hold officially sanctioned opinions go unmolested.

We in Britain now have a government which would give convicted prisoners the right to vote while stripping the franchise from certain free citizens who commit vague and loosely-defined acts of speechcrime – including hurting the feelings of an MP or Parliamentary candidate.

The report (prefaced with a quote from the late Jo Cox MP, so as to imbue the document with an air of incontestable wisdom and grace) graciously concedes that the existing restrictive framework of draconian anti-free speech laws does not need augmenting to protect the feelings of MPs at this time, but then immediately ventures the possibility of unprecedented new punishments for those accused of speechcrime:

Electoral law can overlap with and complement the criminal law, such that offences with criminal sanctions can also involve sanctions under electoral law. These sanctions are specific to the election process, such as being barred from voting for a certain period, or removal from the electoral register. Such sanctions recognise that these offences, such as undue influence or electoral fraud, are offences against the integrity of the electoral process, and that it is therefore appropriate that individuals face sanctions relating to their own privileges within that process.

[…] However, the Committee considers that the issue of intimidation is of particular significance because of the threat that it poses to the integrity of public service and the democratic process.

During an election period, it would therefore be appropriate to have specific electoral sanctions that reflect the threat that intimidation of Parliamentary candidates and their supporters poses to the integrity of elections. Any such offence in electoral law should be tightly defined, to capture intimidatory behaviour that is directed towards an individual specifically in their capacity as a Parliamentary candidate or party campaigner, which intends unduly to influence the result of the election (for example, by affecting their candidature or inhibiting their campaigning).

[..] the introduction of a distinct electoral offence will serve to highlight the seriousness of the threat of intimidation of Parliamentary candidates to the integrity of public life and of the electoral process, and will result in more appropriate sanctions. We believe that specific electoral offences will also serve as an effective deterrent to those who are specifically targeting Parliamentary candidates and their supporters.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life, a body whose intended purpose was to ensure that elected and non-elected officials uphold standards of behaviour appropriate to those who serve the public in high office, now seems far more interested in passing haughty judgment on whether members of the public are abiding by the new speech codes dictated by our puritanical, thin-skinned rulers.

I would be interested to know which of the Seven Principles of Public Life the committee believes it is defending by proposing new speechcrime punishments which attack so fundamental a civic right as voting – particularly as each of these principles sets a standard specifically for “holders of public office” and not private citizens. The only tenuous link offered in the entire report is this throwaway sentence:

[..] the Committee considers that the issue of intimidation is of particular significance because of the threat that it poses to the integrity of public service and the democratic process.

Ah, that’s okay then. So because the rowdy public is supposedly threatening “the integrity of public service” (presumably by scaring people away from getting involved in politics, because those who are already inclined to get involved in politics of course tend to be shy fauns who take fright at verbal hostility) the Committee on Standards in Public Life can use this as an excuse to regulate the behaviour not of people in positions of power, but of those who seek to express their feelings about people in power.

Of course, MPs are not the only people to find themselves at the receiving end of vitriol on social media, as anybody with even a semi-public profile or the desire to talk about politics on Facebook or Twitter can attest. Twice in recent months I have been at the receiving end of such a barrage, first when a “comedian” chose to misrepresent one of my tweets to his baying audience of pro-EU Remain supporters and again when an SNP MP sicced his Twitter supporters on me for daring to write about the office of Scottish First Minister in less than worshipful terms. None of the hate I received (on those occasions) amounted to the level of death threats, but other private citizens have suffered far worse.

Yet the political class seem to want to carve out a special protection in terms of exempting themselves from harsh criticism while doing nothing for anybody else. As Members of Parliament they already occupy a high-status, well-remunerated position in society, are generally endowed with a level of intelligence which enables them to articulate their priorities and concerns and be taken seriously, and make laws and decisions which impact our present reality and future happiness. Yet many of these same people now seem determined to portray themselves as shrinking violets, vulnerable victims-in-waiting, a discriminated against minority group who require the special and proactive additional protection of the law. This is absurd and insulting to the citizenry they notionally represent.

But in addition to protecting the powerful from the masses, these puritanical proposals also fundamentally misunderstand the problem. As even many victims of social media harassment would likely agree, the really damaging part of online abuse is not the individual insults but their combined, collective effect. One person insulting or mocking you can be laughed off or brushed aside, but this is not so easily done when one’s notifications fill up with a constant wall of such derogatory, negative messages. Indeed, when under attack on social media, at times it can be difficult to step back and remember that the strident opinions of social media moralisers is not reflective of the feelings of the country or society as a whole. At times, I myself have momentarily allowed hate and derision on social media to interfere with my self-esteem, despite my fairly thick skin.

The answer to online trolling and abuse (whether directed at politicians or private citizens) is not to criminalise individual acts of strident, unpleasant or insulting speech, let alone to curtail the fundamental civil rights of individual citizens as punishment for (or deterrence of) something which is in large part a swarm effect, an unpleasant but distastefully necessarily defensible part of our society’s commitment to free speech.

To do so would be akin to criminalising the act of gathering together in crowds because of the risk that somebody might be crushed or trampled, punishing individuals for what in itself is often a very small contribution to a larger group effect. No single individual is usually responsible for a stampede, just as very few individuals commit specific acts on social media which alone trigger substantial distress, and barring such people from voting (one wonders what offence merits losing the franchise while retaining one’s liberty) will not deal with the vast bulk of abuse on social media and consequently the vast bulk of suffering resulting from it.

The issues addressed by the report are real, worthy of discussion, and are already being debated at length. There is no lack of editorialising or scholarship on the impact of social media on public political discourse, and the way in which the semi-anonymity of interacting online brings out a far more vicious side of human nature than is usually visible during face-to-face interactions. These are problems which we need to face up to as a society at a time when we are learning on the go. But the solution is not to announce further new restrictions on freedom of expression, as though filling in gaps in the statute books will in any way compensate for filling in the mental and spiritual void which turns some people (including the highly educated and outwardly successful) into social media trolls.

Furthermore, at a time when the yawning disconnect between the ruling class and many of the people they represent is growing wider and fuelling all kind of populist outbursts (some welcome and others far less so) it is the height of irresponsibility for those in power to publicly toy with the notion of punishing the plebs for insulting their masters by stripping them of their voting rights.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life should cast their haughty, disapproving gaze back where it belongs – on those who debase their political offices or abuse the public trust. Now more than ever is a time for humility and introspection from the ruling class, not a whinnying list of grievances about those who fail to sing their praises.

 

By election - ballot box - Democracy

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The False Promise Of Conservative Political YouTubers

Ben Shapiro Show - Daily Wire - Birch Gold Group commercial - political YouTube - podcast

For many young conservatives, political YouTube offers a respite from left-wing dominance of popular culture, universities, the mainstream media and other social networks. But while YouTube’s brash new right-wing stars can be beguiling to watch, they do little to advance conservatism as an intellectual movement – and sometimes actively set it back

Young, brash, right-wing political YouTubers may unwittingly deliver the final coup de grâce to conservatism as an intellectual movement, even as they rack up millions of followers and achieve all the outward metrics of success.

But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? For some foolish reason I work primarily on the already anachronistic medium of the humble blog, tapping out my verbose screeds into WordPress which then get read and shared by that tiny slice of humanity who can wade through eight paragraphs on the meaning of citizenship in the Age of Brexit without wanting to run into oncoming traffic. Given recent advances in technology and journalism, bloggers like me are effectively still marvelling at the Edison light bulb while everybody else is busy projecting holograms or firing lasers at each other.

Ironically, despite being somewhat frustrated by my own lack of online reach, I find myself increasingly impatient when forced through necessity to read other people’s carefully and well-written words, be it those of a fellow blogger, journalist or author. Reading requires concentration and an engaged brain, and who has time for that?

Every evening after the day job is done and I have commuted home to begin work on my perennially unrewarding side hustle (this blog), I am faced with a choice: do I expend what little mental energy I have left reading and thinking deeply about a complex idea, researching and refining my thoughts until I have something compelling and unique to share with my readers, or do I take the path of least resistance – flicking over to YouTube and watching a parade of talking heads ranting about this or that development in the culture wars, finding something suitably outrageous to get worked up about and then hitting “publish” on an identikit, stream-of-consciousness rant in response?

And here’s my guilty secret: I choose the path of least resistance easily over half the time. Thinking is hard. So is challenging long-held assumptions and personal beliefs. But nodding along while a talking head on YouTube affirms one’s existing opinions is easy, and addictively cathartic. Yet anybody can do this; it is the millennial or Generation Z equivalent of watching Fox and Friends. At this point I can crank out one of my old-style “I agree with Brendan O’Neill” or “look what crazy campus SJWs did” response pieces with my eyes closed. Just crank my handle, insert the topic and required word count and 45 minutes later you’ll have a fully formed blog post. Sure it won’t be original or really add anything to the national political debate, but still, it’ll be there, taking up room in cyberspace.

Look at some of the biggest political YouTube or cable TV stars (they tend to be American or at least to focus primarily on American politics). Ben Shapiro is probably the best of the conservative personalities, certainly far more serious than conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones or culture warriors like Paul Joseph Watson or the execrable Milo Yiannopoulos. The less said about Tomi LahrenLauren Southern or Mike Cernovich the better. Various people have suggested Stefan Molyneux as a supposedly more serious alternative and the philosopher/podcaster does have his moments. But even this seems to be stretching the definition of “serious” somewhat.

Then you have political comedians like Steven Crowder who at least is funny, one of conservatism’s only solid answers to the leftist monopolisation of comedy – and Lord knows that we need a respite from the unbearable sanctimony of John Oliver, Samantha Bee, poor Jon Stewart replacement Trevor Noah and the pitiful Mash Report in Britain (Bill Maher is one of the few consistently funny and insightful left-wing political comedians). Sargon of Akkad can be quite funny when he gets riled up about leftist excess. And while they generally lag behind conservatives on YouTube, on the Left you have shows like The Young Turks (a growing horde of screechy social justice warriors and Bernie Sanders devotees) and a smattering of others.

(Dave Rubin also deserves an honourable mention as somebody who tackles controversial topics and interviews partisan commentators from both sides of the ideological debate in The Rubin Report).

Conservatives seem to dominate political YouTube, probably for the same reason that an older generation of right-wingers once took refuge in American talk radio – because their views were increasingly misrepresented, slandered, marginalised or ignored by the mainstream media. And today, far away from the reach – and the interest – of those Washington and Westminster journalists marinated in the same groupthink as the politicians they supposedly hold to account, conservative YouTube flourishes:

YouTube has thus provided a useful pressure release valve for the expression of a range of conservative thought, though even on this platform conservatives are now under threat, with demonetisation attacks threatening the livelihoods of content creators whose views fall outside the prevailing pseudo-liberal orthodoxy. But generally speaking, while Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr can be seethingly hostile to right-wing ideas, YouTube has allowed a large number of frustrated conservative and libertarian-leaning people to view and engage with a small number of brash, unapologetic conservative personalities.

But as conservatives disengage from regular media outlets, ceding more ground to the forces of the Left, we do ourselves a disservice. A bit of escapism into the ideological bubble isn’t always a bad thing, but it does become problematic when one spends too much time plugged into a partisan medium which can be both shrill and superficial.

As American conservatives flocked to talk radio and stopped consuming mainstream or supposedly objective news, their worldview became progressively more alarmist and conspiratorial. That’s why so many American conservatives still believe that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, while opportunistic companies make a fortune selling gold coins, water filters and survival gear for people who have been slowly convinced that the apocalypse is just round the corner. With no centrists or left-wingers to call BS on their more outrageous claims, conservative media increasingly resembles an arms race to provide the most provocative and alarmist commentary in the hunt for viewers and listeners.

We on the Right correctly rail against universities for becoming little more than temples of social justice and identity politics orthodoxy, where dissenting opinion is relentlessly eradicated through re-education programs, trigger warnings and safe spaces. But we are no better when we retreat to YouTube instead of engaging with the world in all of its fallen, identity politics-soaked left-wingery. Our own outlook is in danger of becoming equally insular when we uncritically clap along as part of Ben Shapiro’s Amen Corner, preferring the catharsis of having our opinions confirmed to the rigour and challenge of debate.

It’s not that political YouTube videos are bad per se, it’s that they tend to be more partisan, superficial and sensationalist than print media and even television (though the gap with TV is lesser). A book can offer footnotes. An essay or feature article, knowing that it has its reader’s attention, can devote some space for context and nuance. A YouTube video, by contrast, has about five seconds to grab your focus before you click away, and must work hard to maintain your attention right through to the end. This inevitably leads to a certain reliance on zingers and soundbites which is actually not dissimilar to the grasping, disjointed way in which many media-trained politicians now speak.

The problem is that for political YouTubers (and other commentators whose careers depend on clips of their media performances being shared widely on that platform) success is measured in clicks, views and the number of times people share their videos accompanied by captions like “Bob McConservative just DESTROYED this stupid liberal on abortion” or “Dumb SJW accuses Righty McRightwing of being a fascist, instantly regrets it”.

For the viewer there may be a short-term emotional payoff in watching “Social Justice Warriors Get Owned In Epic Rant By Steven Crowder” or “Douglas Murray Schools A Muslim Commentator On Free Speech“, but the intellectual rewards of grappling with those same issues and ideas at a deeper level, usually in essay or book form, are more elusive and consequently less sought-after. It is human instinct to prefer the instant gratification of a cable TV or YouTube screaming match to the deferred pleasure of quiet, patient study, and YouTube was designed to deal up this addictive instant gratification, one video clip after another.

But this dynamic can be bad for the right-wing YouTubers as well as their fans. Those right-wing personalities who work increasingly or exclusively on YouTube as opposed to other more traditional (particularly written) media sometimes tend to lose their intellectual edge and become unable to sustain a debate at a more detailed, complex level of knowledge. In a recent column, Andrew Sullivan notes how Ben Shapiro came a bit unstuck during the Q&A section of his recent much-hyped speech at Berkeley University:

He was effectively pwned on at least two questions, climate change and abortion. One student asked whether a revenue-neutral carbon tax wouldn’t be both conservative in that it doesn’t require much of a bureaucracy, and prudent, given the possibility that climate change could be disastrous — and why not prepare for the worst? Shapiro said he’d never considered such an idea and needed to look at it further. Weak; lame. The idea has been banging around forever. And Shapiro can’t say whether he’s for it or not?

Then he was trounced by a liberal student on the question of why women who have abortions shouldn’t be prosecuted. If Shapiro believes, as he does, they have killed a human being, how could they not be? He dodged at first simply saying he’d prosecute abortionists. When pressed, he argued that many women have abortions without knowing that they are terminating a human life (they’ve been indoctrinated into believing a fetus is the equivalent of a polyp), and so you couldn’t prosecute them for murder or manslaughter because they don’t have the specific intent — the mens rea — to kill. But what, the student responded, about those women who absolutely do know what they are doing and still go through with it? Why not second-degree murder, or accessory to manslaughter, or some other charge. In any other circumstance, someone who plays an essential part in a killing would absolutely have to be charged, right? Shapiro retreated to an incoherent position that even though such women have committed a serious crime, in his view, no one wants to prosecute women for such a thing. But that wasn’t the question. The question was whether he should logically support prosecution. And of course he should.

Now, I’m not saying for a moment that I could or would have handled these questions any better. But you wouldn’t even know that the great Ben Shapiro had been (at best) fought to a draw on these issues judging by the triumphalist YouTube excerpts and subsequent online write-ups declaring that Shapiro had effortlessly dispatched with every stupid leftist opponent in the debate hall:

Shapiro undoubtedly has a bright and incredibly quick mind, but one cannot help but think that his abilities would be put to better use – and be at less risk of eventual atrophy – were he making some smart policy for the Republicans (Lord knows they need it) or writing for a publication which allows more depth, rather than preaching to the choir at his creation The Daily Wire. Even if you allow that Shapiro’s eloquence helps conservatism by bringing more people into the movement, which it probably does, these people are bound to be disappointed when the Republican Party and its diminished intellectual blood bank fail to generate policies which solve real problems in favour of striking cosmetic poses against former president Barack Obama.

There are others in jeopardy, too. Christopher Hitchens once said in an interview that Tucker Carlson (of all people) was a writer that he greatly admired, and that Carlson should not quit the field of writing in order to pursue his then-nascent television career. Now the Fox News host can be found taking easy pot-shots at social justice warriors in his prime-time nightly TV slot, and turning a calculated blind eye to the scandals and calamities emanating from the Trump White House.

Then there are the big beasts of yesteryear trying to reinvent themselves as viral video sensations. Ten years ago, Dinesh D’Souza could be found holding his own against Christopher Hitchens in a series of debates about religion, atheism and the existence of God. Today he makes hysterical conspiracy movies and rants on Twitter about how the Democratic Party is the true heir to Nazi Germany. D’Souza now chases the “Dinesh D’Souza DESTROYS ignorant liberal on gun rights” affirmation and resultant web clicks as his key performance metric, and his output has suffered as a result.

Carlson and D’Souza get away with their shtick because their primary audience of Fox News viewers and secondary audience of conservative YouTube subscribers give them a free pass for making intellectual shortcuts and uncritically lap up everything they say. Were they blogging or writing a regular newspaper column, however, they would find it somewhat harder to stand by some of their least defensible positions, and be forced to refine or discard the most controversial ones. But as video personas they are protected from serious rebuttals – by the time an opponent has researched, written and published a response to one of their videos, the YouTube star has already moved on to three other topics. No retractions (let alone apologies) are necessary or forthcoming when they are proven to have made errors or told falsehoods.

But this is precisely why D’Souza, Carlson & Co no longer operate primarily in print or written media – it has become thankless work, toiling away in a more rigorous medium and subject to higher standards and much closer scrutiny, when the fame, acknowledgement and most of the cash increasingly goes to those people producing (often far more superficial and reactive) video commentary.

Yet were it not for the beat reporters and public intellectuals who work primarily in print, many of the YouTube stars would be starved of half their inspiration and content. Like the megastar football strikers who are dependent on their midfielders to consistently feed them with goal-scoring opportunities, many of the fiesty conservative YouTubers would soon fall silent or become even more repetitious were it not for the journalists and thinkers providing them with a fresh source of rhetorical zingers.

None of this is to say that highbrow print media is necessarily better. In fact, often quite the contrary – the veneer of respectability abused by a charlatan working in the prestige print media can be infinitely more harmful than the ranting of the most popular YouTuber. Just witness how a concerted effort by the print media has normalised the term “undocumented immigrant” over “illegal immigrant”, deliberately downplaying the lawbreaking aspect.

But at least the mere act of writing for the New York Times or some other outlet, as degraded as many of them have become, forces one to go through the motions of laying out a coherent argument, which can then be publicly critiqued and picked apart by others. A five-minute YouTube video implying that Hillary Clinton has Parkinson’s disease, on the other hand, is harder to call out and refute even when it is unsupported by fact – and the people who watch the incendiary video are increasingly unlikely to also see the print rebuttal, and vice versa. The disaggregation of the media market, beneficial in many other ways, unfortunately means that we increasingly talk past one another and operate from entirely different sets of “facts”.

Social media is fast. This makes it great for hot takes and lively debates, but much less suited to the more ruminative consideration of ideology and policy. But is the allure of becoming a YouTube sensation (often as a launchpad to a career in cable news punditry) distracting people with the talent to make a more lasting intellectual contribution to the conservative movement? I would argue that yes, it is.

Many YouTubers are probably good for nothing more than ranting into their webcams every night, but some – again, I think of Ben Shapiro – could and probably should be doing something better with their time. Shapiro has the #1 rated conservative podcast in America (and hence the world). And that’s great. But somebody with his IQ and intellectual pedigree should be more than an Inquisitor for Socialist Wrongthink – they should be helping to formulate the conservative policies which might one day make the Republican Party worth voting for again.

I get the appeal of being a YouTube sensation though, just as I understand from personal experience the allure of watching these people perform rather than, say, cracking open a difficult book at the end of the day and engaging one’s brain. After all, it is tremendously cathartic to watch people you disagree with – whose fundamental worldview is deeply at odds with your own, and whom you find personally irritating – being rhetorically smacked down night after night, generally with the same unchanging set of workhorse conservative arguments.

But we should be wary. If leftists are allowed to complete their occupation of universities, popular culture and the prestige media while we skulk around on YouTube, their worldview will prevail. YouTube can remain our “safe space”, if we must have such a thing, but we must constantly be operating outside our comfort zone if we want to translate our ideas into policies and our policies into outcomes. Representing the YouTube constituency is not enough – we need an active presence in the places where decisions are actually made.

Right now this is sorely lacking. That a Republican congressional majority in America and a (theoretical) Conservative parliamentary majority in Britain have resulted in almost zero good conservative policies being implemented in either country only proves that ranting about the dangers of leftism (Sanders or Clinton in America, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain) is not the same as coming up with a compelling conservative vision with logical policy offshoots.

So how to effect this conservative renewal? The best thing I’ve done all year is to temporarily unplug from the internet, restrict my use of social media and return to tried and tested ways of learning and thinking – by reading books.

On vacation in Greece last week I actually had time to relax, unwind and read a number of books deeply and critically, rather than scanning them urgently, superficially and with the overriding need to produce a hot take, extract an argument or otherwise take a public position on their content. Instead, I lingered over each book and marked them up with comments and questions to be explored at a later date, and while there will be no immediate payoff for having done so, the gradual increase in the baseline of my knowledge should (hopefully) manifest in the overall quality and empathy of my writing. Recognising my tendency to choose saying what I think over thinking about what I think, it was important for me to flip that around for awhile and spend some time recharging the intellectual batteries.

But that’s just me, as a humble blogger. Those with actual power and influence will need to do more, and yesterday I blogged about one such attempt at conservative renewal in Britain. But while I am willing to be proven wrong, I do not believe that this renewal will come from the depths of YouTube.

Donald Trump is walking proof of what happens when someone is swept to the White House not on the back of a coherent conservative policy platform or a particularly inspiring vision, but by angry rants on YouTube and lurid six-way screaming matches on cable news. Yes, this fractious power base can deliver a majority (in the electoral college, at least) but once in power and tasked with being for something rather than against a list of real and imagined foes, nothing gets done.

For how long will Donald Trump boast about having put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, as though he himself trawled through endless lists of potential jurists, scouring their opinions and dissents in a personal quest to find the quintessential constitutional originalist needed by America? At this rate, Trump will be dining out on that solitary achievement until the end of his term of office – because no further accomplishments are on the horizon right now, that’s for sure. “Build the wall” worked great on YouTube and Fox News, where a policy consisting of three words (seven if you include “and make Mexico pay”) could not be easily picked apart and proved both pointless and unfeasible. But in Washington D.C., where things have to be paid for, policies justified and egos stroked, having the enthusiastic support of Milo Yiannopoulos doesn’t really count for much.

So by all means indulge in a little YouTube time when the mood strikes. It would be hypocritical of me to say otherwise since it can be darn good fun, and I have no intention of quitting altogether. But many of us, myself included, could probably do with dialling it back a notch – or at least seeking out the better quality lectures and debates freely available on that platform. The second-hand opinions of political vloggers are generally (though by no means always) worth less than the first-hand opinions of serious authors, and even a good book cannot compete with doing one’s own primary research.

But since this is the real world and none of us can become experts in everything, those of us with a public audience and the desire to help rather than hinder the conservative movement should at least ensure that we draw our knowledge from a healthier, more balanced information ecosystem.

So there you go: Sam Hooper TOTALLY DESTROYS political YouTubers, and it only took me 3,669 words.

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British Conservatives And The Youth Vote: The Failed Promise Of Activate

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It is easy to mock youthful conservative activists when their attempts at social media outreach go awry, but at least they are trying – none of the supposed adults in the Conservative Party seem remotely interested in salvaging conservatism’s toxic reputation among younger voters

The media has been having a lot of fun today at the expense of an organisation called Activate, a newly-launched independent conservative campaign group of young people, by young people and for young people.

Some of this criticism has been justified – the launch on social media was uncoordinated and the messaging…suboptimal, at best. One could certainly argue that Activate tried to run before it could walk, entering the political fray before the values and priorities of the group had been fully defined and agreed.

(Full disclosure: I was very tangentially involved in the pre-formation of this group earlier in the summer, participating in several group chats and offering occasional words of advice. This was in line with my strong belief – stated many, many, many, many times – that British conservatism will die out unless it urgently finds a way to reach and inspire younger voters with a positive message).

Inevitably, the reviews have not been kind, with outlets from the Independent, New Statesman, The SpectatorHuffington Post, Political ScrapbookRed Pepper and Esquire all forming an orderly queue to mock the group and question its grassroots bona fides.

The Guardian was actually one of the kindest:

A new Conservative grassroots campaign inspired by Labour’s Momentum movement will attempt to engage more young people in rightwing politics, though the group’s launch has been widely mocked on social media.

Activate, which aims to “engage young people with conservatism”, has close links with senior party activists, and is chaired by former Tory campaign manager Gary Markwell, a councillor in West Sussex. A Conservative spokesman said Activate was “not officially linked to the Conservatives and it receives no party funding”.

The group’s constitution says it will be independent from the party, though all members are expected to be members of the main party.

The campaigning group launched with a Twitter picture of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, followed by a picture of Star Wars character Admiral Ackbar, saying “It’s a trap”.

The group’s use of multiple hashtags and a meme that was last popular in the early 2000s led to widespread derision on the social network.

Somewhat cringeworthy? Of course. Not what I would have done or recommended. But you can look at this two ways.

On one hand, you can take the attitude of the scornful left-wing press (and even some of the right-wing blogs like Guido Fawkes) and make fun of Activate’s enthusiastic but undeniably amateurish initial foray into grassroots political campaigning. And indeed, many journalists and commentators have been only too happy to mock the sincere efforts of 17-year-old students who at least take the time to educate themselves about political issues and live up to their responsibility to be good engaged citizens. That is certainly one approach, albeit a rather cynical one.

But the other attitude – a far more constructive one – is to ask why the hell it is being left to a group of enthusiastic but inexperienced teenage and twenty-something activists to do what the Conservative Party should have been doing all along, namely trying to engage in meaningful outreach to sceptical younger voters.

Recall: Theresa May’s brilliantly inspired general election campaign saw the Tories lose the 18-19 year old first time voter demographic by a margin of 47 points. The Conservative Party is getting nowhere with young people and struggling with nearly everyone else because they cannot clearly articulate what they stand for and simply offer a bland, repetitive, uninspiring and entirely defensive message.

With no positive message to rally around, no formal conservative youth movement and national party leadership totally devoid of charisma, the combined forces of present-day young conservative activists could probably all fit comfortably within a League One football stadium, with room to spare. Unfortunately, people who unironically wear bow ties and read economics at Cambridge are pretty much all we have right now in terms of boots on the ground – would that it were otherwise. But at least Activate is trying to expand the appeal of conservatism.

Maybe rather than mocking the earnest sixth-former wearing a bow tie in his bio picture, the likes of Guido Fawkes should instead be asking why it has been left to young kids like this to take all the initiative of creating a grassroots youth conservative movement on their own, with almost no help from senior Tories, party grandees, external think tanks or anybody else with abundant time, money and influence.

Maybe they should ask what possible excuse party leader Theresa May and her CCHQ cronies can offer for falling down on the youth outreach job so spectacularly. Maybe they should try holding the prime minister to account for swanning off to Italy after having presided after this disaster of an election campaign rather than staying put to undo a small fraction of the damage that she has done to the Conservative brand.

Maybe the likes of the IEA, Adam Smith Institute and Centre for Policy Studies should be a little more concerned about where their pipeline of future fellows and supposed thinkers will possibly come from when nearly every young person in the country hates the Tories with the burning heat of a thousand suns, and retains that hatred well into middle age. Kate Andrews is great, and a breath of fresh air on Question Time, but there is a limit to the number of articulate young conservative thinkers we can import from the United States. At some point we will have to develop some more homegrown talent.

But no. Rather than engaging in the slightest bit of introspection, too many conservative voices seem content to continue writing their asinine hot takes about the daily developments in the Brexit negotiations, speculating pointlessly about the next Tory leadership contest or simply getting drunk on Pimms and having Jacob Rees-Mogg’s face tattooed on their chests. Because summer silly season nonsense is so much more fun than tending to the existential question of who will keep the flame of conservatism lit when its present custodians are no more.

Maybe Activate did make a really bad start to their campaign. Maybe their name lends itself too easily to mockery. Maybe their logo wasn’t produced by the best graphic designers that money can buy. Maybe their initial foray into social media was more worthy of a Jacob Rees-Mogg fanclub than a serious political entity. But everything they have done thus far, they accomplished without a scintilla of help from anybody else in the British conservative movement. Contra much of the leftist press, this really is an unaffiliated grassroots movement.

Faced with the immense tarnishing of the conservative brand and reputation among young voters inflicted by Theresa May, her Cabinet and all the other supposed adults in the room, a group of sincere and well-meaning young conservative activists stepped up at a time when our elected conservative politicians have effectively fled the field of battle. That counts for something, and deserves acknowledgement.

Activate received no help from from the increasingly unworthy political party that bears the conservative name, and certainly no help from the constellation of think tanks, institutions, media outlets or commentators who think themselves so well-connected and influential. Unlike Momentum on the political Left, Activate has no prominent champions in the wider conservative movement, no real mentors (so critical to getting a youth organisation off the ground) and no funding that I am aware of. If anything is embarrassing, it isn’t a dated Star Wars meme on Twitter – it’s the fact that besides these well-meaning if sometimes naive people, nobody else is even making an effort.

It is time to face a number of difficult truths. Conservatism as an ideology and a political movement is radioactive to the majority of today’s young people. We are in retreat in schools, on the university campus, in the world of the arts, in the laboratories, in popular culture and the media, not to mention the House of Commons. And our inability to connect with younger voters and inspire them with a positive message about how conservative values and policies will benefit them and benefit the country is arguably the biggest threat that we face.

Faced with this shameful lack of leadership from anybody in Westminster, Activate is at least trying to do something to face up to these threats and begin tackling conservatism’s huge deficit of trust and inspiration among young voters.

And that is vastly more than can be said of all those people who spent today laughing smugly at their struggle.

 

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