If anyone wanted an encapsulation of the screwiness of our times just consider the following straight question being asked of an interview subject.
‘How does being a communist impact your view of the US presidency, whether it’s Obama or Trump?’
And then consider that this pleasant question was being asked by Teen Vogue.
It was posed to a young woman called Ash Sarkar who writes for an obscure blog named Novara Media. Last week Sarkar had her 15 seconds of fame when she managed the impossible and appeared to out-arrogant Piers Morgan in a television shouting-match ostensibly about Donald Trump’s visit to the UK. The exchange finished with Sarkar telling Morgan repeatedly that she wasn’t a supporter of President Obama because she is ‘literally a communist’. The fact that she added the words ‘you idiot’ meant that sections of the internet went doolally for her. And Teen Vogue decided that she was a suitable subject for puffery, and presumably young female emulation.
Television ding-dongs come and go, of course. But it is worth mulling on this otherwise unenlightening exchange. Because where other people felt joy or just enjoyed the ruckus, some of us feel an unutterable and unforgiveable horror.
The most obvious comparison – which many people online have rightly made – is to ask whether the internet would have had quite such a delirious meltdown if an equally obscure figure from the far-right had similarly argued with Morgan. Would the Twittersphere have gone so moist with excitement if Morgan’s interlocutor had, by way of rider, finished their argument with the explanation ‘I’m literally a fascist, you idiot’.
For some people it is too obvious a point to make. But it is perhaps the most important point on political ethics that still needs making.
Sarkar’s equivalent from the far-right would not have been lauded, and nor would they – however female, ethnic or entitled – have ever been the subject of such gleeful elevation. If a fascist had been rude to Piers Morgan – even if they had actually got the better of him in an argument – then it seems highly unlikely that they would have subsequently become a pin-up for Teen Vogue.
And there is a reason for this. Which is that we all know where fascism leads. The inoculation to it lies deep in all civilised people. If someone were to say ‘I’m literally a fascist’ we hear the cattle-truck door shut. We see the train tracks narrowing. The piles of shoes and human hair. We see the destruction of a people.
It is because of this – among other reasons – that we brook no talk of better fascism and worse fascism. We tolerate no chattering about those places where fascism was going really well and where it might have gone better. And there is no appetite – absolutely none whatsoever – for any sick little screwball who tries to claim that proper fascism just hasn’t been tried yet.
And yet to the other side the whole thing appears to be open. When an equally nasty little screwball boasts of her communism, she has an audience. When she boasts of her political extremism she finds people willing to applaud her, laugh with her and revel in delight over the fact that she ‘like so totally schooled Piers Morgan’. And they do this at a time when they have open ideological allies in Her Majesty’s Opposition.
Sarkar and her colleagues are now (and I refuse to link to this) even trying to monetise their communism. They have already made t-shirts available for purchase with the hilarious slogan ‘I am literally a communist’ on them. I suppose capitalism must have its uses after all. Perhaps in due course we will be able to see people wearing these casual moral insults. That they will worn by the same sort of people who have spent recent years telling everyone else that they must ‘call out’ fascism wherever they sniff if and should actually punch Nazis whenever we think we see them raises the interesting question of what attitude the rest of us should take should we see anyone wearing one of these obscene communist t-shirts?
Of course the wearers will have an advantage of a kind. Which is the advantage of ignorance. For alarming though it is, many people when they hear ‘communism’ do not think of the NKVD and the knock on the door. They do not think of the graves of tens of millions of people all across the globe. The millions of wasted lives, from the wastelands of Siberia to the blackened piles of human skulls in Cambodia. They do not think of the witness of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Nor of Anna Akhmatova, whose husband was executed in a mass shooting and whose son was later sent off to the Gulag. They do not think of her testimony of the Yekhov terror, when she spent 17 months in the prison queues in Leningrad:
‘One day someone ‘identified’ me. Then a woman with lips blue with cold who was standing behind me, and of course had never heard of my name, came out of the numbness which affected us all and whispered in my ear—(we all spoke in whispers there): ‘Could you describe this?’ I said, ‘I can!’ Then something resembling a smile slipped over what had once been her face.’
None of this comes to their minds. And why? There are only two possibilities.
The better of these is ignorance. Though it is not a simple ignorance. Rather it is an ignorance on such a scale and of such a catastrophic obscenity that any person becoming aware of it would hide away from shame. There to educate themselves. To inform themselves. To try to make better human beings of themselves. In a word to ‘redeem’ themselves from an ignorance that ought to be personality-shattering when it is recognised.
As I say, that the is the happier explanation. The unhappier one is that anyone able to say ‘I’m literally a communist’ actually does in fact have – at the very least – an inkling of all of this. Or is merrily on board with atrocity. It means that they are happy to explain it away, diminish it, minimise it or otherwise excuse the horror. This possibility takes a range of forms. Like some of the far-right after the war, some are hoping to argue down the death-tolls caused by their own ideology or pretend them away as exaggerated or proclaim that they were invented by their ideological enemies. They do not bother to contend with the facts or the testimonies of Solzhenitsyn or Akhmatova, because they consider that witnesses such as them in some way let the side down. Sure some bad things happened. But you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. And why concentrate on all those tens of millions of broken shells when we can keep working on this foul, unworkable, blood-drenched omelette?
There have been many consequences of the great post-war skew in our politics. But one – which Jordan Peterson and I recently discussed in Dublin – is that while the right knows where it can go wrong, the left does not. Worse, it no longer even seems to want to know. A fact that allows malevolent people to mischaracterise the whole shape of our politics.
Because on the political right the fall-away from the political centre is portrayed as being exceptionally close to that centre and almost unbelievably vertiginous from there. You might step one place to the right by arguing for lower taxes. But take one step further and – woah – it’s all the way down to Nazism. Take a step leftwards, by contrast, and you can just keep going and going, running all the way to an end. An end that never includes the Gulag.
Of course we have been able to predict it for decades. And many did. The fact that the education system in countries like Britain and America taught the right’s twentieth century political horrors and rarely if ever bothered to educate the young about the horror of the left’s twentieth century vision is an obvious reason. But it is having consequences. Nobody ever went to Teen Vogue for moral or political enlightenment. But who would have thought it would become an exemplar of a wider moral sewer.