The Hollowed-Out West
By Duncan Whitmore
“The illusion […] will continue as long as it’s profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain they will just take down the scenery, they will pull back the curtains, they will move all the tables and chairs out of the way, and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theatre.”
– Frank Zappa
Writers and commenters on this blog have not been too enamoured with the recent coronation of King Charles and Queen Camilla. A fair summary of views is that the ceremony served as little more than a public pretence, offering only the veneer of a supposedly continuous lineage of values, rights and traditions that have persisted in England for many centuries. Behind the façade we see only, in Alan Bickley’s words, “the national rot […] plainly on display”.
Through attempting to glean some of the ceremony’s original gravitas, one could, at least, sense the value in forcing the throne’s new incumbent to endure a multiple hour ritual in front of the altar.
The weight and difficulty of wearing St Edward’s Crown – traditionally regarded as a holy relic – is as much symbolic as it is physical. To see the king waddle like a toddler while attempting to balance his regalia demonstrates that to rule is as much a burden as it is a privilege. Moreover, it is a burden bestowed on the king not in some drab government building as the result of a committee vote, but by an Archbishop in a glorious church.
Little of this applies today. Not only is the awesome responsibility of power easily forgotten when secular, political office is subject to the modern day game of democratic musical chairs; it is an awesomeness that no longer applies very much to the king, except by way of constitutional fiction.
As such, this twenty-first century, family-friendly coronation felt much to me like a slightly-too-long royal wedding rather than a grand transition into a new era. Numb and inert is how best to describe my main reaction. I had pretty much forgotten the whole thing by the evening.
However, this feeling contrasted very much with the wall-to-wall news coverage and the outpourings of official adulation for the new royal rulers. Bickley may well be right in assessing the crowds to have been smaller than those which turned out for the 1953 coronation. But large, enthusiastic crowds were willing to brave that day’s unpleasant weather nonetheless.
One of the rules of thumb I employ when I have time to sift through the cesspool of the mainstream media’s output is to ask two questions:
- “What are they trying to make me think?”
- “Why would they want me to think that?”
So with regards to the coronation, we could ask: why is it so important to them that we celebrate this event for an institution that hardly seems fitting for a modern, progressive state to which ours supposedly aspires? What do they have to gain from this?
It is this theme – of a hollowed out institution that we are, nevertheless, encouraged to celebrate – that I wish to take forward in this essay.
Is Debate Worthless?
In a recent article, journalist James Delingpole – whose work, especially against the climate change “consensus”, I have admired for more than a decade – has launched an assault on the value of debate.
The merits of debate may seem like a less glamorous subject than the institution of the monarchy. And yet it is difficult to deny the notion that propositional exchange is immensely valuable to the discovery of truth and ideas. In fact – as part of a wider commitment to reason and rationality – I would say that free, open debate is very much one of those institutions that helped make the West great.
The crux of Delingpole’s contrasting argument is that debate is – or, at least, has become – an almost worthless method of advancing the truth. While the details of his position are subject to much nuance to which I shall attempt to do justice, his conclusion is uncompromising:
So many of the notions that we think of as our own are the product […] of relentless but subtle cradle-to-grave programming. The widespread misconception that debate is in any position to solve our myriad problems is one of them. People who call for more debate on this or that issue think they are being reasonable, open-minded, enquiring. But they’re really not. They’re just the helplessly naive pawns and useful idiots of the arch manipulators of the Great Deception.
On the one hand, I happen to very much agree with the ends that Delingpole has identified: that debates today have, indeed, often served as a tool to spread and entrench lies and falsehoods rather than shine a light on the truth.
I agree also with his notion that “we’re all entitled to decide what the speech code is in our own private domain – and to enforce it as we see fit.” Forgotten by most zealous defenders of the freedom of speech is the fact that, ultimately, it is a derivative of private property rights, not a separate right of its own. The essence of the freedom of speech is that neither the state nor anyone else may infringe your right to disseminate your views with your own property. It doesn’t mean that someone else must lend you a platform on which to speak. So if Delingpole regards his private Telegram channel as the equivalent of his own little corner in the pub, then, yes, “it’s my gaff and my rules”.
(The caveat here is that property rights must be exercisable. So if your rules are contrary to other people’s preferences then they should be free to abandon your “gaff” and set up a competing forum – with no one’s forum subject to either legal privilege or harassment. This is not the case with, say, so-called “Big Tech” control of social media platforms. Further, if truth discovery is the purpose of a private domain, then the rules of the domain should be conducive to that purpose – which usually means being as free and open as possible to the exchange of ideas.)
However, the fault with Delingpole’s stance on debate is the enormous elephant in the room that he actually acknowledges without confronting it as the main problem:
[T]his notion that ‘debate’ is always a healthy thing [is untrue] if one side is coming from a position of knowledge, insight and truth, and the other from a position of ignorance, prejudice and dogma it’s not.
‘Debate’ is so easy to rig.
What debate also often does – and arguably this is even more dangerous – is to embed false notions of what is and isn’t acceptable by imposing arbitrary and loaded parameters (aka ‘the terms of the debate’) on the topic being discussed. Debates about climate change, for example, tend to be couched in terms that take as a given that the problem is real.
The common cause of these complaints has little to do with debate itself. Rather, it is the fact that the very vast majority of forums for debate that receive widespread coverage – plus the equally vast majority of participants who are permitted to debate in such forums – are not only disinterested in establishing the truth; rather, they are actively seeking to use these forums to spread lies and falsehoods.
In short, debates – like so many other official channels dedicated to disseminating information – are, indeed, “rigged” to promote only a particular outcome. As Delingpole recounts from own experiences:
[E]very time I’d go on the BBC to discuss a particular issue, I’d be doughnutted by three people fully on board, in their marginally differing ways, with the dishonest official narrative. What impression would this have given to the viewers and listeners, would you say? That the line I was arguing was a niche, minority position, natch!
As such, the root problem with stifling the truth has little to do with the merits of debate in the same way that the problem with “the science” of COVID and climate alarmism has little to do with the validity of the scientific method. Rather, it is the way in which the trappings of debate are used as tools by those whose objective is to entrench their power. Like the king’s coronation, the façade of open debate remains, but its substance has been completely destroyed.
It’s partly for this reason that most of Delingpole’s criticisms of debate per se aren’t especially persuasive. For instance:
Truth – or as here, the rights and wrongs of a case – often comes a poor second to presentation.
This is reasonable enough. But surely most “presentational” techniques are only a significant problem if they are placed deliberately in the service of lies? “Eloquence, clarity, wit, structure, variety, rhythm, entertainment value” can only be good things if they assist in communicating the truth to a wider audience.
Admittedly, falsehoods could still win the day if the most skilled, but honest, debater happens to be wrong (which seems to be Delingpole’s point). But is there any method of communicating ideas in which this is not the case? A dull, but truthful book, for instance, may fail to inspire anyone when pitted against a glossy, eloquently crafted collation of hogwash. If one is to complain about the ability of debate to establish the truth, then the complaints should, at least, be unique to that format.
Moreover, the prospect of a rhetorically gifted, but wrong, debater winning is a problem only if one adopts a narrow window for allowing debate an opportunity to establish the truth – i.e. on a single occasion. But Delingpole seems not to grasp that discovery of the truth is often a long term affair, during which any one debate is but a stepping stone. In his podcast debates with Free Speech Union founder Toby Young, Delingpole complains, for instance, that:
When I […] argue […] that almost everything we have taught to believe […] is a lie, I’m not merely arguing against [Young] but against a paradigm which is daily reinforced and promoted by the entire structure of our civilisation.
But these kinds of circumstance have plagued pioneering discovers for centuries. A lone truth teller at any one time will, indeed, be on the back foot against prevailing opinion and entrenched biases. That doesn’t mean to say that debate in the long run will fail to arrive at the right outcome. Each awkward question you can throw, every nugget of doubt you can seed, will eventually reach a cumulative weight that will succeed in crushing false orthodoxy. But that will never happen if you deny yourself the opportunity on account of not wanting to ‘lose’ the next battle.
Indeed, if debate is so useless at exposing the truth, then we have to ask why outright censorship and cancellation – i.e. unwillingness to debate – seems to be equally, if not more, rampant than rigged debate. Surely it is easier to de-platform true arguments that are contrary to an agenda by tarnishing them as “harmful”, “threatening” or “offensive” than it is to confront them? Would this be the case if debate was really so useless at establishing the truth?
In fact, one could suggest that Delingpole’s complaints about rigged debate have come late in the day. Now that many of the positions we are supposed to accept as the gospel truth have become so nakedly ridiculous, not even superior presentation is enough to mask their weakness. For instance, we have seen how even the most gifted of political rhetorician squirms and struggles when asked to answer the apparently mind boggling question “what is a woman?” It is for this reason that promulgators of these positions have abandoned all pretence of rationality, resorting instead to straightforward elimination of those who dare utter even the slightest deviation.
As such, it seems that – after having achieved its all time high in the spin doctor era of the Blair/Clinton years – presentation is actually waning in importance. In spite of their enormous budgets, traditional media channels are haemorrhaging viewers and subscribers out of a widening perception that these channels are serving another agenda. Heterodox outlets dedicated to searching for the truth, on the other hand, are gaining in popularity.
Witness, for instance, the contrasting response to the simultaneous sackings of Don Lemon from CNN and Tucker Carlson from Fox News. Carlson – widely regarded as a thorn in the side of the establishment – issued a statement following his departure that notched up more than one million ‘likes’ on his Twitter account. Lemon’s similar explanation achieved only a few thousand.
Moreover, the one person who has made the most successful inroads into the halls of governance guarded with jealousy by the elite – I am speaking, of course, of Donald Trump – seems to thrive on tossing any kind of politeness or propriety out of the window in favour of telling us what he believes to be the stark, naked truth. He is, however, a skilled debater, and, needless to say, immensely popular.
Thus, today, I would say that authenticity matters more than presentation.
Circling back to the theme of rigged debate, where Delingpole’s refusal to participate has merit is when one is pitted against people who are, indeed, not interested in using debate to establish truth. Indeed, a persistent fault on the right has been to debate policies regarding COVID, climate change, etc. at face value – i.e. to assume that the drive of such policies has been towards good health and a clean environment.
But Western elites now have such a tentative grip on power that we can no longer make this assumption; we have to suppose that power, control and ideology are likely to be the overriding objectives. Someone like Sadiq Khan, for instance, is unlikely to be moved by pointing out to him that his so-called “Ultra Low Emissions Zone” (ULEZ) scheme will fail to improve air quality, or that air quality is already decent enough without ULEZ. If he has a wider agenda then he will enforce ULEZ regardless.
You cannot debate unshakeable people whose sole interest is in using argument as a tool to further their preconceived ends. You will simply be presented with arguments that are aimed solely at winning on that single occasion. Devotion to reason and consistency will be so minimal that you will have to direct most of your efforts at unscrambling the verbal quagmire. As such, it is far better to concentrate one’s efforts on those who are still open to rational persuasion.
Moreover, when the terms of debate are so very, very tightly controlled by such people, then yes, to debate in their carefully constructed forums is, indeed, to play a game which is designed to make it appear as though you are the loser. In other words, as Delingpole indicates, your participation can end up hurting your own position.
However, if one is to take this stance of refusal, then it must be made specifically in terms of an unwillingness to engage with those who debate in bad faith. The problem with debate is firmly with how it is used by a relative handful of people who happen to have the easiest access to the forums of discussion – politicians, broadcasters, intellectuals, journalists, etc. Identifying that problem is very, very different from suggesting that debate is a redundant exercise in circumstances where discovery of the truth is the agreed objective.
To be clear, I do not think that Delingpole is discouraging debate where such an objective is maintained. But it is easy to draw that conclusion from what he says. Further, while Delingpole seems to confine most of his complaints to oral debate, it is no stretch to extend their substance to all types of propositional exchange, written and vocal, on any forum.
This could lead us down a very dangerous path. Reason and persuasion are at the forefront of ensuring peaceful resolutions to conflicts. In fact, they are two of the prerequisites of a free society characterised by voluntary social co-operation. Should we abandon them, disappearing into our own echo chambers, then outcomes can be determined only by either physical separation or physical strength – i.e. by sectarian fighting, civil war and (ultimately) the conquest of some by others.
Thus, in denigrating the way Western institutions are misused and abused, we must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Such institutions may well have been turned against us, but we should be looking for ways to rebuild their innards rather than tear down their final remains. The latter will simply drive us towards barbarism and savagery far quicker than the cultural leftists could achieve by themselves.
Understanding the State’s Usurpation
In order to assist us in achieving this kind of clarification, it is helpful for us to understand why the power elites who have hollowed out our institutions persist in encouraging us to participate in them – even to the point of having to endure ludicrous degrees of celebration.
Why, for instance, were we persuaded to adore the coronation? Why do they keep harassing us to vote in elections? Why is free and open debate, or “having you say”, always encouraged? Why don’t they just sweep these things away, issuing their edicts without further ado?
One of the biggest misunderstandings of the state is the notion that it maintains its rule by force. Undeniably, the distinguishing feature of the state is that it claims the exclusive right to initiate force in achieving its ends. But that is not the same as saying that either the use of force, or the threat thereof, is able to sustain state rule in the long run.
Instead, even the most despotic of regimes has subsisted only with a high degree of voluntary co-operation between its various organs: its politicians, its military, its police, its judiciary, its industry leaders, its intellectuals, its media and so on. At the bottom, all of this can be cemented in place only by the – at minimum – passive acceptance of the majority of the population. Actual force, in practice, can be executed only against a small minority of dissenters, made possible only by the fact that the rest of the population refuses to intervene.
In the long run, such passive acceptance has been achieved only by the perception that state rule is legitimate. This has meant that the state has had to instil in the popular psyche at least one of two notions:
- That the state is an institution that benefits everyone rather than some people at the expense of others.
- That, even if some are benefited whereas others lose out, such an outcome is just.
Because neither of these propositions is true, statists have needed to use every trick in the book in order to cloak their evil with a shroud of goodness.
In revolutionary situations – as we saw in the communist overthrows of the twentieth century – such an outcome is achieved by the sweeping away of old institutions that the revolutionaries have denigrated as oppressive and evil. Those destroyed institutions are then replaced by new ones which supposedly will both govern and regulate life for the benefit of “the people”. Needless to say, the opposite is always the case. But the illusion works for a while.
This state of affairs, however, is not what has happened in the West (or, more consistently, in the Anglosphere). The increase of state power here has not been a sharp, sudden affair. Rather, it has largely been of the evolutionary kind as advocated by the likes of the Fabian Society.
Part of that evolution has involved not the sweeping away of good (or, at least, better) institutions, but co-opting and exploiting them so as to create a veneer of legitimacy for the expansion of power. As such, nearly every exercise of that power exploits the trappings of law, justice, property rights, open debate, voluntarism and so on, while, in practice, ensuring only a very narrow or one-sided application of all of those things, destroying them in substance.
In sum, the façades of the institutions that made Western civilisation great remain intact, but are today little more than hollowed-out vestiges or tools used for the enforcement of power rather than for its restraint.
Take, for instance, the edifice of banking. When we ask why bankers should be able to earn huge profits and bonuses, we are told these things are necessary for “market efficiency”. Should you default on your mortgage, then the bank will take possession of your house because “justice” requires enforcement of the terms of your “agreement”. All of this, in principle, is in accordance with the great institutions of freedom: private property, voluntary transaction, and the sanctity of contract.
However, as soon as dozens of banks run into insolvency, what are we told? That bailouts of those banks are necessary to “prevent economic collapse”. But what happened to “market efficiency”? Aren’t bankruptcies an important part of that efficiency? And what about private property? Why, when you default on your mortgage, do you have to hand over your house, but when the bank defaults, you must pay to save them?
Heads I win, tails you lose.
Let’s look also at the so-called “rules-based international order”. When the US and its allies invades a country, then such an assault is for “humanitarian reasons” or “spreading democracy”. These acts, we are told, are “lawful”, usually sanctioned with the approval of that noble body, the UN. But when Russia, or an enemy of the West does the very same thing, we call it “unprovoked aggression” or a “war crime” – with those same international bodies rushing to make formal condemnations. In either case, we can see how the trappings of law, justice and due process – i.e. very good things – are used to obtain the desired outcome.
Similarly, “freedom of the speech”, “having your say” and – indeed – “open debate” are celebrated as one of the cornerstones of our participatory society. But as soon as you start telling uncomfortable truths, then you are silenced out of the need to prevent “misinformation” or “causing offence”.
See how the arguments change to suit the objective?
And let us not forget the overarching tool of legitimising state power in the West. I am speaking, of course, of the edifice of democracy which, again, has co-opted a very critical element of freedom: your right to choose. As you have “chosen” your leaders, so the argument goes, anything they decide must be legitimate.
Yet that what kind of choice do you have? Unless you abstain or spoil the ballot paper, you have to make a selection from the approved list of electoral candidates. All of the main political parties furnishing these candidates are agreed on 95% of the fundamentals (especially on the issues that really matter). Any political contention usually revolves around a handful of relative trivialities which distract everyone from bigger problems.
A forcibly controlled choice is not a real choice.
States too have co-opted the notion of “rights” by displacing the traditional conception of natural rights with the modern concept of human rights. Under the latter, the state – far from being denigrated as the biggest violator of rights – is, instead, set up as their primary guardian and defender. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house! As such, the language of rights and of freedom has served not to protect the individual, but to camouflage state regulation of competing desires and priorities. The result? A redistribution of wealth and privilege according to the state’s preoccupations within a framework of apparent rights protection.
All in all, we can see now why we are encouraged to celebrate and participate in these co-opted institutions. We are supporting things that we believe to be the antithesis of power, despotism and control while instead acting to cement those very things in place. Such an endeavour has, until now, been successful enough to lead political scientist Stephen Holmes to declare that Western liberalism has been “one of the most effective philosophies of state building ever contrived”.
Such a realisation helps to explain why the young Delingpole encountered an embarrassingly over-zealous enthusiasm for the mere procedure of debating:
I must have been about ten or eleven when I took part in my first school debate.
I remember it vividly because of something strange that happened before the debate began. As I moved in front of the audience to take my seat on the podium, I was greeted by rapturous applause. It was the purest, most ecstatic adulation I had ever experienced, and probably ever will experience – like being a rock star. What had I done to deserve it? Absolutely nothing: I hadn’t spoken a word at that point. I don’t think I ever did find out what had caused this outbreak of mass hysteria.
I felt like a total imposter being feted so extravagantly for nothing I had done. The memory of that sensation has haunted me ever since, so much so that I now wonder whether it was perhaps one of my early moments of revelation.
You are congratulated, good citizen, not for the substance of what you have said, but for your participation in the great charade! Well done!
Of course, this practice can only be taken so far. As we mentioned earlier, arguments we are supposed to accept as undeniably true are now becoming so absurd that the power elites are having to resort to a more naked degree of compulsion. In other words, they are having to tear down the very institutions they have co-opted anyway.
For instance, now that electorates are actually starting to vote for things that the elites don’t want (Brexit, Trump, etc.) we see that they are actively attempting to reverse or nullify democratic results.
But even here, it is possible for them to hoodwink the public into going along. And this is why we need to be extremely careful when denigrating hollowed-out institutions.
Compared to outright socialism, I have long maintained that one of the most pernicious aspects of the so-called “mixed” economy is that the state is much better able to absolve itself of the problems it causes.
In a fully socialised system, states will, of course, try to blame their catastrophes on anyone but themselves. But this is much more difficult to achieve when the state literally owns everything and, hence, is visibly responsible for everything that goes on.
Not so in the mixed economy. Here, the state may issue an edict, a decree, a regulation or some other kind of interference. The effects of such meddling, however, tend to show up much farther down the line in the dealings between private actors. As such, every calamity can be blamed not on the state which caused the original problem, but on “the market” or “too much freedom” and the need for “more rules”.
For instance, we know that central and fractional reserve banking are responsible for the boom and bust cycle. But when the inevitable crisis hits – as it did in 2008 – it is “private” banks that get the blame. The call, if not for outright socialisation of the banking sector, is for heavier doses of state regulation.
Similarly, if prices are inflating it is “greedy businessmen” who are at fault. If energy companies are charging astronomical prices this can only be because of their “profiteering” rather than government green policies destroying oil and gas production. If all of the trains are late this must be because of “privatisation”, ignoring the fact that the entire railway system is still owned by the government with the operations simply contracted out to state-recruited suppliers.
In short, we are hoodwinked into thinking that too much freedom and not enough government rules are the problem.
It is this for this reason that if we are to have any hope of reversing the collapse of Western civilisation, we must be absolutely crystal clear in identifying the right enemies.
Delingpole may well see useful idiocy in those who slavishly participate in rigged debates. But there is as much of such idiocy in failing to distinguish tools of freedom from tools of outright oppression simply because the former have been corrupted. In fact, it does little more than deliver the coup de grâce to our once great civilisation.
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 I am, here, using the broadest meaning of the term “institution”, i.e. “a custom, practice, relationship, or behavioural pattern of importance in the life of a community or society”. I do not mean explicitly organized bodies or entities of governance, most of which, frankly, are detestable.
 It is for this reason that debates over whether an anarchical society can “work” are of little value. We are already living in a de facto anarchy, and always will be.
 Stephen Holmes, Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy, The University of Chicago Press (1995), Preface.