The Bluestocking, vol 261
a GOOD VIBES sweatshirt
I have many thoughts about the “Lockdown Files.” One: who trusts Isabel Oakeshott with their WhatsApps, when she once got a source jailed? Two: George Osborne is an admirably brutal texter, but a terrible newspaper editor.
But here’s the big takeaway: Since Brexit stopped being a reliable grievance dispenser, the energy on the extraparliamentary right has been looking for another outlet— another outrage machine. Nigel Farage went hard on small boats back in 2020, but that issue has now been yoinked by the Conservative Party itself. So what’s the next obvious candidate?
Lockdowns and vaccines.
The populist right is trying to make “lockdowns were a crime against humanity” happen
The next few months present a big journalistic challenge: how do you convey the fact it was and is legitimate to debate the scope and duration of lockdowns, without becoming an unwitting dupe for people who just want another anti-establishment grievance narrative to generate content and keep them relevant? (I really can’t stress what kind of #numbers this stuff does on YouTube and contrarian podcasts.)
To outsiders, it might seem odd for journalists and activists to focus so much energy on something that is over and done with—in Britain, no one I know is thinking much about Covid these days—but, you know, you could say the same about the First World War and the Versailles Treaty. For the right, the line is “lockdowns were authoritarianism run amok” and for the left, if we are still calling Russell Brand that, there is a rich seam of criticising “Big Pharma”. For example, here is Brand falsely claiming no studies were done on steroids as a treatment for Covid because they wouldn’t make anyone any money.
Oakeshott, meanwhile, went on humourphobic podcast Triggernometry recently. Her interview is worth listening to—actually, I take that back, it was worth me listening to on your behalf—because it slowly unspools the psychology of some rightwing lockdown sceptics, i.e. that they went along with community-spirited safety measures at the time but in hindsight feel that it was deeply humiliating to have bent the knee to Big Not Dying Of A Preventable Disease. I suspect that they were as scared as the rest of us in the spring of 2020, and now feel embarrassed by that, and their negative emotions are dribbling out as “I was crushed by groupthink” and “I knew all along lockdowns were useless.” Just my hunch.
Anyway, that’s a thread that runs through today’s newsletter, because the first piece is about Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who initially followed Trump’s lead on Covid, but has since reaped the rewards of outflanking him (opening up Florida earlier, raging against vaccine mandates, refusing to say if he had a booster).
The second is about Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican politician who tried a completely different approach. Like me, he clearly believes that Covid rules made some on the right feel weak and emasculated. So he rebranded getting the vaccine as being a Strong Protector of Others. As for wearing a mask, instead of whining about it being a “face nappy,” Schwarzenegger recast it as a symbol of stoicism comparable to enduring World War Two: “Americans lived through four years of brutal sacrifice, and we’re going to throw fits about putting a mask over our mouth and nose?”
Ron DeSantis Is Not A Fascist (Eyes Right)
“It’s quite common today for critics of the right to presume everyone who supports Trump, DeSantis, or maybe any Republican at all is operating in bad faith. Given how much the post-Trump right marinates in conspiratorial bullshit and flagrant trolling, this is understandable. Yet I nevertheless believe it’s important to listen to what political actors say they are doing—what ideals they’re appealing to, what they’re fighting against, and how they hope to make gains over their opponents. We shouldn’t leave it there. But we should at least start there.
And if we listen closely to DeSantis and his many intellectual defenders, we hear something like the following story:
At the level of electoral politics, conservatives have done pretty well over the past several decades. Ronald Reagan was a very successful and popular president. In 1994, Newt Gingrich helped the GOP take the House for the first time in 40 years and Republicans have been competitive in the battle for control of Congress ever since. George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 with a majority of the popular vote. The 2010 midterm election was a massive landslide for a newly radicalized (Tea Party) right. Donald Trump showed that Republicans could compete for the presidency in states long assumed to be Democratic strongholds. Throughout this period Republicans have outperformed Democrats at the state and local level around the country.
At the level of electoral politics, in other words, the U.S. is close to a draw between conservatives and progressives.
But at the level of culture, progressives utterly dominate, especially at the elite level.”
One of the most useful things you can do when constructing an argument is try to formulate the best version of the opposing case—so accurately that your opponent would agree that you’ve articulated it right. And then, and only then, try to dismantle it. Damon Linker has done that here at length for the post-Tea Party, post-Trump energy on the American right.
I particularly liked what follows this excerpt, since he goes on to talk about the necessity of capturing institutions to run ahead of popular/electoral opinion, which is also something the left has used as a strategy.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Last Act (The Atlantic)
“I arrived at the town of Oświęcim, the site of the camp, with a group of donor and publicist types who were connected with AJCF. We were met at the entrance to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum by staff members, Arnold appendages, and a few strays, including a woman in a GOOD VIBES sweatshirt. No one seemed to know quite how to act. Distinct layers of surreal piled up before us.
Let’s stipulate that celebrity visits to concentration camps can be tricky. Schwarzenegger appeared mindful of this as he rolled up in a black Mercedes. He stepped gingerly into a thicket of greeters, and tried to strike a solemn pose. Originally, the thought was to do a standard arrival shot for photographers. But the keepers of the site are sensitive to gestures that might convey triumphal stagecraft or frivolity. “There are better places to learn how to walk on a balance beam,” management was moved to tweet after visitors kept posting selfies on the railway tracks leading into the camp. Every visit here is something of a balance beam, but especially for the son of a Nazi.”
I love a celebrity profile done right, and I’ve been fascinated by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s late-era political interventions—trying to rebrand vegetarianism (fussy, girly) as plant-based eating (manly, optimised), and making electric cars awesome rather than pious.
Also this whole piece is just a great lesson in how details make reporting sing. Who visits Auschwitz in a GOOD VIBES sweater?
Rik Mayall’s inspirational quotes would not be like other people’s inspirational quotes (Twitter).
Netflix has a new miniseries which is extremely relevant to my interests. It’s called Florida Man. I knew I had absorbed the essence of Florida into me when my editor questioned a sentence I had written about a swimming spot that was overseen by a 13ft alligator. Everyone at the state park had regaled this like it was the most normal thing in the world—“oh, a big one is better, because it’ll eat less often”—and I had just accepted it.
Are there too many SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation)? Joshua Rozenberg isn’t so sure (Substack).
“Parks, her seat unchanged.” Regular readers will remember Star Trek’s Tamarian, and my belief that Sally Rooney speaks it. Here, Ethan Mollick gets Bing to generate some Tamarian phrases from real-world history (twitter).
Saturday Night Fever to the Only Fools and Horses theme tunes (twitter)
Episode 4 of The Witch Trials of JK Rowling finally delves into The Unpleasantness, and some mad bastard volunteered to explain feminist schisms to the—oh wait, that’s me. Gulp.
Cole Haddon has collected this year’s Oscar-nominated screenplays to read and download (Medium).
Department of Corrections: I got last week’s anti-piracy ad story wrong (thanks to Jacob A for the tip-off). Also, I didn’t put the right link for Farrah Storr’s trip to Noma. This is it.
Self-promotion zone: The new series of The Spark began on Tuesday, and the first of this series’ conversations with interesting people is Rory O’Connor, a psychologist who has spent his career working out how to prevent suicide, and how to deal with a loved one taking their own life. Both Rory’s PhD supervisor and a close friend killed themselves, and so it’s a personal as well as professional mission for him. (Link here.) Next Tuesday at 11am on Radio 4, it’s Stuart Ritchie on Open Science.
A good tweet:
See you next week!
Notably, the people on the right I find most intellectually interesting are, by and large, not peddling this Lockdown Regret stuff—there’s a huge difference between people like Christopher Snowdon, Sam Bowman etc and the people who have just jabbed their blood-funnel into something that smelled of attention.
Do you think Triggernometry is "humourphobic" lest the humour be turned on Mr. Kisin? (I retain some softheaded affection for Francis.) Ever since he stopped dining out on his cancellation at a uni standup gig and began to dine out on the nihilistic Twitter thread that spawned his (hilarious) dishonesty about Sam Harris, his book deal, and Triggernometry's Beatles-like invasion of the United States, seriousness on that pod has been dialled up to 11, to use an overused phrase.
I haven't listened to them for a while AND I'm Canadian, so my opinion pretty much doesn't count - about anything, really. But if anyone has insights dot dot dot.
No, we are not calling Russell Brand the left...