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People who like this sort of thing will like this sort of thing

There’s an article in today’s Observer about the London Review of Books with the headline “is this the best magazine in the world?”.

It’s a reasonable enough piece, which asks some searching questions of the editor, but throughout the piece, the subtext reads “Well, but of course it is”.

I had a subscription for a year, given to me as a birthday present. Coming to it expecting an elongated version of the best parts of the Guardian Review on a Saturday (the books, maybe the odd essay, the odd profile), I instead encountered (with the odd exceptional difference, usually by John Lanchester, Hilary Mantel or James Meek, or last month’s piece on Assange, 26,000 words of pure, illuminative joy) a rather tedious magazine, mixing boring reviews and long form articles, replete with near constant attacks on the big bad US or UK or Israel.

All of these are, of course, worthy subjects for attack, but when there is one an issue to the exclusion of all else, and “context” is always offered for other nation’s actions but never for that of your own, you begin to suspect that a kind of inverse narcissism is at work – from God being an Englishman, we are now in the state of the Devil being of that parish.

Which wouldn’t be an issue, as such. Magazines are free to print what they like, and, indeed, a perspective that says the west is the devil is as much up for debate and interesting to read as any other (although, as said, it got a bit wearying after a while, and the other articles weren’t really worth the price of admission, especially when the long form jewels tended to be available online). I’ve shared that perspective often, and am hardly turning into a neo-con convinced of the righteousness of all things Western civilisation.

But that’s the problem I have, right there. The Guardian (which shares this general tone) is identifying it as the best magazine in the world. And – aside from the provincialism of the case (after all, there are some far superior magazines across the Atlantic) – the worrying thing is, they’ve got a point when it comes to the UK.

It’s a depressing thought. A smallish North London liberal left magazine that writes, pretty much exclusively, to and for the smallish North London liberal left, telling them what they want to hear (I never read an article in there that changed my mind, just to say, I only ever read articles in there that affirmed – or can we say “echoed” – my beliefs) is probably the best magazine in the UK. Stop, and think what that means for the paucity of debate in this country.

In the late 80s and early 90s, when I was an omniverous reader of periodicals, I used to read and admire The Spectator. Its politics then and now remain diametrically opposed to mine, but I can’t be alone in thinking how sad it is that it’s slowly turning into a version of Breitbart with the patina of age. I want intellectual arguments from the right. I get – mainly – flash-cards saying “low taxes = good”, “immigration = bad”. From the left, pretty much the same – the occasional gem in the Statesman and LRB aside – everything operates on the assumption of a shared consensus of ideas.

This shared consensus, whether the consensus is of the right or the left, is founded on an inchoate, often atavistic, melange of ideas, sometimes jarringly incompatible – the little Englander “no big state” thought process rubs alongside a social authoritarianism which should really not be in the same sphere; feminism fights a battle against the “anti-racist” multi-cult posturings of the left; both left and right strike anti-authoritarian poses when it suits them, against whatever they feel is an impingement or an over-reach, and then both go squealing to Big Daddy State or make appeals to authority on other subjects.

The lack of big ideas and debate is baffling, if you indulge in that process beloved of the LRB, and examine the context.

We’ve just come through what is, essentially, the longest crisis of Capitalism since the 1930s. The international system almost crashed. The state popped in and propped it up (some would say foolishly, others would say it caused it), to the expense of the state. Our welfare and benefits system is changing to pay for it. The international order of the past 20 years, the uni-polar world of US dominance, is melting before our eyes and a new, unpleasant order is being born; its passage eased into the world by bucket-loads of filthy oil lucre splashed around by robber baron oligarchs and allowing us to hold our nose and avoid the stink of much unpleasantness. This dirty money sloshing around the system is having a toxic effect on so many things, from housing in central London to Premiership football. Meanwhile, much of the informed public is retreating into paranoia regarding government to an unprecedented degree, and government, pace NSA, is often offering justification for that feeling with its actions, whereas the majority of the public are too disengaged to care.

One doesn’t have to advocate smashing the system and raising the black flag of anarchy, or indulging in Brandesque flights of nihilistic fancy, to see that here, now, is where we should be having actual debate. Here, now, is where we should be defining who and what we are, what we see the state for, what we see rights as, what we see liberty as. Where are we, and what kind of future world do we want. All these questions are there, ready to be asked. And yet what publications are asking them? All of them offer at best a stance, a pose, an imitation of thought.

It is, I would say, a deep and lasting irony that  an age where we are (both potentially and actually) more informed as humans than ever before, an information age, is not offering us these intellectual battles.


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