“I live in a rather special world,” mused Pauline Kael. “I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken.”
It was 1972, a month after his re-election in a landslide, and the film critic voiced the liberal intelligentsia’s bewilderment. How could a country so obviously seized by anti-war radicalism, where imperialism was on the lips of every shop assistant, rebuff the urbane George McGovern for that fascist square Nixon?
In truth, the suburbs were horrified by the hippies and the draft-dodgers and the Zippos taken to Old Glory; Nixon was their counter to the counterculture.
Kael’s confession has become an exemplar of metropolitan insularity but her ignorance was at least unintentional. Today it is no longer shameful to admit your contempt for alternative points of view. If you feel aggrieved enough, our universities will provide “safe spaces” where your views will go unchallenged and issue “trigger warnings” lest you encounter ideas that scar your psyche. The unexamined life is not only worth living, it is now considered a form of “activism” — the anti-globalisation of the mind.
There are none so intellectually xenophobic as the Scottish Nationalists, as the response to the Michelle Thomson row has confirmed. The Edinburgh West MP has withdrawn from the party whip amid a police investigation into her solicitor, who was struck off over property deals in which he was acting for her. Surprisingly, this minor kerfuffle has made it into the newspapers, as though Ms Thomson were some sort of elected official.
Her fellow parliamentarian Pete Wishart — a man to whom few gifts have been given, chief among them self-awareness — is not happy. He tweets: “Some of the stuff about Michelle is now beyond bullying and approaching misogyny. Never seen anything like it in the Scottish press.”
The imputation of sexism is crass and ripe from a party that defended Alex Salmond braying “behave yourself, woman” at a Tory MP. Ms Thomson stands accused of no criminal offence and no newspaper or broadcaster has said otherwise. The press has pursued the story as assiduously as they did Henry McLeish’s office expenses, David McLetchie’s taxi claims and Wendy Alexander’s leadership donations.
And yet Natland is ablaze with indignation, as SNP-sympathising bloggers and cybernats accuse reporters of “smearing” their MP. Even journalists Mandy Rhodes and Iain Macwhirter are deemed part of the Unionist conspiracy for writing unhelpful articles. At this rate, the guy who Photoshops the front page of The National will be outed as MI5 by Friday.
The Thomson row is not an isolated event. A casual perusal of social media yields similar reactions to reporting on the persistent failings of Police Scotland, scientific criticism of the ban on GM crops and the stooshie over a taxpayer handout to T in the Park. All are “non-stories”, we are told with conviction, stirred up by a biased media.
Far from cynicism, this is down to a surfeit of belief. Natland is a hermetically sealed universe, secure from doubt and the temptations of nuance. A network of committed newspapers and websites allows the most fervent to wall themselves off from upsetting facts. When you read every day that the SNP are plucky patriots under fire from quislings who lie to serve their masters in London, you will become angry as you strain to rationalise away evidence to the contrary.
One normally savvy nationalist blogger enraged by the Thomson coverage harrumphs: “We might just not open the papers at all and be better informed”. The certain are in possession of the answers; they have no need of questions.
Journalism is becoming a four-letter word in Scotland. In this febrile environment, no one with a pluralist bone in their body could countenance devolving broadcasting to the Scottish parliament. It would be akin to transferring regulation of chicken coops to hungry foxes.
This will all sound familiar to students of American politics, where the mid-Nineties rise of cable news and talk radio lured the conservative movement away from the mainstream. After decades of grumbling about the liberal media, Republicans could now construct an alternative reality, shielded from the dissonant noises of Dan Rather and the New York Times.
It was the original safe space but it quickly became an echo chamber. It seemed everyone was talking about gay marriage and stem cells, but in reality Americans cared about jobs, the economy and healthcare. The right, having shut out these inconvenient facts, had no language to engage with voters on what mattered most.
The political writer Julian Sanchez diagnosed an “epistemic closure” among partisan Republicans, as they filtered out displeasing information and denounced critical thinking on the centre-right as selling out. The damage has been severe. The Republican party has been out of the White House for eight years.
It couldn’t happen to the SNP, could it? No, they are too popular, too electorally savvy. Maybe so, but most voters are not fanatics and will grow weary of a party wrapped up in its own little world. If they want to allay such fears, the grown-ups in the SNP will have to convince their party to remain open to opposing ideas and tolerant of scrutiny. They could start by defending the role of a free press in Scottish society.
Originally published in The Times. Feature image via National Archives & Records Administration (public domain).