A few days ago, BBC broadcaster Andrew Neil interviewed Ben Shapiro, the hugely popular US pundit, who is seen in his country as a conservative paladin laying all about him in his battle against the pernicious left.
The interview ended badly: the two parties admitted to not having heard of each other before that exchange and, by the sound of it, both would have preferred to keep it that way.
I must admit I’ve never heard of young Mr Shapiro either, which, considering that he’s followed by millions of Americans, goes to show how out of touch one can get in 30-odd years out of the country.
What I can glean from the interview only reinforces my view that, while conservatives are rare in Britain, they are nonexistent in the US.
That is, conservatives as I define the breed: those who are committed to conserving what little is left of Western civilisation, otherwise known as Christendom. If you believe as I do that civility is the desired social by-product of that civilisation, then Mr Shapiro isn’t a conservative.
Not only is he incapable of conducting a civilised discourse, he doesn’t even seem to know what that is. Speaking nineteen to the dozen in a fast, nasal monotone devoid of any lightness of touch, he refuses to make natural pauses enabling his interlocutor to get a word in.
If the latter still tries to say something, Mr Shapiro just turns the volume up a couple of clicks and continues to talk over the other chap, creating a jarring polyphonic effect.
Civilised people don’t talk that way and, when someone does, I for one instantly lose interest in the content of his pronouncements and, to my shame, tend to say something nasty, which admittedly undermines my own claim to being civilised. My only excuse is a rather childish “he started it”.
Mr Neil is to be commended on being more civilised than me, for he never once lost his temper with the rude, brash youngster (both he and, alas, I probably regard a 35-year-old as one such).
His aim was to interview Mr Shapiro on his recent book about American politics, and he tried to stick to it by using the time-honoured interviewing technique: asking adversarial questions.
One adversarial question, about four minutes into the 16-minute interview, queried Mr Shapiro’s position on the Georgia law banning abortion past six weeks into pregnancy. He supports the law, although he’d prefer banning abortion altogether.
This is indeed a conservative position, and one I share. But conservatism isn’t really a sum total of its positions, for it’s not an ideology. Above all, it’s an attitude of mind, a trait of temperament and a matter of style. A philosophy of life follows, but it’s derivative.
Thus, though people who don’t hold conservative positions clearly aren’t conservatives, those who do may not be either. Now, judging by the way Mr Neil worded the question (he suggested that the Georgia law “takes us back to the Dark Ages), he isn’t a conservative.
Yet judging by the way Mr Shapiro reacted to it, neither is he. For any substantive conversation stopped at that point. Every question posed by Mr Neil thenceforth elicited a hysterical, spittle-sputtering rant.
Every time the interviewer asked Mr Shapiro to elucidate his position on a divisive issue, the latter came back to that abortion question, saying – nay, shouting – that there’s no point talking to someone who’s left-wing.
After first hearing that accusation, Mr Neil reacted like the grown-up he is. He chuckled and said: “If you only knew how ridiculous that statement is you wouldn’t have said it.”
Mr Shapiro clearly didn’t know how ridiculous that statement was, which is why he repeated it several times before abruptly ending the interview that, to him, was a “waste of time”.
Now as far as I could gather from the substantive scraps that crept into his hysteria, Mr Shapiro enunciates many ideas with which I’m in sympathy.
For example, he said about President Trump what I always say, that he likes many of his policies, while finding him personally repulsive (I’m paraphrasing). Mr Shapiro also supports Israel in its confrontation with Hamas, as do I.
However, it’s not the substance of Mr Shapiro’s polemic that I find unfortunate but its style, which, for me, invalidates the substance. In fact I was quite shocked, especially since I still remember those great American conservative pundits of the ’70s and ‘80s.
If you Google the old Firing Line talk shows with William F. Buckley, you’ll know what I mean. Buckley was at the time the mouthpiece and figurehead of American conservatism (that is, as the term is understood there, which is closer to what I’d describe as a blend of political libertarianism and economic liberalism. Buckley himself was closer to my definition of a conservative, but in his public persona he gravitated closer to what was then called the ‘conservative movement’).
He routinely interviewed people on the left, sometimes extreme left, of American politics and thought. Chaps like Noam Chomsky and John Kenneth Galbraith were his regular guests (the latter also his friend).
Buckley was never reticent in voicing opposition to his guest’s statements, but he always did so with intellectual integrity, perfect manners and good humour. They, leftie pundits, socialist economists, pseudo-philosophers and even the odd Black Panther, responded in kind – all much to the benefit of the viewers and indeed the conservative cause.
In fact, much of the debate in American highish-brow circles tended to be conducted in that spirit, if not always with Buckley’s élan and erudition. Even now I could name offhand a dozen or more figures on both right and left, who sometimes failed to put forth a cogent argument, but never for any lack of trying.
I don’t watch American television now, but I occasionally read the odd article, mostly pro- or anti-Trump. What amazes me isn’t that America seems to be divided, but that on either side of the divide all one hears is hysterical shrieks, vile invective, ad hominems and puerile arguments – all liberally lubricated with bile and spittle.
Rating the level of debate on a one-to-ten scale, if Buckley et al inhabited the region of eight to ten, today’s lot bring it down to minus one. This certainly isn’t exclusively an American phenomenon, but nowhere else I know does one observe such a catastrophic collapse in rhetorical skill and general civility.
British commentators were amused by Mr Shapiro’s description of Mr Neil as ‘of the left’. How could he be, was the outcry. After all, Andrew Neil is a “right-leaning Spectator chairman”, who used to work for the Conservative party. If that doesn’t make him conservative, what can?
This only emphasises the gross inadequacy of our political taxonomy. These days an association with The Spectator or especially the Conservative party is no badge of conservatism. Mr Neil certainly isn’t entitled to pinning it to his lapel.
But his dispassionate, adversarial yet polite style of interviewing stands in contrast to Mr Shapiro’s barbaric shrieks – much as I’m closer to his views than to Mr Neil’s.