The birth of the culture wars

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

The last time I wrote for The Spectator’s diary slot, over the summer, theatres were tentatively beginning to turn their lights on again, following the historically long closures at the height of the pandemic. On Monday night the West End went dark once more, but thankfully only briefly. Theatres along Shaftesbury Avenue and beyond dimmed their lights at 7 p.m. to mark the legacy of Stephen Sondheim, who died last week. I came to Sondheim’s work quite late myself, and I’m sure a new audience will be found following the affection generated at his passing. Sondheim’s impact is felt as much on the theatre scene here as it is in America, but he didn’t write about British politics, of course — or did he? This song from A Little Night Music is in reference to the theatrical tactic, deployed when a show isn’t going well, of bringing on a clownish figure to offer some distracting jokes: ‘Where are the clowns?/ Send in the clowns./ Don’t bother, they’re here.’

I’m in the final days of rehearsals for my own new play, which opens at London’s Young Vic theatre this week. Best of Enemies covers the 1968 US television debates between the father of modern American conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr, and the liberal playwright Gore Vidal. These exchanges — the first real example of the modern cultural phenomenon of pitting opposing pundits against one another to create ‘debate’ — only came about because ABC, the lowest-rated and poorest of the television networks, needed a cheap innovation to their coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions that year. What occurred, by accident or design, was a ratings winner that pretty much transformed political coverage for ever.

Buckley and Vidal loathed one another and saw the other’s ideology as immoral and reckless. Their clash was a gladiatorial match of minds for the soul of a nation. And yet even though it could be seen as a moment when mainstream political discourse became overtly petty, personal and adversarial — the origins of the culture wars being played out across our more modern media platforms today — it also was the kind of serious discussion it’s hard to imagine existing any more: 15 minutes of uninterrupted, primetime conversation, each night, between two ‘public intellectuals’ speaking in philosophical terms about the nature of society and governance, tax systems and racial divides, foreign policy and the role of the state. They spoke in poetry, but they were also precise about the problems facing the West. Buckley proclaimed that Vidal’s ‘hobgoblinisation’ of Marxism would lead to a ‘spiritual world of stagnation’. Vidal believed that these were ‘revolutionary times’ when radical changes were needed, otherwise ‘to be perfectly bleak and to be perfectly blunt, I think we’re headed toward total disaster, this empire’.

There was drama on BBC Radio 4 this week too, but not in its Afternoon Play spot. I, like millions of others, felt a pang of existential dread when the Today programme was taken off air for a full 30 minutes on Monday as an errant alarm caused the presenters and technicians to be evacuated. Nick Robinson and Martha Kearney tweeted photos of themselves outside in the cold to reassure listeners all was fine, but perhaps also to avoid unleashing nuclear catastrophe, as the failure to broadcast Today remains on the country’s ‘doomsday protocols’. So unconscionable is the programme’s absence that its disappearance remains an ‘official measure’ that Royal Navy captains use to determine if the nation has been obliterated with atomic weapons, and must therefore retaliate. Thankfully, a documentary about the history of the T-shirt was broadcast to fill the dead air until the presenters could re-enter the building.

Despite the fears I have over the pointlessness and nastiness of conversations on social media, Twitter can be a great place for a writer to discover absurd moments in history that might inspire new work. I read that Switzerland has accidentally invaded Liechtenstein on quite a few occasions in history, most recently in 2007 when the marching Swiss soldiers took a wrong turn over the border and quickly apologised. I went down an internet rabbit hole of research that dragged up the time the UK accidentally invaded Spain in 2002, when some Royal Marines misjudged a training-exercise landing meant for Gibraltar, storming a beach some yards away in neighbouring Spain instead. A Ministry of Defence spokesman at the time said: ‘They were informed of their error by local policeman and only spent about five minutes on the beach.’ The Ministry reiterated that we ‘were not trying to take Spain and have no plans to do so’. Although — taps nose — we would say that, wouldn’t we?

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