On the contrary: A Times columnist declares the contrarian dead while his colleagues still fly that tattered flag

... and, of course, Christopher Hitchens is extensively name checked.

Behind every bully, there’s some little snide who laughs along and chips in with cruel comments from the safety of their shadow. And the world of the British columnist is no different; beneath the top tier of truculent trolls, there is a line of less memorable Muttleys.

The Muttleys are the writers who scatter references to their “excellent colleagues” previous columns into their own dispatches and rush to suck up to them on Twitter. They are often the young suck-ups who get their start as columnists by acting as a stand-in when a bigger name is “away”.

I was moved to discuss these second-tier, substandard opinion slingers when I read a column by James Marriott in today’s Times. Ostensibly a claim that the true contrarian is dead, it’s actually just another example of someone with a column sneering that the whole social media thing has debased the game.

But more egregiously it’s a platform for Marriott to demonstrate his tired Christopher Hitchens fanboyism and join in with The Times’ ongoing bullying of an academic, by falling in line with his ‘big beast’ colleague David Aaronovitch.

After fumbling around for a news hook — the disagreements about the coverage of Prince Philip’s death and specifically the huge number of complaints about the BBC’s output — Marriott gets to the gristle-ridden meat of his argument:

Today, contrarianism survives not as a substantive intellectual position but as a pose. The disappearance of consensus has left our political and media landscape a battlefield of clashing factions — what we call the culture war.

The heroes of each faction position themselves as brave outsiders, fighting opponents invariably cast as representatives of the consensus. Those on the right imagine they’re up against the “liberal metropolitan establishment” of the BBC and academia. Those on the left consider themselves the enemies of the consensus of a Tory government and a right-wing press.

Here, as in the rest of his column, Marriott’s greatest friend is not Aaronovitch but false equivalence. He places the Left — without any national newspapers that present its viewpoint and with few commentators that defend its positions — on the same footing as the Right, which dominates government and the media. The “liberal media establishment” is a culture war confection — ‘proved’ by reference to the occasional seemingly silly council policy or ‘outrageous’ artwork — while the right-wing government and right-wing press are very real.

But it serves Marriott’s interests to suggest that the culture war stoked in large part by newspapers including the one which employs him is a clash between equal forces. In fact, the Left faces daily monsterings while the Right whines about silencing and cancel culture from their well-remunerated and seemingly permanent columnist perches.

When I spotted Marriott’s article on The Times website last night, it was wearing the headline In a fragmented world, it’s hard to be a true contrarian but it has since been updated to the more aggressive (and revealing) line Twitter’s culture warriors aren’t true contrarians. The implication is that the newspapers’ culture warriors are just fine but that, in an ideal world, independently opinionated people would have remained confined to the letters pages and the pub.

The moment that Marriott combines his love of false equivalence and his Muttley role, running in the wake of Aaronovitch’s more practised malevolence, comes when he goes searching for examples again. He writes:

On the left, the Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal (dubbed “the Torquemada of the New Woke inquisition” by my colleague David Aaronovitch) battles the “outsized political and social power” of the tabloids. On the right, the actor-turned-political-agitator-turned-moron Laurence Fox’s enemies include the “woke” BBC.

That a journalist who’s so wet-behind-the-ears that he threatens to drown passers-by when he shakes his head doesn’t give Professor Gopal the courtesy of her title is bad enough. That he repeats Aaronovitch’s 2018 slur against her — the second time in two weeks that it has been reprinted in the paper, the first was Aaronovitch approvingly quoting himself — is unforgivable.

Marriott compares Professor Gopal — Professor of Postcolonial Studies in the Faculty of English at Cambridge, a fellow of Churchill College, and author of Insurgent Empire, a powerful history of anti-imperial rebellion and resistance — with Laurence Fox, sub-par side-kick from Lewis, godawful musician, Billie Piper’s greatest regret, and current face of a vanity campaign for London Mayor, bankrolled by hedge funders who may as well have done a KLF and burned the money. One of these things is not like the other.

With his pathetic kick against Professor Gopal — delivered once big Dave had got the first shots in — Marriott reveals himself as the Muttley he is. However many references to literature he litters his column with, however much he turns to the pugnacious prose of Christopher Hitchens to strengthen his own anaemic dreck, the truth is clear — he's a company man delivering the company line.

Another ‘look in the mirror while you say that’ moment comes when Marriott writes in typically high-handed fashion:

Culture warriors such as Gopal and Fox use their pseudo-contrarianism to build avid factions of supporters — encouraged by social media, which divides us into political camps. To thrive in that environment writers must build consistent “personal brands” around the promotion of a coherent world view with which their supporters can reliably agree.

It’s hard to know whether Marriott truly believes he’s not participating in the act of creating a personal brand from his column in The Times or if he truly believes that The Times itself doesn’t exist to build an avid faction and actively engages in dividing the world into political camps. The irony that he himself has spent the past few hundred words defining divisions seems lost on him.

Marriott’s column has the dubious honour of being the 16th time that The Times has published a disparaging reference to Professor Gopal in the past two years. It seems odd that the so-called paper of record should be so thoroughly obsessed with the activities of a single academic, especially one that Aaronovitch and Muttley Marriott seem so keen to dismiss as a fringe voice.

While the newspaper has dedicated itself to getting at Gopal, Marriott’s other example — Laurence Fox — has been interviewed four times by The Times and Sunday Times in the past two years. He’s still been mentioned less than the professor, with the sentiment of the 14 or so mentions he has received far more mixed than the unrelenting negativity directed at Gopal.

In March, Melanie Phillips wrote — in a column that admittedly focused on the ignorance of Fox’s campaign against Covid safety measures — that:

Fox’s defence of the freedom to express ideas is welcome and understandable. Appearing on the BBC’s Question Time last year, he took a stand against kneejerk accusations of white privilege and other progressive dogma. A pitchfork-waving social media mob duly descended upon him.

Further back, Phillips’ equally contrarian colleague at The Times, Janice Turner, wrote in the wake of Fox’s appearance on Question Time:

… how responsible it is to knowingly lead Laurence Fox, who was treated for depression, medicated for insomnia, who is a part-time single parent to two children, into the public stocks. What if this doesn’t end well? How his haters will rejoice, how his followers will cry foul and the two mobs bay at each other across the endless void.

Laurence Fox was 41 years old when the BBC booked him on the politics show. But Turner worried for him as if he were a child. There is no such overbearing thought for the welfare of Professor Gopal — who is a mere 10 years older than Lil Baby Lozza — among the editors and columnists of The Times. She remains their personal pinata whenever a ‘culture war’ story needs whipping up.

Marriott’s argument is that “the intellectual glamour of contrarianism” is gone because there aren’t any consensuses left to smash. It’s an inevitable argument from someone employed by News UK, whose properties — whether it’s The Times that thinks its intellectual, TalkRadio that thinks it’s rebellious, or The Sun that thinks there should be less talk and more tits — are united in the belief that the opinions they publish aren’t opinions at all but “common sense”.

Marriott declaring “the death of contrarianism” from a slot in the opinion section of a paper that has published Matthew Parris’s defences of the British Empire and David Cameron in the past two weeks alone is so big and unsupportable it could be one of Boris Johnson’s plans for an impossible bridge.

A quick look through Marriott’s own back catalogue as a columnist shows that he is not immune to contrarianism himself. But like any good columnist, he writes what he’s thinking this week and forgets what he was saying a month or even a week ago. Only the latest column has to hang together; your previous thoughts can be thrown in the memory hole.

Just ask David Aaronovitch about that time he said he’d never trust the government again or the time he purchased that lovely leather jacket.

Marriott has joined in with the attacks on Professor Gopal because she criticises the media, which makes her fair game. Laurence Fox gets off far more lightly as he is treated as a novelty, like a dog that dances on its hind legs to the sound of the dog whistles the newspapers themselves delight in blowing while denying they own or have ever owned them.

Anyway, there are two words that destroy Marriot’s implicit claim that true contrarianism died with Christopher Hitchens. They are: “Peter Hitchens” The younger Hitchens brother is still out there being contrarian at every possible occasion. He even finds the time to rage against changing the clocks twice a year… like clockwork, in fact.

Marriott is still young but his Muttley qualities leave me in no doubt that he’ll hold onto his columnist spot for many years to come. British newspapers always have space for a useful not-quite-idiot. Especially one willing to get in a cheeky dig at one of those pesky critics who has the audacity to have opinions that aren’t bankrolled by a newspaper proprietor.

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