Monday 4 May 2020

The Sociology of the Vine/Gove Bookcase

The ongoing derangement of British politics is the gift that keeps giving, if by gift you mean a spiralling whirlpool of lies and doublethink. Today the stinking eddies washed up a new battlefront in the social media culture war: a bookcase. Not just any bookcase, but one of a reputed 20 belonging to Sarah Vine and Michael Gove. If eyes are windows to the soul, bookshelves speak of the thoughts bouncing around their owner's cranium. In this spirit, a few stand out titles convulsed Twitter for an afternoon. The War Path by David Irving, Holocaust denier extraordinaire (though dating from before his path to racist notoriety), Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and that classic of pseudo science piffle, The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. As a number of comrades have pointed out, these matter in the context of Gove's Islamophobia, a government with a miserable record on racism, and the interminable anti-semitism wars.

I agree with these comrades. There's nothing wrong having dodgeoir books. I've also got Atlas Shrugged, a few books by Tories (some of whom were, shock horror, entertaining), and Mein Kampf, a book not so much demonstrative of evil's banality but the tedium of it. A good book mix suggests a critical, inquiring mind and what you see on the Vine/Gove shelf is symptomatic of a closed universe. For all the defences trotted out by the hacks, these are shelves full of tat confirming their owners' prejudices. Tony Blair's A Journey is as left wing as it gets: there's practically nothing on socialist politics, let alone social history. Nothing about the masses, a great deal about the classes. Bits and pieces about the Second World War, plenty of books about the establishment politics of the United States, a smattering of undemanding novels and a book on gin.

Even worse is the over-preponderance of biographies. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing up with political biographies per se. All are self-serving and axe-grinding to a degree, but they're good for bringing out the minutiae of the social lives and social circles of our social superiors. They clarify the thought processes and pressures on a politician's decision-making, providing an inside track to controversies not available as they unfolded. But when they're substitutes for other works on politics? Houston, we have a problem. It's not just that the lives of interest to the Vine/Gove house are nearly all elite and span a spectrum from the centre to the right (the sole proper leftwinger to grace the shelves, Sir Stafford Cripps, was quintessentially posh), it betrays a particular understanding of politics too. For the pair of them as consummate social climbers, their passage into the media and then the elite was eased by sucking up to the right people at the right moment, accumulating favours and political capital to ease the path of their advancement. From their point of view, the social world isn't a struggle: it's about making judicious strategic choices. Politics then is just another social activity, albeit the back and forth of elite players buttressed by institutional power and economic interests whose presence are just accepted to the point of not being thought about. It's all part of the feel for the game. Tomes of political science, theory, and sociology are therefore irrelevant. If advancement is the goal you need to understand how to play politics, not understand how it came to be. The overrepresentation of the biography on this bookshelf is more than hero worship. Rather they are etiquette manuals. Strategy guides. How to overcome the difficulties politics throws up, how to balance competing factions, ride popular waves, put down rebellions, when to ignore and when to acknowledge discontent. These are books for people who care about and want to profit from the dynamics of the small p politics of big P Politics.

When she tweeted a picture of her bookcase, Sarah Vine knew three of the books featured would press all the right social media buttons and provide a bit of distraction from her government's mishandling of the crisis. Who on the right doesn't enjoy trolling the left? However, what she inadvertently let slip was the state of mind and the inspiration of a coming power couple. She knows their game, and she's happy to be brazen about it.


Anonymous said...

Oh for heaven's sake can media lefties find nothing better to do than to crick their necks trying to read all the titles in someone else's bookshelf? I just wasted several minutes on it myself and still couldn't find Irving's book. I've read his book on Churchill (too obviously biased to be useful, Clive Ponting's was much better). I've read the Bell Curve, you need to read it in order to dismiss it, which I do BTW, but the problem psychologists have is that you can only dismiss the Bell Curve by dismissing IQ testing in general, which most of them don't want to do. The concept of "g" as a real thing unrelated to culture, is probably true, whether it can be measured is an entirely different matter.

You're right that the range of titles indicates a self-satisfied, closed mind. Almost every book on that shelf was written by a gatekeeper or by someone whom the gatekeepers have approved.

The only one I also have is the one by Raymond Chandler, and the only one I'd consider reading is the Ayn Rand, though I suspect I wouldn't finish it. I got halfway through Mein Kampf which is further than Albert Speer managed. Das Kapital I managed one page. I've read the Authorised Version Bible three times.

As for biographies, there's two kinds, hers are mainly of the self-serving and arse-licking varieties. An honest autobiog can be very worthwhile, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a good example because he traces the evolution and complete change in his own thinking over time.

Dr T said...

^this was a comment that criticised, agreed, made it about themselves, and then disagreed again.

I mean it didn't really do anything did it? It didn't add anything to the article, it was just an unkind way to make it all about themself.

Which is just sad :-(

look. I'm crying now :'(

KevM said...

Great post. Brutally effective.