In today’s lethal cultural confusion there was in fact no more important role than preaching to the choir, which otherwise would become demoralized—in every sense—and would no longer know quite what song it was supposed to be singing at all.
Those words hearten a conservative journalist at a conservative publication. They come for me in October, when society seems more unhinged from reality than ever. U.S. politicians calmly approach government shutdown and debt limits, unembarrassed by their inability to pass a budget even as the government launches shamelessly on a new healthcare regime, the largest federal program in memory. Preaching to the choir seems in order in the midst of this mass derangement. But those words hit the height of irony coming from Melanie Phillips (in her new book Guardian Angel), a conservative long used to battling from the blood-stained pit of the liberal lion’s den.
Phillips, now 62, has been called “the most high-profile and prolific British pundit on moral and political matters.” She hails from a family of Labour Party devotees, her father a shopkeeper, her parents “Jewish but not very religious.” At Oxford she dabbled in politics and joined protests of then education minister Margaret Thatcher. At 25 she started as a young reporter for New Society, migrated to the Guardian, Britain’s liberal standard in dailies, and quickly became its news editor and later a columnist.
Along the way Phillips grew uneasy with her world and its politically correct clique. Her own reporting yielded a growing unease with the left’s approach to poverty, education, the environment, Israel, racism, and the family. Like Irving Kristol and other converts to conservatism, she was joining the ranks of liberals “mugged by reality.” By 2000, her reputation as a turncoat well known, she vacated her Guardian post, moving to the Observer then the Sunday Times and then the Daily Mail.
As she found her home in ever more conservative domains, Phillips managed to retain a feisty perch atop Britain’s pundit class. As one British commentator put it, she “started out as a Guardian herbivore and now, like Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha, eats broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth.”
Coming face-to-face with how liberal ideas—there’s no nice way to say it—are killing Western society (and the world that’s benefited from them) can have a way of turning you into a venomous word warrior. The left doesn’t like ordinary people, Phillips said, “especially the lower middle class, the striving class who believed in things like self-discipline and personal responsibility.”
By asserting that it embodied the center ground, what the left actually did was to hijack the center ground and substitute its own extreme values—thus shifting Britain’s center of political and moral gravity to the left, and besmirching as extremists those on the true center ground.
Even on the vocal American right, not enough are willing to admit that the societal ground beneath their feet has shifted. What’s more, and what I like about Guardian Angel, is that Phillips is willing to say it in the context of her own personal story. It’s messy to live out one’s unpopular views at close quarters, engaging those who disagree with you, and paying the price for it.
Even a few months ago, Phillips, who also authored the 2006 bestseller Londonistan, had a widely viewed confrontation with the panel and audience on Question Time, a popular BBC talk show. Asked about the Middle East, she said, “We have allowed Iran through this farce of talking … to continue its pursuit of a nuclear bomb.” She said she favored “neutralizing” Iran, drawing boos and catcalls. But she didn’t back down: “The British audience laughs, how trivial of you,” she said. “Iran is currently run by people who believe that if they bring about the Apocalypse they will bring to earth the Shia messiah.”
She’s right, actually, but the comment is rumored to have cost her op-ed space in the Daily Mail. After all, who else dares to speak this way in so toxic a political climate?