Melancholy roar

An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture

Roger Scruton <em>Duckworth, 152pp, £14.99</em>

When a man stops believing in God, to paraphrase Chesterton, he doesn't then believe in nothing, he believes in everything - in anything. As we approach the end of the century, traditionally a period of convulsion and rising superstition, there is certainly a powerful feeling that we are lost without belief; that the hard facts of science, with its grand unifying visions of a final theory of everything, do not provide all the answers. But where to turn, especially when orthodox religion, demanding as it does a compelling, perhaps irrational, leap into faith, seems increasingly incapable of filling the God-shaped hole in our lives?

In this country, where the relevance of Christianity is receding like a mirage, the fastest growing religion is the dead-end opportunism of neopaganism - which is not a religion at all, merely an ersatz belief system, rooted in the myths, cosmic connections and earth mysteries of pre-history. What is so attractive about paganism for its many followers is its intense exoticism and inclusiveness; it has none of the difficulty and anguish of actual belief.

Rather, neopaganism is enormously eclectic and, since pagans have no sacred text of revelation or scripture, no fixed belief in a single divine being or in any concept of judgement and salvation, it can absorb anything: ecofriendliness, anti-road protests, personal growth, radical feminism, alternative medicine, magic, body piercing, tattooing. In fact, neopaganism is the perfect belief system for the postmodern world - a skewed, uncertain world, where anything goes and self-expression is all.

Roger Scruton's new book is an elegiac survey of this "postmodern" landscape of relativism and unbelief. He stands on Dover beach, like Matthew Arnold before him, his pale face buffeted by the winds of change, listening to the melancholy long withdrawing roar of faith as it is engulfed by the sea of secularism. Scruton is a cultural pessimist: he believes that a sad twilight has settled on our contemporary culture; that it is later in the day than we could ever have realised. There will, so his argument goes, never be another Mozart or Shakespeare. The levelling threat of democracy, the tyranny of the majority, mass man, with his banal fascination in popular culture, in sport, pop music, celebrity and film - all this has destroyed irrevocably the public world of high culture, in which the greatest works of our culture flowered.

In this Scruton speaks with the voice of T S Eliot, a romantic conservative who argued that genuine originality and newness in art could only find their place in the context of tradition and who believed that a world stripped of the ornamentation of belief is not worth having. Scruton, like Eliot and indeed F R Leavis, transforms culture into something approximating religion: a moral ideology offering guidance and redemption in a heathen age. And as he surveys a contemporary landscape of decline, he can sound like a dotty cleric, as he laments the hard interest in sex among the young, the bacchic abandon of the rave scene and the general cheapening of marriage.

There is a Kantian subtext in much of what he writes. For Scruton cannot make that final leap into faith. He has a scientific worldview and accepts Darwinian evolution as self-evidently true; yet he has a religious temperament, and accepts that empirical reality is all we can know but not all there is. He believes, too, in the ethical vision and civilising potential of religious ritual and in the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But, like Kant, he is left with the problem of squaring conflicting world views, reconciling cold rationalism with belief, the temporal with the metaphysical. Still, there are compensations. The disinterested appreciation of high art, for instance, can serve as a bridge between the temporal world and ultimate reality, between, to employ a Kantian distinction, the phenomenal, or transient realm of appearances (that which we perceive) and the noumenal realm of permanent generalities (things as they are in themselves).

How serious is Roger Scruton? Well, he is a fearless slayer of cant. Formerly, as the editor of the virulently right-wing Salisbury Review, he delighted in offending liberal orthodoxies, in launching missiles of disgust against the perceived ills of modernity. Single mothers, homosexuals, socialists and feminists have all found a place in his ministry of contempt. As a result, the philosopher Ted Honderich has called him the "unthinking thinking man" and Isaiah Berlin would not hear his name mentioned in his presence.

In An Intelligent Person's Guide Scruton reserves his heaviest artillery for the ahistorical thrust of youth culture, "yoofanasia" as he wittily puts it, and above all for Jacques Derrida and deconstruction, which he perceives as the devil's work. Derrida has argued that there is no truth, but only "truth"; that the connection between a sign and its referent is entirely arbitrary; that reality is a construct or "text" and that there is no single correct interpretation of a text derivable from the intentions of its author. The text, like the world, has no "transcendent" meaning beyond its own arbitrary network of signs. All this may appear deeply tedious and imply, as Scruton says, a world "of uncreation, without hope or faith or love, since no 'text' could possibly mean those transcendental things. It is a world in which negation has been endowed with the supreme instruments - power and intellect."

But Derrida should not be dismissed unreservedly. His contribution was to inspire a new way of reading, to show how a text could be read against itself, read as much for what is absent as for what is present, for the gaps, omissions and aporias in the narrative. This model of reading is not unlike the Freudian notion that much of our inner-life and motivation are unknown to us and that our desires, thoughts and actions are unconsciously motivated.

Where all this leaves us at the end of the 20th century is anyone's guess. For one of the weaknesses in Scruton's pastoral conservatism is that he seems to have no sense of the excitement and urgency of the contemporary condition, no understanding of the excitement of cities or of the anarchic, hectic potential of globalisation - of web talk, cultural fusion, miscegenation. As he looks back at what has been lost, he fails to see what stretches before him like a huge turbulent sea of unknowing: namely the future. The shock and strangeness of the new. Discovery. And he demeans the small, the seemingly trivial cultural gestures that make life worthwhile, beyond the parameters of high culture - a great cricket match, a favourite pop song, a nightclub.

Still, for all his stylised nostalgia, his call for the resurrection of the holy in art and his unashamed fogeyism, Scruton should be applauded for his courage to be serious and his desire to be different. It is hard to think, with the possible exception of Bryan Appleyard, who else has the interest in, and flair for, popular communication to make modernity and its discontents their urgent subject.

Jason Cowley is the literary editor of the "New Statesman"

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.