244. Splitting apart (VI)
Stephen Fry is a stupid person’s idea of what it is to be a clever person. Fry is a popular comedian, but he aspires to be more than just a comedian; he makes regular forays into politics, atheism, and history. He speaks for Britain’s hegemonic ideology; he is authority’s voice, a secular high priest. I listen to men like Fry—men like Douglas Murray and Christopher Hitchens—as a guilty pleasure. It is a guilty pleasure because what these men do is preen their audience; they make me feel clever, as if I am in on some sophisticated cocktail party. Yet, if I pause for a moment, I see that their ideas have the consistency of wet tissue paper; and this is because they are not really involved in an attempt to excavate truths—that would require courage—they are engaged in a intellectual game where the circlejerk is the goal.
Fry works largely through name-dropping; he has a great vocabulary and store of trivia—an inheritance from his time as a game show host—and he deploys this with an upper-class English accent to make people feel small. I have been guilty of the same on occasion; life is war—and in the intellectual arena it is possible to batter a person down with erudite references. It is a modus operandi that depends on a well-placed bon mot.
“He’s so educated,” thinks the middle-class listener, for whom a foreign language indicates true knowledge. Mix it with an Oxbridge accent and the middle class will swallow whatever shit you care to pump down their throats. In England, the use of French and Latin is important; we still have an unconscious memory that this is how the Norman aristocracy speaks—nobody mentions this in democratic times, but even leftists like Fry trade on the Francophone cachet.
Men like Fry will throw in knowing references to Locke, Foucault, and many other intellectuals; but for those of us who read a lot it is evident they have never read them; perhaps they read Wikipedia—more likely they picked up the “hot take” from their Oxbridge tutors and then parroted it at dinner parties where their peers applauded them; they then do the same on telly. Fry once mentioned the idea that religion is an invention to control people—“As Althusser observed,” he added, to confer authority. As a rabid teenage Marxist I read Althusser, and I can tell you that this simple statement—Marx’s “religion is the opiate of the masses” bastardised—has nothing to do with Althusser’s dense views on Capital or his structuralism.
For Fry, Althusser is an exotic French name to make other people feel small; he probably only knows him because Althusser strangled his wife and so made for good trivia at a party. Althusser was an ultra-Stalinist, even after the camps were exposed he stuck to Stalin’s legacy; for a right-wing intellectual the equivalent would be to name-drop Miguel Serrano, for whom Hitler did no wrong. For Fry, ignorant and conceited, Althusser is a mere opportunity for intellectual narcissism; and he would be mortified to mention Serrano—a man as intellectually accomplished as Althusser and as comfortable with mass murder, though mass murder of the wrong sort, darling.
Fry is a comedian and game show host from whom people take serious opinions; he is, further, a social deviant who stole a credit card as a teenager—for a working-class teenager that would probably have been the end, for Fry it meant an Oxbridge education; even for egalitarians, there are different rules. It has long been recognised that the rise of actors and women to prominence is an indication that a society is in decline; and this is because, as with Fry, they love lies, trivia, and popularity; Fry is a shallow puddle: nobody who is serious about life should give a ha’penny fuck what he thinks—except snobs and narcissists. Yet people do take him seriously, because we are a decadent and shallow society.