Peter Mitchell on the radicalisation of the retired:
To return to the university: increasingly, I and many people I know from academic contexts have begun to tell each other variants of the same story. People close to us, who we used to think we understood, are suddenly distant or strange or angry with us in ways we can’t meet head-on. Many of us dread family gatherings or simply don’t want to go home, because something has got into a family member – always male, almost always older – and they aren’t the same person any more: a cruelty and contempt, a will to destroy and humiliate, has crept into the family kitchen, the living room or the pub. Often the people telling these stories will mention the name of a particular newspaper. With the Mail or the Sun the change has usually been less dramatic; with the Telegraph, the Spectator or, especially, the Times, it is often bewildering.
In my case it was the Times, in the hands of a beloved elderly relative who did not, when I first began to work on British imperialist history, seem too disturbed by our mildly divergent politics on the issue. In this deeply intelligent and well-read man – a lifelong teacher and passionate historian who has endured tragedy and always done his best to be kind – intellectual frustration and a certain innate conservatism seem to have been touched off, by a half decade’s immersion in the Times opinion pages and the books of Melanie Phillips, into a conflagration of resentment and suspicion: about women, about gay rights, about immigration, about gender, and of course about the universities, the assault on free speech, the cults of emotional fragility and identitarian offence, the slandering of the great men of the empire. To him I am no longer a relative with whom he can disagree more or less convivially, but part of an conspiracy dedicated to attacking and undermining everything he loves and has lived by. There is to be no quarter, and there can be no forgiveness. The extremity of it appals. To friends I say: the Times ate my uncle’s brain, and they know exactly what I mean. Americans are just astonished that it’s taken us this long to catch up.
This, it seems to me, is a dangerous vulnerability for which we do not presently possess a patch. It isn’t just uncles, of course: the madness of Louise Mensch is of the same fundamental order. But Healey/Farmer’s Male Online is funny because, alas, it’s true. Rapidly shifting political and symbolic co-ordinates — Trump, Brexit, the paranoid mirage of a nation rendered indecipherably other by immigration or of gender politics turned upside-down by trans acceptance — fracture people’s imaginations. Right-wing media use this as a vector for installing horrifying mental malware. People go a bit funny, or a lot funny, or not funny at all.