Whoever thought that a conference on education could be interesting? Last week, Laurie Penny and David Starkey made one so by having a loud dingdong about race. Ms Penny – a columnist for The Independent – called Starkey a racist because he implied that gang culture was an import from the Punjab. Dr Starkey – a freelance historian – lost his temper, pointed his finger at Penny and shouted, “I will not be lectured to by a public school girl like you!” The whole farce would have gone unreported had Penny not turned to Twitter to imply that Starkey physically assaulted her. The video that leaked out suggests different. Starkey’s rage contains all the terror of a bichon frise growling at a suspicious looking tree. Ms Penny has enough sangfroid to return to the microphone to, once again, call her opponent a big auld racist. It's pure Punch and Judy.

The story went global and partisans fell into two camps. The Left said Starkey’s insensitive pronouncements on British identity made his racism obvious. His vocal outburst, coupled with having the audacity to wear linen in the 21st century, confirmed an implicit violence within his politics. The Right argued that Penny was the real bigot for twisting the words of a respected historian to denounce all conservative views as inherently racist.

Both sides are equally guilty of misreading the politics of race. The Right often exhibits a paradoxical cultural chauvinism. On the one hand, they will insist that racism isn’t a problem in Britain – partly because our society is more homogeneous than the Left thinks it is and partly because Britishness is a byword for tolerance. On the other hand, they use this claim of tolerance as a reason to exclude outsiders, because they perceive the “invading” culture to be intolerant. Most of Britain’s problems are imagined to be the result of outsiders getting inside and exploiting the British soft touch: asylum seekers scamming benefits, Islamic sex rings, Muslims building super mosques to preach destruction of the West etc. The repugnant assumption behind much of the conservative take on multiculturalism is either that foreign cultures are breeders of violence or that individuals raised in those cultures are incapable of independent moral action. That’s why Starkey’s infamous claim on Newsnight that the London riots were a cultural import from Jamaica was so wrong. Civil unrest isn’t unique to the West Indies – the English have been revolting for centuries.

If the Starkey’s crime is myopia, Penny is guilty of trying to use the racist label to shut down debate. Consider what happened during the Starkey vs Penny confrontation. On the subject of “What is Britishness?” Penny said, “For people like my colleague Professor Starkey, it’s playing xenophobia and national prejudice for laughs. And if you ask people who organise conferences like this, it’s sitting by politely while people play xenophobia and national prejudice for laughs, pretending that this is an acceptable part of contemporary debate.”

I highlight the last part of that sentence because this is a key part of the contemporary Left’s agenda: dividing political opinions into legitimate and illegitimate. The Left insists that it is illegitimate to say that homosexuality can be a choice, that the fetus is a human being, that the welfare poor must take some responsibility for their life choices or that there is some other explanation for global warming. These positions may be wrong or even despicable. But the Left’s very undemocratic goal is to drive them from the public sphere. Happily, all we will be left with once we effectively outlaw cultural traditionalism is liberalism and socialism. Then we can all get on with the business of becoming the kind of people Laurie Penny wants us to be.

Of all the forms of thought policing that the Left uses, the most egregious is the accusation of racism. Of course, racism does exist in both conscious and subconscious forms – given its history of imperialism and slavery, it is truly the West’s Original Sin. But if we overuse the word racism, we dilute its meaning and lose our ability to judge between who is and who is not racist. David Starkey might be prejudiced, but he is in no way analogous to Nick Griffin and the BNP. By labeling Starkey as such, the Left empowers the BNP to claim that its views are both germane to the mainstream Right and the victim of the same kind of thought policing that Starkey suffers. It’s notable that Nick Griffin offered to make Starkey an honorary member of his party after his Newsnight appearance.

In the same way that overuse of the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to describe things that come nowhere near to the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust is offensive, so too is misuse of racism. It dilutes the power of that word, so that an ugly, stupid throwaway line by a politician about Africans is treated with the same seriousness as the Rwandan genocide. It also blinds us to non-political forms of prejudice that genuinely need tackling. The worst is the racism of low expectations – a variety of racial oppression that the Left unwittingly participates in. By constantly asserting that ethnic minorities can’t get ahead because of white bigotry, we often condemn them to a culture of low morale reinforced by shockingly bad schools. Aspiration and Capitalism have historically been far kinder to the poor than therapeutic welfarism.

In short, the Right constantly confuses the meanings of culture and race, but the Left does nothing to help by taking an already toxic debate and poisoning it further with a mix of righteousness and paranoia. And the discussion so rarely actually improves anyone’s lives. Step back from the Starkey vs Penny fight and you see two white figures from the establishment claiming to speak for the disenfranchised. They do not. The only thing that distinguishes their privileged voices is that Laurie Penny shields herself from criticism with the claim that she is being physically and intellectually oppressed by violent patriarchy. To his credit, Starkey’s bombast is more honest, cheerful and self-aware. David Starkey doesn’t care who he offends or what people think about him, and that's why his brand endures. He isn’t just thick skinned – he’s all skin.

Britain went to the polls last week, which led to the following conversation with my mother. Me: "What did you think of the elections yesterday?" Mum: "There were elections?" Me: "Yeah." Mum: "O. I was out all day so I missed them." Whenever I want to know what the people of Britain aren’t thinking, I ask my mother. 

The old girl certainly spoke for the majority. In all the parts of the country that hosted elections on Thursday, only 32 percent of people bothered to vote. The dismal turnout was eclipsed by Labour’s landslide victory, but, as Brendan O’Neill argued in the Telegraph, it was surely the more significant story. That the British are so uninterested in politics in the middle of such a terrible recession speaks volumes about the decline of democracy. 

A few years ago, I might have been outraged. Like a lot of young people on the Left, I defined civic engagement by voting. In fact, turning out once every two years to cast a ballot for a complete stranger - who will go on to do (at best) nothing or (at worst) a lot of damage – hardly screams Citizen of the Year Award. There are countless other, better ways to improve the lives of your fellow man, of which the surest is to care for your family. You really want to create good citizens, rebuild the jobs base, and advance educational opportunity, all at no cost to other people? Try homeschooling.

But what of the argument that by not voting you lose a right to complain? It’s a magician’s misdirection. Across the West the relationship between the citizen and the state isn’t defined by voting but by paying taxes. That’s what gives you the right to complain. The citizen is rather like a consumer purchasing a car. He’s at liberty to involve himself in the process of making that car – become an engineer, buy shares in the company, vote at shareholder meetings, demonstrate outside the factory against pollutants etc. But even if he didn’t do all those things, he still has the right to complain when he lifts the bonnet of his brand new car to discover that it has no engine underneath. Why? Because he paid good money for it. As with cars, so with schools, hospitals, and even nuclear weapons.

Likewise, nothing is more irksome that the righteous MP or congressman who tells us that we have lost all right to complain about potholes or wars because we didn’t vote for or against them. Maybe the apathetic citizen didn’t vote for them, but he sure as heck paid for them – and that’s his mandate to moan. If we could come to some arrangement by which nonvoters could abstract themselves altogether from the farce that is modern government, then perhaps voting would reassert itself as a true act of civic-minded volunteerism. Democracy for the engaged; anarchy for the self-contained. Let’s call it “pay to play.”

I’m not anti-politics. On the contrary, I spend 90 percent of my life with a laptop on my lap writing about it. I’ve probably lost my fertility in the great cause of exposing Barack Obama’s insatiable appetite for dog meat. But my interest has shifted from partisan politics to the realm of ideas.

Show me a good thought and I’ll give it column inches. If it seems sometimes like I’m a schill for the American Right, it’s because they have the most interesting ideas at the moment. Be it their critique of the media, their emphasis upon constitutionality, or their concern for marrying the temporal and the spiritual, they never fail to fascinate. Among them, the most coherent (and therefore, from an academic point of view, most useful) is Ron Paul. That’s why I’ve written so much about him: he’s intellectually lively, consistent, engaging, and pure.

Conversely, my taste for big ideas is why I find it tougher to write either about the American Left or the diminishing spectrum of British politics. I was unmoved by the London mayoral contest – a battle between two personalities rather than contrasting philosophies. What differences there were had to be teased out, and they all typically came down to a few pence here, a couple of policemen there, and a refurbished sewer. All very important to people who consume whatever services the mayor controls but not the stuff that feeds the soul. Not enough to climb a barricade for. And not, in the opinion of 62 percent of Londoners, even worthy of a ten minute detour to the polling station. The silence of two thirds of the electorate was far louder than the applause for Boris Johnson when he won the final count.

Perhaps it’s time for a retreat from national democracy, for a return to the politics of the private sphere. This could translate into a greater emphasis upon individual or community activism. But most of all it should mean a revival of coffee house, salon culture. Away from the ceaseless mudslinging and name calling, we need a quieter, sophisticated debate about ideas. We’ve allowed politicians to set the tone of political debate for too long.