Dialogue

‘Radical’, ‘regressive’, and ‘ignorant’: YouTuber J.J. McCullough on the Canadian government’s attempt to control the internet

Minister of Canadian Heritage, Pablo Rodriguez, holds a press conference regarding the introduction of Bill C-18, the Online News Act, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 5, 2022. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Washington Post columnist and popular YouTuber J.J. McCullough on the world of YouTube, his heterodox worldview, and why his thinking and writing often triggers mainstream pundits.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by J.J. McCullough, who’s a Canadian-based columnist for the Washington Post and a successful YouTuber who produces weekly videos on politics and popular culture. J.J. is a friend of mine and a highly interesting, if at times controversial, thinker and commentator. I’m grateful to speak to him about his background, perspective, and experience as a leading new media figure in Canada. Thanks for joining me, J.J.

J.J. McCullough: Thanks for having me.

SEAN SPEER: I mentioned that you’re a successful YouTuber. You have nearly 700,000 subscribers to your channel, which is home to roughly 400 weekly videos. How did you come to decide to start producing these videos which cover everything from Canadian politics, to national flags, to the origins and history of the Falun Gong movement? 

J.J. McCullough: So, I have a pretty clear-cut origin story, I must say. I’ve been a political commentator for, I don’t know, over a decade now. And in my last major incarnation, when I was political commenting full-time, I was actually working for Sun News, for the dearly departed Sun News Network. Which obviously has its share of problems, but I had a good time working with them. And it came to a very sudden end. I was working at the Vancouver studio. I would go there every day, I would record a couple of hits, as we say on those panel shows, and I really got into the rhythm of it. I had a lot of friends there, and it was fun. It was fun being on television, and I enjoyed the kind of spontaneous live TV commentary, which was something new for me at that time. 

And one day I went into work Thursday, and Thursday night we got an email from the producers at like 3 am. It was like, “The network’s not working, we’re pulling the plug. Be there by noon, get all your stuff out, because we’re changing the locks.” So, it was very sudden and very abrupt. I really felt as I think most Sun News employees did at the time, that the rug was pulled out from under us, and a lot of us were kind of left driftless and not really quite clear what we were going to do next. But working at Sun, and to a lesser extent when I was working at CTV as well also doing on-air political commentary, I realized that I like being on camera. Perhaps I’m a little bit vain in that way, or I just like talking to the screen. And what I realized at that point was that I could possibly make it as a YouTuber. 

I am of a generation where YouTube wasn’t really something I grew up with, but it was something that was becoming more and more on my radar, interestingly enough, at around the same time that I was really getting in deep with Sun. So anyway, the long and the short of it is that right after Sun ended, I went down to the Best Buy and I bought myself a little camcorder and I just set it up in my living room. And instead of going down to the Sun News studio every day and doing hits for the TV network, I started seeing if I could make weekly videos for what was then a brand-new YouTube channel. And I’ve basically been doing it ever since. It’s been about six years, and I’ve released a video every week almost without interruption since then.

SEAN SPEER: I’ll ask you about the world of YouTube in a minute, but let’s just talk a bit about your production function. As someone, as you say, who’s produced a video a week for the better part of six years, it seems to me, at least in some circles, that there’s a conventional wisdom that online videos should be short, simple, and even a bit dumbed down. I’m always struck, J.J. that your videos sort of reject these ideas. They’re typically 15 to 20 minutes long, sometimes they run as long as 40 minutes, and they often involve complex topics. I don’t want you to give away any trade secrets, but why do you think your approach has been successful? What do social media experts get wrong?

J.J. McCullough: YouTube is a very, very diverse platform. I think that when people are not super familiar with it, it is very easy to stereotype its content as being all one way or another. You know, oftentimes this is generational. I speak to people that are my age, frankly—I’m almost 40; I’m 38 years old—but I speak to people my age, and a lot of times, like, we haven’t really grown up with YouTube, so it’s very easy to kind of stereotype it. And I think that there is a kind of cliche that was certainly very present when I was young, that, you know, YouTube is like, where people post cat videos or prank videos, are kind of silly frivolous content. And there’s no doubt that that’s part of it, and certainly part of it that appeals to, I think, what is the largest demographic on YouTube, which is young boys. 

But on the other hand, there has always been a lot of much more serious, much more substantial, much more, frankly, intellectual content. Much more so than even I myself produce. So, for example, there’s a thriving subculture on YouTube of—they’re called the video essayists—who are people that make videos that are, 20, 30, 45, even, in some cases, two hours or more long, in which people do incredibly deep dives into a single topic. Very well researched, very intellectual, very high-minded. I have a few friends in sort of the video essay community. 

A friend of mine, his channel is called Knowing Better. He just did an epic one-hour video essay about the history of slavery and black civil rights in America. He was telling me that it’s his most successful video he’s released in a very long time. So, I’m not really doing anything that’s that remarkable or that unique. In fact, if anything, I would sort of say that my stuff is a little dumbed down compared to some of the educational content and some of the intellectual content that’s being produced on YouTube these days. It’s just a matter of people being willing to look for it; people being able to dig around a bit, explore, figure out who the big names are, who are the people worth taking seriously. Because, like I said, it’s always been part of the YouTube experience. It’s not just cat videos and frivolous content. There’s a lot of very serious people on the site.

SEAN SPEER: As you eluded, J.J., you’ve been given a fascinating window into the odd world of different online genres and sub-genres and these different cultures that you mentioned. You did a video two or three years ago, for instance, on the weird and even dangerous world of male body image content. Maybe you could reflect on the unique culture of these online worlds. What are those of us less familiar missing?

J.J. McCullough: Yeah, that’s a that’s a very good question, and it’s a very big topic because YouTube and the online world, in general, is extremely diverse and is full of subcultures that really often have no parallel in the real world, but are felt and the subject of great loyalty within these exclusive online spaces. So, for example, if we’re thinking about politics, for instance, there is a ton of political content on the internet, including on YouTube and other forms of social media, that is hyper-ideological in a way that can often be truly bizarre. 

There are people that have created niche communities of being the most esoteric, extremist flavour of right-wing or left-wing in a way that has really no relevance to the broader world. These are people that are not engaged in elections, or follow the news that closely, or have public policy preferences in one way or another. It is just very important to them that they identify as an anarcho-socialist, of some esoteric school, or as some sort of like neo-reactionary monarchist, ultra orthodox Christian of some sector and other. And they sort of, for lack of a better word, they kind of LARP these identities in unique online spaces, and they fight with each other, and they make content and memes and jokes and stuff that’s exclusively for these different communities. 

I think that, what you will alluded to before, I made a video about male body image and male identity, and that was, in part, response to a very esoteric community that is very strong online of what’s been at times described as the manosphere. Basically, like a hyper masculinist, I guess, we could call sort of identity politics sort of space, that is all about interpreting the role of the man in a very, very hyper-literal, very, I would say, quite reductive way in terms of interactions with women, and the purpose of a man in the modern world and stuff. 

It’s just really fascinating stuff because the thing that interests me about this is that there are a lot of young people who I think believe this is what the real world is all about. They only interact with ideas that come from online spaces, and a lot of these ideas that exist in online spaces are just so extreme, and are so disconnected from real-world issues, as opposed to the issues that only exist within subcultures and subcommunities that have existed to talk about them in the first place, if that makes sense.

SEAN SPEER: So, let’s now transition from the online world to the political world, and maybe one way to enable that transition is to get you to comment on the Trudeau government’s pending legislation that would, in effect, bring Canada’s content regulation framework to YouTube and other streaming services. Why are you opposed to legislation? And why do you think your video on the subject that you produced in the last Parliament, if I recall correctly, is one of the most successful you’ve ever produced?

J.J. McCullough: I am deeply opposed to this legislation, Bill C-11, as I was opposed to Bill C-10. As I was just describing some of the negative, I think, aspects of YouTube in terms of some of the esoteric and sort of the radicalizing effect that it can have, the tremendously positive side of YouTube is the degree to which it is a very, very creator-driven and audience-driven platform. It is an incredibly democratic, it is an incredibly market-driven platform. It creates content that succeeds or fails, basically, on the basis of whether or not it can form an audience, whether or not it can actually gain some public credibility in some ways. 

And what the Trudeau Government aspires to do is put its finger on the scale and mess up, what I think, has been a very successful 16-year experiment in creating a truly sort of democratic market-driven entertainment, news, education media platform, in favour of trying to forcibly turn it into something that serves very narrow, ideological, nationalistic ends. Really in a way that’s quite unprecedented anywhere else in the world. You know, when the Trudeau Government says quite explicitly that YouTube needs to be really regulated to protect Canada’s cultural sovereignty, I mean, that is a deeply radical, and, I would say, deeply regressive premise. 

The idea that we are going to use the CRTC to regulate YouTube in such a way that it will be forced to boost the content of Canadian creators and Canadian content that Ottawa determines more Canadians should be watching. You know, the idea that Canadians cannot be trusted to enjoy content on their own terms, but rather government has to intervene and dictate the kind of content that it thinks the people of this country should be watching, and strong-arm YouTube under penalty of enormous fine to rig their algorithms and search functions and home pages, and possibly even subscription tabs, in order to shove a very particular, very ideologically defined sort of set of videos and other content into the eyeballs of its audience. I view it as extremely illiberal, and really just ruining what has been a tremendously good thing, and I would add a good thing for Canadians. 

I have 700,000 subscribers,. There are over 400 YouTubers from Canada who are more successful than I am. So, this platform in its unregulated state has produced enormous Canadian success stories. It has made stars of literally hundreds and hundreds of Canadians, some of whom are now, I would say, among some of the biggest Canadian celebrities in the world, certainly in the eyes of the youth. 

So, I don’t know. The whole exercise just really strikes me as something that’s special interests driven, and frankly, deeply, deeply ignorant.Without being sort of to flip about this, it does kind of strike me as a little bit of the boomer political class trying to regulate a platform that they don’t quite understand, but nevertheless fear.

SEAN SPEER: J.J., in your answer, you touched on a few key touchpoints of your political ideology. You refer to nationalism and you reflected a kind of commitment to small “d” democratic ideals. I want to turn the conversation to your political ideas, and I intend to touch on both. 

One of the main political ideas that I associate with you is about Canadian identity. Your thinking and writing start from the idea that the tendency to focus on Canada as different from the U.S. fails to recognize that the more interesting and important insight is how similar Canada and the U.S. are, and how different the two of us are from other parts of the world. 

What is the basis of this North American identity? How does it manifest itself? And how is it different from European culture and elsewhere?

J.J. McCullough: Wow, that is a big but very important question, and it’s certainly a question that I in my videos, and to some extent, in my writing as well, I really do try to engage with. You know, Canada and the United States are two countries that are part of a shared project. This is the project of settling this continent, of settling North America, of creating a new society, a new civilization on this continent that did not previously exist. And the way that that cultural civilizational experiment has played out has always unfolded in tandem between the two countries. 

Canadian and American development has never occurred completely severed from each other, but have rather always existed in a symbiotic relationship. And frankly, I would say that the Canadian side of things has always been far more dependent on the U.S. than vice versa, though the flow has always been been mutual in terms of people and ideas and technology, and so forth. And so, I have just kind of always felt that for a Canadian to be proud of his culture, to be proud of his society, to be proud of his civilization, you have to begin by acknowledging that simple reality: that we are engaged in a common project on this continent, and we always have been, and that has always been the history of this continent. You can’t put your head in the sand and try to cling to what I would argue is a very European conception of nationalism that is based on a kind of sense of cultural purity. 

I do think that Canada and the United States have always been defined by their diversity to some degree. That this has been a very fluid and very experimental civilization that was set up on this continent, and that therefore things like barriers, and walls and so on, are always the complete antithesis of what has made us traditionally great, which has been this fluidity and experimentation and entrepreneurship. 

So, when I see things like, say, Bill C-11, which is framed in, frankly like the kind of language that I think you would expect from a much more sort of chauvinistic, European government, like say Viktor Orban’s Hungary, where you’re talking about things like cultural purity, and you’re talking about things like the danger of foreign influences, and the danger of foreign ideas and foreign culture, and that somehow it is in the government’s mandate to preserve the patriotic nationalistic integrity of the people. I mean, that to me has never been something that has been at the root of anything successful that has occurred on either side of this border. So, it’s stuff that I’m very opposed to. 

But the kind of stuff that I’m in favuor of, and I engage with this a lot in my videos, is like, can we look at the way that North American life is lived on a day-to-day basis? And can we find things to appreciate on those grounds? I’m very interested in the idea of a celebration of North American identity as the first kind of true middle-class civilization that has ever really existed; a civilization that really begins and ends with the middle class, and whose culture has always been defined by the humility—or not the humility, the humble nature of middle-class life and middle-class luxuries, and middle-class pleasures and middle-class lifestyles. 

So, when I make videos about things like the history of potato chips, or the history of Christmas presents, or you know, history of Halloween, or soft things like this, it’s easy for people, I think, to be judgmental and to argue that these subjects are kind of frivolous or even materialistic. But to me, a lot of that kind of bourgeois, middle-classness is the culmination of the North American project, and something that I think really deserves celebration on its own terms.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a great answer, J.J., and it relates to another key part of your political identity that, as I mentioned earlier, you’re a small “d” democrat, which is reflected in various aspects of your thinking, including your opposition to the monarchy. Where does your democratic impulse come from, and what is wrong with the monarchy?

J.J. McCullough: Well, my democratic impulse, I suppose, it comes basically back to my other grand theory of what this continental civilization is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be, I think, a society in which individuals are sovereign. You have a society in which the people truly rule, that people have escaped the old world and created a new world nation in their own image. And I think it’s very essential that that the people rule, that the people be in charge, and that I like the idea of North American society being a fundamentally honest society. A society that has to grapple with its own problems in the most sort of visible and public, and at times, you know, even painful or difficult way. 

But, nevertheless, when you have a strong democratic society when the opinions of the people are truly the driving force of your politics, I think you’re forced to address problems in a much more realistic way. You’re forced to confront true challenges, but also delusions head-on and work through them; work through if people have ignorant or regressive opinions, you have to deal with that as much as you have to deal with people who have enlightened or progressive or useful ideas and opinions. The system just kind of has to work through it. And I just think that, ultimately, that is a much better path to genuinely resolve problems and create a healthy and prosperous society than a society that is anti-democratic, that is in any way authoritarian or overly bureaucratic, where you have a elite leadership class that is making all of the substantial decisions, and thus, you’re really only as strong as the intelligence of that class is. 

But when it comes to the monarchy, I mean, I guess I don’t really have a super sophisticated take on this. I mean, to me, monarchism is just kind of a ridiculous ideology that has not withstood the test of time. I think there are very few functionalist, practical arguments that can be made in defense of the monarchy. The monarchy doesn’t, frankly, do anything; it doesn’t contribute anything to the political culture or the culture at large. The only thing that people like about the monarchy is that to some people, certainly not to all people, it evokes a kind of, I would say, rather cheap sentimentality. People like the royal family in the way that they like celebrities. People like Buckingham Palace in the way that they like grand buildings and monuments and things. 

But it’s not a functional component part of our political system, and I think it’s a little bit ridiculous for any degree of sentimentality of that sort to be elevated to the status of constitutional law, to say that tax dollars and the political system should in any way just kind of elevate a minority sentimentality preference. I don’t know, just the kind of the cultural fascination of one small group of society should somehow be elevated above everybody else’s? It’s why I’m not a monarchist.

SEAN SPEER: Talking about the role in place of minority cultures, let me ask about your commonly reflected perspective that Quebec looms too large in our politics in culture. What do you attribute that to J.J.? Is it simply a function of its parliamentary seat total? Or is there another explanation?

J.J. McCullough: So, my general explanation is that, I mean, I think that in one important respect the Canadian political class has been very dominated by Quebeckers. I think that we have a lot of prime ministers, including the current prime minister, who come from Quebec or at the very least are raised in a very eastern narrative conception of what Canada is. Which is this idea that Canada fundamentally is a nation that was spawned from the two founding nations, that Canada is primarily a compact between English Canada and French Canada, between, frankly, between Ontario and Quebec, with all of the other things added on after the fact. And I just think that if you really buy into that theory of Canada—which is not enshrined in the Constitution,it is simply just an interpretation of Canadian history—but if you buy into that theory, then it really logically suggests that the Quebec people, as one of the two founding nations, should be engaged in some form of co-governance of this country in perpetuity. It’s why you hear rhetoric from eastern political types that, for example, if Quebec leaves Canada, then that’s the breakup of the country; this theory that Quebec is the linchpin that holds the Canadian project together. And in some respects, the Canadian project would fail if Quebec was not sufficiently appeased. 

And I guess, just as a Western Canadian out here in British Columbia, that theory of Canada has never rung true to me at all. And I’ve always been a much bigger proponent of the 10 equal provinces thesis, which I think is much more easy to justify by a reading of the Canadian Constitution than the alternative. But I do think that’s an eastern preoccupation with a very eastern-centric theory of what Canada is, coupled with an over-representation of Quebeckers in the federal government and in the political class—which is in part also borne by official bilingualism and official bilingualism requirements, which itself was an effort to appease Quebec in the interests of this narrow conception of what it means for Canada to succeed or fail.

SEAN SPEER: One final question about your worldview before we move on to your work as a journalist. Would you accept the premise, J.J., that a part of your worldview is contrarianism? That is to say many of the positions you just outlined and various others that we won’t cover today conflict with the kind of prevailing view of our leading opinion thinkers and writers. Or is it simply that through an exercise of kind of intellectual and philosophical thinking you’ve come to adopt these various positions? I guess, in short, to understand J.J. McCullough should we take for granted that you have an inherent kind of contrarianism to your political philosophy?

J.J. McCullough: You know, this is a label I get tagged with a lot: contrarianism. I mean, it’s always been a little bit strange to me because I’ve always thought of myself as being quite dispositionally conservative. Like, ever since I was young, I just remember being somebody that was relatively defensive of the status quo, if anything, and wanting to preserve the existing order and being quite skeptical of people that were overly rebellious or overly sort of destructive in their ideological disposition. So, I mean, I think that everybody enjoys being contrarian to some degree. I think everybody enjoys imagining that they believe unique things that the sheep-like majority does not. 

But that to me is much less important as a motive than just what I was talking about earlier when you asked me about the importance of democracy and I said one of the important things about democracy is that it’s a very honest form of government, and I try to carry myself as an honest person. I try to call it as I see it. And I suppose maybe because I grew up in Western Canada, and perhaps I was a little bit less indoctrinated with certain shibboleths of Canadian nationalism and patriotism than perhaps I would have been if I’d grown up in Montreal or Toronto or Ottawa, maybe I’m just more blunt about observing things in a kind of unapologetic way. I read a quote a long time ago that will always stuck with me, because I think was quite profound, where it says that honesty always comes off as shocking because it’s rare. 

Most people don’t actually have the courage to express their true opinions on things. Or they tend to defer to what they imagined to be expert opinion or people smarter than themselves. And I guess, you know, without patting myself on the back too much, I’ve just always been a little bit unintimidated. By that, I’ve been willing to say—like, if I look at bilingualism and the bilingualism regime, or the monarchy, or you know, the aspects of the parliamentary system, all of these kinds of things that I’m known for being a vocal critic on, I feel confident that I’m well-informed on these topics and I feel like I know as good as anyone else when I’m offering a criticism of them in a democratic society. 

I think we all have a right to our opinions, and I feel like my opinion is well researched, and I can defend it as good as anybody else, I hope. So maybe I just have an abundance of confidence. Maybe it’s unjustified, but I do feel like my goal is to just be honest and to be a clear communicator of facts as I see it. And you know, as a public-facing person, as a writer and a YouTuber, I just feel like I would be doing a disservice to my audience if I wasn’t telling them the unvarnished truth.

SEAN SPEER: That’s one thing, J.J., that I wish your critics understood about you. I think there’s a tendency to assume in your writing and commentary that you’re aiming to provoke, and I don’t think they understand the kind of integrity that you have, and the extent to which you agonize over these big fundamental questions and then, having chosen a side, you express it with the kind of bluntness and honesty that you just outlined. 

But that comes with some professional risks. You’ve provoked major backlashes in various cases, including once in response to a column, in which you argued that Quebec is home to a disproportionate number of mass killings, and another in National Review in which you argued that conservatives should reconcile themselves with transgender issues. 

I won’t to ask you to comment on these specific columns, but just generally, do you have any regrets over the years on some of the ideas or arguments that you’ve advanced in your columns or through other mediums?

J.J. McCullough: I think, generally speaking, most recent arguments that I’ve made—I mean, we all evolve and we all change our opinions on things. But like, say, if we were to look at things that I’ve been writing in the last six years, seven years or so, I would say that most of it, I stand by. You can always look back and you can always say, “Well, I could have phrased that slightly differently or I could have put a little bit of a sharper sort of clarification on that.” But no, I appreciate what you said earlier, Sean. I am not writing with the goal to provoke. There are certainly people out there who do that, who write with the goal to provoke, who kind of get off on being controversial. I don’t really like being controversial. That’s not my goal. 

I don’t find it enjoyable when I know that people are mad at me or when people are writing vicious articles denouncing me and calling me an ignorant buffoon who shouldn’t have the jobs that he has and shouldn’t have the platforms that he has and is, you know, a dangerous force corrupting the minds of whoever. Like that stuff’s not fun to hear. There’s nothing about that that I enjoy. But it’s like, my goal is to just call it as I see it, to contribute something useful to the discourse. 

Another great quote, right, where Noam Chomsky, you know, a man who I don’t have a lot in common with, but he has a great quote where he says you can either repeat the same old, tired bromides that everyone else does, or you can say something true, and to a lot of people it will come off like you’re from Venus. Like, you have to choose, I suppose, the path that you want to take in the world of public commentary. And there are certainly, in the same way that there are lots of people that enjoy being provocateurs, there are also a lot of people that enjoy being safe, and they crave establishment approval, they crave getting the good safe positions at the big safe newspapers or on television, or whatever. And I suppose that’s just never been my goal. 

My goal has always been that, if I am true to my own principles and say what I honestly think and try to say useful and helpful and important things that can hopefully steer the direction of this country in a better way, that I will be rewarded for it. And you know, I’m happy to say that I have been. So, it is a completely viable path. People don’t need to be as nervous or as cautious. There are prices that you pay, and I mean, certainly I’m never going to be the darling of the press gallery, or go to the famous cocktail parties or whatever other cliche you want to say, but there are lots of people that appreciate what I have to say, and I get tremendously positive feedback. That’s very validating, and I hope that when I’m an old man, someday, I can look back and I can say I’m proud of what I did and I said the things that needed to be said, because I do care about this country and I care about the issues. So that’s what I want my legacy to be: somebody who’s honest integrity for the issues that mattered came through in his work.

SEAN SPEER: We’ve kind of talked around it, but it’s worth asking you directly. Your writing tends to provoke, even trigger, a lot of mainstream journalists and pundits. What do you attribute that to? 

J.J. McCullough: Ha, man. I mean it’s hard to psycho-analyze your critics in that way. It’s easy to pat yourself on the back and be like, “Oh, they just can’t handle how real I am.” But I mean, I don’t want to flatter myself in that way. I think it’s just, I do think that some people in this country, in the pundit class and the intellectual class, are just really quite sheltered, in a way, and really quite closed-minded. And the argument that I find just endlessly exhausting is when people condescend to me and say things like, “You just don’t understand how it is J.J.; you just don’t appreciate our system or our way or the Canadian way.” And it’s like, no, maybe I do understand it, but I reject it. And I have a right to reject it. 

Like, you can be well-informed on something and then still say, “This isn’t good,” or “I don’t care for this.” Whereas I think in Canada, there’s this weird, I don’t know, assumption that the more you learn about a subject, whether it’s the parliamentary system, or bilingualism, or Canadian history in general, or all of these kinds of things, like the more you learn about them, the more of an expert you become in them, the more of an apologist for the status quo you will inevitably become. That is sort of taken for granted, right?

So, for example, I’m very critical of the Canadian parliamentary system and a lot of the ways that Canadian democracy is played out. And the most common criticism of that is that I just don’t understand it; I must just be very ignorant and not appreciate it. And that, to me, contrasts a lot with what you see in America, right? Where like, in America, you could be a very respected mainstream pundit who just sort of says, “The U.S. Senate is crap, it should be changed. The Senate sucks.” Like you could say that and be treated very seriously. Whereas if I come out and say, “The Westminster parliamentary system sucks,” people are like, “Oh, how dare you say such a thing? You horrible, self-loathing, anti-patriot” “.

So, it’s just a curious political culture. I suppose part of why I do what I do as well—I’m not doing it to provoke but I suppose you could say that I am hoping that I can at least normalize some of these opinions a little bit more, because I do think Canadian discourse would be a lot richer if you had people that were more willing to say what they truly think, as opposed to saying what they think they’re supposed to.

SEAN SPEER: I’ve kept you for some time, so why don’t we come back where we started, and I’ll wrap up with a final question that I’ve wanted to ask you for some time. Why do you care so much about flags?

J.J. McCullough: Well, I don’t know if I really do care that much about flags. It’s something that I’ve become like—it’s the one sort of realm of my commentary life that I do feel like I’ve sort of stumbled into a little bit. So, early on in my YouTube career I was making videos on just like any random topic I could think of because I didn’t really know what was going to connect with the public and what wouldn’t, and I have a pretty sort of clear understanding now. But one of the things that the public loved from the get-go was when I did some flag commentary, and I guess it’s because there weren’t a lot of YouTubers talking about flags at the time. 

I mean, I know a lot about flags, because I was a nerdy kid who enjoyed memorizing all the different ones in the encyclopedia. But you know, people like flags because everything’s got one; every like polity and group and geographic zone in the world has a flag. So, there are lots to learn. It sort of gets to our desire to kind of memorize things and sort things and learn ordered lists of objects and categorize them. And I mean, flags are attractive. They’re great examples of a very clean and aesthetically pleasing visual design with bright colors and geometric shapes. They’re just inherently pleasing objects that I think intrigue people, and they also have a lot to teach about history and politics and cultural identity. So, they’re just a great shorthand introduction to a lot of stuff. There’s probably no kind of cultural object that is more dense in meaning than a flag. 

And so even though I think people can fetishize flags far too much, and people can read too much into the meaning of flags—you know, I did a video not too long ago outlining some of my problems with flags and the way that flags are used in the contemporary culture—but when it comes to, certainly when it comes to young people, I think flags can be a tremendous introduction to a lot of complex topics in a very easy to digest package.

SEAN SPEER: J.J. McCullough, this has been a great conversation. Thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues and we’ll aim to have you back on soon because there are so many issues and topics that we didn’t cover, including the Conservative Party leadership race and what to make of the way that that campaign is shaping out. But that’ll be for another time. Thanks again for joining me today.

J.J. McCullough: Thanks so much for having me.

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