one law for the Left, another for the Right
George Osborne has publicly expressed satisfaction that philosopher Sir Roger Scruton was dismissed from his post as a government commission chairman.
Why would a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, now Editor of the Evening Standard, sound pleased that a respectable intellectual, who helped to bring down the Iron Curtain, has been sacked?
According to the BBC, Roger Scruton was sacked by the government for “deeply offensive” comments reported in a New Statesman article. Sir Roger’s comments were said to be racist, antisemitic and homophobic.
Below are the comments Roger Scruton actually made in the article. (At least according to the New Statesman; given their obvious motivation to blacken him, and their misrepresentations in other contexts, one has to wonder about the truth value of the article itself.)
What the New Statesman article claims Sir Roger said:
1. About George Soros
“Anybody who doesn’t think that there’s a Soros empire in Hungary has not observed the facts.”
George Soros is a wealthy and influential man, so it would be surprising if he does not have a network of contacts in his native Hungary. How is this remark supposed to amount to antisemitism? Apparently you are supposed to do some filling-in here. Because Mr Soros was born to Jewish parents, and because some conspiracy theorists, including some with antisemitic views, feature him in their list of supposed villains, any observation that sounds remotely like the kind of thing one of these conspiracy theorists might say should (so the argument seems to go) be interpreted as endorsing their viewpoints, or at least coming too close to doing so to be tolerable.
This kind of hyper-interpretation, where prima facie innocuous remarks can be regarded as evidence of something quite different — provided only that you can point to some vague association — is a recent and dangerous development. We saw something similar with MP Suella Braverman’s remarks about cultural Marxism.
Sir Roger did not say that Mr Soros has a “Jewish empire” in Hungary, though George Eaton — deputy editor of the New Statesman, and author of the article — tried to imply he did so, by quoting the above remark on Twitter and prefacing it with the heading “On Hungarian Jews”.
Mr Eaton subsequently rationalised this damaging act of misrepresentation with the following dubious argument:
There is no context in which it is ok to refer to a “Soros empire” (an anti-semitic trope).
That a statement which, while not explicitly expressing a viewpoint that counts as offensive, should be regarded as offensive because it sounds like, or reminds one of, a trope — i.e. because there are vague associations around the word, or the phrase, or the sentence, which call up possible images of something offensive — is a slippery and dangerous notion.
The existence of a “trope” might in some contexts be a reason for choosing one’s words carefully, but a failure to do so should not be grounds for dismissal. In other contexts the supposed existence of a “trope” might be a good thing to ignore, for the sake of cleaning up language that has become associated with undesirable ideas. For example, in the case of the phrase “cultural Marxism” — said to be part of an antisemitic conspiracy-theory trope — the correct approach may be not to avoid the phrase, but to use it as much as possible in its original sense, meaning Marxist ideology expressed in a cultural rather than a political context (a phenomenon which some may wish to refer to approvingly, and others critically).
If we start adopting the “trope” approach — as we seem to be doing — then we shall soon have no possibility of meaningful discussion on any topic of significance at all.
If George Eaton had wanted to prove a suspicion that Roger Scruton accepts the antisemitic conspiracy theory about George Soros, he should have asked him whether that is what he meant by the “empire” remark. Mr Eaton had the opportunity to do so, so he either (1) did so and received a reply that did not support his suspicion, then (for propaganda purposes) omitted the reply from his article; or (2) failed to ask him, a sign of poor journalism. To then get around what was either suppression or incompetence by simply inventing part of the statement reproduced on Twitter is appalling journalistic practice, and should be grounds for complaint to what used to be the Press Commission.
What the New Statesman article claims Sir Roger said:
2. About homosexuality
Next we have Roger Scruton’s alleged remark that “homosexuality is not normal”. “Normal” is a rather vague word, but it usually means “the most typical”. Estimates for incidence of homosexuality vary from 1% to 5%, so in terms of statistical language there is nothing controversial in saying it is “not normal”.
It is true that “it’s not normal” used to be a popular criticism levelled at homosexuals, with the speaker implying that if it is not statistically normal it should be regarded as unacceptable. But since there is nothing in the New Statesman article to suggest that Sir Roger intended this implication, it is wrong to read it into his use of the word “normal”.
What the New Statesman article claims Sir Roger said:
3. About China
Finally, and most risibly, we have what is apparently being interpreted as racism, namely Roger Scruton’s comments about China.
They’re creating robots out of their own people ... each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.
There is a good case for arguing that communism as a political system tends to make its citizens into clones, each one like the next — holding the same views, having the same interests and aspirations, and so forth. Communism believes people are clones since it does not fully accept the idea of innate individual differences. Hence it will try to create clones to prove its point. It disapproves of deviation from what it considers the acceptable norm, and it suppresses dissent. It is the ultimate system for enforcing conformity.
If Britain adopts Marxism as its preferred ideology, then no doubt we shall all become replicas of one another — which to some extent has happened already, suggesting that Marxism, or Marxism Lite, has already become culturally influential. While in one sense we have a good deal of “identity politics”, involving assertions about different choices or identities, in another sense the level of conformity and the absence of notable individuals, or genuine characters, has never been higher since I moved to this country in the 1970s.
I imagine this kind of conformism in China is what Sir Roger was getting at, and there is nothing in the article to suggest otherwise.
Judge, jury, executioner
On the basis of the above remarks, the British Left has apparently judged that Roger Scruton is antisemitic, homophobic and racist. As judge or jury they are bound to be biased against an openly conservative intellectual (especially perhaps an intellectual, since they appear not to be able to tolerate competition in this field), so no surprises there.
That the Conservative government sacked Sir Roger on the basis of the Left’s biased verdict is contemptible, but also not surprising. The average Conservative minister is no doubt terrified they may be the next to be accused of racism or similar, on the flimsiest of evidence.
What is more surprising, and less easy to stomach, is that a former Conservative member of Cabinet, who has not been called upon to give an opinion, should publicly express satisfaction that an intellectual has been hounded out of office by an irrational mob. Even if Mr Osborne sympathised with the decision, he could have kept quiet about it. By openly applauding it, he has endorsed the approach of judging someone not by what they actually said but by what they might have meant.
I do not know what Roger Scruton’s attitudes actually are. I suspect if he were asked, he would say he is categorically not antisemitic, homophobic or racist. But his real attitudes are in any case beside the point. The point is that a person should not be judged by what others guess he might really be thinking, or by what hidden meaning there might be behind things he has said. He should be judged by what he actually said — and even then he should be allowed to repudiate what he said, if he believes it does not express his current true position.
Sir Roger’s remarks as quoted in the New Statesman are only offensive if you treat them as code and assume you have the correct key to decipher them.
For comparison, consider the treatment given to Shadow Chancellor The Rt Hon John McDonnell. Mr McDonnell has made remarks about MP Esther McVey, the offensiveness of which requires no deciphering. Not only was he not sacked, or investigated by the police for inciting violence, but he apparently continues to command the respect of the media and fellow politicians.
Mr McDonnell has referred to Ms McVey as a “stain of inhumanity”. Worse, he endorsed, or at least found amusing, a ‘jokey’ suggestion that Ms McVey should be “lynched”.
John McDonnell and the call to “lynch” Esther McVey
Here are some of the facts about this shameful episode.
At the time Ms McVey was employment minister, Mr McDonnell spoke at a comedy night in London. He referred to an activists’ meeting in Liverpool at which the suggestion to have a “Sack Esther McVey Day” had been discussed. He went on to say the following — the words are taken from an audio clip available on the BBC’s website.
[...] there was a whole group in the audience that completely kicked off, quite critical of the whole concept, because they were arguing “Why are we sacking her, why aren’t we lynching the bastard?” [audience laughter]
As far as can be ascertained from the available clip — which ends with the quote — Mr McDonnell did not condemn the remark he repeated, but rather appeared to find it understandable and/or amusing.
March 2015:In the House of Commons, Mr McDonnell faced calls to apologise over the incident. This is what transpired, according to the Liverpool Echo:
[Conservative Mary Macleod:] Would you be able to clarify that process exists in the situation where the member for Hayes and Harlington [McDonnell] refuses to apologise to the member for Wirral West [McVey] for quoting someone referring to her saying “lynch the bastard”. If he didn’t agree with remarks by others, which were in effect inciting violence against a female MP, why on earth would he repeat them to another audience? I had hoped he would apologise before this House dissolves but no apology has been forthcoming.
[John McDonnell:] This has been raised before. It was accepted by the House that in no way would I ever encourage violence or support violence against an honourable member. Therefore there is nothing for me to apologise for. If a constituent shouts something out to an MP that is a matter for the constituent. This is the honourable member for Wirral West trying to make herself into a victim in this issue. I was simply putting it in the context of the suffering that has been caused by the honourable member for Wirral West.
Mr McDonnell is appointed Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Mr McDonnell is asked about the comedy night episode on ITV’s Peston on Sunday programme. He makes no criticism of the call to lynch Esther McVey, confining himself to saying “I simply reported what was shouted out at a public meeting”.
Mr McDonnell again fails to express regret about the episode, when asked about it on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, discussing proposed rules for MPs’ behaviour, refuses to condemn Mr McDonnell’s behaviour towards Esther McVey, evading the issue by stating:
I would rather stick to where I disagree with somebody on their policies. I fundamentally disagree with Esther McVey and her approach towards inequality and the poor and the worst off within our society, and I will stick to that.
This is not a case of some eccentric loose-cannon backbencher. We are dealing with the man described by some as the real power behind Jeremy Corbyn’s throne. He could very easily soon be the most powerful person in Britain.
Nor are we dealing with humorous student banter that has few repercussions outside the JCR bar, or a satirical sketch on the radio that everyone has forgotten the next day. These are the kind of provocative remarks that can have physical consequences for an individual — in this case a female individual.
Less than six months after the comedy club incident, the words “McVey murderer” were sprayed across a jobcentre in Esther McVey’s constituency. Ms McVey told the Daily Telegraph that there were other effects for her: for example, she was followed, and “barred from meetings”. It is possible that, given her apparently tough nature, and her evident refusal to be browbeaten or play the victim card (precisely what Mr McDonnell accused her of), there may have been more to her nightmarish experience than she has revealed.
When I got the lynching comments I thought — you haven’t thought about the power of your words, John McDonnell, to come into a council estate and say something like that unthinkingly. Maybe you’re not going to do anything John, but you don’t understand what could happen on social media and you didn’t realise what unforeseen consequences and how dangerous then my life was going to become in that area.
The assertion, or insinuation, that physical threats or attacks against individuals could be justified, or “understandable”, if they are carried out in the service of some moral agenda, such as “social justice”, or the interests of “the people” (“das Volk”), is an extremely dangerous one, particularly if coming from members of the elite. In terms of coded messages this could easily be interpreted as meaning: “We, the authorities on morality and justice, are giving you the green light to menace or injure those whom we (and you) do not like”.
In August 2018, the Somerset home of MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was attacked while he and his family were on holiday in the US. Graffiti was sprayed on a building and on a car, and damage was caused to his garden. According to the Daily Mail, the words “posh scum” were written on windows of the house, while “shut up and die” was scrawled on the garage.
In September 2018, left-wing group Class War launched a tirade against Mr Rees-Mogg outside his London home. The group called him a “slave owner” because his family employs a nanny, and shouted at his children: “Your daddy is a totally horrible person. A lot of people don’t like your daddy, you know that.”
It is hard not to see a connection between such incidents and the rhetoric of politicians like Mr McDonnell, sympathising with the desire to commit violent acts against individuals who support ‘bad’ policies.
It is not an adequate response — for either John McDonnell or Jeremy Corbyn — to say they personally do not condone violence. It is not adequate to say “I don’t agree with these things, but I understand the strength of some people’s feelings”.
Both politicians should state categorically that the call for a lynching, whether or not intended as a joke, was unacceptable, and should arrange for their condemnation to receive the widest possible audience.
In the meantime, I suggest no journalist should express criticism of Esther McVey without at the same time unconditionally condemning Mr McDonnell’s failure to apologise. Otherwise, the journalist could be seen as giving tacit support to the idea that threats or violence are a legitimate way to express disapproval of Ms McVey.
Tropes and dog-whistles
The issue of tropes discussed above is linked to a putative phenomenon in politics known as “dog-whistling”. Originally this referred to the effect in opinion polling that changing the wording of a question can dramatically change its response profile, and to the theory that this happens because respondents “hear something in the question that researchers do not”.
However, the term dog-whistling is now more usually used to accuse a politician of conveying a covert message which is supposedly too unacceptable to voice explicitly, e.g. about immigration. This may of course be a strategy that has been used, and people should be free to hypothesise that a commentator may be using code to say something different from what he appears to be saying. What is not acceptable is treating dog-whistle speculation as prima facie evidence of someone’s supposed attitudes.
In practice, both “trope” and “dog-whistle” are gradually becoming little more than lazy terms of abuse. As accusations they are simply being used as shorthand for “I don’t like what you are saying”.
For example, in a recent article by an academic for theconversation.com, the article’s headline refers to “Theresa May’s dog-whistle rhetoric on EU citizens”. This is a reference to Mrs May’s remark in November 2018 that Brexit would stop EU migrants “jumping the queue”, meaning citizens of the EU would no longer be prioritised over (in her words) “engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi”. The phrase “jumping the queue” was badly chosen, given that it implies an unfair process, whereas EU citizens are legally entitled to priority as immigrants — it is one of the points of the EU. But this aspect of Theresa May’s remarks has nothing to do with dog-whistling; Mrs May was not sending a coded message but an explicit, if unfair one.
Douglas Murray has written an interesting article on the topic of dog-whistling, arguing that there is now a certain class of person who “roams the land, hands cupped to their ear, hoping to discern something they can identify as a ‘dog-whistle’ [...] there is now a phalanx of self-appointed bodies and individuals dedicated to this peculiar form of voluntary service”.
As Mr Murray points out, aiming a trope/dog-whistling accusation at an opponent to discredit him need not be confined to targets from the Right. Earlier this month, journalist Paul Embery was condemned by several Labour MPs and by his employer, the Fire Brigades Union, for using the words “rootless, cosmopolitan, bohemian middle-class” to criticise those who are allegedly unsympathetic to working-class ideas of community. Apparently “rootless cosmopolitan” (without the comma, and using “cosmopolitan” as a noun rather than an adjective) is the translation of a Russian phrase used pejoratively about Jews during the Soviet antisemitic campaigns of the late 1940s and early 1950s — though it was also used to condemn non-Jewish intellectuals.
Use of the trope concept as a weapon seems to be particularly popular with the Left, but commentators from the Right are also sometimes tempted to employ it. Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism is an interesting examination of possible parallels between American leftism, Nazism and fascism, but occasionally his arguments seem to be based on little more than discovering trope-like associations.
For example, Mr Goldberg — like some earlier authors — uses Nazi cultural tastes to cast aspersions on Romanticism, arguing that “it laid many of the intellectual predicates for Nazism”. In other words, a totalitarian political system that subordinated individual rights to collective interests is supposed somehow to have crucially depended on a cultural movement that emphasised individualism and emotion.
The weakness in the argument demonstrates the dangers of using association to infer causation. The argument, if extrapolated, can easily lead to a desire to punish intellectuals — or just those who use language in a particular way — for being supposedly complicit in the actions of those who:
• echo some of the things said by the intellectuals, or who
• claim to be inspired by them, or who merely
• use language in the same way.
The most obvious danger which Britain faces today is not Brexit, or right-wing extremism, or Islam. It is the progressive deterioration in the quality of public debate.
Aspects of this include:
(1) shutting down of debate in favour of outright hostility, by using dubious witch-hunting devices such as the “trope” and “dog-whistling” concepts
(2) other misuse of analysis or language, for example gross misapplication of the term “Nazi”
(3) exercising censorship by trying to damage the career of anyone who says the ‘wrong’ thing
(4) making physical violence against opponents seem acceptable by invoking the idea of social justice
(5) cultivation of an Either/Or logic, where one must either agree with all assertions made on behalf of a minority group, or be regarded as unacceptably “phobic”.
We are getting dangerously close to the point where it will no longer be possible to:
- use a line of argument, purely on the grounds that a similar line of argument is used by extremists;
- use a word or phrase, on the grounds that it has negative associations;
- advocate non-socialist policies, for fear that a senior spokesperson may tacitly endorse violence against anyone who does so.
Judging by present trends, it may soon not be permissible to:
- express any theory about sexuality or gender that deviates from the academically-approved line, on the grounds that this constitutes “hate crime”;
- condemn Marxism, on the grounds that Hitler condemned it (though the same argument will probably not be applied to Hitler’s attraction to socialism);
- criticise any aspect of feminism, on the grounds that to do so is a form of misogyny;
- criticise the state of Israel, on the grounds that to do so is antisemitic;
- criticise what a member of an ethnic minority says or does, on the grounds that to do so is racist.
Perhaps this degradation in the quality of debate is becoming unavoidable in politics. To the extent it starts to affect academia — or individual academics — it will nullify the point of academia, resulting in its substitution by a grotesque parody.
Degraded debate is part of a larger phenomenon of cultural deterioration, involving dumbing-down and aggressification — processes that can readily be observed if you compare a selection of television programmes today with a selection from ten years ago, twenty years ago and so on.
Unfortunately, internet platforms such as Twitter, where a large number of people can rapidly communicate statements — and reactions to statements — to one another, without the normal inhibitions present in face-to-face communication, have contributed to the rot.
Our current crop of politicians and newspaper editors are setting appalling standards of behaviour. It is hypocritical to expect young people not to resort to physical violence to settle their differences, when MPs regard suggestions to lynch their colleagues as amusing, or call one another “Nazis”, or make ludicrous references to “appeasement”; or when editors misrepresent facts for the sake of a thumbs-up from a digital mob, or express satisfaction when an intellectual is falsely accused of racial prejudice.
© Fabian Tassano
published 21 April 2019
Right of Reply
If you believe there are inaccuracies or misrepresentations in this article, please email the author.
I use this term to describe a certain feature of contemporary life. In relation to television, movies and popular literature I am talking about such things as:
- readiness to show brutality,
- readiness to refer to obscene methods of torture,
- readiness to display viscera,
- brutish behaviour by central characters,
- detailed portrayals of painful death,
- tacit cheering of vindictiveness as a behavioural mode,
- making violent crime seem funny,
- punching, and other violence, against women.
George Osborne’s tweet: twitter.com/George_Osborne, 10 April 2019.
‘Academic Sir Roger Scruton sacked from housing role’, BBC News online, 10 April 2019.
George Eaton, ‘Roger Scruton: “Cameron’s resignation was the death knell of the Conservative Party”’, New Statesman, 10 April 2019.
George Eaton’s tweet: twitter.com/georgeeaton, 10 April 2019.
George Eaton, “There is no context [...]”, ibid.
Audio clip of John McDonnell: BBC News online, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-42682854/audio-of-john-mcdonnell-s-2014-lynching-remark
‘Wirral West MP Esther McVey branded “stain of inhumanity” by Labour MP who refused to apologise over “lynching” comment’, Liverpool Echo, 24 March 2015.
John McDonnell interviewed on Peston on Sunday, 25 September 2016.
John McDonnell interviewed on The Andrew Marr Show, 21 January 2018.
Jeremy Corbyn interviewed on Peston on Sunday, 14 January 2018.
‘Marginal prospects: why 7 May could be Esther McVey’s longest day’, Guardian, 5 May 2015.
‘John McDonnell’s “lynching” comments incited violence and compromised my safety, says Esther McVey’, Daily Telegraph, 6 December 2018.
‘Vandals attack Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Somerset home’, BBC News online, 6 August 2018.
‘Vandals attack Jacob Rees-Mogg’s home’, Daily Mail, 6 August 2018.
‘Labour MPs attack left wing activists who told Jacob Rees-Mogg’s children “your daddy is a totally horrible person”’, Daily Telegraph, 12 September 2018.
Nando Sigona, ‘Theresa May’s dog-whistle rhetoric on EU citizens jumping the queue — and its effect on my four-year-old’, theconversation.com, 20 November 2018.
‘Brexit plan will stop EU migrants “jumping the queue” — May’, BBC News online, 19 November 2018.
Douglas Murray, ‘The trouble with dog-whistles’, unherd.com, 12 April 2019.
Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism, Penguin Books 2007, p.133.