Niall Ferguson has recently recounted the ever-lengthening list of professional thinkers, public intellectuals, and writers of any stripe who have been publicly disciplined and punished for various “thought crimes.” He worries that, as a result, “critical thinking” is going to die. The case of conservative philosopher and public intellectual Sir Roger Scruton provides a prime example.
Last year, Scruton, who has written extensively on aesthetics, was appointed as chairman of the British government’s commission on buildings. Having been knighted in 2016, Scruton has only gained in stature as a thinker who understands how the built environment contributes to the common good of a nation. Yet it is also this increase in his stature which has made him into an ideal target for partisans. Ferguson writes:
Almost immediately after that, however, the attacks from the left began. The campaign against him culminated last week in the publication of a cynical hit-piece in the New Statesman, which misrepresented his views on a number of issues — the influence of George Soros, China’s policies of social control and the origins of the term “Islamophobia” — in order to portray him as a racist. The government took the bait. James Brokenshire, the secretary of state for housing, immediately sacked him. A spokeswoman for the prime minister described his comments as “deeply offensive and completely unacceptable.”
In reality, Scruton had been framed. The author of the New Statesman hatchet job, George Eaton, had edited quotations and inserted his own commentary with the clear intention of getting him sacked. He further massaged the “gotcha” quotes (“outrageous remarks”) on social media. Having achieved his objective, Eaton jubilantly published a photograph — later deleted — of himself drinking champagne from a bottle with the tagline: “The feeling when you get right-wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton sacked as a Tory government adviser.”
Day by day, week by week, month by month, we see this despotic pattern repeated in various ways. The list of names receiving this “treatment” — Charles Murray, Ryszard Legutko, Jordan Peterson, Samuel Abrams, Mark Regnerus, Peter Boghossian, Roland Fryer, Nigel Biggar, Bruce Gilley — are intellectually diverse, and can only loosely be held together by the multivalent adjective “conservative”. These are men with whom you might profitably disagree. Or even, perhaps, in a dispute with them, you might come to see some of the same truths, or split the difference on claims which at first glance looked irreconcilable with your own. That is, considering these thinkers as potential interlocutors, rather than enemy combatants, might actually make you a better thinker.
In every case the pattern is the same. An academic deemed to be conservative gets “called out” by a leftist group or rag. The Twitter mob piles in. Mindless mainstream media outlets amplify the story. The relevant authorities capitulate.
What is happening before our eyes is a gradual but steady attack on truth, and the conditions required for its pursuit. If the attackers were confident that the truths they hold dear could be arrived at by any reasonable person, they could simply argue for those truths. But since they have arrived at their orthodoxies primarily through the category of desire, rather than through reasoned demonstration, they do not feel their views can survive vigorous public dispute. As a result, they use overwhelming coercive power — cultural and political — to achieve hegemony. It is in this use of power, more than the tendencies of any individual politician, that our time most resembles the 1930s.
Ferguson’s solution is a peace treaty. He thinks that public intellectuals, academics, and writers should enter into a pact — on the analogy of the 1949 NATO agreement in mutual defence of freedom, and especially Article 5, which states that “an armed attack against one or more of [the signatories]…shall be considered an attack against them all.”
Ferguson thinks the intellectual left might be persuaded to enter into such a pact to protect “their own,” and also because they will, upon reflection, find something despicable and despotic in the “red army” approach to silencing debate. But Eaton’s left-laddish behaviour is learned.
Those “reasonable academics” on the left who might sign Ferguson’s mutual defence treaty are, after all, also the ones who taught George Eaton how to fight. They are also the ones who wield great cultural and political power. What incentive do they have for entering into a treaty?
I think they’ll need a better incentive than critical thinking. Better to ask them for a greater commitment to the truth, and the proper means for demonstrating it. Whatever they decide, in the long run, we do not tip our hats to the despots, but only to those who bear costly witness to the truths which endure. Hemlock, or not.
C.C. Pecknold is an Associate Professor of Theology and Fellow of the Institute of Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America
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