If the philosopher is unacceptable, what about me? Or my friends? Or, most importantly, my Church?
I take the war on Roger Scruton personally. The conservative philosopher was recently appointed to some unimportant British government committee on making houses prettier, and the “offence archaeologists” went to work. Digging through his back catalogue, they found that he once said Islamophobia was a dubious concept; he called homosexuality “not normal”; he spoke of a George “Soros empire”. He was guilty in essence of “thinking aloud” and if that’s all it takes to destroy you now, we might as well cut to the chase and put every living philosopher in jail. Most of them would feel at home. You spend much of your time in bed and I hear the drugs are first class.
Scruton isn’t the first to fall foul of the mob, but previous victims tended to be trickier to defend. For instance, Toby Young, author of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, had to resign from an education body for being a bit of a lad – and while he is one of the most honourable, self-effacing men I’ve ever met, a lifetime spent complimenting women on their chests was always going to haunt him.
Scruton, however, is unimpeachable. He is exceptional on a personal level (he took enormous risks to help dissenters in communist Czechoslovakia) and a magnificent writer, with an emphasis on the interplay of thought, faith and art. If you took out Scruton, conservatives would have almost no heroes left: he’s this generation’s Edmund Burke. So great is he, so important to the West’s understanding of itself, that he makes his critics look particularly small, scratching away at him with their uniform tweets, full of the prescribed language of the righteous Left. The denunciations are becoming rote. “Bigot”, “problematic”, “phobic-Nazi-intersection” – you know the score.
My other reaction to this story is a bit more self-centred. If Scruton is unacceptable, what about me? Or my friends? Or, most importantly, my Church? We’re reaching the point where the field of acceptable opinion has narrowed so significantly, and the price of stepping outside it has increased so much, that anyone with uncommon views faces an awful choice: jeopardise your career or just shut up. More and more will choose the latter. If I met a civic-minded youngster now – Left or Right – my conscience would require me to spell out the dangers of public service. Critics will examine everything you’ve ever said. Either they’ll ruin you with a screen grab or, if you have the necessary discipline, you’ll be forced to follow a life of such utter self-control that it almost won’t be worth living.
The latter is a form of the “rigidity” that the Pope routinely (and rightly) condemns, and it could be just as poisonous to democracy as the open expression of prejudice. Suppressed opinion doesn’t evaporate. It boils in resentment and erupts into extremism. This dynamic helps explain Donald Trump’s fan base. Several friends have confessed that they spend significant amounts of time watching videos of Trump on YouTube, usually of him calling someone a “horrible, horrible person” (nine times out of 10 it’s Rosie O’Donnell). Why do they do it? Because Trump’s very, very funny, but also because he breaks through the performance of politics – all that fake chivalry and moral righteousness – and says it as it is (or at least how it seems to so many).
The downside is obvious: the man is an ogre. But he wouldn’t be nearly as popular if his opponents weren’t so grindingly virtuous, with a sinister puritanism that takes offence at life itself. We’re all imperfect. We’ve all thought and said bad things. We learn; we apologise; we move on. Trump, however, stands his ground, and sometimes feels like the only man in public life who is not ashamed of his own mind. He offers a tawdry profile in courage.
Of course, courage has always been critical to the Catholic identity. Christianity is about risk: the risk of poverty, the risks of trust, the risk of articulating the truth. And the West in 2018 remains a relatively easy place in which to run these risks (I wouldn’t swap it for Spain in the 1930s or China today).
But we have to be realistic, and reasonable, about the willingness of many Christians to gamble with their reputations, their jobs or their families. If Scruton is damaged by this fuss, the message received will be that it is easier to believe what you believe privately than publicly, leading to more withdrawal from politics, journalism and academia that will have a knock-on effect: the fewer intelligent free thinkers you find in public service, the less attractive it looks, the wider the boycott. Who would want to be stuck in Parliament or Congress with the kind of people who genuinely believe Roger Scruton is a monster? Dear sweet, harmless old Roger who wears tweed suits and goes horse-riding at weekends. It’s like hating your grandfather.
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor