Thursday, November 08, 2018

The Politics of personal destruction

Ten years ago I wrote an article here on this blog which included the following:

"We have seen far too much of the politics of personal destruction. There has always been an element in politics of trying to wreck the reputation of your rivals and opponents, sometimes on wholly unfair grounds. New Labour enormously increased their use of this deplorable tactic in the 1990s but I'm afraid all the political parties have joined in, and the media have enjoyed the game so much that they not only run with stories which are weak to say the least, but sometimes kick them off."

"There is far too much from all sides of fake outrage over trivial things and trying to smear people on the basis of appearances or innocent activity."

"Politics in Britain would be much healthier if all parties took a step back from the tactics of personal destruction and personal abuse. A greater degree of scepticism from the media, e.g. making more effort to establish that there is actually a real basis to such stories before they publish them, might also be good thing for British political culture."

All this is still far too true - indeed, over the past four of five years I think the problem has got worse.

It is certainly not a new problem, and even less so is the most common tactic used to delegitimise people, becoming what Freddie deBoer called ‘offence archaeologists’ – people determined to ‘sniff out baddies doing bad things’ by going through everything a person has ever said or written.

One of the greatest masters of all time at the art of using someone's own words to condemn him is supposed to have said, nearly four hundred years ago,

The latest example of people using alleged inappropriate views to score a political point concerns Sir Roger Scruton, who, whether you agree with him or not - and there are many issues on which I have never agreed with him - was until this week universally recognised among anyone with an opinion about such things as one of Britain's most distinguished philosophers - indeed, he was often described as "Britain's foremost philosopher."

That's a quote from the citation for his 2016 knighthood, which was not controversial at the time - although some of the quotes from the past which have been hurled at him this week date from well before 2016.

Ironically, Sir Roger Scruton once wrote of those who objected to non-socialist mindsets:

‘once identified as right-wing you are beyond the pale of argument; your views are irrelevant, your character discredited, your presence in the world a mistake. You are not an opponent to be argued with, but a disease to be shunned.’

At the time this was something of an exaggeration, indeed hyperbole, but the cascade of opprobrium which has been directed at him this week suggests that this is no longer the case.

When it emerged that Sir Roger had accepted an unpaid position as chairman of a commission which has been set up to advise DCLG and planners on how to make new developments more attractive, the offence archaeologists went to work hoping to find something he had said which could be used to embarrass the government.

Needless to say, few of the objections which were raised relate to his (extensive) views about architecture, though as he is a fully paid up member of the school of thought which holds that urban planning since the Second World War has done more damage to the country’s architectural fabric than the Luftwaffe did, there actually have been a few objections to his appointment from architects.

At least those objections are relevant, though not, I suspect, based on views which would be shared by a majority of the country.

But sure enough, those who were looking for much more juicy charges to make found things in Scruton's writings which could be twisted to support them. And hence there has been an avalanche of suggestions that he is guilty of homophobia, islamophobia, and Anti-Semitism.

Here at Spiked you will find a defence of Sir Roger by Helen Dale, who is gay, and she adds,

"The frenzied responses to anyone even remotely controversial means, if people pitch up and accuse an individual of racism or anti-Semitism or homophobia, my default position is now disbelief. 

I’ve seen too many claims like this – by people on all sides of the aisle – to be willing to take them at face value."

Scruton has disavowed his previous views on gay people: this is an area where views have changed particularly fast and I suspect there are a lot of people who supported Section 28 in the 1980's who had become supporters of legalising equal marriage in this decade.

As for the suggestion that he has expressed Islamophobic or Anti-Semitic views,  the accusations which I have seen so far appear to base this on highly selective quotations.

Scruton has criticised the concept of Islamophobia itself, but none of the quotes from him on the subject which I have seen can reasonably be described as encouraging hatred against Muslims, indeed quite the contrary.

As William Shawcross on Conservative Home says, the comments about Islamophobia for which he is being attacked are worth examining.

Scruton had said that:

“Muslims in our society are often victims of prejudice, abuse, and assault, and this is a distressing situation that the law strives to remedy. But when people invent a phobia to explain all criticism of Islam, it is not that kind of abuse that they have in mind. They wish to hide the truth, to shout ‘lies!’ in the face of criticism, and to silence any attempt at discussion. In my view, however, it is time to bring the truth into the open.”

Shawcross comments

"Some may disagree with these views, but must Sir Roger be silenced for holding them?

He seems to be alert to the problem of anti-Muslim hatred, but sceptical about the definition of Islamophobia. That may irritate some, but if philosophers cannot think, write and speak freely, what is the point of them?"

As for the suggestion that Sir Roger Scruton has expressed Ant-Semitic views, that appears to be based on a highly selective and misleading quote. As Toby Young writes in the Spectator,

"His most egregious sin, we are told, was giving a speech in Hungary in which he said that many of the Budapest intelligentsia are Jewish andform part of the extensive networks around the Soros Empire’.

Taken out of context, that looks as if Scruton is endorsing an anti-Semitic trope, particularly if you simplify it to remove any of the nuance, which is what the Daily Mirror did. ‘New Tory housing tsar claimed Hungarian Jews form part of “Soros Empire”,’ screamed its headline. 

But if you bother to read the speech, you’ll discover that its subject is a defence of nationalism and how it came to be regarded as toxic by the architects of the European project. 

The reason he brings up the fact that some of the pro-EU Hungarian intelligentsia are Jewish is because he goes on to explain that they, along with George Soros, arerightly suspicious of nationalismsince they see it as beingthe major cause of the tragedy of Central Europe in the 20th century’."

Scruton makes clear that he is not defending that kind of nationalism and,

"He lambasts the ‘indigenous anti-Semitism’ that ‘still plays a part in Hungarian society and politics’."

A longer extract from the lecture by Scruton is given in the Shawcross piece on ConHome which I linked to above and the entire lecture, first in Hungarian and then in English, can be found here.

I am indebted to Stephen Bush of the New Statesman for the latter link, and in the interests of balance I should add that he takes a different view to Shawcross and Young of the Scruton Speech.

In an general critique of the decline in behaviour and standards over all parties in the UK, the great majority of which I agree with, called

"British politics is being destroyed by a total lack of shame"

Stephen Bush includes a passage in which he disagrees with Roger Scruton's defenders and puts forward a different interpretation of the speech: he suggests that Scruton is accusing Jewish intellectuals of having "divided loyalties" and being part of a "supra-national project " (his words, not Scruton's, in both cases.)

If - and I say it - Bush's interpretation is correct the lecture would indeed fall foul of the International Holocaust Memorial Association definition of Anti-Semitism.

I took another look at the Scruton lecture after having studied Stephen Bush's argument. It's based to a material extent on what he is inferring from the speech rather than words which are explicitly there. In particular, the allegation that Scruton repeated the Anti-Semitic trope that Hungarian Jews have "divided loyalties," a suggestion which is not made directly in the speech, appears to have been inferred from what he said about their attitude to nationalism, specifically that they are "rightly suspicious" of it (see above) and don't distinguish between forms of nationalism.

I personally am not merely suspicious of nationalism, I actively detest almost all forms of nationalism and consider myself a patriot but not a nationalist.

The distinction, to me, is that patriotism means loving your own country but nationalism means at best defining the love of your country by what is perceived as different to or in opposition to other countries and at worst hatred of one or more other countries.

I would expect an American to love the USA, a Frenchman to love France, or a Hungarian to love Hungary in the same way that I love Britain, but if anyone suggested that because of this, or because I would strongly deny being a nationalist, that I have "divided loyalties" I'd probably laugh at them.

So although I can understand what Bush and others are reading into the lecture, I'm not convinced that it's there, and I don't think the speech is grounds for drumming someone out of an unpaid position advising the government on architecture.

Scruton's response to the allegations against him can be found here.

Homophobia, Anti-Semitism and prejudice against Muslims or any other racial minority are all evils.

All should be opposed.

All parties have had problems with such prejudices and none should be complacent about it.

But making false accusations of any of these forms of prejudice on the basis of selective quotes and using that kind of evidence to try to drive people with different views from your own from public life is not right either.

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