The new inquisition
In Britain, psychologist and self-styled 'scientific racist' Chris Brand
has a book on race and intelligence withdrawn by a leading publisher amid
demands that he be sacked from his teaching post at Edinburgh university.
(See page 20)
In Germany, the celebrated Austrian author Peter Handke is hounded by the
media and literary critics after publishing a travelogue of the former Yugoslavia
which questions the demonisation of the Serbian people. (See
In France, 83-year old Abbé Pierre, a priest who helped Jews to escape
the Nazis, has been turned from a 'living saint' into a national pariah
after he opposed the prosecution of philosopher Roger Garaudy, who is accused
of 'illegal revisionism' of the history of the Holocaust.
The storms of criticism directed against Chris Brand, Peter Handke and Abbé
Pierre are just three recent examples of a dangerous trend in the intellectual
life of Europe; a trend which can justifiably be called a new inquisition.
Few people recognise this new inquisition for what it is, because the liberal
reputations of those behind the protests mean it does not look like old-fashioned
book-burning. But that illusion is precisely what makes it so dangerous.
The people leading the new inquisition tend not to be traditional censors
like Catholic reactionaries or fascists, but rather the journalists, philosophers
and other spokespersons of the intelligentsia normally seen as the keepers
of Europe's liberal conscience. The weapons they use to pursue their inquisition
are not bonfires or instruments of torture, but the more civilised-looking
tools of the media and the courts.
Yet, while the methods might be different today, the message of the new
inquisitors is much the same as their predecessors: that there are some
things which simply cannot be said; some questions which just cannot be
asked; and that those sinners considered to have broken these taboos must
be forced to confess, repent, and return to the fold of orthodoxy.
The targets of the new inquisition are a disparate bunch, which only adds
to the confusion about what is really going on. Some of those under fire,
like Brand or Garaudy, hold objectionable views which we would not want
to be associated with in any way. Some are Islamic fundamentalists, now
witch-hunted by the same liberal forces which protested so loudly against
the Iranian attempt to silence Salman Rushdie. Others, as the exclusive
interview with Peter Handke published elsewhere in this issue shows, have
been attacked for raising some important and insightful questions about
the issues of our time.
But whether the individuals concerned should be seen as good guys or bad
guys is not the main issue here. What they all have in common is that they
are now condemned as heretics, whose views fall outside the narrowing parameters
of what is considered acceptable by the intelligentsia. In one way or another,
they are all adjudged to have broken the ever-more restrictive etiquette
which governs the worlds of contemporary politics, journalism and academia.
In today's climate, that means they must be censored. And censorship is
something we should have nothing to do with.
It is important to oppose the new inquisition, regardless of whether its
immediate target is a racist like Chris Brand or a reason- able man like
Peter Handke. We need to uphold the right to go against the stream, to disagree
with a consensus, to question everything and to offend convention. The right
to dissent, to speak heresy--to blaspheme against the gospel according to
the Guardian as much as that according to the saints--should be treasured
as a precious asset by anybody who wants to have the problems facing society
openly discussed. In particular, that right is priceless for those of us
who want to make the case for changing the way things are today.
Those who support censorship and restrictions on academic freedom these
days generally claim that their aim is to protect society's victims from
harassment or intimidation. Yet the censorship and codes of conduct associated
with the new inquisition can have no bearing on issues of social inequality
Whether or not the odd racist lecturer like Brand is allowed to propound
his eccentric theories about intelligence will make no difference to the
treatment of many black people as second class citizens in British society.
As the American PC refusenik Christopher Lasch put it, in his blunt critique
of similar trends which originated in the USA: 'What does it profit residents
of the South Bronx to enforce speech codes at the elite universities?' (Revolt
of the Elites, 1995)
The aim of the intellectuals behind the new inquisition is not to address
something like racism as a deep-rooted problem in wider society, but rather
to impose a new etiquette in their own little world. Their concern is a
lot less with the plight of oppressed minorities than with their own fears,
insecurities and search for order at the end of the twentieth century.
We are living through an age when nobody feels able to take anything for
granted any longer. A combination of changes which we have often discussed
in Living Marxism--the end of the Cold War, the demise of the politics
of left and right, the ongoing impact of economic slump--has cut the ground
from under yesterday's certainties, fragmenting society and breaking down
old solidarities. The resulting sense of uncertainty and insecurity is what
commentators are talking about when they muse over the absence of a 'feelgood
The old value system is unable to function so as to hold things and people
tog- ether today, but as yet there is nothing to replace it. The result
is a vacuum at the heart of society. Although the perception of this problem
has permeated all social classes, the sensitive souls of the middle class
intelligentsia are most acutely aware of the absence of a common set of
values that can mediate relations between the individual and society. They
have responded with a demand for new authorities to fill the vacuum, new
rules and regulations to determine what is and is not allowed. The new inquisition,
with its culture of you-cannot-say-that, is one consequence of this approach.
The new inquisition is an attempt to draw a line, to enforce a set of standards
with which all must comply. As such it is an exercise in moral purity. Those
who cross the line, be they a racist like Brand or a sympathiser with the
Serbs like Handke, are treated as the modern-day equivalent of heretics.
The use of the Holocaust as an all-purpose device in the politics of the
new inquisition illustrates the point.
The Nazi Holocaust against the Jews happened more than half a century ago,
yet it now occupies a more central role than ever in the literary and academic
work produced in the West. An increasingly uncertain intelligentsia has
become obsessed with the Holocaust as one of the few remaining moral absolutes,
an issue upon which everybody has to agree. So it was that liberal intellectuals
were among the prime movers behind laws which have made it a criminal offence
even to question the history of the Holocaust in Germany and France--sweeping
acts of political censorship of which the authoritarian regimes of Europe's
past would have been proud.
The intelligentsia's obsession with using the Holocaust in order to draw
a line is not restricted to discussions of the past, however. Any conflict
in the world, from Bosnia to Rwanda, is now likely to be described in apocalyptic
terms as a new holocaust or genocide, regardless of the facts. The liberal
media and intellectuals will depict it as a holy war between good and evil,
demand that the whole world takes sides accordingly, and lash out at anybody
who dares to question the moral framework which they have imposed on events.
This hysterical Holocaust-mongering not only distorts the truth about the
causes and consequences of civil wars like those in Bosnia and Rwanda, it
also diminishes the historic importance of the Holocaust itself, by putting
it on a par with the local conflicts of today. But that need not concern
the new inquisitors, whose real purpose is not to get at the truth about
Bosnia or anything else, but to impose some moral order in their own petty
The censorious approach of the new inquisition cannot solve any of the political
or social problems which it pretends to address. But it can create some
new ones. It advocates a closing down of discussion, a restriction on open
debate and argument, at precisely the moment when the impasse of Western
society poses a greater need for intellectual experimentation and exploration
of alternatives. As caution becomes the watchword of the day among the authorities
presiding over every field from genetic science to social policy, it paralyses
the creative potential of the people whom the new inquisitors claim to want
Of course, nobody may want to take seriously the particular 'alternative'
offered by a racist like Chris Brand. But an intellectual culture which
is too scared to debate an idiot like him in the open, and has to ban him
instead is unlikely to have the con- fidence to come up with the bold and
imaginative alternatives that really are required. The final irony is that
the authoritarian intelligentsia is playing into the hands of the racists
and reactionaries it claims to oppose, allowing people without a libertarian
bone in their bodies to pose as the champions of free speech and democratic
debate. That is a mantle which we at Living Marxism are determined
to take back.
We should accept no excuses for censorship or restrictions on our freedom
of expression, however they are disguised. The latest, very dangerous, guise
comes under the anti-harassment policies in the universities, where the
new inquisitors among the staff and the student officials claim that students
need to be protected from the intimidating words of racists or Islamicists.
The inflation of the problem of harassment in this way creates an entirely
subjective criterion for censorship. If somebody feels insulted or offended
by what you say, you are deemed to be harassing them and can be invited
to shut up. That is surely a step towards outlawing the expression of any
strong opinion; any Tory could be said to be harassing a socialist (and
vice versa), any scientist accused of harassing an animal rights activist,
any Palestinian found guilty of harassing Jews, and so on. And the experience
of the new inquisition so far suggests that executive action by the state
or some other authority, dictating exactly what we are and are not allowed
to say, will follow close behind such accusations.
Make no concessions to the narrow- minded, know-nothing, not-in-front-of-the-children
atmosphere created by the new inquisition. Our response should be: burn
no books, ban nothing, but question everything.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 91, June 1996