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Editorial
Mick Hume

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In Britain, psychologist and self-styled 'scientific racist' Chris Brand has a book on race and intelligence withdrawn by a leading publisher amid demands that he be sacked from his teaching post at Edinburgh university.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 page 16)

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 or discrimination.

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 factor'.

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 affairs.

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 to protect.

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
 
 

 

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