Heretics like me should not be silenced by mobs
I unwisely gave an interview to a magazine that once employed me. It was just an exercise to smear me — and to try to shut me up
My publisher, Bloomsbury, recently reissued three of my books and asked me to go out in the world to discuss them. I doubted the wisdom of this, and pointed to recent defamatory attacks and a long string of bad reviews — the full treatment, in fact, that an intellectual conservative can expect. But the worst of the attacks, precipitated by my appointment to chair the government’s commission on building beautifully, seemed to be over and, in a naive moment, I decided to accept the interview they had arranged with the New Statesman, ostensibly to discuss my work. After all, the New Statesman was my home as wine critic for five years, and it was inconceivable to me that the magazine would not give me a fair hearing when discussing a book like Where We Are. In the end, however, none of my books, and none of my ideas, were discussed by the interviewer, George Eaton, who simply recorded my conversation in the hope of extracting remarks that could be used to smear me. He found one such remark which, by leaving out the context and the qualifying clause, he managed to turn into something that could be used against me. The result was a defamatory assault, leading to my dismissal from the commission by the Secretary of State.
I have published a refutation of George Eaton’s libels on the Spectator website. It will be obvious to any fair-minded reader that his insinuations bear no relation to the person that I am, and are inspired by the singular malice displayed by the triumphant posts on his Twitter feed. How could I have got into this mess? About controversial questions, we should remind ourselves, most people are wisely content to adopt the prevailing opinion of their group. But not everybody is like that, and I agree with John Stuart Mill that heretics and doubters should be encouraged, not silenced. For without their stimulus, we shall proceed blindly into the future, unguided by our most precious faculty, which is the faculty of rational argument. At least, that is how I have lived my life, to my cost.
One way to silence argument is by the invention of thought crimes, which are so vaguely defined that anybody can be accused of them. We thereby seal off areas of inquiry with a warning notice, saying “enter at your peril”. In my view the thought crime of Islamophobia, which Eaton tries to pin on me (along with the other isms and phobias of our time), has precluded discussion of the most important issue facing European societies today. Ordinary Europeans are being asked to accept large-scale Muslim immigration, and are constantly witnessing crimes of violence committed in Islam’s name. Does the God of Islam permit these crimes? Of course not, any more than the God of Christianity permits the dreadful crime recently committed in Christchurch, New Zealand. But we dare not pursue the matter further, for fear of the charge of Islamophobia. The question that cannot be asked is like a festering wound, filling the mind with suspicions. And in this way political correctness stirs up fear in the place of reconciliation. By turning doubt about Islam into a thought-crime, we recast legitimate anxieties as acts of aggression, and lay at the door of Islam’s critics the crimes that are committed in Islam’s name.
Similar things have happened with the “homophobia” and “transphobia” labels. The isms and phobias have been used in order to put some complex matter beyond discussion, so that only one perspective can be publicly confessed to, namely the perspective that is politically correct. Moreover, because political correctness deals in thought crimes, it closes the gap between accusation and guilt. In the world of political correctness there is no presumption of innocence, but only a hunger for targets. We witness this in Eaton’s smears, which indicate that he has never read what I have written — whether about Islam, sexuality or the “clash of civilisations” — in such works as The West and the Rest, Sexual Desire and The Disappeared.
The good news is that Eaton’s sabotage has not undermined the work of the commission. During our first four months of work we began to understand the nature of our housing crisis and the possible solutions to it, and I am confident that my successor will have the basis for a reasoned policy that will find cross-party consent in Parliament, always assuming Parliament still exists. The desire for beauty in building is not a middle-class, right-wing or Nimby prerogative. There is a widespread perception that we are littering our country with built debris: fields full of houses which refuse to be a place; featureless blocks on concrete plazas, windowless boxes explained not by architectural detail but by logos, buildings made from identical horizontal layers which cut corners from the street or stand behind a forecourt of wasted space that is neither private nor public. These intrusive forms touch what matters most to people when seeking a place to live, namely the desire to be somewhere, and to belong there. Their impact is apparent to everyone, since they challenge our need for a place that belongs to us and to which we in turn belong. This is a need of all people, and most of all of the young, the disadvantaged and the homeless, who depend upon reforms to the planning process that will overcome the resistance to new housing.
Imaginative schemes, such as that behind King’s Cross station, show that we have the skills and the vision to create the housing that we need, in places that have a humane and adaptable character. It is the intention of the commission to generalise such examples, and to lay down principles that can be followed everywhere, providing homes for all. And we have made real progress towards that goal.
For me there is more good news too. After four months working 12 hours a day without payment, I can now go back to my desk and earn the money that my family needs. My hope is that, when the government appoints my successor, it will not be deterred from offering that person a fee. And to avoid a repeat of the problem that I have caused, the government should ensure that the next chair of the commission entertains only bland and orthodox opinions that could not conceivably offend against the code of political correctness.