The age of Twitter defenestration
The removal from public office of Britain’s best-known philosopher and perhaps the English-speaking world’s leading conservative thinker was particularly disquieting
We live in an age of defenestration by Twitter mob. Sir Roger Scruton, sacked as Chairman of the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission for expressing incorrect thoughts in an interview with the New Statesman’s deputy editor George Eaton, is the latest victim of the phenomenon that Sir Roger, Toby Young and David Butterfield anatomise for us this issue. Each case has its own peculiarities — and the removal from public office of Britain’s best-known philosopher and perhaps the English-speaking world’s leading conservative thinker was particularly disquieting.
What was so shocking about the views expressed by Scruton to Eaton? He commented that the Chinese Communist Party was “creating robots out of their own people . . . each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing”. This is surely a comment not on the Chinese as a people, but on the desire of totalitarian regimes to re-create people in their own image. Is this not the whole thrust of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984? Was it not the thankfully failed ambition of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany to build a new man befitting their hideous utopias?
Scruton opined that Islamophobia was a propaganda word “invented by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop discussion of a major issue”. Thugs who don’t like Muslims undeniably exist — but it cannot be denied that the charge of Islamophobia has been used to silence critics of political Islam and, what is more, to create a climate of self-censorship. Perhaps Scruton might have chosen a word other than tribe when he said that Hungarians “were extremely alarmed by the sudden invasion of huge tribes of Muslims from the Middle East”. But in 2015 there were indeed a million-plus people from the Middle East on the move to Europe — and the alarm was not only felt in Hungary, as Angela Merkel has learnt only too well with the rise of the AfD.
Scruton refers to “Soros’s empire in Hungary” and Eaton claims to believe that this formulation is ipso facto anti-Semitic. Through his Open Society institutes, George Soros funds many organisation in Hungary, and throughout Central and Eastern Europe. As Jessica Douglas-Home records in her account of an earlier era, Once Upon Another Time, Scruton and her own work supporting dissidents behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s were partly supported by Soros.
Are all those who rant about the Murdoch Empire displaying anti-Antipodean prejudices? Was it unacceptable for Hillary Clinton to claim that her husband was being targeted during his Monica Lewinsky travails by “a vast right-wing conspiracy”, some of whom — in so much as such a conspiracy existed — were Jewish? Or what about those who object to the libertarian, ideologically-driven funding by Charles and David Koch of American think-tanks, pressure groups and political campaigns, and disparagingly refer to the Kochtopus? Are they displaying anti-Kansan prejudice?
There is, of course, a difference. No one is reading The Protocols of the Elders of Oz and news of the global Kansan conspiracy has not yet reached SW1. Sadly, the bacillus of anti-Semitism, or anti-Zionism as it is now so often called, has all too thoroughly infested one of our once-great parties. But that does not mean that using the term empire in relation to a real network set up and funded by a billionaire who happens to be Jewish is automatically anti-Semitic. Surely anti-Semitism is about using different terms to describe similar actions taken by a Jew and a Gentile. Yet, as the cases of Murdoch and the Koch brothers show, the same terminology is used to disparage an Australian Anglican and Kansan Catholics. Or is it just that it is OK to use such language when talking about people on the Right and not when talking about people on the Left?
The New Statesman itself — albeit under a previous editor and different ownership — has form on this. In 2002 the magazine ran a cover, emblazoned with a Star of David hanging over the Union flag, with the coverline “A Kosher Conspiracy?” The articles the cover was flagging up — by Dennis Sewell and John Pilger — were about the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in the UK. If the cover had been about a pro-shechita campaign, it would have been fine; but as it was, it clearly crossed a line.
Eaton’s innovation in the outrage industry was not waiting for others to pick up on his interview, but leading the Twitter charge himself before it had even been published. It would have been better form on Eaton’s part if he had given Scruton some inkling of the kebabbing he was about to experience. Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government James Brokenshire sacked Scruton without asking to hear his side of the story. Scruton was not given the option of resigning — the first he knew of his defenestration was when it was announced. But perhaps Brokenshire should not be treated too harshly; the decision was undoubtedly taken higher up the chain. Whoever took it, it was a shameful act by a Conservative government.