As I've said before, I've said it before. One of the occupational hazards of the commentative biz is that what's new - the daily news item - simply illustrates the same old thesis you've been hammering for years, so that life's rich pageant comes to seem like a Broadway catalogue song, a great torrent of accumulation all making the ever wearier point - that "You're the Top", "The Lady is a Tramp", "These Foolish Things remind me of you". Or in our case: We're the Pits, The Lady is a Transitioning Gentleman, and These Foolish Things remind me that our civilization's on the express chute to oblivion.
Here, by way of example, are a couple of stories readers asked for my thoughts on in the last 24 hours:
Richard Dawkins has become the latest speaker to be prevented from speaking at Berkeley. Professor Dawkins is a world-famous scientist, whose book The Selfish Gene has just been voted "the most inspiring science book of all time" in a poll commissioned by the Royal Society.
His science is not the problem. Dawkins is also an atheist.
That's not the problem, either - or it wasn't when he was principally urinating over the Pope ("a leering old villain in a frock") and the Catholic Church (an "evil corrupt institution" that's also a "child-raping institution"). All three quotes are from just one Washington Post column: that's how respectable and mainstream Dawkins was back then in 2010.
Alas, Dawkins is an equal-opportunity atheist, and feels just as unkindly toward Islam. Hence the announcement from the "liberal" sponsor of his Berkeley talk, KPFA Radio:
Dear Richard Dawkins event ticket buyers,
We regret to inform you that KPFA has canceled our event with Richard Dawkins. We had booked this event based entirely on his excellent new book on science, when we didn't know he had offended and hurt – in his tweets and other comments on Islam, so many people.
KPFA does not endorse hurtful speech. While KPFA emphatically supports serious free speech, we do not support abusive speech. We apologize for not having had broader knowledge of Dawkins views much earlier. We also apologize to all those inconvenienced by this cancellation. Your ticket purchases will automatically be refunded by Brown Paper Tickets.
KPFA Radio 94.1 FM
It would have to be "sincere", wouldn't it? Because it's hard to see how apparently sentient beings could otherwise write such effete desiccated tripe. Notice how the shriveling of free expression smoothly proceeds to the next diminished staging post: Once upon a time, Berkeley professed to believe in free speech. Then it believed in free speech except for "hate speech". Now it supports "serious" free speech, but not "hurtful" speech.
Well, we live in a world of hurt. Personally, I'm hurt by people who say they don't like my cat album, or by the director's decision to give me purple hair in this video. But what's really hurtful is that KPFA and Berkeley can't even be bothered to pretend to a principled defense of free speech. What is "serious" free speech? Not so long ago, arguments for same-sex marriage or tampons for menstruating men would have been dismissed as utterly unserious - indeed, preposterous. What KPFA means by "serious" speech is compliant, conformist speech that brooks no ideological dissent from the pieties of the day - on male menstruation, climate change, Islam, and whatever's next on the list. You can be as "hurtful" as you like to cardinals but not imams, to climate deniers but not climate alarmists, to homophobic pastry chefs but not to gay newlyweds.
Its "emphatic support" of "serious free speech" is, thus, merely a regime of apostasy enforcement - which is why it has no place for an atheist such as Dawkins.
Now I think of it, readers may recall that Mr Dawkins has been rather hurtful about me:
Five years ago, when I was battling Canada's "human rights" commissions to restore free speech to my native land, Richard Dawkins was one of the few prominent figures in Her Majesty's Dominions to lend unequivocal support. He put it this way:
'I have over the years developed a dislike for Mark Steyn, although I've always admired his forceful writing. On this issue, however, he is clearly 1000% in the right and should receive all the support anybody can give him.'
Let me return the compliment: I have over the years developed a dislike for Richard Dawkins's forceful writing (the God of the Torah is "the most unpleasant character in all fiction," etc.), but I am coming round rather to admire him personally.
I renew that admiration today. Notice that even his defender Jerry Coyne feels obliged to qualify his defense: "Dawkins is not Milo Yiannopoulos." And that's true: Milo has bigger hair. Dawkins is also not Ann Coulter. Dawkins is not Germaine Greer. Dawkins is not Ayaan Hirsi Ali. And yet he has joined all of them in the Pantheon of the Hurtful. Funny how that works.
So, as a practical matter, Richard Dawkins is Milo Yiannopoulos. Which is where this sort of thing always leads. As I noted early on during the above-mentioned dispute with Canada's "human rights" commissions, restrictions on speech always start out on the far fringes - ensnaring wacky peripheral figures nobody cares about. But you should care about them - because those scalps are just the warm-up act, and the restrictions always move inwards, to (in my case) Canada's mainstream, impeccably respectable dentist's-waiting-room news magazine and (in Dawkins') to the winner of the Royal Society's prize for most inspiring science book of all time.
Unless they've already rescinded that. Because who wants to be inspired by someone so beastly and hurtful?
Why are we surprised that identity politics trumps even a theoretical commitment to free speech? Richard Dawkins belongs to the generation of British subjects who grew up in the long shadow of Dunkirk - the "miracle" (Churchill's word) of evacuation that saved the British Expeditionary Force (including significant numbers of Canadians, as our many RCL readers won't need reminding) and critical elements of the French and Belgian armies from certain capture or death by the Germans. The event resonated throughout Britain and the Commonwealth for half-a-century and was far more central to a people's sense of themselves than any of the more obvious triumphs: "The Dunkirk spirit" is shorthand for snatching victory from certain defeat by muddling through, backs against the walls, improvising as one can, and, without making a lot of fuss about it, never giving up. Yes, it has a big dollop of self-flattery, but right now we could use a bit more of that in the western world, don't you think?
I hope to have more to say about Christopher Nolan's new film on the subject, but I'll be hard put to match this insight from USA Today's critic Brian Truitt:
The trio of timelines can be jarring as you figure out how they all fit, and the fact that there are only a couple of women and no lead actors of color may rub some the wrong way.
He's right. I've seen Pirates of the Caribbean. Why isn't Keira Knightley kick-assing on the beaches? Or better yet Halle Berry, with Jay-Z as the plucky Cockney Tommy stranded in France and gasping for a fag. And Morgan Freeman back at HQ as Field Marshal Viscount Gort, VC, GCB, CBE, DSO...
But hang on: Wouldn't that be "cultural appropriation"?
No. As with Berkeley's distinction between "serious" and "hurtful" speech, it all depends where you're coming from. If you happen to have the wrong kind of culture, it is necessary to appropriate it. Which is why Brian Truitt worries you may be hurt by Nolan's film.
Anyone who reads accounts of the instant, reflexive, civilian response to Dunkirk - of those middle-aged Englishmen volunteering to take a small fishing boat on a dangerous journey across the Channel to rescue a beleaguered soldiery from what would have been the most total and catastrophic defeat in British military history - finds himself thinking, as presumably Christopher Nolan did, about what spurs such men. Mrs Thatcher and Enoch Powell were both diligent attenders of the Conservative Philosophy Group, and at one meeting had a dispute on that very subject:
On one occasion, just before the Argentines invaded the Falklands, Mrs. Thatcher spoke about the Christian concept of the just war and Western values. "We do not fight for values," said Powell. "I would fight for this country even if it had a Communist government."
"Nonsense, Enoch," snapped Maggie. "If I send British troops abroad, it will be to defend our values."
Powell stuck to his guns. "No, Prime Minister, values exist in a transcendental realm, beyond space and time. They can neither be fought for, nor destroyed."
I'm inclined to give that one to Enoch. After the war, we tidy things up and say we "fought for freedom". But Englishmen fought bravely for England, just as Germans fought bravely for Germany and Russians fought bravely for Russia. Freedom in the two latter was non-existent, and in the former incidental: it's more visceral than that.
Well, we are all moral preeners now. When the Oxford Union voted that this House would not fight for King and Country, they did not say what they would fight for instead. We like to think we would fight for "values" - which is why martial imagery and metaphor are so enthusiastically bandied for piffling micro-crusades on the home front.
But as Powell said, values exist in a transcendental realm. And, as the Berkeley incident illustrates, values are precisely what we're surrendering, incrementally, every day. Many of us, including presumably Richard Dawkins, are puzzled why all over the developed world there are so few takers to "fight for freedom": Certainly the list of those prepared to champion the cause of free speech and protest assaults on it - from Berkeley to Berlin to Brisbane - is short, and those prepared to subordinate free speech to the needs of identity politics grows ever longer. Is this really so surprising? Most people are not invested in abstractions: "Country" or "tribe" is real, which is why Pushtun goatherds prove so implacable to transnationalist do-gooders.
But we're not much invested in "country" these days, except as a repository of "values" - all those "British values" and "Canadian values" the likes of Mrs May and M Trudeau keep going on about. In the absence of any real, felt sense of "country", we seek alternative identities in the new triabalisms: for the left, sexual self-expression; for restive western Muslims, a global Islamic identity. Whatever the defects of these enthusiasms, they're more real, more felt than a commitment to transcendental values unmoored from national identity.
Three-quarters of a century ago, the Englishmen at Dunkirk did not need to think about these things. They felt them. Today we have forgotten how to think about them, and no longer feel them.
Which is why, at Berkeley, no one will fight for freedom of speech. Values are no match for identity.
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