Waiting for Sargon

by Peter Mitchell

Last week, some students at the University of Manchester painted over a mural of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If…’ with a more-or-less matching mural of Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’. The reasons for the replacement hardly bear commenting upon; the students agreed that they didn’t much want Kipling on the walls of their student union (in the Steve Biko Building, of all places), and acted accordingly. Rather than erase ‘If…’ entirely, they left its lines visible beneath the Angelou they’d superimposed: the gesture was elegantly dialogic, historically sensitive, even gentle. The university administration was sympathetic. Smiling group pictures were taken. An unchallenging but important point had been made, and the thing was laid to rest.

You already know what happened next. The Times, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail, avid for some culture war action, laid insinuatingly into the students’ censoriousness, their priggish entitlement and their desecration of a cultural monument; the usual lines about free speech and the suppression of debate by the intolerant left were trotted out; those group photos of the students standing next to the redone poster – young, happy-looking, and mostly either not white or not male – were reproduced widely, together with their names. James Delingpole, the far right’s point man in the more clubbable reaches of the British media, wrote for Breitbart UK that ‘[i]f a poem like If can be declared ‘problematic’ because its nineteenth-century author was a white imperialist, then we really aren’t any better than those Nazis who burned books whose authors were Jewish.’ Rod Liddle, no doubt imagining himself as usual to be a modern-day Great Cham extemporizing brilliant aperçus over his bottle, contributed a parody verse of ‘If…’ that doesn’t bear reproducing here – because fuck Rod Liddle – but includes the words ‘vagina’, ‘victimhood’, ‘safe space’ and ‘real world’. By the end of the day they were receiving death and rape threats. Like many people before them on whom this well-oiled outrage machine had been trained, they had to look to their personal safety.

To those outside of academia, it can be hard to convey the relentlessness and co-ordinated nature of the cultural attack on higher education. The lie that there is a crisis of free speech in universities seems to have become common wisdom, and liberal media outlets have been remarkably weak at countering it. In the past year, two successive Tory secretaries of state for higher education have made it a central focus of their public statements, starting in December, when Jo Johnson proposed an Office for Students which would have the power to fine universities for no-platforming speakers. This – as well as the OfS itself, the seriousness of whose conception was amply demonstrated by the proposed inclusion of Toby Young on its board – was obviously unworkable, but that was hardly the point: open season had been declared, and the culture war against higher education had moved from the op-ed page to the front bench.

For the past few years I’ve been working in and around universities, spending most of my time on histories of British imperialism, and I have to say that I’ve been deeply impressed by three things: first, that the press and the government mounted such a long-term, focused and successful campaign to implant a politics of anti-intellectualism so prominently in British public life; second, that they managed to put the burden of it, after the American model, so squarely on students; and, third, that where they gave it a native twist, they succeeded in linking it closely to imperial nostalgia.

In some ways this was inevitable, given that our own version of the resurgent politics of national reaction is so bound up with empire and its loss. If there’s a British version of the stab-in-the-back myth, it goes something like this: we lost our Empire, to which we were entitled by racial superiority and the exercise of reason, markets and steamships; and then we were forced (by modernity, by collectivist politics, by decline and dependency, by cosmopolitan intellectuals) to accept immigration and to live on equal terms, in our own homeland, with the people over whom we’d enjoyed rightful dominion. To this we can add the European Union as a final insult to that nebulous ‘sovereignty’ that we invoke when we can’t allow ourselves to articulate quite what it is we feel we’ve lost, which is of course whiteness, and masculinity, and a sense of knowing everything it’s necessary to know.

This is all obvious stuff, but its incorporation into the attack on universities has been fascinating to watch. To be sure, neocolonialist scholars haven’t yet succeeded in making any serious inroads into the study of imperial history as it’s practiced in UK universities. They have, however, pulled off a series of stunts which have generated acres of press coverage and wasted a lot of academics’ time. Bruce Gilley, a Canadian historian, succeeded last year in getting an outright neocolonialist manifesto published in Third World Quarterly. The resulting scandal resulted in the resignation of the journal’s editorial board and the withdrawal of the paper itself, which all sides had to concede was not up to scholarly standard. But, of course, it was never meant to be up to scholarly standard, and by the time it was withdrawn the whole wheeze had come to fruition: the Times reliably framed the episode as a battle against the forces of campus censoriousness, and the outrage mill generated the maximum possible amount of frothily enraged content. Gilley predictably entered into a new career as a free speech martyr and well-remunerated heretic who, like the eldritch quasi-Jungian transphobe Jordan Peterson, had dared to question the academy’s orthodoxies and paid a terrible price. (The price is getting paid a lot of money to travel the world and speak in front of thousands people, most of them grown men who have feelings about the feminisation of Star Trek and boys who always do an extra spritz of Lynx Africa into their boxers before they leave the house in case, you know, today’s the day. It is, to be fair, a heavy price in some respects.)

The complaint is always more or less the same, and forms the backbone of a petulant neocolonialism which rarely (so far) quite dares to speak its name. A scholar will have wanted to discuss a proposition, purely for argument’s sake, in the grand tradition of free enquiry and the exchange of ideas that distinguishes the (Western, inevitably) universitas. They will have been prevented from doing so, with dire personal and professional threats, by a cabal of semi-literate cultural revolutionaries, professional offenceniks and gender perverts. This trauma invariably provokes a coup de main by which what began as a disinterested enquiry become an insinuating defence of the thing apparently censored: if these freaks and bullies won’t allow Kipling, then perhaps Kipling had a point. And from there, with wearying familiarity, flow the usual conclusions: if Kipling was called an imperialist then perhaps the empire wasn’t that bad, if he thought non-white people inferior then perhaps we should at least hear him out, and even if he didn’t have a point then he can hardly be blamed since there was no such thing as non-racist or anti-racist politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And so on and so forth; you can find the rest by opening up the Spectator’s comment blog. The naked bad faith is exhausting and the intent is wearyingly transparent; what’s more, every time you have to engage with this stuff, however glancingly, you know that you can go out on the street and find an EDL or Conservative Party member who’s willing to have exactly the same free and fair exchange of ideas about murdering refugees, or a popular historian who thinks no trip to a World War Two battlefield is complete without an ’advocate for the Wehrmacht’, or a failed free school entrepreneur who’s only a few weeks away, you can just tell, from whipping out a pair of skull-measuring callipers – purely for argument’s sake, you understand. You know, too, that if the free and fair exchange of ideas isn’t yet about your personal right to exist, it will be soon enough.

The only serious organised attempt so far to mobilise this strain of petulant neocolonialism in British academia is Professor Nigel Biggar’s ‘Ethics and Empire’ project at Oxford, an apparently above-board project that quickly lost its support from professional historians once its crudely rehabilitative aims became obvious. Biggar, who is Regius Professor of Theology at Christ Church College, adapted to his new role as free speech martyr with astonishing celerity. Having failed to pursuade any actual historians to come to his seminars, Biggar began holding them ‘in secret’, with a decidedly non-secretive dedication to letting people know about it. Should he publicise them – as he insists in print on a regular basis – he would not be able to guarantee the safety of the attendees in the face of the mob. He has preached about his persecution from the pulpit.

The invocation of free speech as a means of penetrating the discourse with fascist trash has a long pedigree, and doesn’t deserve much engagement. It’s clear now, as it always has been, that the only effective response to the fascist conception of free speech – i.e., free speech but only for fascists – is to turn that exclusivism on its head, and commit to defending free speech for everyone except fascists. This is as true in the university as anywhere else: to democratically exclude such people from holding events on your campus is, in the end, the only way to guarantee that the life of the university itself can continue. In academic traffic – in the lecture room, the seminar room and the academic journal – academics will need to continue to defend, as vocally as possible, the difference between censorship and censure. Figures like Gilley, Biggar and their ilk expose themselves in academic contexts as obvious frauds, and can be counted on to have to pay the academic costs of fraudulence. When they do, though, it’s important to make it clear – to a world, remember, which will otherwise be hearing all about it from the Times – that what has happened to them is what happens to people who have made fools of themselves, or have abused or endangered their colleagues, rather than what happens to people who dare to speak heresies in an institution which cannot bear to hear them.

We have to know, though, that this isn’t going to stop, and it’s probably going to get worse. When something terrible happens in a US or UK university – as it surely will – it will have been the respectable media, not the online troll mills, that will have done the heavy lifting. It will have been a constant barrage of incitements like the Telegraph running a front-page picture of Lola Olufemi, the Cambrige University Student Union officer who last year signed a letter recommending that the University’s English literature syllabus include more women and writers of colour. Her face – strikingly young and confident, female, black – was put beneath the headline ‘Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors’. What was most disturbing on that occasion, apart from the egregiousness of the lie (for which the Times later made a desultory apology, as if that made any difference), was the personal nature of the attack. Olufemi’s body and the way she held it, her blackness, her attractiveness, her confidence and style were turned against her: the picture, in that context, was of someone who was not afraid and would have to be punished for it. The same goes for the pictures that have circulated of the Manchester students of last week: it’s never hard to make out how the right-wing press uses young people’s sexuality, their enviable freedom and relative happiness, to turn hatred against them. Likewise, when the Ethics and Empire project collapsed, it didn’t take long to find a conveniently non-white and non-male culprit. Dr Priyamvada Gopal, an academic at Cambridge, had had the temerity to call Biggar’s project racist on Twitter: within weeks the Daily Mail had run a hit piece on her, and it included, inevitably, a large full-face photo which quickly circulated through the Twitter feeds of figures such as Liddle, Delingpole, Toby Young and Paul Joseph Watson. The intent is as clear as it is deniable. Gopal has had to look to her personal safety, and knows she is being watched.

Which is where, of course, this all gets personal. Students’ bodies, their safety and autonomy and freedom, are already on the line when they organise to resist fascism growing on their campus or coming in from outside. The young men and women who removed Sargon of Akkad and his entourage from Kings College London may have looked like goons in their masks, but to have been identified would have jeopardised their education and placed them at risk of arrest, because universities don’t take kindly to fisticuffs in the lecture hall and the state sure as hell won’t deal with the likes of Sargon. But dickheads and thugs have always tested the limits of public tolerance, and there have always been people with the will to drive them out of it.

But there are more personal things at stake. The global wave of reaction we’re dealing with doesn’t just penetrate states, institutions, media and the streets, but reaches into the fabric of our communities, families and homes as well. Obviously I don’t mean to suggest that this is new: political violence has always found a place to put its feet up at the family hearth, and if people involved with universities experience this as a novelty it may be partly because the people who get to be involved with universities are traditionally the people whose intimate lives are most insulated from that violence. If great power politics now seems to revolve around the familiar domestic rituals of appeasing a volcanically angry paterfamilias – whether Donald Trump or the imaginary Brexit voter whose capacity for violence should his nativist id be thwarted has Parliament immobilised with fright – the truth is that it always has, and the only difference is one of degree, or of penetration. Similarly, if our intimate lives seem more than ever to reflect point-for-point that desperate effort to appease ever more monstrous and ever more unstable masculinities, there’s every chance that this isn’t so much a new development as an intensification; and if so, it has a horrible feeling of momentum about it.

To return to the university: increasingly, I and many people I know from academic contexts have begun to tell each other variants of the same story. People close to us, who we used to think we understood, are suddenly distant or strange or angry with us in ways we can’t meet head-on. Many of us dread family gatherings or simply don’t want to go home, because something has got into a family member – always male, almost always older – and they aren’t the same person any more: a cruelty and contempt, a will to destroy and humiliate, has crept into the family kitchen, the living room or the pub. Often the people telling these stories will mention the name of a particular newspaper. With the Mail or the Sun the change has usually been less dramatic; with the Telegraph, the Spectator or, especially, the Times, it is often bewildering.

In my case it was the Times, in the hands of a beloved elderly relative who did not, when I first began to work on British imperialist history, seem too disturbed by our mildly divergent politics on the issue. In this deeply intelligent and well-read man – a lifelong teacher and passionate historian who has endured tragedy and always done his best to be kind – intellectual frustration and a certain innate conservatism seem to have been touched off, by a half decade’s immersion in the Times opinion pages and the books of Melanie Phillips, into a conflagration of resentment and suspicion: about women, about gay rights, about immigration, about gender, and of course about the universities, the assault on free speech, the cults of emotional fragility and identitarian offence, the slandering of the great men of the empire. To him I am no longer a relative with whom he can disagree more or less convivially, but part of an conspiracy dedicated to attacking and undermining everything he loves and has lived by. There is to be no quarter, and there can be no forgiveness. The extremity of it appals. To friends I say: the Times ate my uncle’s brain, and they know exactly what I mean. Americans are just astonished that it’s taken us this long to catch up.

I would suggest, then, that to our sympathy for the Manchester students who have been victimised by the right-wing press, we should add our sympathy towards all those students for whom the whole affair is anther missile in a relentless barrage which, daily, makes it more difficult for them to go home and face their families. For them, as for all young people, the new reaction is working hard to make their emotional lives less bearable, to isolate them, to cut their ties of solidarity and kinship, and to kick out the props of shared reality and communal understanding that make it possible for a person to experience themselves as a human amongst other humans, intact and capable. Having done so, it tells them that their problem is they’re too emotional, too fragile, they have no backbone; they make a fetish of their suffering and read the world as a conspiracy against them. As that ghoul Peterson says: sort yourself out, bucko.

Or as my elderly relative said to me last Christmas, gesturing at the copy of the Times in which Jo Johnson’s safe spaces speech had been printed: ‘So you read that, did you? Did you need emotional counselling afterwards? Were you upset?’

I am. But he has been, and I think still is, fundamentally a kind man. I hope to have him back.