Apology for a Thin Dribble
(1st August 2021)
There was a time when I would turn out thousands of words a week on politics. In the past year, I have slowed down. What used to be a gush of words has become a thin dribble. The reasons for this? One is that I have become busier than I could once have imagined with teaching the ancient languages. I have classes and private students all over the world, and I am often up half the night making unlisted YouTube videos on Greek and Latin grammar. The other reason still shocks me and ought to shock others. This is that I am, for the first time in my life, scared to write about politics. I find that I have an hour free of other duties. I open Word for Windows and start writing. Then I stop. I ask myself: “Will this get me into some kind of trouble?” Sometimes the answer is: “Yes—this will get me into trouble.” More often, it is: “I don’t know, but better safe than sorry.” The result is the same. I close the Word document and turn back to Livy or Herodotus or the editing of a video on the present participle in Latin.
How could I possibly be scared to say what I think about politics or culture or some other matter of public importance? I am a freeborn Englishman. None of the liberties I inherited from my ancestors has been abolished. Indeed, since 1998, these liberties have been formally augmented by the Human Rights Act, which gives a bias in law to freedom of expression, and positively compels all public bodies to respect freedom of speech. No doubt, if I want to speak uncharitably about people of different races, there are laws to restrain me. But, if I resent these laws, I have no wish to speak uncharitably about such people. On all other issues, the laws of my country tell me I have more solid legal protections of my right to free expression than my ancestors ever enjoyed. All this, and I sit wondering if my proposed sneer at the latest Coronavirus claims or yet another denunciation of the Great Satan America will get me into trouble. My reason for wondering and then not writing is that these apparently solid legal protections are of no validity against a new and rather scary kind of censorship that never shows up in the Law Reports.
A few weeks ago, there was a football match between England and Italy. I usually pay no attention to these things. This time, though, it seems that the management of the English team saw the chance of making propaganda for one of the current orthodoxies. The chance was mishandled, and the working class fans were left angry. Since there was no hiding from the fans of what was done, the regime media responded with hysterical denunciation of anyone who complained. The usual authority figures were pressed into service. The result was an orgy of virtue signalling. I will not bother quoting any, but my Facebook feed was stuffed with the sort of rhetorical abuse you would once have seen in Soviet Russia during the purges.
A further result was that anyone who stepped too identifiably out of line risked shadow punishment. According to The Daily Mirror, reporting just a day after the match,
Savills estate agents have suspended an employee after his Twitter account posted racist abuse at England’s players.
According to Sky Sports, reporting nearly a week later,
A university has withdrawn an offer to a student following racist abuse towards England players after the Euro 2020 final…
Now, I neither care about football nor understand the details of what happened in that match. My interest in what happened is that this is how dissent is mainly policed in modern England. Getting the police to put on ski masks and smash down doors looks too much like censorship. Outsourcing the job to Human Resources makes denial much easier. I suspect The Daily Mirror reported that first victim as a warning to everyone else. The real wave of sackings will not be reported in the regime media, though its scale will be known by word of mouth or from the reports on social media. The desired message has been sent out.
Earlier this year, I wrote a long essay on outsourced censorship. Because this was so long, hardly anyone read it. What I said, though, was that censorship has indeed been outsourced—offenders nowadays are more likely to get the sack than see the inside of a police station. The outsourced persecution of those disappointed football fans is just an extreme and peculiar illustration of the point I was making. It is extreme and peculiar so far as football is a kind of religion in England, and it would not do to allow an open discussion of what may have happened with those penalty kicks. Apart from that, there is nothing unusual about the denunciations. England has become a country where all dissent against the dominant opinion is dangerous. It is not legally dangerous. There is no official censorship of opinion, or not very much. Dissent is economically dangerous. Dissenters risk losing their jobs or businesses. They risk having their books pulled from distribution and their bank and social media accounts closed. Debate is being shut down on matters that, even a few years ago, were completely open.
I am a man of reasonably firm mind. For years and years, I went on the BBC to say what I thought on the issues of the day, and would laugh at the shocked reactions. I am now largely silent. For the moment, there will be no more incredulity about the environmentalist claims, no sceptical doubts about the nature of the Coronavirus claims or the efficacy of the vaccines, no more defences of the British Empire.
I call this a “new and scary kind of censorship.” To be fair, it is only new for me because of when I was born. By 1959, the old ruling class had lost legitimacy. Its efforts to guide public opinion were laughed at. I grew to manhood in a moral environment where I was free to say anything I wanted. Oh, if I had been some kind of white advocate, I might not have been so free. But I was not a white advocate, and nothing I said ever got me into trouble with employers or clients or any government or business organisation. If I had been born in 1859, I might have been aware of a very firm pressure to conform. Suppose I had been a schoolmaster in the 1880s, and I had spoken out for Irish home rule, or disestablishment of the Church, or a confiscation of the landed interest, or a republic, or birth control, or I had held any other of the unpopular views of the day, I would almost certainly have found myself out of a job and blacklisted from getting another. Instead, I grew up in a kind of interglacial, where one set of established views was no longer hegemonic, and no new set had yet replaced it. That has now changed. There are once more established views that it is dangerous to mock or denounce too openly.
I could argue that the old views were somehow healthy and the new ones are not. I see no point in that. I will instead say that just because something undesirable happened in the past is no reason for putting up with it now. The old pressures to conform were wrong. So are the new. And they are wrong simply because they are pressures to conform. I find myself at last appreciating a part of Mill’s essay On Liberty for which I never used to have much time. Until recently, I would insist that the only real oppression was by the State: all else was the working of private choice. If the authorities fined a man £5 for having sex with another man, that was outrageous tyranny. If his tastes became public knowledge, and he was unable to find work, that was merely unfortunate. This is, I still believe, essentially true. Indeed, I could argue that, without a State having centralised and corporatised powers of discrimination that ought to be widely distributed, there would be no problem—or there would be a problem that was bearable. But these powers were centralised and corporatised a long time ago. They are now being used to achieve a uniformity of opinion outside the home in which the formal organs of compulsion have no obvious part. This is not the “tyranny of the majority” that worried Mill. I find it inconceivable that anything close to a majority could believe the insane drivel pouring from the regime media. Neither, though, is it the kind of oppression against which liberal bills of rights have traditionally been written. Because of this—
when society is itself the tyrant…, its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them….
(J.S. Mill On Liberty, 1859, “Introductory”)
We need protection indeed. But the protection we need is not yet another law telling the police to leave dissidents alone. We already have a stack of these, and they are protections against a threat that largely does not exist. The answer, I suggest, is an amendment to the anti-discrimination laws to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of what may be loosely called political opinion.
I say hardly anyone read my original essay. Sadly, most of those who did read it stand in the more wooden reaches of the libertarian movement, and these set up a cry that I had become a Communist. I was suggesting that private organisations should be coerced in their choices of whom and whom not to employ, and even in their choices of customer and supplier. I had abandoned the non-aggression principle. Here, briefly expressed, is my answer to these claims.
I run the Centre for Ancient Studies. This provides a range of tuition services in Greek and Latin. It is a sole tradership. As such, I reserve the unconditional right to decide what services I offer and to whom. If I dislike the colour of your face, or the status of your foreskin, or your tastes in love, or anything else that I may think relevant, it should be my right not to do business with you. It may be that only a fool turns away customers with money to spend, and I am not that sort of a fool. Even so, I do claim at least the theoretical right, and I ground it on my right to do as I please with my own. But I claim these rights as a human individual. A limited company is not a human individual. Whatever entrepreneurship may exist in them, these companies are artificial persons and creatures of the State. Their owners have the privilege of limited liability. That is, they have the right, in the event of insolvency, not to pay the debts of a company if these are greater than the assets of the company. If this were not a valuable right, there would not be so many limited companies. There are almost no large companies, and none lasting more than a single generation, that do not have limited liability.
This being so, limited companies benefit from a grant of privilege from the State, and are legitimate subjects of regulation by the State for as long as they are receipt of this privilege. No doubt, some forms of state regulation are bad in their objects, or bad as regards the means to their objects. But regulation is not in itself an aggression by the State. It follows that, whether or not we can get it, libertarians should not feel barred from demanding laws to prevent limited companies from discriminating against their employees on the grounds of political opinion, and to require them to do business with customers and suppliers regardless of political opinion.
I appreciate that I am asking for more than the regulation of limited companies. The anti-discrimination laws we have make no distinction between incorporated and unincorporated associations. Even so, the extension of these laws to cover political opinion would mainly affect only the larger limited companies. At the same time, there is an obvious and overriding public interest in the protection of political opinion. People are now scared to speak their minds. Whether intended or just revealed, this is part of the strategy. The reason why the collapse of both freedom and tradition is gathering pace is because no one dares stand up and protest. In the absence of protest, everything will carry on as it is. Given a restored right of protest, there is a chance of stopping the collapse. The only way to lift the blanket of fear that now lies over all but approved opinion is somehow or other to get a law making it clear that no one who speaks his mind can be loaded with shadow punishments.
“Somehow or other!” In a sense, I am making a fool of myself. I am asking the politicians to make a law against what they themselves may not be doing, but that has no effect on their main reason for being in politics, which is to fill their pockets. I am asking them to take on the entire mass of the non-elected Establishment. I am asking a lot of these people. On the other hand, the politicians still need to be elected, and that was the weak point in the Establishment’s plan to stay in the European Union. We had to spend four nears voting and revoting, but we did eventually get what we wanted. It is conceivable that, if enough of us call loudly enough for protection, some kind of protection will be granted.
Short of that, we are lost.