Monday, September 13, 2021

The Collapse of Intellectual Freedom in the West

 From Robert Tombs at The Spectator:

And now? A far more insidious ideology — if it can be called an ideology — is extending a deadening grip not only over the educational system, but over our whole cultural life, and this time especially in the English-speaking world whose attachment to intellectual freedom has proved feeble. We tend to call it ‘wokeness’ or something similar because it is a loose collection of theories and attitudes. Some call it cultural Marxism, but unlike classical Marxism it lacks basic coherence and rigour. This fragility probably explains the reluctance of its partisans to accept debate: better to close it down. It certainly explains the anger they show when they are challenged by reason and evidence.

What makes ‘wokeness’ formidable is certainly not intellectual cogency or even numerical strength. Rather, it is the willingness of institutions —international corporations, globalised universities, civil services, museums, the media, schools, civil services, local government, and even churches — to give in to, or worse, to exploit it. Paying lip-service to wokeness is an insurance policy that seems to cost little and offer much: a fig-leaf for the privileged, a PR strategy for institutions, a path to personal advancement, a source of profit, a shield against criticism, a token of virtue, and an instrument of power.

Does it matter? Wokeness feeds off free-floating individualism that accepts few ties with or responsibilities towards the wider community and its norms. Indeed, the authority, legitimacy and even the reality of such a community — whether a local community or the wider nation — are implicitly or explicitly denied. There is only an oppressive structure containing conflicting groups.

History is one of the battlefields. At first sight trivial, conflicts over statues and public monuments — what the French aptly call ‘lieux de mémoire’ — aim to undermine our sense of trust, solidarity and pride in the past, both civic and national. As the nineteenth-century philosopher Ernest Renan put it in a famous lecture, the social capital of a people is its ‘shared possession of a rich heritage of memories’ which creates ‘present consent, the wish to live together and develop that heritage.’ Who benefits from the destruction of the heritage?

Woke activists sometimes assert that ‘facing up’ to a past presented as overwhelmingly and permanently shameful and guilt-laden is the way to a better and more ‘inclusive’ future. But the real effect — perhaps the true aim — of their actions is nihilistic destruction. Tendentious and even blatantly false readings of history are creating or aggravating divisions, resentments, and even violence. For that reason, a group of British, Irish, American, Canadian and Australian historians have formed a group called History Reclaimed to employ reason and scholarship against divisive distortions of history. As was once the case with Marxist orthodoxies, I trust that argument and evidence — ‘bourgeois objectivity’ — will in time have an effect. But even if the wokest of the woke close their ears, we are confident that reasonable people will welcome careful and balanced examination of our shared past, especially where it is most contested. (Read more.)

From Robert Tombs at History Reclaimed:

Over the past year or so, there has been a concerted campaign in British institutions – museums, universities, local authorities, the civil service and more – to propagate a new narrative of history. The campaign is fundamentally negative about Britain and its past. It seems to want to impose – so far with some success – a new orthodoxy centred on slavery and imperialism. (Anyone unaware of the extent of this activity should consult  Policy Exchange’s ‘History Matters’ project, which publishes a comprehensive regular bulletin.)  Similar campaigns are taking place in Australasia and North America.

The campaign has its roots in academic theory, especially from the United States, and its recent histrionic manifestations have clearly been fuelled by imports from abroad. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford originated in South Africa, and the Black Lives Matter campaign, of course, came from the United States. Both reflect characteristic and old-established tensions in those countries. Yet these campaigns are being presented as somehow related to central facts about our own history and society.

The general ‘narrative’ goes like this: Britain’s wealth and power came from the exploitation of slaves and colonies, and this has left a legacy of ‘systemic racism’ in the 21st century that must be compensated for, including by acknowledging inherited collective guilt, and making various forms of reparation. So obviously distorted and contrary to the evidence is the narrative, so patently synthetic the show of indignation, that a cynic might conclude that it is simply a ruse to gain the advantages of victimhood by privileged members of relatively underprivileged groups — that is, upwardly mobile people from ethnic minorities in the public sector, the academy and the arts.

The campaign would make little or no progress here were it not for the eager participation of public institutions, which rush to appease or anticipate any real or imagined grievance. I won’t speculate about motives: readers will have their own ideas. Instead, I am going to look at only two of many examples. One is Jesus College, Cambridge. The other is the Victoria and Albert Museum. I am not suggesting that they are uniquely dishonest or destructive: rather, that despite being two highly prestigious cultural institutions, they display very clearly the widespread double standards on which the agitation depends.

Jesus College has suddenly become highly sensitive to historic connections with Africa – while seemingly untroubled by its lucrative present-day connection with the Chinese regime, the patron of its tame China Centre. In a painless gesture to deflect criticism, the college has decided to return a bronze cockerel to the present ‘royal court of Benin’. The cockerel was seized as a prize during a punitive expedition by the British in 1897. It was later presented to the college, whose coat of arms it vaguely resembles.

The V&A has developed a comparable sensitivity. Its director, former Labour MP and sometime history lecturer Tristram Hunt, recently wrote an article in Prospect magazine announcing that the museum intended to highlight connections with slavery and imperialism in its collections. In his article, he focuses on two exhibits: a 15th-century European casket, and gold and silver items from the Asante royal regalia. The casket was once in the possession of a Jewish slave owner, who donated it to the museum, and this tenuous connection with slavery will now be highlighted by the museum to show how ‘slave profits have seeped into the V&A galleries’. In the Asante regalia, Hunt sees only ‘imperial trophy hunting’ and ‘exercises of colonial violence’, which will also be highlighted by the museum. (Read more.)


1 comment:

julygirl said...

Who was it that said if we ignore the past we are doomed to repeat it? The purpose behind all this current blame and shame is to cause division within the population as well as create mistrust and anger toward government in order to establish their own form of power under which the people cower fearful of being suspected of wrong thinking. The problem with this is that populations of Western worlds do not succumb to this as readily as poor peasant Russian peons in the early 20th century. The vast majority of Americans, who are the backbone of this country, love their Country in spite of its flaws. They concentrate on what is good about this Country and work to help it achieve its potential.