To anyone who knew the late and much-missed Norman Geras, the idea that the state could consider his work an incitement to terrorism would have been incomprehensible. Geras was an inspirational politics professor at Manchester University, and a polemicist and moral philosopher of exceptional insight. He devoted much of his energy to opposing the murder of civilians, and lost many friends on the left in the process.
You could level all kinds of charges against him, we would have conceded. But incitement to terrorism? The charge would be insane.
We should have known better. We should have realised that academic bureaucrats could find reasons to label any and every work ‘threatening’ or ‘triggering’ if the mood so took them. All they would require is the necessary levels of ignorance, condescension and paranoia censors have displayed throughout the ages.
As my colleague Eleni Courea reports in the Observer, Reading University has found one such buffoon. He - or maybe it is a she, for priggishness and anti-intellectualism are by no means exclusively male preserves - has warned students to handle Geras’s Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution as if it were an unexploded bomb.
The university hasn’t quite banned students from reading Geras. Instead, it has told them to ‘take care’ when handling his work. It has ‘flagged’ Geras under the anti-terrorist Prevent programme, and Students should not access Geras on personal devices. Rather they must read it in a ‘secure setting’. On no account must they leave his philosophy lying around where it might be spotted ‘inadvertently or otherwise, by those who are not prepared to view it’.
Of the trinity of vices I identified, Reading’s greatest is ignorance. Geras was a Marxist philosopher but he became wholly at odds with the tradition that now dominates the modern left. Indeed, if anyone were going to put trigger warnings on his work, you might have assumed it would be a Labour government. To Geras, Seumas Milne (the brains behind the Corbyn operation) represented the indifference of the left to human life and liberty at its sinister worse. In 2009, he wrote of Milne’s excuses for a tyrannical and misogynist Iranian regime
‘If there's an anti-democratic organization or movement anywhere, an individual dictator or a tyrannical regime, then it's a safer than safe bet, because it's a certainty, that somewhere or other a commentator on the Western left will be telling you that the said organization or movement, dictator or regime, isn't as bad as all that. And it's a near certainty that one of the somewheres he or she will be telling you this is in the Guardian. You don't need three guesses, you need only one; it's Seumas Milne’
Geras believed that violence was only justifiable in extreme circumstances when there was no possibility of peaceful change. (If this view is controversial, and I assume it must explain the trigger warnings, Reading University should flag every political philosopher, with the possible exception of Hobbes, under the Prevent programme). Geras was scrupulous about the morality of warfare and was an unequivocal opponent of Islamist slaughters, while all around him leftists were falling over their flat feet to make excuses for murder. Any deliberate targeting of civilians, whether by states or militia movements, was indefensible, he argued. When Islamists massacred Russian schoolchildren in Beslan he said that, although we reserved a special horror for the murder of the young, we needed to understand that a group which deliberately targeted adult civilians had already crossed the line and would happily kill children too. Terrorists, he wrote
‘.. are willing to treat anyone at all who is in the wrong place at the wrong time as merely the dispensable materials for delivering a message they have to convey. It follows that children are not to be spared... They have no care or scruple for the lives of innocents, children or other. At the cost of repeating myself: these are enemies of all humankind.’
If Reading University’s Queen Victorias are shocked by these sentiments they must find all the arguments about just war going back to St Augustine equally disturbing. But then I wonder if they read Geras’s work at all. If they did, they did not understand it, and are too ignorant for a university to employ them. If they did not, then negligence compounds their ignorance.
As for the condescension, consider that the university tells students reading Geras that they must not allow these supposedly dangerous texts to be seen ‘inadvertently or otherwise, by those who are not prepared to view it’. Is philosophy now such a dangerous subject students cannot tackle it before their minds have been programmed in resistance techniques? Should undergraduates who inadvertently read Geras’s arguments against the Holocaust be sent on deradicalisation courses?
The university justifies its behaviour by saying that it has to warn about the potential dangers of Geras’s writings as part of its programme ‘to prevent students being drawn into terrorism’. In doing so, the university not only insults the memory of Norman Geras and the intelligence of all of us who have learned from his work, it shows its enormous condescension towards it students. They are in their superiors’ eyes so stupid and susceptible, they may be drawn into terrorism by a writer from the just war tradition who condemned without exception or equivocation the deliberate targeting of civilians.
Finally, we have the paranoia. The Prevent programme is meant to divert potential recruits from Islamist and white far-right violence. Sara Khan, the government’s counter-extremism ‘tsar’, says criticism of Prevent comes from extremists and their fellow travellers who are ‘deliberately misinforming not only British Muslims but wider society about what Prevent is and is not’. You might want to agree with her and support the government. After all, far right and Islamist terrorism is not an invention of sinister state forces that want to spread panic to accrue more powers, but all-too real threats to national security. But the state must earn the right to your support, and you must never drop your vigilance. It cannot demand loyalty when quarter-baked and paranoid babblings without a shred of supporting evidence replace reasoned appraisals.
If Khan is serious, she will be on the phone to Reading demanding it apologise to the Geras family and, indeed, to the students it takes for fools. For if this if the level of Prevent’s ‘threat assessments,’ the programme deserves to be closed. I can think of nothing the fellow travellers with Islamism and the BNP have said that has so discredited the Prevent programme as this decision to label the work of a profound and humane thinker as an incitement to violence.