Brendan O’Neill

The ridiculousness of the bookshelf police

The ridiculousness of the bookshelf police
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 ‘People want to know why Michael Gove owns "racist" and "anti-Semitic" books’, reports the Independent’s website. By 'people' it actually means the time-rich Twitterati, who have discovered a new hobby: bookshelf policing. And the latest bookshelf to fail their purity test, to commit the sin of containing books these people disapprove of, is Gove's.

Yes, not content with policing speech, tweets, jokes and even hairstyles (witness the screams of 'cultural appropriation' that greet any celeb who wears her hair in a way her race isn't meant to), now the offence-taking mob is policing bookshelves. The Shelf Stasi, we might call them, peruse the tomes in people's private book collections and bark 'Verboten!' if they spy something unacceptable.

Sarah Vine the Daily Mail columnist and Gove's wife, posted a photo of one of their bookshelves on Twitter and almost instantly the literature cops were out in force. As the Independent puts it, people spotted 'something sinister'. They always do. Everything's sinister to people who live to take offence.

The sinister thing in this case was a book by David Irving, the historian and Holocaust denier. And a copy of The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard J Herrnstein, which argues that intelligence is shaped by environmental factors and genetic inheritance. Oh, and Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, which, as the Independent balefully informs us, 'praises individualism and defends capitalism'. Lock up Vine and Gove instantly!

The meltdown was epic. Owen Jones, who can never resist the thrill of censorious rage, pointed a judgemental finger. It is very iffy, he said, that a Cabinet member owns a book by 'one of the most notorious Holocaust deniers on earth'. Hicham Yezza, a writer for the Guardian, went further. If this bookshelf had been on Through the Keyhole, he said, 'I'd have guessed Anders Breivik'.

Right, so Michael Gove is being spoken about in the same breath as one of the worst mass murderers on the basis of his bookshelf. That is deranged. It isn't Gove and Vine who have behaved badly (by merely owning books!) – it's the frothing Twitterati with their borderline medieval insistence that certain books should be banned. Why don't they draw up an Index Librorum Prohibitorum decreeing which books are 'contrary to morality' and should never be read, as the Vatican did in the 1500s?

There are so many ridiculous, and even quite worrying, aspects to this. The first is this: do people really think you should only read books you agree with? As Ms Vine has pointed out, reading books whose ideas you will not like, and might even hate, is a central feature of intellectual life. 'The energy of the human intellect does from opposition grow', as Cardinal John Henry Newman said.

That so much of the left-wing seem intent on never encountering a book or idea they find disagreeable explains why they have become so dogmatic and intolerant. Refusing to expose yourself to commentary and ideology you dislike – yes, even to the works of a Holocaust denier like Irving – is the sign of an infantile mind. Being challenged and shocked and horrified are key to keeping one's brain fit and thoughtful.

Then there's another point, which is even more serious. What are these people saying? That Gove might be a secret Holocaust denier? An anti-Semite on the sly? Are we now seriously judging people by their bookshelves rather than their actions? It reeks of moral immaturity and a desire to shout 'gotcha!' at a politician lefties don’t like.

And the fact is this: Gove has done a great deal to promote the teaching of the Holocaust in British schools. As education secretary, he was part of the Holocaust Commission, which was devoted to improving 'educational and research resources' on the Holocaust. He gave a touching speech to the Holocaust Education Trust in 2014, titled 'The necessity of memory'. If you think that he did all these things as a mere front, and behind the scenes was vigorously nodding along to Irving's racist denialism, then you have been completely corrupted by cynicism.

What's more, many of the people kicking up a fuss about the Goves' bookshelf were ardent supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn's Labour, as we know, had a very serious problem with anti-Semitism, including Holocaust denial. As the Daily Mail reported in 2018, Corbyn continued to meet with a group called ‘Deir Yassin Remembered’ even after it had been expelled from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign on the basis that its leader was a Holocaust denier and anti-Semite.

Let's be clear about what is happening here: people who idolised Corbyn – who associated with Holocaust deniers – are raging against Michael Gove, who helped to ensure the Holocaust is properly taught to British schoolkids, on the basis of a book on a shelf in his house. It would be funny if it wasn't so perverse. These people are not only aspiring censors – they're raging hypocrites too.