In what turned out to be the last year of his life, Roger Scruton often mulled on the nature and techniques of twenty-first century denunciation. For Roger, like others who had seen totalitarian societies up close, knew what intimidation and officially-imposed forms of thinking were actually like.
Which is not to say, of course, that modern Britain or America are totalitarian societies. Only that we have people among us who act with precisely the same techniques as those did in totalitarian societies. In modern Britain, as in communist Czechoslovakia and elsewhere, the habits are the same. A member of a profession comes into their workplace in the morning to find a letter of denunciation signed by all their colleagues. An organ of official opinion castigates someone for having fraternised with the wrong elements. Almost all of this is done by people who think they are doing good. As it happens I have spent the first part of the year reading Vasily Grossman, and this last notion has been particularly striking of late. Bad things are rarely done by people who think they are doing bad things. They are almost everywhere done by people who imagine that they are acting for the common good.
Which brings me to Laurence Fox, or rather the response to Laurence Fox in recent days.
The actor appeared on Question Time last week. And for social media – and some denizens of the real world – it was as though the space-time continuum had ripped. As it happens, actors are quite often asked onto Question Time, where they sprinkle star-dust and disappointment in equal measure. The disappointment comes from the fact that when actors speak in public with words that have not been written for them, they tend to demonstrate a number of mental deficiencies. One is their holding to the core fallacy, that some politicians such as Jess Phillips also tend to display, which is a belief that the problems of the world would be largely solved if other people were more like them. This belief extends to the idea that if only there were more ‘empathy’, ‘sympathy’ and general niceness in the world then questions like how to curb China’s exploitation in Africa would solve themselves.
Last week Laurence Fox did something unusual. He did not play the game that – cynically or sincerely – most actors and actresses play. He appeared, on live television, and appeared to think for himself.
Naturally he was offered precisely the same traps as every other public figure is now offered in lieu of discussion. Lady (Shami) Chakrabarti, to Fox’s right, tried to play the game of ‘Let’s pretend that all men are misogynists unless they prostrate themselves to prove otherwise.’ On this occasion she tried this by pretending that Fox’s casual suggestion that Keir Starmer might be best placed to lead the Labour party was in some way anti-women. Fox dealt with this typically underhand little Chakrabarti-ism in a rather deft way, as well as politely.
— Darren Grimes (@darrengrimes_) January 17, 2020
And then there was the audience member (who naturally turned out to be a low-grade academic) who decided to try to play the inevitable race card. Meghan Markle was leaving Britain, according to this person, because Britain is a racist country. Fox suggested very politely that we are really not a racist country. At which point the audience member accused him of ‘white privilege’. Fox, again perfectly reasonably, pointed out that he has had no more say than anyone else in choosing the colour of his skin and that in such circumstances the person who imagined she was being anti-racist was in fact being perfectly racist herself.
Naturally social media was immediately filled with people intent on doing good by making not just Fox’s name trend, but also making the name of his ex-wife trend. Because in the process of imagining you are doing good it is very important to use a divorced couple against each other and to make sure that their children are used as weapons in order to gain a social-justice triumph.
In the real world, the actor’s union Equity issued a Soviet-style denunciation of Fox. The union’s ‘minority ethnic members committee’ called on all fellow actors to ‘unequivocally denounce’ Fox and labelled him a ‘disgrace to our industry.’ This denunciation stayed up for a time before Equity – wisely – decided to take the official denunciation down. But other actors attacked Fox for his ‘rants’ rather than arguments (look what they did there) and Lily Allen demonstrated her characteristic self-awareness by issuing a condemnation of actors who talk about things they don’t know about. Doubtless the Allen denunciation would have been longer but for the background demands of the Syrian refugee family who Allen must surely by now be housing in her multi-million pound home.
So here was indeed something remarkable and noteworthy. Not just a member of the acting profession thinking for themselves and expressing themselves articulately. But someone willing and able to stand up and keep their head about them when the would-be totalitarians and censors of the age went about their nasty little business.
Since the imbroglio Fox has made a number of admirably unflapped interviews (notably in the Sunday Times and on Julia Hartley-Brewer’s show on TalkRadio). So I do not fear that all this stampeding is going to affect him or make him beg for mercy. But it is a telling and slightly terrifying parable of our times.
Nothing that Fox said on Question Time was at all controversial. He suggested that the Labour party leader might be selected on merit and he suggested that Britain is not a racist country. Both these sentiments are held by the majority of the public. Yet so dominant have the minority-opinion pushers become that many people are persuaded that it would not just be career-damaging but socially fatal to say anything to the contrary. Even when that thing is the truth.
Which is why we should watch the fall-out from situations like this carefully. What is important now is not the minority of bullies and would-be totalitarians. People are increasingly proving able to survive their onslaughts. What matters now is observing who stands up and survives the stampedes, so that we can replicate such successes until such a time as the new totalitarians go the way of the old ones.