The day I was cancelled

A foolish figure of speech was enough to incur the hateful wrath of the politically correct mob

This article is taken from the September issue of The Critic. For the full article why not subscribe to the print magazine? Right now we’re offering 3 issues for just £5.

Normally the historian, like any other evidence-based, systematic thinker, is delighted to have his thesis confirmed. When he is the confirmation, however, the satisfaction can be muted. Such was my own experience on Thursday 2 July when I became the most notorious example — I refuse to write victim — of the “cancel culture” in Britain.

It was the strangest day of my life (which has not been without incident). And it was made all the stranger by the fact that I had in effect predicted it in my column on the Black Lives Matter movement for the July issue of The Critic, which was published a week earlier on 25 June. “Tag,” I wrote, “somebody with racism … and all their other achievements, whatever they are and however great they are, are rendered worthless … and their reputations [are] trashed in a modern version of the Roman damnatio memoriae.”

I was writing about the statues of the dead; the equivalent happened to me, who am still, my enemies will be irritated to learn, very much alive. Or at least alive as a private individual. But, as a public figure, I have been cancelled, obliterated and buried as far as the reach of the woke extends. Which these days is very far indeed.

And all for one word. For only one word. For only one word distinguishes my Critic column, which occasioned no comment whatever that I’m aware of, from the podcast with Darren Grimes recorded on Monday 29 June, which brought the world — or at least my world — down. Even the sentence that caused so much offence was there almost word for word.

As a public figure, I have been cancelled, obliterated and buried as far as the reach of the woke extends

The slave trade, I wrote, was not a genocide, “otherwise there wouldn’t be so many blacks in North America or the West Indies. Or indeed in Britain”. But the word I added in the podcast, fatally as it turned out, was “damn”. “Damn” is now one of the mildest expletives in the language. And its use as a numerical intensifier is a characteristic idiom, at least for my generation.

So if I had said, for example, talking of one of those academic studies which it is intended I shall never set foot in again, that its shelves were groaning with “so many damn books”, everyone would have known I was emphasising the number of the books and not casting aspersions on their quality.

Such was my meaning when I said “so many damn blacks”: that there were a lot of them, not that they were a bad lot. But that was not of course how it was taken. Instead, the phrase, ripped from its context, was re-tweeted furiously to paint me as a racist of the deepest hue. For the word “blacks” is not an ordinary word, like “books”, to be used according to idiom; to have its meaning judged by context or its appropriateness tested by evidence.

Instead, it has become a totem or fetish. Used in any other than a wholly favourable sense it is an immediate indicator of racism and its user must be punished accordingly: “cancelled” if they were public figure as I was, or subject to immediate dismissal if they were an employee. The point was made with brutal frankness by the editor of History Today when he summarily ended my 40-year membership of its editorial board. “I cannot defend the phrase ‘damn blacks’, ” he wrote. “If anyone used it in the workplace, they would be out.” And I was.

On 7 July I apologised formally, publicly and unreservedly, for my use of the phrase and the offence it caused. And I am happy to repeat the apology here. Indeed, I am happy to add another one. For in the podcast I said, “So many damn blacks in Africa and Britain.” I would have sworn on oath that I said “in America”, as in my Critic article. But the evidence of the transcript is — to coin a phrase — damning.

For to talk of Africa in this context makes no historical sense whatever. A more alert interviewer would have challenged me; a more alert interviewee would have corrected himself. And Twitter, if it had any sense, would have latched onto this rather than bloviate about “damn”. But at least my second blunder offers the opportunity to expand a little on my assertion that the Atlantic slave trade, however monstrous, was not a genocide.

The big event of the day was the delivery of my fridge-freezer, not Grimes and his podcast

The point can be made simply with two sets of figures. The number of black slaves shipped to the Thirteen Colonies before Revolution was about 310,000; the black population of the Thirteen Colonies at the time of the Revolution was about half a million, an increase of 60 per cent. That is not a genocide, though it may be a diaspora. In contrast, the number of Jews in Germany in 1933 was also about half a million; in 1945, after Hitler and the Holocaust, it was 20,000, a decrease of 96 per cent. That is a genocide and nothing else.

On the other hand, one branch of the African slave trade was a genocide and one of the most terrible in history. Some 20 million black slaves, it is estimated, were exported to the Ottoman or Turkish Empire, of whom barely a genetic trace remains. This is because the men were castrated; while the mixed-race offspring of the women, with whom their Ottoman masters slept freely, had their brains dashed out at birth. How this holocaust — and the term is all too appropriate — squares with the fascination of much of Black America with Islam is difficult to see.

But to return to my own errors. “How on earth did you — a broadcaster of such experience — make such a stupid mistake?”, my frank friend asked me over lunch at the Wolseley, where our arrival had caused a certain frisson.

How indeed? Especially since just before the beginning of the lockdown I had passed unscathed through the bearpit that is the quick-fire, three-way podcast conversation with stand-up comedians Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster. “What a joy it was the other day to watch your hour-long interview with the boys on Triggernometry,” a retired professor, who has been a friend since Cambridge days, emailed me. “It was a masterly tour d’horizon and I thought you struck exactly the right joshing tone with them while making serious points.”

So why after this the spectacular cropper at the pons asinorum (it seems somehow the right phrase) of the Reasoned UK podcast with Darren Grimes? The answer, in a word, is the lockdown. I recorded Triggernometry in a low-dive Islington pub, half-heartedly converted into a stand-up comedy venue. Its pit-and-sawdust, black-painted and blacked-out upper room, stinking of last night’s beer and bodies, was the perfect reminder that this was a performance, with you on a stage and in front of an invisible but omnipresent audience that was ready to jump on your every word. And to be on your toes accordingly.

The contrast with the Grimes podcast could not have been greater. When I took part in this via Skype I was in my own elegant, well-stocked library, sitting in my own leather-covered desk armchair and in front of my own computer, which seems like an extension of myself, and using the same system, Skype, via which, for the long months of the lockdown, I had held long, intimate, no-holds-barred conversations with friends. It was fatally familiar.

Less than 20 per cent of us – Twitter – has become the proxy for public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic

At the time, as I uttered the incriminating phrase, I seem to recall a warning inner voice which said, “Oops! Rephrase and re-record.” But we over-ran; it was late and I wanted a drink and supper. And I forgot.

In normal broadcasting of course there would have been someone to remind me. “I’m aghast at the lack of care shown towards you,” the friendly features editor of one of the Sundays texted me. “Even as a 15-year-old I would have said ‘David, perhaps not that’. ” But podcasts are run on a shoestring and Grimes’s, for all I know, may be a one-man band, with the only editorial judgement being his.

But finally the responsibility is mine: I uttered the words; I have paid the price and duly fallen on my sword. All very Roman and dignified.

Except it wasn’t. For the last thing on my mind on the morning of 2 July was Grimes and his podcast. Instead the big event of the day was the delivery of my replacement fridge-freezer. This was not going smoothly.

The cheerful pair of lads from Appliances Online had knocked over a large, expensive plant pot taking the old appliance out and broken a cast-iron drain cover bringing the new one in. They also fitted the handles without the necessary washers, which they had ripped off and discarded, remarking “Don’t know what those are for.”

Meanwhile, the more recent items I had rescued from the archaeological strata of the old freezer and buried in mountains of ice-cubes in every sink and plastic bowl I could find were quietly thawing in the summer heat.

I was on the phone, trying to sort out the problems of delivery with a very helpful, savvy supervisor, when Grimes’s first email came through warning me of the gathering Twitter storm. My reply was insouciant: “I’m not on Twitter and I couldn’t care less what’s said on it. So there I fear you’re on your own.”

Ivory tower? No, grounded in solid democratic fact. Less than 20 per cent of the population are on Twitter, with a far smaller proportion being active users; the huge majority, four-fifths of us, have nothing to do with it at all. And yet, in an extreme case of the tail wagging the dog, the less than 20 per cent of Twitter has become the proxy for public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic.

A week or so after my “cancellation”, Bari Weiss wrote her magnificent resignation letter from the New York Times, claiming that “Twitter has become its ultimate editor.” Here, as my own case shows, it is if anything worse, with every public body and most private ones bowing before it. It has become the new Jehovah: “Twitter blew with his winds and Starkey’s honours were scattered.”

Is this what we have come to? That things given with careful scrutiny and on grounds of solid merit, like trusteeships of charities and fellowships of colleges and learned societies, can be removed, Jehovah-like again, “in the twinkling of an eye”, without due process and in deference to the transitory passions of an online mob? And if they can be removed so lightly, what were they worth in the first place?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover