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Mugged by misrepresentation

Mark Humphrys faces the loss of his university post, if the online mob succeeds

There are different ways to experience “cancel culture”. One which is proving a bit of an eye-opener is to see someone one knows unjustly at the centre of the storm. 

It is hard to say now when I first became aware of Mark Humphrys, but it would have been in the years after the September 11th attacks. Then, as now, Mark was a lecturer in computer science at Dublin City University. Then as now also, he was running a personal website (clearly marked as such) which ranged over computer science, genealogy and particularly politics. At the time, the existence of the two separate spheres of his life was wholly unproblematic, but times have evidently changed. He is now in the middle of an attempt back home in Ireland to have him “cancelled”, which if the online mob has its way would see him dismissed from his university post. Readers who have been following the recent history of “cancel culture” will guess that the purportedly problematic part of his personal website is not the computer science or the genealogy, but the politics.

There is a vocal campaign to drum Dr Humphrys out of the university

I mention the 9/11 attacks because for a long time Dr Humphrys wrote about terrorism, liberalism and Western values particularly, very much in the manner perhaps of an Irish Christopher Hitchens. He also maintains an extensive section on his website cataloguing in granular detail much of the history of the IRA, a subject which that organisation is now very keen indeed to shut down as a topic of discussion. On his website he says of himself: “Before 9/11, I was liberal-left. After 9/11, in the winter of 2001-2, like thousands maybe millions of others, I converted to libertarian-right.” This has always seemed to be the centre of his thinking, much as certain Americans a generation or two back made a point of describing themselves as liberals who had been mugged by reality. 

He is in danger, though, of being mugged by something like its opposite: deliberate misrepresentation, or at least the ongoing fashion for trying to engineer academic dismissals on thinly-veiled political grounds. Arising ostensibly from a website entry he made on the Black Lives Matters movement last year, there is a vocal campaign to drum him out of the university on the basis that he is supposedly a racist bigot. The meagre raw material worked up against him are a few less than deferential phrases about the BLM movement and the observation that the “bigger story”, after the death of George Floyd last year, was “how insane much of America went afterwards”. That second part at least would be difficult to dismiss out of hand, but clearly the animating impulse with much of the “cancel culture” phenomenon is simply to rule large swathes of the debate as out-of-bounds altogether.

It is a peculiar experience to watch someone treated this way when one knows that they are not at all what they are suddenly said to be. Mark has had a discussion of the psychology and politics of racism on his website for a very long time (it is a vast website and he has gone over most things at some point), broken down under the headings “racism is unscientific”, “racism is pessimistic” and “racism is genocidal”. Whether it will do him any good is another matter. It is the nature of the sudden “cancel culture” storm that a longstanding track record to the contrary counts for little if anything with the mob. Some of us who are Irish are still very mindful of the fact that it is only four years since one of Ireland’s foremost journalists, Kevin Myers, had his career at least temporarily ended by accusations of antisemitism despite being one of the country’s few prominent advocates for the state of Israel and who in many ways has been an ally of Ireland’s Jewish community, as quite a few of them vainly pointed out in the aftermath. Not for the first or the last time, the inversion of reality involved was utterly vertiginous, and it is hard not to think that that element of ostentatious perversity is often more or less intentional.

As it happens, DCU’s President is not only an academic historian, Professor Daire Keogh, but also one whose research speciality, according to his own profile, is “the history of popular politics, religion and education in Ireland”. Certainly someone with such a background will be aware that the denunciation from the pulpit, literal or figurative, could be a destructive weapon in 20th century Ireland. Whether he is prepared to stand up to the 21st century version remains to be seen, but the Irish left would be only too glad to establish the principle that it has an effective veto over academic employment. The university has been under no obligation to involve itself at all but has already waded in with a fairly chilly statement saying “we understand and acknowledge that people will find parts of this blog offensive”. Ominously absent was any indication that the institution still considers political writing by its lecturers outside their university work to be a legitimate undertaking, or any word of support to a member of staff who has had his good name dragged through the mud. 

Scruton’s cancelling led him to doubt his belonging in the country of his birth

It is hard not to regret that the world more and more is going this way, with no easy solution or end in sight. Nor is it a trivial experience for those targeted. The effect that similar denunciations had on the late Sir Roger Scruton can hardly be overstated. In his final piece of journalism published during his lifetime, a short article for the Spectator written in what turned out to be the final weeks of his life, Scruton described how his own cancelling in April 2019 led him to doubt even his presence in the country of his birth, writing: “Do I belong here? I ask. To discover that even prominent members of the Tory party are inclined to say ‘no’ is a fairly shattering blow”, and finishing with a lament for “this year [in which] much was taken from me — my reputation, my standing as a public intellectual, my position in the Conservative movement, my peace of mind, my health”. It is notable that he still felt that way even after he had been reinstated to the position in question. 

Doubtless Scruton found the experience so deeply unpleasant because it revived mixed memories of his relationship with the party and with his own partial ostracism on campus in the 80s, but it may also have unsettled him as it was so direct an encounter with that particular type of intellectual and philosophical evil which he spent so much of his working life dissecting. Indeed, the pessimism of the late Scruton about our collective direction of travel could be very deep indeed. Near the very end of his 2015 work “Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left”, he gave in summation one of his most unvarnished accounts of the ideological currents of our times and their effect on even the possibility of serious thinking in the public square:

“Looking back across the bleak landscape that I have travelled in this book I witness only negatives. Occasional lip service is paid to a future state of ‘emancipation’, ‘equality’ or ‘social justice’. But those terms are seldom lifted out of the realm of abstractions, or subjected to serious examination. Instead they are given a purely negative application. They are used to condemn every mediating institution, every imperfect association, every flawed attempt that human beings might have made, to live together without violence and with due respect for law.”

As an evaluation of contemporary thought, that leaves little reason to be cheerful or to hope that will we soon see the end of these vexatious attempts to silence people, but it is one of the “uses of pessimism”, to borrow one of Scruton’s late book titles, at least to know what one is up against. 

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