Click here to listen to a conversation between Sir Roger Scruton and me about getting sacked as an advisor to the British Government after making some politically incorrect remarks, and the implications of his defenestration for intellectual freedom more widely.
The news that 83 per cent of Conservative voters are over 45, compared to 53 per cent of Labour voters, is depressing. That was a finding of a poll carried out by Hanbury Strategy for Onward, a right-of-centre think tank that’s just produced a report called ‘Generation Why?’. More alarmingly, Hanbury discovered that the ‘tipping point age’ — the median age at which a person is more likely to vote Conservative than Labour — is 51. That’s up from 47 at the 2017 general election and 34 just beforehand. ‘Yikes!’ as Lynton Crosby might say.
No doubt the Tories’ close identification with Brexit and its stumbling attempts to get over the finish line have contributed to this dire state of affairs, but its cack-handed attempts to appear politically correct can’t have helped. I’m thinking of the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, the government’s insistence that companies disclose their ‘gender pay gap’, and Theresa May’s ‘race disparity audit’. Trying to get ‘down with the kids’, like a vicar swinging his hips at the church disco, is a guaranteed way of turning yourself into a laughing stock in front of the younger generation. According to Hanbury, just 4 per cent of voters under the age of 24 are intending to vote Conservative. (To read more, click here.)
Monday wasn’t the best day for the government to launch Online Harms, its white paper on internet regulation. As Sajid Javid was proudly proclaiming that Britain would have the toughest internet laws in the world, it emerged that a British woman had been arrested on a trip to Dubai and faced up to two years in prison for describing her ex-husband’s new wife as a ‘horse’ on Facebook. So does the Home Secretary want the UK to have tougher internet laws than the United Arab Emirates? If so, he might find himself at odds with the Foreign Secretary, who has been working behind the scenes to secure the poor woman’s release.
You can see why Javid, one of the front-runners in the Conservative party’s imminent leadership election, thought this would be an easy political win. According to research by Ofcom last year, 79 per cent of UK adult internet users have concerns about going online and the father of Molly Russell, the 14-year-old who committed suicide in 2017 after accessing unsuitable material on Instagram, has been campaigning for laws to purge the internet of harmful content. In addition, the role that ‘disinformation’ and ‘fake news’ played in the EU referendum was highlighted in a recent report by the Department for Media, Culture and Sport select committee. Large social media companies such as Facebook, which owns Instagram, have been given ample opportunity to self-regulate and haven’t got the job done. Isn’t it about time a new sheriff stepped in to tame this Wild West?
But if you read Online Harms it soon becomes clear that it’s very difficult to ‘clean up’ the internet without encroaching on free speech. (To read more, click here.)
I was surprised to learn that the novelist Milan Kundera celebrated his 90th birthday on Monday. I had no idea he was still alive. He has taken up residence in that old people’s home that many former luminaries of western culture now occupy — the one with the sign above the door saying ‘Forgotten, but not gone’. In Kundera’s case, his decline into obscurity is probably connected to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Czech émigré was all the rage in the mid-1980s when he was a critic of his country’s brutal regime. Now that the Soviet Union and its satellite states are a distant memory, he seems less relevant.
I think the time is ripe for a Kundera revival, although not for the obvious reason, which is that communism is back in vogue. I think a good case can be made along those lines — and, indeed, the novelist Ewan Morrison has made it. In a recent essay, Morrison points out that Kundera warned of the dangers of airbrushing inconvenient facts from history in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. We see this today with attempts to gloss over the genocides perpetrated by Stalin and Mao.
In China, for instance, there is only one memorial to the victims of the Great Famine (1959-62), in which up to 43 million people died — a homemade structure, built by a farmer, about the size of a garden shed. As Kundera wrote: ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’
But even more topical than The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is Kundera’s first novel, The Joke. (To read more, click here.)
Listen to the latest Quillette podcast in which I talk to Professor Robert Tombs, author of The English and Their History, about why the English intelligentsia loathe Brexit so much, the climate of intolerance sweeping Britain's universities and whether a politician will emerge in the aftermath of this national crisis to lead the country into the sunlit uplands of its post-Brexit future.
On Monday, the vice-chancellor of Cambridge university, Stephen Toope, issued a statement defending the decision of the divinity faculty to rescind its offer of a visiting fellowship to Jordan Peterson. The world-famous professor had been invited by the faculty to give a series of lectures on the Bible later this year, but was dis-invited after some academics and students objected.
Not that the faculty had the courtesy to inform Peterson of this, mind you. He learned about it through the grapevine and then saw it on Twitter. He was left to work out what had prompted the volte-face by reading the various statements given to the media. For instance, a spokesman for the university told the Guardian that Cambridge ‘is an inclusive environment and we expect all our staff and visitors to uphold our principles’. What these ‘principles’ are is anyone’s guess, but presumably they do not include free speech. (To read more, click here.)
In March 2017, a retired 73-year-old maths professor called Theodore (“Ted”) Hill was delighted when a paper of his was accepted at the Mathematical Intelligencer, an academic journal. The subject of the article, which he co-authored with another mathematician at Pennsylvania State University, was the “Variability Hypothesis” (VH) which states that there is more variation among the male sex when it comes to some traits than the female sex. Dr Hill had constructed a mathematical model to show how this might have come about via a process of natural selection.
The greater variability of males than females is something that generally holds true across the animal kingdom and was first noted by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man (1871). But there’s one aspect of the hypothesis which has always made it controversial: it seems to apply to human intelligence. When you look at scores in intelligence tests, there are more men than women at either end of the statistical distribution curve, meaning more geniuses and more idiots. For instance, among those scoring in the top two per cent of America’s Armed Forces Qualification Test, men outnumber women by a ratio of almost 2:1. Men also outnumber women in America’s federal prisons — 13:1. It’s possible that this gender imbalance is entirely due to sociocultural factors, but when you put it alongside Darwin’s observations it begins to look at least partly hardwired.
Ted Hill must have known he was playing with fire by defending the VH, even if his model was intended to explain the greater variability phenomenon across a vast range of different species, not just homo sapiens. In 2005, Lawrence Summers, then the President of Harvard, got into trouble when he mentioned it as a possible explanation for why there aren’t more female professors in the maths and sciences at Ivy League colleges. This was at a conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce and it wasn’t received well. Didn’t Summers realise that it was entirely to do with straight white men discriminating against women to perpetuate their privilege? One of the female professors in the audience walked out in disgust and it snowballed from there. Distinguished alumni withheld donations, Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences passed a motion of no confidence in Summers and he was forced to apologise — over and over again — like a supplicant at a Chinese re-education camp. At one particularly fraught meeting, Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at MIT, said that if she had to listen to him say another word she would be physically sick. In the end he had to resign. (To read more, click here.)