There are times when you wonder whether our culture is too stupid to survive. The thought has kept occurring over recent days as I have watched the cooked-up furore over the appointment of Sir Roger Scruton to chair a British government commission looking into beauty in architecture.
What are Scruton’s qualifications for this unpaid job? Well, he has written two exceedingly influential books on architecture, The Aesthetics of Architecture (1980) and The Classical Vernacular (1995), as well as numerous papers and articles on the subject. He has spent more than half a century thinking about the question. And he is also Britain’s most famous living philosopher, respected in – and honoured by – many other countries and finally honoured in this country two years ago with a knighthood. Not only does Scruton have no betters: there are very few who come anywhere near to him.
But stupid ages get policed by stupid people along ever stupider lines. And so after Sir Roger’s appointment was announced, various minnows decided to do what they could to tear him down. One who led the charge was somebody who must – against very stiff competition – count as among the laziest journalists in Britain. Now at BuzzFeed News, Alex Wickham also contributes a tiny monthly political ‘gossip’ column to GQ magazine which stands out even in that organ for its sheer pointlessness, unoriginality and vacuity. It is so derivative and thin that you can see through it.
Anyhow, perhaps Wickham is hoping his new BuzzFeed colleagues will someday forgive his years spent at the right-wing Guido Fawkes website. Whatever the cause, Wickham has led a crusade to have Scruton fired from his unpaid job. Wickham’s latest offering promises an ‘exclusive’. It then goes on to misrepresent a single statement – which is wholly justifiable as it happens – about the nature of sex and regret. He then goes on to claim: ‘BuzzFeed News has unearthed footage of a lecture he gave in the US in 2005.’ ‘BuzzFeed News’ has done no such thing. Wickham has merely – clearly stretching his own investigative skills close to breaking point – gone on YouTube and found a lecture that has been freely available for years.
Inevitably various low-grade MPs have found it impossible to resist justifying their own occupation by destroying someone else’s. A Liberal Democrat MP called Wera Hobhouse – who has made absolutely no mark on the world to date – expressed ‘deep concern’ about Scruton’s ‘offensive views’. To which someone should reply, ‘And what do you think of his work on Kant? Or Spinoza?’
The Labour MP Wes Streeting also boarded the outrage bus. Streeting claimed that ‘It beggars belief that [Scruton] passed a vetting process’. Let me tell readers of something that beggars belief even more. What beggars belief is that a person as compromised as Wes Streeting was ever allowed to stand for Parliament. Because of the size of the Jewish community in his own constituency (and after defeating a distinguished Jewish MP in a squalid campaign) Streeting poses as a great friend of the Jewish community. In fact his track record shows him to be interested only in his own career-advancement. I first encountered Streeting a decade ago when he was the head of the NUS. Back then the recently stood-down head of the Islamic Society at University College London had just tried to bring down a plane over Detroit by blowing up a bomb he had brought on board. I was among those who took a dim view of this, as I and others did of the university and student societies who had turned a blind eye to the bomber’s extremism during the time he was at university.
But did Streeting try to go for the source of the problem? Not at all. A typical NUS shill, he merely spent his time (including in a public debate with me at UCL still available – sorry, ‘unearthed’ – on YouTube here) attacking anyone pointing out the problem that existed on campuses. He spent his time eye-rolling, giggling and throwing around accusations of ‘Islamophobia’. On another occasion during his presidency Streeting – who is gay – sat in a room with a virulently homophobic Islamic cleric and spoke after that cleric’s speech, making no attempt to either correct, nuance or chastise the extremist’s views.
If Roger Scruton cannot be an unpaid chair of a small commission I have no idea how Wes Streeting should pass as suitable to be a member of Parliament. Once again we get into the Dawn Butler / Toby Young problem.
Streeting’s Labour colleague Andrew Gwynne (shadow communities secretary), meanwhile chose to get even further ahead in the outrage stakes. After jumping on a set of Scruton’s comments on Jews, Muslims, gays and much more – all of which have been provably misrepresented – Gwynne declared that ‘Nobody holding [Scruton’s] views has a place in modern democracy.’ Gosh. Well perhaps once all the philosophers have been cleared from the national stage we can rely on the mind of Andrew Gwynne to guide us through all the big questions of life.
Finally we have the New Statesman (where Scruton wrote a wine column for many years). According to somebody called Ben Brock, whose qualification is that he ‘works in publishing’, Scruton is merely an absurd figure. ‘A man obsessed with 18th century fork handles’, apparently, who as a result ‘is not going to solve the housing crisis.’ One wonders what crisis, if any, Ben Brock might solve. Despite working in publishing, he cannot even address the problem of his own flamboyant ignorance. For instance he dismisses Scruton’s views on architecture as mere ‘Nimbyism’ and then writes, ‘This is all – aside from his beloved foxhunting – that Scruton has ever really been interested in.’ Sometimes you wonder how anyone can write a sentence that ignorant and still get up in the morning.
For example, if ‘all that Scruton has ever really been interested in’ is ‘Nimbyism’ and foxhunting, how are we to explain his more than 40 books? If he is uninterested in philosophy why has he written so many important works on it? Why did he write the seminal Modern Philosophy (1994), a book Brock might have trouble picking up, let alone reading? If Scruton is so dull and uninterested in other things why has he written several of the most important books of recent decades on music and aesthetics (including The Aesthetics of Music (1999) and Understanding Music, (2009))? Why the book-length studies of Tristan and Isolde and the Ring cycle? Why his absorbing 1987 book on Lebanon or his hugely influential book The West and the Rest (2002) which emerged from Scruton’s study of Farsi and Arabic? Why the many other books and papers on religion, sexual desire and the environment? And this isn’t to get started on the novels, memoirs and more. Including a remarkable book of short stories (Souls in the Twilight) published just last month which is a moving and deeply humane insight into a range of complex, diverse characters.
I could go on. It appears that Scruton’s detractors will continue to mine the columns Scruton has secretly published in all the national papers in order to expose his wrong-think. They will continue to ‘unearth’ his public lectures. And they will continue to pretend that none of the complex things in life – including the complexity of human relations – should ever be opened up or explored by anyone. Especially not philosophers. Perhaps they will have their way. Perhaps they will ensure that nobody who has thought seriously about anything important (and gained international acclaim for doing so) must ever be allowed anywhere near our increasingly ignorant and stupid public life. But I hope that Scruton does remain in his small advisory role. If he doesn’t then it would be the strongest demonstration possible that as a country we have got to a stage you might summarize as ‘the survival of the thickest’.