Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment published on the Internet
Issue Number 31
2nd May 1999
How not to Stop the London Bombings:
In Defence of Liberal Democracy
by Sean Gabb
Should organisations that preach racial hatred be banned and their members put in prison? “Yes” says a body called the National Assembly Against Racism. “Yes” say various politicians and journalists. I have just returned home from arguing “no” on the Edwina Currie show on BBC Radio Five; and since I did rather well in defence of liberal democracy, I have decided to repeat myself in print.
Before doing so, however, I must bear in mind that many of my readers do not live in England, and some will be living in the more or less distant future. For their sake, I will explain the background to this turn in the debate over political censorship.
April 1999 was a bad month for Londoners. We had the most concentrated burst of armed violence since the Irish terror campaign of the mid-1970s. On Saturday the 17th, a nail bomb was let off in Brixton—a largely black area in South West London—injuring several people. On Saturday the 24th, another nail bomb was let off in a largely Asian part of East London, again injuring several people. On Monday the 26th, a television presenter was shot dead on her doorstep in West London. Then on Friday the 30th another nail bomb was let off in a gay pub in the West End of London, killing three people and causing dozens of horrible injuries.
Nothing is known yet about the shooting, but the bombings appear to be the work of a national socialist organisation calling itself the White Wolves. It has published a few warnings to the usual objects of hatred, telling them to leave the country before the end of the year. At first, I suspected this was the work of the security services, trying to justify their existence now that the Cold War is over and that the Government has surrendered to the IRA. But the sight of Gerry Gable—”this country’s most eminent anti-fascist”—looking honestly taken by surprise has persuaded me that the White Wolves really do exist.
The reaction following from this seems plain enough to me. I feel sorry for the victims. I hope the Police will soon catch the perpetrators. I hope the courts will punish them to the full degree allowed by law. In the meantime, I plan to avoid crowded places so far as is convenient. And that is all.
The “anti-racists”, though, do not agree. Their agenda has nothing to do with freedom and equality, but instead is one of censorship and political tyranny; and they have taken the bombings as an excuse to advance that agenda. One day, I will sit down and write at length about their motivations. For now, I will just say that “anti-racism” is a doctrine shared by self-hating whites, black and brown racists, and the stupid and the nasty and the dishonestly ambitious of all colours.
It was to defend liberal democracy against these people that I sat down last night in Broadcasting House and argued for two hours. The case I put can be summarised as follows:
Freedom of speech is the most precious freedom that can ever be possessed. The right freely to speak, to write, to publish, and to learn what others have to say, is central to our existence as rational beings. It is also the means by which other freedoms are given meaning and are preserved from attack. Take that away, or seriously abridge it, and all else can and will also be taken. For this reason, no opinion is ever to be suppressed. That opinion may be absurd. It may be grossly offensive. It may recommend the most dangerous or alarming things. But this is of no importance. Freedom of speech is well worth the disadvantages that may sometimes attend its use.
I accept the occasional need for limiting the means of expressing certain opinions. This makes me a moderate within the libertarian movement: I have friends whose defence of free speech is much more absolutist, and perhaps they are right and I am wrong. But at the moment, it does strike me as reasonable to allow in principle for some restrictions regarding time and place and manner of expression.
Take, for example, someone who turns up outside a synagogue one Saturday morning and starts abusing the congregation. That is an act likely to cause a breach of the peace. As such, it may rightly be controlled by law. Or take someone who incites offences against life or property at a time when he knows that his listeners are already out of their right minds. He is then using those people as an instrument of his will, rather as if he were pulling the strings of a puppet. Here also are grounds for control—for holding the inciter partly responsible for what he has incited.
Again, widening the debate to include pornography or blasphemy, or whatever else may be found offensive, it is often proper to insist that certain publications should be made available only in private for those who have specifically gone looking for them, and that the majority should not be needlessly reminded of their existence and so provoked into calls for censorship.
But the “anti-racists” are not interested in limiting means of expression. They want to try suppressing whole opinions. They would like a blanket censorship, treating scientific journals and private conversations in exactly the same way as public meetings. Anyone who puts arguments about freedom of speech or due process of law is told to “get a life in the real world”. Their excuse is that any manner of expressing what they do not like contributes in some way to a “climate of opinion” in which bombings and other acts of violence become accepted as legitimate. Their argument is absurd and for two reasons:
First, the London bombings are less an effect of liberal tolerance than of previous efforts at censorship. For at least the past 25 years, national socialists and racists have been excluded from political debate in this country. When they are allowed into the broadcast media, they are recorded in advance, and what they say is carefully edited to make them appear in the worst possible light. The planning laws are used to try and shut down their headquarters buildings. They cannot use property owned or controlled by local authorities to hold public meetings. What meetings they do hold are broken up by screaming mobs. The Government is preparing an election law for the London Assembly specifically to stop them from winning any seats. They cannot get jobs in the public sector. They cannot work in universities. If they are found studying at a university, they are lucky if they graduate in one piece and with an indifferent degree. They have fair claim to being called this country’s most persecuted minority. Little wonder some of them have turned to violence, the last resort of the excluded.
Anyone who is really interested in discouraging the national socialists from violence—rather then just in suppressing them – should be arguing for their inclusion in normal political debate. I would like to see a spokesman from the British National Party given the same chance that even I have to appear for two hours at a time on live national radio. No one can credibly argue that this would increase their level of support. It might do the opposite. The plain fact is that when these people have been able to put their case without censorship, they have never had any political success in this country. No one has ever been elected to Parliament as a national socialist. They are a political minority even more despised than the Communists used to be. The disinfecting light of publicity would deter the violent extremists among them, and would still further reduce their public support.
Second, I have always found it odd that this climate of opinion talk has only ever been seriously used to justify suppression of the national socialists. International socialism has been far more bloody by every measure. The publication of The Communist Manifesto encouraged the murder during this century of more than a hundred million people. Even though the main Communist wave has broken and receded, there are Marxist groups in this country still plotting violent revolution and inciting violence on the streets. Yet The Communist Manifesto remains openly on sale, with commentaries by eminent scholars, and is taught to schoolchildren in political science courses. I have never heard calls in this country for the works of Karl Marx to be banned, or for the movements they have inspired to be suppressed. Yet every argument used for censoring the national socialists applies with at least equal force to them.
Much the same can be said about Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Irish nationalism, environmentalism, and the animal rights movement. These have all been associated in recent years in this country with acts of political violence. I would not restrain any of these various movements—but then I believe in punishing people for actual crimes against life and property, not because they might somehow have encouraged such crimes, or because people who claim to support the same cause have committed them. It is worth asking why those who make such a fuss about one very small group have so little regard for consistency. If we are to treat the members of one movement as collectively guilty for the acts of its lunatic fringe, why not so treat the others as well?
These are my arguments, and I put them last night with numerous repetition and variation. I hope they had some effect. I know that I gave great offence to the person I was arguing against. This was one Maxi Alphonso Hales—approximate spelling—Chairman of the Birmingham and Sandwell Racial Attacks Monitoring Unit. The man came across as embarrassingly stupid. His argument seemed to be that every black or brown person in this country lives under permanent threat of “racial terrorism”—which includes graffiti and rude words as well as the more usual hardships of rape, arson and murder—and that this is all somehow a continuation of “colonialism” when the white man went into Africa “with the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other”. I tried drawing his attention to the fact that his adopted country was the first in history to abolish slavery and nearly went to war several times in the last century in its efforts to put down the international slave trade. But at the first hint of criticism, Mr Hales exploded with accusations that I was “patronising” him. He was so bad that he was unable to make any relevant summing up at the end of the programme, and Mrs Currie came unexpectedly back to me for a second summing up of my own. I once did a radio discussion with a black feminist who tied me in intellectual knots that might have been exciting had they been physical. But Mr Hales was a sore disappointment. I imagine that somehow or other my taxes pay his salary. If so, I want my money back.
Now, I should turn to the question asked about everyone who opposes the malign doctrine of “anti-racism”—what are my views on race? My answer is that I condemn any judgment passed on individuals solely because of ethnic origin. Individuals ought to be judged on who they are, not what colour they are. I will not say that some of my best friends are black—as Mrs Currie rather slimily tried to press me into claiming—but some of my ordinary friends are black; and I should be surprised if any of my black or brown students thought me at all biased for or against them on account of their colour.
I further believe that the majority of black and brown people in this country do not consider themselves victims of racial terrorism, and do not look to Mr Hales or anyone else in the race relations industry for protection. The majority are honest, law-abiding fellow-citizens. I have found an encouraging number of them to share my fears about the absorption of this country into a European superstate. Indeed, if I were leader of the Conservative Party, I would be making every effort to pick up votes among the ethnic minorities—not, as Mr Hague is doing, by parroting the lies of the race relations industry, but by appealing to the traditional conservative values of self-help, respectability and patriotism. Do this, and the Tories might start winning parliamentary elections in places like Brixton and Tottenham.
But, as said, I have done my little bit this weekend for liberal democracy.
© 1999 – 2017, seangabb.
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