The curse of the New Statesman
The New Statesman seems to have got even worse since its recent relaunch, with recent features like 'Barack W Bush' about how Barack Obama is like George Bush. The latest to fall victim to the Curse of the New Statesman is Dominic Sandbrook, a very well-regarded historian, who has produced a desperately bad article for them on populism and 'trial by fury'.
Sandbrook's article advances the argument that protests outside BBC Television against Nick Griffin or the flood of complaints about a homophobic Daily Mail columnist are the modern equivalents of the Roman mob, and which concludes that "no matter how liberal and progressive we may think ourselves, we are not so different from the shipwrecked schoolboys in William Golding's Lord of the Flies: frightened, disputatious, aggressive, demagogic".
Sandbrook writes that, "now, as then, it is often hard to tell spontaneity from co-ordination. No doubt many of the people who disparaged Jan Moir in what she called "an orchestrated internet campaign" were genuinely offended by what she had written about the dead Boyzone singer Stephen Gately. But how many read her column only after they had heard about it on Twitter, and how many complained only after they had read the Guardian's Charlie Brooker?
...The problem is that one man's justified outrage is another's hysterical bullying. In a society in which the old divisions of class and ideology seem more confused than at any time in living memory, and in which every individual feels he has the right not to be offended, where do you draw the line?
Was the Mail wrong to whip up public anger at the antics of Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross? If so, wasn't Brooker wrong to do the same thing, in effect, over the Moir column? Do we want to live in a society in which journalists have the right to express any opinion, however offensive, even if it means inflaming tensions and exploiting old prejudices? Or would we prefer to live in one in which speech is governed, if not by the will of the majority, then by the will of Twitter's loudest minority?
[For Modern liberals], in a democratic society, the will of the people is what matters - except when the people have the wrong idea...It is a sobering thought that if Britain had genuinely been governed by the will of the majority for the past few decades, we would still live in a country where criminals were hanged and black and brown faces were virtually unknown. What made the liberal reforms of the 1960s possible was a climate of deference that has now disappeared. "
Let's leave aside the very basic difference between 'speech being governed' and 'people complaining about a newspaper article that they didn't like'. There is something far more fundamentally wrong in Sandbrook's case. He argues that it was the 'climate of deference' which led to the abolition of the death penalty, and to anti-racist legislation, and that there is something wrong with organising people to campaign together for change.
But the reason that the laws got changed, that Britain became a more tolerant and civilised country was not because of a small, benign elite of the "best men" holding back the mob, but because ordinary people got organised and worked together to campaign for what they believed in, to change laws, and to challenge prejudices. They organised politically - to elect the Labour Party which passed these laws, and around particular issues such as abolition of the death penalty or for racial equality.
People using twitter to organise against homophobia are updating these traditional values of organised people bringing about change for a modern age, they are not the modern equivalent of the mob. A newspaper getting outraged about a joke told by a comedian is not the same as encouraging people to complain about bigotry and hatred, even in these days when a columnist for the New Statesman is confused by the "old divisions of class and ideology".
This article doesn't say much for Sandbrook as a historian or political analyst. And it doesn't say anything good about the New Statesman's editoral team that one issue is devoted to the idea that Obama is just like Bush, and then the next peddles a warmed over version of great man theory which attacks modern protesters as being like 'the baying, blood-hungry mob'.