On Heretics and Thought-Crimes
- December 10, 2015
Bear with me readers, if I return to ‘InternationalBrigadegate’ one more time, because what I want to say is not really about me: it’s about us. A lot of the writing I’ve done over the years, in books, articles, and blogposts, has been concerned with the subject of persecution. I’ve always been concerned with the ease with which powerful societies can transform themselves into what the medieval historian R.I. Moore once called ‘persecuting societies’.
These concerns have been present in all my books, from my history of terrorism to my novel The Devils of Cardona, which is due to be published next year. Given these preoccupations, there has been a weird and bewildering irony about the events of the last week, which are still unfolding.
Today, for example I came across a leftist blog attacking my Hilary Benn piece. After the usual foaming at the mouth at my supposed iniquities, the writer contemptuously referred to my book about General Sherman’s March to the Sea, with this observation:
‘The only walk to the ocean most people would like to witness on Carr”s part is one which ends with him lying ten fathoms deep.’
In the opinion of this self-proclaimed ‘critical marxist’ therefore, it is legitimate to recommend my death because of a sentence that I wrote and a thought that he believed I had.
Now I recognize that this is an extreme reaction, even by the standards of the past week. Nevertheless day after day newspapers, journalists, and politicians repeat my International Brigades quote or cite fellow-blogger Chris Floyd’s ‘reaping the whirlwind’ piece, without any sign that they have read the pieces concerned, and with the kind of horror and disgust that you would now expect to be directed at Jimmy Saville’s memoirs.
I’m only surprised that these critics don’t brandish a crucifix or wear garlic round their necks. Some of this, as I’ve said previously, is clearly due to a blatantly McCarthyist campaign that is intended to destroy the Stop the War movement, and by association Jeremy Corbyn.
But what I find most shocking, and which I want to draw attention to here, is the fact that the hysterical vilification of Floyd and myself is based entirely on our thoughts and words – regardless of whether or not they have been interpreted in the way that we intended them to be.
In this sense, the incredible momentum that this campaign has acquired reminds me of medieval and early modern attitudes to ‘heresy’, when certain thoughts and ideas were considered so dangerous to society that they could only be purged and kept at arms length otherwise society faced complete destruction.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t consider my thoughts to be so earthshaking that they threaten society or the established order, and I don’t regard myself as a modern-day heretic. But whatever you think I said, or whatever you think Floyd said, the fact remains that the moral opprobrium that has been heaped upon both of us has been entirely due to the fact that we expressed thoughts and ideas that are now considered illegitimate and taboo.
Were this not the case, it would have been perfectly possible to disagree with either of us, to criticize us, to say that our ideas weren’t well-expressed or whatever. Instead the two of us have been objects of a collective rage, hatred and disgust, in some cases by people who have never read what they are condemning.
Some of this outrage is due to the disgust and horror that ISIS incites through its endless massacres and atrocities, and the (false) assumption that Floyd and I somehow condone or minimize or even approve of these actions. But ISIS itself cannot explain the knee-jerk responses of so many people to a sentence in a screenshot and a single phrase.
ISIS doesn’t explain why it is now becoming difficult to think or say anything about it beyond certain consensual parameters, and why a single phrase or sentence can be held up as evidence of evil intent or collusion. It doesn’t explain why a British politician is hailed as a great orator if he compares the bombing of another Middle Eastern city to the International Brigades; or why George Osborne can tell a New York audience that the UK has ‘got its mojo back’ because it has bombed Raqqa.
Yet MPs now read the words of two writers and bloggers out in parliament as though they were reading an indictment, and ‘leftists’ can call for the death of someone whose words they don’t like. And even when Floyd and I have tried to explain and clarify our intentions, these emotions have made no difference to many of those who have read them, and some have even seen them as confirmation of our original ‘guilt.’
And all that, my friends, suggests that we have a problem, and that it is not the one that has been raised so hysterically and so dishonestly during the last week.