Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
Increasingly the news is too difficult to bear. I seek refuge in fiction, especially at night when I lay down to sleep. The words of the actors in audio-dramas soothe me to unconsciousness. Usually.
In bed two nights ago, iPlayer delivered this exchange:
CHALLENGER: I have not always been my own best advocate…I do have something you can write about. Tonight, at the University of London, a special meeting, an extraordinary convocation – some such nonsense – come to it. See academia in full frenzy. Write about that, young Malone.
MALONE: I shall, professor.
CHALLENGER: “Professor?” Aye. We’ll see how likely I am to retain that title at the end of the evening.
A scene from Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, in which a virtuous academic is pilloried by his university’s scientific establishment, shortly before going off to fight with creatures, horrible monsters, on an Amazonian plateau “that evolution passed by”.
Life doesn’t imitate art: it flattens it. “Art” is a painted soup tin that sells for millions. “Life” is a can of supermarket lager, stamped flat by a hooligan’s boot. At least the fictional Challenger was given a hearing by his university senate. In “real” life, Tim Hunt wasn’t permitted to defend himself against the malevolent accusations made against him.
So Professor Hunt – like Challenger, perhaps not always his own best advocate – was stripped of his honorary chair (pressure was apparently put on his wife, for God’s sake, to “encourage” him to resign). University College London seems to have acted largely on the basis of a witness to his speech; a witness whose testimonial worth has subsequently been shown to be, how shall we put this, imperfect.
If you haven’t read Louise Mensch’s forensic demolition of the appalling campaign against Tim Hunt, please do so. (I wouldn’t like to be on the wrong side of Louise, but thank God there are people like her, for whom the vitriol of the professional victim-class isn’t sufficient to deflect her investigative focus.) I think it impossible to read Louise’s review of the actions in this psychodrama without concluding: UCL must re-instate Sir Tim, and offer him an apology.
Hunt’s monsters, and the many other creatures of their ilk, aren’t found on some far-off Amazonian plateau. They scuttle around the governing bodies of our ancient institutions, not so much passed over by evolution, as seemingly engaged in a battle to unwind its liberal progress. The professor has been expelled from the same institution which offered a forum, I read, to a man who thinks homosexual people should be killed, “like dogs”.
And here is the sickening realisation, the one which ruined that Lost World performance for me (I had to leave bed to write all this down): that an ancient university acts in this way – “Get out, distinguished scientist of the enlightenment tradition, lest opinions you don’t hold offend someone who misrepresents you. Come in, extremist Islamist who hates everything about our liberal democracy, and talk to our young about why gay people must be killed” – didn’t startle me at all.
Just like it didn’t surprise to read about the man waving the ISIS flag about central London – his existence in London, certainly not a surprise, neither the fact he thought a death-symbol an appropriate decoration for his infant child.
The lack of any censure from the police was the un-surprising icing on the cake. Nearly ten years to the day after 7/7 and our institution for law and order tolerates a man wandering about, glorifying Islamist-inspired murder. Incomprehensible, yes. But tell the truth: it didn’t surprise you, did it?
It turns out that it is possible to be unsurprised by a fact, whilst simultaneously finding its truth almost impossible to believe.
Pondering this unsurprise/disbelief mental state-we-are-in - at the treatment of Hunt, at the tolerance of hatred on a London street, at the too-many-to-count narratively similar phenomena – it occurred to me that around each of the individual pathologies lay some institutional failure, whether of a church or a police force or an ancient seat of learning.
Conservatives, of all people, must worry about and attend to these institutional malfunctions. We invest institutions with our faith. They are a glimpse, the manifestation in the world, of the perfect machine for living. To safeguard the cultural values we want to transmit requires healthy, self-confident institutions.
The hollow joke at the heart of Conservatism is that machines only work if we believe in them, and we don’t believe in them, since they don’t exist. What is a university, after all? Just rooms, filled with people. Supporters of institutions, then, must become tougher with the people who lead them, and remove any who fail to stand up for our liberal democratic ethos. There is no other magic available.
Because if our institutions are failing – if they are so broken that they hound a man like Tim Hunt, while allowing the enemies of enlightenment to spread their noxious theology – then we really are finished. This is our world: open-minded, pluralist, humane, democratic. In a word: enlightened. If our institutions continue to tolerate people who despise such a world, then it will indeed be lost.