Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
I used to chair a cross-party group made up of those extremely rare MEPs who had doubts about a United States of Europe. When, as sometimes happened, we succeeded in blocking or delaying some egregiously federalist proposal, we would hold a press conference to explain our actions. At these press conferences, the stringer for the Financial Times would always ask the same question: “So does this mean you voted with Jean-Marie Le Pen?”
Ah, guilt by association. Where would lazy commentators be without it? You don’t need to show that Person A has anything in common with Person B. You simply have to find some way to get them both into the same story, and then rely on your readers’ prejudice.
Prejudice is the apt word here. Guilt by association addresses our instincts, not our intellect. It works on the primitive idea of moral contamination, itself a form of what the nineteenth-century Scottish anthropologist, Sir James George Frazer, called “sympathetic magic”. Here is how he put it in The Golden Bough:
“If we analyse the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.”
Thus, some societies believe that getting hold of someone’s hair or nail clippings can give you control over that person. Others believe that yellow sap might cure jaundice, or that a rhino horn (or other phallic shape) might reverse impotence.
If you think that modern Westerners have moved beyond such superstitions, just read the newspapers. A Guardian article last weekend argued, in effect, that an interest in classical architecture was suspect, because it recalled the Nazi aesthetic.
Ronald Sullivan, a black law professor, was forced to stand down as a Harvard dean because he was on Harvey Weinstein’s defence team. (Imagine how Atticus Finch, the attorney hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, would fare under our present ethical code: instead of automatically believing the woman in the story, Finch stood stubbornly by the presumption of innocence.)
Closer to home, Noah Carl, a mild-mannered and thoughtful academic, had his offer of a fellowship at St Edmund’s College Cambridge revoked, not because of anything he had said or written, but because he had gone to the same conferences as scientists whose views on the heritability of intelligence were considered unacceptable. Jordan Peterson, the Canadian professor, also had a Cambridge post rescinded because he had appeared in a photograph with someone wearing an Islamophobic tee-shirt.
To see the scale of the problem, look at Toby Young’s new initiative, the Free Speech Union – and do, please, consider joining.
Guilt by association is not new, of course. It is rooted in human nature, the product of a faulty bit of neural wiring. But the current fad for it has two striking features.
First, the supposed contamination is usually to do with identity politics. You will rarely be no-platformed, let alone visited by the cops, for being an ultra-libertarian, or a Stalinist, or an admirer of Putin or of Kim Jong-un. But we have sacralised certain values, notably those to do with gender, sexual preference and, above all, race. By “sacralised”, I mean we have placed them beyond the rules of normal discourse so that the response to a dissenting opinion is not to engage but to exorcise.
Second, it is concentrated in the last place we ought to find it, namely on campus. Universities are supposed to promote reason, empiricism and the scientific method. Yet, just as, centuries ago, they managed to think of themselves as defenders of the Enlightenment while barring those who failed to meet their religious tests, now they apply the same doublethink to the quasi-religion of identity politics.
Here’s the thing about magic, though. It only works if the victim believes in it. A shaman’s incantation depends on an acceptance that he is invoking metaphysical powers; otherwise it becomes a stream of gibberish.
Many conservatives struggle with this point. Consider, for example, the anathematisation of Daniel Kawczynski, the Polish-born MP for Shrewsbury, after he attended a conference in Rome called “God, Honour, Country: President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and the Freedom of Nations”.
As you would expect at such a conference, there was a wide diversity of delegates – though almost all were sympathetic to the notion of national sovereignty. The chief organiser was Yoram Hazony, who runs the Herzl Centre in Jerusalem. You can find comprehensive reports of the event here and here.
The Guardian decided that we ought to be upset about some of the delegates – including representatives of the governing parties of Poland and Hungary. They were supposedly xenophobic and homophobic and anti-semitic and whatnot. That the paper illustrated its own story with a photograph of Kawcynski (who is both an immigrant and bisexual) speaking in front of the Star of David that represents the Herzl Centre did not seem to give anyone pause for thought.
Incredibly, a Conservative spokesman responded to the article declaring that Kawczynski’s attendance was “unacceptable”. What exactly was “unacceptable” was never specified, but that did not stop the Board of Deputies from rushing out a condemnation of the imagined anti-semitism. Again: the prime mover behind the event was Hazony, a patriotic Israeli Bible scholar.
Without these panicky condemnations, the witchdoctor’s juju would not work. But, now that the Conservatives have declared the conference unacceptable, Leftist newspapers can run versions of the same story in perpetuity. “Disgust as Sir Bufton Tufton meets with group declared ‘unacceptable’ by his own party,” etc.
It is worth reiterating three fundamental truths. First, people can share a platform without agreeing. Second, there is a difference between disagreeing with something and shunning it. Third, hostile newspapers don’t get to tell a political party who its allies should be. (It is worth noting, en passant, that the Guardian spent years claiming that leaving the European People’s Party would mean abandoning the mainstream and sitting with unacceptable far-Right parties, yet now makes the same claim about the EPP’s Hungarian party, Fidesz.)
Those truths don’t lose any of their force simply because a journalist is demanding an instant response. Guilt by association is a game you can’t win. Don’t play it.