The age of cancel culture has just begun

Jeremy Gordin says there is no need to burn books now that you can just erase them

Are you familiar with EM Forster’s wonderful, rousing essay, “What I Believe” which first appeared in 1938, was published in a 1940 Allen & Unwin anthology I Believe, which featured inter alios Einstein, Huxley, Mann, Bertrand Russell, and HG Wells, and was then reprinted in Forster’s collection Two Cheers for Democracy (1951)?

If you’re not, I think you’d enjoy it. It’s about democracy, liberalism, personal relationships and the state, individualism, and so-called Great Men (now usually referred to, courtesy of Nikita Khrushchev, as The Cult of Personality). But it doesn’t matter if you’re unfamiliar with it. I merely want to hitch a ride on the coattails (remember those?) of one paragraph near the end.

 Forster wrote: “The above are the reflections of an individualist and a liberal who has found liberalism crumbling beneath him and at first felt ashamed. Then, looking around, he decided there was no special reason for shame, since other people, whatever they felt, were equally insecure.”

 I want to take a small ramble into one small bit of the current way of dealing with information/history – nothing (directly) related to liberalism, great men, individualism, or Forster – but I do nonetheless have Forster’s words floating around in my head.

 In his delightful column of yesterday, my learned friend Andrew Donaldson quoted an English (presumably), black student who said or wrote the following to Adam Habib, the new Director (for the moment anyway) of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

“You are not a black man,” [the student told] Habib. “You cannot use the [N] word, regardless of your lived experience. You have not faced the trauma and the oppression of black bodies, what we go through 24-seven for the last 500 years. You do not embody our history; therefore, you cannot use the word.”

 This, in my view, begs the question: do Donaldson and/or I have the right even to use the word “black”? Donaldson also remarks, though conceding that he might be generalizing: “Simply put, the postcolonial scholar is compelled to decolonise everything according to just two criteria – national origin and race.” I think this is accurate, but it seems that Donaldson, being an oldish white man like me, has gone and forgotten the sisters and various others (vu den?).

One must, I believe, consider issues not only in the light (or darkness) of national origin and race but also gender, which needs to be carefully modulated. It’s not just a question of M or F, other considerations now need to be borne in mind.

In turn, this scenario presents me with difficulties regarding, say, Donaldson. He was born in southern Africa. I assume from his name that he’s of Scottish descent. Also, I met him many years ago, at which time he appeared to be “white” and, though I cannot personally vouch for it, cis-gender male.

That’s three-and-a-half strikes against the “man”. Clearly, being white and male are unacceptable. As for being of Scots descent, on the one hand even a slipshod historian will easily find a plethora of Scots, notably engineers, who helped grease the wheels of colonialism; on the other, the Scots have undoubtedly produced many fine Scotches which have lubricated many a/n (anti-colonialist) revolution.

Anyway, not a good score; any more slips from Donaldson and not only will the authorities be obliged to remove his journalism licence, but I’ll also have to think carefully about whether I can safely read him. Won’t his clearly incorrect national origin, race, and gender trepan my fragile brain and psyche, destroying them?

Bottom line, Mr Donaldson, sir, seems to be this. Folks like the student who castigated Habib are everywhere, and if you can’t beat ‘em, well then, what? Join them? That feels a bit icky to me. Alternatively, one can simply adjudge such people as having been brain-washed (black-washed?) and soldier on, realising that, as the Stones (almost) noted in 1966 (when I was 14!), “We’re outta time, my baby, My poor discarded baby, Oh baby, baby, baby, we’re out of time ...” 

Still, having cogitated on the new “rules” with which we must contend, etc., I’ve given further thought as to how some of us might be able to protect certain bits or pieces of historical reporting that, I fear, are simply going to be dumped, if not eradicated, by the coming generations.

Eradication can’t happen, you might say; there exist tons and tons of books and there’s the World Wide Web on which so much information is lodged. Well, there have been literally thousands of book burnings throughout history.

To name just two examples, in the 1930s and 1940s the Nazis burnt the works of Jewish authors and other so-called “degenerate” books and in 1975-6 the Viet Cong conducted several book burnings in (what had previously been) South Vietnam. Moreover, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, physical books are becoming increasingly less popular [1]. Why buy a book if you can get a digital version?

 In short, what if a Pol Pot-type person (Pot and his minions wanted to turn the world and its history back to so-called Year Zero) gained international ascendancy and what if the situation described in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, in which books are outlawed and must by law be incinerated, pertained? What if such circumstances came about? 

And what if – it’s one of the many issues, besides cluster headaches, that often wakes me at 3am – what if there were some sort of world-wide disaster or “act of terrorism” that completely wiped out the WWW? [2] I assume that those who know much better about such matters would reply that this is virtually (ha ha) impossible, that there’re backups all over the world, and so on. Fair enough, but I seem to recall that not a few boffins told us a year or so ago that, given our technology and knowledge, there was no way there could be a pandemic that would bring some of the world’s economies to their knees.

But listen, I accept that I have been painting in broad, sweeping strokes and using a grandiloquent and fantastical palate; let me come down to earth a little.  

Just as the rabbis said, “Whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a), let us agree that s/he who saves one fine piece of historical research, can be considered to have achieved a great deal.

Well, it just so happens that, in pursuit of a private project, I have recently read four related Politicsweb pieces by James Myburgh. They are:

‘The meaning of Mandela's prison manuscript’ (2014),

‘Mandela and the Communist Party’ (2015),

‘Who is the real ANC?’ (2016),  

and ‘The SACP’s secret Moscow papers’ (2017).

Each is about Nelson Mandela and mainly investigates why the revelations of Mandela’s long-denied membership of the Communist Party, and the significance thereof, have failed to intrude on the Western understanding of South Africa’s history. The investigation is detailed and painstaking, drawing together various books, documents, manuscripts, and “evidence”, and is even-handed to a fault.

That Mandela probably had constructive reasons in 1990/91 for wanting his CP membership to disappear is not disputed nor is Mandela “attacked”. The main question is why his CP membership remains memory-holed from such history. And these pieces represent a truly remarkable suite of historical research; read them yourself and you’ll see.

 “So what?” you might reply for a number of reasons: either you’ve read the pieces, or you already knew about this facet of Mandela’s biography, or the pieces can be found on Politicsweb; or you think the information is not that important or relevant anymore.

Fair enoughsky, as the rabbis also said. But what if, as I asked above, the internet disappeared? More to the point, what if our old friend (if I may) from the fifth and sixth paras above, or his co-believers, friends, followers, or descendants have their way?

Might they not argue that Myburgh is not only a non-black man, but is moreover disqualified in terms of national origin and gender from daring to have researched the life of Mandela? Consequently, in terms of the International All Lives Matter Equally (But Some More Than Others) Act of 2033, Myburgh’s research must be spiked for all eternity.

The above are the reflections of an old honky who has found inquisitorial cant coming to the fore around him, and open minds and common-sense crumbling around him, and at first felt bewildered. But now I think the thing to do is to read, re-read, and cherish the conscientious and honest stuff as much as possible – and Myburgh’s pieces are but one example of this; thankfully, there are many others too. Also, ignore the Sillies as much as you can; with a bit of luck, they too might get memory-holed.


[1] Some booksellers claim this is not true, but what else can they say?  

[2] Don DeLillo has a short novel out about just this, The Silence (2020). If you can’t get it from your local bookseller, there’s always a (ha ha) digital version available.