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Monday, December 6, 2021

Woke cannot survive being exposed as a bad joke

Maybe last week will be remembered as the moment when Woke – at least in its British incarnation – blew itself up. Who foresaw that it might collapse under the weight of its own absurdity? A couple of memorable incidents – one of them morally grotesque, the other ridiculous – said it all. First the serious matter: Oxford University, having spent months engaged in contention over historic endowments from benefactors who had connections with the slave trade centuries ago, admitted to accepting a bequest from the Mosley family which had never renounced its support for the fascist genocide that occurred within living memory. For some reason, that latter connection (which was treasonous and conducted openly) was not considered to be tainted.

Not only had two of the university’s colleges accepted the funds but there had been an agreement (presumably as a condition of the bequest) to endow a Chair in the family’s name. So there is now to be a Mosley Professor of Biophysics at Oxford. It is impossible to exaggerate how offensive this is – not just to the Jewish community, but to the veterans and their surviving relatives who fought against Hitler. It would be rather like a German university creating a Goebbels Chair (of what? Genetics? Anthropology?) That would never happen, of course, because Germany is extremely sensitive about these things.

Why might this squalid little affair have the effect of bringing down the Woke hegemony? Because an institution that is happy to accept funds – today, right now – from the fortunes of a known fascist whose racism is unambiguously documented (and was condemned within his own lifetime), cannot credibly justify repudiating its connection with figures whose families may have profited centuries ago from a trade that was widely accepted at the time.

The UK arm of Black Lives Matter has obviously recognised this danger and joined the clamour for Oxford to return the Mosley money (which has almost certainly already been spent). The whole thing looks ludicrous and blatantly hypocritical. What it seems to indicate is that those pillars of British intellectual and cultural life – great universities, fine museums and media organisations once the envy of the world for their integrity – will cave to (or, at least, engage with) protests whose activists shout the loudest without a proper moral examination of their own actions.

But it might well be the silly story of last week that finally does the business. What should have been an inconsequential incident at the notoriously boisterous and irresponsible Cambridge Union – a membership debating society which is not an official arm of the university or even its students’ union – became a media sensation when its president, Keir Bradwell, decided to lead an impromptu Stalinist coup.

Having stated in his introduction of the soon-to-be controversial guest speaker, Andrew Graham-Dixon, that he (Bradwell)  was too drunk to read out the prepared words, he went on to express admiration for Graham-Dixon’s performance, which included a Hitler impersonation, on the night – and then subsequently to condemn it in unequivocal terms which involved banning him (Graham-Dixon) from any further appearances at the Union.

And not only Graham-Dixon himself but a list of other unacceptable people too. If you have read the text of the Graham-Dixon speech given that night, you may have found it a robust and witty condemnation of the Nazi view of art, as did I – and I am Jewish. But that argument is over since Bradwell himself has now withdrawn his banned list which he did not, in any event, have the right to impose. The salient point of Barwell’s rather sad little apologia when he cancelled his own cancellation list was that he thought it would somehow “make things better”. This is apparently the way young students at our most outstanding centres of learning now think.

There is a larger argument to be had here: what is most pernicious about the incontinent Woke mentality is that it often robs the individual of moral agency. Your value as a person is not determined by your own acts or even your intentions but by your association with a race (or class) over which you have no control. That is what should be the subject of discussion at universities, rather than a narcissistic cult in which hurt feelings are the measure of everything.

What may remain significant about this incident in which a 21 year old said some idiotic things and then took them back, is what happened next. John Cleese announced that, as he too had been known to impersonate Hitler, he was now cancelling himself and withdrawing from a Cambridge Union debate. The author Louis de Bernieres followed suit.

Let us hope that what follows is an avalanche of such self-cancellations – not just at Cambridge – which would make a mockery of the whole enterprise. And perhaps that is the key to undoing this: ridicule. Maybe it is the secret that explains why British life is not torn asunder by culture wars in the way that the United States so often is.

Instead of taking up arms against the advancing guard of combatants who threaten to dismantle your social values, and fighting to the death (often literally) in the streets as Americans are inclined to do, the British take a softly-softly, appeasing tone – giving a bit here, offering a bit there to the angry mob, without ever losing their sense of irony. Until – almost without warning – the onslaught grows so overblown and overconfident that it becomes patently, stupidly, undeniably crazy, self-contradictory and, most important, risible.

This is the British way of dealing with threats that in other countries end with tanks in the streets, guillotines or, at the very least, clouds of tear gas. Let the insurrection inflate until it becomes ludicrous. Play along until the public consciousness can take no more of its precious heritage and historical memory being trashed. (Could this have been the real motive behind Tate Britain’s infuriating attempt to discredit Hogarth even as it was commemorating his achievement as an artist?) Give in until the surrender descends into self-parody.

Don’t shoot, just laugh.

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