When you read a column in The Sunday Times (London) which introduces itself to you with this cri de coeur, “I’ve found a way to sidestep cancel culture: I’ll tell you everything I’m not thinking instead”, you can’t help feeling you are in some kind of enemy territory. When someone as outspoken as the larger-than-life Jeremy Clarkson is reduced to a strategy like this you cannot but think, I better keep quiet.
Clarkson’s editors were afraid to print something he had written the previous week because it might offend the safetyniks. They deleted what he had said and substituted it with a new clarksonesque paragraph “expressing an opinion which I don’t have”. So the next week, feeling that letting them do his work for him was selfish, he sat down and “wrote something that I’m not thinking instead”.
We cannot but feel that the cultural surveillance which provokes this state of affairs must end soon. The lunatics may take over the asylum for a period but it’s hardly reasonable to expect that the situation will continue indefinitely, or even for an extended period. Or is it?
A very sobering read which might make you question any naive expectations that sanity might return to our culture anytime soon is Arthur Koestler’s seminal novel, Darkness at Noon.
Koestler wrote this book over the years 1939/40. It is a fictional chronicle of an interrogation of an old Bolshevik who becomes a target and eventually a victim of Stalin’s terror apparatus. It features several such victims who by just not managing to say the right thing, or appear not to be thinking the right thoughts, or are fool enough to suggest the simplest deviation from the “correct” path, end up with bullets in the backs of their heads.
Reading Darkness at Noon will set off all sorts of unpleasant bells ringing in your head as you find yourself wandering through the labyrinth of a political culture which had determined that human nature was not something that was fixed but was something that a flawed inherited culture had constructed – or mis-constructed – and had to be put right. For this new culture it became an absolute principle that in the name of progress, justice and equality, former ways of thinking had to be replaced by a new order.
There are enough stories appearing in and on our media every day to make it unnecessary to spell out in detail why Koestler’s novel is likely to set off those chimes in your head. Just today, Sunday 18 April, Ben Lawrence writes
I nearly didn’t write this piece. I realise that as a white, middle-class, middle-aged man wading into the identity-politics debate, I may as well just find the nearest pack of wolves and throw myself in their path. But something needs to be said about the regressive idiocy that is threatening the creative spirit and the sheer enjoyment which the worlds of arts and entertainment bring to millions of people.
There are enough regular reports of people being required to grovel to make our minds hearken back worryingly to the show trials of 1930s Russia. Like those targeted then, those now in the cross-hairs of ‘woke’ warriors are not only required to grovel but are being obliged to say that they are very grateful to be made grovel.
In the mental battle of minds which ensued in Darkness at Noon between the interrogator Gletkin and his victim, Rubashov, we can see the gradual disintegration of truth before the relentless machine which was moulding its own version of “truth”.
Without becoming aware of it, they had got accustomed to these rules for their game, and neither of them distinguished any longer between actions which Rubashov had committed in fact and those which he merely should have committed as a consequence of his opinions; they had gradually lost the sense of appearance and reality, logical ﬁction and fact.
Rubashov occasionally found himself clutching at straws of real truth in the midst of this battle because he was a man who had known truth, who had a history which still lived in him. His interrogator had none. He was the “new man”, the creation of the system. He was a new Neanderthal, fresh out of the mists, whose most conspicuous trait, as Rubashov sees it, “was its absolute humourlessness or, more exactly, its lack of frivolity.”
These are the traits of those in our own time who cannot see beauty, humour, or who cannot value any kind of creativity without passing it through the sterile filter of their own tortured “correct” cultural framework – and then call on those who fail their tests to apologise and disappear.
Rubashov reflects that he and his fellow victim, Ivanov – whose first appearance in the story is as Rubashov’s interrogator – came from a world which had vanished. “One can deny one’s childhood,” he observes, “but not erase it. Ivanov had trailed his past after him to the end; that was what gave everything he said that undertone of frivolous melancholy; that was why Gletkin had called him a cynic. The Gletkins had nothing to erase; they need not deny their past, because they had none. They were born without umbilical cords, without frivolity, without melancholy.” Ivanov’s fate has another parallel in our own time in the fate of those like that one-time progressive, J.K. Rowling. The guardians of the progressive ideology turned their guns on her when she dared question the latest addition to their ever expanding canon of what is correct and what is not.
Today’s progressive generation has set out to cancel the culture which is our inheritance. This relentless urge, more bewildering every day, stems from this frightening truth: they may know facts but they know nothing of history, of the real past, the living past. Erasing is easy for them because what they are erasing is meaningless to them. Their great evil is so-called privilege but they have no understanding of privilege. They see only a privilege which has a root in some injustice. They condemn all privilege, failing to see that most privilege has its roots in the exercise of human virtues – hard work, love and more. Rather than seek the cultivation of those virtues and the curtailing of the vices which blemish privilege, they tear down structures which offer to all the riches associated with privilege.
The absurdity of it all is laid before us by Jeremy Clarkson when he tells us what he’s not thinking:
You need to be constantly aware of your privilege so that you are aware of the challenges faced by people who lack that privilege. And you need to understand, once you’ve spotted someone without your privilege, that you should give them your Bentley. Then the next day, when they see you waiting for the bus, they should give it back. How refreshing that would be. Sharing everything and chatting in the day-long queue for bread with people who are just the same as you are. And thinking the same thoughts about everything as well.
It worked with climate change. There was a time when the subject could be debated, but then the BBC announced that there was no debate and that anyone who thought man might not be involved was a climate-change “denier”. Suddenly everyone was on side. Like we are today on meat, the royal family, trans issues, mental health and colour. It’s so much easier that way.”
The final dialogue of Rubashov with his interrogator echoes into our contemporary cultural landscape.
He put on his pince-nez, blinked helplessly past the lamp, and ended in a tired, hoarse voice:
“After all, the name N. S. Rubashov is itself a piece of Party history. By dragging it in dirt, you besmirch the history of the Revolution.”
To which Gletkin responds:
“To that I can also reply with a citation from your own writings. You wrote: ‘It is necessary to hammer every sentence into the masses by repetition and simplification. What is presented as right must shine like gold; what is presented as wrong must be black as pitch. For consumption by the masses, the political processes must be coloured like ginger—bread ﬁgures at a fair.’
Rubashov was silent. Then he said;
So that is what you are aiming at: I am to play the Devil in your Punch and Judy show——howl, grind my teeth and put out my tongue——and voluntarily, too. Danton and his friends were spared that, at least.”
Gletkin shut the cover of the dossier. He bent forward a bit and settled his cuffs:
“Your testimony at the trial will be the last service you can do to the Party.”
Darkness at Noon is read by many as an exposure of the fundamental philosophical contradictions of Stalinism. If it is, it offers another parallel with our time. The infuriating illogicality of the progressivism to which we are now being subjected is confronting us every day as Stalinism did when Arthur Koestler wrote his revealing work of political fiction.
Rubashov summed up its inherent contradictions like this:
The Party denied the free will of the individual—and at the same time it exacted his willing self-sacriﬁce. It denied his capacity to choose between two alternatives—and at the same time it demanded that he should constantly choose the right one. It denied his power to distinguish good and evil—and at the same time it spoke pathetically of guilt and treachery. The individual stood under the sign of economic fatality, a wheel in a clockwork which had been wound up for all eternity and could not be stopped or inﬂuenced—and the Party demanded that the wheel should revolt against the clockwork and change its course. There was somewhere an error in the calculation; the equation did not work out.
Neither does that of the crazy political philosophy of our time.
Darkness at Noon makes grim but salutary reading. This era must never be forgotten – because its clones are still with us, and will probably always be threatening us. They are with us now in equally virulent forms – China today – but also in embryonic forms like the ‘woke’ plague just now in gestation. Cancellation then might have been literal and lethal but the poisonous spirit is still the same in the daily cancellations of our time.