The politics of book shelves

9 May 2020

9:00 AM

9 May 2020

9:00 AM

I pulled a Canadian girl in a nightclub, back when I was in my very early twenties. She seemed very nice, if somewhat quiet. We went back to her place, where I spent an agreeable night. I sneaked out just after dawn while she was still sleeping and, upon looking under the bed for my socks (I always used to take them off back then), saw every book Ayn Rand had ever written neatly stacked up, in alphabetical order. Not just The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, but Anthem and Ideal and The Virtue of Selfishness and all the rest, the ones even Rand cultists have forgotten. I scarpered for the Tube double quick. A narrow escape.

I don’t remember much else about the lass apart from the fact that she had inverted nipples. But they didn’t scare me as much as those Ayn Rand books. It was like finding weedkiller and fuses in her basement, or something. In those days I was as stupid and censorious about supposedly right-wing literature as the entire left seems to be today, and thought darkly that my Canadian friend would have been better off giving one to Sir Keith Joseph, or maybe Barry Goldwater, rather than me. A year or two later I had grown up and not long afterwards read Atlas Shrugged, which I found turgid and soulless but not uninteresting. Realising, suddenly, that my Labour party membership card did not, by law, prevent me from reading stuff with which I might possibly disagree or at which I might take offence was an enormously beneficial dawning. It meant I could read literally anything! What an awakening.

Some jackass scribbler and contributor to the Guardian, Hicham Yezza, likened Michael Gove to the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik for having stuff by Rand, David Irving and Charles Murray on his bookshelves, as if possession of these works necessarily meant he agreed with them all. It is a fabulously stupid conceit, mired in ignorance and petulance. But then it is the left which burns books these days, not the right. On the issue of Charles Murray, I would argue that if you have even the slightest interest in the social sciences and you haven’t read The Bell Curve, then you are an idiot. Meanwhile, Owen Jones weighed in with his usual mixture of sanctimony and adolescent hysteria. (Someone needs to look after that boy before he implodes like a primitive nuclear fusion device, the neutrons of confected outrage piling upon one another until criticality is reached and nothing is left of Owen, just a blackened crater and some poisonous isotopes with a half life of 0.0001 nanoseconds.) The Independent also took Mr Gove to task for possessing books which sometimes contained subject matter with which they might disagree, helpfully pointing out that Rand ‘defends capitalism’, the evil bitch.

While all this was happening — this Twitter spaz-out from the jabbering lefties over the books shown in a tweet from Gove’s wife — the Stalinist state of mind which defines these ludicrous people was having its fullest expression at, of course, Oxford University. There, the students’ union demanded that no student should ever be taught anything from books which contained what they described as ‘hateful’ material. Pompous to a degree you might have thought impossible in a bunch of 20-year-olds, the motion stated: ‘Any legal framework which does not criminalise speech that discriminates on transphobic, ableist, or misogynistic grounds is deficient, and should not be the starting point for university policy.’ In other words, no work with which they might possibly disagree should be taught to the students.

You thought that Covid might have dampened down leftie fascism a little, what with all the Thursday evening mass-thank-you-to-the-NHS sessions and vast public expenditure with which they are undoubtedly in full Orwellian accord? But no, the union is still doing its stuff and so are Jones and Yezza. They have not gone away, these benighted people. Richard Dawkins, to his credit, hammered the kids, pointing out that people who thought that way should leave university immediately, it clearly being the wrong sort of place for someone with a closed mind. The university itself, meanwhile, reaffirmed its commitment to the principle of freedom of speech. We shall see. Such pronouncements in the past have not been worth the gobbets of Covid-infected hot air with which they were expended.

And that is the problem — or one of the problems. For too long the rest of society — and especially our institutions — have given in to the shrill, relentless clamour from the authoritarian left to the extent that public discourse has been woefully truncated. You can’t say that, you can’t read that, you can’t think that — a mantra which, tautologically, closes down discussion. Society has connived in it to the extent that now you can be castigated for having a book by a right-wing person on your bookshelves. And this has happened because we were supine when the authoritarian left demanded that people who had right-wing views should not be allowed to hold office in public life — our own Toby Young, for example, and the late Sir Roger Scruton — or hounded people from jobs because they had made a joke, or may have attended conferences with some people to whom the left took exception.

It’s been going on a long time now. You may not remember the name Nigel Hastilow, but I do. In 2007 he was deselected as the Conservative candidate for Halesowen and Rowley Regis for having said that some of his constituents still believed Enoch Powell was right about uncontrolled immigration. The leftie howl round did for him and the Tories caved in. Well, now the shriekers are looking at the books you’ve got on your shelves. None of us should be surprised.

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