Who will be banned next?

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Who will be banned next?

Philosopher Martin Heidegger in 1958. Portrait by photographer Fred Stein (1909-1967) who emigrated 1933 from Nazi Germany to France and finally to...

Writing recently in the Sunday Times, Matthew Syed wrote a devastating piece about BAFTA and the Noel Clarke affaire. It was, he said, “a story of people not seeking to do the right thing but to avoid being seen to do the wrong thing, which is very different.”

The same could be said about the response of Blake Bailey’s American agents and publishers, WW Norton to allegations of sexual misconduct against him following the publication of his much-acclaimed biography of Philip Roth. 

Who will be next? I don’t mean who will be next to be accused of sexual harassment or assault. I mean what kinds of writers and thinkers will be charged of what kinds of crimes and misdemeanours? 

What about Heidegger, criticised for his support of the Nazi regime? In her new biography of Heidegger’s one time lover, Hannah Arendt, On Love & Tyranny, Ann Heberlein describes Arendt’s reunion with Heidegger after the war.  “Reading Hannah’s unreserved tribute to Martin is heart-wrenching,” she writes, “not least because there is no empirical evidence for any of her claims, no documents or testimonies to back up her reassurances that Martin Heidegger never declared himself a supporter of Nazism… In 1969, when she wrote her tribute, it was common knowledge that he had been a member of the NSDAP from May 1933 until the party ceased to exist in 1945.” Arendt forgave Heidegger. Should we? Should we continue to publish and teach the works of a Nazi philosopher?

In his book on Heidegger, the critic George Steiner is more damning. “[The] thinker of Being found nothing to say of the Holocaust and the death-camps.” Some of his statements, Steiner writes, “breathe the infatuation with ferocity of a small man abruptly transported … to the hub of great political-historical affairs.”

But Steiner broadens out the argument not just to include “Heidegger’s abject treatment of endangered academic colleagues”, most famously his mentor Edmund Husserl, a Jew, or Heidegger’s “appalling” silence even long after 1945. “Voltaire’s Jew-hatred was rabid,” he writes. “The racism of Frege was of the blackest hue. Sartre not only sought to evade or find apologia for the world of the Gulag; he deliberately falsified what he knew of the insensate savagery of the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China.” 

Or what about anti-Semitic writers like Céline? In an essay in the New Yorker in 1992, Steiner attacks his anti-Semitism, but then again goes on to address “the bigger question”: “Does aesthetic creativity, even of the first order, ever justify the favourable presentation of, let alone, systematic incitement to, inhumanity? Can there be literature worth publication, study, critical esteem, which suggests racism, which makes attractive or urges the sexual use of children? … The Céline ‘case’… is exemplary either way. By comparison, Ezra Pound’s cracker-barrel Fascism, the deeply incised anti-Semitism of T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden’s call for ‘the necessary murder’… are thin stuff.”

Steiner returned to Eliot’s anti-Semitism again and again. In 1989, in a letter to The London Review of Books, he wrote, “Eliot’s distaste for Jews and Judaism is undisguised in his poetry and in such seminal statements as the 1933 lectures at the University of Virginia (not reissued, of course).” Eliot’s anti-Semitism, and the larger questions it raised about post-war culture and the Holocaust, prompted one of Steiner’s best books, In Bluebeard’s Castle (1971).

And then there are historians. The reputation of JH Plumb, for many years the doyen of 18th-century historians, may not recover from the personal revelations in Neil McKendrick’s critical biography, Sir John Plumb: The Hidden Life of a Great Historian. But perhaps other issues had already done for Plumb’s reputation. He mentions slavery just four times in his England in the Eighteenth Century (1950). Could that be republished today? The way we think about history, especially British history, has changed. EH Carr’s reputation as man and historian has not survived from Norman Stone’s attack in The London Review of Books (Grim Eminence, 10 January 1983). Almost 40 years later, however, it was Stone’s turn to come under attack for alleged harassment of female students. 

Sometimes all it takes is an article in an obscure periodical. Chinua Achebe’s essay, An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ published in The Massachusetts Review in 1977 started a tidal wave of criticism of Conrad. I spoke to an English professor recently who said he could no longer teach Conrad in a course on Modernism at a leading university because students consider Conrad was “a colonialist”. He is moving to another university where he doesn’t have to teach.  

Of all these crimes and misdemeanours, which is worse? Chasing women students? Not giving due attention to slavery? Supporting Nazism (Heidegger), anti-Semitism (Eliot and Céline), flirting with fascism (Pound) or with Soviet or Chinese totalitarianism (Sartre)? 

On campuses today, certainly, if the omissions concern slavery, perhaps not if it is about the post-war show trials in central Europe. Koestler wrote some of the great attacks on mid-20th century communism, from Darkness at Noon to The God That Failed. But he is now better known for alleged sexual assaults. 

At the moment, at the height of our woke culture, misogyny and racism seem to trump anti-Semitism, turning a blind eye to the crimes of Stalin or Mao. Heidegger and Pound are still taught in our universities. Sartre and Foucault, certainly. But for how much longer? When will the thought police come knocking at their doors, ensuring that they are no longer taught, that their books no longer feature on prescribed reading lists, like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness after Achebe’s attack?

In his powerful book, The Tyranny of Virtue, the American critic Robert Boyers writes of an encounter with a student. She is complaining about a set text by the white South African writer, Nadine Gordimer. It was “a bad idea” for a “privileged” white woman to be dealing with people about whose lives “she was bound to be clueless”. Were there particular instances in the novel, Boyers asks her, where Gordimer seemed to her “clueless” and had gotten things wrong? She couldn’t say. “I felt very uncomfortable about the direction we were heading in,” she says later in the conversation. She didn’t like “the usual Western prejudices”. This is, of course, not open for discussion. How she felt was her ace card.  

For that student it was Gordimer. For many others it will be Saul Bellow. “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read them.” With those few words Bellow destroyed his reputation in American literature departments for a generation. Perhaps forever. Perhaps Roth can hang on for another decade, then he will make students feel “uncomfortable”. All those angry accounts of what happened to black Newark. All that misogyny, all those jars of liver… 

In my review of Blake Bailey’s book about Roth, I wrote, “This is typical of an academic culture obsessed with harms, protections and all manner of offences. Nothing is innocent. Intention is irrelevant. As Boyers writes, ‘just about every conversation had become a minefield.’ Not just conversations: every lecture, every comment in a seminar or to a student in a casual conversation.” Unless, of course, it’s about Maoism or anti-Semitism.  

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 84%
  • Interesting points: 88%
  • Agree with arguments: 85%
50 ratings - view all

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