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The long campaign against an off-colour broadcaster shows how illiberal some on the Left have become.
It would be premature to guess the cause of a recent “fracas” between the journalist Jeremy Clarkson and the producer of Top Gear, the motoring show which made the name of the bumbling buffoon with a penchant for saying the wrong thing.
Even so the phrase “no stranger to controversy” may even now be gracing a few draft obituaries for the motoring journalist, whose career is built on his loutishness. Various pieces by the Beeb and the Guardian have even catalogued a few recent examples of his antics, in a bid to add context to what would otherwise be flimsy news pieces.
That’s not to say Clarkson hasn’t earnt his reputation. His humour has always carried a strong infusion of chauvinism, with targets over the years including Asians, the disabled, and most of the European continent. Along the way Top Gear has also mocked southern rednecks, environmentalist and almost everybody else.
But those who jump on this as an opportunity to remove Clarkson (and, in effect Top Gear) from the BBC show a remarkable talent for bigotry themselves, and a rotten desire to destroy a man’s career on the ground that his opinions and humour are distasteful to them.
Such intolerance has been an emerging feature of the Left in recent years, at least on the progressive side. Allum Bokhari – “the only Lib Dem with a Breitbart column” – earlier this year pointed to a burgeoning “civil war” between liberals, who wish to protect free speech, and progressives, who wish to curb it in pursuit of fairness or equality.
As 21st-century progressives begin to embrace many of the tactics, arguments, and moral panics employed by 20th-century conservatives, the old distinctions in the culture wars begin to lose their relevance. In a number of arenas, the cultural left is ignoring conservatives and has begun to fight itself.
Battles over what constitutes proper freedom are not new to politics, and progressives have long been willing to attack certain types of freedom as a means of promoting minority interests.
Last year the appointment of one Brendan Eich as the chief executive of the nonprofit Mozilla, creators of Firefox, quickly turned into a resignation after people found out he had donated money to a campaign group opposed to gay marriage. At the time Mary Hamilton, assistant editor for Guardian US, wrote a telling response:
As such, freedom of speech is a neoliberal shibboleth that means “I have the right to say whatever hateful thing I like without consequences from anyone”. Those who evoke it in this case are grasping for all of the rights with none of the responsibilities, and ignoring that one person’s freedoms infringe on others.
Hamilton does raise some valid points in the article, particularly about the right of customers to boycott a service and the discord between Eich’s values and those of Mozilla. But to focus on the fact that one person’s freedom affects others is to take exactly the line of argument that social conservatives have made for centuries — on sex, drugs, divorce and much besides.
The argument is that you cannot behave in this way because in some intangible way it will affect the rest of the fabric of society. It is, in other words, a politics that betrays the individual in preference for majoritarian conformity.
No doubt such an argument seems a lofty way of defending a Top Gear presenter, however amusing or otherwise you find his jokes. But if the authoritarian Left can shut down a £149m TV show, what argument will stop them next time?
Image – Sarah Marshall