“To know who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise,” is a quote often misattributed to Voltaire. Seemingly the line is a tidier version of something said by the Neo-Nazi Kevin Alfred Strom in his presentation All America Must Know the Terror That is Upon Us.
The presentation is a long rant, mostly about Jews, Communists and the New World Order, although there’s a few fun asides about “sodomy”, flag-burning, pornography, music videos (“so-called”), and abortion. He even adds some musings on paper money and rap music. The guy is not a fan of modernity.
The quote is most often passed around by slightly sketchy internet people, although an Australian politician, Cory Bernardi, once tweeted it with attribution to the French philosopher and a few people gleefully highlighted its real origins. One morale of the story is that you should google a quote before you tweet it, because some smartarse will.
And yet despite its grubby origins, the quote still describes something true. Who or what you can be punished for criticising tells you a lot about the society you live in: good and bad. That flag burning is allowed in America tells you something about who rules the country and what sort of rules they are setting.
This is relevant given two incidents this week. On Twitter Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal wrote, “White Lives Don’t Matter. As white lives.” In another tweet she added, “Abolish whiteness.” The message has since been taken down for violating Twitter’s rules, but not before it provoked a furore.
Inevitably a petition was launched on Change.org demanding that Gopal be sacked, following the playbook for rightwing speech outrages. Gopal derided these people, including the author of the petition, as ‘Karens’, a slur for pushy women.
To its credit, Cambridge University held firm. “The university defends the right of its academics to express their own lawful opinions which others might find controversial and deplores in the strongest terms abuse and personal attacks,” it tweeted. “These attacks are totally unacceptable and must cease.”
Any acquaintance with Gopal’s Twitter feed would convince you she is what the journalist Milo Yiannopoulos would term a ‘provocateur’, or what anyone else would call a shit-stirrer. “My tweet yesterday said whiteness is not special, not a criterion for making lives matter,” she later said. “I stand by that.” Maybe that was what she meant. But she went out her way to be incendiary and cannot be surprised by the vehemence of the response.
After the debacle the Free Speech Union, a lobby group run by the journalist Toby Young, drily praised the actions of the university. “We look forward to seeing Cambridge extend the same protection to all its academics in future,” it said. Cambridge had previously rescinded a visiting fellowship to Jordan Peterson over his views and sacked academic Noah Carl over ‘problematic’ research. You can guess which people pushed for such measures.
The second incident concerned the Burnley welder Jake Hepple. As Burnley was playing football against Manchester City at the latter’s ground this week an aeroplane flew overhead trailing the message ‘White lives matter Burnley’. Hepple was involved in organising it.
The message was, like Gopal’s, roundly condemned on social media. But as with Gopal’s tweet, it was unclear what Hepple was trying to say. Was it trolling? Satire? A counter-protest against the Black Lives Matter movement? Or an implicit expression of racism?
The authorities largely concluded the latter. A police investigation about the air stunt was launched and hastily concluded without charge. (The Old Bill apparently later offered Hepple protection.) Paradigm Precision, the engineering firm that employed Hepple, swiftly sacked him. Condemnations were issued by both football clubs, as well as Blackpool Airport, where the offending plane took off, and the Civil Aviation Authority.
Taken together, the two incidents suggest that British authorities are happy for white lives to be denigrated and uncomfortable with them being celebrated. In a sense that impression is ridiculous: the lives of individual white people are celebrated all the time. But in another sense it is true: explicit lauding of non-white ethic groups is tolerated in a way that pro-white movements are not.
There is a crude justification for this. Britain, being a historically and still majority white country, has a history of popular and institutional racism against non-whites, like much of the West. Although individuals express anti-white sentiments, there is no equivalent history of anti-white racism, even when there has been discrimination against white minorities such as the Irish.
That justification looks flagrantly inconsistent in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, not to mention the regular calls to ‘celebrate’ ethnic minority groups. If you are someone attached to your white identity, why shouldn’t you also expect the right to express that publicly without losing your livelihood?
The inconsistency holds in part because rich people, like me, don’t seem as attached to their ethnic identity as working class people. Such affiliations are low status and less beguiling to the well off than travel, foreign cuisine and cosmopolitanism. Because non-white pride is considered somewhat foreign and unthreatening it fits; British or white pride does not.
Some pundits link this discomfort with white identity and specifically English identity, which is often treated by critics as excluded to whites, to Labour’s recent drift in elections. The shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry’s resignation after tweeting a picture of an English flag is the emblematic scandal.
Those who eyed the Thornberry scandal uneasily should be equally uncomfortable about the contrast between an Indian-born Cambridge academic being protected – even promoted – after denigrating white identity in the same week a white welder lost his livelihood for stating that it had value. It’s bad in principle for ruling classes to hold their subjects in contempt, but it’s also a recipe for conflict.
The hope of some is that the sentiments of the patriotic working class – indeed, any patriotism – can be quietly ignored until it dies. I suspect such things are easier to believe if, like me, you working in a cosmopolitan city alongside well-educated immigrants.
Maybe we are headed for a Star Trek future of a unified multi-racial, post-national humanity. But national and ethic identities have proved durable over the years, often especially when suppressed by more powerful groups. Britain’s discomfort with its whiteness is unlikely to be the exception.