Sir Roger Scruton—the prodigious conservative philosopher—once noted of his time at Birkbeck that it was “traditionally a left-wing place, haunted by the fear that somewhere, somehow, a conservative might have infiltrated the corridors.” Though he added that “the students were terrific because they were all grown up.” One suspects that if Scruton were still alive, he’d reconsider his opinion of the students.
On May 19th, a Twitter account called “Birkbeck Students Anti-Racist Network” posted a long thread denouncing one of the academics at that institution, the political scientist Eric Kaufmann. In typical self-righteous fashion, the thread begins, “Kaufmann is a politics professor & former head of that department at Birkbeck … We want to publicly denounce him as a white supremacist and racist apologist.” (Accusing Kaufmann of being a “white supremacist” is particularly risible, given that the man is not only Jewish, but part Chinese and part Latino.)
The first tweet includes an image where Kaufmann appears next to a dog, with a whistle in his mouth. Emanating outward are his supposed “white supremacist dog whistles,” which include the phrase “woke hijacking.” The text of the image states, “Alt-right academics are not welcome at Birkbeck,” and includes the rallying cry, “We say #KaufmannOut!” It also notes that Kaufmann has “links to the right-wing Policy Exchange.” The word “links” is used to suggest some kind of clandestine relationship, which is bizarre given that Policy Exchange is a well-known organisation with which many public figures have been associated.
In the subsequent 27 tweets, Kaufmann is upbraided for his stances on free speech, academic freedom, and cancel culture; for poking fun at woke activism; for criticising the concept of indigenous knowledge; for the content of his 2018 book Whiteshift; and for being associated with “Quillette, UnHerd, Spiked and many other far-right & bigoted magazines.” Numerous screenshots of Kaufmann’s tweets are posted as “evidence,” making the thread a masterclass in offence archaeology (though most of the things Kaufmann said or retweeted aren’t remotely offensive.)
The thread ends with a link to a petition, addressed to the Master of Birkbeck. It notes, “Even in the face of repeated formal complaints, management have refused to take action,” indicating this is not the first attempt activists have made to defenestrate Kaufmann. The petition calls for Birkbeck management to “fully investigate” his activities, and warns that if management are “unwilling to ensure Birkbeck is free from racists, we will be forced to take action ourselves.” Which sounds an awful lot like a threat.
Most of the accusations against Kaufmann are so absurd (e.g., the claim that he is a “white supremacist”) they can simply be ignored. One that perhaps deserves a response is the claim that “he compared people of colour to a herd of cattle.” This refers to a (now-deleted) tweet by Kaufmann where he shared a picture of cows blocking a road in the countryside with the caption “Black Lives Matter protest in Saskatchewan.” However, this was obviously not meant to imply that black people are cattle; it was simply a joke about the fact that cows often block roads in rural Canada (Kaufmann’s country of birth). At the time, BLM protestors had been blocking roads in the United States, and many of those protestors were in fact white.
Contrary to the outlandish claims in the activists’ tirade, Kaufmann is a serious scholar and public intellectual; he has worked on topics as diverse as Protestant identity in Northern Ireland, the relationship between religiosity and fertility, and the political attitudes of Brexit voters. His latest book, Whiteshift (which the activists unsurprisingly mischaracterise) was made “Book of the Week” in the Times upon its release, and was listed as one of the “Best books of 2018” by the Financial Times.
The reason Kaufmann has been targeted is simply that he departs from woke ideology on issues like race, immigration and freedom of speech. I should stress, incidentally, that this ideology is far less popular among the general public than it is on university campuses. Nonetheless, any scholar who takes an unorthodox position on one of today’s hot-button issues—particularly race or trans, the two most explosive—is liable to be vilified. The thinktank Civitas found that, between 2017 and 2020, 55 percent of UK universities saw at least one open letter or petition that called for “the restriction of views of staff, students or visiting speakers”.
What is particularly ironic about the attempt to defenestrate Kaufmann is that he has spent much of the last two years documenting the intolerant atmosphere at British and American universities. (His findings are summarised in a 195-page report, published by the Centre for Partisanship and Ideology.) The fact that Kaufmann has now became a case study in his own research may give him a sense of grim satisfaction.
Another way he’s been spending his time is by making the case for the UK government’s new academic free speech bill. (The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, actually cited Kaufmann’s research in the white paper he published back in February.) A further irony is that this bill aims to thwart precisely the kind of campaign of which Kaufmann is now a target. As I noted in a recent article for Quillette, by providing the targets of cancel culture with legal recourse, the bill may deter institutions from capitulating under pressure, and thereby make attacks that call for sanctions less common in the first place.
So far, it seems, the attempt to cancel Eric Kaufmann has been unsuccessful. And based on the reference to “repeated formal complaints” the activists made in their petition, they’ve been at it for some time. (Birkbeck therefore deserves some credit for not bowing under pressure.) Indeed, the main effect of the activists’ latest stunt has been to engender a humiliating ratio on Twitter. Yet even when they don’t succeed, cancellation attempts still have a chilling effect on free speech.
One positive thing Kaufmann can take from this whole affair is that the case for the new bill he’s been backing now looks even stronger.
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