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Opinion | Niall Feguson

A message to all professional thinkers — we either hang together or we hang separately

In every case, the pattern is the same. An academic deemed to be conservative gets “called out.” The Twitter mob piles on. Mindless mainstream media outlets amplify the story. The relevant authorities capitulate.LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Seventy years ago this month, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established to protect Western Europe and the freedoms of its inhabitants from the threat of Soviet communism. It has become clear to me that we now need a similar organization to protect Western intellectuals from a growing threat to academic freedom.

The North Atlantic Treaty, signed by 12 governments in Washington, D.C., on April 4, 1949, was a treaty of mutual defense “to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty states “that an armed attack against one or more of [the signatories] . . . shall be considered an attack against them all.”


It would be an over-simplification to say that this alone deterred the Soviet Union from attempting to extend its power any further west than the River Elbe. Nevertheless, the commitment of successive American presidents to NATO, along with the presence of US troops and missiles in Western Europe, may be said to have worked. During the Cold War, Moscow sought to expand its influence in Latin America, the Middle East, East Asia, and Africa. It left Western Europe alone.

In those days, a small but courageous group of Western academics did what they could to expose the wickedness of communism and to support political and religious dissidents in the Soviet sphere of influence. A member of that group was Roger Scruton. During the 1980s, he traveled to Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia to assist an underground education network run by the Czech dissident Julius Tomin. In 1985, during a trip to Brno, Scruton was arrested and expelled.

A philosopher of international renown, a prolific author, a composer, and a polymath, Scruton has one of the most powerful minds I have ever encountered. But he is one of those rare thinkers who seeks to change the world as well as to understand and explain it. There was a time when those qualities were venerated. In 1998 he was awarded the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit by President Václav Havel, himself a former dissident. A knighthood came in 2016. And last year Scruton was appointed chair of the British government’s commission on architecture.


Almost immediately after that, however, the attacks from the left began. The campaign against Scruton culminated last week with the publication of a cynical hit piece in the New Statesman, which misrepresented his views on a number of issues — the influence of George Soros, China’s policies of social control, and the origins of the term “Islamophobia” — in order to portray him as a racist. The government took the bait. James Brokenshire, the secretary of state for housing, immediately sacked him.

In reality, Scruton had been framed. The author of the New Statesman hatchet job, George Eaton, had edited quotations and inserted his own commentary with the clear intention of getting Scruton sacked. He further massaged the “gotcha” quotes (“outrageous remarks”) on social media. Having achieved his objective, Eaton jubilantly published a photograph — later deleted — of himself drinking champagne from a bottle with the tagline: “The feeling when you get right-wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton sacked as a government adviser.”


A month rarely passes without some such tale of a conservative academic being “taken down.” In March it was the turn of the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, who was informed by Cambridge University that the visiting fellowship he had been offered by the Faculty of Divinity was being canceled. The reason? At a book signing he had been photographed standing next to a man with a T-shirt bearing the (obviously facetious) slogan “I’m a proud Islamophobe.”

Before that, it was the American political scientist Sam Abrams, who now faces a “tenure review” at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. His thoughtcrime? He published an article pointing out that academic administrators are even more left-leaning than professors.

In every case, the pattern is the same. An academic deemed to be conservative gets “called out.” The Twitter mob piles on. Mindless mainstream media outlets amplify the story. The relevant authorities capitulate.

The most striking common feature, however, is the near-complete isolation of the target. Did Sam Abrams’s colleagues step up to defend his (and their own) academic freedom? On the contrary: Forty of his fellow professors endorsed the student leftists’ demand that his tenure be reviewed.

My message to all professional thinkers — academics, public intellectuals, writers of any stripe — is this: We either hang together or we hang separately. A direct descendant of the illiberal, egalitarian ideology that once suppressed free speech in Eastern Europe is now shutting down debate in the West. For those, like Sir Roger Scruton, who once helped Czech dissidents to get degrees in theology from Cambridge, the irony is bitter indeed.


But the lesson of the Cold War is clear. From now on, an attack on one of us must be considered an attack on all of us. I therefore invite all who believe in the fundamental human freedoms to sign a new Nonconformist Academic Treaty.

The present danger to free thought and speech is not Red Army tanks pouring through the Fulda Gap; it is the red army of mediocrities waging war on dissent within academia and the media. It is time to confront these people with the one thing that will deter them, as it once deterred the Soviets: massive retaliation.

Divided, we shall fall. But united we can ensure that the reputation destroyed last week was not Sir Roger Scruton’s but the New Statesman’s.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.