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Alan Sokal

Is it bad to write for hard-right outlets?

There is no doubt that the Overton window has shifted to the right during the last decade or two.  It is now common to hear people saying things that, even in 2010 would have been thought to be frankly fascistic.

I recall a conversation with the great biophysicist, Sir Bernard Katz, in 1992. He had come to UCL in 1936 to escape from the Nazi regime in Leipzig.  When I suggested to him that he must have been very pleased about the reunification of Germany, he pulled a long face and said “hmm, let’s wait to see what crawls out from under stones”.  He was, as so often, right. The radical right party, Alternative für Deutschland, has gained strength, especially in the former East Germany.

It isn’t long since we used to laugh at the USA for the far-right tendencies of Fox News.  Now we have its direct equivalent in GB News and Talk TV. Neither carries much advertising.  GB News lost £42 million last year.  In an evening of watching GB News, the only advertisement that I heard was for boxt.co.uk who sponsored the weather forecast. So, who is paying for them?  It seems to be much the same people who are paying for other far-right sites like Spiked Online and for slightly more subtle organisations that have sprung up to push hard-right views.  These include UnHerd, Quillette and The Critic. Mostly it’s super-rich business people whose wealth allows them to push for laws that make them even more wealthy while pretending to be on the side of the people against the “elites”.  In the case of Talk TV it’s Rupert Murdoch.  In the case of GB News, and UnHerd, and the Free Speech Union, it’s Sir Paul Marshall.

Paul Marshall (read more about him) is a very wealthy hedge fund manager -one of the elite group of wealthy people who find it convenient to pretend that they are on the ’side of the people’.  A curious characteristic of the hard right is that they seem to believe this: a sufficient condition to believe something is that it isn’t true.  In order to join their cult you must be against vaccines, against lockdowns, against climate change mitigations, against electric cars, against science, against universities, against the BBC, against any sort of regulation.  It is all weirdly contrarian.  What they claim to be for is free speech, though naturally that’s more important for people they agree with.

There are some quite ingenious people behind the hard-right’s attempts to take power. The attempted coup was obvious when Trump urged his supporters to storm Congress on January 6th, 2021, and it’s obvious in his rhetoric in 2024.  In the UK it is more subtle, but equally dangerous.  The idea seems to be to get people indignant about things like climate change by producing a non-stop deluge of misinformation.  The fact that 99.9 percent of scientists agree that climate change is a danger to the future of our planet means nothing to them -they seem to regard it as proof that there is a conspiracy by the “elites” to oppress the people. 

Spreading conspiracies is a useful tool for the far-right.  They vary from the slightly plausible to the batshit crazy (Jewish space lasers, anyone?). In the words of Steve Bannon, “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”. In other words, provide so much misinformation that people get disorientated.

Some good fact-checkers have arisen in an attempt to counter the flood of misinformation.  Needless to say, the hard-right are against them.  BBC Verify does a good job in telling us what’s true and what isn’t. And the BBC appointed its first specialist disinformation and social media correspondent, Marianna Spring.  She’s done a terrific job in investigating conspiracy theorists.  She’s talked to some of the more extreme people -those who claim that the Covid virus doesn’t exist and that the pandemic was a hoax, and that the Manchester Arena bombing was staged.  Needless to say, she’s incurred the wrath not only of Twitter trolls (many thousands of abusive messages and death threats), but also of UnHerd, which pretends to be moderate.

Simon Cottee published in UnHerd, “The hypocrisy of the BBC’s misinformation war: Marianna Spring is as dogmatic as her trolls”.  (Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent.) It includes gems like:

. . . an entire industry of journalists, academics and experts has arisen to hunt down, track and police misinformation. In some ways, this industry is just as creepy and alarming as the conspiracy culture it gorges on, mirroring its familiar pathologies of distortion and hyperbole.

So the people who warn about dangerous conspiracies are just as bad as those who spread them?

Conspiracy culture, for those who are part of it, offers a profound spiritual enlargement of the world, imbuing it with hidden meanings, mysteries and secrets. Conspiracies can be engaging and fun and thrillingly transgressive.

So that’s all right, then.

There is a lot of information about the organisations and people involved in the recent burgeoning of hard-right sites in a fascinating paper by Huw C. Davies and Sheena E. MacRae: An anatomy of the British war on woke (https://doi.org/10.1177/03063968231164905). One name that keeps cropping up is Toby Young.  You can read more about him on his Wikipedia page. Despite the fact that he’s edited his own page 282 times, it’s less than flattering.  He ran Lockdown Sceptics, and now runs The Daily Sceptic and the Free Speech Union.  His character can be judged also from this selection of his puerile tweets from 2009 (when he was 45 years old, not 15).

A dilemma

Outlets like UnHerd, The Critic and Quillette are somewhat less extreme than Breitbart and Spiked.  They are designed to seem reasonable and to tolerate, even to invite, some progressive opinions.  I’d argue that this makes them even more dangerous than the more extreme sites.  If you want to know where their political sympathies lie, look at comments on their articles (but hold your nose before doing so).   At a time when we have the most right-wing government in my lifetime, their number one enemy is that very government. They are fiercely critical of any Conservative who isn’t a member of the group of far-right insurgents whom John Major called “bastards” in 1993, and whom an ally of David Cameron, 20 years later, called swivel-eyed loons.

The stimulus to write this piece came when I noticed that some of my heroes had been writing for them.  That has created a dilemma for me, so I’ll put both sides of it.  First, though, the problem.

First, I noticed that Sense About Science is debating at the Free Speech Union. Sense about Science is an organisation that advocates good science and explains it in an accessible way.  It has written good pamphlets on a lot of topics, though the fact that it’s taken money from industry inevitably means that it will be regarded with a bit of suspicion. Being involved with Toby Young’s blatantly anti-science Free Speech Union can surely only add to those suspicions.

Then I got another shock when I saw that Alan Sokal was also involved with the Free Speech Union.  I loved Sokal’s book, Intellectual Impostures, in which he, with Jean Bricmont, talk about his spoof paper which demolished the absurd pretentiousness of post-modernist philosophers.  The cover of his book appears on the masthead of my blog, where I have posted about his work.  I was therefore very surprised when I found that he, a physicist, had spoken at Toby Young’s anti-science Free Speech Union.  It’s on YouTube.  

I was even more astonished when I found that Margaret McCartney and Deborah Cohen were publishing in UnHerd.  McCartney is a GP in Glasgow and a prolific journalist. Cohen is a first-rate investigative medical journalist. They are both people whose work I admire hugely.  Why on earth are such people giving succour to the hard right?

Declaration of interest. I count Sokal, McCartney and Cohen as friends. I have huge respect for all of them. McCartney, Cohen (and I) have all received the Health Sense UK award. We were all what was described as sceptics before that word was purloined by the forces of anti-science.

My dilemma

It could certainly be argued that I’m wrong to be upset that people with whom I agree on almost everything, are engaging with the hard right.  Talking is good and they are taking their messages to people who will often not agree with them, not preaching to those who already agree. 

On the other hand, they are attracting readers to organisations that are far to the right of anything I’ve known in my lifetime. Organisations that, if they got their way, would result, I believe, in an authoritarian government which would have much in common with fascism.

One possible explanation lies in the cleverness with which the hard-right has used wedge issues to divide people.  If you put the word ‘transgender’ into UnHerd’s search box, you get 466 hits. It’s a topic that is an obsession of all the new hard-right sites. They bang on about it incessantly.  That seems odd because only 0.5 percent of the population are affected by it.  It’s also odd because the same people who would, at other times, be saying that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, are now seeking to appear as champions of women’s rights.

I suspect that this is a clever calculation on the part of hard-right outlets, which are generally opposed to science.  It’s designed to win over rationalists by asserting again, and again, and again, that biological sex can’t change. Of course it can’t.  I don’t need people like Toby Young to tell me that. Most people nevertheless think that people with gender dysphoria should be treated with kindness. I have given my opinions on the transgender question already.  It isn’t that hard.  Yet the heat that is generated has allowed otherwise reasonable people to be sucked into the orbit of the hard-right. 

That is tragic.