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Young: Dumb & Full Of Cum - How Toby Shot His Wad, And Liberalism Won
David Bennun , January 10th, 2018 11:54

Toby Young's enemies are tribally driven combatants in a ferocious culture war. They are also absolutely right about Toby Young.

After the resignation of professional troll Toby Young from England’s university regulator, the Office of Students (OfS), his many defenders have taken the position that his words may be reprehensible, but look at his deeds. They point to Young’s experience in founding and leading free schools. They ask whether a person should not be afforded the opportunity to change, to grow, to give something back to society. They regret that his perspective and expertise should be lost to public service because his back catalogue of provocations has so enraged those politically opposed to him. To which I say: do me a favour.

However eminently qualified for the role Young might be, he is even more eminently disqualified – and by himself.

When the backlash began, Young’s champions leapt to his defence – none more assiduously than his most ardent and loyal booster, Toby Young. But this was a noble, public-spirited Toby Young; one who, for once, was thinking only of others. “I’m a middle-aged white male,” he tweeted, “so don’t tick any of the standard diversity boxes. But if public bodies are to make good decisions, they need to be intellectually diverse, as well as diverse in other respects.” True enough, surely. A pity that intellectual diversity simply cannot be found other than among middle-aged white males (of a particular class and educational history, too), but there you go. “For that reason,” he continued, “I hope the reception my appointment has received doesn’t put off other right-of-centre mavericks from applying for similar positions.” While he was making this point, some person unknown was busy wiping out a substantial portion of the evidence for the intellectual diversity and right-of-centre maverickdom of which Young boasts, by deleting 85% of all the Tweets he’d ever posted, and removing certain articles from his website. When he found out, he must have been livid.

If being an idiot on the internet is in itself a disqualification from public life, I’m not sure I should even be venturing to write this. I am glad that the internet shines a light upon nastiness, but I am repelled by its concomitant off-with-their-head tendency – by the way the outrage of the day invariably ends up with massed calls for someone to lose their job or their livelihood. In many cases, that’s disproportionate. Why not in this one? Because Toby Young had quite obviously disqualified himself from the job before it was ever offered to him.

His tens of thousands of deleted Tweets and articles were not merely "inappropriate", as described by the man who appointed Young (Jo Johnson, brother of Boris and at that point the Minister of State for Universities and Science - the meritocracy hard at work there, no doubt). That would suggest they were mischievous, off-colour, the handiwork of a scamp ever ready to thumb his nose at convention and etiquette. They were not inappropriate. They were repugnant. They demonstrated utter contempt for great swathes of the public Young claims he seeks to serve. What’s more, they were clearly meant to. They were repeated and amplified with such insistence, such apparent pride, that you could hardly help but feel here was a man proclaiming his raison d'être to the world. It is generally true that actions speak louder than words. But put enough words together, make them loud, inflammatory and hateful enough, and they are bound to drown out your actions, especially if the two are concurrent. It is not, for example, only Snowflakes and Social Justice Warriors who are triggered by asinine, crashingly unfunny Ladbantz aimed at reducing women to the sum of their body parts, or sometimes even less than that – to specific organs. Quite a few other people are repelled by it. Women, for instance.

According to Johnson Minor (who has since been reshuffled out of the Universities brief; funny, that), "Toby Young's track record setting up & supporting free schools" should "speak for itself". But it really doesn’t. If it did, none of this would have been an issue. It has been shouted down, not by the "armchair critics" Johnson blames, but by Toby Young himself, over many years. Johnson added that Young’s "decision to stand down from the OfS board and repeat unreserved apologies for inappropriate past remarks reflects his character better than the one-sided caricature from [those] armchair critics." Well, it certainly does reflect his character, yes. He made those "unreserved apologies" only when he thought it necessary to do so for his own benefit. It evidently never occurred to him to do so before; indeed, it evidently never occurred to him to stop adding to the welter of corrosive bile that deluges women on the internet each day. Moreover, I cannot help but be intrigued when a Conservative minister thinks bad behaviour should have no unfavourable consequences for a contrite culprit. I wonder if his government will be applying this approach to people other than its mates. Personal responsibility is a central tenet of right-wing philosophy. So, naturally, the "right-of-centre maverick" Young has been quick to hold those politically opposed to him personally responsible for this reverse; it’s they who made him look bad, rather than everything he has chosen to say in public up to this point. He gives too much credit to those "armchair critics" for inventing "a one-sided caricature" of Toby Young. Young had already made that his own life’s work. If you create an obnoxious public persona, the public will judge you by it. That's the public's prerogative. Of course your friends will say that's not who you are; they're your friends. But it is. In Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s aphorism, which had to await the internet age for its true significance to become apparent, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

Yet Johnson and Young do have one point, of sorts. Political tribalism was very much the engine of the uproar. It was not, however, the reason the uproar worked. Young was edged out of the role as much by the distaste and disdain of conservatives, small c and big. His defenders decry his resignation as a triumph of tribalism over liberalism, when in truth it is the opposite. Young has gone because those on his own side recognised the merit of his enemies’ objections, and – perhaps reluctantly – showed an adherence to one of the fundamental liberal principles: that no matter who you are, when you’re right, you’re right. Only somebody so furiously engaged in a culture war as to lose all reason could choose defending Toby Young as a hill to die on. Some did; many, plainly, did not.

This, then, was that much rarer thing in contemporary politics: a triumph of liberalism over tribalism. The same, incidentally, is true of Labour’s suspension of the recently elected MP Jared O’Mara over his alleged comments about and to women; an indicator that neither side has a monopoly on what little remains in politics by way of ethics. It’s worth considering here what those words mean. "Liberal" has become a slur on both the Left and the Right in Britain, for different reasons. For the latter, it has taken on the American sense of left-wing/progressive and thus naïve, feeble and contemptible. For the former, it is one of those words, rather like "centrist", that means "everyone who is neither us, the good and righteous ones, nor an actual Nazi".

But liberalism is no longer an identifiable political position, if it ever was. I would define it now as an embattled and essential set of ideas that does not confine itself to any one political stripe: these include the primacy of democracy and its institutions; pluralism; egalitarianism; rationalism; the valuing (although not fetishising) of expertise; the defence of civil liberties and civil rights; ethical consistency even at the political expense of one’s own side; a consensus that basic reality exists independently of one’s own wishes. Thus one may be a liberal socialist, or a liberal conservative. As something close to the former, I would not have opposed Young’s appointment to the OfS, much as I would have still disliked it, on the basis of his politics alone. [UPDATE. David Bennun writes, on January 11 2018: This article was written and published just before and I and tQ's editors became aware of Private Eye's story about how Young had attended and endorsed a secretive 2017 conference at UCL, one of a series where papers had previously been presented in favour of practising racial and class-based eugenics, and promoting the notion of lower innate female intelligence; and where speakers included an extremist American white nationalist and an advocate of paedophilia. In light of which, the thought that he should ever have had any involvement with education in any form whatsoever is alarming; and which reminds us of the concerns of those who feared the Free School programme might open a door into British state education for the beliefs of malign cranks.)

The enemies of liberalism are tribalism and populism. Tribalism is bound to conflict with liberalism for this simple reason: it defines what is right not by what is done, but by who does it, and it reflexively excuses wrongdoing by its own. Liberalism of necessity does the opposite. Tribalism deploys cognitive dissonance to overlook or explain away violations of principle. Ultimately, its self-justification is circular: we are always right because we are good; and we are good because we are always right. This is a truly dangerous attitude; it is what paves the way for populism; it is what allows liberal democracies to become illiberal ones, and in the worst-case scenario, no longer democracies at all. Anyone who would sacrifice democracy, in any form, or any component of it, for a "win" for their side has embraced tribalism to a perilous degree. In the end, and for all its many fissures and deficits, democracy is the sole guarantor of all we have of value. Lose it, and we will lose everything. Just as right-wing tribalists blame Toby Young’s political enemies for this self-inflicted farrago, so left-wing tribalists will dismiss the verifiable failings of those they support as "smears" from the right-wing media. But the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Guido Fawkes website did not invent, for instance, their stories about the present Labour leadership’s long history of unsavoury associations and views; they didn’t have to. A fact does not cease to be factual, or relevant, because it appears in an outlet you despise and whose agenda you oppose; to believe it does is to share that view with Donald Trump. By the same token, there is no question that Toby Young was assailed with vengeful glee by people who loathe all he stands for. And whatever their motives, they were right. He had no business being in that job. Again, this observation is essentially liberal: it’s not about who is right; it’s about what is right. We could do with a lot more of that if we are to reclaim our public life from the terrible fever dream it has so lately become.

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