Some optimism must have been revived in my cynical old heart yesterday, as I actually joined the Academy of Ideas — the organisation that stages these festivals. I rose early and headed off to Church House for yet another day of debate.
The first session I chose to attend today was on “Gender Ideology and Criminal Justice,” which I accept was asking for the opposite of a chilled Sunday morning. I did not expect to be reduced to tears however.
The discussion was not about criminalising mis-gendering. It was about the practical effects of trans ideology on criminals and in the prison estates in particular. The fastest growing element in the female estate comprises biological males identifying as women. Are they genuine? Gender dysphoria is a thing, right? Well consider this fact. There are no trans-men in the male prison estate. It seems safe to infer that the “trans-women” inmates at best want access to safer female prisons and at worst want access to female prisoners.
It seems trans ideology was trialled in the prison system well before it reached wider society. Why? Kate Coleman suggested it was because no one cares what happens to prisoners (especially, in her view, female prisoners) so the ideas met less resistance than could have been expected in schools or hospitals. Once established in the Prison Service and Ministry of Justice, it was easier to roll the ideas out into other parts of the public sector.
This was shocking but not tear-inducing. It was Ceri-Lee Galvin who turned on my waterworks with her account of her tragic life. The father who abused her sexually decided in prison to transition legally and has been able to leave his history behind him on release, while retaining both his paedophile proclivities and his male genitalia. Her courage in refusing to be a victim and insisting on coming forward (under constant and vicious attack for transphobia from trans activists) to protect other young women is as inspiring as her story is terrifying.
Horrifyingly we were told that trans rights transcend child safeguarding in that one need not “deadname” oneself in a DBS report required before working with children.
In search of light relief my next session was “Why do comedians keep siding with the Establishment” featuring Miriam Elia, Dominic Frisby and Graham Linehan.
Dominic spoke of the history of the Edinburgh Fringe from the uninvited eight to the present day when the only event selling more tickets than the Fringe is the Olympic Games. He made an interesting comparison of the main (curated) festival vs the (uncurated) fringe to today’s BBC and YouTube. Cat videos would never have been commissioned by BBC Light Entertainment!
Another interesting insight was triggered by a question from the floor about where working class comedians had gone. Dominic said they were early victims of cancel culture driven by the sneering of the likes of Ben Elton.
Miriam had a successful time at the BBB until she wrote a surreal Gardeners Question Time sketch in which militant Muslim vegetables rose up and attacked the other plants on behalf of ISIS. She was told to change it to fundamentalist Christians and refused on the grounds that it wouldn’t then be funny. She left, became independent and has succeeded. She sounded disappointed not to have been cancelled but as Peter Boghossian had advocated yesterday for academia, she’d effectively set up her own parallel institution where she couldn’t be cancelled.
I am a huge fan of Father Ted and was delighted to be in the presence of Graham Linehan. Naively, he feels that our woke censors are imaginary. I pointed out to him from the floor that the Equity Diversity and Inclusion concerns expressed by a BBC producer in rejecting his latest sitcom were not just a fad on Twitter. There were real ESG rules as discussed in the session I attended here yesterday, which could get employees of corporations and institutions fired for any satirisation of protected minorities.
I suggested comedians gave up on the established outlets and went the Boghossian/Elia route of establishing parallel spaces to work in. The chair, Andy Shaw, said that was all well and good up to a point but shows needed venues and when his comedy show featuring Graham had been cancelled at the last Fringe, no one else would offer space.
Linehan has a theory that spell checkers would end the world. It used to be that people complaining to the BBC wrote misspelled letters in green ink that made it obvious they were crazy. Now spellcheckers and Grammarly allowed them to appear serious enough to be listened to.
Miriam has found an outlet for her satirical artworks in Eastern Europe. She found it funny that a British Jew whose ancestors fled that part of the world to find liberty now had to go there to find freedom of artistic expression. As someone who lived and worked in Eastern Europe for 11 years, I could have told her they all recognise what’s happening to us from their recent experience of Communism. They are both inoculated against Soviet thinking and horrified that the West is falling back into it in a slightly different guise.
After lunch I listened to Peter Hitchens in conversation with Austin Williams on the topic “A Revolution Betrayed.” He has written a book about the destruction of selective education in Britain. I can’t say there was a debate. To the evident frustration of his interlocutor, all contributions from the floor were supportive of his view that this had been a massive mistake and that British state education is a disgrace. Asked how to fix it, he said “that’s up to you, I’ll be dead soon.” In his view it can’t be fixed without overturning the leftist cultural revolution that has transformed the country since the 1960s and given us an Establishment that rumbles leftwards regardless of how we vote.
My next session was “I dissent! Challenging the Culture of Conformism”, featuring Peter Boghossian, Jennie Bristow, Abbot Jamison, Helen Joyce and Lord Moylan. This was one of the most interesting discussions. It seems to me that the radical progressivism of what Frank Furedi calls “the pronoun elite” has done civilisation one favour. In refusing to engage with people who believe in free speech, they’ve pushed us together to have more discussions than we might have had without them. This weekend, old-style Labour, traditional Conservatives and classical liberals like me have engaged in polite but forthright discussions of the issues of the day.
Professor Jonathan I. Israel set out the characteristics of the original Enlightenment.
Munira Mirza of Civic Future told a story of dining with a Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur who is involved with creating a new town in California. He told her that if you say to someone in the Valley you’re working on general AI they’ll assume it’s possible and will congratulate you. Tell them you’re building a new city however and they’ll say “you’re crazy! You’ll never get permission!” That illustrates the failure of our political system. Our politics are broken, our young are in despair and people are looking for scapegoats. Our universities are place of conformism and you can’t have a new enlightenment if you’re not thinking.
She said we’re a society that gives a lot of status to the “sneering professions” who deconstruct and criticise, rather than people who build.
Frank Furedi said that the original Enlightenment was as good as it gets in terms of the progress of ideas, but was subject to a shared anti democratic idea, which favoured aristocracy.
Guest speaker Coleman Hughes (of podcast Conversations with Coleman) said when we really need to apply Enlightenment values was when the issue under discussion raised our blood pressure. When the subject makes us uncomfortable is precisely the moment to lean in and have courage.
Coleman also said that in Pirates of the Caribbean there’s a scene where Captain Jack Sparrow sails by a gallows with pirates left swinging as a warning to others. In truth, very few pirates were caught so the warning was hollow. In a similar way, if someone is cancelled we all sail past the horror show of their punishment on Twitter or other social media. That’s meant as a warning too, to discourage us from speaking our minds. We need to remind ourselves that most people are not cancelled and steel ourselves to be brave and speak out.
That’s as good a summary of the message of the weekend as any!