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Thursday, 09 July 2020 11:28

Time to Play Dirty? Lessons from the David Starkey Affair

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Cancel culture is all around.  It crushes rational debate and destroys freedom of thought and speech.  The latest victim is the eminent British historian David Starkey, caught up cruelly in the Black Lives Matter debate.  His cancellation raises important questions for how those who value freedom fight against leftist revolutionary thought and practice.


The endless dilemma of the thinking right is whether to play dirty.  This question came, yet again, to mind in the wake of the “David Starkey affair”.

For those in Australia (and elsewhere) who have not caught up with the events of the last week, the eminent and widely respected British historian David Starkey, now in his mid-seventies, has been cancelled, following his recent accidental outing as a “racist” during an interview. 

Yet another victim of identity politics and the cultural revolution now revved up following the death of an obscure, seedy, petty criminal in Minneapolis.  Brutally killed, to be sure, in an act that may or may not have been racially motivated.

Oh, he was black.  Did I mention that?

And so it has begun.  The inevitable, rolling, out-of-control events that followed George Floyd’s killing are now familiar across the globe.  The sadly otherwise bored and unoccupied leftist faux-revolutionaries, down on their luck during the Covid confinement, have a new, err, old, cause on which to reignite their revolutionary fervour.  The leftists have come alive again.

In merely the latest contribution to this “reasoned” debate, the former West Indian fast bowler and check-your-cricket-commentator-privilege ageing male Michael Holding has taken the proverbial knee, in hymn sheet coalescence with all the English and West Indian cricketers at Southampton.

The woke are cheering.

Michael Holding is hailed as some kind of latter-day Martin Luther King.  The irony of these buffoons being compared to one who, if his sixties rhetoric is to be taken at face value, would find all the current BLM kerfuffle so much misplaced nonsense, and decidedly not what he thought would come of the civil rights revolution, is palpable.

But back to David Starkey.

Starkey is, as I said, a prominent historian.  An old fashioned septuagenarian scholar who has carved out an impressive career straddling the academy and the TV screen.  He has eloquently defended the traditionalist approach to the study of history, you know, digging into what happened, when, where, how and why.  This is an approach to history and of historiography that has gone the way of, well, history.  Now history is merely an instrument of modern politics.  End.  Of.  Story.

Real history has been cancelled. 

It only remains now to cancel the few remaining practitioners of real history.  Many of us think this deplorable.  For a range of reasons, not least of all because we think that studying the past in an objective way is an important activity in its own right and because we think it might help us to act well in our own age.  Studying history is also a challenge to the life of the mind, that equally antiquated notion.  Clinging to this quaint notion of scholarship and learning is something itself to be disdained.  No, more than disdained.  It has to be eliminated.

Because there is a war going on. 

A war not fought with traditional weapons, but a war of the mind.  A war for hearts and minds.  With consequences few of us dare contemplate.  It is a war fought by an enemy that means business, with a military strategy, battleline tactics and well equipped generals and frontline soldiers.  It has all been written down, too, in a novel.  That novel is called 1984.

Starkey has been preaching the right way to study history for a lifetime, in a shrinking academy in all senses of the word.  Preaching the right way to study history while being on the wrong side of history. 

History has been in the news of late, what with all the statues warfare.

It was only a matter of time before a traditionalist historian attempting in vain to hold the line on teaching history objectively came a cropper with the revolutionary mob, the direct descendants of the Jacobin thugs of 1789, of Bastille and of the reign of terror.

It occurred a week or so ago, in a now infamous interview David Starkey gave to a young conservative blogger called Darren Grimes in the UK.  Grimes is already hated by the British left for his provocative, non-intimidated and effective counter-cultural (for the young) prosecution of the case for Brexit and for free thought.  An enemy of the people, then.  In their sights.

The interview was truly astonishing, in its historical breadth, scholarship, learning, coherence, common sense and heartfelt plea for rational debate on contentious issues like race and identity politics.  It bears watching.

Starkey was particularly animated in relation to the farcical charges against people of whiteness that they should “check their privilege”.  Starkey outlined in graphic detail his own lack of privilege, and that of his late father, who suffered much in his own, humble life.  Starkey’s case against BLM reductionism was impeccable, compelling and powerful.

But he said that current renditions of the history of slavery are utterly without nuance and credibility.  A major thought crime in itself.  Then he said that slavery cannot reasonably compare with the Holocaust, since there are “so many damned blacks still around”.  In other words, blacks survived slavery, and, it might be argued, have prospered.  This interpretation of history will be disputed – as it should be.  The study of history will be, forever, controversial and contested.  Again, as it should be.

Following this colourful outburst, Starkey has been duly cancelled, despite his (non-craven) apology for his, he admitted, inflammatory remarks.  An appropriate apology, perhaps.

I have no idea whether his remarks inflamed anyone.  Or whether he simply happened to walk into the minefield of what Douglas Murray has called the inevitable “tripwires” of the left-controlled culture wars.

The issue quickly became – is David Starkey racist?  The wrong question, to be sure.

The now defensive Darren Grimes then proceeded to do an interview with a UK talk back host.  He was joined by a Guardian journalist, one Dawn Foster.

This interview takes us to the nub of the problem.  Darren, an innocent abroad, appealed to the notion of forgiveness.  Shouldn’t we simply forgive “mistakes” like Starkey’s sloppy language and “move on”.  As the incomparable Frank Devine once said, in a similar (Aboriginal sorry debate, in the 1990s) context – “shouldn’t the Aborigines simply forgive us?”

Well, yes, perhaps they should.

The performance of the leftist Foster during the interview is very revealing, and instructive.  She won the debate.  It left Grimes looking ill-at-ease, defeated, uncomprehending.  Foster is clearly a seasoned ideological protagonist.  And there are lessons to be learned here for those of us who endlessly scratch our heads in wonderment as to the left’s complete victory in the culture wars that began in the 1960s.

Her two big points were – well, yes, there may be some cancel culturing going on (yawn), but it is essentially a case of “nothing to see here”.  Sometimes people on social media do “pile on”, including against her.  Just ignore it and move on.  Really?  Clearly, no social media mob is about to cancel Dawn.  Kill her career.  Kill her reputation.

Because – we play fair.

Foster has let the cat well and truly out of the bag.  But she won the point.  Her second, and killer, blow was afforded her because she had the final word in the interview.  She agreed that podcasts and interviews should be “unfiltered”.  Free speech is grand.  Because then, and only then, we can reveal the true thoughts and motives of the likes of Starkey.  Now we know he is a racist!  Grimes had been owned.  Well and truly.  And I don’t think anyone noticed, though Grimes seemed perplexed and rendered ill-at-ease by the ending of the interview.

Herein lies a dilemma for both those who believe – innocently now – in objective social science, for those who believe in the vigorous to-and-fro of democratic debate, and for Christians and others yearning for a forgiving world in which we just “get on”, despite out differences.

Well, friends, those days are well and truly gone, forever.  You do not have to believe, as an increasing number do, that we are living in the end times, to recognise that, with the out-workings of the sixties revolution co-created by cultural Marxists and postmodernists, we are now involved in a fundamentally new game.

I believe implicitly in forgiveness.  I feel I have to, given my own massive need for eternal forgiveness for my many sins.

But Alinsky didn’t.  Nor Marcuse.  Nor Adorno.  Nor Gramsci.  Nor all their sixties revolutionary mates.  These were the architects of the twentieth century post- Marxist Marxism.  These folks simply don’t do forgiveness.  They are very, very smart.  Determined.  They play for keeps.

Nice guys like Starkey and Darren Grimes, and the rest of us, face some choices.  Alinsky notoriously suggested that we don’t play fair.  None of his neo-marxist cultural revolutionaries would disagree.

We either play the game that we have been forced to play, or we surrender.  Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option – retire to the caves and hope for the best – may not work for those who have to interact on a daily basis with the progressive world, earn a living, and put food on the table for their families.

It might be objected that many of those who chant BLM talking points are not really “revolutionary”, but are merely either useful idiots or sincere liberals who merely want justice for their favoured victim groups.  For the oppressed homosexuals and blacks and women and whoever might feel oppressed on a bad day. 

(Truth to tell, we are all capable of feeling oppressed.  And, objectively, we may well be oppressed.  And not only in convenient leftist-defined categories.  As a left-handed batsman, I often felt oppressed when facing devious right-arm bowlers with a good leg cutter.  Life sucks).

No, anyone who witnessed the Grimes interview in the aftermath of the Starkey cancellation must see the stark (no pun intended) realities we face.  Ignoring for the moment the truly mind-blowing current challenges like Covid fascism and its attendant suspensions of freedom, for no good cause, and the ever encroaching Chinese communist imperialism, we have to peer over the horizon and acquire a new realism about the continuing and potentially civilisation-ending culture war.

The opposition means business.  They hate us.  They know there is a war being fought.  A war they intend to win.  Some like Marc Sidwell who has recently penned a great small book, The Long March, think that the war is in fact already over, won by the left.  Eminent philosophers like the late Sir Roger Scruton would no doubt have agreed.  The task is now to accept defeat in the first culture war, then figure out how to fight back and reclaim all of our lost ground in a new offensive campaign.  A new war.  To gather warriors around us, and plot the way forward, with resolution, intent and carefully deployed resources.

The innocent right endlessly and tediously plays the left’s game. 

As Bernard Woolley who in Yes Prime Minister all those years ago, pointed out this reality to the hapless, fictional Jim Hacker.  Like all conjuring tricks, you will always take the card the conjurer plays.  The appeal to forgiveness, to reason, to rational debate between equally equipped intellectual adversaries, is all-but-compelling to a rational, liberal mind.  Sadly, it don’t work.  We are not dealing with liberal minds.  The response of conservatives and true liberals is, sadly, the product of a naïve mindset.

It is past time to re-read Machiavelli.

The next move is ours.  History, in every sense of that term, depends upon our response.  Time to play dirty.  The other side does.  It knows no other way.

Paul Collits

Paul Collits is a freelance writer and independent researcher who lives in Lismore New South Wales.  
He has worked in government, industry and the university sector, and has taught at tertiary level in three different disciplines - politics, geography and planning and business studies.  He spent over 25 years working in economic development and has published widely in Australian and international peer reviewed and other journals.  He has been a keynote speaker internationally on topics such as rural development, regional policy, entrepreneurship and innovation.  Much of his academic writing is available at
His recent writings on ideology, conservatism, politics, religion, culture, education and police corruption have been published in such journals as Quadrant, News Weekly and The Spectator Australia.
He has BA Hons and MA degrees in political science from the Australian National University and a PhD in geography and planning from the University of New England.  He currently has an adjunct Associate Professor position at a New Zealand Polytechnic.