Totalitarian and liberal regimes aren’t exactly meeting one another halfway. The latter are bridging most of the gap.
One key sign is the accelerating attrition suffered by freedom of conscience (and its derivative, freedom of speech), that key civil liberty without which no political, social or cultural virtue is possible.
Granted, absolutes never exist even in the most absolutist of realms. All societies impose some limits on self-expression.
The difference between decent and vile societies is that in the former such mandates are proscriptive, while in the latter they are prescriptive.
Decent societies only ever tell people what they can’t say or do. Vile ones, on the other hand, tell people what they must say or do. And if such demands go against the people’s conscience, then so much the worse for the people.
France kindly provides an illustration by her treatment of Idrissa Gueye, the footballer plying his trade at Paris Saint-Germain. He refused to celebrate in the prescribed manner the seminal date in the calendar: the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.
On that day all French teams, including PSG, were ordered to wear shirts embossed with a rainbow design, along with rainbow shoelaces. Being a pious Muslim, Gueye refused. He comes from Senegal, where 97 per cent of the people believe homosexuality is wrong.
Both the regional council of Ile-de-France and the French Football Federation almost suffered a collective apoplexy. The footballer, they croaked, will be punished, although they didn’t specify the severity of the punitive action.
In a parallel outrage, footballers in England are mandated to genuflect at the start of a match as a gesture of solidarity with drugged-up black criminals who pass counterfeit banknotes and then get killed when attacking policemen.
All our ball-kickers except one are complying dutifully, and the lone holdout refuses to take the knee only because he doesn’t think the gesture goes far enough. What would? Hanging cops in effigy? Or for real perhaps? Our national pastime could do with a bit of ritual sacrifice.
Come to think of it, Islam isn’t the only Abrahamic religion that has a dim view of homosexuality. Both Testaments, Old and New, issue similar injunctions. They refer to homosexuality as an “abomination”, even if they don’t command that guilty parties be thrown off tall buildings.
Not many English footballers I’ve ever watched are Orthodox Jews. Yet many of them, including those who’ve probably never seen the inside of a church, cross themselves in the Catholic manner before kick-off. Now imagine the brouhaha if one of them refused to express solidarity with sexual perversions, citing his Christian faith as the reason.
At least Gueye has a modicum of protection based on a clash of pieties. He is a black African Muslim, which gives him perfect credentials. Our love of the Third World may just cancel out some of our commitment to promoting homosexuality.
But someone like Raheem Sterling, one of those inveterate self-crossers, may be black, but he is a London black, which strips away a vital protective layer. If Sterling did a Gueye, he’d probably be eviscerated.
What happened to our much-vaunted democracy? We are still allowed to vote our conscience in various elections, but not to act on it wherever a newly hatched orthodoxy is involved.
But wearing rainbow clothes or taking the knee are both political statements. After all, it’s not for nothing that woke fanaticism is called political correctness – not, say, moral or social. And yet we are allowed to write “none of the above” on a ballot paper, but not to act on our conscience in other political situations.
While punishing dissent, modernity extols effusively any act of abject conformity. The other day, for example, the 17-year-old Blackpool forward Jake Daniels came out of the closet in which other homosexual footballers have been hiding since Justin Fashanu fessed up in 1990.
The outburst of enthusiasm over young Jake’s admission even exceeded the decibel level of opprobrium over Gueye’s crime. Daniels has been called heroic, brave, courageous and a full thesaurus of other synonyms for fearless.
That makes me wonder what words we reserve for the defenders of Mariupol who fight against Russian fascists to the last man, preferring death to surrender. If a youngster admitting to a sexual preference for other men is a hero, then words no longer mean anything. They outdo our finances in suffering runaway inflation.
A regime can be legitimately described as totalitarian (or heading that way) not because it punishes dissent with bullets and concentration camps, but because it does punish it. Having found myself on the receiving end of hysterical campaigns (complete with death threats) in social media, I know how trying such an experience can be.
Boycotts, suspensions, destroyed careers, offensive howling coming out of thousands of lead-lined throats are all punishments. They are milder than bullets and GULAGs, but that’s only a difference of degree.
I left Russia in 1973, having experienced the delights of unvarnished totalitarianism first-hand. But even in the Moscow of my youth, we could say whatever we wanted when having a drink with friends. True, some of those friends might have ratted us out afterwards, but at least no one would hiss “you can’t say that” at a party.
Yet this is a stock phrase in today’s England, and not just at parties. The bien pensant phrase is bouncing off the walls of media outlets, courts, pubs, schools and universities – everywhere where people communicate with one another.
And if you still dare utter things “you can’t say”, you’ll suffer consequences. They would be milder than those young Soviets might have suffered in the sixties, but they would be more certain in coming.
Disagreement is no longer an option. Contrary to Umberto Eco’s view, liberal democracies discourage the critical faculty as fiercely as totalitarian regimes do. They just haven’t quite graduated to unrestrained violence yet.