First Principles

The Cancellation of David Starkey

Say one wrong word in the year 2020, and you may be next.

In 2020, you can destroy your whole life with a single word.

On Thursday, David Starkey, the distinguished 75-year-old historian who is familiar to many TV viewers because of his frequent appearance on TV discussion programs, panel shows, and documentaries about the British monarchy (especially the Tudors) and Magna Carta, was interviewed online for 53 minutes by Darren Grimes, a 26-year-old commentator who rose to prominence as a leader of the Brexit movement. 

It was a very friendly exchange. Both Starkey and Grimes are gay conservatives who grew up in modest circumstances in small towns in northern England. Grimes, promoting the interview on Twitter, described Starkey as a “hero” of his. 

It was a fascinating exchange, too. Starkey, let it be said, is a prize of contemporary British culture—a top-flight historian with the rare ability to convey the thrill and drama of history to the general public. In debates, he’s invariably sharp and witty, exhibiting a deep knowledge of British history and politics, a fresh and original take on the subject at hand, as well as rare wisdom and solid moral sense. As for his books, I recently began reading Six Wives, about the spouses of Henry VIII, and while I expected an engaging read about a topic with which I’m quite familiar, I found a riveting book full of convincingly revisionist insights. 

But on to the interview. Starkey and Grimes discussed topics ranging from climate fanaticism (Greta Thunberg, said Starkey, “is like a mad medieval child saint”) to Thomas More to Winston Churchill to politically correct historical revisionism at British universities and on the BBC. But the emphasis was largely on the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been imported into Britain from the United States. 

On this topic, Starkey was his usual brave, outspoken self. He lamented that blacks in Britain have tended to import “the worst side of American black culture”—not Martin Luther King’s emphasis on “the content of our character” but Al Sharpton’s cult of “violence and victimhood”—and that among these imports is a fixation on slavery, even though British blacks are mostly Caribbean in origin, and not the descendants of British-owned slaves. In any event, asked Starkey, why keep going on about slavery when we don’t go on about, for example, the longtime denial of rights to British Catholics? 

Starkey further noted—as many others have, of course—that Black Lives Matter is concerned only with black lives that are taken by whites. And he described taking the knee to rioters as “the most obvious gesture of submission.”  

And then there was the part of the conversation that led everyone in the UK to jump down Starkey’s throat and that Grimes quickly cut out of the posted interview. Here was what Starkey said: “Slavery was not the equivalent of the Holocaust. Otherwise, there would not be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain, would there? An awful lot of them survived.” 

Canceled!

That evening, BBC Radio 4’s “Six O’Clock News” reported on Starkey’s remarks in predictable fashion.

Starkey, said newsreader Rajini Vaidyanathan, “has long been known for stirring up controversy. This isn’t the first time he’s used racist and offensive language.” She described his comments in the interview as “laced with bigotry.” She then introduced a tape of Starkey’s “damn blacks” remark by saying: “A warning to listeners: the clip you are about to hear contains racist language.” 

Starkey and Grimes had discussed BBC’s reflexive and mendacious left-wing slant, and Vaidyanathan’s text was a perfect example of it. 

Vaidyanathan didn’t spare Grimes. She identified him as a “right-wing commentator who describes his website as a safe space for racist and homophobic views.” This is an outright lie. In fact, Grimes has never characterized his site in this way. On Friday, he posted on his Twitter account a letter from his lawyers to the BBC and to Vaidyanathan indicating that he was contemplating legal action. 

Meanwhile, all over the UK, Starkey was being canceled. Under pressure, he resigned his honorary fellowship at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, his visiting professorship at Canterbury Christ Church University, and his seat on the board of trustees of the Mary Rose Trust, a Portsmouth-based charity; the Royal Historical Society also voted to ask Starkey to resign. In addition, History Today dropped him from its editorial board, and HarperCollins announced that a book by Starkey that had been scheduled for publication in September would not be coming out after all. 

Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, issued the following statement: “We support and promote freedom of speech in our academic community, but we have zero tolerance of racism. Dr. David Starkey’s recent comments on slavery are indefensible.” This was ironic, given that Grimes, during his interview with Starkey, had contrasted Cambridge’s sudden, rude withdrawal last year of an offer of a visiting fellowship to Jordan Peterson with its ready expression of support for Priyamvada Gopal, a fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, after she tweeted, on June 23, “White lives don’t matter. As white lives.” and “Abolish whiteness.” 

Contrast the statement about Starkey with Cambridge’s statement about Gopal: “The University defends the right of its academics to express their own lawful opinions which others might find controversial and deplores in the strongest terms abuse and personal attacks.” In other words, Cambridge didn’t even give Gopal a slap on the wrist; its only criticism was reserved for those who had found Gopal’s blatant racism objectionable. 

Racist or Not?

Was Starkey’s reference to “damn blacks” racist? Reacting to his remark on Twitter, people like Piers Morgan and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid insisted that it was. Lefty columnist Laurie Penny agreed: “Starkey has a track record of racist twatbaggery. He’s a second-rate historian, a third-rate hack and a bully, but he’s treated as a national treasure.” 

Even Grimes, plainly terrified of being dragged down into the maelstrom with Starkey, cut him loose, issuing a statement in which he said that he hadn’t been listening carefully enough to Starkey’s words when he talked about “damn blacks,” that he “should have robustly questioned Dr. Starkey about his comments,” and that in any case “no interviewer is responsible for the views expressed by their guests.”

Grimes’ clear implication was that the mob is right: his hero is, indeed, a racist.  

Is he? In the past, Starkey’s chief offense on this score has been that he’s been far franker than almost any other British intellectual on such subjects as Islam and “gangsta culture.” For his unfiltered comments on these topics, he’s been slammed by Laurie Penny and other leftists as a racist. But these are only a couple of the many topics on which he refuses to pull punches. He’s savaged the Catholic Church as “irredeemably corrupt” and compared the Scottish Nationalist Party to the Nazis. Although a supporter of the monarchy, he’s called Queen Elizabeth anti-intellectual; although he’s a gay man who played an active role in the gay-rights movement, he’s expressed mixed feelings about same-sex marriage. 

But what about the “damn blacks” line? For me, it immediately brought to mind the infamous question tweeted by Ann Coulter during a 2015 presidential debate. In response to the candidates’ rote declarations of their undying dedication to Israel—which she read as cynical pandering to Jewish voters—she asked: “How many f—ing Jews do these people think there are in the United States?” 

Is Ann Coulter anti-Semitic? Not on this evidence. Grammatically, of course, the word “f—ing” in her sentence does indeed modify “Jews.” Its real purpose, however, isn’t to describe Jews but to express exasperation. Yes, she’d have been better off saying “How f—ing many” instead of “How many f—ing.” Or just leaving the word “f—ing” out entirely. Or not tweeting. But then, Coulter is a shoot-from-the-hip type, whose appeal lies largely in her bluntness. 

And so is Starkey. And I think the “damn” in his sentence got there by way of pretty much the same kind of mental process that put the word “f—ing” in front of “Jews” in Coulter’s tweet. It’s an intensifier, intended not to characterize blacks but to add a bit of a jolt to the sentence. What matters, it seems to me, is that what Starkey was saying was, quite simply, true: as evil as slavery is, genocide is worse. 

But what matters to the cancel-culture crowd is that Starkey, an opponent of political correctness whom they’ve had in their crosshairs for a long time, finally slipped up. In the briefest of breaks from his usual eloquence, he put a single word in the wrong place and thereby gave them a clean shot. And they took it. 

And now this masterly historian—whose books I’m glad I snapped up on Amazon a few weeks ago, because (who knows?) they might well be withdrawn from sale at any moment—has been fitted with a large scarlet letter “R.” He’s not the first, and he won’t be the last. And he is, it must be said, in very good company. Say one wrong word in the year 2020, and you may be next.