When did artists become the mob?

12 February 2022

9:00 AM

12 February 2022

9:00 AM

‘The mob’s going to want a chicken to kill and they won’t care much who it is,’ wrote John Steinbeck. ‘Why don’t people look at mobs not as men, but as mobs? A mob nearly always seems to act reasonably, for a mob.’ I’ve been thinking about those words in recent days as more ‘cancelled’ headlines fill the news. I was a co-founding member of the band Mumford and Sons, which I quit last year. I praised a book critical of far-left extremism in the United States and all hell broke loose, so I decided better to leave my band and save my bandmates the trouble. Better that than stay and self-censor. Now that I am on this side of the parapet I thought I should use my voice to identify the totemic difficult taboo topics that we can’t talk about. That’s why I have launched a new show, Marshall Matters, on Spectator TV: I’ll be talking not to politicians but to musicians, artists, composers, comedians, everyone in the creative industries, and encouraging them to speak freely at a time when many feel they can’t. You’ll have heard about the Jimmy Carr joke about gypsies and the Holocaust. It was distasteful, deliberately so, and I won’t repeat it here. What is strange is that it was broadcast more than a month ago online, yet the fuss has erupted only now. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who is pushing the online safety bill, called the joke ‘abhorrent and unacceptable’, adding ominously: ‘We don’t have the ability now, legally, to hold Netflix to account for streaming that. But very shortly we will.’ You don’t have to find Jimmy Carr funny to be alarmed at a politician sounding so authoritarian.

The word ‘Stalinist’ is overused but I take it seriously from the likes of Ignat Solzhenitsyn. He was born in Moscow just before his father was exiled for publishing The Gulag Archipelago. Now a pianist and conductor, Ignat tells me about the parallels he sees between the Soviet Russia his family fled and the culture war we have now, a world in which ‘problematic’ remarks are reported to the authorities. ‘As soon as a view that somehow ranges outside an increasingly narrow orthodoxy is expressed,’ he says, ‘it must be not engaged with, not defeated. Not exposed for the foolish or retrograde view that it surely is: it must be reported so the “appropriate” authorities can deal with it. This is Stalinist.’

In another episode, I speak to the songwriter Don McLean, now 76, who has similar concerns. ‘People are a bit drunk with power,’ he tells me. ‘We’ve cancelled God, we’ve cancelled religion, we’ve cancelled civility, we’ve cancelled the English language. In a sense isn’t that what “American Pie” says? Isn’t that the day the music died?’ Music, comedy, satire, conversation: there’s a lot at stake.

I believe in more speech, not less. The arts industries are quickly ossifying in orthodoxy. Dissenters are punished. For me it was far-left extremism. For the podcaster Joe Rogan it is going rogue on Covid. Those who happen to agree with dissenters learn to zip it. And so develops a culture of compliance. What is most disturbing, to me at least, is how freedom of expression has become an unpopular concept among those whose careers are meant to be about expressing themselves. It is musicians, comedians and actors all over the world who have been lining up to take aim at the once indomitable Rogan over his amazingly popular podcast. Rogan felt obliged to apologise and some of his older episodes have been scrubbed. The British comedian Stewart Lee — who I’m proud to say included me in this year’s Pedal Bin list of people he doesn’t like — is leading the charge to have Rogan removed from Spotify on this side of the Atlantic. ‘Artists big and small can band together to do something to change this where the money men won’t,’ he says. What a strange way to think about the role of the arts in society.

There was a time when creatives — the likes of Steinbeck — understood mobs for the evil that they were. Today, the mob — in its Twitter incarnation — is marching across the internet swiping clean all that it disapproves of. And it is led by the great artists of the day. As with any mob, eventually they turn on their own. It’s not always ‘the left’ — whatever that means now — that demands censorship. Supposedly conservative commentators do it too. The actress-turned-TV panellist Whoopi Goldberg is currently serving a temporary cancellation for uttering the flagrant flapdoodle that the Holocaust was ‘not about race’. No doubt by the time you read this, several other similar stories will be generating clicks all over the place. ‘Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect,’ Mark Twain wrote. I hope my new show will help people do just that.

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