Dr Nicholas Kollerstrom is convinced that academics have punished him for a ‘thought crime’. The distinguished astronomer exercised his right as an intellectual in a free society to speak his mind. His university responded by stripping him of his research fellowship and declared that it wishes to have ‘absolutely no association’ with him.
To make matters worse, Kollerstrom was denounced by University College, London, one of Europe’s greatest bastions of academic integrity, whose founder, Jeremy Bentham, defended intellectual freedom with the stirring words: ‘As to the evil which results from a censorship, it is impossible to measure it, for it is impossible to tell where it ends.’
Admittedly, if the philosopher had lived long enough to hear the conspiracy theories of the 21st century, even his defence of free speech might have weakened. Once he was away from his scientific studies, Kollerstrom embraced them all. ‘Let us hope the schoolchildren visitors are properly taught about the elegant swimming pool at Auschwitz, built by the inmates, who would sunbathe there on Saturday and Sunday afternoons while watching the water polo matches,’ he said of the Nazi genocide. ‘Let’s hope they are shown postcards written from Auschwitz, where the postman would collect the mail twice weekly.’
Denying the crimes of the clerical fascists of today comes easily to a man who can deny the crimes of the secular fascists of the 1940s. Kollerstrom has opined at length on how the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon and the 7/7 London bombings were not the work of the actual bombers, but of Western security forces acting on the orders of – you’ll never guess – their ‘Zionist masters’.
As it happens, Hasib Hussain, the 7/7 suicide bomber on the number 30 bus, detonated his explosives in Tavistock Square, just round the corner from University College’s main campus in central London. The Islamist didn’t kill research fellows, but cut short the blameless life of Gladys Wundowa, a Ghanaian who worked as a cleaner at the college.
I can understand how the attempts of one of its fellows to exonerate her murderer repelled the college’s managers. Equally obviously, they must have thought they could safely dismiss him as a member of a loathsome group of extremists. Rachel North, a victim of the bombings, would not contradict them on that point. She described how respect for the dead and injured didn’t figure in his tormented mind. He harried survivors, she said, tracking them down and harangued them with ‘his barking “theories” that the bombers were innocent “patsies” executed by the state’.
A creep from the fringe, then, and a pestilential one at that. But the clearest trend in intellectual life is the fringe developing trends in the mainstream and magnifying them into grotesque shapes. To put it another way, Kollerstrom is not as far away from respectable academics as University College assumes. His faults are theirs too.
If a bomb were to explode outside University College today, mainstream voices would fill the airwaves and say that responsibility for the carnage lay with the British, American or Israeli governments. Their arguments would be passionate and convincing, but I don’t need to tell you every one of them would avoid mentioning the Islamist ideology that motivated Hasib Hussain and men like him. To divert attention from a criminal is not the same as pretending that the criminal is innocent. But it isn’t so far away from it either.
Media London is currently muttering about commissioning editors being intellectually crippled by a thoughtless version of multiculturalism that can’t take account of the differences between liberals and reactionaries, secularists and fanatics, within communities. The BBC caused the resentment by shelving a drama documentary on the 7/7 bombings after its researchers, several of them British Muslims, supplied a detailed picture of young men caught up by the theocratic justifications for slaughter.
The researchers are bitter, not least because the bombers’ families read the script and vouched for its authenticity. BBC people tell me that the grounds for postponing the documentary were artistic and it may yet be made for the fifth anniversary of the atrocities. I’m sure they’re telling the truth, but am equally sure that if they do come to film it, they will face internal opposition from colleagues who, in a vague and ill-thought- out manner, think it not quite proper to discuss such matters in public.
As for conspiracy theory, though Holocaust denial is not acceptable in the West, in academia, the scheming Jew is back as a cosmic force able to pull the strings of his dupes and order the world to his desires. American academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argued to widespread acclaim that a conspiracy of powerful Jews decided to serve the interests of Israel by persuading America to invade Iraq in 2003.
Why the Elders of Zion didn’t direct the US administration to invade Iran, which wants to wipe Israel off the map, rather than Saddam’s Iraq, which was crippled by sanctions, they don’t say and, more interestingly, are rarely asked. Liberals would once have dismissed their thesis as far-right ramblings. Now the London Review of Books, house journal of liberal academia, repeats it.
Indeed, although he perpetuates Nazi doctrine, Kollerstrom presents himself as a man of the left rather than the far right. He says that he is not a member of a neo-Nazi organisation, but an active supporter of the Green party, Respect and CND. Given the political gyrations of our times, he may well be telling the truth.
Before Bentham died, he asked that his body be preserved so that it could be exhibited at the college he founded. The authorities agreed and Bentham sits in a wooden box in South Cloisters as if to remind academics and students to uphold his commitment to reason.
Rather than seeking to restrict Kollerstrom’s academic freedom, their successors would have done better to have agreed to preserve his body and place it next to Bentham’s as a reminder to liberal intellectuals of the state they may come to if they abandon liberal principles.