spiked: still pointed after all these years
On spiked’s 10th birthday, editor Brendan O’Neill explains why we plan to keep on fighting our war of words against illiberalism and misanthropy.
Today is spiked’s tenth birthday. Yes, it was on 8 March 2001, back when twittering was something only birds did and ‘face’ and ‘book’ were two distinct words, that the small team that once worked on LM magazine unleashed our ‘online phenomenon’ on to the world, with Mick Hume as launch editor. Some said we were mad to head for the world wide web just as the internet bubble was bursting – but everyone else has since joined us here, creating a cacophony of commentary and chat in which, I hope, spiked still manages to stand out.
And we plan to be here for another 10 years, continuing to fight the good fight for freedom, progress, growth, tolerance and a bit of Enlightened spirit. Why? Why do we do what we do, and say what we say? When people ask me what spiked is all about, my first instinct is to reach for that great line from Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: ‘Whatever they say I am, that’s what I am not.’ Because whatever spiked is, it is not contrarian. Our aim is not, as some of our critics claim, to say things simply for the sake of rattling cages.
spiked does not adopt political postures in order to annoy. But we understand why some people think that we do. Because spiked subscribes to principles and ideals that were once taken for granted amongst certain sections of left-wing or radical-humanist thought, but which no longer are. And it is our attachment to those ideals, our commitment to freedom of speech, open-mindedness and a human-centred morality, which means that we often rub up against a political culture which not only now lacks faith in such values, but which sees them as undesirable. The accusation that spiked is contrarian is really testament to the shrinking of what is sayable and thinkable these days.
spiked has firm principles based on a commitment to the ideals of human liberation. Unfortunately, upholding those principles today often means dissenting from and being sceptical of both mainstream political thought and also the ‘radical’ outlook. So spiked is for free speech, moral autonomy, tolerance and the democratic spirit. These sound like easy principles to endorse, but in modern political debate they frequently come with a ‘but’ attached. ‘I am for free speech, but not for racists…’; ‘I am for tolerance, but I won’t tolerate climate change scepticism…’ spiked prefers no ‘buts’ with its principles. And it is our war of words against the contemporary ‘butting’ of what were once seen as key Enlightened ideals that makes us appear to some as contrarians.
Ours is an era in which political positions are instantly formed, vehemently expressed and passionately forgotten. In the space of a week, society can flit from one moral crusade against some great evil to another, with often dire consequences for rational thought and the open-minded orientation. In such a climate, one of the key roles spiked has played is as crusade resistor, an oasis of reason for those who believe that moral grandstanding and witch-hunting are sorry substitutes for proper politics.
So, forged in the heyday of New Labour, spiked never fell for the alleged charms of Blairism or its crusade to remake society in its own thin, sober, cautious, non-smoking, safe-sex-indulging image. And we were almost alone in refusing to get overexcited about Gordon Brown’s takeover from Blair, correctly predicting that he would give us more of the same only a little bit worse. We refused to sign up to the post-9/11 moral crusades against Afghanistan and Iraq, arguing that Western intervention would intensify the problems in those countries and rob peoples of their democratic right to deal with their dictators and determine their affairs. Likewise we slammed the liberal clamour to ‘do something’ in Darfur and we’re against the iPad imperialists now crusading for Western meddling in Libya.
We stood against the censorious crusade against ‘climate change deniers’, where respectable left-wing commentators called for ‘international criminal tribunals’ to make sceptics ‘answer for their crimes’. In fact, we refused to sign up to a single one of the many crusades against ‘dangerous speech’ over the past 10 years, whether it was right-wingers calling for the exclusion of hot-headed Islamic clerics from Britain or left-wingers railing against the appearance of the leader of the British National Party on the BBC. Because we believe that freedom of speech is the most important freedom of all, since it is only through the testing and interrogation of ideas in a public arena that the intellectual culture can be kept in good nick and Truth with a capital T can potentially be arrived at.
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We resisted the authorities’ unhinged crusade against childhood obesity, which, we were told, would lead to the mass deaths of young people with more blubber than brains. We wielded our intellectual cudgel against numerous health crusades – whether against the ‘evil weed’ or ‘unsafe sex’ – recognising that these narrow, bovine initiatives were a sad stand-in for meaningful, visionary politics and that they called into question people’s capacity for moral autonomy. We also resisted joining the recent chorus of respectable, even EU-funded banker-bashing – no, not because we’re fans of bankers, but because our commitment to rigorous thinking and progress means we think it far more fruitful to examine structural decay in capitalist society rather than get one’s moral rocks off through bashing wide-boy decadence.
More recently we criticised both the chattering classes’ crusade against the pope, who was said to have a ‘stench of evil’ about him, and the left’s moral crusade against Israel, which is now held up as a Nazi-esque state that every good liberal must hate and slate. Not because we hold a candle for either, but because we oppose the creation of cartoon enemies for the political benefit of activists desperately seeking some of that political momentum that seems absent from everyday experience. And we have not signed up for any of the new fashionable campaigns against unfashionable nonsense – whether it’s experts crusading against homeopathy or men of science calling for the censorship of AIDS denialism – because we recognise that backward thinking, the very question of what is true, is best dealt with through the freest possible debate.
We flat-out refused to leap on to any of the bandwagons against allegedly corrupt politicians, from the anti-sleaze wars of the early Noughties to the MPs’ expenses scandal of recent years. Not because we’re big fans of the goings-on in parliament, but because we balk at any suggestion that democracy is a naturally polluted business that must be kept in check by quangos, committees, lords and queens. For spiked, democracy should be as direct and unfettered as possible, infused with the masses’ desires rather than middle-class activists’ conception of ‘good behaviour’.
To that end, we also withstood the tide in both the US and Europe for elevating experts to positions of authority in the political realm, where campaigners now argue that everything from drugs policy to social welfare should be entrusted to know-it-alls over apparently compromised elected politicians. The new expert caste is as great a threat to people’s democratic control over politics as aristocrats were in the past. And, resisting last year’s overexcitement about the rise of the Liberal-Conservatives, spiked has stood up to the new crusade to ‘nudge’ us all towards Good Behaviour as defined by our so-called betters, recognising that this illiberal creed seeks to circumvent the very things spiked thinks are important: open public debate, democratic scrutiny, and freedom of choice.
Looking at our track record, some assume that we do these things, resist trendy moral missions, simply to wind people up, to say ‘nay’ where the majority intellectual current says ‘yay’. Not so. It is our commitment to radical humanist values which motors our critique of any political development that threatens to limit people’s freedom to think and speak as they see fit; which limits people’s ability to exert the fullest possible control over their own lives and over political, public debate; or which turns complicated issues into simple moralistic conundrums in which there is only Good and Evil. It is our faith in people’s capacity to understand the world in which they live, and potentially to impact on it for the better, which makes us the implacable opponent of illiberalism, censorship, killjoyism, miserabilism, misanthropy and various other ancient and modern trends that frequently manifest themselves in public debate today. This makes us appear to some as contrarian, but only because commitment to liberty and autonomy, once valued amongst certain radical sections of society, has fallen far from fashion.
So, as political postures continue to be instantly formed, vehemently expressed and passionately forgotten, spiked plans to continue to be guided by our commitment to the high ideals of human liberation and to the project of rethinking the problems of our age in a genuinely open-minded way. We hope you will support us. To help spiked thrive through to 8 March 2021, please make a donation today.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.