The political journey of Jerry Barnett, the author of Porn Panic! Sex and Censorship in the UK, has been a fascinating if rather unusual one. His grandfather, Albert, was among the thousands of Jews, locals and Communists who fought off Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts when they tried to march through the Jewish East End in 1936. The Battle of Cable Street, as it became known, was an inspiring example of people taking matters into their own hands. ‘Women threw heavy pots out of the windows on to the fascists’ heads. The police deployed their truncheons against the protesters, but were beaten back, along with the fascists’, writes Barnett. Albert’s daughter, Jerry Barnett’s mother, was also politically active – in the Women’s Lib movement in the 1960s, campaigning for equal rights and sexual liberation. He himself joined the socialist Militant Tendency in the 1970s. But after Margaret Thatcher’s historic defeat of the miners in 1985, Barnett, like many on the left, dropped out of politics.
It was his experience in the porn industry that eventually brought him back to political activism. By that stage, he writes, the left was unrecognisable. As Barnett argues, since the French Revolution, the left has been associated with progress, liberty and equality, and the right with the maintenance of the status quo. But today, the threat to liberty no longer comes from right-wing moralists, such as the ‘veteran decency campaigner’, Mary Whitehouse. Rather, it comes from a new army of morality campaigners largely on the left. ‘The old moralists had wielded the Bible in one hand, and the Daily Mail in the other’, writes Barnett. ‘This new movement was younger. Instead of coming from Middle England, it arrived from academia. Rather than use the language of religious morality, it appeared under the umbrella of feminism and liberalism. And in place of the Mail, it was backed by the Guardian.’
The complete transformation of the left was disconcerting for Barnett. ‘I was a Labour-voting (well, until Iraq anyway), Guardian-reading leftie; what had happened to my tribe?’ It is particularly the ban-happy nature of the puritanical left that disturbs Barnett. ‘The reality – that the Guardian has taken a conscious decision to become a pro-censorship paper – is hard to swallow. It took me, once a loyal Guardianista, several years to appreciate what had happened’, he writes.
Barnett fought against the National Front in the 1970s. He now sees his fight to be against the ’new fascists’ – the left. I agree that the left today tends to undermine the very principles its representatives fought for in the past – liberty, equality and democracy – but the overused term ‘fascists’ is not particularly useful or illuminating as a description of the left. Where Barnett is right, however, is in locating the problem with the left in terms of a loss of faith in Enlightenment values. That is, because the left has abandoned human autonomy, agency and the power of reason, it will now ‘accept the right of the state to intervene in the most trivial matters of interpersonal speech and political and artistic expression’. Hence the case for state interference is largely made by the left rather than the right. As Barnett argues, ‘this new, authoritarian, puritanical movement of the left has been so successful that the conservative right has abandoned its old moralistic language and appropriated the new terminology of the left’.
Today the threat to liberty comes from a new army of morality campaigners largely on the left
Barnett focuses much of his ire on contemporary feminism – which has been transformed from a ‘force for liberation’ into a ‘force for censorship’. ‘Having spent years arguing that women were equally capable to men’, writes Barnett, ‘[feminists now argue] that women [are] indeed the weaker sex, requiring additional protection from the state’. The fact that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn could entertain the idea of women-only carriages on trains indicates the changing attitudes to equality.
Barnett systematically takes apart the arguments of the new moralists, and shows the shoddiness of the ‘science’ they rely upon. Take feminist campaign-group Object’s shocking claim that ‘polls suggest 63 per cent of young women aspire to be glamour models or lap dancers’. This figure was arrived at by asking young women whether they would rather be Abi Titmuss (a model and actress), Germaine Greer (a feminist author and academic) or Anita Roddick (a businesswoman). As Barnett writes: ‘It was meaningless fluff designed to generate press coverage, but from Object’s point of view, it constituted evidence.’
Barnett recognises that to defend free speech we need to wholeheartedly defend the right of those with whom we disagree to say and think whatever they want. We have the right and capacity to challenge or ignore them, as we see fit. ‘Only a true elitist could try to dictate which ideas other people have access to, rather than join the debate and win by force of reason’, he writes. The most shocking aspect of the new forms of censorship for Barnett was the near silence on this issue from so-called liberals. ‘I found many apparently liberal people were only opposed to censorship of things they enjoyed, but would not extend that principle to things they disapproved of.’
Barnett defends pornography because he thinks it is a good thing. But he is equally prepared to defend the rights of those with whom he disagrees.