Cancel Culture, Daniel J. Flynn, David Hume, Frida Dahmani, Guy Sorman, Haythem Guesmi, Michel Foucault, Morality, Opinion, Philosophy, Politics, Postcolonialism, Postmodernism, Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia, William Gladstone
Loose lips, as the saying goes, sink ships. Recently, a particularly splendid showboat, the French philosopher Michel Foucault, has been imperilled by a pair of lips that might have been better left buttoned up.
In March, Guy Sorman, a liberal columnist and commentator, had sat down for an interview with the UK’s Sunday Times. In the new book that he was promoting, Sorman had ventured the white-hot allegation that Foucault had sexually abused prepubescent boys in Tunisia during the late 1960s. He had previously repeated these allegations on the public television channel France 5 and now, courtesy of the Sunday Times, it was the UK’s turn to hear of them:
“…they were eight, nine, ten years old, he was throwing money at them and would say ‘let’s meet at 10pm at the usual place’ [a cemetery in the seaside town of Sidi Bou Said]… He would make love there on the gravestones with young boys. The question of consent wasn’t even raised.”
In Engish law you cannot libel the dead and, as Sorman and the Sunday Times were doubtless well aware, Foucault had died in 1984. There is nonetheless a lot of money in Foucault today, a lot of books and a lot of jobs. Within Western academia, the philosopher’s influence is perhaps best described as “industrial.” In 2016, the London School of Economics had computed that two of his books had been cited over 100,000 times across the social sciences.
But what now? “Cancel culture” is presently gnawing holes throughout all Western institutions and especially academia. Famous historical figures who have shown evidence of any impurity – anything “problematic,” to conform to the menacing bureaucratic language – can find themselves in intellectual disgrace or be even cancelled outright. Last year, for example, David Hume’s name had been ripped off Edinburgh University’s David Hume Tower, due to thoughtless, racist comments that this philosopher had once made in a footnote to an essay. Such a drastic devaluing of Hume’s contribution to Western thought is rather like chucking out an entire paella because there is a grain of sand in it.
“Cancel culture” is not a centrally-coordinated political programme and so there are endless inconsistencies in its practical application. The extent to which any figure’s status is susceptible to being renegotiated is often determined by bald partisanship. The poet Robert Burns is high and dry due to his importance to Scottish nationalism, and so excuses can be always found for his brief readiness to work for the owner of a Jamaican slave plantation. William Gladstone is hardly so privileged, even though he was opposed to slavery (like Hume, in fact) and the UK’s franchise was extended whilst he was prime minister. Gladstone’s family had been slaveholders, and he had lobbied on their behalf early in his career, which has lately led the University of Liverpool to rename a building that had, during the innocence of its youth, been known as Gladstone Hall.
Had Sorman made scandalous accusations about Harold Bloom, Philip Roth or Michel Houellebecq, who are major modern writers but not, these days, greatly fashionable ones, then the consequences would have been all too predictable. Across the academic spectrum, choosing to lecture or write about these figures would have been rendered even more madcap, as a career move, than it is currently. All research grants would have dried up bone dry. And for a very short time, it had looked as if a similar annihilation-after-death might befall Foucault.
For Daniel J. Flynn, a senior editor of the American Spectator, several Christmases had come at once. “News that Michel Foucault molested children recalls revelations that Hulk Hogan used steroids,” Flynn declared. “The surprise comes only in response to surprise.” Flynn regards Foucault as being the prancing charlatan at the top of postmodernism and postmodernism as being itself little more than decadence in a sloppy academic disguise. Foucault’s paedophilia is apparently only the beginning for Flynn: “Beyond Tunisia, his travels included San Francisco, where he immersed himself in S&M clubs and bathhouses…”
“I am not calling for Foucault to be ‘cancelled,’” the Tunisian academic Haythem Guesmi assures us in Al Jazeera. Even so, there is an ominous element of condemnation to the narrative that Guesmi has now devised, in which Foucault is participating in “a long history of viewing the (neo)colonial subject as a disposable body.” Whereas for Flynn, Foucault’s paedophilia substantiates or even explains the decadence of postmodernism, for Guesmi, a more puritanical postmodernism is the solution.
Nonetheless, these articles on Sorman’s allegations were actually pretty few and far between. Although the Sunday Times had aired Sorman’s claims, the brunt of the UK’s right-wing press did not see fit to follow. The Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Spectator have indeed saved their breath. In France, national titles such as Le Monde have likewise remained aloof from the allegations.
The reason for this is that the allegations do not have any honest bite to them. Even the snippet from the Sunday Times interview that I have quoted above raises immediate questions about Sorman’s reliability. On the one hand, he presents himself almost as a co-conspirator, a hanger-on who had been let in on Foucault’s dark secret and who had remained inexplicably passive and uninterested about it. On the other hand, Sorman admits that he had never seen anything, that he had somehow plumbed the depths of Foucault’s sexuality from observing some slight incident in the street.
The newspaper Jeune Afrique dispatched a journalist, Frida Dahmani, to Sidi Bou Said to chase the spectral lights around the graveyard. Over the course of her investigation, at least ten years were added to the ages of the “prepubescent children.” The cemetery was soon disqualified as a viable venue for paedophilic orgies. Invading this “sacred place” late at night would have quickly attracted attention, especially in a close-knit community where one was “never alone” in public for very long.
But then, the idea of making love on graves is a cliché from teenaged humour in the West. When I was a teenager, a boy at my school had earned a degree of fame, and envy, for bundling his girlfriend into the local churchyard to comply with this cliché’s requirements. A rather sickly fantasy is here involved, in which the exhibitionism of sharing your lovemaking with a field of peeping, speculative people is rendered safe by the fact that they are all dead and underground in boxes.
Yet something might be lost in translation once the jolly cliché of having sex on graves is exported to a culturally conservative, Muslim country. Sorman has conceivably settled upon what he thinks is the best imagery for shocking the postcolonial sensitivities of Foucault’s admirers. The philosopher is depicted violating graves in the cemetery of the Muslim village where he had been staying as a guest. The problem here is that Sorman cannot help in the end betraying his own absence of respect for the same community. Sidi Bou Said emerges from his narrative as a place so degenerate that any paedophile is effectively a king here and they can sweep up crowds of riotously unattended, blithely cheerful children in the street. Needless to say, no community on Planet Earth has ever looked remotely like this.
Along with Dahmani’s investigation, doubts had increasingly arisen about whether Sorman had ever actually visited Foucault in Tunisia or whether he was even known to the philosopher at all. For a start, he had gotten the date wrong, in maintaining that Foucault was still in Tunisia in 1969 (he was away by then). As questions about Sorman’s claims grew blunter, his memory became feebler and those sweltering nights in Sidi Bou Said began to dissolve into the mists of time. Finally, Sorman conceded that he was reporting overheard gossip about Foucault rather than behaviour that he had witnessed up close.
This appears to be an intriguing new development in the history of “cancel culture.” It has been hitherto the activist left that has highlighted links to slavery, racism or sexual exploitation in order to reshape university syllabuses, often accompanied by progressive-sounding appeals to “decolonise the curriculum.” If a writer is said to be part of a hegemony or an elite, this can be enough of a black mark against their name to avoid submitting to the more onerous task of engaging intellectually with the nuances of their writing. The significance of Sorman’s antics is that they instead represent an unexpected move from the right to locate the levers of “cancel culture” and to operate them to reactionary effect.
Foucault has been the bane of right-wing commentators in the UK for some time. For the Spectator’s journalist Douglas Murray, Foucault bears considerable responsibility for the perceived ruination of the Western world. Next, Liz Truss, a Conservative cabinet minister on an adventure, had delivered a speech in which she had condemned “ideas… pioneered by Foucault – that put societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours.”
Sorman’s attempt upon Foucault’s name might be crass and botched, but if it was a mite more plausible, or a whisker more substantiated, then it could have led to a serious crisis of confidence in the philosopher. And today academia is so corporate in its risk-aversion that, at the first sign of anything “inappropriate,” it will resort to cancelling, defunding, and no-platforming rather than falling back on a cool scepticism and a sense of proportion. Fortunately, the allegations about Foucault did not ring true to many journalists and so there has been no shortage of commentators who were willing to swim against the incoming tide. One still senses the underlying vulnerability of academic institutions that have been significantly weakened by “cancel culture.”
No word of a lie, Sorman’s new book is entitled Mon Dictionnaire Du Bullshit. It is published by Grasset. The blurb explains how Sorman adopts the method of Gustave Flaubert to “pass through the sieve of bullshit the world of today,” something which you would probably need to be Salvador Dali to successfully envisage. My Dictionary of Bullshit is unlikely to supplant Foucault’s writing on university syllabuses any time soon.