Cultured ignorance

Our eminent Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, has written to The Times (paywall) to decry the horrendous slaughter of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, and amen to that. However, he closes his letter with the following comments:

We have come a long way since the Ancient Greeks, who were so appalled by the views and opinions of Socrates that they forced him to drink hemlock. Thousands of years have passed since the Gadfly of Athens died, yet his writings—work that the authorities of the day tried to suppress as dangerous and subversive—continue to be some of the most widely read and influential in the world.

We should not, I suppose, be surprised that our Culture Secretary is spectacularly ignorant of a basic, rather well-known cultural fact—that Socrates wrote nothing. This is, after all, the government that gave us an Equalities Minister who voted against gay marriage, and a Defence Secretary whose idea of national security clearance included the criterion of being his best mate. It is not this that particularly preoccupies me.

What I find rather more problematic is the bemoaning of the treatment of Socrates. Socrates had the benefit of being tried in an open court. Socrates was granted the privilege of knowing who his accusers were—even two and a half millennia later, so do we. Socrates was permitted to know the charges and the evidence against him. Socrates was permitted to conduct his own defence. None of these basic freedoms are available under Javid’s government’s secret courts. Javid, the medium notwithstanding, is correct that the Athenians sought to suppress the speech of a man they considered dangerous—and we are to take it that he faults them for it. Hemlock may no longer be the preferred method, but this is exactly what his own government seeks to do.

Our Culture Secretary’s ignorance of culture does not anger me much. His stinking hypocrisy, however, rather more substantially does.

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