Not often that someone provokes me to swear at Desert Island Discs, but Mary Beard, the Cambridge Professor of Classics, managed it today by repeating her views on the 9/11 terrorist attacks (In case you need reminding, she was the one who wrote: This wasn’t just the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. ..World bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price).
A couple of things have become increasingly clear to me in recent years:
First, that academia is where society puts its idiots in an attempt to minimise the harm they can do.
Second, that professional historians are not, as they usually think they are, better qualified than the rest of us to pronounce on current affairs because they see them ‘in context’. I do hate it when historians, usually Starkey or Schama, come on telly to talk about Gordon Brown and say, with a dismissive wave, that “of course we’ve been through all this before in Henry VIII’s day” (or whenever their specialism happens to be). In fact, all they are doing is what everyone else does: giving their personal opinion. They interpret both the contemporary and the selected historical narratives to fit their purpose. (In this case, Beard compares US ‘imperialism’ with the Roman Empire, her specialism.)
Beard’s original “article” – which, amongst worse offences, puts the word “terrorists” in scare quotes - was written just three days after the 9/11 attacks and published a few weeks later. Pressed on it now, it seems that Beard believes the worst that can be said of it is that her timing was a bit tactless. But the evil of her views, now so banally and gently expressed, only becomes more vivid with the years, as the excuse of a thoughtless knee-jerk reaction has passed. She did not take the opportunity to acknowledge that the targets and the victims of the 9/11 attacks were not US “imperialists” or Government policymakers, but civilians and the families they left behind. Ongoing, nearly all of the victims of Al Qaeda terrorism (or “terrorism” as Beard would have it) are Muslim civilians.
The worst commentariat reactions to 9/11 – namely conspiracy theorising and the Mary Beard/Ward Churchill school of leftist cant – continue to appal and provoke swearing at the radio nearly a decade on.
If someone consistently says evil things, is the fact that they really believe themselves morally right an excuse? Is stupidity an excuse? On balance, probably not, at least in this case. Beard’s statements are unequivocally evil – certainly as evil, in their way, as Pat Robertson’s views on Haiti. Given that she’s still professing them, I think we can reasonably say that Mary Beard is in a particular way evil, and in a more general way stupid.