“What the Papers Don’t Say”, rings the slogan of Byline Times. There are, of course, many things the papers don’t say, and very often those things are left unsaid for a reason. Ironically, by using a slogan better suited for InfoWars, Byline Times sets itself in opposition to the “Mainstream Media”, in language redolent of the populist right that it rails against.

On 10 December, Byline Times published an article by Nafeez Ahmed, reporting that Cambridge is home to a covert clique of right-wing academics. This clique, it claims, has received support from Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire, whose chief of staff has apparently been present at various meetings. This “shadowy” group claims to be interested in promoting “free speech”, but really, according to the article, this is all a “cover” for something more sinister: the “normalisation” of racism, and the waging of a culture war against the “advancement of a ‘liberal’ agenda”.

This story, which has featured nowhere else save a précis in Varsity, was indeed something “the papers don’t say” – perhaps because other papers hold themselves to high enough standards as to prevent half-baked conspiracy theories from passing through their presses. The piece is sprinkled with innuendos like “network” and “close links”. Ultimately it boils down to little more than the unremarkable observation that some right-of-centre (or otherwise politically heterodox) academics in Cambridge know each other, see each other, and discuss their shared interests with each other.

“It remains perfectly legitimate for people who hold the opposite beliefs to associate with one another”

Is it wrong, as the Byline Times article insinuates, for “like-minded academics” to bond over their “clear alignment of vision”? If so, that would be quite bad news for, say, the UCU. There are, of course, academics in Cambridge who think “wokery” has got out of hand, or that it would be a good idea to invite Jordan Peterson over from Canada to speak to Cambridge students, or that Stephen Toope is a rubbish vice-chancellor; if these people, from time to time, enjoy dinner or a drink together, so what? You may think that “cancel culture” is a myth, that Jordan Peterson is undeserving of a platform in Cambridge, that Stephen Toope is the messiah; but it remains perfectly legitimate for people who hold the opposite beliefs to associate with one another.

But the Byline Times article, reflecting its sources from within the University, cannot resist imputing bad faith to these academic ogres. They are, it alleges, exploiting “free speech” (always in scare-quotes) to “normalise white nationalism”. Consider the following paragraph:

But, according to academics at Cambridge University who spoke anonymously to Byline Times, Peterson’s return was not a victory for ‘free speech’ as Dr Orr and his colleagues claimed. Instead, it was the culmination of a concerted campaign by what one of them dubbed ‘the Thiel network’ to use free speech as a cover to wage war on the perceived liberal threat to heartfelt theological beliefs, and to normalise pseudoscientific theories of scientific racism.

“Instead” is an interesting formulation, because it explicitly sets up a dichotomy: either the so-called “Thiel network” invited Jordan Peterson for nefarious reasons, or they did so out of a noble desire to uphold free speech and intellectual diversity. The effect – that Peterson did speak to Cambridge students – was the same. But given that Peterson did not use his sojourn in Cambridge to expound “pseudoscientific theories of scientific racism” – he performed his usual schtick of Jungian psychoanalysis, Biblical exegesis, and self-help advice for Angry Young Men – I think we can safely assume that the “network”, such as it existed, has acted on a noble, and indeed liberal, desire to promote free speech.

“Only the sick-souled insist on always reading sinister motivations into the behaviour of others”

It also strikes me as improbable that Prof. Arif Ahmed, a vocal atheist, celebrated Peterson’s invitation to Cambridge as a “victory” for free speech because he wished to combat “the perceived liberal threat to heartfelt theological beliefs”. If Prof. Ahmed really is “motivated by fundamentally religious and theological concerns”, he has gone to extraordinary lengths to hide that fact.

So, the members of this so-called “Thiel network” were probably inspired to invite Jordan Peterson to Cambridge because they feel strongly about free speech. No shadowy conspiracy is necessary to explain their conduct. They aren’t, after all, the only academics in Cambridge who care about such matters: almost 90% of Cambridge academics last year voted for amendments to the University’s free speech policy drafted by none other than Prof. Ahmed. It is thanks to these amendments – thanks to the handful of academics who supported them publicly, and the many more who voted for them privately – that Jordan Peterson’s 2021 invitation was not rescinded, as his 2019 invitation had been. Those who continue to oppose the University’s new and improved free speech policy, clinging to the line taken by the UCU over a year ago, are a fringe minority; and those who believe the amendments can only have passed with the intercession of Peter Thiel must be stuck in an echo-chamber.


Mountain View

Free speech, or doublespeak?

Only the sick-souled insist on always reading sinister motivations into the behaviour of others. I cannot say why some people cannot countenance supporting free speech for any but selfish and cynical reasons. It could be that there is a grand conspiracy to make Cambridge a bastion of the alt-right; it could be that Peter Thiel is bankrolling and masterminding a “crusade”, as Byline Times calls it, from his luxury lodge in New Zealand. Anything can be made to sound scandalous if presented in the right tone, and with enough quotation marks. But what we have here is, on the balance of probabilities, rather innocuous – which, I suspect, is why “the papers” haven’t bothered with it. People who share political interests spend time together. Some of them are one or two degrees of separation away from Peter Thiel, as I imagine many public figures are. They “network” with each other in support of a certain agenda – but it is an agenda supported by the vast majority of Cambridge academics, who, like this “Thiel network”, care for good reasons about the health and openness of intellectual discourse at this university.

If I am right, then I hope the opponents of this “Thiel network” will set aside their conspiratorial language and engage with them in good faith. And if I am wrong, and my zealous support for free speech makes me nothing more than Peter Thiel’s useful idiot, then at least I can hope to be paid handsomely for my service.