The Free Speech Tsar's Red Top Palace
Evgeny Lebedev used the House of Lords like he uses the front page of the Evening Standard: To get extremely expensive cheap heat.
It took 20 months for Evgeny Lebedev to make a return to the House of Lords after submitting two written questions — on food poverty and food waste — in February 2022. His speech was trailed with an embargoed press release from his PR team at the boutique agency Emerge; it was forwarded to me by a source (“Just got this. Fuckinell.”) and breathlessly promised that “Evgeny is also available for interview… to explain his intentions for [and] aspirations with his Free Speech campaign”.
I suspect the kind of interview I’d conduct with Lebedev would not be very welcome. But let’s look at what he had to say to his fellow ‘noble’ lords and the two celebrity interviews — with Jordan Peterson and Azealia Banks — that Lebedev used his ermine-draped, expensively acquired free speech to promote. After all, it’s a speech that the Evening Standard’s independently-minded staff described as “passionate”.
Lebedev, dressed in a pinstriped suit that made him look like the put-upon manager of a failing gentleman’s outfitters stuck right next to a branch of Burton, began:
My great-grandfather Mikhail was a deputy minister in Stalin’s war cabinet — not a role that naturally encourages a man to speak his mind freely.
In fact, my family say he never felt able to speak openly about anything out of fear — the downright terror that afflicted the country where I was born, of being punished just for saying the wrong thing.
That is why this country’s great tradition of free speech has long aroused such admiration in my heart, and around the world.
It’s certainly bold of a man whose father was a KGB officer and whose elevation to the House of Lords by Boris Johnson as Baron Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia is still the subject of much-justified suspicion. Just what was Boris Johnson doing when he gave his security detail as Foreign Secretary the slip to party at the Lebedevs’ Italian villa?
Lebedev’s written about his great-grandfather before. In 2012, he contributed a piece to The Guardian headlined ‘My Soviet Childhood’ in which he tried to frame living in the same building as Stalin’s former Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, as a sign that his elite family was actually rather down-at-heel:
Like so many families in the Soviet Union, we had a strange and divided relationship with communism. My mother's grandfather was a senior official during the war, controlling food supplies and organising the evacuation of his ministry to the east when Moscow was threatened by the Nazis. He had power and prestige, but with that came the fear faced by any high-ranking official of the period. People he worked with were sent to the labour camps for arriving only a few minutes late for work, or for not being able to immediately provide the exact information from memory that a more senior party official demanded. One time he discovered money had been taken from a safe at work. He was so terrified of what might happen were news to get out that he used his own money to cover up the loss, paying people's wages out of his own meagre savings.
Lebedev’s Lords speech continued:
Ten years ago I told the Leveson Inquiry that a free and independent media was essential for Britain today. It has been alarming since then to see the erosion of free speech that is taking place here.
It has been appalling to see an author as distinguished as JK Rowling forbidden from speaking at great universities, supposedly bastions of intellectual liberty, because she espouses views about gender that are probably the views of the quiet majority, and that have been held for centuries.
It was shocking that Coutts Bank decided that Nigel Farage was no longer suitable to be a customer, not because he was insolvent, but simply because they did not like his views on Brexit. I am aware that these examples may tempt your lordships to conclude that I am some kind of reactionary, or even a conservative.
So let me say in the spirit of Voltaire that I equally support the right of Jeremy Corbyn to his views on Hamas. I may find those views repellent, but I will defend his right to hold them — it is not just the Left that is guilty of cancel culture.
People thinking that Lord Lebedev, elevated to the House of Lords by a Tory Prime Minister and fizzing with excitement at the prospect of touching the hem of Jordan Peterson’s garments, is “some kind of reactionary, or even a conservative”?
In common with most of his public statements, Lebedev’s speech represents such an egregious act of fence-sitting that he’ll likely be having splinters tweezered out of his buttocks for months. He wants to use the example of JK Rowling and heavily imply his position on “views about gender that are probably the views of the quiet majority” but avoid actually having to say that explicitly while decrying Jeremy Corbyn’s “views on Hamas” without saying what he believes those views to be.
His final example of ‘censorship’ shows the facile foundations of his position:
I will even defend the Tory MP Andrew Bridgen — abruptly sacked from his party for his views about Covid vaccinations.
Bridgen was not silenced, he experienced consequences when the Conservatives decided that his statements were beyond the pale even in a party of sociopaths, grifters, and charlatans. It was not merely “his views about Covid vaccinations” that lost him the whip but that he wrote on Twitter/X that:
As one consultant cardiologist said to me, [the vaccine rollout] is the biggest crime against humanity since the Holocaust.
Avoiding detail allows Lebedev to make sweeping, windy rhetorical generalisations:
By suppressing free speech we are not contradicting the nutters and conspiracists. We are giving credence and foundation to their otherwise bonkers assertions. Worst of all we are allowing the most deadly enemies of freedom to claim an equivalence between cancel culture in Britain and the suppression of free speech around the world.
Shortly after that section, the real reason for Lebedev’s campaign becomes clear:
Your lordships I have read industrial quantities of falsehoods about myself in the last two years, but at least I live in a country where journalists don’t fear for their lives.
A man with a newspaper empire purchased for him by his dad and a peerage provided by a politician his papers mindlessly supported is frustrated that free speech is being used to criticise him. That’s not the kind of free speech he expects.
Cracking up with the Egg Man
The Evening Standard's 'Free Speech' campaign is a yolk... I mean *joke*.
As the speech went on, it became clear this was a kind of rhetorical hairball; the ludicrous Lord regurgitating newspaper columns he’s consumed over the years:
Why the hell is the BBC trying to bowdlerise Fawlty Towers — one of its finest creations?
Why can’t we mention the war? Why are we trying to sandpaper Roald Dahl? Why can’t we say the word fat? Have attitudes really changed so fast?
By that point, I was expecting him to go into Stewart Lee’s “these days you get arrested and thrown in jail if you say you’re English” routine. But his peroration was pretty close to that riff stripped of its many layers of irony:
They aren’t laughing with us any more, your lordships, they are laughing at us. And it is worse than that because freedom is indispensable to our national creativity. The freedom to be comically outrageous contributed to the national sense of fun.
That spiritual and intellectual exuberance, that amazing artistic, cultural, literary, scientific and journalistic energy has drawn people of talent from around the world to make this a great home of innovation and ideas precisely because they know that they will be able to live their lives as they choose and speak as they find.
The transcript of Lebedev’s speech ran in full in the Evening Standard on Tuesday and in yesterday’s edition, the proprietor’s interviews with Peterson and Banks dominated the front page. No doubt the paper’s dwindling readership was delighted to be given not pressing news about London but ‘what I did in my holidays’ quality accounts of Lebedev’s encounters with a pair of abject prats.
Peterson is clearly there to promote his latest
grift… I mean, for legal reasons, ‘project’ and Lebedev opens his piece with the requisite plug:
Jordan Peterson is opening the Peterson Academy. “Affordable to all, taught by the best,” it launches in 2024 with the promise of a rounded education in the arts and sciences. For Peterson, the world’s most famous public intellectual, general knowledge is power.
“Why should you be generally educated?” he asks his daughter and co-founder of the Academy, Mikhaila, in a promotional video. “Because otherwise you’re going to be a useless, resentful, bitter, pointless, counterproductive lump.”
Such language has become typical of Peterson. Once known for the cool, icy logic he used to deconstruct feminist truisms around the gender pay gap, he’s better known today as the Right’s most passionate culture warrior, and a leading voice in the debate around freedom of speech. “I take no pleasure in the catastrophic and unprecedented decline of institutions such as Harvard,” he tells me, “or, for that matter, the collapse into ideological idiocy that has characterised once-great institutions such as the BBC.” He goes on: “I think, however, that we’re past the tipping point, and no recovery, other than that provided by alternative institutions, is now possible.”
“Public intellectual” used to mean someone like Isaiah Berlin or Mary Warnock. Now the label gets slapped on a man with a voice like Kermit and a diet that would make even the most voracious terrier feel queasy. Just as Lebedev ducked examples and detail in his slogan-rich, fact-light Lords speech, Peterson talks entirely in YouTube-ready soundbites that play to his audience’s prejudices.
Lebedev laps up this ersatz version of philosophical inquiry:
The reason why free speech must be protected, [Peterson] argues, is because interfering with it interferes with thought itself. “When you interfere with thought, then the culture can’t note down its own errors and renew itself,” he explains. This is because language is inextricable from ideas; to restrict words is to restrict the concepts within them…
… What free speech is not, Peterson argues, is a fundamental right granted to us by the state. That is an “idiot, hedonistic view”, the kind that believes it’s okay to speak before you think.
Peterson is, first and foremost, an intellectual. It is primarily through his status as an academic that he’s tackled the issue of free speech, shooting to fame in 2016 when he challenged — on free speech grounds — a law that would have legally compelled him to use transgender people’s chosen pronouns. “Just who determines what offends?” he asks me. “If my speech pleases ninety-nine of a hundred, and displeases one, should I be silenced?”
The elision of criticism with censorship is one of the key tenets of the modern right’s ongoing ‘freedom to right speech’ campaign. It’ll happily push for those with views that it doesn’t like to be fired while howling that its favourites are silenced even as they coin it in from books, columns, and public appearances based on the premise that they can’t say all the things they endlessly do say.
What Lebedev has produced is not an interview; at no point does he challenge or even really question Peterson. Instead, he acts as a stenographer with a ludicrously high hourly rate:
Today, Peterson follows a strict diet of red meat, which he says has helped him heal. His obsession with order, structure and through-lines has grown stronger. “When you’re disoriented, anxious and hopeless, one of the places you can look to orient yourselves is to the standard practices of humanity across the largest span of time,” he waxes.
That strict diet of red meat that makes him shit bullets may explain why Peterson is so prone to crying at the drop of a hat. Lebedev’s willingness to just repeat whatever the ‘public intellectual’ tells him leads to lots of contradictions like this one:
[Peterson] laments a world where “people who want to oppose opinions they’re not fond of can accuse and pillory and mob with no danger to themselves” and where we cannot “make a comment in the public square” without being “vilified by anonymous trolls”.
Run “people who want to oppose opinions they’re not fond of can accuse and pillory and mob with no danger to themselves” through my patented Disingenuity Translator and you get: “I want to say whatever I like but when other people do it about me, I should be able to pay someone to hit them”. There’s also an irregular verb at work here: I’m a public intellectual, my friends are public intellectuals, and the people we don’t like are anonymous trolls.
The piece ends with a moment of clear homophobia that Lebedev — who ensures that coverage of the theatre awards that the Evening Standard sponsors are splattered with pictures of him schmoozing with actors — does nothing to counter while claiming he and Peterson had ‘a debate’:
Debating gay marriage, Peterson tells me the gay community must understand “that their participation is destined to be marginal”. It “has to be viewed as a deviation from the ideal”, he argues. Surrogacy is a “moral nightmare”. He believes mandatory Pride month celebrations are “stretching it too far”. He is a traditionalist; I am a libertarian. But when he claims that “anything that interferes with free speech is potentially fatal”, he is absolutely right.
Since when was Pride “mandatory”? No one is making Peterson join a parade. In fact, I’m fairly sure no one wants him there ruining the vibe with his meat farts and even more noxious opinions. When you’re told someone is “a traditionalist”, ask what traditions they back and why. And when you’re told that “anything that interferes with free speech is fatal” ask what limits they have, if any. Can we rush into the arena next time Peterson is speaking and shout “fire”?
Banks, ridiculously tagged by Lebedev as “the world’s most controversial female rapper” — no one’s been that interested for years — is just as indulged. His framing of her career is incredibly craven:
Banks speaks in soundbites. It is an art form she has honed like nobody else. Along with 212, early hits like Liquorice and Van Vogue set the stage for a decade of cocky one-liners that made the divas before her sound like purring kittens.
As such, Banks occupies an increasingly rarefied place in the pop pantheon: that of a woman who says it like it is.
Ron DeSantis has “fat boy syndrome”. Keeping Joe Biden in power is “elder abuse”. Her nickname for Vladimir Putin is “El Put-Put”. We speak for over an hour and the zingers just keep coming. Banks believes free speech has only ever been reserved “for white men”, but her language, slurs and unique talent for offending everyone means she is, in her own words, “the biggest f***ing white d**k in the world”.
It’s quite special that a man dedicating thousands of words to a clumsy free speech campaign won’t print the word “dick” without starring it out. It’s ersatz edginess and Lebedev provides a megaphone from complete gibberish from Banks:
Banks thinks the song and dance we make around free speech is part of the problem: “People have too much time to talk.” Polarisation over neuralgic topics which have fractured the cultural landscape is driven by “technocrats”, “career dopeheads [...] j***ing off” while “writing code”. The culture wars, she argues, are the construct of an AI controlling our behaviour. She calls it Amy. “The more anyone talks online, the more Amy learns how to better manipulate you and make you spend your money,” she explains.
Amy, Banks says, is part of a streamlining operation designed to “homogenise” our voices and — as evidenced by the term POC, which she loathes — our differences. “Never say the word POC,” she tells me. “Thanks for letting me know there’s no difference between me and Kim Jong-un.”
The culture wars incense and unite around ideologies that leave no room for dissent. Unlike Jordan Peterson, Banks does not sit comfortably in any camp. On one hand, she believes we owe $100 trillion in slavery reparations to African Americans; on the other, she has used the term “sand n***a” to refer to Zayn Malik and his Pakistani heritage. The progressive Left does not know what to do with her.
If someone in a bar or at a bus stop delivered that rant, you’d quickly try to get a little further away from them. “The progressive Left” — who they? — doesn’t know what to do with Banks because it has no interest in her whatsoever.
Once again, Lebedev turns someone experiencing consequences into “cancellation”:
Banks first got cancelled 10 years ago when her outspokenness cost her a contract with Mac (she had called the blogger Perez Hilton a “f****t”). Today, she takes issue with the notion of gay rights as if it is some kind of subcategory, implying rights only for one group of people.
She was homophobic and used a slur that the Evening Standard and its proprietor with all their commitment to ‘free speech’ are still not going to print unstarred. We live in societies where we can say what we want but can’t expect to do so without consequence. Mac signed up Banks to promote its makeup; it was a commercial deal and what she lost when it was cancelled was not her speech but cash.
Later in the interview, discussing Kanye West, for whom Banks hopes there is no way back, she says: “You deserve to reap what you sow.” Again, Lebedev leaps over this contradiction and moves quickly onto praising how “refreshing” Banks is “in a world increasingly starved of sanguine creatives who don’t play by the rules”. This is a man who likes nothing better than being snapped next to celebrities and whose expensive speech as a newspaper proprietor gives him all the access he desires.
The conclusion of the interview makes parody almost pointless:
For Banks, the journey out of the culture war is a journey out of big tech, and towards a world where something like freedom of speech is no longer politicised because it isn’t discussed so venally. The solution is simple, she says. Get off the phone, and “have more sex”.
Freedom of speech should “no longer be politicised” writes a man who publicised his ‘Free Speech’ campaign with a speech in a chamber for unelected legislators mostly placed there via political patronage.
For the self-appointed Free Speech Tsar of the Red Top Palace, contradictions don’t matter and speeches are given at his convenience.
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