David Starkey and Don Cherry may not appear to have much in common — one is a popular British constitutional historian, the other a Canadian hockey coach-turned-television commentator — and anyone familiar with one of them will likely have no idea who the other is.
But both are considered national treasures in their respective countries; both have enjoyed decades in the public eye, highly sought after for their opinions; both are notoriously outspoken and often politically incorrect; both have occasionally courted controversy and criticism. And now, late in their careers — Starkey is 75, Cherry is 86 — these two old, white men have been cancelled for nothing more than an unfortunate pairing of words.
David Starkey, Commander of the British Empire (CBE), has authored more than twenty books and presented over a dozen documentaries on the monarchy and the constitutional history of Britain. A forthright conservative, Starkey has never been afraid of causing offence in speaking his mind. At the end of June he gave an interview, during which he said: ‘Slavery was not genocide — otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain, would there? You know — an awful lot of them survived.’
For this comment, Starkey was sacked from his position at Canterbury Christ Church University and abandoned by his publisher HarperCollins, who called his views ‘abhorrent’, adding that they ‘will not be publishing further books with him,’ and would ‘review his existing backlist’. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid tweeted: ‘David Starkey’s racist comments…are a reminder of the appalling views that still exist.’ Starkey felt compelled to resign from an honorary fellowship at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and was asked to do the same by the Royal Historical Society.
But what was so abhorrent and appalling about what he said? His choice of words may have been rather jarring, but according to his publisher and Sajid Javid, it was his views, not his words, that were unacceptable. The charge of racism was everywhere before anyone seriously examined the context of Starkey’s remarks.
Racism, according to Mirriam-Webster is defined as:
1. a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2. a) a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles, b) a political or social system founded on racism
3. racial prejudice or discrimination
Starkey’s remarks were not racist according to these definitions. He did not express a belief in racial superiority, he did not espouse a doctrine or endorse a political program or social system founded on such a belief, and he did not exhibit racial prejudice or discrimination. Should we take his words literally and assume he was claiming that black people are or ought to be damned? Given his staunch atheism, I suspect he doesn’t believe in damnation. Or, by noting that there are so many blacks around, was he expressing a wish that there weren’t so many around? He certainly didn’t say that, and judging from the rest of the interview, he wishes nothing of the sort. His comments were insensitive, irreverent, perhaps rude (though that’s to be expected from ‘the rudest man in Britain’) but not racist.
‘Damn’ was considered a bad word back in my day, but as kids we always knew it was bottom of the swearing hierarchy. It was entry level, a gateway curse word. But it’s no longer even offensive — its most common use is merely to flavour one’s speech. And the colourful Starkey uses such flavouring words all the time. Elsewhere in the same interview, he compares Greta Thunberg to a medieval child saint, saying ‘the Middle Ages were filled with these bloody child saints’. But no one thinks he has anything against dead children. In saying ‘so many damn blacks’ it seems clear that he was expressing his incredulity at those who would equate slavery with genocide. It was a statement of historical fact, which is Starkey’s area of expertise, and the flavouring ‘damn’ was not directed at black people. It’s obvious to anyone who watched the interview without looking for reasons to be offended that he was speaking with hyperbole.
Don Cherry coached the National Hockey League’s Boston Bruins to two Stanley Cup finals in the 1970s, developing a reputation as a flamboyant, hard-nosed coach, who promoted a tough, physical style of hockey. He then spent nearly 40 years as a television commentator on Coach’s Corner on Hockey Night in Canada, a seven (later five) minute segment, which became ‘one of the most watched five minutes on Canadian TV’.
In a 2004 CBC survey Cherry was voted the seventh greatest Canadian of all time. Known for his ostentatious bespoke suits and high collared shirts, he is a warm, loving, brusque, patriotic loudmouth who loves physical hockey, believes in old school values and promotes a kind of working class masculinity. He is big on supporting the military and remembering the fallen, often paying tribute to police officers killed on duty and soldiers killed in action. Every year he reminds Canadians of the sacrifice made by those who fought for Canada’s freedom in the two world wars.
On the 9th of November 2019, during Coach’s Corner, he made his annual exhortation to wear a poppy: ‘You people love — you — that come here, whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you could pay a couple of bucks for a poppy or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada. These guys paid — the biggest price.’ Two days later, on the 11th of November — Remembrance Day in Canada — he was fired from Hockey Night in Canada.
Like Starkey, the unforgivable sin was an ill-advised two word combination: ‘you people’. His views were poorly expressed (more for the slightly incoherent English that has come to characterise Cherry’s oration in recent years than for anything offensive) but they were clearly views on Remembrance. Do the words ‘you’ and ‘people’ imply a certain racial group? Perhaps he was referring to immigrants (‘you come here’) though not only immigrants (‘whatever it is’) and then addressed those who love Canada (‘you love our way of life’) and implored them to express their gratitude for those who made that way of life possible. Racist? Not according to the definitions given above. No expression of a belief in racial superiority, no support for any related doctrine or system, and no discrimination. He was asking everyone to wear a poppy, which he himself wears. It was the opposite of discrimination — by inviting everyone to join him in an expression of Canadian gratitude he was promoting inclusion.
Starkey later acknowledged the ‘awful clumsiness’ of his ‘deplorably inflammatory’ words, and apologised ‘unreservedly for the offence it caused’. For his part Cherry said back in November, ‘if I had to do over again I would have said “everybody”‘ but clarified that his words could have referred to anybody, and didn’t feel a need to apologise. He added that he might have apologised had he not been fired.
Starkey and Cherry have been under attack for years over alleged racism and their attackers have finally won. But not by proving their case. They’ve won by fostering a hypersentive interpretation of clumsy two-word combinations and then stoking online mob hysteria and outrage. Neither man is racist based on the evidence and the only way to force the evidence to fit the hypothesis would be retroactively to change the definition of racism.
Well, as it happens, in the next edition of their dictionary, due out in August, Miriam-Webster has pledged to broaden the definition of racism to include the vague concept of systemic racism. This was prompted by Kennedy Mitchum, an American woman who defines systemic racism as ‘a deeply rooted prejudice, combined with institutional power and systemic oppression of certain groups of people.’
From the postmodern collectivist view, it’s group oppression rather than individual agency that matters, so ‘deeply rooted’ means deeper than individual belief. Starkey’s and Cherry’s words, therefore, were deemed offensive not because they betrayed personally held racist beliefs — they didn’t — but because they are indicators of the inherent oppression perpetrated by the externally identified groups to which the two men belong. All human history is seen by postmodern collectivists as the oppression of one group by another. Blacks by whites, poor by rich, women by men, perhaps even young by old. Whiteness is the problem. Maleness is the problem. Age and success only make it worse. According to this new politically motivated definition, both men are involuntarily racist simply because they’re old, white and male, and therefore members of at least three oppressor groups. (The fact that Starkey is gay, and therefore also a member of an oppressed victim group is conveniently ignored.)
The pretext for their cancellation boils down to three immutable characteristics plus a national audience. Starkey and Cherry are innocent as individuals, even by the twisted logic of their accusers, but guilty as old, white men. According to the traditional definitions, this accusation itself ought to be considered racist, not to mention sexist and ageist.
But postmodern collectivism has infiltrated the media, the government, the schools, the universities and the law to such an extent that common sense has few defenders left in either country. Starkey and Cherry were two of the strongest, and as such were preachers of heresy in collectivist eyes. Their real crime was in having a platform that reached millions of people. Their heresy had in truth nothing to do with racism; it was their defence of tradition and historical institutions that postmodern collectivists couldn’t abide.
These latter (they come in various forms: BLM, Antifa, Extinction Rebellion) want to dismantle Western society altogether and these two apostates were in their way. It’s as if we’ve returned to the Middle Ages, and Starkey and Cherry are the influential public heretics that had to be silenced by an intolerant but powerful religious sect. If only there were a trustworthy medieval historian around to explain the parallel.
No one is perfect, and neither should perfection be expected from anyone — David Starkey and Don Cherry included — but their reputations as cultural icons are well deserved. They are not racists, except through the prism of a devious ideology that embraces contradiction, irrationality, relativism, subjectivism, and the devaluation of the individual. Their cancellation is shameful. Both men should be forgiven, apologised to, thanked, restored, celebrated and remembered for their enormous contributions to British and Canadian culture.