Small betrayals, Isaac Newton, John Milton and me

Most people might think that Isaac Newton and John Milton have very little in common with me, but they would be wrong. Despite some disparities with regard to stature within our chosen fields of endeavour, we belong to a select group. We (I like to think of the three of us as ‘we’) are all authors who have been published by Cambridge University Press, the oldest academic publishing house in the world, and still one of the most prestigious.

Despite cultivating an iconoclastic reputation, I have always been rather proud that CUP has chosen to publish three books that I have co-authored. Richard Marley was the Publishing Director of Life Sciences and Medicine at CUP until his death aged 52 last year. My first meeting with him occurred by accident at a conference book stall in New York. Max Fink was signing books (I bought one) and a casual conversation proved fateful. Richard turned out to be one of the nicest people that I have ever had the pleasure to work with, and Robert Higgo and I (later joined by Catherine Robinson) had a long friendship with him, fuelled by many curries, a lot of laughter and the occasional book.

Richard was well aware that he was not going to recover from his final illness (“I’m up shit creek, Rob” he said in the email that broke the news) and he systematically made a large number of thoughtful arrangements in anticipation of his own demise. One of these arrangements was to commission a second edition of the book that Robert and I wrote about psychiatric interviewing. Our authors’ copies arrived this week, and I think it looks great, thanks mainly to Sue Ruben’s striking cover illustration:

second edition cover

There is always a real buzz when you finally get to handle a book you have written. On this occasion, the buzz was somewhat offset by a simultaneous furore over Cambridge University Press’s compliance with a demand to supress the availability in China of academic publications that make the country’s ruling regime look bad. Taboo subjects included acknowledgement that the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 actually happened. It all concerned the on-line version of a single journal, China Quarterly, and the decision was rapidly reversed by CUP in the face of outrage from the global academic community. It is hard to know how the initial misjudgement came to be made, and at what level in the organisation. I continue to feel loyalty to CUP, because everyone who I have met there, including Richard Marley’s successor, Catherine Barnes, has shown real integrity and commitment. Nonetheless, I was shocked by the episode, and it has taken the edge off the elation of publication.

So here is a dilemma. Given the prompt reversal of the decision, surely nothing has really changed at CUP? The trouble is that self-interest and valued personal ties dictate a continued close relationship with CUP, and these conflicts of interest might have influenced my judgement. The world is playing for very high political stakes at present, and issues of freedom of expression are not abstractions of concern only to an academic elite. These things matter.

As the most powerful person in the world, Donald Trump continues to expose his underlying values. Far from being simply troubling, they are totally unacceptable. They threaten the freedom and security of the entire planet. He has a deep-seated antagonism to a free press and to inconvenient scientific truths. He has an equally deep seated allegiance to fascists and armed bigots; he cannot bring himself to spontaneously disavow them. Part of me feels that there should be an academic boycott of the USA for the duration of this regime. A trade boycott would be even better, notwithstanding the fact that this would eliminate some of the best guitars in the world from the UK market. Another part of me feels that this is totally unrealistic and in any case pointless, a conclusion that conveniently facilitates my planned purchase of an all-mahogany Martin D-15.

My mother liked to quote Polonius addressing Hamlet:

To thine own self be true
And it must follow, as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man

Is my continued loyalty to my publisher one of those small betrayals of values that mark the long slide into hypocrisy, or was CUP only guilty of a transient slip up, whereby someone failed to see the political implications of an expedient commercial decision?

I turn to the examples set by my fellow CUP authors in search of guidance. Isaac Newton’s staggering achievements as a mathematician and physicist meant that he had a major impact on the Enlightenment, but he was, for the most part, a loyal servant of the Establishment of his time. As Warden of the Royal Mint, he personally investigated and prosecuted counterfeiters. During two brief spells as MP for Cambridge University, his only recorded statements concerned cold draughts in the parliamentary chamber. With respect to freedom of expression, he said and did little that is of any assistance. Although John Milton wrote about censorship, his likely attitude to contemporary dilemmas is not easy to work out. He was a republican revolutionary, but in his pamphlet Areopagitica he attacked censorship by the very regime he supported. The pamphlet did not have the desired effect and pre-publication censorship by Parliament continued. He did not change his political allegiance. The tract was eventually influential in the developing concept of a free press, but it took a long time. His position was that he stuck in there. He probably would have been satisfied with the outcome of the recent controversy.

All of which leads us back to the classic, unprincipled British ethical fudge. I am very pleased with the second edition of our interviewing book. At the very least, it is well written. The first edition was well received, but eleven years have passed and much has changed in British psychiatry. Sales were excellent, which means that anything short of equal success in the second edition will feel like failure. In medical publishing, a total of 10,000 sales amounts to a best seller, so even if the second edition does well, CUP, Robert Higgo and I are not going to get rich from the proceeds. The feeling of being slightly tainted by the political mood of our times is horrible, but if affects many aspects of my life, as I imagine it does for many other people. Quite recently I sat politely and quietly listening to Jeremy Hunt, live and in person. I thoroughly disapprove of him. He has accused Stephen Hawking of being a liar for contradicting him. He seems to be incapable of speaking in public without saying something that is in conflict with the evidence. Being anonymously polite to Mr Hunt felt worse than the CUP debacle. Small betrayals.