Written on your face

“Looking back on life is such a retrospective thing,” Pete Shelley once wrote (although he probably doesn’t like to be reminded of it). Actually, an awful lot of life is a retrospective thing. We all live in the past to some extent; if you didn’t you’d have terrible trouble finding the stairs.

Popular music is one of the more retrospective things, if you’re old enough not to be discovering it for the first time (and if you’re reading this, what are the chances?). I’ve written about Robyn Hitchcock three times on this blog before now, if you set aside brief references in posts on nonsense verse, dreaming and death (2006, 2017). In 2005 I looked back on a 1993 gig, and how Robyn dealt with hecklers during the introduction to a song about watching his father dying; in 2008 I saw Robyn on TV and looked back at my memories of seeing him live, going back to 1979; in 2009 I mused about a recently-completed paper (which would never be published) and a dream about Barack Obama, while listening to a song from 2003 in which Robyn looked back on 1976.

This really ought to make me feel old, but in practice very few things do that. What it does make me feel is slightly dizzy – not so much “the past inside the present”, more the past inside the past, inside the past, inside the past, inside another past – and all of those pasts inside the present, for now. (Will I be looking back on this post in a year’s time – or ten years’ time – and writing, In 2018 I looked back on...? Let’s hope so.)

And it’s been a lifetime
And with you I celebrate my life

I didn’t feel old when I went to see Robyn Hitchcock the other month (I did later, when I had to run for the bus home, but that’s another story). I was a bit startled by how old everyone else was, though – the venue (“Club Academy”, which turned out to mean the basement of the Students’ Union(!)) seemed to be packed out with grey-haired men, with a scattering of grey-haired couples. There were a lot of more or less smart-looking older men, a smaller number of ageing rockers and folkies and a few people who looked as if life hadn’t been very kind to them; what there wasn’t, as far as I could see, was more than a handful of people under 40. I realised what was going on, and wondered if anyone else had been in the audience the first time I saw Robyn, a Soft Boys gig at the Hope and Anchor in 1979; I tried to edit our over-55 selves into my memory of that pub back room, but we looked very out of place. Noticing the number of people checking their phones, I automatically edited my mental image accordingly – black or beige plastic, rotary dials, wires trailing – but now it just looked silly.

It’s been a lifetime – my adult lifetime, anyway. I first saw the Soft Boys a few weeks before I went up to university and last saw them shortly before I graduated, by which time they were in the process of splitting; in between I saw them another three times, including one gig where a couple of friends of mine had talked themselves onto the very bottom of the bill, as an unofficial (and unpaid) support act. I’d been trying vaguely to get started as a singer, and persuaded them to let me take vocals on one of their songs – the fact that neither of them knew the lyrics was what swung it for me. (No, they couldn’t just look them up. It was 1980.) So it was that I made my performing debut, singing the Stranglers’ “Grip” with the (loosely-defined) band Shovel Robinson, supporting (a couple of other bands who genuinely were supporting) the Soft Boys. There’s glory for you.

The last time I saw the Soft Boys was in 1982, after Kimberley Rew had formally left the band; the other three started the gig without him, and he only joined them on stage for the last few numbers. I only mention this because one of Morris Windsor’s drum pedals malfunctioned mid-gig, leading to a hiatus in which little could be heard apart from intermittent shouts of “Kimberley!” from the back of the room; to this Robyn responded, “I love Kimberley dearly, but he can’t be used for hitting a drum”.

I don’t remember seeing Robyn after that until 1993 (Manchester Academy, with the Egyptians – Morris Windsor and original Soft Boys bassist Andy Metcalfe).

The missing Avenger planes
Will never return to base
Don’t you wait up for them

How often have you boys said
“I ain’t gonna bump no more”?
We ain’t gonna bump no more

Over the subsequent 25 years (steady – touch of vertigo again) I’ve seen him another seven times – solo, with the Venus Three and with other combinations of musicians, including on one occasion Morris and Kimberley, of all people. But that 1993 gig still sticks in my mind: Respect material – still my favourite Hitchcock album – and played by the old gang, or 3/4s of it (supplemented by an additional guitarist). I’ve never seen staging like it, apart from anything else; rather than sit at the back behind a drumkit, Morris Windsor stood at the front of the stage alongside Robyn and Andy Metcalfe, behind a tiny and mostly electronic kit. (And a vocal mic, of course; three-part harmonies were always part of the deal.) The additional guitarist, whose name was Eric, was left to lurk at the back. At one point Robyn, Morris and Andy got into a semi-serious discussion of who’d worked with Robyn longer, who’d been there “at the start”; Robyn wound it up by saying, “Of course, Eric was there all along. Eric’s been there longer than any of us – it’s just that he’s only recently become… apparent.” The Yip Song was amazing (Morris’s ‘kit’ included a real snare), as was its intro; Robyn was on good introductory form generally. Other than that I mainly remember a couple of solo songs mid-set. Robyn did “I’ve got a message for you” and, seemingly irked by the number of people singing every single word back at him, went off-piste in the middle eight:

Though I’m not a piece of veal
Or a piece of beef
The way you sink your teeth in me
Is beyond belief!

I burst out laughing and clapped quite loudly – which Robyn responded to (I was standing right in front of him at the time) by going into an extended drunk-Elvis “Thankyou-ladeez-an-gennelmen-ah-thangyew-so-verr-verr-much” routine. So that was fun, not to mention a bit weird (“Ah felt like I was bein’ fitted with a new artificial arrrm…”).

In the same solo section, Robyn did “She doesn’t exist”, a song which (in 1993) I didn’t know but (at the age of 32) thought was quite pretty and rather sad. After the song I saw Robyn give his eyes a quick dab with a bar towel and thought, “that must really mean a lot to him”; it certainly didn’t mean anything to me. Twenty-five years later, at Club Academy, he did the song – again – as one of a few solo songs mid-set; as soon as I recognised it I thought, you utter bastard. Then stood there for three minutes with a wet face.

They didn’t do “The Wreck of the Arthur Lee” the other night; I don’t remember if they did it that night in 1993, either, although it seems probable. I do know that Arthur Lee was another subject of which I was ignorant, back then. It was three years later that I met the friend who introduced me to the music of Arthur Lee and his psychedelic band Love. That in turn was seven years before she got to meet and hang out with Arthur Lee, which was three years before he died, which is twelve years ago now. The past inside… the past, inside the past, inside the present.

Meanwhile back at the Hope in 1979, Robyn’s switched to bass – a rather striking blue Danelectro ‘longhorn’ bass – and he and Andy are sharing the dense, skittery bassline of “Insanely Jealous”. On guitar, Kimberley is having fun experimenting with feedback and playing with the volume knobs – muting his guitar completely, hitting a chord and then fading it in or wa-wa-ing it in and out. And that’s just the accompaniment. When it’s time for his solo he goes… I wouldn’t say he goes crazy, exactly, not least because that would imply a strong contrast with how he was for the rest of the gig. It’s more that the solo lets him do what he does, only without reining himself in: when it’s time for his solo, he goes. He had – and for all I know still has – an extraordinary sound, reminiscent of Floyd-era Barrett and not really of much else; a kind of lucid, liquid howl. I remember that solo, the best part of 40 years on, and I remember Kimberley’s weird range of ‘psychedelic guitarist’ mannerisms – the gurning, the pouting, the chin-jutting, the Fab Four head-shaking… Kimberley always did have quite an impressive mop of hair, although the last time I saw it I didn’t immediately recognise it, or him (like Robyn, he seems to have more or less skipped ‘grey’ and gone straight for white).

And who is this, on stage with Robyn in 2018 at the rock and roll toilet that is Club Academy, rhythmically jutting his head and pouting, shaking a greying mop of hair as he gets stuck into the solo on “Insanely Jealous”? It’s Luther Russell, of course! Well, of course. And he’s pretty good; seems like a nice guy, too. He doesn’t quite have that sound, though (nobody does). More importantly, there’s never any danger that he’s going to pick the gig up and run off with it; never any question about who’s on stage with whom. It’s odd, though – while he’s no spring chicken himself, Luther would have been only just into secondary school when the Soft Boys broke up (not to mention being located on the wrong continental landmass). He must have watched a lot of videos – and I didn’t think there were any videos.

It was an odd gig; it mostly consisted of 1980s material, although Robyn was also promoting a limited 2011 album which has just had a full(er) release and – almost incidentally – a new album. The new album looks good, sounds excellent (some really nice, gnarly guitar sounds) and includes some of his best material in years; it’s even called Robyn Hitchcock, which might seem to suggest a push into a wider market. There weren’t any copies on sale at the gig, though, which may be why Robyn’s efforts to promote it were fairly perfunctory. That, and the difficulty of selling anything these days. “This is from the new album, which you can’t buy from us, although you can buy it… somewhere. But the music is available everywhere.” (On a side note, I ordered the CD direct from Yep Roc in the States. Postage was reasonable and HMRC didn’t make any trouble.)

Oh God, you were beautiful
Oh God, you were beautiful
Oh God…
Mad Shelley’s letterbox is full of birthday cards

Alternatively, perhaps the passage of time has been weighing on Robyn’s mind as well. (Quick question: why would someone’s letterbox be full of birthday cards? Yes, that, obviously. But why else?) And perhaps Robyn’s opening remarks on reaching retirement age but still being on tour (he turned 65 in March) were more than just rueful banter. The past (“Insanely Jealous”), inside the past (“Chinese Bones”), inside the past (“Madonna of the Wasps”)… inside the past (“Sally was a Legend”), inside the past, (“Goodnight Oslo”), inside the present. You have been listening to: Robyn Hitchcock.

 

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The Tower

You won’t find the following letter in the latest issue of the LRB, so I’m putting it up here instead.

Campaigning discourse gains much of its force through devices like exaggeration, transposition and reversal – rhetorical techniques which in turn gain their force from their users’ (paradoxical) insistence that they are speaking the plain, unvarnished truth. We generally understand this without too much effort; when we are told that “meat is murder”, or that “abortion is murder”, we do not suppose that the protester advancing that proposition would be willing to bring a murder charge against an abortionist or an abattoir worker. Rather, we recognise that the term ‘murder’ is being used as a label for behaviours which – the protester believes – would in an ideal world be seen as tantamount to murder, with a view to propagating that belief.

This is not a new discovery of mine. So I was surprised to find Andrew O’Hagan deliberating over whether Nick Paget-Brown and his deputy Rock Feilding-Mellen were, genuinely and literally, guilty of homicide, and treating the negative answer to that question as a significant finding. Taking the Grenfell campaigners at their word, and Nick and Rock at theirs, may seem even-handed, but it actually confronts two radically different discourses. One is polemical, inferring a pattern from public information and drawing conclusions which (necessarily) go beyond it and into speculation; the other is confessional, based on the introspection of private beliefs and motives for action. Information gained in the confessional mode may make the polemics look silly and mean-spirited, but it doesn’t disqualify them: one may be actuated by the highest of motives and still be involved in schemes that destroy lives. (Again, not a new discovery.)

While O’Hagan acknowledges that “nice people can do terrible things”, at a more fundamental level he seems to work on the basis that the information he’s collecting is, simply, either correct or not – truth or bunk. This naturally inclines him to discount the “colourful and provocative” polemics and warm to the dedication and “self-sustaining decency” of Feilding-Mellen and Paget-Brown. But polemic calls for decoding, not debunking. The question of whether meat is in fact murder can be settled in two minutes (it’s not); whether there is a message behind that slogan that deserves taking seriously, and what the implications of taking it seriously would be, could occupy you for years. Information in the confessional mode, on the other hand, carries an undeniable emotional truth – but this can sit quite happily alongside self-serving and unreliable interpretations of matters of fact, giving them an unearned aura of ‘truthiness’.

Unfortunately O’Hagan’s hermeneutic suspicion is reserved almost exclusively for the Grenfell campaigners – whose “damning and suggestive” arguments, combining “robust speculation” with a “fundamental assumption of guilt”, he apparently saw through so thoroughly that there was nothing left for him to tell us about. When it comes to Paget-Brown and Feilding-Mellen, on the other hand, O’Hagan seems to take the view that they’re pretty straight guys – OK, they’re Tories, but nobody’s perfect – so there’s no call to go around trying to trip them up with trick questions.

To call this a missed opportunity would be an understatement; it forecloses precisely the kind of investigation and analysis that this story needed. Here’s one small example of the kind of connection O’Hagan declined to make, drawn from the final text of The Tower:

[Feilding-Mellen:] “A lot of those Brutalist postwar buildings are not fit for purpose, and our tenants were always telling us that. So I wanted either to improve them or build them again, with guaranteed housing for existing tenants, and with more affordable homes on the same sites.”

[in Kensington and Chelsea] 78 per cent of affordable housing delivered between 2012 and 2015 was social housing, with hardly any ‘affordable rent’ homes delivered at all. … This apparent neglect of housing aimed at those on middle incomes, in favour of those most in need … is a historic problem that Feilding-Mellen was particularly anxious to redress

On Wednesday, 14 June … Jon Snow interviewed Paget-Brown. ‘Can you guarantee that the poorer people who are moved out of here’ – Snow asked, pointing to the tower – ‘will not be replaced by rich people being built fancy new flats to replace it?’
‘Jon, I …’
‘Can you guarantee it?’
‘I really think that’s just an awful allegation and I’m not going to justify it with a response.’

O’Hagan presents this interview as a textbook case of the degradation of journalism, Snow speaking from “a rush of personal conviction” and an “accuser’s zeal” instead of attending to “the essential dynamics of professional doubt”. But, allowances made for Snow’s – polemical – language, surely the assurance he demanded is precisely what Feilding-Mellen failed to give. “Affordable rent” is a term of art for rents pegged to 80% of the local average; the London-wide average “affordable rent”, as of 2015, was £167/week (or £720/month). (For comparison, the median income in Kensington and Chelsea is £27,500, for monthly take-home pay of around £1300.) Feilding-Mellen’s vision for towers like Grenfell (or their replacements) was, precisely, “affordable homes” for “those on middle incomes”, with existing tenants guaranteed “housing” but not guaranteed the housing that they had had before. Would this connection not have been worth drawing out? Might it not have thrown light on the broader context of the tragedy? At the very least, O’Hagan could have asked Feilding-Mellen to put the suspicion to rest, for the benefit of any readers who had nasty suspicious minds.

O’Hagan seems determined to write a story without heroes and villains – or, failing that, one in which we are all (in a very real sense) the villain.

But what if the cause of those deaths wasn’t a few conveniently posh people, but our whole culture and everybody in it, the culture that benefited some but not others, and supported cuts and deregulation everywhere? Not so comfortable now?

Setting aside the bizarre and rather offensive idea that demanding justice for 72 avoidable deaths is a “comfortable” position, what on earth is this “whole culture and everybody in it”? If it means anything, this sentence seems to mean that we have all “supported cuts and deregulation everywhere”; we are scapegoating Kensington and Chelsea because of our own bad conscience – and perhaps out of sheer political opportunism:

The same cladding is on hundreds of buildings in the UK, and the leaders of those councils, Labour as well as Tory, are presumably not being accused of detesting the poor for being in power when their managers installed it.

Yes, a disaster like Grenfell could have happened in any one of a number of local authority areas, some of them with Labour councils; and yes, those councils are responsible for acceding in the culture of “cuts and deregulation everywhere”, and would have borne the blame for the disaster if it had happened on their patch. That, surely, is how accountability works, even in a “whole culture” that sweeps up the entire country in a mania for deregulation. Not that, in point of fact, it ever did. I stopped voting Labour in 1995, precisely because it had become clear that no opposition to “cuts and deregulation” – or to the workings of the free market generally – was to be expected from that quarter; I returned to the party, and became a member, twenty years later, with a view to helping the party return to its old position. I only mention this because I know how typical my experience is. Millions of people never did support cuts and deregulation; millions still don’t. If we’re apportioning guilt, the larger shares must go to those who did support the cuts; those who voted for them; those national politicians who imposed them on the country; and those local politicians who implemented them, however limited their information and however sincerely-felt their good intentions.

I’m not surprised they didn’t publish it – it’s long, and who am I? I’ve got no connection with the case or the area. I thought it was worth writing, though, if only to articulate to myself just what a disappointing piece of work The Tower is. It read like a ‘character’ journalist claiming to be an investigative reporter, falling flat on his face and carrying on as if nothing had happened – less Duncan Campbell than Jon Ronson, and a young Jon Ronson at that. (Andrew O’Hagan is a better writer, and clearly did a lot more work on the story, than that characterisation would suggest. However, O’Hagan seems to have abandoned or pre-emptively censored most of the promising lines of investigation, greatly to the detriment of the final piece.)

The letter in the current issue from Anna Minton goes over neighbouring ground and is well worth reading.

Rich as honey dew – 4

Five (mostly) pessimistic points about the Left and antisemitism, part 4. (Covering point 5, and – confusingly – the fifth post in the series overall.)

  1. Everyone knows this is ridiculous
  2. It’s taken on a life of its own
  3. Jews are different
  4. The question of Palestine
  5. The socialism of fools

I’ve got to admit, when I first heard that there were people on the Left circulating anti-semitic conspiracy theories I found it very hard to take seriously. I’ve been interested in conspiracy theory and in unconventional belief systems for thirty-odd years; between the two of them, I could hardly fail to be aware that there are such things as anti-semitic conspiracy theories. But then, there are people out there who think the measurements of the Great Pyramid have cosmic significance, or that the Book of Daniel tells us the date of the Second Coming, or that the Lost Tribes of Israel are in fact the British. (Hebrew: ‘brit’ = ‘covenant’, ‘ish’ = ‘man’. Coincidence?) As for conspiracy theories, people in search of a world-historical criminal mastermind may put the blame on the Elders of Zion or Mossad; equally, they may blame the Masons, the Illuminati, the Annunaki or the late Aristotle Onassis.

What all those more or less delusional theories have in common is that their devotees are patently irrational – sometimes laughably so, sometimes tragically – and that there are very few of them. Hence why I didn’t take the news of anti-semitic conspiracy theorists on the Left very seriously; my reaction was, essentially, you’re always going to get a few nutters. I now think there’s a bit more to it than that, and it’s worth taking a proper look at.

According to a widely-held argument, recently voiced (as we’ve seen) by Jonathan Freedland, conspiracy theory itself is part of the problem. Conspiracy theory is a kind of ‘gateway drug’ to irrational thinking and thence anti-semitism: you start by doubting the official version, you go on to blaming somebody behind the scenes, you end up discovering that it’s you-know-who behind the scenes. This isn’t a hypothetical worry; depressingly large numbers of people have gone down something like this route, and not only the Left – try searching for ‘Rothschild’ on Twitter if you want a bad time. But I wonder if the conspiracy theory is what’s doing the work here. As I wrote a couple of posts ago, it’s not as if no conspiracies have ever taken place, or the official version of history has always been correct; sometimes theorising about conspiracies is a useful and responsible way of doing history.

So what makes a conspiracy theory a bad conspiracy theory? What makes the difference between (e.g.) Dorril and Ramsay’s Smear! and the late Bill Cooper’s Behold a pale horse? Apart from the fact that Behold a pale horse consists largely of wildly implausible, near-psychotic ravings, I mean. But what makes one theory plausible (e.g. “in the mid-70s, elements of the security and intelligence services conspired with groups in and around the Tory Party to smear Harold Wilson as a KGB asset, so as to get him out of office”) and another implausible (“since the 1960s the CIA have been brainwashing mental patients into carrying out mass shootings so as to get gun control legislation passed and disarm the people, thus enabling the New World Order to take power”)? Apart from… OK, I see the problem.

Clearly, there are conspiracy theories and conspiracy theories. Thinking about it a bit more systematically, a full-on, florid Conspiracy! Theory! like Cooper’s – or like the “the Rothschilds ran the Nazis” babble that’s all too easy to find online – has four characteristics:

  • Scepticism – distrust of official information and received opinion
  • Mechanics – interest in how social structures work, including structures whose workings are not apparent
  • Vision – belief in a coherent alternative way of looking at the world and being in the world
  • Blame – tendency to scapegoat individuals or groups

To be a capital-C Conspiracist isn’t just to distrust the official record; it also means having ideas about how things really work (mechanics), about who’s really in charge (blame) and – perhaps the biggest hit of all – what’s really going on (vision). This last element explains why David Icke is so keen to tell us that the Moon is hollow or that Satan is from Saturn (coincidence?), even though neither astronomy nor folk religion has any obvious relevance to politics in any form. It’s not just a way of looking at the world we share that Icke is selling – it’s a whole new world, a ‘red pill’ conversion experience that you can never undo or go back on. (Or not without feeling really embarrassed.)

But if you define conspiracy theory in terms of the full package of capital-C Conspiracism – Scepticism + Mechanics + Vision + Blame – you rapidly run into similar problems to adherents of the canonical definition of terrorism, which requires (a) violence to be used to (b) achieve political ends by (c) causing terror to (d) someone other than the victim. Some terrorist acts fit the whole definition – just as some examples of conspiracy theory fit the whole of that definition – but many don’t. Was every tit-for-tat killing in the Troubles part of an attempt to achieve a broader political goal? Did every IRA volunteer who ever fired at an RUC man or a British squaddie do so as an attempt to terrorise witnesses? Clearly not. What we call ‘terrorism’ is violence with a political motive somewhere in the picture; some of it has short-term political goals; some of it’s designed to make an impact on third parties. You can’t really generalise much more than that, I suspect. Similarly, if I spend my spare time reading all about Jack Ruby and Officer Tippit and Alex or Alick Heindel or possibly Hidell, the chances are that I don’t entirely believe the Warren Report (Scepticism), and that I at least suspect that there were covert machinations of some sort (Mechanics) going on in Dallas that day. I may also believe that the guys who offed Kennedy were part of a century-spanning conspiracy on a global scale, and that I know just who’s behind it – but then again, I may not. In point of fact, most of the authorities on the classic ‘conspiracy’ topics – JFK, MLK, RFK, the October Surprise, Iran/Contra – show very little interest in setting out a new model that explains everything (Vision), let alone uncovering the ‘secret rulers of the world’ (Blame). Scepticism + Mechanics is the usual toolkit – and some good and useful work has been done by people who get by on scepticism alone, and don’t even show much interest in the mechanics of what may or may not have gone on.

So, conspiracy theory properly understood doesn’t get you to the Protocols mentality, or to what I’ve been calling Conspiracism. Conspiracy theory properly understood – the question of who entered into what agreements with whom, contrary to their own overt and official positions – is a branch of political history, no more and no less. Indeed, the two elements of Conspiracism that aren’t part of conspiracy theory – Vision and Blame – can stand on their own: This is how things should be and/or how things really are! And these are the people stopping it and/or hiding it from us! Call it the paranoid style; call it the pogrom mentality; you could even call it “The Screwfly Solution”. Whatever you call it, it’s not conspiracy theory. In fact, the main elements of conspiracy theory – rational scepticism and curiosity about mechanisms – are, ultimately, antithetical to the lurid panoramas and simplistic finger-pointing of the paranoid style. Compare and contrast: on one hand, “Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Oswald was almost certainly related to Ruby’s mob connections, which in turn should be seen in the context of organised crime’s involvement with the Cuban exile community and LBJ’s own suspect business dealings, investigations into which – not coincidentally – stopped soon after November 22nd”; on the other, “the Rothschilds owned Hitler, just like they now own Jeremy Corbyn”. One of these things is very much not like the other. If anything, conspiracy theory is a cure for the paranoid style, or a big part of a cure.

But now I’ve got problems; in fact, I’m coming close to contradicting myself. Didn’t I begin by saying that the primrose path from pukka conspiracy theory (Scepticism + Mechanics) to full-on Conspiracism (Scepticism + Mechanics + Vision + Blame) is one that many people do in fact tread? How can that be, if the paranoid style (Vision + Blame) is so different from, and so inferior to, conspiracy theory proper?

Perhaps there aren’t four elements to Conspiracism but two; perhaps Scepticism and Mechanics aren’t simple antitheses of Vision and Blame, but are involved with them rather more intimately. Perhaps, in other words, Vision is what Scepticism decays into, when the would-be sceptic lacks the application or the patience to keep track of all the “Smith received donations from Jones” and “Jones shared a letterhead with Evans” circumstantial evidence – never mind the suggestive details and the telling omissions, they’re all in it together, that’s what we’re saying, isn’t it? And perhaps you can say something similar about a drift from Mechanics to Blame – you start with a patient and necessarily open-ended grappling with ways in which things, perhaps, are actually getting done, but you end with the trap snapping shut on who is actually getting things done. There is still such a thing as Conspiracism, on this reckoning, but it’s the name we give to the process of drifting, or degenerating, from ‘conspiracy theory’ (characterised by sceptical but open-minded curiosity) to the paranoid style (characterised by grand overviews and declarations of anathema).

We’re getting close to an explanation for why Corbynism in particular may have attracted substantial numbers of people whose thinking is characterised – and marred – by the paranoid style, and to a possible solution. Simply, Corbynism has attracted substantial numbers of people – attracted them into politics and into activism, made them feel that they had a voice worth hearing; specifically, it’s attracted people inclined towards scepticism about official stories and an interest in the mechanics of how the world works. So far, so good; the problems start when, for a minority of those people, resentment and intellectual laziness triumph over the open-minded, generous curiosity of political inquiry – and conspiracy theory – done properly. Let’s be clear, conspiracy theory done properly is hard work with very little short-term reward; discovering that Fred Bloggs was on the boards of a charity that donated to the Conservative Party and a think-tank with links to the Economic League is unlikely to make your name, bring in any money or even give you much of a buzz. Discovering that Bloggs, behind his mild-mannered exterior, was a powerful operator with connections to people in high places – that’s much more fun. Letting Vision prevail over Scepticism and Blame prevail over Mechanics – that’s how conspiracy theory goes bad; it’s also a standing temptation for anyone who likes an intellectual shortcut and wants to let out a bit of rage. Which is to say, for everyone some of the time, as well as for some (a few) people all of the time.

As for the solution, that’s simple: push the sliders back the other way, from the comfortable froth of Vision and Blame back to the hard work and indefinitely-delayed gratification of Scepticism and Mechanics. This is the sense in which we need more conspiracy theory, not less. We also need more free and undominated political discussion – to challenge stereotyping and support sceptical curiosity – and more activism. Jean-Pierre Voyer was right, before he became an ultra-left antisemite (an irony I could have done without):

Whether the subject sinks into madness, practises theory or participates in an uprising … the two poles of daily life – contact with a narrow and separate reality on one hand and spectacular contact with the totality on the other – are simultaneously abolished

Anyone who’s been on a picket line can confirm: there’s an odd sense of lightness and simplicity, which I think is at bottom the sense that “what your life is about” doesn’t have two meanings any more, but one. It’s a profoundly healthy experience. There’s a reason why you see a lot more of the paranoid style on Twitter than you ever do on banners, and it is the obvious one.

I can’t leave this subject without noting that there is more than one political force which has recently activated large numbers of previously passive citizens. Unless Jeremy Corbyn had a particular appeal to people who were likely to be resentful and intellectually lazy, we’d expect to see that there was also more than one political area in which a minority was prone to thinking in the paranoid style. And, of course, this is the case; if we’re quantifying, the Brexit-voting Right is a far greater danger to public discourse than Corbynites could ever be. They, too, feel sceptical towards official accounts and have an interest in the mechanisms whereby things really get done; compared to the Corbynite Left, however, the position from which the Brexit Right starts is far closer towards simplistic Vision and outcasting Blame. Nor do the same corrective mechanisms apply. Brexit politics is something that happens in private life and on social media – the twenty-first century equivalent of shouting at the TV – and very rarely makes it into the public square. Jeremy Corbyn has been repeatedly criticised, not for failing to discourage personal attacks and one-sided fantasies, but for doing so in what are taken to be qualified or double-edged words; but compare the tribunes of the Brexit Right, who have openly and consistently encouraged both of these things, from a far more prominent position. The Left at its very worst – Alan Bull, say – could never pollute the public discourse in the way that Nigel Farage and Paul Dacre already have.

Summing up, then: anti-semitism in the Labour Party is being instrumentalised, and will almost certainly continue to be instrumentalised, by people who want to hang it on the Left. What makes this situation all the more annoying is that it’s an odd sort of problem: if the words “anti-semitism in the Labour Party” are interpreted along the same lines as, say, “racism in the Conservative Party”, we could reasonably say that it wasn’t a problem. (Do Jewish members of the party have trouble getting selected as Labour candidates, or face repeated jocular references to their Jewish background, or have to smile gamely through Jewish jokes at party social events? Huge if true.) A lack of attention to and respect for Jewish identity (or identities) is a real issue in the party, however, partly because of a widespread vulgar-Marxist perception that exploited and oppressed minorities are the only minorities that need respect or solidarity. This needs to be corrected. Related to this, we need to have nothing to do with a knockabout “does this offend you yeah?” approach to Zionism, which parts of the Left have borrowed from parts of the Jewish anti-Zionist Left; we need to be clear that we have no quarrel with Jewish people or Judaism, whether we’re calling for a temporary freeze to settlement building or the replacement of the state of Israel by a secular democracy. Lastly – and least importantly – conspiracy theory in general, and certain very well-worn conspiracist tropes in particular, are becoming an issue in parts of the Corbynite Left. This, though, is because the people involved aren’t doing conspiracy theory properly – or politics, for that matter; and the cure for that is more activism, more discussion, more politics. Which is something that the Corbynite Left, almost uniquely in contemporary politics, is well-equipped to offer.

 

 

Rich as honey dew – 3

Things have moved on a bit since I started this series – but I have started, so I’d better crack on and finish.

Five (mostly) pessimistic points about the Left and antisemitism, part 3.

  1. Everyone knows this is ridiculous
  2. It’s taken on a life of its own
  3. Jews are different
  4. The question of Palestine
  5. The socialism of fools

I’m not going to relitigate the question of whether anti-Zionism is anti-semitic; as you probably know if you’re reading this blog, I wrote quite a bit about that a few months ago. My starting point for this post, in fact, is that anti-Zionism is not anti-semitic; that one can oppose the policies, the interests, even the existence of the state of Israel while upholding the identity and interests of the Jewish people; and that, conversely, people who hold Jews in fear and contempt are quite capable of supporting Zionism, even doing so for anti-semitic reasons. (Extreme example: Morrissey, as far as one can tell, supports the state of Israel as a bulwark against Islam, while simultaneously denouncing kosher dietary regulations as barbaric.) Tell me your position on East Jerusalem and you’ve told me nothing about how you feel about Jewish identity, and vice versa; a secular assimilationist may be a Likud-sympathising hawk, a proudly observant Jew may be bitterly opposed to the entire Zionist project. (This isn’t news to anyone, surely.)

The question of Palestine is problematic, though, for two reasons. One is, at root, a question of numbers: although supporting the Israeli nation state certainly isn’t inherent to Judaism – or even British Judaism – it is the case that a large majority of British Jews are Zionists, at least in the sense that they identify with the Zionist project. (Which doesn’t mean identifying with the last few decades of Israel’s history, let alone with the current Israeli government; my sense is that the proportion of Likudniks and Revisionists in the British Jewish community is considerably lower than in Israel.) More to the point, while I can (and will) sit here saying that Zionism isn’t inherent to Jewish identity, that’s not the way it seems to many (or most) Zionist Jews; seen from the inside, supporting and identifying with Israel doesn’t have the quality of an optional extra or a lifestyle choice. This is a belief, and a loyalty, that matters deeply to those who hold it; challenging it or holding it cheap can feel like a deplorable lapse in taste at best, at worst an outright attack.

This in turn means that being an anti-Zionist Jew, as well as putting you in a numerical minority, is hard in itself; you will take a lot of flak from your own community, some of it animated by genuinely felt offence, some deployed in cynicism or contempt. Given the overriding need to develop a thick skin, it’s not surprising that some of those Jewish anti-Zionists – a minority of a minority of a minority – make a virtue of necessity; that, in Richard‘s words,

some people have cultivated a kind of gratuitous and performative political ‘toughness’, and defend this fragile ‘toughness’ as if it was the same thing as rigour and hard-headedness

In my experience, if you want to hear accusations of anti-semitism, collaborationism, outright Nazism flying – and then flying right back – there’s no better place to eavesdrop than an argument between Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews; they really dish it out (on both sides). The point here isn’t that it’s OK when they say it; it’s deeply offensive and counter-productive whoever says it (although, to be fair, it is even worse when somebody from outside the community decides to pitch in). The point is that – going back a couple of steps – beliefs about Zionism are felt to be inherent to the believers’ identity as Jews, and everyone knows this. Consequently what gets attacked, on both sides, is neither a position on Zionism nor a Jewish identity, but something with elements of both:

“This Zionism which is inherent to your identity as a Jew – this is what I think of it!”

“Yeah? Wouldn’t you like to know what I think of this anti-Zionism that your so-called Jewish identity is built on?”

Think of the prefatory phrase As a Jew, used to link a Jewish identity to support for the BDS campaign, and by extension to challenge the assumption that Jews are Zionists; think of the contemptuous coinage “azzajew”, used (to his enduring discredit) by Norman Geras to delegitimate just that linkage. It’s about supporting or opposing the state of Israel, but it’s also about what it means to be a Jew.

The upshot is that anti-Zionism, in practice, has a nasty tendency to blur into wilfully causing offence to something many – or most – Jews regard as a key part of their identity as Jews. (And it’s also the case that Zionism, in practice, tends to give offence to something that a minority of Jews regard as a key part of their identity as Jews.) If you’re a Gentile and you get into the habit of using anti-Zionist attack lines, in the knowledge that they’re likely to cause offence, you shouldn’t be surprised if the question of anti-semitism starts to be raised – first and foremost by your political enemies, of course, but not only by them. This doesn’t mean that anti-Zionism is anti-semitic, or that it should be abandoned; on the contrary, I believe it’s correct and sorely needed. What it means is that we need to tread carefully and show some respect.

This is all the more important given that (my second point) anti-Zionism tends to bring you into contact, sooner or later, with people who are anti-semitic. Let’s start with Raed Salah. As you probably know, Raed Salah is a well-respected Palestinian politician who has been accused of – and, in effect, stood trial for – anti-semitic hate speech, including the ‘blood libel’; he is also someone with whom Jeremy Corbyn has, famously, taken tea. The British courts have pretty much found in favour of Salah; it’s been pointed out that the incriminating quotations are relatively few in number, and that some – perhaps most – of them only feature the words ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’ in square brackets, which in turn suggests that there may be plausible alternative readings. Calling Salah an antisemite may be doing him an injustice. At this point I don’t want to rest my case on that line of argument, though. Rather, let’s suppose that Salah is in fact an anti-semite; that he does, in fact, hate(/fear/despise/etc) Jews. What does this tell us about Jeremy Corbyn, or his actions in meeting Salah?

I’ll give you a moment to reconsider your immediate answer to that one. While I’m waiting, here’s an interesting passage on anti-semitism by the academic Brian Klug.

our working definition of antisemitism, hostility towards Jews as Jews, is flawed. It should be amended to read: hostility towards Jews as ‘Jews’. This might seem a minor, almost pedantic, difference but it totally alters the sense of the definition. That is to say, our working definition is not merely imprecise, it is positively misleading. It would be more accurate (if cumbersome) to define the word along these lines: a form of hostility towards Jews as Jews, in which Jews are perceived as something other than what they are. … Thinking that Jews are really ‘Jews’ is precisely the core of antisemitism.

My grandmother wasn’t hostile to Asians as Asians; she had nothing against people who went to work, raised families and cooked recipes they’d got from their mothers. She did think that people who worshipped the wrong God were doomed to eternal damnation, but that category included many people who didn’t have brown skin – Catholics for a start. No, she was hostile to Asians as ‘Asians’ – smelly, unhygienic, violent, bestial people, figments of a racist imagination. Similarly, “hostility towards Jews as Jews”, without the scare-quotes (aptly named in this case), would mean hostility towards the category of people who abstain from pork, attend synagogue, see Jerusalem as a holy place, celebrate Passover and so forth. These are perfectly innocuous things to do: hostility to a group of people defined in that way would make no sense, even in the mind of a racist. So the core of anti-semitism is hostility towards Jews as ‘Jews’ – or rather the conviction that Jews are, despite the surface appearances, ‘Jews’, with whatever attributes anti-semitism may load them. The left-wing anti-semite sees scheming, snobbish, hyper-intelligent lords of finance; the right-wing anti-semite sees scheming, low-minded sub-human subversives; the Nazi sees both. Either way – or both ways – it’s never Jews they see, always ‘Jews’.

There’s a difference, in other words, between hating a group in terms of a fantasised image of that group and hating a group on the basis of qualities that are actually characteristic of that group and its members. This is why hating women for the way they won’t stop talking is sexism, but hating men for the way they dominate conversations isn’t – one’s a fantasised hate-object, the other’s an accurate characterisation of the group. (The telltale sign is that the hatred is built in to the first image; men may just have a lot of interesting things to say, but the woman going on again, on again is always hateful, or risible at best.)

Where Jews are concerned, it may be argued that this is a distinction without a difference; hostility towards Jews, as Jews, can only be racist, whether the person expressing that hostility has a particular fantasised version of ‘Jews’ in mind or not. There is, however, one situation in which the scare-quotes or their absence would make a difference. As it happens, there was only one Jewish kid in our class at school, and he bullied me for half a year; he shoved me, he stole things from me, he mocked my inability to read Hebrew… he was quite the piece of work. Fortunately this didn’t last long and didn’t recur. Imagine it had, though, and imagine that it had started a lot earlier; imagine a Gentile kid who meets a total of, say, five Jewish people between the ages of 5 and 14, four of whom – quite coincidentally – had bullied him unmercifully. By the age of 14 that kid is going to have formed some pretty strong opinions about what Jews are like in general, firmly grounded in first-hand experience. We can tell him – and, over time, life will tell him – that his mental image of Jews-as-school-bullies is in effect an image of the ‘Jew’, not an accurate image of Jews in general. But until he’s acquired some evidence to the contrary he’ll be resistant to this message; it will be an accurate image as far as he’s concerned, for the simple reason that it is an accurate image of how Jews, in general, have interacted with him.

Of course, this is a wildly artificial example which doesn’t tell us anything meaningful about the ways in which actual non-Jewish people encounter Jews. At least, not in Britain. But picture yourself growing up and living as a Palestinian in the occupied West Bank or the blockaded Gaza Strip, or within Israel itself. Ask yourself how often, over the years, you would have encountered generosity or simple humanity from someone you knew to be a Jew – and how often you would have encountered the opposite, whether it was delivered with a mailed fist or an apologetic smile. Now ask your Palestinian alter-ego to sign up to the proposition that there simply is no reason to hate Jews as Jews; that anyone who feels hatred for Jews is making a fantasy hate-figure of imaginary ‘Jews’; that, if you say you hate Jews, you’re doing exactly the same thing that the Nazis did, and the Russian pogromists, and King Edward I who expelled the Jews from England. Do you think he or she is still listening?

Hating Jews, for some people, makes intuitive sense, for the simple reason that hateful acts have been committed (or defended, or condoned) by most or all of the Jews they have ever encountered. Extending this hatred to the Jewish people as a whole is still irrational – there is no rational reason to hate any human collectivity of that size and diversity – but it’s not the same kind of irrationality as the classic pogrom mentality; there’s a big difference between hating a group because you hate the things that powerful members of it have done, and hating a group because you think it’s evil and dangerous in itself, however powerless its members are . (The first kind of hatred is still irrational, is still anti-semitism, and can lead to the second kind. But they are different.)

Raed Salah is a Palestinian politician; he represents people whose land has been stolen (and continues to be stolen), whose rights have been ignored, who have been systematically denied justice, by a government which claims to represent the Jewish people. It would be hugely to Salah’s credit if he didn’t feel any hatred for Jews, or if he scrupulously refrained from generalising from those Jews he’d had contact with to Jews in general – we could rank him alongside Gandhi and Desmond Tutu, icons of an almost superhuman moral virtue. But it would also mark him out as far from normal in his responses to his and his people’s situation – and I don’t think we can reasonably insist that the Palestinian people choose their representatives exclusively from the ranks of secular saints. Simply put, Palestinians have good reasons for bearing a grudge against some Jews; it would be nice if they didn’t extend that hostility irrationally, but lots of Palestinians (like the rest of us) are liable to irrational thinking and generalisation from insufficient evidence.

This being the case, if we’re committed to bringing Palestinian politics and Palestinian politicians within the big tent of political legitimacy – which I think we should be – then somebody’s going to end up taking tea with anti-semites. To have looked this possibility in the face, and extended the hand of friendship to Salah anyway, is actually to Jeremy Corbyn’s credit – at least, I believe it will eventually be seen to have been to his credit. (Let’s hope we all live that long.) But it does impose a duty on Corbyn and people like him to demonstrate that they’re meeting Salah (or whoever) as representatives of the Palestinian people, not as ideological allies, and that they don’t endorse the anti-semitic views which have been attributed to them. And if they say – as well they may – that their opposition to anti-semitism is already being stated loud and clear, perhaps it needs to be stated even louder and clearer.

Until quite recently, these were niche arguments, which could rage in the activist undergrowth without having much effect on Labour as a party. But now, of course, Labour is led by an anti-Zionist (or, at the very least, a friend of Palestine), and anti-Zionist views are – finally – getting an airing in the mainstream of the party. Which means we’re making progress – but it also means we’re in unknown territory, and we need to tread carefully. Weaponised anti-Zionism – Zionism packaged in knowing and deliberate offence to felt Jewish identity – is probably good nasty fun for those who indulge in it, but ultimately it’s a pathology: a morbid reaction to the difficult conditions in which Jewish anti-Zionists have had to operate. In any case, it’s not a weapon that non-Jews should ever attempt to use. Similarly, some people may drift into anti-semitism as a morbid reaction to the conditions in which they have to live and work, and some of those people may nevertheless be worth engaging in dialogue; this is not to condone or excuse the anti-semitic element of their beliefs, which must be disowned and condemned. In short, if we oppose Zionism – as I believe we should – we must do so, clearly and equivocally, in a spirit of friendship with the Jewish people, as well as in solidarity with the victims of Zionism. The two are not incompatible; we should make sure we demonstrate that.

(Why is this a pessimistic post? Not because I believe that it’s impossible to keep anti-semitism out of anti-Zionism. I’m hopeful on that front: I think it’s entirely possible for people of good will to reach a position which is clearly opposed to (or at least critical of) Zionism while also being clearly and unequivocally opposed to anti-semitism. My pessimism concerns the prospects for bringing the Labour Party round to a position critical of Zionism; a lot more arguments are going to be had before we can make that happen, which almost certainly means that a lot more mud-slinging accusations of anti-semitism are going to fly. We’re going to need to be very clear about what we don’t believe, and also about what we do.)

 

 

 

 

Rich as honey dew – supplemental

I agree with Jonathan Freedland, up to a point.

On the notion that antisemitism is being “weaponised” against the Labour leadership

Freedland’s argument on this point is odd. It starts well

It’s quite true that the issue has been picked up by those on the right with no love for Labour, or for Jews for that matter. It’s hard to take seriously the outrage of the Mail or Telegraph when both have reached for the antisemitic dog whistle in the recent past, attacking Ralph Miliband or George Soros using the familiar old codes.

but takes an odd swerve

you can make a strong case that plenty are acting in bad faith, trying to use this issue as a stick to beat Labour – but if you do that, you need to exempt Jews themselves from that charge. As one who knows this community well, I can tell you: what’s motivating those Jews protesting about antisemitism in Labour is fear of antisemitism, no more and no less.

and then goes right off the rails.

This needs to be stressed because what lies beneath such a view is a notion that is itself antisemitic: that Jews do not act sincerely, but always with an ulterior motive or hidden agenda.

We might not like to think of Jewish people operating cynically and in bad faith, particularly on as important an issue as antisemitism – and there are certainly good reasons not to rush into such an accusation. But ruling it out altogether smacks of a rather patronising essentialism – as if it wasn’t possible for anyone who was Jewish to be a political operator. Which would be nice, but really, it ain’t necessarily so. As for the second point, certainly it would be antisemitic to say that Jews in general usually have a hidden agenda, but logically you can’t get from there to assuming antisemitism every time a particular Jewish person, or a particular Jewish group, is said to have a hidden agenda. Disprove “all Xs are Y” and you don’t make a dent on “some Xs are Y”, let alone “this particular X is Y”.

On the view, tweeted by the former minister Chris Mullin, that Jewish leaders were “ganging up on Corbyn” because of “criticism of Israel”

According to Freedland, this “falls apart on the facts”, inasmuch as the prompts for the current controversy had nothing to do with Israel but involved straightforwardly antisemitic themes and accusations. But this, again, fails on logic. If Jo goes over Nik’s performance of a task with a fine-toothed comb, it may mean that Jo cares deeply about the task, or it may just mean that Jo is gunning for Nik. And, of course, this pattern of behaviour is all the more credible when the reason why Jo has it in for Nik has some connection with what Nik’s been tasked with – as in the case of the supposed grounds for criticism of Corbyn (Israel) and the actual topic (antisemitism). Or is Freedland suggesting that Jewish leaders who oppose Corbyn’s stance on Israel don’t see the nation of Israel as having anything to do with the interests of the Jewish people? Huge if true.

On the view that a political party will always reflect wider society, that for as long as there are antisemites in the UK there will be antisemites in Labour

Freedland says that this won’t do, and I entirely agree; Labour and the Left need to take antisemitism more seriously and do much better.

For one thing, the left exists to change society, not simply to reflect its existing defects: it’s right to expect better of Labour than of other parties.

Yes, absolutely. Later in the piece, in fact, Freedland quotes a piece from the Morning Star which is a perfect example of the kind of disdain for the gains of liberalism (at least, this particular gain of liberalism) that I talked about in the previous post.

when you are homeless and your bed is a piece of cardboard, rows about alleged anti-semitism are not on your list of priorities for the day and night ahead. Staying alive, being warm, having food is.

When your family are housed in a one-room bed and breakfast and your children have nowhere to play, nowhere to do homework, nowhere to bring friends back to, anti-semitism accusations don’t figure much in your daily list of getting by.

When you are a carer on £64 per week, living a humdrum, relentless everyday routine of caring for a disabled person, attending to their needs and ignoring your own, a break and a holiday is more pressing than what people thought of a mural back in 2012.

It’s carefully worded – with her references to “alleged anti-semitism”, “anti-semitism accusations” and “what people thought of a mural”, at no point does the writer actually say that actual anti-semitism couldn’t be a problem for people experiencing poverty and hardship. But then, she only acknowledges in passing that there is such a thing as actual anti-semitism, or that the recrudescence of anti-semitism is something people might reasonably worry about. In any case, it’s an odd and stunted form of socialism that rejects liberal demands on the grounds that they operate too high up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (“Votes at 16? That’s not going to get many rough sleepers off the street!”)

On Labour, antisemitism and conspiracy theory

the antisemites exposed within Labour … have not wandered into the wrong party by mistake. They’re not BNP-types who misread the sign on the door. On the contrary, their racism is a warped deformation of their leftism.

Here, though, Freedland goes wrong (again). In assuming that there is some connection between antisemitism and some form of Leftism, he is necessarily assuming that antisemitism is more common on the Left than on the Right, or at least letting himself in for some very fancy footwork involving multiple forms of antisemitism and countervailing factors operating differentially on different parts of the political spectrum. The evidence says that antisemitism is no more common on the Left than on the centre or centre-right (and, as I said the other day, the fact that it’s no less common is quite bad enough to be going on with). That being the case, my old friend William of Ockham says that there’s no reason to assume multiple forms of antisemitism operating in different parts of the map, least of all when we also need to assume countervailing factors merrily (and quietly) epicycling away to offset some of them. Chances are, Labour antisemitism looks a lot like Liberal Democrat antisemitism or even Conservative antisemitism.

Remember, antisemitism differs from other racisms in its belief that Jews are the secret masters of the universe, pulling the strings that shape world events – and always for the sake of evil.

With respect, no; this is in no sense unique to antisemitism. Nils Christie wrote about an old woman he’d met who suffered from psychotic delusions; she believed she was regularly visited by the Devil and by smaller demons who tormented her. Lonely, shunned, living in poverty and continual distress, this woman was voiceless and powerless; and she was very lucky not to have lived 400 years ago, when she would have been seen as a witch by people who hung on her every word and lived in fear of her power. This weird psychological inversion – the projection of vast power and wealth onto people who are clearly poor and powerless – is at the heart of witchfinding as well as the pogrom. More generally, it’s a framing that recurs again and again, from Britain to Bosnia to Russia to Rwanda, when people turn against a minority that lives among them. In the pogromist mind, the fantasy of the victims’ power and the reality of their vulnerability are stitched together with the half-believed justification that the violence is pre-emptive: they need to strike now, while the victims are still weak, or it’ll be too late – the fantasised power will have become real. The pogrom mentality is an identifiable thing – but not all pogroms are directed against Jews.

Less tangibly, it’s the cast of mind, the way of thinking, that antisemitism represents that we should fear. Conspiracy theory, fake news, demonisation of an unpopular group: what happens to our politics if all these become the norm? This is why Jews have often functioned as a canary in the coalmine: when a society turns on its Jews, it is usually a sign of wider ill health.

And, once again, we’re right off the rails, ending up with the weird and rather insulting suggestion that we should care about antisemitism because of what it says about where society’s going. I’m not an expert on the Nazis, but I do tend to think the Holocaust was the worst thing they did, in and of itself, rather than being an indicator of just how bad things were getting for subjects of Nazi rule in general. As for ‘conspiracy theory’, let me put in a word here for all those who believe that Lee Oswald was neither a leftist malcontent nor a lone gunman; that, while Harold Wilson may have been paranoid, elements of the British security state actually were out to get him; or for that matter, that there are such things as a “security state”, a “permanent government”, “deep politics” or an “international drugs/guns network” (particularly, in the last case, those who were writing about it before the Iran/Contra story blew (hi Robin, hi Steve)).

The trouble with conspiracy theories is the ‘theory’ element, not the ‘conspiracy’ – conspiracies are a perfectly normal (albeit illegitimate) organisational form, used throughout history by groups of people (pre-existing or ad hoc) who want to pursue common interests while minimising accountability. Conspiracy theories, by and large, are readings of episodes in contemporary history that give conspiratorial modes of organising greater prominence than usual, and they’re not inherently any less valid than any other type of theory. Deterministic conspiracy theories are bad because they’re deterministic; racist conspiracy theories are bad because they’re racist; conspiracy theories that assume everyone involved acts in perfect unity to achieve long-term goals which don’t benefit them directly are bad because they’re wildly implausible, and so on. Anyone who classes all conspiracy theories as deterministic, racist and/or implausible hasn’t thought very hard about the meaning of the word ‘conspiracy’ – or else they’ve tacitly redefined it to include one of those disqualifying characteristics.

This matters for a number of reasons. Firstly, because conspiracy theory – properly understood – is a useful resource, a way of looking at the world that affords genuine insights. Secondly, because conspiracy theory is associated with unofficial and ‘alternative’ readings of history; by bracketing conspiracy theory with antisemitism, Freedland effectively (re-)draws the line between official and unofficial, mainstream and alternative, acceptable and ‘crank’, and loads the second term in each pair with all the opprobrium that antisemitism fully deserves. This, clearly, is not helpful – not least because (thirdly) there are good and bad ways of looking at history and current affairs, approaches worth following and approaches to avoid; and forswearing ‘conspiracy theory’ won’t reliably keep you among the good guys. “Yeah, well, Zionist lobby innit” is bad history and bad analysis, but it’s bad because it’s lazy and relies on othering, not because it’s a conspiracy theory: “yeah, well, Corbynites innit” is no better. “We think it’s worth noting that X met Y on [date], after which Y co-signed a letter with A, B and C” may have the form of a conspiracy theory, but it’s good analysis (or at least it may be).

In sum, antisemitism is a real problem in Britain, it is a real problem in the Labour Party, and more needs to be done to raise awareness of it. But it is being exploited by enemies of Corbyn, including some Jewish enemies (whose Jewishness is no proof against political cynicism), and not all the talk of conspiracy should be dismissed.

That said, we can also follow an example from Bertolt Brecht and run the same thoughts in the opposite order. Anti-semitism is being exploited by enemies of Corbyn, including some Jewish enemies, and not all the talk of conspiracy should be dismissed. But antisemitism is a real problem in Britain, it is a real problem in the Labour Party, and more needs to be done to raise awareness.

Rich as honey dew – 2

Five (mostly) pessimistic points about the Left and antisemitism, part 2.

  1. Everyone knows this is ridiculous
  2. It’s taken on a life of its own
  3. Jews are different
  4. The question of Palestine
  5. The socialism of fools

“The buggers are legal now – what more are they after?”
– Tom Robinson, “Glad to be gay” (1978)

As we know, the Community Security Trust found last year that anti-semitism was no more common on the Left than in the centre or centre-Right. Good news on the face of it – at least, less-bad news than we might have feared – but Richard draws attention to a neglected, and troubling, corollary:

this also means the Left is not exempted from antisemitism. Indeed, the CST asserts – and this does not seem prima facie implausible – that if the Left is not more antisemitic than the political ‘centre-ground’, it is also not less antisemitic. We should think about what that means. Would we be dismayed to learn that people who identified with the Left were no less racist than the mean when it came to anti-black racism, or Islamophobia?

Are we – Labour and the Left – not precisely the people who stand for universal equality and against any form of discrimination? Do we not pride ourselves on taking the side of any despised, excluded or exploited minority – and beat ourselves up over failures to do so? Why are we not taking the lead in opposing antisemitism? What’s our blind spot about the Jews as a minority?

Let’s rewind to that word ‘exploited’. The core values of the socialist Left are to do with collective interests, not respect for individuals; it fights for class justice, not individual rights; it opposes exploitation, not inequality. The tradition that rests on equal rights for all and respect for individual flourishing is liberalism, not socialism. The two need each other, but they’re always in tension; a liberalism of individual rights is quite compatible with free competition between workers, including the freedom to undercut on wages and working conditions. (Employment rights? They’re your rights, so if you want to waive them in order to get that job it’s nobody’s business but yours.)

More to our current point, socialism – in and of itself – has more to say about some forms of systematic discrimination than others. Socialists are against exploitation per se (“More pay! Less work!”, the workerists used to say), and against super-exploitation in particular: opposition to misogyny (low pay and the “double burden”) and to the racism of “dirty jobs” (and low pay) are straightforwardly coherent socialist positions. Other forms of discrimination take a bit more working-out to fit within a socialist framework, but not much more: Islamophobia, homophobia, ableism can all be seen as strategies for dividing up the working class, carried out not by the bosses but by workers hoping to secure their position by rigging the competition between them. “Don’t want to wear the same uniform as the rest of us? Can’t get up the steps before the bell goes? Not got a girlfriend to introduce to the boss? Sorry, mate, not my problem!” What socialism says to those workers is to stop trying to scrape up a bit of individual advantage and recognise their class interest – a class which, of course, includes Muslim, gay and disabled workers.

Liberalism is very strong on discrimination as a thing in itself; socialism, less so. Liberalism says “she is your equal: if you classify her in any way that might make her less than equal to you, you are in the wrong”. Socialism says “she is a worker like you: if you try and gain individual advantage over her in any way, you’re scabbing on your class”. From this it follows that socialism doesn’t have a lot to say in situations where a discriminatory ideology exists but a pattern of discriminatory practice is not apparent. Forty years on from the 1970s – when so much consciousness first got raised – there is, still, a gender pay gap; disabled people still suffer widespread social exclusion; young Black and Asian men are, still, over-policed and under-achieving relative to their White peers: there’s obvious work to be done, on the front of opposition to exploitation.

The situation of Jews seems different, though (a Gentile writes, cautiously). This is certainly a country with a substantial past record of structural and cultural discrimination against Jews – remember David Salomons MP, remember the Aliens Acts, remember After Strange Gods, remember Cable Street… And the themes and tropes of anti-semitism are still lying around, as it were. The title for these posts is taken from the sentimental Lancashire folk song “A mon like thee”, which you’ll still hear occasionally in folk clubs, at least in a lightly bowdlerised version; in the original (which may date back to the 1910s or only to the ’60s) the narrator’s long-lost brother reveals himself to be “as rich as any Jew”.

All the same, a history of discrimination and the cultural relics of discrimination aren’t the same as a continuing reality of discrimination. Here and now, it’s not obvious to me in what way-

A READER: In what way Jews are discriminated against? It’s not obvious to you in what way Jews have anything to complain about? You can’t see any pattern of discriminatory practice in… oh, I don’t know… visibly Jewish people being attacked in the streets? cemeteries being vandalised? schools doubling their security patrols? (Does your kids’ school even have a security patrol, by the way?) I suppose all that’s OK because it’s not obvious to you that it’s going on. It’s pretty bloody obvious to us!

Good point, that reader. But I’m afraid I stand (cautiously) by my original point. You could say that racist attacks on Black and visibly Muslim individuals are warfare: our majority-white, nominally-Christian society is continually attacking those groups of people through exclusion and super-exploitation; outright violence is just the extreme end of the spectrum. (Radical feminists would say something similar about domestic violence and rape, and I wouldn’t say they were wrong.) Anti-semitic attacks are less like war and more like terrorism: they single out a group that isn’t being systematically excluded or exploited. Terrorism is fundamentally a communicative strategy, and the analogy holds good here. The message being communicated is we know what you are; they say you’re normal members of this society, but we know different – and now so do you.

In other words, the key message of antisemitic attacks – in a society where Jews have formal and practical equality – is a threat: the threat to change that situation, to revert to the old state of affairs in which Jews were systematically excluded and exploited. Rejecting this threat and upholding the equal citizenship Jews now have is a position we can, and should, get behind, but it’s not inherently a socialist position; it might even be seen as a distraction from the task of demanding equal citizenship for groups that are currently excluded and exploited. (Although, as Metatone points out in comments, this argument rests on somebody drawing a line between “excluded and exploited minority group” and “minority group but, meh”, and Socialism isn’t going to be able to do that in person. Rather, the line will be drawn by actual socialist groups, up to and including the Labour Party, or rather by the people controlling those groups and setting their agenda – which will tend to mean people who aren’t members of minority groups.) According to this argument, equal citizenship is a liberal achievement, and, valuable as they may be, preserving the gains of liberalism isn’t a socialist goal; which is to say, achieving it doesn’t take us further towards an end to exploitation.

At least, that’s a tenable argument, and one which might explain the asymmetry between Left positions on antisemitism and (say) Islamophobia. I don’t think it’s correct, though. This, unlike the previous two, is actually an optimistic point, because I think what we’ve got here is a blind spot that we can – and should – do some work on. If you’re familiar with the Hegelian dialectic, you’ll know that at each stage the opposition between two antithetical elements is resolved – not by splitting the difference or agreeing to differ, but – in a synthesis which represents the transcendence and supersession of both elements. Most importantly, the synthesis both preserves and negates the clashing elements. If we take this seriously as a model of historical progress, it would imply that the gains of liberal individualism will live on under socialism – will, in fact, be more fully and more adequately realised than they have been to date. But if this is to happen, those gains must first be made; liberal individualism, as well as materialist collectivism, must be realised as fully as possible if they are to be superseded by something better than either of them.

What I’m saying – if you’d rather have it without the teleology and the jargon – is that the Left cannot afford any complacency about the achievements of liberal individualism; still less can we afford to stop speaking the language of rights and respect altogether, on the basis that democratic socialism will float all boats. Equality of citizenship for Jews is an historic achievement of liberalism, to rank with free schooling or votes for women; we on the Left should understand that and appreciate it as such, and if there are any threats to it from any quarter we should be absolutely outraged.

As for recognising that and making it an emotional as well as an intellectual reality – well, there’s work to do. But at least we can see where the work needs to be done. An optimistic point, as I say.

Next up: Israel/Palestine (spoiler: not quite so optimistic).

 

 

Rich as honey dew – 1

I’d like to make a few points – mostly but not exclusively pessimistic – about the Left and anti-semitism; five of them, in fact. (This piece responds to Richard Seymour’s excellent piece on the subject, which you should read first. This one’s better, though – two more points!)

Here they are. (Update 25th April: links added to later posts in the series.)

  1. Everyone knows this is ridiculous
  2. It’s taken on a life of its own
  3. Jews are different
  4. The question of Palestine
  5. The socialism of fools

Go.

  1. Everyone knows this is ridiculous

I’ve been active on the left, off and on (more off than on, if I’m honest) since the late 1980s. I’ve spent a lot of time hanging around with people on the Campaign Group area of the Labour left, and with the kind of Trots who were open-minded and smart enough to want to work with Labour people; nationalists, greens and anarchists, ditto. I haven’t had much to do with Communists of any variety, or with anyone to the Right of Robin Cook, say. But as for the Labour Left and the left-of-Labour Left – the scene that Jeremy Corbyn comes from – I’ve seen a bit of it.

Have I seen anyone excluded from a position, or lobbied against, or badmouthed in any way, because they were Jewish? No. Not ever; not once.

Have I worked with people – have people I trust and admire worked with people – who I knew to be Jewish, without their Jewishness ever being an issue? Dude, please. Have some of the people I trust and admire been Jewish themselves? Yes, of course. (And no, I don’t just mean Karl Marx.)

So: is the Left – specifically, the Left that Jeremy Corbyn came from and represents – a haven for antisemites? Apparently not. Do antisemitic attitudes go unchallenged? Only in the sense that there’s no need to challenge them, because they’re not there in the first place. At least, that’s my experience.

This is, apart from anything else, a peculiar situation: when we can seriously discuss the possibility that antisemitism is rife in the Labour Party, without anyone (on either side) feeling that whether or not Jewish party members are being discriminated against is a relevant consideration. To put it another way, it’s not the Left that portrayed Jon Lansman as a ‘puppeteer’ – it’s the Left that put him in his position of trust and authority.

Update 30/3/18 This point has been echoed from an unexpected quarter: the Jewish Labour Movement. Its two vice-chairs write:

Both of us have been involved in Labour Party, at the grassroots, in local government and as candidates for many years. As Labour’s Parliamentary candidate for Finchley and Golders Green at the last election and its GLA candidate in the upcoming London elections, respectively, neither of us has ever experienced any incidence of anti-Semitism from within the party.

Overall, though, this is – unfortunately – a pessimistic point. It’s clear that there is something wrong out there – something that needs to be rooted out, or swept out with an iron broom if you prefer. The fact that everyone knows it’s ridiculous to accuse Corbyn – or the Left in general – of antisemitism on a personal level doesn’t make the problem go away; it just makes it harder to deal with. This is partly because of the temptation of outright denial on the Left, but also partly because of the urge to double down on the Right. If you know deep down that your charge isn’t exactly, precisely true, the temptation will be to scrape around all the harder for almost-evidence to prove it almost true.

Which brings us to

  1. It’s taken on a life of its own

I like to Google, as Marc Bolan never said; when I see it alleged that X repeated the blood libel or Y denied the Holocaust, I like to find an earlier and closer source to check out what the person actually said. (I look for song lyrics sometimes, too.) I also follow a number of people I mostly disagree with on Twitter, for reasons that needn’t detain us now. Put the two together and I’m really quite staggeringly well-informed, for a sense of the word ‘well-informed’ that includes ‘confused and baffled’. Just today I’ve seen Alan Bull’s explanation for re-posting Holocaust denial (apparently he made it quite clear that he didn’t agree with it, in a comment, when he was challenged); I’ve also seen a call for Haringey Labour Party to be suspended – not for antisemitism or for condoning antisemitism, but for passing a motion saying that antisemitism was no more common in the Labour Party than anywhere else. (This was the position of the Community Security Trust just last year (PDF), but I guess we’ve moved on.)

On one hand, there are those who say that Bull should be allowed to run for his local council – and that attempts to deny the Holocaust are interesting and worth discussing on their merits; on the other, there are those who say that Christine Shawcroft should be suspended from the party forthwith, for objecting to Bull’s suspension before she’d even seen the material he posted. It’s not that there’s no middle ground between the two; on the face of it there’s plenty. It’s more that nobody seems interested in occupying it. Battle has been joined, and “where were you when A failed to condemn B for refusing to dissociate from C?” is the order of the day. And the kind of principled left position that appears to be called for – something on the lines of “Alan Bull’s out of here, Tony Greenstein needs to shut up and keep his head down, and now shall we get back to the local elections?” – isn’t really being called for at all; any pronouncement along those lines would be met with cries of “too little, too late” and assorted what-about-ery. Second pessimistic point: this is going to run and run.

The next one is more difficult, so let’s take a break. Part 2 tomorrow, hopefully.

But the week is over

A belated footnote to the ‘Czechoslovak spy’ nonsense. (You know the nonsense I mean. And if you don’t – say, if you’re reading this in 2019 or later – my advice would be not to bother looking it up. Oh, all right then (NB goes off the rails a bit towards the end).)

Some interesting polling has been conducted by YouGov and reported by Anthony Wells, suggesting that the whole thing was a bit of a waste of time:

most people pay very little attention to the day-to-day soap opera of politics. 40% of people said they had been completely unaware of the story until taking the survey, a further 31% said they had noticed it, but hadn’t really paid it any attention. That leaves less than a third who had actually taken it in. … Asked if they thought the allegations were true, the results were as you’d expect. … The only people who believed it were Conservatives. This is typical of such allegations: people view them through the prism of their existing political allegiances.  …

Finally, YouGov asked if the spy allegations and the way Jeremy Corbyn had responded to them had changed people’s opinions of Jeremy Corbyn at all. Only 8% of people said it had made them think more negatively about him (and they were mostly Tories to begin with). 6% said it made them think better of Corbyn (and they were mostly Labour voters to begin with). A hearty 64% said it made no difference at all.

Anthony also supplies the full set of figures. It’s not quite true that only Conservatives believed the allegations, but it was certainly only Tories who believed them in any numbers – 46% of the sample, vs 7% of Labour supporters, 15% of Lib Dems and (by my arithmetic) 19% of those who voted for another party, didn’t vote, didn’t remember how they last voted or preferred not to say.

The way this last group split is particularly interesting when we look at that final question: do people think worse of Corbyn as a result of the story? Again, the story is a bit more complicated than Anthony suggests. Overall, 8% of respondents thought worse of Corbyn in the wake of the story (6% thought better of him); 13% of Tories thought worse of him, 3% of Labour supporters and 6% of Lib Dems (as against 1%, 13% and 7% thinking better of him, respectively).

But thereby hangs a tale: how do you get from 13%, 3% and 6% of three subgroups to 8% overall? You could do it if the Tory subgroup was massively dominant, but obviously that wouldn’t be a good sample – and in fact YouGov’s figures show that the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem subgroups make up 34.3%, 32.8% and 6.1% of the overall sample, respectively. (Geeky speculations about sampling follow; skip if not interested.)

I don’t know how these sub-sample sizes were arrived at, but I’m speculating that they’re based on electoral shares from 2017. The figures don’t show much correspondence with the 2017 vote shares of 42.4%, 40.3% and 7.4%, but if you take the total shares of the electorate which voted for the three main parties – 29.1%, 27.6% and 5.1% – and scale them up by 19%, the figures you get are almost exactly the YouGov subgroup sizes. Add the ‘other parties’ share of 7.1%, scaled up by the same factor, and the remainder is 18.4%. The figures suggest, in other words, that the YouGov subgroups are scaled on the basis of reducing the group representing the non-voting population from the actual figure of 31.2% to 18.4%, with the shares of parties people did vote for being scaled up accordingly. This could be justified on the basis of polling both likely voters and unlikely voters, while leaving a final 12.8% – representing those who just aren’t going to vote, ever – well alone. I have no evidence to support this, but the figures make it seem plausible. Certainly the abstention rate at British general elections (measured crudely as “100% minus turnout”) has never been as low as 12.8%; the twentieth-century record is 16.1% (1950), while the lowest rate recorded with the current (post-1970) franchise is 21.2% in February 1974.

Now, 13% of 34.3% gives you 4.5% of the total sample; add the few Labour and Lib Dem supporters who thought worse of Corbyn and you get 5.9% of the total. How do you get up to 8%? Only by including the ‘don’t know’/’didn’t vote’ group – and it turns out that they split less favourably to Corbyn than any other group apart from the Tories, with 4% thinking better of him and 8% thinking worse.

This brings us back to the question of effectiveness. If you’re running a smear campaign against the leader of the Opposition, it strikes me that what supporters of the governing party think is neither here nor there. Yes, 13% of Tory supporters thought (even) worse of Corbyn at the end of the week – but really, so what? The survey did offer separate options of “Think more negatively about Jeremy Corbyn” and “Makes no difference – I had a negative opinion about Jeremy Corbyn and still do”; in a perfect world this would have addressed precisely this problem, tacitly shepherding everyone who already hated the man towards the ‘no difference’ option. However, if you were the Mail reader who’d begun the week thinking Corbyn was an overgrown student politician with some nasty friends in Ireland and the Middle East, and ended it thinking he was all of those things and a potential traitor, it’s understandable that you would think that you now felt more negatively about him.

When it comes to assessing whether the campaign worked, though, those Tories are only going to get in the way. So let’s arbitrarily reassign 10% to the ‘makes no difference’ column, representing the solid Tories, leaving only 3% who, perhaps, were wavering towards Labour and responded to the story by wavering right back. This reduces the overall percentage of those who thought worse of Corbyn to 5% – a 5% which, however, includes 8% of the ‘other/don’t know/didn’t vote’ group. Nearly half of the people negatively influenced are in this group, in fact.

And perhaps that was the real battleground for this campaign: the ‘don’t know’s and non-voters. This would also explain the simplicity of the message and the endless, bludgeoning persistence of the attempts to get it across: a campaign aimed at people who take their politics from the Mail or the Sun can be positively agile and subtle, compared to a campaign aimed at people who don’t even do that. 46% of YouGov’s sample of this group (from my arithmetic) had a settled opinion of Corbyn which wasn’t affected by this campaign; of the remainder, 4% now think better of him and 8% worse, while 42% still don’t know one way or the other. To put it another way, this campaign was aimed at the 54% of non-voters whose opinion of Corbyn is either malleable or non-existent; it reached just over a fifth of those (12% out of 54%), making 8% less likely to support Corbyn (and making the other 4% more likely – so it goes).

Whether the campaign, judged in those terms, should be seen as a success or a failure is another question; certainly that end-of-week figure of 42% of non-voters still in the ‘don’t know’ camp doesn’t suggest a campaign that ‘cut through’. Still, 8% is 8% – if the two main parties had taken another 8% and 4% of the non-voting total in 2017, it could have made a real difference; it would have taken the Tory vote share up to 43.5%, not far short of what Thatcher’s Tories achieved in 1979. My instinct is that we shall need to be on guard for similar campaigns nearer the next election – really cynical attempts to exploit mass media platforms, not to get any particular worldview across but simply to inflame and polarise an audience of people who neither know nor care about politics, and poisoning the well of public discourse as collateral damage. We’ll also need to think about ways that Labour can counter them – which is going to mean thinking about ways to reach an audience which is, by definition, quite hard to reach. If I’m right, the fact that there was never anything to this story isn’t the point; the fact that nearly everyone involved – from Corbyn himself to the Czech secret service itself – laughed it off almost immediately isn’t the point. Even the subsequent outbreaks of not saying just saying among the centrist commentariat (“perhaps Corbyn as such wasn’t a spy as such, and in fact wasn’t ever a Communist as such, but all the same…“) – even they, and all their feebleness, aren’t the point.

If I’m right, they didn’t make it for us.

Like a lion (4)

I was in my early twenties when I became a Zionist, or at least a strong Zionist sympathiser; I had a long conversation with a friend who’d just come back from a year on a moshav, I read Amos Oz’s In the land of Israel and that was it, I was sold. What I understood by Zionism was fairly bare-bones: I asked myself, did I think that Jews had a right to have some sort of permanent presence in what used to be Palestine? I had thought that ultimately the answer was No, but now I thought it was Yes; I had been anti-Zionist, now I was pro-Zionist.

Spoiler: it didn’t last very long. I dwell on these juvenile ruminations because they highlight something significant about Zionism: it has meant different things at different times, and may mean different things to different people. My new-found commitment to the idea of a Jewish national home didn’t in any way affect my opposition to racism: the Zionism I supported was a Zionism with equal rights for all, without discrimination in employment and housing, and certainly without anyone’s houses getting bulldozed. I hadn’t really stopped to think what such a Zionism might look like on the ground; perhaps something like the 1947 UN borders? For now, in any case, I thought that one could oppose arbitrary arrests, disproportionate use of force, the occupation of the West Bank and so forth, while still maintaining a commitment to Zionism – just as long as Zionism was defined in these minimalistic, ultra-liberal terms; call it Zionism(L).

One good thing that came out of my Zionist(L) period was an awareness of the importance of symbols of Jewish identity, and of the symbolic importance of Zionism to a great many Jews; they’re very different things, but for a lot of people they have quite similar associations. This in turn means that anyone critiquing Zionism needs to take the utmost care to avoid any suggestion that they’re attacking Jewish identity more generally. These people failed this test resoundingly; it’s hard not to see this as a genuine example of an overlap between Left anti-Zionism and anti-semitism. Even if we agree that support for “Balfour” is one of the policies for which Theresa May should be denounced – and, while I sympathise with the logic, it’s not a ditch I’d personally choose to die in – the Star of David ‘earring’ added to the picture suggests that the problem is Judaism as well as Zionism, or else that there is no difference between the two. Either way, this isn’t acceptable.

But what’s going on here – how does this train of thought work? What’s going on when somebody feels genuine outrage at some reported crime committed by the IDF and vandalises a synagogue in protest? Or when somebody denounces the Jewish/Zionist lobby, or hints that the Jewish population of a country are a pro-Israeli Fifth Column? Alternatively, what’s going on when somebody praises the state of Israel – then tells Jews to go there and get out of his country?

What’s going on, in each of these cases, is that Jews in the Diaspora are being identified with the state of Israel, which is then constructed as an enemy (making Jews a proxy target) or as alien (making Jews also aliens). The question then is how these anti-Jewish attitudes relate to the emphatically pro-Jewish position we’ve just been discussing – the argument that, since Zionism is the nationalism of the Jewish people, anti-Zionism is effectively a form of anti-semitism, and an attack on the Jews’ national home is an attack on all Jews. Surely this, too, identifies Jews in the Diaspora with the state of Israel, enlisting them in its support no matter what. (In the words of the World Jewish Congress, “Jews around the world are proud of Israel’s achievements over the last 60 years and support those who continue to build and defend Israel.”) This is a very dangerous route to go down. If an acquaintance tells me that he is a fan of the Miramax production company and its cinematic oeuvre, I’ll expect to hear positive things about the company’s successes and the business acumen of the Weinstein brothers – but I’ll also expect to hear some reflection on the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein, and if I don’t hear it I’ll feel quite entitled to ask him why not. These Montreal Jews, visiting an Israeli development project in Kenya, felt pride in Israel, having had “a taste of the country’s idealism, creativity, and commitment to tikkun olam [‘repairing the world’, making the world a better place]”. Would it also be reasonable to expect Jewish visitors to Gaza or the West Bank to feel shame in Israel? If you’re asserting a proprietary connection with a nation’s achievements, others may well feel that you should also take ownership of its crimes.

Zionism may thus clear a path for a certain kind of antisemitism, blaming Jews in general for the crimes of the state of Israel. Nor is this simply an opportunistic misidentification, a flag of convenience for pre-existing racism. It’s worth recalling that, historically, Zionism has had a very equivocal relationship with antisemitism. Herzl, working as a journalist, reported on the Dreyfus trial in 1894 and concluded:

In Paris … I achieved a freer attitude towards anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognised the emptiness and futility of trying to “combat” anti-Semitism

The sentiment echoes the early Zionist Leon Pinsker, who wrote in 1882

Judeophobia … is not peculiar to particular races but is common to the whole of mankind … Judeophobia is a psychic aberration. As a psychic aberration it is hereditary, and as a disease transmitted for two thousand years it is incurable.

The early Zionists took as their starting-point the idea that antisemitism was both universal and immutable; that the Jewish people could only be safe to live as Jews by establishing their own homeland and defending it against all comers. The corollary is that those Jews who remained in the Diaspora would not be safe to live as Jews; they would only ever be living among enemies, either concealing their identity or else relying on a tolerance that could be withdrawn at any time. If we think ourselves back to the period when Herzl and Pinsker were writing – the period of the First Aliyah, the very beginning of Zionist settlement in Palestine – we can see that there’s a curious reversal being worked here. A newly-established colony, numbering a few tens of thousands and surrounded by sworn enemies, stands for security and permanence; millions of Jews, living among their neighbours for centuries, represent a precarious settlement that could collapse at any moment. The Holocaust gave this image a terrible credibility, clearly – but this story doesn’t begin or end in the 1940s. This way of looking at the world underlay Zionism in the 1890s, and it underlies Zionism now.

At a deep level, Zionism believes in a world where antisemitism is both universal and incurable, a world where Jews can only hope to live as Jews if they are in their own homeland. This belief is impossible to disprove, as pessimism tends to be: They may be treating you as equals now, but who’s to say what they’ll do next year? Do you know what they’re saying about you behind closed doors? (I remember a Jewish friend saying how, after 9/11, they’d increased security at his son’s school in Cheshire; people were “waiting for the other shoe to drop”, he told me, perfectly seriously.) The underlying message is that Jews don’t really belong here, wherever ‘here’ is: to deny the right of Jews to live as citizens in the Diaspora. This also tends to deny the validity of Diaspora Jewish experience, even to challenge the distinct identity of Diaspora Jews as Jews. Uri Avnery, who I quoted in the previous post, was born as Helmut Ostermann in inter-war Germany; his family emigrated to Mandatory Palestine after Hitler came to power, when he was nine years old. He took a Hebrew name as soon as he was legally able to do so. He commented in 2013:

The changing of names symbolized a basic ideological attitude. Zionism was based on a total negation of the Jewish Diaspora, its way of living, its traditions and expressions. … As a pupil in an elementary school in Palestine I was imbued with this contemptuous attitude. Everything “exilic” was beneath contempt: the Jewish shtetl, Jewish religion, Jewish prejudices and superstitions. We learned that “exilic” Jews were engaged in “air businesses” – parasitical stock exchange deals that did not produce anything real, that Jews shunned physical work, that their social setup was a “reverse pyramid”, which we were to overturn by creating a healthy society of peasants and workers.

The nationalism of the new state-to-be was seen as superseding the Jewish identity that had gone before – even the Jewish religion:

In my company in the Irgun underground, and later in the Israeli army, there was not a single kippah-wearing fighter … The prevalent doctrine was that religion had indeed played a useful role throughout the centuries in holding Jews together and enabling the survival of the Jewish people, but that now Hebrew nationalism had taken over that role, making religion redundant. Religion, it was felt, would soon die out. Everything good and healthy was Hebrew – the Hebrew community, Hebrew agriculture, Hebrew kibbutzim, the “First Hebrew City” (Tel Aviv), the Hebrew underground military organizations, the future Hebrew state. Jewish were “exilic” things like religion, tradition and useless stuff like that.

The revelation of the true horror of the Holocaust – and the brutal and near-total destruction of that “exilic” Jewish world – complicated and qualified this world view, but it did not entirely disappear. There are stories of Holocaust survivors being greeted, on arrival in Israel, not with sympathy but with puzzled contempt: how could they have let that happen to them? Among people who had been born or brought up in Mandatory Palestine, quasi-racial epithets like ‘sheep’ and – more brutally – ‘soap’ were widely used. We see here that same reversal of perspective: a new and precarious colonial settlement is the secure home for the Jews and the centre of their new, healthy, Hebrew life; the Diaspora, global in scale and nearly 2,000 years old, is a passing experiment that was always doomed to fail, Himmler merely the inevitable return of Haman to finish the job.

The Zionist reversal of perspectives has led to an odd duality to the relationship between Zionism and the Diaspora, with the latter regarded both with affection – as Israel’s extended family – and with antagonism and contempt. The difference between the two is the difference between seeing the Diaspora as Israel’s support network and seeing it as making its own claim to be the home(s) of the Jewish people, as it was throughout the centuries dividing the Fall of the Temple from the first Yishuv. The possibility that the Jews of the Diaspora are the Jewish people – the mainstream(s) of Jewish society and culture – is the possibility that Zionism cannot countenance. The result, ironically, is to make the position of Diaspora Jews less secure than it might have been, both by ‘officially’ devaluing their own culture and traditions and by associating Jewish people with the actually-existing state of Israel – an association which, as we’ve seen, can’t reasonably be confined to the good news about Israel. In Britain, the number of reported anti-semitic attacks rose during and after the 2014 Gaza conflict. Looking at this association, it’s easy to deplore the disgusting racism of attacks on visibly Jewish targets, just as it’s easy to understand the very widespread anger at the reported actions of the IDF. What’s missing from this bifurcated analysis is the crucial third element which bridges the two – the association between Israel and Jews in general. That association is weakened by assertions of Diaspora culture and identity, but it’s made firmer and stronger by every assertion that Jews (in general) support those who defend Israel, or that any attack on Zionism is an attack on all Jews.

Zionism today effectively means the state of Israel and its interests – particularly what it considers its security interests. This is problematic, to put it mildly. One of the more idiotic points made in response to Priti Patel’s ‘holiday’ was that nobody would have cared if she’d had a series of secret meetings in Belgium. To make the most obvious and banal points, Belgian society and politics are deeply divided and polarised, to the point where it was impossible to form a government for most of 2010 and 2011; if Patel had decided to wade in to Belgian politics on a freelance basis, that could be viewed very dimly indeed. In any case, any government minister who met a series of high-level foreign politicians without informing the Foreign Office or the Prime Minister would be acting in an outrageously improper way, whether the nation in question was Israel, Belgium or San Marino.

More importantly, of course, Israel isn’t Belgium. Belgium wasn’t founded ex nihilo within living memory and doesn’t occupy large swathes of territory illegally; there is no Wikipedia page listing the countries that do and don’t recognise Belgium; equally, there’s no such organisation as “Conservative Friends of Belgium” (let alone an organisation with a paid staff and membership encompassing most of the Parliamentary Tory Party). Israel is different. Zionists don’t deny this, although sometimes acknowledging it bends their arguments into odd shapes. Consider this from the ADL:

Deeper bias against Israel and Jews may also be evident when Israel is held to a different standard than any other country in the world. Such an example is when critics of Israel question or deny Israel’s right to exist. No one questions France or China or Iran’s right to exist, simply because there is disagreement with their policies. Why then should it be acceptable for only the Jewish state’s legitimacy, or Jewish nationalism to be a subject for discussion? … A more complex manifestation is when critics of Israel advocate policies which would effectively lead to the demise of the Jewish character of the state – such as calls for a “one-state solution’ for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or demand the unqualified right of return for all Palestinian refugees. These measures potentially affect all Jews who have a religious, spiritual or nationalist connection to the Jewish homeland and would lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Although some advocates may not appreciate the destructive consequences of these policies, these policies are anti-Jewish in their impact.

If you thought you might have reason to question or deny Israel’s right to exist – given that its existence in its current form, unlike those of France or China or Iran, is predicated on the continuing exclusion and disenfranchisement of millions of people – hard luck; the ADL are way ahead of you. The state of Israel is different – so different that reforming it, so as to make it more like all the others, would involve policies [that] are anti-Jewish in their impact. Demanding justice for the Palestinians is anti-semitic, even if you’re too naive to appreciate the destructive consequences yourself. If it’s good for Israel, it’s good for the Jews; if it’s not good for Israel – what are you, a Nazi?

Coming back to my starting point, Zionism(L) – a Zionism of liberal politics and equal rights, a Zionism that would look to making amends for the Nakba, never mind the 1967 occupations – does not exist as a political force (Avnery’s Gush Shalom is perhaps the closest thing to it). To favour Zionism now is to favour the territorial expansionism and anti-Arab racism of a series of Likudnik-led governments – an unapologetic form of Revisionist Zionism, made all the more brutal by the reality of entrenched and unchallenged power. To say that Stuart Polak and Priti Patel are Zionists is to say that they support Zionism in this, real-world, form – call it Zionism(R).

Perhaps Zionism(L) can be upheld without contradiction to one’s liberal and anti-racist principles – some would deny this, but I’m inclined to be generous to Zionism(L)’s adherents, not least because they include my former self. What is certain is that upholding Zionism(R) requires one of two things. One is to knowingly suspend all other principles in favour of whatever brings any immediate benefit to the state of Israel and the Jewish citizens of Israel; the other is to operate in a state of denial, following unsustainable arguments into self-contradiction and confusion. The ADL text quoted above is a minor example of the latter style; the Jacobson/Schama/Sebag Montefiore letter gives us confusion on a grand scale. In one way we should be grateful, I suppose; at least it’s better than the alternative.

 

 

 

Like a lion (3)

A therapist friend of mine used to say that when a client hit on something uncomfortable they’d often retreat in a cloud of verbiage – of course when I say my mother punished me I’m talking about times when I’d done something wrong, and anyway I don’t know if punish is really the right word… She used to call it ‘squid-ink’. And that’s what most of the Jacobson/Schama/Sebag Montefiore letter is. If anti-Zionists did consistently demonise Zionism and talk in antisemitic conspiracy theories; if the state of Israel wasn’t a settler-colonialist project; if all comparisons with the Nazis were not only offensive but self-evidently invalid; if the Jewish people had always been Zionists; if Israel had genuine claims outstanding against the Palestinian people; if all of those things were true, we could all agree with this letter. But if all of those things were true, we’d be living in a very different world. (If you were right, I’d agree with you, as Steven Zaillian has Oliver Sacks say in Awakenings.) If you hold to the key position these authors are advancing, you can comfort yourself – and perhaps trip up an unwary opponent – by making some of these superficially argument-winning statements. But it’s a short-term hit; eventually you’re going to have to come back down to earth and advance propositions that can actually be defended.

Which is more or less what the authors do with their conclusion:

Zionism is the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. We believe that anti-Zionism, with its antisemitic characteristics, has no place in a civil society.

That sub-clause is yet more befuddling squid-ink – if anti-Zionism has antisemitic characteristics, it’s wrong because antisemitism is wrong; if it’s wrong in itself, it doesn’t matter what its characteristics are – but the rest of it is reasonably clear. This is the ‘key position’ I referred to just now, and it goes something like this:

  1. The Jewish people are a nationality.
  2. All nationalities have the right to self-determination.
  3. Nationalisms are the political vehicle of national self-determination.
  4. Zionism is the nationalism of the Jewish people.
  5. The right to national self-determination is inalienable and is generally supported.
  6. Only someone who hated a particular nationality would deny its right to national self-determination.
  7. Therefore, only someone who hated the Jewish people would oppose Zionism.
  8. Therefore, all anti-Zionism is an expression of antisemitism.

This is a solid and substantial argument: five premises, each of them quite credible, and three conclusions that follow from them logically, driving to the inexorable conclusion that anti-Zionism does indeed have no place in a civil society. (Odd phrase – did they mean “in a civilised society”, or possibly “in civil society”? That letter really could have used another draft, or somebody else to draft it.)

How would I counter this argument? Firstly – point 1 – to say that the Jewish people are a nationality is deeply ahistorical. As we’ve already seen, the Jewish diaspora had lived and perpetuated itself, physically, culturally and intellectually, for 1700 years or more before anyone started to think in terms of what we’d now recognise as a ‘nation’ – and it was another century before anyone applied the new language of ‘nationhood’ to the Jewish people. For most of that period, the belief that the Jews came from Judaea meant about as much, in practical terms, as the belief that Caucasians came from the Caucasus, or Gypsies from Egypt. Uri Avnery:

Jews are basically an ethnic-religious world-wide community which has existed for 2500 years without the need for a homeland. Even at the time of the [autonomous Jewish] Hasmonean kingdom, most Jews lived outside Palestine. Their abstract connection with Eretz Israel is like the connection of Indonesian and Malian Muslims with Mecca – a holy place to be mentioned in prayers and an object of pilgrimage, but not claimed as a sovereign earthly possession. … Israeli nationalism, on the other hand, is rooted in a physical homeland, bound up with national sovereignty and citizenship – concepts foreign to religion.

Here and now, of course, it’s quite possible to think of the Jewish people in terms of nationhood; it’s also possible to see Muslims in those terms, or African Americans. Nationalities aren’t given; the construction of a nationality is a political project, like the construction of any other political subject. The political project of Zionism has been remarkably successful, but this isn’t because it’s in some sense ‘true’ – there is no underlying pre-political reality for it to be a true reflection of.

There’s also a more fundamental problem in asserting that ‘Jewish’ is a nationality, which Avnery’s last sentence touches on: how does this relate to the Israeli nationality? Israeli governments have no problem equating one with the other, offering Israeli citizenship to Jews wherever they are. For Jews who don’t have Israeli citizenship and don’t intend to acquire it, this equation of Jewishness and the state of Israel is more problematic – not least because taking it literally would immediately call into question their commitment to their actual nationality. (This is why, in practice, anti-semites often have no problem giving at least verbal support to Zionism and the state of Israel; if your dream is to build a national home for your own nationality, the affirmation that Jews are their own nationality – and that they have their own, suitably remote, national home – may well seem fitting, not to say convenient.) Zionism can only be the nationalism of Jews in the Diaspora, in the normal sense of the word ‘nationalism’, to the extent that they are genuinely willing to throw their existing nationality overboard and become Israeli citizens. As Avnery points out, Herzl’s own vision for the proposed Judenstaat was that “all the Jews who wished to do so would settle in Israel” – and that all other Jews would “assimilate in their host nations and cease being Jews”. A mass aliyah of this kind might be good for Israel, but it would be a disaster for many of the countries where Jews live at present – and I dread to think what chain of events might bring it about.

The only other way for Zionism to function as Jewish nationalism is for the meaning of ‘nationalism’ to change, becoming something existing partly or mainly in the imagination (and hence unlike Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities”, which are created and sustained through shared experiences). To the extent that this is the case – to the extent that the state of Israel has become, in its turn, “a holy place to be mentioned in prayers and an object of pilgrimage” – there is a genuine continuity between Diaspora Zionism and the dreams of all the centuries of exile; but it’s a continuity of the reverential imagination, not of politics. (Interestingly, Anderson talks of ‘pilgrimage’ (secular as well as religious) as one of the practices through which a sense of a nation is established. However, he’s talking about shared experiences of travelling from, as well as to, the same place – Argentinian functionaries making hajj to Madrid or Indian Civil Servants to London.)

Secondly, even if we had established that the Jewish people constitued a nationality, we’d need to establish that nationalities are generally regarded as having the right to national self-determination (points 2 and 5). This is harder than it might look. Is there general support for the secession of Catalonia, or Scotland, or Lombardy, or Cornwall? There certainly isn’t general support for the establishment of a Kurdish nation, and that‘s been on the world’s agenda pretty much since the time of the Balfour Declaration (the Treaty of Sèvres sketched out possible borders for an independent Kurdistan in 1920). This is a ‘treason doth never prosper’ situation; the right to national self-determination is generally recognised, if and when it’s achieved. (Who would try to reunite Czechoslovakia now or recreate federal Yugoslavia?) Prior to self-determination being achieved, or at least becoming politically achievable, the rights of would-be secessionists aren’t generally recognised at all – and their ‘nationalities’ are downgraded accordingly in the world’s eyes.

Nor is it an affront to the rights of a minority nationality if observers decline to support their rights as a nation. Given that nationalities are political constructions, I can regret the secession of nation A from federation B without denying anybody the right to anything. It’s not the case – whatever a Scottish nationalist might tell you – that a Scottish citizen of Britain is and always was innately a Scot, whose occasional performances of the role of British citizen are an inauthentic masquerade; nor is it the case that that person is and always was innately a Briton. Simply, someone who identifies as Scottish-and-not-British (Catalan-and-not-Spanish, Kurdish-and-not-Turkish, Cornish-and-not-English, etc) is constructing their identity in terms of one collective political subject, when they could have done so in terms of another. The choice that person makes may be quite deeply rooted in their life experience – it may not be something they can put on and take off like a party rosette – but it’s still something they do, not something they are. As such I can affirm their right to do it while still, in some cases, finding it regrettable and wishing they’d chosen the other option. I can even sympathise with the choice itself, while still regretting the fact that they’re pursuing that particular choice at this particular time, in this particular way, with these particular consequences.

So:

  1. Zionism constructs the Jewish people as a nationality, in ways that are real for people who act on that basis, and real in the consequences of those actions. However, no nationality is ‘real’ in the sense of existing in nature, and the Jewish nationality is no exception. Moreover, to be Jewish is only fully a nationality, in conventional terms, in the life experience of people who become citizens of Israel.
  2. All nationalities have the right to self-determination, in the sense that all nationalities that successfully achieve self-determination are acknowledged as having had the right to do so. (Nothing succeeds like success.) Nationalities that have not achieved self-determination are generally not regarded as having the right to do so, and in consequence are often not regarded as genuine nationalities.
  3. Nationalisms are the political vehicle of national self-determination, and of the constitution of national political subjects.
  4. Zionism is the nationalism of those Jewish people who make aliyah and become citizens of Israel. It is also a part-imaginary version of nationalism for many other Jews, with some continuities with the religious symbolism of Zion and Jerusalem (see point 1).
  5. The right to national self-determination is generally supported, for those nationalities that have achieved it (see point 2). However, national self-determination may not be the best solution to any given political problem, and it is possible to find the choice of a nationalist solution regrettable without denying anyone’s right to choose it. Moreover, it is possible to sympathise with the choice of a nationalist solution while also believing that the pursuit of that solution, in a particular situation, is regrettable and should be opposed.
  6. There are many reasons to oppose a national minority’s exercise of its right to national self-determination, and to oppose the construction of a collective national subject among people who have not yet recognised themselves as a nationality.
  7. Therefore, there are many reasons to oppose Zionism.
  8. Therefore, there is no reason to assume that anti-Zionism is motivated by antisemitism, and hence no reason to rule it to be illegitimate. Robert Cohen: “to oppose Zionism in the past or today is a perfectly valid and ethical intellectual position to hold whether you are Palestinian, Jewish or a member of the Labour Party. Saying it has no place in civil society does [the authors] no credit and displays a lack of intellectual honesty.”

Is that it? Not quite.

 

Like a lion (2)

Let’s have a proper look at the Jacobson/Schama/Sebag Montefiore letter about anti-Zionism. The first thing to say is that, while there is an argument there, there’s also an awful lot of confusion and rhetorical inflation. This may just be because Howard Jacobson – who seems to be the lead author – is a muddled thinker and a windy writer, but I think it also has something to do with the subject.

The trouble starts with the first introduction of anti-Zionism:

constructive criticism of Israeli governments has morphed into something closer to antisemitism under the cloak of so-called anti-Zionism

Either anti-Zionism is a genuine position being used opportunistically as a façade – a ‘cloak’ – for antisemitism (cf the Doctors’ Plot), or the name ‘anti-Zionism’ is a polite label for antisemitism (“so-called anti-Zionism”). Can’t be both; you can’t ‘cloak’ antisemitism in antisemitism-with-another-name. What anti-Zionism is, in the authors’ eyes, remains unclear.

demonisation of Zionism itself – the right of the Jewish people to a homeland, and the very existence of a Jewish state

But ‘Zionism’ (itself) isn’t equivalent to what follows the hyphen. In fact they’re three distinct, if related, things – a political ideology (Zionism), that ideology’s core belief (a Jewish homeland) and its concrete institutional expression (the state of Israel). This matters, because it’s possible to hold that core belief while also believing that the existing state of Israel is a monstrosity, or even that the historical development of Zionism has gone badly astray. Not to mention the fact that it’s possible to challenge and oppose Zionism – even to deny that the Jewish people have the right to a homeland – without demonising Zionism.

Accusations of international Jewish conspiracy and control of the media … support false equations of Zionism with colonialism and imperialism, and the promotion of vicious, fictitious parallels with genocide and Nazism

Despite its phrasing, this is three separate charges, not one – and they’re not all equally strong. Yes, the racist myths of a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ live on – there are still people wibbling on about the Rothschilds and (God help us) the Protocols, some of whom believe themselves to be on the Left. Those myths, and those people, need to be challenged; this, though, doesn’t give a free pass to the actual lobbying efforts which are carried out by the Israeli state and its allies, some of which –  like most lobbying – go under the radar. (Anyone still maintaining that all talk of a “Zionist lobby” is Protocols-level antisemitism will have to explain who the Conservative Friends of Israel are and what they hope to achieve.)

I’m less sure about false equations of Zionism with colonialism and imperialism. Zionism was conceived as a colonialist project, to be implemented by arrangement with the great powers of the day. Here’s Theodor Herzl, writing in 1896:

Should the Powers declare themselves willing to admit our sovereignty over a neutral piece of land, then the Society [of Jews] will enter into negotiations for the possession of this land. Here two territories come under consideration, Palestine and Argentine[sic]. … The Society of Jews will treat with the present masters of the land, putting itself under the protectorate of the European Powers … If His Majesty the Sultan [Abdul Hamid II] were to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake to regulate the whole finances of Turkey. We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence.

In the event the Ottoman Empire[sic] didn’t survive World War I. Its spoils were divvied up between the French and British empires[also sic]; the latter, anticipating that it would have control of Palestine when the music stopped, declared in 1917 that His Majesty’s Government

view[ed] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and [would] use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country

(Shame about that ‘clear understanding’; really should have got it in writing.)

In any case, from 1896 to 1948 Zionism was, precisely, a colonialist project to be carried out on land held by imperialists. Even after 1948 – and especially after 1967 – Zionism continued to be a colonialist project, inasmuch as it was carried forward by the continual establishments of ‘settlements’ on land held by force. The idea that equating Zionism with ‘colonialism and imperialism’ is a slur – let alone that it’s straightforwardly ‘false’ – is quite bizarre; it’s a very surprising proposition for two historians to put their names to. I can only imagine that the underlying logic here is something like the Forward article which attempted to rehabilitate Christopher Columbus from charges that he “brought nothing but misfortune and suffering to the indigenous Americans”, by likening him to Herzl as “a visionary looking for a safe home for the Jewish people”. There’s colonialism and then there’s colonialism in a good cause – quite different.

As for the third point on the list – vicious, fictitious parallels with genocide and Nazism – again, we need to be careful (a great deal more careful than the writers of the letter were, frankly). What are “vicious, fictitious parallels”? The argument seems to be that parallels between Israel and the Nazis can only be sustained by falsifying the evidence, and are only advanced with the intention of causing offence. I think this is mostly – but not entirely – unsustainable. Drawing an analogy between two things isn’t saying that they’re the same: to say that X is like Y in certain ways is also to say that it’s unlike Y in other ways. So, for instance, there’s a parallel between the Nazis setting up internment camps for political enemies in 1933 and the British interning their political enemies in South Africa (1900) and Northern Ireland (1971); there are also lots of differences between those situations. Still, interning people without due process is something the Nazis did, and that parallel may give us a reason to think twice about our own government doing it. Were the Israeli government’s actions in putting Gaza “on a diet” comparable to the Nazis’ starvation of the Polish ghettoes? There does seem to be a point of similarity; you may think that similarity is outweighed by so many dissimilarities as to be irrelevant, but I don’t think it can be ruled out of court.

The big dissimilarity, of course, is the Holocaust, which may be held to override and delegitimate any smaller parallels. In particular, if you hold the view (advanced by historians such as Lucy Dawidowicz) that the Nazis came to power already intent on the extermination of the Jews, then it’s clear that the Nazi regime was out on its own in the genocidal evil stakes, and almost no other government can be compared to it – not Stalin’s, not Mao’s, not the British in India and certainly not Israel. (I say ‘almost’ – there’s some evidence that the Khmer Rouge were planning genocide from the start.) But even this isn’t as solid a distinction as we might want it to be. The ‘functionalist’ school of historians – people like Christopher Browning – dispute the ‘intentionalism’ of Dawidowicz and others: the ‘functionalists’ argue that the Nazis came to power wanting to rule a Europe with no Jews, and that the Holocaust as we now know it developed out of a whole series of short-term expedients to bring this about. The Nazis on this reading were certainly never humanitarians – at best they were indifferent to whether Jews lived or died – but genocide was the means, not the end. What they wanted, at least from 1939 (arguably from 1933), was land, only without some of the people who lived on it. This reading clearly makes parallels with other regimes more available, and more troubling.

Of course, drawing any analogy between Israel and the Nazis is grossly offensive to Jews who support Israel – which is to say, the great majority of Jews – and for that reason I think non-Jews should avoid doing so; I’d even go so far as to say that for a non-Jew to publicly and deliberately use this parallel, despite the offence it is bound to cause, suggests an indifference to Jewish feelings which verges on antisemitism. That said, the offensiveness of the parallel isn’t news to anyone; in fact, it’s precisely why people use it – Jewish people very much included. My experience of arguments about Zionism conducted mostly among Jews is that Godwin’s Law is in full effect, in a fairly fast-acting form; Nazi parallels are freely thrown around on all sides, including sides that non-Jews might not even know about. (Amos Oz, in In the land of Israel, recalls seeing graffiti in an Orthodox area of Jerusalem likening the Labour Mayor to Hitler – Teddy Kollek, that is, not Ken Livingstone.) Invading and occupying land illegally? Just like a Nazi! Threatening the security of Israel and the survival of the Jewish people? Just what the Nazis wanted! Betraying the Jewish faith itself by worshipping the goyim naches of a nation-state? No better than the Nazis! And so on, to the point where it’s quite hard to believe that anyone involved is hearing this stuff for the first time, or taking genuine offence – least of all, incidentally, when the offensive conduct complained of seems to consist of quoting Himmler on the topic of Nazi racial policy. But this is of its nature an argument within the Jewish community. Speaking as a non-Jew, I’m happy to forswear comparisons between Israel and the Nazis myself, and leave them to it.

Back to Jacobson and friends:

Zionism — the longing of a dispersed people to return home — has been a constant, cherished part of Jewish life since AD70.

The Jews have always been Zionist. Who knew?

In its modern form Zionism was a response to the centuries of persecution, expulsions and mass murder in Christian and Muslim worlds

Oh, wait. What we now call Zionism is the modern form of Zionism. So they’ve always been Zionist, only in different ways – and specifically not in the way that we know. So earlier forms of ‘Zionism’ weren’t actually what we now call Zionism. Only they were Zionism, because… um.

[Zionism’s] revival was an assertion of the right to exist in the face of cruelty unique in history.

Or was it that the Jews used to be Zionist, and then they weren’t, but now they are again?

As you can see, the confusion level ramps up at just the point where the argument becomes most tendentious. Certainly the idea of a Return – the idea of Zion – has been part of Jewish life since the destruction of the Temple, if not the Babylonian Captivity; but that’s very different from saying that Zionism has been. Zionism translated the idea of Zion into the language of political nationalism, and aimed to implement it (as we’ve seen) under the auspices of European imperialism; it couldn’t reasonably have arisen before the early nineteenth century, and in any case historically didn’t arise before the 1890s.

It’s also worth noting that, while Zionism certainly did flourish as a response to organised antisemitism, it was far from being the only response. While Dawidowicz’s own sympathies were with Zionism, her superb book The War Against the Jews shows very clearly that Zionists were a minority in occupied Poland (the European country with the largest Jewish population before the Holocaust and the greatest losses as a result of it, approaching three million). To be more precise, Dawidowicz’s account suggests that there were three main organised groups within the Polish Jewish community: Zionists, Orthodox Jews and the socialist Bund, which called for Jews to organise as Jews within their own nations. The Bund – which by this stage only existed in Poland – was all but wiped out by the Holocaust; this led to the tragic irony of its effective erasure from history, enabling contemporary Zionists to present their own political forebears as the authentic voice of the Jewish people.

We hope that a Palestinian state will exist peacefully alongside Israel. We do not attempt to minimalise[sic] their suffering nor the part played by the creation of the state of Israel.

As Robert Cohen points out, this is mealy-mouthed in the extreme. It’s not so much that Palestinian ‘suffering’ was exacerbated by the creation of the state of Israel, more that it was its direct and inevitable consequence. “How could the project of Jewish national return with Jewish majority control of the land ever have been achieved without the displacement of the majority people already living there? … the 1948 Nakba was Zionism in action”. A supporter of present-day Israel expressing sympathy for Palestinian suffering can’t help looking a bit like the Walrus weeping for the oysters.

Yet justice for one nation does not make justice for the other inherently wicked.

Indeed, and quite the contrary – justice for one is justice for all; justice for the people of Palestine must necessarily mean justice for the people of Israel. Similarly, justice for the poor can only come through justice for the rich. To say that you’ve had justice doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve received – or kept – what you wanted, though. But this doesn’t seem to be the idea of justice that the authors have in mind. Rather, the suggestion seems to be that people who have repeatedly seen their land confiscated, their leaders assassinated, their towns demolished and their children imprisoned nevertheless still owe something to the state that’s done all this, and that it’s only fair to keep them waiting for justice until they’ve delivered it. Again, it’s hard to identify with this position. If ‘position’ is the word.

Next: if it isn’t a position, what is it?

Like a lion (1)

You may have noticed that there’s been a bit of a push on anti-semitism recently, particularly anti-semitism on the Left. In fact, almost exclusively anti-semitism on the Left; a startlingly blatant example of right-wing anti-semitism – Nigel Farage’s assertion that American Jews exert an influence disproportionate to their numbers – got very little comment. Perhaps it’s just my social media bubble, but I don’t recall seeing a single demand for Henry Bolton to dissociate himself from Farage or expel him from UKIP, let alone for the Right in general to put its house in order.

But the fact that they’ve got a real problem that’s being ignored doesn’t mean that our problem, which isn’t being ignored, isn’t real. There are, still, some people who fall for ‘the socialism of fools’, some whose opposition to capital warps into a belief in Rothschild conspiracy theories, some who conflate Judaism with Zionism and hold the Jewish people accountable for all the crimes of the state of Israel. For Marc Wadsworth to use the phrase ‘hand in hand‘ with reference to Ruth Smeeth MP may not have been a glaring example of anti-semitism on the Left – or an example at all – but that’s not to say that anti-semitism on the Left doesn’t exist; it does, and it needs dealing with.

But, as that example suggests, we need to be clear what it is we’re dealing with. Accusing a Jewish Labour MP of being in cahoots with the Daily Telegraph may be offensive (it was certainly unwelcome), but it’s not in itself a “Jewish conspiracy” libel – any more than saying that a Jewish man tried to push past you is, in itself, evoking a “pushy Jew” stereotype. And I can agree with “Bob from Brockley” (on Twitter) that calling Priti Patel a “Zionist bitch” is unacceptable, without sharing his apparent belief that this is, in itself, “anti-semitic language”. Stalinist attacks on Zionism, for instance at the time of the Doctors’ Plot, used a critique of Zionism as political cover for antisemitism; this tactic was outrageous then and would be outrageous now. But this – the use of ‘Zionist’ as a codeword for ‘Jewish’ – is precisely what remains to be proved in the case of the “Zionist b____” tweet; and it seems unlikely, particularly given that Patel herself is not Jewish. Similarly, Marc Wadsworth’s accusers seem to have assumed that he wouldn’t have used the term ‘hand in hand’ to criticise a non-Jewish political opponent sharing information with a Telegraph journalist, while the accusation against Matt Waddup of UCU seem to rest on the assumption that he wouldn’t have used the word “push” about a non-Jewish gatecrasher who attempted to barge past him. This, in both cases, seems unlikely, to put it mildly.

So there’ s a second point here: there is a bit of a push on this stuff, and it isn’t necessarily in response to actual problems on the ground. (Which, just to reiterate, is not to say that there aren’t any problems on the ground. It wouldn’t be justifiable to respond to racist attacks by banning the EDL – that’s not to say that there aren’t any racist attacks.)

Which brings us back to Priti Patel, the disgraced former international development minister.

What a holiday that was, eh? Let’s hope she took pictures!

What leaps out at me – beyond the obvious fact that somebody was clearly trying to make an end run around her own government, and that she and others had put a great deal of work into making this happen – is the appearance in two separate meetings of “growing anti-Semitism within UK politics” or words to that effect; indeed, these are pretty much the only references to British politics.

Is British politics a place of “growing anti-Semitism”? Huge if true, as they say. But I wonder if something else is going on here.

A few days ago the Times printed a letter from Howard Jacobson, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Simon Schama. But this wasn’t about anti-Semitism. Rather than interrupt every other line so as to pull it apart in in tedious and counter-productive detail, I’ll give the full text of the letter here. (I’ll go through it in tedious and counter-productive detail in the next post.)

In this centenary year of the Balfour Declaration we are troubled by the tone and direction of debate about Israel and Zionism within the Labour Party.

We are alarmed that, during the past few years, constructive criticism of Israeli governments has morphed into something closer to antisemitism under the cloak of so-called anti-Zionism. We do not object to fair criticism of Israeli governments, but this has grown to be indistinguishable from a demonisation of Zionism itself – the right of the Jewish people to a homeland, and the very existence of a Jewish state. Although anti-Zionists claim innocence of any antisemitic intent, anti-Zionism frequently borrows the libels of classical Jew-hating. Accusations of international Jewish conspiracy and control of the media have resurfaced to support false equations of Zionism with colonialism and imperialism, and the promotion of vicious, fictitious parallels with genocide and Nazism. How, in such instances, is anti-Zionism distinguishable from antisemitism?

Such themes and language have become widespread in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. So far the Labour leadership’s response has been derisory. It is not enough to denounce all racisms in general when this specific strain rages unchecked.

Zionism — the longing of a dispersed people to return home — has been a constant, cherished part of Jewish life since AD70. In its modern form Zionism was a response to the centuries of persecution, expulsions and mass murder in Christian and Muslim worlds that continued from the Middle Ages to the mid-20th century. Its revival was an assertion of the right to exist in the face of cruelty unique in history.

We do not forget nor deny that the Palestinian people have an equally legitimate, ancient history and culture in Palestine nor that they have suffered wrongs that must be healed. We hope that a Palestinian state will exist peacefully alongside Israel. We do not attempt to minimalise their suffering nor the part played by the creation of the state of Israel. Yet justice for one nation does not make justice for the other inherently wicked. Zionism is the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. We believe that anti-Zionism, with its antisemitic characteristics, has no place in a civil society.

So there you go: when we say “anti-semitism” we may also mean “anti-Zionism” – because Zionism is the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, and why would anyone oppose that other than out of antisemitism? And when we say “growing anti-semitism within UK politics” we may also be talking about the fact that, for the first time since the establishment of the state of Israel, one of the two major British political parties is led by people who have sympathies with Palestine. You say “oh, Jeremy Corbyn”; I say “growing anti-semitism”.

Does this work? Find out in part 2!

Spoiler: no, of course it doesn’t, but it takes more unpacking than you might think.

Out of the dark

Since the election, I’ve been wondering about what actually happened – how good a result was it really for Labour? and how bad a result for the Tories? Also, what about Mansfield? A certain kind of centre-left commentator has made hay out of Labour’s loss to the Tories of Mansfield and a few other seats (Derbyshire NE, Middlesbrough S, Stoke-on-Trent S and Walsall N); all of these, along with the by-election loss of Copeland, had been held by Labour for twenty years or more – considerably more in some cases. It’s all very well winning these places like Canterbury and Lincoln and Stroud, the thinking seems to run, but look what’s happening out there in the real Labour seats! Six losses plays 27 gains (in England), but look at the quality of those losses – if we can’t stem the drift of Labour’s core vote to the Tories, flukey wins in Sheffield Hallam and Kensington (majority: 0.03%) aren’t going to save us in the long run.

So what can we say about the 2017 result – and what is going on in places like Mansfield? I’ve been playing around with the figures, and (in the immortal words of Anya Christina Emmanuella Jenkins) I’ve got a theory. But first, let’s ask the real question about what happened in 2017, which is: what happened in 2015? What kind of status quo did that leave us with, and what kind of movement had there been to get us there?

Here goes. The dataset I’m working with consists of all seats in England that were held by either the Tories or Labour when the music stopped: every seat is either a hold (by Tory or Labour) or a gain (ditto). Here’s the overall picture for 2015, as compared with 2010:

X axis: change in the Tory share of the electorate since 2010; Y axis: change in the Labour share of the electorate. (These are not vote shares in the usual sense. I’ve done it this way because I’m interested in how changes in turnout affect the figures.)

Pink triangles: Labour holds; red squares: Labour gains; pale blue diamonds: Tory holds; blue squares: Tory gains.

All clear? As for the trendline, it’s for the Labour holds. I used a polynomial trendline because the curve makes it look like a better fit to the data; I’ve no idea whether there’s any mathematical justification for doing this with data like these.

A few things jump out at us from this chart. One is that 2015 was a substantially better election for the Tories than for Labour: the majority of seats fall in the range from -5% to +5% (Labour vote) and 0 to +5% (Tory vote). Another is that the different series occupy pretty much the same space. There’s some clustering – the seats where the Labour vote fell were mostly held or won by the Tories, and vice versa – but there’s also a lot of overlap: there are Labour holds where the Labour vote fell further than in any seat the Tories won. Oddly, almost all the Tory wins are seats where the Labour vote didn’t fall; they’re clustered in the 0 to +5%/o to +5% box. Labour wins are much more widely distributed. It’s also noticeable that a substantial minority of Labour seats – holds as well as wins – show a really large increase in the Labour vote, 10% and up.

But there’s no show without Punch, and there’s no telling the story of the 2015 election without UKIP. The following chart tells the same story about the same seats, but with the electoral shares for UKIP (and the BNP) added to the Tories for a single ‘Right’ share; I’ve also added the Greens’ share of the electorate to Labour’s. The result looks a bit different:

Now ‘Left’ votes are clustered in the 0 to +5% range, with smaller numbers in the +5% to +10% and +10% to +15% ranges – but ‘Right’ votes are almost entirely in the +5% to +10% range, with a scattering in the +10% to +15% range and above. It’s also noticeable that there are substantial numbers of Tory holds, and even wins, where the Left vote has risen by 5% and more. What we see here, I think, is the collapse of the Lib Dem vote – leading to increases in Left and Right votes – together with the UKIP surge, producing a substantial swing to the Right. This in turn leads both to Tory wins and to Tory holds, where UKIP put the lid on a rise in the Labour vote.

But it’s hard to say much more than that, from these data, about the seats that changed hands. Here are the Labour wins:

Labour won seats in 2015 with changes in the Left vote ranging from +4% to +24%, and in the Right vote from -7% to +8%; it’s hard to make out much of a pattern here, other than that it took a really substantial rise in the Left vote to counteract a rise in the Right vote. In the bottom right corner – Left vote +4%-+8%, Right vote +5%-+9% – the overlap is really substantial, with all four types of seat represented and some contradictory patterns: Chester gained by Labour (Left +5.5%, Right +6.3%); Lewes gained by the Tories (Left +6.5%, Right +5.3%).

Here are all the Tory gains:

Not many Tory gains are to the ‘northwest’ relative to a Labour gain, or above it on the trendline (i.e. showing a higher Left increase and a lower Right). But plenty of them are above a Labour hold, and every one of them is above at least one Tory hold. Two lessons for 2015: firstly, in terms of the swing to the Right, seats that the Tories could actually gain in 2015 looked very much like any other seat; secondly, there was a big swing to the Right. Another election fought by the same parties and on the same ideological battleground could have been very difficult for Labour.

So what happened this year? In terms of Labour and Tory, this happened:

A different box with different corners: still a substantial Tory increase (0-10%) but now the main Labour cluster lies between 5% and 10%. There’s a definite inverse relation between changes in the Labour and Tory votes, with falls in the Tory vote mostly corresponding to higher rises in the Labour vote and the lowest Labour rises corresponding to the higher Tory rises. There are only three seats in England where the Labour vote actually fell in 2017 – one Lib Dem gain (not shown here) and two Tory holds, Richmond Park and Waveney. The first of these was a Lib Dem target; in the second, the Labour vote fell between 2015 and 2017 by 0.5% of the electorate, or 268 votes.

But what about the Left-Right picture?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the collapse of UKIP. Or, to look at it in a more positive light, a swing to the Left. If the Tory vote was mostly clustered between 0 and +10% relative to 2015, the Right vote as a whole is almost entirely contained between 0 and -10%. Labour gains are mostly within the -3% to -6% (Right) and +5% to +10% (Left) bracket, suggesting a combination of a direct swing to the Left and greater mobilisation of Left voters. This impression is confirmed by the clustering of the Labour and Tory holds; intriguingly, Labour holds, as compared to Tory holds, tend to have a higher increase (or lower decrease) in the Right vote as well as, more predictably, the Left vote.

And the Tory gains? I’m coming to them. (That weird one over on the left of the chart – Left up 6.4%, Right down 7.7% – is Clacton, gained from UKIP.) Here are the Labour gains, or most of them; there’s also another anomaly, which I’ll come back to.

That trendline is (still) the trendline for Labour holds; it’s interesting how many Labour gains are bang on it, not to mention how many are below it (i.e. how many seats were gained from the Tories despite the Left performing worse than they tended to do in seats Labour held). If I were a Tory this chart would worry me quite a lot; not only are Labour gains interspersed among Tory holds – as Tory gains were among Labour holds in 2015 – but most of them are below the trendline. This suggests that more focused mobilisation next time could really pay off. Turnout was up generally as against 2015, but the increase in turnout was highest in seats Labour held – and lowest in seats the Tories held.

But of course none of this answers the question we began with, the question Labour absolutely must answer if it’s ever to form a governmentget centre-left commentators off its back: what was going on in Mansfield? This. This is what was going on:

The highest blue square is Southport – a Tory gain from the Lib Dems on a three-way split, and hence not really part of the story I’m telling here (apart from noting that Labour pushed the Lib Dems into third place, where in 2015 the Lib Dems held the seat and Labour were not only third, but less than 2% ahead of UKIP). Moving down, the next blue square you come to is Stoke-on-Trent South – Left +6.9%, Right +0.004%[sic]. UKIP didn’t put up a candidate in Stoke-on-Trent South, having got the votes of 12.2% of the electorate in 2015; the Tory electoral share rose by 12.2% and they fluked a win.

The other five seats – Mansfield, Derbyshire NE, Middlesbrough S, Walsall N and Copeland – are best defined by their relation to the ‘Labour hold’ trendline: they’re a long way below it. Looking at the details, Middlesbrough S had no UKIP candidate and a rise in the Tory vote which didn’t quite fill the gap, as witness the drop of 0.9% in the Right vote; the other four all saw a collapse in the UKIP vote together with a rise in the Tory vote which more than compensated for it. Meanwhile the combined Labour and Green vote also went up, but only by between 2% and 3%. This, more than anything, is what singles out those five seats: there was a nationwide trend for Labour-held seats – involving the Left vote rising by between 6% and 12% while the Right vote fell by anything up to 8% – and they’re way below it. These are the outliers; they’re the ones that haven’t performed the way they should have done. It would take some intellectual contortions to argue that it’s the five underperforming losses – rather than the 27 gains or the 200 holds – that are typical of Corbyn’s Labour or crucial to its future. It’s hard not to feel that a bit more mobilisation could have made all the difference – Derbyshire NE has the biggest Tory majority of the five, and 1500 more Labour votes would have made it a Labour hold; 600 would have done the job for Mansfield. A few more Labour votes and they’d have been back in the main cluster – which is to say, a few more Labour votes and they’d look like all the other Labour holds.

As for why these five seats under-performed, different constituencies will have different stories, but it is striking that two of the five – Copeland and Middlesbrough S – were represented in 2015 by MPs who left Parliament rather than fight an election under Corbyn’s leadership (Jamie Reed and Tom Blenkinsop respectively). Of the three MPs who did stand in 2017, David Winnick (Walsall N) had forecast electoral disaster if Corbyn remained leader, while Natascha Engel (Derbyshire NE) is on record as being a fan of Maurice Glasman. Alan Meale (Mansfield) has a radical past but does not appear to have placed his views on Corbyn on the record – although the notorious 2016 ‘league table‘ placed him in the ‘Core group negative’ column, with Ben Bradshaw and Gloria de Piero. (Another ‘Core group negative’ was Rob Flello of Stoke-on-Trent South, who publicly called on Corbyn to resign after the EU referendum.) Even if these MPs strained every sinew to get Labour returned in 2017 – as I’m quite prepared to believe that they did – their opposition to Corbyn’s leadership was no secret; and in our current, quasi-presidential political culture, that was bound to cost the party votes (if they don’t support him, why should I?).

It’s noticeable, finally, just how unusual an area those five seats are in. They’re in the -1% to +5% (Right), 0 to +3% (Left) box, along with only eight other seats: two Tory holds, five Labour holds… and one Labour win. (For completeness, the Labour holds are Ashfield, Leigh, Hull W, West Bromwich W and Bolsover. The last of these was singled out by John Mann MP in his own “Labour heartland” polemic; Mann’s own seat, Bassetlaw, is just outside the box, on Right -1.1%, Left +2.5%. The lesson Mann draws, incidentally, is that “[t]he Labour Party is nothing if it does not represent the aspirations of the white working class in industrial areas”, therefore Corbyn must condemn the IRA, endorse shoot-to-kill and drop his opposition to nuclear weapons. I guess the workers of Bolsover mainly aspire to shoot terrorists and bomb North Korea.)

I think the main lesson of this corner of the chart is that, when you’re in a four-party system with differential levels of mobilisation, and when you haven’t got the momentum of a good chunky electoral mobilisation campaign behind you, electoral politics in a plurality-based system can be very chancy indeed. Looking at the four rightmost seats on that chart and reading from left to right: Right +2.2%, Left +2.5% gets you Ashfield; Right +3.1%, Left +2.5% gets you Copeland (Tory gain (relative to 2015)); Right +3.3%, Left +2.2% gets you Thornbury and Yate (Tory hold); and Right +4.4%, Left +1% gets you Jared O’Mara MP. Sheffield Hallam was also a seat where Labour was under-performing relative to the national trend, presumably because nobody had prioritised it as a potential target; Labour’s vote rising just enough, and the Tories taking just enough of a bite out of the Lib Dem vote, gave us a Labour majority of 2000 and a new MP whom nobody had expected, himself included.

What happened in Sheffield Hallam? Nick Clegg lost it. What happened in Mansfield? Alan Meale lost it. The Labour vote on June 8th? 40%; up 9.6% on 2015. (To put it another way, 27.5% of the electorate voted Labour in 2017, the highest share of the electorate the party has achieved since 1997; the comparable figure for 2015 was 20.2% (up from 18.9% in 2010).) Who won that? We did; the Labour party united behind its elected leader did it. The mean level of Labour support over the twenty opinion polls conducted since the beginning of September? 41.9%. Will it go higher? Yes.

Correction – in an earlier draft I misidentified the MP for Copeland, who left Parliament for a job in the nuclear power industry and triggered a by-election rather than continue to serve his constituents under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, as John Mann rather than Jamie Reed. John Mann has been MP for Bassetlaw since 2001; he was re-elected in 2017 with 52.6% of the vote on a 66.5% turnout.

 

A kind of solution

You’ve probably seen this:

I think it’s a work of genius, not least because of the way it anticipates an obvious objection from some of those hostile to its message – well, you may not be British, but I am, far back as you like… (Which indeed I could say myself, although there is a question mark over one of my great-grandfathers.) Anticipates and sidesteps it: you may indeed be British, son-of-British, son-of-British, etc, but every one of your glorious British ancestors almost certainly had to deal at some point with people who “moved in and unsettled the neighbours”. It’s true that there are quite long periods of English history when nobody was “moving in”, but all of them predate Queen Victoria – and who (apart from the Duke of Devonshire) has any sense of who ‘they’ were that far back? Overall, it’s a brilliant reframing of immigration, that fully earns its closing opposition of love and openness to fear and isolation. Good to have you with us, Jigsaw.

You may not have seen this, more sceptical response:

The reaction to Professor Goodwin’s comment hasn’t been entirely positive; Ian Dunt (no pinko he) contrasted the reception given to people defending immigration (“they should maybe dial it down a bit”) and people attacking immigration (“we should understand their legitimate concerns”). Other commenters took the opportunity to attack the perceived tendency in British political academia – personified by Goodwin and Rob Ford – to put out a conceptual Welcome mat for the UKIP/Brexit mindset, by arguing that UKIP weren’t racist, or else that UKIP supporters weren’t racist, or that attacking UKIP as racist would be a bad idea. (Update: on Twitter, Ford has clarified that his position is the third of these (“attacking UKIP as racist may not be the most effective way to counter their appeal”), together with a heavily qualified version of the second: viz. that the majority of UKIP supporters aren’t (or weren’t) racist, although there were more racists among UKIP supporters than among supporters of most other parties.)

I briefly got into this argument myself, asking – fairly pointedly – whether there was still a constituency of White working-class racists whose sensibilities we on the Left needed to be careful of. I wasn’t able to pursue the argument at length on Twitter – partly for time reasons, partly because, come on, it’s Twitter – so here’s what I was getting at.

1. The collapse of UKIP changes everything

Goodwin and Ford are some of the more prominent intellectually respectable advocates of what I’ll call the “legitimate concerns” model: the model of British politics that says that anti-immigration attitudes run both wide and deep in Britain, particularly among White working-class voters, to the point where any frontal attempt to call (or root) them out would be disastrously counter-productive. As if to say, yes, these people have some dreadful attitudes, but what can you do? Confront them? Good heavens, you don’t want to do that I’ve seen Ulster Unionists written about in similar boys-will-be-boys tones, not to mention (going back a few years) Serbian nationalists. The “legitimate concerns” model was based, it seems to me, on the existence of what grew to seem like a fact of nature between 2004 and 2015: a substantial and consistent vote preference for UKIP, expressed at general elections and in opinion polls as well as at European Parliament elections, generally putting UKIP in a solid third place with 15%-25% of the vote. Now that we’re back to a world of two-party polarisation – with Labour and the Tories between them accounting for 80-85% of voting intentions, while UKIP are down at 4%-5% and fighting the Greens for fourth place – that model isn’t required and should, I believe, be abandoned.

Note that I’m not saying that the model doesn’t work. If I said that model A (theirs) worked before the collapse of the UKIP vote but model B (mine) works now, I’d actually be disqualifying both models, theirs and mine. A lot of things have changed since 2016, but the very nature of reality itself isn’t one of them. Any model has to be capable of explaining the low as well as the high UKIP vote, and I’m sure that the “legitimate concerns” model – tweaked with a Brexit vote here and a ‘hostile environment’ there – can pass the test. (With May discredited, her party divided and the government patently foundering, why is the Tory vote so stubbornly high? Well, if you look at it this way…)

It’s not that the model doesn’t work; lots of models work. What the model lost, when the great UKIP threat went up in smoke, wasn’t its correspondence with reality, but something more fundamental and easily overlooked: the reason for us to choose it in the first place. It was a good enough reason, in its time. The Rise of UKIP was a great story (in retrospect) and an alarming one (in prospect): a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand in 1997 (a <3% combined vote for UKIP and the Referendum Party); a European breakthrough in 2004, consolidated in 2009 and built on in 2014; recognition by the pollsters in 2012, with vote shares at 15% or above from 2014 to 2016; second places in Labour seats in 2015, with the threat of a major breakthrough next time round… It cried out for explanation, before it was too late – and, to be fair, if you want to explain the fact that large numbers of people have switched to a party with policies A and B, hypothesising that large numbers of people have a strong preference for policies A and B isn’t the most ridiculous idea.

But something happened in 2017 that suggested that this phenomenon no longer needed explaining. (In fact it had started happening in 2015, in Oldham West.) Not to put too fine a point on it, the phenomenon that was crying out for an explanation isn’t there any more. People – some people – may still say Yes when they’re asked if they’re worried about immigration or political correctness or whatever, but the loss of a vehicle for those resentments makes them far less significant. How many people would have voted to re-criminalise homosexuality under Heath? to bring back the rope under Thatcher? to re-nationalise the railways under Blair? A fair chunk of people in each case; quite probably a majority of voters for the respective governing party. It didn’t matter, because there was no credible political subject constituted around demands like those, and consequently no electoral threat to the party in power. UKIP, and the respect with which UKIP was treated for so long, gave credibility to an unstable bundle of right-wing populist themes, ranging from vague nationalistic nostalgia to outright anti-Muslim racism; but that’s over now. It isn’t even correct to speak (as I did just now) of the loss of a vehicle for those resentments. UKIP’s right there, with a brand new badger-strangling leader; what’s happened is that it’s been abandoned by a large majority of its former supporters. And if those people don’t think it’s important to articulate their political identity in those terms, neither should we.

In short, if what was happening between 2004 and 2015 looked quite a bit like the constitution of a new White British nationalist political subject, what’s happened since 2015… doesn’t. I can understand why you might have wanted to start from there, then, but I really don’t think you should want to have started from there, now.

2. OK, so what has happened?

Since 2015? Two things – and they’re things we all know about; this isn’t Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World here. On one hand, the Brexit vote gave UKIP and its supporters everything that they, ostensibly, wanted. Note that qualification: Article 50 in and of itself doesn’t get us to banning the hijab or teaching kids about Agincourt or allowing smoking in pubs or bringing back the old money, or whatever. But leaving the EU was what it was all supposed to be about – and leaving the EU we, apparently, are. And UKIP now stands revealed as a contradictory formation. On one hand, it clearly isn’t (wasn’t?) a single-issue party: look at all the imperial nostalgia, all the xenophobic scaremongering, all the authoritarian table-thumping, all the bad-faith ‘free speech’ nonsense (you can’t say that any more…). There are forward-looking liberal democracies outside the EU and reactionary authoritarian states within it: we could in theory leave and be like Norway, or remain and be like Hungary. (In theory we could even advocate Leave as socialists.) UKIP stood for many things; occasional eccentricities aside, those issues form an unstable but reasonably coherent ideological constellation, and the simple fact of the UK being or not being a member state of the EU is far from central to it. And yet, on the other hand, UKIP was a single-issue party – the clue’s in the name – and, for the large majority of its supporters, once that issue was achieved the party was of no further use. If UKIP’s policies formed a loose ideological bundle, leaving the EU was the string that held the bundle together. Take that away and even the true believers fall apart.

The other key factor in the unravelling of UKIP has six syllables; three words, but the first one’s a small word. (Hint: begins with O.) Jeremy Corbyn has done something that hasn’t been done for a very long time, and has certainly never been dreamt of in the last twenty years: he’s signalled the intention of making Labour a genuinely left-wing party and making the next Labour government a genuinely left-wing government, dedicated to advancing the interests of working people at the expense of those of business. As I’ve documented on this blog, a statement of intent from the leader’s office is nowhere near enough to transform the Labour Party – that’s going to be a long job – but, ironically, it is enough to transform the electoral spectrum. As of June 2017, you can divide 90% of the British public into three roughly equal-sized groups: a bit less than 30% who think Corbyn’s ambitions for Britain sound great and will vote Labour to help make them happen; a bit less than 30% who think they’re a very bad idea and will vote Tory to prevent them; and a bit more than 30% who really weren’t joking when they said they didn’t care about politics. The only hopes of setting, or framing, or even tilting the agenda, from outside the old two-party system, lie with the parties voted for by the other 10% of the population. But half of that 10% is made up of Lib Dems, and most of what’s left consists of voters for Northern Irish parties or Scottish or Welsh nationalists; UKIP are nowhere. They did score solid second places in both the Oldham and Stoke by-elections – in Stoke Central they even increased their vote – but of course that’s not what they were aiming for. They thought they could win, and they weren’t alone; lots of commentators – from John Harris to Stephen Bush – thought they had a chance. And, who knows, under David Miliband or Liz Kendall they might have had a chance. Under Corbyn, no.

(On a side note, I genuinely had to stop and think for a moment to remember Liz Kendall’s name. That’s showbusiness!)

3. OK, but what happened before that?

Before 2015? What happened before 2015 can be told quite briefly. There are always ideologies – coherent bodies of ideas about how society works and how it should be organised – outside the bounded spectrum of permissible political views that we think of as the mainstream. If you’re a Green or an anarchist or a White supremacist or a Trotskyist or an Irish Republican or a Nozickian minarchist or an absolute pacifist or a small-r republican or a radical feminist or an anti-imperialist (to name but ten), you know that you’re unlikely ever to hear your spokespeople interviewed on Newsnight, or not without a lot of leading questions and interruptions. (And if eight of those unpalatably extreme viewpoints are broadly on the Left and only two on the Right, well, that just shows how clever Leftists are at coming up with new labels for themselves, doesn’t it – People’s Front of Judea, ho ho.)

What happened in the late 1990s was that the spectrum of political legitimacy was redefined and narrowed – delegitimising some previously habitable territory on both left and right – by New Labour, which then proceeded to occupy the whole of the reduced spectrum it had staked out. The Tories were boxed in; their only choices were to occupy (what was now) an unpalatable ‘far Right’ area or fight New Labour on (what was now) its own turf. Small wonder that they couldn’t return to power until the weird, Mule-like conjunction of a global financial crisis, a Blair-alike Old Etonian leader and a 23% vote for the Lib Dems, cruelly outplaying Labour at the “culturally liberal apolitical centrism” game. (It’s easy to forget just how strong the Lib Dem vote in 2010 was. Six million people voted Lib Dem in 2010 – that’s a million more than voted for any party other than Labour and Conservative in 2017.)

The other thing that happened in the late 1990s was the formation of James Goldsmith’s anti-EU vanity project, the Referendum Party. Insignificant as this was at the time, it marked the beginning of a period when the strongest and most vocal opposition to New Labour would come from a force determined to make its home in those disreputable ‘far Right’ badlands. Indeed, its location, off to the right of respectability, is one explanation for the ideological heterogeneity of UKIP: as David Cameron and Charles Kennedy competed with Blair on his chosen terrain of business-friendly social liberalism, UKIP was free to pick up all the rejected right-wing policies it could carry – and their supporters with them. Hence, too, the post-Brexit meltdown. It turns out that this wasn’t a whole new political identity, melding Islamophobia, British nationalism, social libertarianism and reactionary nostalgia within an overall anti-EU framework, as exciting as that might have been for political scientists. Rather, it was a loose alliance between believers in Islamophobia (and leaving the EU), British nationalism (and leaving the EU), smoking in pubs (and leaving the EU) and bringing back the old money (and leaving the EU), and the announcement that Britain was in fact leaving the EU took away the one thing that had been holding them all together.

What this doesn’t explain is why it was the UKIP area that provided the strongest and most vocal opposition to New Labour, and not some other politically-excluded school of thought. We don’t have that many Nozickian minarchists or absolute pacifists, to be fair, but both the far Left and the Greens have been substantial presences on the British political spectrum for the last forty years. Why did the right-of-Conservative area acquire the cachet of ‘respectable rebels’ and attract the enduring fascination of political scientists, centre-left journalists and BBC Question Time – to the point where it seemed to acquire much more substance than it ever really had – while the left-of-Labour area remained out in the cold, branded and outcast forever like Edmund? Why – let me put this another way – was respectability bestowed on people openly advocating policies which would make nobody’s life any better but only fuel ignorance and hatred while causing misery on a large scale, when people calling for ecologically-sound public investment and mixed-economy social democracy were either ignored or treated like apologists for Pol Pot?

I can’t answer that question. What I can say is that that is what happened: a phantasmal new political subject was conjured out of little more than the foul winds howling around the rightward extreme of the legitimate political spectrum, and given substance by a perverse determination to take it seriously, while studiously ignoring anything that might have been happening over at the leftward extreme. It worked for many years – too many – but now, I think, the game is up. Since the election, only two polls (out of 36) have put Labour below 40%; the average of the last ten has the Tories on 39.4% and Labour on 42%. Are the White working-class British nationalists going to come down from the hills and eat our lunch, as Labour’s middle-class liberal cosmopolitan bias costs it dear among its traditional supporters? To answer that question, it’s worth asking another: what would it look like if the answer was No? In such a world, might we see Labour with a solid lead over the Tories and UKIP in complete disarray, perhaps?

Returning to Professor Goodwin and Jigsaw: what to do if potential Labour voters start voicing legitimate concerns focused on immigration? The answer’s the same as it ever was: first and foremost, find out what those concerns actually are (rule of thumb: if they are legitimate, they won’t be about immigration – and vice versa). Ask if they vote at elections and if they support Labour, and give them good reasons for doing both; if you think they’re being racist, tell them so and tell they why. Treat them as you would anyone else, in other words – as potential allies, to be challenged, persuaded and won over. The only reason to treat them – and their incorrect opinions – with any more deference than that was the suspicion that they were part of something much bigger. We’ve entertained that suspicion for far too long; there’s no reason to continue with it now.

A song of the past

Glen Newey died on the 30th of September, unexpectedly and far too soon (he was 56). Glen and I were acquaintances at best – our contacts between 1982 and 2017 amounted to one brief email exchange and a vague commitment to meet up when it was possible. I didn’t know him particularly well before 1982, come to that.

However, we were at the same Cambridge college for the same three years, and he did make an impression on me then. He certainly stood out. I remember thinking he looked like something out of Cold Comfort Farm – big-boned, raw complexion, blank, unyielding stare – and being surprised to hear through friends that he was one of the brighter and more hard-working students in his subject group, almost certainly heading for a First. To talk to he was reserved and brusque; he didn’t say much or invite small talk. (To talk to he was hard work, to be honest. Mind you, so was I.) He told me once he’d grown up in Guernsey. What was it like? I asked. “A shithole,” he said, then gave a small smile.

It was fourteen years after leaving Cambridge when I saw Glen’s name again, in the letters column, and subsequently in the main body, of the LRB. From his earliest review – of Habermas’s Between Facts and Norms – he had a distinctive style, a kind of punk donnishness. This isn’t just a matter of interleaving tightly-worded argument with references to Harry Secombe and the Great Train Robbery (“eligible conceptions of the good are unlikely to include those of Ronald Biggs”); Terry Eagleton would do as much. Glen went further, as in his reminiscences of a trip to Berlin:

In deference to the BSE brouhaha, posters in every public eatery in town vouchsafed that the dead quadruped on offer was rein deutscher Herkunft – of pure German origin; grim photos in Der Spiegel showed British bovines being shoved into Topf-style incinerators. Irony, or even memory, was at a discount.

The relentless tastelessness of the Nazi allusions here was very Glen, as was the combination of circumlocution and brutality with which it was delivered. When a reader from Frankfurt complained a couple of issues later, Glen declared himself “happy to make with the smoking calumet”, continuing:

I count Germans among my closest friends, some of whom I stay with when in Berlin. My Significant Other herself hails from the tribe – indeed, her mother is a proud alumna of the Hitler Youth’s female branch, with memorabilia which she showed off to me when I was first presented for her approval.

He then pointed out the flaw in his correspondent’s logic. He had fun.

A few years later, an article on the royal family – memorably headed “About as Useful as a String Condom” – gave Glen’s punk-donnish style free rein. Some correspondents found it a bit much, and I was inclined to agree. Well, sort of.

Letters, 20 February 2003
You describe Glen Newey as a reader in politics rather than Reader in Politics (LRB, 23 January). From this, and from his cheerful pee-po-belly-bum-drawers prose style, I infer that he is a first-year undergraduate shaping up for a career as president of the students’ union. It’s not too soon for him to learn some useful lessons.

First, to label a columnist more talented than yourself as ‘drek’, and a political journalist more serious than yourself as vacuous, may not convince your readers that you yourself are free from these defects. Second, it is a long time since anyone believed that abolition of the monarchy necessarily guaranteed the achievement of a democratic and egalitarian society. [continues]
– Anne Summers

(Along the way, Glen had characterised Jonathan Freedland as ‘vacuous’ and Julie Burchill as ‘drek’. Seems fairly mild, to be honest.)

Letters, 6 March 2003
I can set Anne Summers’s mind at rest on one point (Letters, 20 February): Glen Newey served his time as a first-year undergraduate several years ago, in a cohort including such eminences as Anatol Lieven and myself (parsing that last clause is left as an exercise for the reader). Like Summers and others, I found the style of Newey’s piece on the monarchy distracting; it suggested a sustained and ultimately rather laborious attempt to disguise his native tones as those of an intellectual Richard Littlejohn. Ars est celare artem, of course, but another time I’d rather have more of Glen’s own voice and less from his ars.
– Phil Edwards

I know, it’s dreadful. (Even the formulation is wrong – logically it should be ‘and’, not ‘but’.) By way of context, I was 42, I was midway through my doctorate, I was supporting myself as a freelance journalist – mainly writing opinion columns in computing magazines – and applying for interviews for academic jobs, none of which I got. So when the opportunity presented itself to demonstrate that I, too, could put a Cambridge education to the service of being rude in ornate language, of course I jumped at it. Not that it did me any good, and I’m not sure how I thought it would. Sympathetic magic, really; might as well flag down a flying saucer.

And that’s almost all I can say about Glen Newey. He went on writing for the LRB and became an established presence on the LRB blog. (And hey, I’ve written for the LRB blog too! Twice!) He did dial it down – a bit – but never lost that relish for épater le bourgeois, and épater la galérie while he was about it. It was seldom gratuitous. He knew that sometimes – more often than you might think – people need a bit of a shock to see things how they are; sometimes – more often than you might think – telling things how they are is shocking. Our paths crossed briefly a few years later, when he was at Keele and I was applying for a job there; we couldn’t arrange to meet on the day of the interview, though, and I didn’t get the job, so that was that. No ending; the story just stops.


Brian Barder died on the 19th of September. Brian started blogging in 2003; he was in his late sixties and a retired diplomat. When I started the forerunner of this blog, a couple of years later, Brian’s was one of the first I added to my blogroll. Back in the glory days of blogging (circa 2006-8), I commented regularly on his posts and he occasionally on mine, sometimes pursuing our debates through email. I agreed with him strongly on the merits and limits of the international legal order, in particular its lack of support for interventionist adventurism; I also shared his Old Labour loyalties and his heartfelt disdain for the New Labour crew, then very much in power.

We disagreed on other things; in particular, Brian took (what I would call) the conventional view that “terrorists” are beyond any conceivable pale, and that for states to take terrorist actors into account in any way when pursuing their own interests would be tantamount to succumbing to blackmail. I argued the opposing position at some length – pointing out, for example, that if an organised crime syndicate has recently started operating in a certain country, that country’s government will naturally take account of this fact when deciding whether to grant new casino licences, if only by managing things so as to frustrate the crime syndicate. Brian was immovable: the only principled response to terrorism was to say “I see no ships”. (And I’m not saying that he was wrong, necessarily. Certainly organised crime syndicates don’t set out to influence governments in the way that terrorist groups do.)

I was twenty-six years Brian’s junior, as well as having neither qualifications nor experience in a field where he had both; I’m sure he sometimes found my questions and comments impertinent or gauche. For all that, I found him almost invariably wise, thoughtful and kind, and was hugely gratified when he endorsed my readings of international law (most recently in 2013, with regard to R2P and Syria). If there was sometimes a touch of de haut en bas graciousness in there, he carried it off well.

Some time in the late 2000s, the glory days of blogging ground to a halt. When the music stopped I found that, as well as posting a lot less often, I was reading and replying to an almost completely different group of bloggers. So, farewell then, James C-M, Justin McK and Jarndyce; hello, Rodent, WbS and Splinty. A few bloggers from the first group made it into the second, and Brian was one of them. Brian last commented here in 2016, while my last comment at his place is as recent as June this year.

By then, however, a new and more serious disagreement between us had arisen. Old Labour though he was, Brian was never especially left-wing, and he had no time whatever for Jeremy Corbyn or his supporters. As well as distrusting Corbyn on foreign and defence policy – no small matters for a former diplomat – I think Brian simply couldn’t be doing with Corbyn as a politician; for him, I think Corbyn’s failure to control the PLP betrayed lack of power, charisma or both, while his personal scruffiness and penchant for mass meetings were the mark of a dilettante extremist.

I myself had opted for Corbyn even before I thought he had any chance of winning the leadership, and hadn’t seen any reason to waver in my support since then – certainly not since the election, in which Corbyn’s leadership was genuinely impressive. Given another couple of years I think even Brian might have been won round. Sadly, he didn’t have another couple of years. I’d known since earlier this year that Brian was suffering from a life-changing illness, but it barely even crossed my mind that the outcome might be worse than that. 83 is what we used to call ‘a good age’, but it doesn’t make the news of his passing any less of a shock. He leaves a gap in my life, even though I never met him, and I can only commiserate with all those who knew him much better than I did.

NB I didn’t ‘Sir’ Brian in life – entirely with his approval – and don’t intend to start now.

Cheers then mate

Jeremy Corbyn is not the leader of the Labour Party.

What is the Labour Party? Fundamentally, it’s an institution. Institutions – local councils, charities, the BBC, the Museum of Science and Industry – have two key properties. First, they stand for something – corporate mission statements are a backhanded homage to the sense of ‘mission’ that a true institution always already has. Second, they perpetuate themselves: they keep themselves going, so that they can do the things they believe in. But, of course, institutions aren’t alive: everything they ‘do’ or ‘believe’ is mediated through people, specifically people occupying particular roles and sharing a particular institutional culture. What the British Museum believes is what the Director of the British Museum believes – and vice versa. There’s a certain way of criticising politicians that counterposes ‘idealism’ to ‘careerism’, but in reality they’re two sides of the same coin: the classic occupier of an institutional role is, precisely, a careerist idealist.

Any time an institution gets a new ‘leader’, that person will find that it already has an institutional culture and a good supply of people occupying institutional roles. This is all the more the case if the institution is articulated across multiple levels of authority and/or geographical locations. Changing an institution’s culture is a slow and laborious process; it’s one of the things that differentiates an institution from a business, or a Leninist party. The Labour Party is not a corporation (or even a university), and Jeremy Corbyn is not its CEO (or vice-chancellor): it was never going to be possible for Corbyn to wipe the slate and inaugurate Year Zero of Corbynite Labour. However much support Corbyn had, there were far too many people throughout the party who had careers or were building careers, occupied institutional roles or hoped to occupy them, on the basis of a culture and ideals very different from his. (And I stress ‘ideals’; these are all good Labour people that we’re talking about, let’s not forget.)

Just how slow and laborious it is to turn an institution around will depend on what the institution is like, in two respects. Any institution is more or less democratic; it either is or isn’t possible for pressure from below to cause a change of policy, a change of overall leadership, a change in the occupancy of a specific middle-ranking role. The more democratic an institution is, the more susceptible it is to sudden changes of direction; a democratic institution is more open to real social mobilisations, and more vulnerable to infiltration when no broader mobilisation is going on. At the same time, any institution is more or less bureaucratic. Bureaucracy is an inherently conservative tendency: it tends to keep the institution running in much the same way. A bureaucratic institution is better able to weather periods of low social mobilisation, but risks being left behind by periods of high mobilisation. Democratic institutions take new leaders straight from the street; established office-holders live with the awareness that they may be out of touch, and that the remedy may be for them to stand aside or be pushed aside. Bureaucratic institutions wear newcomers down slowly, turning this year’s spiky radical into next year’s smooth operator; newcomers live with the awareness that existing office-holders are doing a fine and principled job, and that they will just have to wait their turn. Democratic cultures tend to radicalism; bureaucracies tend to conservatism, and sometimes they tend pretty hard that way. When I first came to Manchester, the Labour council had a (left-wing) Labour opposition group, many of whose members were suspended from the party twice or three times. In 1984 the numbers shifted and the opposition group took over the council, which duly became a byword in the tabloids for anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid advocacy and for the municipal ‘loony left’ generally. The leader of the group was Graham Stringer. Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis, eh?

When Corbyn was elected leader, I was surprised by the failure of most of Labour’s MPs and power-holders to fall in behind the new boss. (I say ‘surprised’; ‘outraged’ would be another word, or ‘disgusted’.) This was naive of me; I should have realised that the change at the top was only the beginning of a process of democratic renewal in the party. Maybe I’m still naive, but what has continued to surprise and disappoint me is the strength of the bureaucratic resistance to that democratic renewal. When the rank outsider has won on the first ballot (and won again when challenged); when the party’s membership has grown and kept on growing; when the Labour general election vote has risen after everyone expected it to collapse – doesn’t that suggest to even the most sceptical observer that something’s going on out there? And might this not be a time to start working with the new leader and his supporters, rather than paying lip service to our numbers and our ‘energy’ and then fighting us for every office and every vote? Apparently not. It’s taken two years even to reorganise the National Executive Committee so that the leadership – and the membership – will have a fighting chance of getting their way, and that change won’t actually take effect for another year; it’s trench warfare all the way down. Which, incidentally, explains an awful lot of the negative stories about Corbyn. “Damaging Labour split”? People are organising against the leadership. “Labour in chaos”? People are organising against the leadership and talking to the press. “Corbyn misses crucial vote”? People are organising against the leader, and on this occasion they’ve managed to outmanoeuvre him. And so on.

And so it came to pass that, when my local branch held its annual election of officers and delegates to the constituency party, a number of delegates signalled their allegiances and intentions through key phrases in our personal statements: things like “I support Jeremy Corbyn” and “I support the party’s manifesto”. That’s the ludicrous position I personally found myself in – effectively running as a left-wing outsider, on a platform consisting of supporting the party’s elected leader and its agreed manifesto. And so it was that, when the votes were counted, I and other ‘Corbynites’ got absolutely rinsed. Existing office-holders, as well as being protected by a variety of – doubtless entirely rulebook-compliant – procedural devices, were given the opportunity to assure the meeting that things were going swimmingly under the current management and that no kind of renewal was needed, or if it was that they were the best people to manage it; most of the votes went 55/45 or 60/40 in their favour; and the outsiders between them ended up with one officer (an uncontested position), and a total of four delegates out of 17. All of which isn’t going to make anyone lose sleep, or divert the local party from its present, comfortable course.

Corbyn stands for turning Labour into an active, outward-looking, campaigning party, and that’s one of the things that’s attracted all of those new members. Is that going to happen while local parties are managed by the same people who were managing them three years ago – people whose political culture and ideals are very different from Corbyn’s? It doesn’t seem likely. And if the local party was working with Momentum, agitating to get suspensions of good comrades reversed, holding political discussions, working to build the party in target seats and generally contributing to the renewal of the party nationally, would that be such a terrible thing? Terrible enough to make it worth organising to secure practically every post for a safe candidate? I really don’t understand the mentality here. I’m temperamentally rather conservative (I’m a folk singer, for goodness’ sake), so I can certainly see the appeal of not rocking the boat unnecessarily as a general principle. But there’s such a thing as moving with the times – and the times have been moving rather quickly since September 2015.

So, no – Jeremy Corbyn isn’t the leader of the Labour Party; at best he’s the leader in name only (LINO?). He is the leader of a movement whose membership is numerically dominant within the Labour Party, and which wants to transform the Labour Party. Unfortunately that movement, despite its numbers and its association with the elected leader, is currently being blocked by office-holders with an excessive attachment to the status quo and/or insufficient attachment to democratic principle. But I’m sure that won’t always be the case. Jeremy Corbyn is not the leader of the Labour Party – yet.

To you, with regard

So what have I been writing about, these last couple of months (to a lack of interest which has, frankly, exceeded my low expectations)?

Well, I’ve been thinking about death; about the way that death affects us and appears to us; and about what we can infer from that about life and how to live it. Just the big stuff, then.

In post 1 I talked about the impassable, indescribable devastation that is being bereaved, before mentioning a curious experience which I and others have had after losing a loved one, and which seems oddly to be evoked in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. As I said in post 3, it’s as if for a moment someone is telling us “it’s all right”; let’s not beat about the bush, it’s as if they’re telling us “it’s all right”. I talked about this in more depth in post 8, suggesting a possible psychological mechanism for it while also accounting for my sense that it’s an essentially benign, constructive experience.

More broadly, what’s interesting about experiences like these is what they tell us about how we imagine personal survival, or rather how we imagine personhood: that intuitive sense of individual identity as something essential and even indestructible. I talked about this sense of there being an irreducible core of individual identity – the soul, roughly speaking – in post 2, with a bit of help from Neil Hannon. In post 4 I contrasted Emily Brontë’s frankly panpsychist articulation of her own sense of irreducible identity with Robyn Hitchcock’s frankly materialist version; I discussed these, together with George Eliot’s unsatisfactory but intriguing attempt to square the circle (eternal life, but not for people), in post 5.

As well as being a useful corrective to the mystical individualism of Emily Brontë, George Eliot’s social perspective – her sense that we may live on through our influence and our contribution to the continuing life of the human race – connects with another intuition: the sense that, if we are each an individual with a unique identity, it is possible for us to develop those identities while living together. The sense, in other words, that it is possible for humanity, as a whole, to be humane; to be kind. I pursued this sense in post 6 through some of the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, as well as relating it to the person-centred psychology of Carl Rogers (Rogers and Vonnegut are a good fit).

All of which is a kind of backdrop for the thought-experiment which I’d been carting around since last December, which I revealed to the world in post 7 and then debunked in post 9. Post 7: suppose that we survive eternally after death, our identities formed by the life journey we completed before dying. Wouldn’t we find ourselves suddenly in the benign presence of everyone there is – our worst enemies included? And doesn’t this give us the strongest incentive to live at once the fullest life and the best, kindest life we possibly can? (See the post to have it set out in detail.) Post 9: suppose, conversely, that our life journeys come to a full stop when we die and our unique identities are mercilessly snuffed out; doesn’t this indescribable, impassable devastation find its repressed reflection in fantasies of eternal, harmonious, individual survival? And doesn’t the ridiculous horror of death actually give us an even stronger incentive to live a fuller and a kinder life, while we can? Again, see the post to get the detail (and for a rebuttal of the Atheism Fallacy of which I am rather proud).

On a personal(!) note, I started this series rationally convinced that the Heaven fantasy I’d come up with was just that, a fantasy; all the same, I found it a very appealing fantasy, and did wonder if dwelling on it over several weeks was going to induce some sort of conversion experience. I’m glad I risked it; here at the end of the series I’m more certain than before that this life is all we get. If we want a moment worth waiting for, we’re going to have to make it.

 

To you, with regard (9)

Let’s put the lid on this series, and when I say ‘put the lid’ I mean ‘pull the rug’. (This is the hand, the hand that takes…)

A number of things follow from the thought-experiment I’ve been developing. If, after you die, you are going to be uniquely and recognisably you for eternity, it follows that you should spend whatever life you’ve got becoming the best you that you can – the most fulfilled, the most fully actualized, the version of you that you would want to be if you had the choice. You are, after all, not going to get another chance; once round the circuit and that’s what you’ve got – that’s what you are – for ever and ever and ever. Secondly, if you’re going to be you for eternity along with everyone else, it follows that everyone else is going to count for exactly as much as you do. Moreover, on that immaterial, timeless plane their equal value with you will be inescapably obvious; empathy won’t be optional, over yonder. This rules out pursuing (what may appear to be) self-fulfilment by hurting other people, as doing so will land you with an eternity of apologies – an eternity of genuine pain, really. Thirdly, if everyone’s around forever, it follows that everyone who has ever lived or ever will live is (always already) around forever: when you check in, you’ll be rapidly introduced to your grandparents and great-grandparents, but also to your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in whatever level of fulfilled self-actualization they (will eventually have) achieved before (they will have eventually) died. And it pretty much follows from this that, if you ever get the feeling that somebody up there likes you, you’re right, and you may well be feeling Somebody’s empathetic vibrations. (Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted.) Only that Somebody isn’t Him, it’s just them; to put it another way, it’s just us.

Put all of that together and it follows fairly directly that – to quote myself – it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people. It also follows that there is no need to suppose there is a God.

Now, let’s say that none of this is true. Syllogism: animals die, their bodies rot, and no trace of them is ever perceived again; human beings are animals; therefore… Alternatively: everything that exists can be observed in some reliable and predictable way; evidence of survival after death has never been reliably and predictably observed; therefore… Let’s say that death is the end – of everything we know, think of or can imagine. No eternal presence; no timeless, dimensionless tuning-fork note; no reuniting with lost ones, meeting heroes, apologising to enemies; no warm buzz of omnidirectional empathy. Our existence through time isn’t superseded (sublated) into eternity, it comes to a stop and is cancelled in a single terminal moment. Our unique identity isn’t perfected and eternally preserved, it’s lost amid a million others and eventually forgotten, with a million others. What follows from that? Where’s your laundry list of moral precepts now?

One answer – widely attributed to atheists but mainly espoused by depressives, cynics, libertines and revolutionaries – is that if nothing lasts, nothing matters: you’re never going to be held to account for what you do, so why not do whatever you want? What’s interesting about this answer is the bad faith that lurks within its apparent logic. Look at the disjunct between the two groups I mentioned just now – those who are supposed to believe that they can do whatever they like without any comeback, and those who actually hold this belief and act on it. Revolutionaries and suicides believe that there is no future; suicides and cynics believe that nothing they do really matters; cynics and libertines believe that conventional morality is bullshit; libertines and revolutionaries believe that their own goals and desires are the truest morality. Most people in those groups probably do share the two key beliefs that death is the end and that there is no God to sit in judgment on us – but this basic atheist credo clearly doesn’t get us all the way to suicidal depression, revolutionary fervour or libertinism, or even to outright cynicism. On the contrary, one can believe that human life is made all the more precious – and the challenge of living fully together all the more important – by the fact that there is no life beyond this one and no chance of coming back for another try: you get what you get, and that’s it.

Hence the suggestion of bad faith. To spell it out, if we’re saying that if nothing lasts, nothing matters what we’re actually saying is that if nothing we can know lasts longer than human life – and if there is no agency higher than human life – then nothing matters more than my own decisions and impulses. Syllogistically, I would be bound by a higher morality in my dealings with other people if there were a God or an afterlife; there is no God or afterlife; therefore… The problem with this train of thought is that, unless you’re going through a crisis of faith, the belief that there is no eternity and no God doesn’t come as news: if you hold that belief, you already believe that that’s how the world is. But this means that the first half of the syllogism collapses: it’s like saying “if 0=1, morality is true”. (Don’t take my word for it, check it yourself – can’t argue with the maths.) What you’re really saying is, lots of people tell us what to do on the basis that there’s something higher and more permanent than the lives of people in society; there isn’t; therefore we can do as we like. It’s bad logic, apart from anything else: you’re jumping over the step where you establish that the lives of people in society don’t have any intrinsic value.

Which brings us back to our laundry list. If each individual is unique and intrinsically valuable, but each one of us is snuffed out, annihilated, when we die; if each person’s life is a unique journey to self-actualization, but each journey stops, never to be resumed, at the instant of death, however soon it comes; what follows from that? (Apart from a strong urge to put back my head and howl like a dog for my father, for my mother, for Madeleine, for Les, for every friend and relative who’s gone before and been taken too soon.) If my life is this bizarre hybrid of a treasure and a bad joke, and if everyone else is in the same position as I am (and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t), then surely Eliot Rosewater had it right:

At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

What I’m suggesting is that the whole idea of unique individual souls living on eternally – an idea which I’ve developed in a particular way in these posts, but which in itself is fairly uncontroversial among Christians – is an inverted reflection of the unbearable reality of death: death which ends time and extinguishes the individual. But this cuts both ways. Assume, in a kind of melancholic fantasy, that there is a God and a Heaven but that human life has no access to any of it – that some other beings are up there casting down their crowns around a glassy sea, while we poor homo sapiens die and rot – and certainly our lives would seem to be of little account. If there is nothing but human life (bounded by death), though, the scale we need to be working on is, precisely, the scale of human life bounded by death. And if, while we’re here, we’re each unique and valuable; and if, while it continues, each person’s life is a journey of self-actualization; and if each individual is ridiculously fragile and each life is absurdly unrepeatable; then it seems to follow – with, if anything, even more force – that it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people.

And when we die?

Tonight we fly
Over the houses
The streets and the trees
Over the dogs down below
They’ll bark at our shadows
As we float by on the breeze

Tonight we fly
Over the chimneytops
Skylights and slates
Looking into all your lives
And wondering why
Happiness is so hard to find

Over the doctor, over the soldier
Over the farmer, over the poacher
Over the preacher, over the gambler
Over the teacher, over the rambler
Over the rambler
Over the lawyer,
Over the dancer, over the voyeur,
Over the builder and the destroyer,
Over the hills and far away

Tonight we fly
Over the mountains
The beach and the sea
Over the friends that we’ve known
And those that we now know
Over their homes
And those who we’ve yet to meet
We’ll fly

Over the fathers
Over the mothers

And when we die
Over the sisters
Over the brothers

Oh, will we be that disappointed or sad
Over the children
Over the lovers

If heaven doesn’t exist?
What will we have missed?
Over the hills and far away
This life is the best we’ve ever had.

If you have been, thanks for reading these posts. I may publish a short round-up with links to earlier posts, but apart from that I’m not intending to continue the series. Normal service – i.e. closely-argued political nitpicking – will resume shortly.

To you, with regard (8)

And the voice said: “This is the hand, the hand that takes…”

Location: a busy street in a south Manchester suburb, on a sunny Saturday morning. We see PHIL coming out of a newsagent, a hessian shopping bag in one hand. A passer-by accosts him.
VOICE: Phil, could I have a word?
PHIL recognises the voice, turns towards it and answers without thinking.
PHIL: Sure, what’s it about? Oh, wait…
Seeing the bystander who had addressed him, PHIL freezes and shrinks back. His mouth moves uncertainly before he speaks again.
PHIL: You… I’m sorry, have we met? I know Jan had family, but…
The bystander returns PHIL’s baffled gaze with an expression combining patience, impatience and amusement.
BYSTANDER: Phil, it’s all right. You can say what you see. What was your immediate reaction when you heard my voice?
PHIL: I thought you were Jan.
BYSTANDER: And what was the one possibility you utterly refused to consider?
PHIL: That you were Jan.
JAN: Well, then. Which way are you headed?

PHIL and JAN walk up the road in silence. Eventually PHIL finds his voice again.
PHIL: So, you wanted a word?
JAN: Thought you were never going to ask. You’ve been thinking about regret.
It’s not a question.
PHIL: Well, since you… And thinking I’d never see you again… I mean, we had that disagreement… more of a misunderstanding really… and I never went to see you when you were in the… before…
JAN: Before I died, no – no, you didn’t. It’s all right, don’t worry.
PHIL: Don’t worry? That’s just it – if I was worrying I could do something about it. I’m a bit past worry.
JAN: You’re not, though – that’s the point. You’re not even on the same track as worry. I’m not explaining it very well – have a word with this gentleman.
They are approaching a bridge over a canal. A path branches off from the pavement to run down beside the canal. A FAIR-HAIRED MAN, wearing flared jeans and an embroidered waistcoat, has just pushed past them onto the path.
JAN: Not so fast! Peter, a word?
PETER BELLAMY stops, turns and grudgingly walks back to join them.

PHIL: You’re… you’re actually him. You’re actually Peter Bellamy. I don’t know what to say.
PB: Stop there, I should, you’ve already given me my next publicity campaign. “Peter Bellamy – He’s Actually Him.” How can I ever repay you. Don’t answer that, for God’s sake. My amazing talent of actually being Peter Bellamy doesn’t seem to pull the crowds somehow.
JAN: Come on, Peter, give it up – stop pretending that stuff still matters. Actually it’s regret that I was wanting to talk to you about – I was wondering if you could say a few words on the subject to my friend here.
PB: Oh, very well. [To PHIL] I guess you regret never having met me, or even seen me, when you could.
PHIL: Well, yes. I mean, I was thirty years old when you… I wasn’t into folk back then, but I’d been into Steeleye Span…
PB: You said it, not me. Go on.
PHIL: I had Pentangle albums, I’d gone to Lark Rise… But somehow I never even heard your name till much, much later. I’d heard one track by the Young Tradition, but I didn’t get it at the time – I just thought you sounded like a bunch of mad Yorkshire reactionaries who were determined to make themselves sound as antiquated as possible.
PB: Did we record with the Watersons? I don’t remember.
PHIL: I didn’t have a very good ear for accents. So when I found out what I’d missed – how much I’d missed – who I’d missed… It felt like claiming that I was into classical music when I’d been living round the corner from J.S. Bach and never known.
PB: You weren’t, though, were you? Living round the corner, I mean. Going to the same folk clubs, whatever.
PHIL: Well, no, our paths didn’t cross, that was…
PB: And you were talking in the pluperfect, which is a dead giveaway.
PHIL: Sorry?
PB: “How much I had missed” – pluperfect. You’re thinking in the pluperfect, and that’s why you’re wrong – and that’s why it’s all right. For a start you’ve got to distinguish between ‘losing’ and ‘having lost’. Losing is when you’re clinging on to the rockface and feeling it slip away from under your fingers; lost is when you’re falling, or when you’ve fallen, and it’s all over. Losing is sitting by the phone all day with the growing certainty that it isn’t going to ring; lost is remembering that day a year later. Or you can think of it in terms of songs. Take Reynardine or the Recruited Collier – some song that you sang a couple of times when you were just getting started and never thought about since.
PHIL: And will probably never sing again.
PB: And will probably never sing again – exactly. That’s lost. But you learned those songs, once – you learned the lines, forgot the lines, struggled to remember the lines, got them, lost them again, learned them again… That’s losing.
PHIL: I suppose so. But where are we going with this?
PB: I was planning on a bit of a walk by the canal, but since your friend roped me in… No, the point is: how do you feel about not knowing the second verse of Reynardine, or the penultimate verse of The Recruited Collier?
PHIL: I’d never really thought about it. Nothing, really – I don’t make any claim to know those songs.
PB: Although you did once?
PHIL: I did once, but they’re gone. They mean nothing to me.
PB: And those are songs you used to know. Suppose you heard that there were some interesting songs in a book you’ve never seen, and that the only copy’s been lost?
PHIL: That would be sad, but I wouldn’t regret it personally – that would be like taking responsibility for something that never happened or never could happen.
PB: And yet you think you regret not meeting someone you never could meet, not hearing music you never had any chance to hear. It may be sad – it might have been good if those things had happened – but there’s nothing there to regret. Your life is your life; what happened, happened. It’s all right. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to resume my walk, and if you won’t excuse me I’m afraid I’m going anyway. Val de ree, and so forth.

PHIL and JAN are standing side by side on the bridge over the canal, leaning over the parapet and looking out into nothing. For a few minutes nobody speaks. Eventually PHIL sighs.
PHIL: That’s reassuring up to a point, but surely there are things to regret in situations like…
JAN: Like mine?
PHIL: Yes! We shouldn’t have fallen out, I should have explained myself better, I should have made more of an effort… All those things I could have done, and now I can’t.
JAN: Now you can’t. Tell me, what would you think of a religious leader who said that everyone had a moral duty to avoid anger, pride, lust and the rest of them at all times? No exceptions – anyone who committed any of those sins, even inside their head, would be drummed out of the church. What would you think of that approach?
PHIL: I’d think that was cruel and exploitative, as it’s a standard that almost everyone is bound to fail.
JAN: Almost everyone, yes. And what would you think of the idea that everyone has a moral duty to go back in time, after they’ve sinned, and avoid committing the sinful act?
PHIL: I’d think that was ridiculous – you can’t have a moral duty to do something impossible.
JAN: No indeed. And you can’t have a duty towards someone who doesn’t exist. Maybe you did the wrong things back there, or not enough of the right things, and maybe you’ll want to do better if you’re in a similar situation in future. But you haven’t got anything to regret. You don’t owe me anything – how could you?
PHIL: So maybe I did owe you something…
JAN: And maybe I was well aware of that. Or maybe I thought you owed me something different from what you thought you owed me; maybe I would still have thought you owed me, even if you’d done everything you thought you ought to do. Whatever. The point is, that story’s over now. You can’t owe Jan something if there isn’t any Jan for you to owe anything to. Try and do better another time, but apart from that, go on, go in peace. It’s just you now.
PHIL: I suppose… when someone dies, we lose the person, but we also lose the whole entanglement of expectations and obligations and shared understandings and misunderstandings and grudges and guilt that grows up around a relationship over time. Laying all of that down, letting it all blow away, isn’t the same as having the other person actually tell you they don’t care about any of it, but it could feel like that. I suppose it’s the difference between a debt being settled and a debt being cancelled – which is to say, if you’re the one with the debt, there is no difference. Losing somebody is pain, but there’s also a release: a chance to wipe the slate, let all the nonsense go, see the person as they were and feel your affection for them as it was. A chance to hear those words –
PHIL straightens up, steps back from the parapet of the bridge, looks around. He is alone.
PHIL: “It’s all right. It’s really all right.”

To you, with regard (7)

BUFFY:
Wherever I… was… I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time didn’t mean anything, nothing had form… but I was still me, you know? And I was warm and I was loved… and I was finished. Complete. I don’t understand about dimensions or theology or any of… but I think I was in heaven.
After Life (BtVS S6E3), script by Jane Espenson

Right, that’s enough background reading. Here’s the thought-experiment that sparked all this off, when I wandered into it late last year. Let’s assume that there is such a thing as Heaven, and let’s assume that conventional wisdom about Heaven has more or less got it right. By which I mean, not the clouds or the harps or the pearly gates or any of that apparatus, but the basic setup. What do we ‘know’ about Heaven? (I’m leaving Hell out of consideration for the time being, although I will come back to it. For now let’s just assume that everyone goes to the same place.) There are two key things, I think. One is that we go to Heaven as individuals – identifiable individuals, even; you are still you, your grandfather is still the person he was, and so on. The other is that Heaven is a place out of time; it’s eternal.

But what does ‘eternal’ mean?

Here there are many many sheep
And the people only sleep
Or awake to tell how gory and gruesome was their end
And I don’t have many friends
And it’s really very clean
And I’m thinking:

Juliet, you broke our little pact!
Juliet, I’m never coming back.

Up here in Heaven without you
I’m here in Heaven without you
Up here in Heaven without you
It is Hell knowing that your health
Will keep you out of here
For many many years
– Sparks, “Here in Heaven”

Well, it doesn’t mean that. Eternity can’t mean that time passes, for everyone but you, and you see it pass – watching while your children and grandchildren grow old, waiting for your double-crossing lover to get hit by a bus, etc. Why not? Because if you see it passing, it is passing for you (“oh look, now my widow’s got a new man – wonder if this one will last”); it’s just that its passage matters less to you, not least because you’ve got an infinite supply of it. And that would open up a whole range of possibilities which, I think, take Heaven in the ‘wrong’ – counter-intuitive – direction. For a start, if time can pass in Heaven, things can happen – and that means that Heaven can change, which probably isn’t something we want to allow. Take C.S. Lewis’s ‘worlds within worlds’ vision of Heaven in The Last Battle:

About half an hour later—or it might have been half a hundred years later, for time there is not like time here—Lucy stood with her dear friend, her oldest Narnian friend, the Faun Tumnus, looking down over the wall of that garden, and seeing all Narnia spread out below. … Then she turned inward again and stood with her back to the wall and looked at the garden.

“I see,” she said at last, thoughtfully. “I see now. This garden is like the stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.”

“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see … world within world, Narnia within Narnia….”

“Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

Further up and further in! But those woods – I can’t help thinking of Minecraft. Could you cut down the trees? Could you use the wood to make things? Could you cut down all the trees, pave Paradise and put up… well, presumably not. But what if you’d been a handyman in life and building an infinitely extensible log cabin was your idea of heavenly bliss? What if there were lots of people like you? Come to that, what if you had really happy memories of a car park and wanted to recreate that in heaven? Really, there’s no way of having large numbers of people coexisting, over indefinitely long time periods, without conflict developing and leading to at least relative unhappiness.

This is the case even if we aren’t talking about resource conflicts – in other words, even if we drop the rivers and woods and sea and mountains and assume there’s nothing there but people, perhaps sitting on clouds. Being reunited with lost friends and relatives has always seemed like one of the most appealing things about Heaven, closely followed by the chance to meet and get to know the heroes you never did know in this life. But if it all takes time, it could get awfully frustrating: what if Guy Debord or John Lennon wanted to talk to someone else (their own lost friends and relatives, maybe)? What if there were so many people wanting to talk to Picasso or Gandhi that you ended up getting stuck in a celestial signing queue? (“So amazing to finally meet you! Love your work!” “Yeah, great. Thanks. Who’s next?”) It starts to look as if Ron Mael had the right idea all along – eternity, if you think of it in terms of endless amounts of time, would get boring.

So eternity has to mean, not infinite time, but no time (Uchronia?) – and not a hack like “waking up to the same day over and over again” (which, as we know, would get a bit nightmarish after a while) but actually no time passing. When I imagine this kind of infinite stasis I picture the sound of a tuning fork: after the first impact it suddenly sounds as if that tone has always been there and will never fade away – 100% sustain, no attack or decay. Nothing happens, nothing changes. What’s interesting about this is that if there is no time, there can be no energy and hence no matter – whatever it is they do, sub-atomic particles take time to do it (or: they do it within a four-dimensional space-time reference frame). This in turn means no space; imagine space with no photons to traverse it and no matter to bend it out of shape, and what you’ve got isn’t just a void but a dimensionless void.

In Heaven, then, there is no space or time; there’s no light, no matter to be lit by it and no void to be dark. But there are (ex hypothesi) people – identifiable individuals; after spending however-many years looking out through a pair of eyes down here, your consciousness and character – whatever makes you you – is translated at death onto this timeless, spaceless plane. Now what? What logically follows from these (not particularly outlandish) premises about the afterlife?

You’re Already There. We know that there’s no time in Heaven. But that must mean, not just that when you arrive you’re there forever, but that when you arrive you will have been there forever. Which means that Heaven’s always already populated, not just with everyone who’s ever lived, but with everyone who ever will have lived. That family reunion will reunite you not just with your long-lost ancestors but with your descendants, even those born long after you died. For they too will, eventually, die – which means, from the perspective of eternity, their death has already been taken into account.

We Are What We Will Have Been (so we must be careful what we will have been). There are no concertinas in Heaven (yes, I know) – mainly because there’s no space, no matter and no time. But if I were to die tomorrow I would – theoretically – enter Heaven as the kind of person who plays concertina, and be that person for eternity; I’d also be the kind of person who had acquired that kind of musical knowledge at a fairly advanced age, and regretted not having done anything about it earlier. Whereas if I’d died ten years ago I would have (eternally) been the kind of person who vaguely wanted to learn another instrument and regretted not doing anything about it. In this way of thinking, the fulfilment that you’ve achieved by the time you die is yours for eternity – and so are the regrets you die with. If what you are – eternally – is in some way determined by the life you’ve lived, it’s pretty important to live a good life, whatever ‘good’ means in this context.

Try Not to Sin. The specific idea of sin, as distinct from ideas of wicked or wrongful action, is that a sin is something that goes on your record: your sins weigh you down. To paraphrase the previous point, if who you are for eternity is who you are when you die, you don’t want to die with too much on your conscience. So if it’s a good idea to get round to the things you keep meaning to get round to, it’s also a good idea not to do things you’ll regret – a category that includes things you think you shouldn’t be doing. This would also suggest a reason for thinking that suicide is a bad idea – it might get you there a bit sooner, but you’re better off staying here a bit longer and arriving in a better state, if that’s possible.

Getting to Know You. There isn’t a lot to do in Heaven, but why would there be? There’s no time and no space and no matter; as such, there are no material wants, no scarcity and no competition. There’s no advantage to be gained over anyone else, no risks and no opportunities, nothing to hope for and nothing to fear; there’s nothing to buy or sell, nothing to organize for or take part in. What there is is people: everyone who has ever lived or will ever have lived. Think of those long conversations with strangers, at the heel of a party or in the middle of a long journey, when there’s nothing to do but talk – about yourselves, what you’ve been doing, where you’re going, what you care about and hope for. Imagine having that kind of conversation with your Mum and Dad (finally); and with your long-lost ancestors, and with your descendants; and with your heroes; and with the people who slighted you and let you down in life, and with the people you slighted and let down. Not to mention total strangers – all those unique, irreplaceable individuals who happened never to come into contact with you. The moment of entering Heaven would feel like the longest and most exhaustive ‘meet and greet’ anyone could imagine. And the moment of entering Heaven would also be the eternity of being in Heaven.

Time (And/Or Something Else) Heals All Wounds. If you would meet and get to know multiple billions of people in a moment out of time (or an aeon), you would also be changed in the process: a single, irreversible and unavoidable process of change. Imagine what happens, in this model, when somebody dies feeling hatred for others, or any of a number of other emotions that wouldn’t have any function in Heaven. What are you going to feel towards the rest of humanity, when you’re sharing eternity with them (with no material wants, no advantage to be gained over anyone else, etc)? Nothing but curiosity, wonderment, fellow-feeling and love, surely; something a bit richer than Vonnegut’s two mutually-triggering signals of presence and recognition, but in that basic form. If someone dies after a life of feeling nothing but love and benign curiosity towards all their fellow humans, they’re basically going to fit right in. (Not that my thought experiment is telling you how to live your life, or anything.) But if someone dies after killing another person, or multiple other people – what would that reunion be like? Imagine Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting“:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

Like that, but not ending – as the poem ends, a couple of lines later – in a sleep that envelopes both the dreamer and the dead man in his dream. Like that, in fact, but not ending at all. Imagine going to your death a righteous, ideologically-justified killer, and then meeting your victims individually and getting to know them, to the point where you can experience the equal value of each one’s life with your own. Imagine the horror of that. Learning to relate to people you’d hated, feared and wronged, and relate to them as valued equals; feeling hatred, fear and righteous anger, then feeling the horror of what those emotions had led to and feeling them boil away; feeling the weight of what you’d done, perhaps for the first time; feeling the burden of guilt and feeling that in turn burn away in a kind of acid bath of pain, sorrow and forgiveness. Imagine that whole process condensed into an instant, so that your experience of entering Heaven would be an experience of hatred, confusion, horror, self-hatred, guilt and pain, culminating in love, acceptance and fellow-feeling. Then imagine that instant smeared out across the infinite expanse of eternity.

Now generalise from killers to everyone who’s ever done anyone any harm.

Heaven Is Other People, Hell Is Just You. Everyone, on this model, basically gets forgiven – what is there not to forgive anyone for, when everyone concerned is a massless, positionless entity on a timeless plane? – but the pathway to forgiveness runs through guilt and horror. Horror, that is, at yourself and the harm you did to others when you were alive: the more harm, the more horror. Have I just reinvented Hell? Hell, no (if you’ll pardon the expression) – but Purgatory, maybe. It’s a process of love and acceptance, fundamentally; it’s just that, for some people, getting to love and acceptance would in itself be an ordeal.

Lonely Planet. So Heaven would be this humanity-sized static hum of mutual recognition signals and general benevolence, coloured to a greater or lesser extent by the anguish caused by each person’s own deeds while alive. The good end happily and the bad – the bad also end happily, but with more difficulty. Moreover, given that the whole of the human race is represented on the eternal plane, what we have there in aggregate is total knowledge of the course of every human life, together with the capacity (or at least the certain knowledge that somebody has or had the capacity) to change or have changed any detail at any time. Benevolence towards humanity combined with omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence (exercised through human agency): out there in Uchronia, the timeless human race as a whole loves you, wishes you well, knows exactly what you’re going to do and can transform your life at any moment, although it doesn’t generally intervene directly in this world. What does that remind you of?

This model of Heaven – which is to say, a couple of ‘common knowledge’ precepts about Heaven taken to their logical conclusion – seems not only to work without God but to culminate in something with properties that are very much those of God (if we set aside the whole world-creating part – and even that works metaphorically). We can even imagine, pushing the conceptual boat out a bit further, that subjective experience of (awareness of? contact with?) the benevolent eternal background hum of humanity could be mistaken for awareness of, or contact with, God.

To sum up, then: if you take it that individual identity survives death, and that it does so on an eternal plane, it follows that it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people. It also follows that there is no need to suppose there is a God.

(And the truth is as great as belief is.)

NEXT: So I said, “OK. Who is this really?”

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