The sound of the keys as they clink

Back here, I wrote:

my children are far closer to being ‘colour-blind’ than I’ll ever be. The other day my son got picked on in the swimming pool; we asked him to describe the kids who did it, and when we asked him whether they had brown skin he said “yes, but why do you ask?” That told us.

What I didn’t mention, probably because it hadn’t happened yet, was the sequel: a note from the police, passed on through the school, to the effect that they’d be interested to take a statement from my son, particularly given that there was a possible racist motive. (My son said he just wanted to forget about the whole thing, so we let it drop.)

So there’s one obvious reason to be sceptical about Manchester councillor Eddy Newman’s letter to Saturday’s Graun:

The study to which you refer suggests that Asbos are used disproportionately against ethnic-minority groups. In Manchester, by contrast, about one in 10 of Asbos include conditions banning racist abuse, threats or harassment. In this way Asbos can be used to combat racism and promote community cohesion.

The two sets of ASBOs – “used disproportionately against ethnic-minority groups” and “include conditions banning racist abuse” – aren’t mutually exclusive. But even if they were, there’s an even more obvious reason for scepticism: put simply, the fact that 10% of ASBOs have anti-racist strings attached says nothing about the other 90%. But the numbers are less important than the mood music. Let’s not worry about how ASBOs have been used – think about all the good things they can be used for! Never mind the evidence, just think of all the bad people out there – and trust us to deal with them.

Over the weekend I was also gobsmacked (like Jamie) by Nick Cohen’s latest:

For the first time in British history, there are asylum seekers who could attack the country which gave them sanctuary. I don’t think people realise how unparallelled this change is.

For the first time in British history, by gum. Never before have murderous foreigners lurked among us, plotting anarchy and destruction under cover of our fabled British hospitality. The Fenians in Victorian England don’t count, obviously – nor do the revolutionary exiles who converged on England from across Europe and beyond in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Conrad thought they were pretty threatening – The Secret Agent even has a suicide bomber as one of its central characters – but he was obviously exaggerating. There was a great deal of alarm about German exiles in Britain when the Great War broke out, but all that was just hysteria, obviously. Same with the Russian revolutionary exiles, around the same time. Sidney Street? A storm in a teacup. Things got a bit more lively in the late 1930s, mind you:

In September 1939 there were a total of 71,600 registered enemy aliens in Britain. On the outbreak of the Second World War the police arrested a large number of Germans living in Britain. The government feared that these people might be Nazi spies pretending to be refugees. They were interned and held in various camps all over Britain. Like other refugees they were eventually appeared before tribunals which classified them into three different groups. ‘A’ class aliens were interned, whereas ‘B’ class aliens were allowed to leave the camps but had certain restrictions placed upon their movements. The vast majority of refugees were identified as ‘C’ class aliens and were allowed to go free. When Benito Mussolini declared war on the Allies on 10th May 1940, Italians living in Britain were also interned. This included 4,000 people with less than twenty years’ residence in Britain.

But still, there’s no comparison: For the first time in British history, there are asylum seekers who could attack the country which gave them sanctuary. Or if it’s not quite the first time in history, well, never mind. Just think about all the bad people out there, and trust us to deal with them.

I used to read Nick Cohen regularly; I used to think of Eddy Newman as a reliable voice of the municipal Left (he’s a solid Old Labour councillor from way back, one of a very few Manchester councillors to have built a personal reputation in the Stringer period and hung on to it). These are strange times for the Left – it’s easy to forget just how strange.

Update 7/11

As Andrew points out in comments, Nick is a troubled man:

When, at the age of 13, he found out that his kind and thoughtful English teacher voted Conservative, he nearly fell off his chair: ‘To be good, you had to be on the Left.’ Today he’s no less confused.

I’ll say he is.

Why is it that apologies for a militant Islam that stands for everything the liberal-Left is against come from a section of the Left? After the American and British wars in Bosnia and Kosovo against Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansers, why were men and women of the Left denying the existence of Serb concentration camps? Why is Palestine a cause for the liberal-Left, but not, for instance, China, the Sudan, Zimbabwe or North Korea? Why can’t those who say they support the Palestinian cause tell you what type of Palestine they would like to see? After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington why were you as likely to read that a sinister conspiracy of Jews controlled American or British foreign policy in a liberal literary journal as in a neo-Nazi rag?

I can actually sympathise with parts of this; back in the early 1990s those of us who thought the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina was worth defending against armed Serb irredentism seemed to be in a very small minority on the Left. Seeing sizeable swathes of the Left apparently signing up for the Genocidal Bastard Fan Club (and no, the RCP wasn’t its only chapter by any means) isn’t an experience you forget.

But if I’m not with Neil Clark, I’m not with Nick either. This synopsis is sloppily written even by the standards of its kind (I don’t recall any “American and British war” in Bosnia, apart from anything else), but as far as I can tell Nick’s main concern isn’t that the Left has chosen some dodgy causes lately. He’s not even harping on the Left’s wilful blindness to the historically unprecedented menace of the lurking foreign mad bomber. For whatever reason, the point Nick really seems to want to make is that supporting the Palestinian cause is wrong. Or rather, it may be right, but only if you a) support several other causes as well b) oppose the politicians Palestinians actually elect and c) oppose criticism of Israel. (Like Andrew, I really hope that last line isn’t a reference to Mearsheimer and Walt. I’m tempted to dismiss the idea out of hand – you’d have to be wearing a very strong prescription indeed to see a ‘sinister conspiracy of Jews’ in M&W’s LRB piece, let alone to imagine that it could appear in a ‘neo-Nazi rag’ – but the reference to ‘a liberal literary journal’ is disquieting.)

A Left critique of the Gleichschaltung of the ‘anti-imperialists’ might have been useful and telling; unfortunately it looks as if Nick has found another cause to be gleichgeschaltet by. These are, as I was saying, strange times for the Left. As Victor Serge never wrote:

– What’s to be done if it’s midnight in the century?
– What, already?



  1. Backword Dave
    Posted 7 November 2006 at 09:10 | Permalink | Reply

    Indeed. Nick may as well have written “for the first time in history there are brown people who may …” All his innocents are white. All those he sees as guilty are brown. I call that racist. If ever a book cover was designed to damage sales, BTW, Nick’s forthcoming volume has it.

  2. Andrew Bartlett
    Posted 7 November 2006 at 17:02 | Permalink | Reply

    Oh, I hope that he hasn’t written the synopsis to his own book. Does anyone else think that, “After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington why were you as likely to read that a sinister conspiracy of Jews controlled American or British foreign policy in a liberal literary journal as in a neo-Nazi rag?”, is a slur on the Mearsheimer and Walt article in the London Review of Books? Not only does it suggest that M+W analysis has some strong resemblances to neo-Nazi theories of political affairs, which I would suggest is an utterly bogus claim, but the sentence suggests that the M+W analysis says something about 9/11, evoking anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Why mention 9/11?

    Perhaps it is nothing to do with M+W at all. Given Nick Cohen’s resort to building straw men (as if the Living Marxism crowd represent the Left!), it may well be the case that he is using a largely ignored essay in a small-press liberal literary journal to libel ‘the Left’.

    Anyway, what is it with his confusion between ‘the Left’ and ‘liberals’. Is his use of ‘liberals’ in the books subtitle a play for an American audience? Or has he lazily confused Left and liberal as if they are the same political tradition.

    Makes for a better and more regular supply of unrepresentative straw men for him to burn, though

  3. Justin
    Posted 8 November 2006 at 10:16 | Permalink | Reply

    On the cover of Nick’s book ‘Cruel Britannia’ (published in 1999) is a quote from Tony Blair:

    ‘If I listened to Nick Cohen I would never win an election.’

    Maybe Nick just got tired of his own lack of influence?

  4. Andrew Bartlett
    Posted 8 November 2006 at 12:26 | Permalink | Reply

    I’ll follow up. If it is Cohen that wrote, “[w]hy can’t those who say they support the Palestinian cause tell you what type of Palestine they would like to see?”, surely we can ask, “what kind of Palestine do you want to see, Nick?”

    Does he have an answer? And is his answer [1] realistic, i.e. not demanding some kind of immediate and alchemical transformation into a liberal, secular state, or [2] one that anyone who claims to be ‘on the Left’ could sign up to, i.e. not a series of walled-off, impoverished ghettoes?

  5. Backword Dave
    Posted 8 November 2006 at 18:41 | Permalink | Reply

    Andrew, I doubt Nick wrote the blurb. Fourth Estate are too professional for that. Why mention 9/11? Because everything changed, as any fule kno.
    I think Nick is using ‘liberals’ and ‘left’ interchangably; partly for the American audience (which I doubt really exists), partly because he wants to find an example of something or someone he dislikes so he can say: “Look at George Galloway, and everyone on the left is like him; lock up your daughters, lock up your sons, lock up any suspicious Muslims …” And partly because he no longer cares.

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