Say what you’ll say

I read a restaurant review once in which the service was described as ‘pleasantly relaxed and unhurried’. I think we’ve all been to places like that. It’s also a good way of looking at my blogging routine, which is so pleasantly unhurried these days that I rarely get to a burning issue until (checks calendar… blimey) four or five days after everyone else.

The chances are you’ve formed your own opinion on the Livingstone affair, and even if you haven’t you’ve almost certainly read enough Livingstone-related blog posts to be going on with. (I’ll list some of the better pieces I’ve seen at the end of this post, in a spirit of old-school “Web logging”.) But I’m going to make a couple of points about it anyway, focusing mainly on the conversational dynamics of what’s gone on.

On racism and racists

When I was at school it wasn’t exactly OK to be racist – but then, it wasn’t exactly OK to run in the corridor or grow your hair long. It was more that open expressions of racism were frowned on in polite society; when we weren’t on our best behaviour, hearing racist attitudes expressed was entirely unsurprising. Widespread awareness that this kind of ambient racism was in fact not OK, anywhere, came much later. But something odd seems to have happened, over the generation or so that it’s taken to internalise the wrongness of racism. You’d think awareness of the danger of racism would bring a real humility with it, an attitude of “We know that racism is bad, but we also know that it was normal for so long that we’ve all effectively breathed it in, and any one of us may sometimes reproduce it in our thoughts and words”. Humility and self-doubt are tough to live with, though, and the stance that seems more common is “We know that racism is bad, and this knowledge protects us from ever being racist.” Which in turn leads easily to “We all know that racism is bad, so anyone who exhibits racism must have chosen it deliberately” – and so on down to “The problem of racism is the problem of (those) racist people, it’s nothing to do with us”. From humility to smug intolerance in three short steps.

I think this is bad news. Racism doesn’t live in a few bad people’s brains, it lives in images and attitudes and ways of thinking. Today’s 18-year-olds may leave school without a racist thought in their heads – and I think to a large extent they actually do; there is a real, generational foundation for the attitudes I sketched out above – but they’re soon reading papers and watching programmes produced by 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds, just like the rest of us. Racism can stay in the cultural groundwater for a long time. I’m not suggesting that we’re all cultural dupes, hapless victims of the racist tropes swirling around in a culture we never made; I’m not saying there’s no such thing as a racist. I don’t have to wrestle with my conscience for very long before applying the label of ‘racist’ to Nick Griffin, say, or Boris Johnson. But I do think it’s facile at best, and dangerous at worst, to assume that someone who’s made a racist statement is ipso facto a racist.

I also think that people’s motivations for doing so aren’t always pure. Consider two possible responses to a racist statement made by somebody not previously considered to be a racist – let’s call them Len.

1.
ALEX (an accuser): Len, my long-time opponent, has made a racist statement. We need to tell him it’s not OK.
DAVE (a defender): Are you sure? That doesn’t sound like Len, my political ally and personal friend.
ALEX: [explains]
DAVE: Oh dear, that does sound racist. We need to tell Len that making racist statements isn’t OK.
ALEX: Let’s do just that. I’ll draft something and get it over to you.
DAVE: Thankyou for raising this issue. I’m glad that we could discuss it constructively, despite being political opponents.
[curtain]

2.

ALEX (an accuser): Len, my long-time opponent, has made a racist statement. Len’s a racist!
DAVE (a defender): No, you’ve got that wrong. Len’s my political ally and personal friend; he’s no racist. What did he say?
ALEX: [explains]
DAVE: Oh dear, that does sound… But I’m sure Len isn’t a racist.
ALEX: Yeah, right! I’ve just told you what he said.
ALAN (another accuser): What did I tell you, Alex? They’re in denial about their own racism!
DAVE: No, hang on. Perhaps Len did say something he shouldn’t have said, perhaps it was a bit racist…
ALAN: Oh, so it’s OK as long as it’s only a bit racist. Very convenient!
ALEX: So you admit it was racist. You admit you’re defending a racist. What does that say about you?
DEREK (another defender): Look, Dave isn’t a racist. He was just trying to explain…
ALAN: That’s right, he was trying to explain away racism. Thanks for admitting it!
[continues indefinitely]

You get the idea – and I think you’d agree that in the last few days we’ve seen a lot more of scenario 2 than scenario 1. Which is unfortunate, as escalating from attacking a person’s actions to attacking that person as a person is one of the most counter-productive things you can possibly do – at least, it’s counter-productive if what you’re trying to do is to address those actions and put them right. The trouble is – and I’m reminded here of the awful truth about the Toclafane – it’s fun. Writing somebody a letter in the hope that they’ll change their ways in future is no fun at all, compared to the compulsive thrill of logic-twisting, question-begging and name-calling. These days, of course, every Alex and Alan who’s spoiling for a fight can mix it in 140-character instalments, with the added gratification of tag-team validation from all the other Alans and Alexes who identify with them on the issue of the day.

The dinosaur bone problem

When you do get stuck in a type-2 scenario, there’s a tendency to reach for the evidence and slap it down on the metaphorical table – see? see what they actually said? you can’t call them a racist/deny they’re a racist now! I recently baled out of an argument along very much these lines, when I realised that the other person and I were both quoting the same couple of lines at each other, each of us convinced that they proved our own position without the need to say more. The problem is that you can’t reliably infer motivation, let alone character, from a single action; you need a course of action to work with, a pattern of behaviour. (This even applies to single actions which seem to carry a fairly blunt and unequivocal message. Somebody burning a Union flag in public probably isn’t motivated by British patriotism, but are they: anarchists? Irish Republicans? Islamic extremists? disillusioned former patriots? apolitical provocateurs? police spies? Place your bets!)

On the basis of what Ken Livingstone said last Thursday, everyone from John Mann to Mark Regev has claimed that Ken is an anti-semite. Meanwhile, a whole bunch of people (see links at the end of this post) have argued back that there’s no reason to imagine that Ken’s an anti-semite, and plenty of reasons to think otherwise. But the claims and counter-claims have rested on the same evidence – sometimes grotesquely distorted, admittedly, but not always by any means. The problem is that we’re all looking at a fragment of evidence and inferring something much bigger from it, like cartoon paleontologists reconstructing a dinosaur from a single bone. And it depends which dinosaur you’re expecting to find. If you already believe that Livingstone’s an anti-semite, some weird statement about Hitler supporting Zionism fits right in to your mental model – you don’t even have to look at it closely. If you believe, as I do, that he’s no such thing, then it doesn’t look like a statement made by an anti-semite. Actually it looks more as if somebody who’s never shown any sign of holding anti-semitic attitudes – and who has stated that anti-semitism is as unacceptable as any other type of racism – had decided to say something grossly offensive to Zionists for cheap shock value, while discounting the offence it would predictably cause to Jews more widely. Because the sad fact is, that’s how racism works. It says, those people are different from you, so you don’t need to care about them; if you want to lash out, lash out at them. And it stays in the groundwater for a long time.

So one person can look at last Thursday’s interview and come away thinking that Ken’s a left-wing anti-semite who’s said something anti-semitic (confirmation!), while I come away thinking he’s a solid if unreliable socialist who’s said something anti-semitic (aberration!). The question is, what would I and this person have thought about Ken last Wednesday, if we’d been asked? Presumably I would have said he was a solid if unreliable socialist, and the other person would have said he was a left-wing anti-semite. The evidence made no difference, in other words. (Well, it made me think Ken was even less reliable than I’d thought, so there is that.) There is a ‘tipping-point’ narrative that gets trotted out on occasions like this – surely now we must realise that these aren’t just random aberrations: the aberrations are the pattern! The idea of changing your opinion of somebody on this basis, suddenly realising that you’re looking at a black cat with white patches and not vice versa, does have a kind of narrative plausibility : one unfortunate lapse by an otherwise blameless individual; two unfortunate lapses by an otherwise blameless individual; three unfortunate – hang on a minute! But I’m not sure how often it actually happens. Certainly you’ll rarely see a first-hand account from the ‘surely now‘ merchants. They say that what they’re describing ought to be a tipping point for their readers, but they’re way ahead of us; they sussed out whoever-it-is ages ago. (Has Nick Cohen ever said anything positive about Ken Livingstone?)

It goes back to what I think of as rule 1 of online debate – in fact, rule 1 of debate in general (apart from a few very specialised settings): Nobody’s above it all. Don’t expect consistent application of unchanging principles from anyone; everyone attacks their enemies, everyone defends their friends. I think we all basically know this; it’s the reason why something like the partial implosion of the SWP a few years back was big enough news to make the national press. Normally you go to Mark Steel to see the Right get a savage satirical tweaking, but Left attacks Right isn’t news; Left attacks Left is. It follows, incidentally, that calling on one’s opponents to disown this outrageous shyster or denounce that bit of cynical manoeuvring on their own side is utterly futile (at least on the surface – I’ll come back to this). If they were going to denounce their friends and allies, they wouldn’t have those friends and allies in the first place – and they wouldn’t be your opponent.

Why we fight

I got bullied on Twitter a bit back. I’m not going to make a big deal of it – it only really bothered me for a couple of hours, and I had kicked it off by saying something really unusually stupid; lots of people regularly endure worse, with less provocation. But it was interesting, if nothing else. It wasn’t pleasant to see two people happily chatting about how ludicrously, contemptibly wrong I was – still less so when the retweets started – but what really sticks in my mind is the mental state it put me in, which was one of obsessive second-guessing. I’d spend fifteen minutes at a time thinking of the objection or the defence I was going to put forward and working out how I was going to phrase it, then thinking of how they might reply to it, then scrapping my original objection and mentally rewording it – then thinking of ways they might counter that, thinking of possible replies to their replies, and so on. I felt like a mouse on a wheel; whenever I thought I was getting somewhere, moments later I’d have second thoughts and realise that if I said that they could still put me in the wrong, and I’d have to start again. Fortunately I was ‘away from keyboard’ for most of the evening in question, so most of these objections and defences never made it to the screen; eventually I managed to ignore it, and eventually it went away. But it wasn’t fun.

I think this gets at something about bullying, or at least one kind of bullying. It can be summed up in two statements: you’ve got to say something and what you say will be wrong. Just as abuse works by offering false reassurance (you’re contemptible/you know I love you), bullying offers false hope: nothing you’ve said up to now has been any good, but come on, let’s see what you’ve got… bzzt, wrong again! Bullying doesn’t depend on the existence of a relationship involving power, though. Some forms of bullying – e.g. in the workplace – do exploit an existing imbalance of power, but I think it’s far more characteristic for bullying to create its own power relation. The school bully doesn’t generally start out in a position of power or privilege over his or her victims, after all. Like school bullying, social media bullying is something anyone can do, given an appropriate victim; like school bullying, it looks ephemeral and trivial when viewed from outside; and like school bullying, it can have very real consequences.

Now: what’s the difference between this model of bullying and what’s going on in scenario 2 up yonder?

I’m not pitching for sympathy for Ken Livingstone – I don’t even feel sympathy for Ken Livingstone. But I think it’s useful to think of some of the reaction to those interviews in terms of bullying. To set the scene, never forget just how unprecedented Jeremy Corbyn’s election last year was. When I was active on the Left, a while ago, there was a big, broad ‘democratic socialist’ area for us to work in, well over to the Left of the then party leadership (er, Kinnock and Hattersley – I did say it was a while ago). I was in the Socialist Society; we were in in a similar sort of area to Chartist and Tribune and ILP and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and the New Statesman, give or take a bit of Labour Party chauvinism on the part of the first two. The Fabians, the Christian Socialists and the Graun were off to our right a bit; over to our Left were the Campaign Group and related hard-liners. We had good relations with some of the hard Left types (Benn), less good with others (Vlad Derer) and some we didn’t really want to talk to anyway (Scargill). Beyond them were the Trots, with the same three-way division; the ISG talked to us, the Mils didn’t, and nobody really wanted to talk to the SWP.

That was in the late 80s and early 90s. We know what happened to the Labour Party soon after that – how Roy Hattersley, for example, found that he’d moved from the Right of the Labour Party to the Left without changing any of his beliefs. The comfortable and well-populated democratic socialist area which the Socialist Society used to occupy is an extreme-left desert now, way out beyond Hattersley – the centre has shifted, and all those left-of-centre groups and publications have shifted with it, or else shut up shop. Bear in mind that, as a result, the Labour leadership has no dependable friends in the media (the Daily Mirror is probably the closest thing). The Graun and the New Statesman are still, by contemporary standards, left of centre; which is to say, they think the elected leader of the Labour Party is a dangerous extremist and feel a lot more comfortable with his sworn enemies.

Because not everyone has chased the ‘centre’ of the party to the Right. Out beyond where we were, there they still are: through everything that’s happened to the Left, Corbyn and Dennis Skinner and a few others kept saying what they’d believed all along, and kept being re-elected. Till finally the ‘centre’ could not hold – at least, it didn’t mean anything any more – and rough old Jeremy’s hour came round at last. The Labour Party of the late 80s looks like a commune of utopian socialists compared to its current incarnation, but even then there was no shortage of people who hated the Campaign Group almost as much as they hated the Tories. How the Right and ‘centre’ of the party must feel now, at having an unreconstructed Campaign Group member as leader – it must be dreadful for them. Really, I can almost sympathise.

Back to bullying. The point is that, however much the Right and ‘centre’ hated last year’s election result, there was nothing that Labour MPs could actually do about Corbyn, other than banging their desk lids at him (or pointedly refusing to bang their desk lids, or whatever that bit of nonsense was). And there was nothing that their friends in the media could do about it, other than wringing their hands, promoting backbench rebels and talking down the party’s prospects. Now, after all their laborious and ineffectual attempts to undermine him, Corbyn’s party enemies and their media friends have finally struck gold: someone’s actually done something wrong. And they are not going to let it go – the fact that it only benefits the Tories, even the fact that it was actually started by the Tories, means nothing beside the chance to get some hits in on the Left. In a dark moment I wondered if the attack on Naz Shah was actually planned as a set-up: take a young and inexperienced politician, pressurise her until she admits to what you want her to admit to, then sit back and wait for someone to walk into the trap of trying to defend her against unfair criticism (what do you mean, unfair? are you denying what she did? perhaps you’re the real problem…) If so, it succeeded beyond all expectations.

Pace Vaclav Havel, living in truth isn’t the power of the powerless. The power of the powerless is bullying somebody else powerless: for as long as you’re asking the questions, you’re the one in charge. But by the same token, a bully is someone who can’t get what he or she really wants. Don’t get angry with John Mann, feel sorry for him. (He’d hate that.)

This land is my land

I’ll end this overlong and overdue post with a couple of rays of hope, interspersed with something that doesn’t look like one at all: gloom sandwich. The first is the point I’ve just touched on: bullying considered as the power of the powerless. Bullying is horrible to endure – it has that obsessional, mouse-wheel quality of soaking up all your time and attention – but it’s not cost-free for the bully him- or herself; it takes up at least some of the bully’s time and attention, without actually getting them anywhere, or doing anything apart from disempowering the victim. Every bully has something they would much rather achieve – they would rather you would just shut up, or just not be there; it’s only because they can’t achieve that that they settle for bullying you. You don’t follow someone around, getting in his face and making a scene in public, if you can stop him saying what he’s saying; you don’t demand somebody clarify their position on X, their views of the implications of their position on X, their views on someone else’s interpretations of the implications of cont’d p. 94 if you can hold them to account for something they’ve actually done.

Not all the anti-Corbyn machinations can be described as bullying – some of them are much more serious (Jarvis, Reeves), as well as being much less noisy. But when you see a lot of people being relentlessly aggressive and unpleasant with no obvious goal or game plan, it’s worth considering that they’re being relentlessly aggressive and unpleasant because they’ve got no obvious goal or game plan. If they’re shouting at Corbyn, it’s because they can’t touch him: force an election and he’ll win again; try to change the rules and Corbyn’s supporters will block it. The only way Corbyn’s leadership of the party is going to end is if he resigns of his own accord – and bullying isn’t going to make that happen. (This is someone who’s been a politician since 1974; I think we can assume he’s developed a fairly thick skin over the years.) People like Mann – and their friends in the media – are making a noise for the sake of making a noise, because there’s nothing more effective that they can do.

But if Corbyn isn’t going to go away, neither is the issue that sparked all this off. Speaking as an ex-Zionist (long story, another time), I don’t think it will really do to say that 72% of British Jews identify as Zionists, therefore attacks on Zionism are tantamount to attacks on (most) British Jews. Zionism is a body of ideas, irrespective of how widely it’s held, and the expression of views opposed to it has to be legitimate. I’d hazard a guess that at least 72% of the population of Cheadle are staunch believers in capitalism, but we wouldn’t say that selling Socialist Worker in Cheadle should be banned because of the offence it might cause. (At least, I hope we wouldn’t.) At the same time, I don’t think it will really do to say that Zionism is just a body of ideas, or that Israel is just a nation state like any other. There’s an element of naivety – or even bad faith – in saying, in effect, “so 72% of British Jews identify as Zionists, so what?”. However much we might sympathise with the diasporist minority, however much we might wish there were more Bundists around, we need to recognise that support for the state of Israel – and investment in the dream of Zionism, as realised (however imperfectly) in the state of Israel – runs both broad and deep in the Jewish community. At the same time – coming back to my starting point – opposition to Zionism is a valid political position, and it’s one which is becoming increasingly vocal and visible. The two aren’t going to be reconciled by holding an inquiry or reaching an agreement on which terms can and can’t be used. On one side, support for a national home for a persecuted minority; on the other, opposition to an aggressive and unlawful occupying power. Nobody wants to oppose a national home for a persecuted minority, whatever Jonathan Freedland thinks, and I should hope that nobody wants to support an aggressive and unlawful occupying power, but avoiding both is harder than it sounds. (Note at the foot of Freedland’s piece: The illustration that originally accompanied this piece has been removed because it included a representation of the shape of Israel that failed to distinguish between Israel itself and the territories it has occupied since 1967.) There’s a real and intractable conflict here – which is only to be expected, considering that there’s a real and intractable conflict on the ground.

The good news (finally) is that, pace Freedland, this isn’t a conflict over the existence of the state of Israel – how could it be? – but over the direction of travel. (As political debate usually is.) Is Israel going to continue the direction of the last 49 years – more annexations, more settlements, more segregation, more collective punishment of the Palestinian people – or will there, finally, be a change of course? I’m optimistic; the strength of the international movement for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions is growing, and I don’t think it’ll be too long before Western governments see Israel very much as they saw South Africa in the 1980s – i.e. as a vital international ally which they continue to support in public, while recognising the need to put on the pressure behind closed doors. I think change is coming, and I suspect that when it does come it will come quite quickly. (1985: Thatcher describes sanctions against South Africa as a “tiny, tiny, tiny” concession to Commonwealth pressure. 1990: Mandela walks free.) So perhaps the bullying, illogic and assorted scenario-2 behaviour which so often accompanies accusations of anti-semitism is itself a sign of weakness (see also Fraser v UCU).

That’s all very well, but how am I going to fill the next two hours?

Here are some of the better pieces on the Livingstone brouhaha. I’m going to list them in date order, for simplicity and also to track how the story developed. I’m not going to defend every statement in every one of them (why would I?), but I do pretty much agree with everything in this list & think it’s worth reading – which isn’t the case for some of the stuff linked in the body of the post.

25th April
Open Democracy, “New accusations of antisemitism thrown at the left are flimsy”
Jamie Stern-Weiner on the Oxford University Labour Club and NUS anti-semitism stories. (Guido Fawkes exposed Naz Shah’s two-year-old Facebook post the following day.)

27th April
Open Democracy, “Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t got an ‘antisemitism problem’. His opponents do.”
Jamie Stern-Weiner provides a comprehensive overview of incidents of Labour Party anti-semitism, real and fabricated. Essential background reading.

28th April
Electronic Intifada, “How Israel lobby manufactured UK Labour Party’s anti-Semitism crisis”
Asa Winstanley goes into detail on the roots of the Oxford University Labour Club story.
Leninology, “The ‘anti-semitism’ panic”
Leninology, “Pitch forks at the ready”
Richard Seymour has been all over this from early on. The second of these pieces responds to Ken Livingstone’s intervention.
Guardian, “The elephant in the room in Labour’s antisemitism row”
By Keith Kahn-Harris; one of the few really worthwhile MSM pieces on all of this.

29th April
Open Democracy, “The multiple truths of the Labour antisemitism story”
Really excellent piece by Adam Ramsay – essential reading.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Ken Livingstone: gobshite yes, anti-semite no”
Does what it says on the tin.

30th April
Leninology, “Where the twain meet”
Richard Seymour does some serious thinking about anti-Zionism and anti-semitism.
lives; running, “The friends I want to have, and the friends I don’t”
Thoughtful, personal piece by Dave Renton.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Jonathan Freedland’s plea”
An acerbic, evidence-based response to Freedland.

1st May
Crooked Timber, “Antisemitism in the Labour Party – what’s going on?”
Long, thoughtful, considered piece from Dan Davies – essential reading. Even the comment thread went well to begin with.

3rd May
Whitey on the Moon, “Our Plea to Jonathan Freedland: Treat Israel As You Would Any Other Colonial State”
Excellent counter-argument to Freedland’s ‘plea’.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Labour’s phoney ‘anti-semitism’ scandal: the liars behind the lies”
Jamie has a go at Dan Hodges and Hugo Rifkind. Particularly interesting for the comments, in which Rifkind has a go right back.
Leninology, “Yes, it is a witch-hunt”
“no one is ‘innocent’, all of us have been politically impure. So the existence of real problems, where they exist, may provide the occasion or raw material for a witch-hunt, but it is not its point, and it is not a justification”
Open Democracy, “The American Jewish scholar behind Labour’s ‘antisemitism’ scandal breaks his silence”
Jamie Stern-Weiner interviews Norman Finkelstein. Essential reading.

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One Trackback

  1. By Mr In Between « The gaping silence on 14 August 2016 at 23:36

    […] we can do is recognise it, and – perhaps – learn to ignore it, treating it as a form of bullying; reasoned rebuttals take time and energy, and it’s not as if most of the people saying these […]

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