Author Archives: Phil

I’ll Show You The Life Of The Mind

This account of an awful Oxford interview got a lot of attention recently. The process it describes is not so much an interview in any recognisable sense as a kind of upper-class hazing ritual, beginning with the bizarre seating arrangements

There are three people in the room; a woman is lying on a chaise longue by the door and, standing in the corner a man with a black moustache and curly hair, who I discover is the admissions tutor … There is an empty chair in the room, which when I sit makes me higher than everyone else, and behind this chair, slouched against a bookshelf, sits another man.

and continuing through the ‘shocking’, ‘outlandish’ questions thrown out to challenge the unsuspecting candidate

‘Why do you think people listen to the radio?’

This at least is a question I know the answer to …

“Erm, because they’re lonely.”

She smirks. Naive again, but what else should I say?

“So do you think that the radio should be under the auspices of the Social Services then?”

That kind of “épater les bienpensants” right-wingery seems an even clearer class marker than the chaise longue.

It rang a bell with Adam, even if his experience wasn’t quite so grotesquely awful:

 

For myself, I was warned by my English teachers that Oxbridge interviews were both tough and weird, with a kind of toughness and weirdness you might expect from gatekeepers of hundreds of years of privilege. One Cambridge interviewer supposedly used to sit reading the paper with his feet up on his desk, then glance across at the candidate and say, “Impress me”. My English teachers liked a good story – one of them specialised in stories beginning “When I was in the diplomatic corps” or “When I was in the SAS” – but even they never suggested that a college admissions interview might be conducted partly from behind the interviewee and partly from a chaise longue. Truth is stranger than fiction.

And yet. Perhaps the people I met at Cambridge had all been unusually lucky, but all that my wife recalls is a fairly ordinary office, with chairs at the same height, and a reasonably relaxed conversation (as much as it could be) about Macbeth’s moral universe, with a rather posh but friendly old man. (She’d applied to Cambridge as a lower sixth-form student at a college in Preston.) My best friend at the time had a slightly harder time of it; his specialist topic was Keats, and he’d armed himself with several quotations from the “Ode to Autumn” – which he confidently sourced to the “Ode to Melancholy”. He didn’t help his case, when the interviewer politely suggested that they turn to the “Ode to Autumn”, by insisting that it was the “Ode to Melancholy” he wanted to talk about. Still, he got in too. Me, I didn’t have an interview – I never found out whether it was in recognition of my performance in the college entrance exam or just an oversight.

Several years later – clearly – our children both applied to either Oxford or Cambridge, and they both experienced pretty much the kind of interview that Oxbridge colleges tell the world that they administer: friendly but persistent questioning, drawing the student out to the limit of their existing knowledge, then pushing them a bit further and seeing how they coped. The main difference from our time was that they each had two or three separate interviews, mostly with more than one person. One thought the interviews mostly went all right, one thought two of them were fine but the last was a car-crash; one got a place, one didn’t. (Not necessarily in that order.) But neither of them was scorned, deliberately humiliated, exposed to ridicule or ambushed in any way.

But I wouldn’t want to end the story there. Take that college entrance exam: I got in on, among other things,

  • an essay on doubled perspectives in Wuthering Heights (which I had just read)
  • an essay on Shakespeare based on Wyndham Lewis’s The Lion and the Fox (which I had just read)
  • an essay on late-Romantic poetry, focused entirely on Edward Lear

My method, in other words, was

  1. Read a lot (at the last minute)
  2. Come up with some mad idea that people may not have thought of
  3. Follow through said idea, taking it completely seriously

The first message I got from Cambridge was that this was in fact the way to do it – and that it was quite in order for me to value the ability to work this way, because Cambridge valued it too. This was also one of the last messages I got from Cambridge. My single best paper in Part II, at the end of third year, was the one where I compared a passage in Melville’s The Confidence Man (a character struggles to convey the precise meaning of the word ‘certain’) with a passage in one of D. H. Lawrence’s essays on American literature (Lawrence struggles with the word ‘nature’); in the same paper I made use of quotations from two separate essays which I’d only read on the morning of the exam (Eliot on Henry James and Henry James on Thoreau). I had fun.

So there was a certain[sic] amount of “Owl Post” about being admitted to Cambridge, for me, and an element of “sorted into Ravenclaw” on top of that; there was a feeling that, now that I was in, I no longer needed to conceal or apologise for the stuff I was interested in or the way my mind worked. What I did have to do was demonstrate that I could get results – and then demonstrate it all over again. Over the three years we were expected to work at a pretty high level, with little or no supervision, and to put in fairly Herculean amounts of reading. Typically you’d be given two weeks to write an essay on an author and then left to your own devices; the first step was to read everything they’d written, or have a good stab at it. A friend who was ‘doing’ Hardy was advised by his supervisor to swerve Jude and Tess and begin with a book neither of us had so much as heard of, A Laodicean. (He said he’d discovered that it was actually the first book in a trilogy – A Laodicean, A Quiet Icean and A Completely Silent Icean.) Given that that was how ‘Cambridge’ worked, the college entrance exam that we took – and, perhaps, the interview too – could be justified as a way of selecting for people who could work, and thrive, under those conditions.

But there was more to ‘Cambridge’ than that. On one hand, what you’d been selected for, or sorted into, wasn’t just an environment where you could get intellectual work done without distractions (although it certainly was that). It was a wealthy and luxurious environment, making it a privileged setting in itself; and it was also, unavoidably, a setting for the maintenance and reproduction of privilege in other forms. On the other hand, in a setting where studiousness and creativity are the price of admission, studiousness and creativity are weirdly undervalued: to stand out you needed to be really good, or else you needed something else to trade on. Flash helped; ‘front’ and a certain amount of extroversion helped; boundless self-confidence helped. (See above, ‘reproduction of privilege in other forms’.)

In the absence of those things you’d find yourself, sooner or later, relegated to the B team – and, labelling processes being what they are, once you were in that position it was hard to think your way out of it, or even to maintain the intellectual self-confidence that had got you that far. One of the English Fellows at my college was notorious among my friends for her unapologetic division of sheep from goats; several of our essays were damned with the faint praise of ‘solid’ (which, as the term wore on, she alternated with ‘stolid’). She was much more impressed by another student’s twenty-minute presentation on food in Shakespeare, which was mainly devoted to exploring the psychic resonances of food and eating through lengthy quotations from Lévi-Strauss and Melanie Klein, touching base with Shakespeare by way of what sounded like a trolley-dash through a concordance (“Come, let’s to dinner” – Henry IV Part II).

It’s odd how intimidating ‘front’ can be – particularly when the person with the front is succeeding and you’re watching them do it. Thinking of that presentation now, I think “lots of reading, check; mad idea, check; follow it through, check” – it’s not as if I didn’t know how the trick was done (see above re: Melville). At the time I felt thoroughly outclassed and resented it deeply: if I’d known that was what you wanted, I would have – well, I couldn’t have done that, obviously, but… I’d never felt overshadowed by the more ‘popular’ kids at school – I always felt that I was a roaring success at being me, and all I lacked was wider recognition of this accomplishment. At Cambridge, quite a large part of what I valued about being me was put in the scales, weighed and found… fine. Absolutely fine. Nothing wrong with it. Solid. Stolid, even. (What would a stolid essay even look like? Not that I’ve borne a grudge for the best part of 40 years or anything…)

By the end of first year Cambridge’s original, welcoming message to me

  1. It’s good to think the way you do, and care about the things you care about.
  2. There is a place where thinking the way you do is valued, and you’ve reached it.

had mutated into something less benign:

  1. It’s good to think the way you do, and care about the things you care about.
  2. There is a place where thinking the way you do is valued; not only valued, in fact, but rewarded with luxury and privilege. But it’s not for you.

By the time I graduated, I sincerely and straightforwardly believed all of this, and didn’t even think of returning to higher education for another ten years. (It wasn’t unusual to give up on the Life of the Mind after three years of Cambridge English, if the group of twelve I studied with were anything to go by; only three or four of us went on to further study, and out of those only one was actually studying English.) In the longer term I was left with two antagonistic – but complementary – convictions, both equally baleful: the conviction that somewhere out there, perhaps behind a green door in a sixteenth-century wall, is my ideal career, a career consisting almost entirely of deep academic thought; and the conviction that I personally don’t deserve anything like that and will never see it. (The last of these is almost certainly correct, of course.)

I don’t think that Oxford and Cambridge are just like any other university in terms of teaching, or that their students are no different from other students; I think that they genuinely promote high-quality academic work and that their admissions processes genuinely favour people with the ability to do it. But I also think that they do a lot more than promote high-quality academic work, and that they select for a lot more than academic ability – with the result that, if academic ability is your only strong suit, Oxbridge may make promises it doesn’t intend to keep. So I sympathise with everyone who didn’t get through admissions – everyone who was repulsed (in either sense of the word) by a selection process which was also a rejection process – but I also think that getting in was a mixed blessing for me. The selection process didn’t stop when I got in.

 

 

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Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (5 of 5)

Do you know how tall he was?
Because that’s all that really matters
Do you know his mother’s last name?
Don’t you think that he’s divine?
You’ve seen the film, you’ve read the book,
You’re drinking vintage Elvis Presley wine
– Elvis Costello, “Useless thing” (from the sadly underrated Goodbye Cruel World)

THE STORY SO FAR: six main ‘plot strands’ have been identified in the ‘Harry Potter’ ‘series’. But is that all there is to it? And what has it got to do with the ‘brass tacks’ approach to fantasy? All will be revealed, hopefully.

There are, as we were saying, a whole series of plot lines in the Potter books:

  1. The Cinderella Factor (the cupboard under the stairs and how Harry escaped it)
  2. The Power Of Love (Lily’s sacrifice and its longer-term effects)
  3. Handsome Devil (Lily and Snape and Lily and James and Sirius and Snape and Lily)
  4. Noblesse Oblige (how the Malfoys (nearly) got in too deep)
  5. We’ve Got A File On You (the Ministry of Magic and how Harry very nearly didn’t escape it)
  6. We Could Rule The World (young Dumbledore and his special best friend)

The nobility of victimhood, I think, is the red thread that runs through plots ##1, 2, 3 and 5, contrasting with plot #6 (the false nobility of mastery) and to some extent with #4 (the false nobility of aristocracy). To put it another way, plot #1 – the Matilda plot, which appeared to have been shelved by the time Harry got to Hogwarts – is the master plot of the whole series: Harry is the victim who triumphs. More specifically, Harry is the sacrificial victim who triumphs by embracing his own sacrifice – and triumphs thanks to the strength he draws from the sacrifice of others, who had themselves each embraced their own sacrifice (first Lily, then Dumbledore, then Snape).

Celebrations of noble sacrifice are an awkward, self-contradictory thing in life: the person who did the noble deed isn’t there, while the people celebrating haven’t done anything. I tend to think self-sacrifice is overrated, both as a motivation and as an achievement; I firmly believe that Emily Davison intended to go home after the Derby, and I wonder if her death really gained the WSPU more than she would have given it in another five, ten or fifteen years of activism. (Clarence doesn’t tell George Bailey about all the people he could have inspired by dying heroically.) Even in the world of Potter, the canonical nobility of sacrifice is qualified by its uncertain effect: Lily’s death keeps Harry alive, but the only person who benefits directly from either Snape’s death or Dumbledore’s is Voldemort. (And if the magic of Lily’s love for her child was as powerful as all that – effectively rebounding on Voldemort not once but twice – you have to wonder why Voldemort’s curse couldn’t just have rebounded off her the first time round; it would have saved an awful lot of trouble.) Moreover, in the character of Snape Rowling comes uncomfortably close to endorsing the position that sacrificing one’s own conscience, so as to commit evil deeds for the sake of the greater good [sic], can be a form of self-sacrifice – a line of argument which rather uncomfortably evokes Himmler.

Nevertheless, I think this is the core logic of the books: Dumbledore as a willing victim, compromised by his thirst for power, but redeemed by his faith in Harry; Snape as a willing victim, compromised by being a Death Eater but redeemed by his love for Lily; Lily as a pure willing victim, ennobled by her love for Harry; and Harry as the Willing Victim Who Lived, mistreated by everyone from Aunt Marge to Lord Voldemort, but ultimately buoyed up by all that love and faith. The extraordinary range and variety of people who bully Harry also makes sense in this context: what else do the Dursleys, Draco Malfoy, Dolores Umbridge, Rita Skeeter and Rufus Scrimgeour have in common?

I suggested earlier that, although a lot of fantasy looks as if it’s set in a type-1 world – “here’s my made-up world, here’s a map and here are some stories set in it” – in practice successful fantasy worlds tend to fall into types 2 and 3, the ‘numinous’ and the ‘parasitic’. Both of these, in different ways, are animated by the aim of reflecting the world we know: ‘numinous’ worlds are about the meaning of life, ‘parasitic’ worlds are about how to run a country. (Earthsea is full of maps, but plainly numinous; Discworld has its own history, sort of, but it’s fundamentally parasitic.) I also suggested that even type-4 worlds – bodged-up, inconsistent worlds, like Narnia and the Potterverse – may turn out to have an animating goal, which in turn could be numinous/religious or parasitic/political; at least, Narnia certainly does, and its world-building is as bodged-up as you like.

I wonder now if, thanks to my starting-point with Tolkien and Lewis, I defined the category of the ‘numinous’ too narrowly; perhaps you can use fantasy to ask what life is ultimately like without involving religion, or anything like it. Consider the Moomin books: an awful lot of those stories are precisely about what life is like. What life is like, they tell us, is ‘sad’ – but, crucially, sad in different ways: you can be sad like Moomintroll because your friend’s gone away, or like the Muskrat because you’ve chosen the wrong personal philosophy, or like Moominpappa because you feel that you’ve done everything, or like the Hemulen because you have done everything (that you could think of), or like the Fillyjonk because nobody appreciates the effort you make just to hold it together, or like the Groke because you’ve got a chip of ice in your heart that nothing will ever melt. And all of those different sadnesses can lift, and give way to different forms of happiness, even if only temporarily. (Sometimes the Fillyjonk dances; even the Groke dances, once.) Or you can be like Tooticky, keep yourself to yourself, take one day at a time and not fuss about sadness.

Similarly, perhaps, with Potter and victimisation (a word which here means both ‘the process of being made a victim’ and ‘being picked on and bullied’). That ticklish focus-pulling between mundane and metaphorical levels of description – that sense that what you’re reading both does and doesn’t have a deeper meaning – is seen most clearly in the depiction of Harry as a victim. Is Harry’s endless suffering at the hands of his various tormentors an ordeal to be borne with dignity – and for which he’ll receive a corresponding reward somewhere down the line – or is he just a teenage boy having a really rough time of it? (A rich, athletic and nationally famous teenage boy having a rough time, admittedly. It must have been awful for him.) Come to that, was Dumbledore’s death pointless – or Snape’s? Or does each man’s embrace of self-sacrifice endow his death with power and virtue, thanks to some wrinkle in the magical scenery? Right to the end, it’s never entirely clear. (At the very end, of course, we learn that Harry has named his first child after both Snape and Dumbledore – but that doesn’t answer the question, so much as rephrase it in the form Is that all there is?) Those two things – the glory and honour of the ‘noble victim’ motif, together with the knowledge that being a victim is horrible and the never-quite-staunched suspicion that it actually gets you nothing but pain – may account for a lot of the appeal of Potter. Just as the Moomin books are a meditation on life’s sadnesses, the Potter books are a misery memoir.

But this brings us back to the sheer strangeness of the prevalence of brass-tacks interpretations of Potter; nobody treats the world of the Moomins as if it were real, after all. Why is it that, if I go looking for discussion of Dolores Umbridge, the first (and second, and third) thing I find is an elaborate fictional back-story for this fictional character, complete with her mother’s maiden name and her age when her parents’ marriage broke up? And not, for example, a reference to Eichmann in Jerusalem or “In the Penal Colony”; or a discussion of that name (“Pain, Indignation”); or a debate about how successfully JKR walks the line between disgust at a female character’s play-acting of a sexist role and sexist disgust at a female character’s play-acting. (Not a new question, that last one. “Let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come”…) I could also ask why, when I finally do find literary parallels being evoked on one of these pages, they aren’t Shakespeare or Kafka but Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death and Toy Story 3, but that’s a slightly different discussion.

The only parallel I can find for Potter fandom’s investment in the reality of ‘their’ world is Tolkien fandom. Perhaps that’s all there is by way of an explanation; perhaps literalist fandom is just the kind of thing that happens when you have a story which focuses on ordinary characters making a big difference to the world, written by an author who’s keen to fill in the background. I’m not sure; I think the differences between the two worlds, and the kind of detail that the respective fans invest in, are too great for us to conclude that Potter fans are doing the same kind of thing as TLOTR fans.

Pedantic digression on abbreviations.
I keep having to remind myself to write TLOTR instead of the more familiar abbreviation LOTR. But the trilogy is called The Lord of the Rings for a reason. It’s not about the general idea that, if there were some important Rings, there might be such a role as Lord of same; it’s about the Lord of the Rings – and how he was defeated. I wonder what the vastly greater uptake of “LOTR” as an abbreviation – 119 million hits for LOTR without TLOTR, 96 thousand for TLOTR without LOTR – signifies.

Moving along… There’s a big difference between investing in the reality of Middle Earth and investing in the reality of the Potterverse. Getting back to our typology of world-building, Middle Earth is very much type 2; the world-building is numinous with a capital Nu. The reality you’re committing to, if you immerse yourself in the Tyler Companion or pore over Tolkien’s own maps (those mountains! that lettering!), is a reality that is always already metaphorical, a world in which (what are basically) angels do centuries-long battle with (someone who’s basically) Lucifer. The entire story of The Lord of the Rings apparently began with the tale of Aragorn and Arwen, which itself began with Tolkien’s fascination with the seemingly paradoxical idea that an eternal being (whether Arwen or God) might feel genuine love for a here-today, gone-tomorrow mortal (whether Aragorn or… you and me). This in turn grew out of Tolkien’s personal experience of the paradox of death – that the death of a parent, a lover, a friend is the one thing that we can be absolutely certain will happen to that person, and yet is experienced as an unbearable, earth-shattering tragedy, the one thing we could never have prepared for. (Cue the Daniel Handler quote: “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.”)

Put all that together and you have a view of the world – this world as well as Middle Earth – sub specie aeternitatis. Ahab: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.” Ahab, admittedly, was crazy – and I’m not too sure about Herman Melville – but I think there’s something of this philosophy in Tolkien, and perhaps in any Christian author. (This world is certainly a ‘pasteboard mask’ in the Narnia books – but ultimately so is Narnia. Further up and further in!) The facts of everyday life, in this way of thinking, are a mundane backdrop, temporarily shielding us from a story that’s told in much bigger terms – the joy of absolute love, the threat of absolute loss; and that story, even though we only have access to it in rare and heightened moments, is our story, the story of our lives. I’m not saying all that is on every page of TLOTR, but it is in there somewhere. And it follows that to say you believe in the reality of Middle Earth is also to say you believe in life and death, good and evil, God and… certain tendencies to turn away from God. Big stuff.

Potter, not so much. The glory (or is it?) of the ennobling (or is it?) experience of victimisation (it definitely is) is the sore tooth that the Potter books keep going back to prod. But this cluster of ideas doesn’t really have any resolution; it only leads to savouring the put-upon wretchedness of being a victim, on one hand, and the vindictive pleasure of being a victor on the other. We aren’t brought up short by the sublime – confronted with something that exceeds anywhere that the hero, or the story, can go, in the same way that meeting God exceeds anything we can think and meeting death (or the Lady of the Cold) exceeds anything we can do. Rather, we’re left playing through an unresolved emotional conflict, with an endgame that reverses the players’ positions but leaves the conflict itself in place. Was everything Harry endured really necessary, or were people like Aunt Marge and Pansy Parkinson just really nasty to him? (And even if his suffering was necessary, did Dumbledore have any right to put him through it?) At the end of the series, does happiness reign, with people like Umbridge being punished appropriately, or has life returned to normal, with arrogant snobs like Draco Malfoy still contriving to fast-track their kids? If Umbridge is being tormented in Azkaban, is that something we can or should feel happy about? If Draco is still, well, Draco, is that something to feel unhappy about? There’s a satisfaction in playing it through, watching our hero repeatedly getting sand kicked in his face and then, eventually, turning the tables – especially when he tricks the system, turning the tables by being an especially good victim. But satisfaction isn’t resolution; there can be no resolution, because both sides of the opposition – victimhood and victory – are themselves impure, un-worked-through, unresolved. In short, an alternative title for Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass is Harry Potter and the Compulsion of Repetition. We have to keep going back to that world, and taking it on its own terms, for much the same reason that JKR keeps going back to it – because it’s not done yet. Another detail, another supporting character, another back-story plot-twist, another retcon, and it’ll be finished, perhaps… But it never will – or not without a change of narrative gear that would make the shift from The Subtle Knife to The Amber Spyglass look trivial.

Harry Potter will never approach the higher planes of meaning – big ideas entertained in tranquillity – frequented by Aslan, and Elrond, and Granny Weatherwax and Tooticky. The crushing revelation in book 7 that even Dumbledore was never really above the game – that he was a player, just as much as Rufus Scrimgeour or Narcissa Malfoy – eliminated that possibility. There is no good and evil in Potter, only people who dedicate themselves to the cause of good, or the cause of evil, with smaller or larger degrees of self-doubt and smaller or larger degrees of self-deception. Indeed, there’s a strong suggestion that those who don’t doubt themselves are deceiving themselves, and vice versa – Umbridge vs Dumbledore, Bellatrix vs Narcissa: “the best lack all conviction”, while the worst lack insight and honesty. What this means, though, is that both sides are impure; both can (perhaps) be forgiven for the bad, or condemned for their good, they try to do. It also means that the sublimity of death and glory is, for the most part, out of bounds; there is no noble victory and no obliterating defeat, only people fighting in the name of good things and people fighting in the name of bad things. We know how this goes: they’ll win, and lose, and win, and lose. Harry Potter will get knocked down, but then he’ll get up again. And then he’ll get knocked down, but then he’ll get up again.

Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (4 of 5)

THE STORY SO FAR: four different types of world-building have been identified – the “nuts and bolts” without any underlying message, the “numinous”, the “parasitic” (political/satirical/utopian/etc) and #4, “bits of all of the above”. On further reflection some type #4 worlds have been found to be asking numinous questions, suggesting it’s not the world-building itself that matters so much as what the world-building is about. What of Potter?

What are the Harry Potter books about? The apparent thematic unity and continuity of the seven books seems to mask a whole series of overlapping stories, introduced, developed, suspended and resumed at different stages. In order of appearance:

  1. The Cinderella Factor. A mistreated orphan turns out to have magical powers beyond the comprehension of his surrogate parents, who can never hurt him again (although they do go on annoying him for quite a while). Book 1 (mostly)
  2. The Power Of Love. He survived because of his mother’s death! She died because of love – and her death gave him the power of love! His killer couldn’t kill him – but by trying to kill him, he put the power of evil in him! But he in turn put the power of love (which he had because of his mother’s sacrifice) in his killer, which means that if he dies (properly) then his killer will be killed too! But the power of love will actually keep him alive (again), because… well, anyway. That. Love, sacrifice, death; love, sacrifice, death… love. Books 1, 2 and 7 (mostly set up by the end of book 2)
  3. Handsome Devil. She was an ordinary girl – with a talent that could turn heads! Soon there were two guys interested in her, both with aristocratic backgrounds; one was a shy intellectual whose family had fallen on hard times, the other a popular athlete. The athlete was wealthy and well-connected as well as being popular, but he was also an arrogant bully – could they really be happy together? There was only one way to find out! Later, she heard that the shy intellectual guy had gone to the bad, but she always thought he had a good heart. She wondered if he ever thought about her. Books 3-7
  4. Noblesse Oblige. Their position had been sadly misunderstood. They didn’t bear anyone any malice; they simply wanted things to be the way they used to be, and a little respect for the position they rightfully occupied. These new campaigners had seemed to have the interests of people like them at heart. How were they to know that they were signing up for hatred, violence, thuggery and all round bad manners? One really did find it all quite regrettable. Books 4-7
  5. We’ve Got A File On You (incorporating Harry Potter In The Penal Colony). Who can our hero trust? His friends – perhaps – but nobody else: not the government, not the authorities which do the government’s bidding, not the press which dances to the government’s tune, not the elites who pull the government’s strings behind the scenes, and definitely not the government. Everyone (literally everyone, even his so-called friends) is out to stop him doing what he has to do – sometimes because they’re evil, sometimes because they’re stupid, but mostly because they still trust the government. Wake up, people! Books 5-6
  6. We Could Rule The World. They were young! They ran green! They kept their t… sorry, I’ll start again. They were young! They were powerful! They were finding out new things about themselves and the world – and each other! If they realised their capabilities, what could stand in their way? Not the law, not the rules made to bind inferior people, not death itself! How could it go wrong? Book 7

##2 and 3 are the main plot lines here; #1, #5 and #6 are mostly localised to one book each, and #4 is very much a sub-plot. #1 is a fine plot for a kids’ book (specifically, this one), but it was never going to sustain a seven-book series. Neither was #2 – as (by all accounts) Rowling discovered herself towards the end of the second book, when she realised that she’d basically set the scene for the final confrontation. (It’s worth mentioning here that the initial working title for book 2 was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.) An awful lot of the plotting of the rest of the books is driven by #3, the past-tense Lily/James/Snape plot, together with its satellite Snape/Lupin, Snape/Sirius and Snape/Dumbledore sub-plots; these plots are remarkable in that almost every event in them is told in flashback, including several events that had taken place within the time of the books. The same goes for most of #6, the Young Dumbledore plot, which is further reduced in intensity by being told mostly in hints and asides – but then, its overtones of gay fascist occultism would probably have overbalanced the book if it had been built up more. (That said, the pay-off of the entire series comes with the climactic collision of plots ##2 and 6 – and it is nicely done and genuinely powerful.)

As for the other two, plot #4 – the Malfoys’ sub-plot – is interesting but under-powered and woefully under-developed. From the moment that the school house of Slytherin was introduced – fairly early in the first book – Rowling was faced with a series of questions about “Slytherins”:

  • Are they all devious, self-centred law-breakers? (Not like Harry and his friends, eh readers?)
  • Are they all personally arrogant and cruel?
  • Are they all from ‘old wizarding families’ and proud of it?
  • In fact, are they all massive snobs and (wizarding-equivalent-of-)racists?
  • More specifically, are they all enemies to Harry and Dumbledore?
  • Crucially, are they all going to abandon Hogwarts when push comes to shove?

Given the plot mechanics set up in the first book, the answer to the first question pretty much had to be Yes, but the answers to the next three didn’t need to be as uniform as they are (viz. “yeah, pretty much”) – and the answers to the last two certainly didn’t need to be a resounding Yes. (Or “Yes, with one solitary exception, who may (in the words of Dumbledore himself) have been Sorted too early”.)

Plot #4 – “aristocrats belatedly regret involvement with reactionary thugs” – enlivens the seventh book in particular, and it’s certainly believable; it has a nice Third Reich quality to it, if that’s not too odd a phrase. But glimpses of human sentiment and human weakness at Malfoy Manor are thin gruel as far as addressing the Problem of Slytherin goes. After all, the Problem of Slytherin is ultimately the Problem of Good and Evil – if you’re born with an inclination to arrogance and selfishness, are you bound to go to the bad, or can you become a good person by doing the right things? To put it another way, if you have evil within you, can you save yourself through deeds, or will your own actions inevitably drag you further down? The books tend to suggest that bad people do bad things and good people good things, and that’s that; Slytherins are pretty much damned, while Dumbledore’s Army represents the Elect (hi Ken!). But the theology of Potter doesn’t bear too much examining, if only because the books’ uneasily post-Christian framing (“God rest ye merry hippogriffs”, indeed) has given us a world in which evil is definitely real but divine grace isn’t. The books’ only firm suggestion is that you can save yourself through an act of will, at the age of eleven, by talking to a hat. (Yes, I know it’s a special hat.)

Plot #5, lastly, is just weird, particularly from an author with Rowling’s background and politics. When Half-Blood Prince came out, an American legal academic wrote what purported to be a review of the book; the article’s titled “Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy”, and it traces a right-Libertarian critique of government through the series. It can be argued, using positions deriving from “public choice” theory and/or the Law and Economics school, that the main function of government in contemporary society is the perpetuation of a caste of government bureaucrats, parasitic on the real productive forces in society; that these bureaucrats’ main aim in life is to preserve their role and their importance; and that interacting with government bureaucracy in any way is likely to be a negative experience, with outcomes ranging from time-wasting up to licensed theft, imprisonment and murder. The “Half-Crazed Bureaucracy” article shows how well these criticisms map onto Rowling’s portrayal of the Ministry of Magic and its representatives; it then goes through the defences that are put up against such a negative view of government, showing that Rowling’s narrative demolishes every one of them. Is government bureaucracy just a thin layer of professionals implementing democratically-decided policy? Plainly not: Dolores Umbridge has all but unlimited power and exercises it as she pleases. Can bureaucracy be reined in by democratic political accountability? by judicial oversight? by the press and public opinion? No on all counts: there is no democracy in the wizarding world (Fudge and Scrimgeour are appointed, not elected, although it’s far from clear who did the appointing). The courts are represented by the blatantly rigged Wizengamot – and wizarding public opinion, despite all the magical fact-finding resources that its members might be expected to have at their command, is routinely whipped in whichever direction the government chooses by the hopelessly untrustworthy Daily Prophet. The Ministry of Magic is judge (Fudge), jury (Wizengamot) and executioner (Umbridge), all in one. If all else fails – as, in book 5, all evidently has – will the dedication and professionalism of individual government servants enable them to resist the corruption of office and protect the public from their less scrupulous colleagues? Hardly: with only one exception, every Ministry of Magic employee we meet is a sycophantic careerist, an amoral hack or an outright fascist, and the exception is the likeable but ineffectual Arthur Weasley.

In short, by the time Harry has met – and been disappointed by – Rufus Scrimgeour, the Ministry of Magic has been utterly discredited, and discredited quite specifically by subjecting it to the narrative equivalent of a thoroughgoing right-Libertarian critique. Which, as I say, is a bit weird, knowing what we know about Rowling. The author of the article – who didn’t – notes that Rowling (a) lived on benefits for a while before (b) becoming mind-bogglingly successful by her own efforts, and concludes that she probably believes in individual self-help and hates the government bureaucracy which mistreated her and other welfare claimants; he further suggests that a Libertarian, anti-government mood was on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic at the time of writing (viz. the mid-2000s), citing in evidence an article suggesting that Tony Blair’s government was declining in popularity. The fact that it wasn’t government in general that was unpopular in Britain, but quite specifically that government, escapes him – as does the even more inconvenient fact that Rowling was and remains one of that government’s more prominent supporters. But that just makes this plotline, and the passion which appears to have gone into it, all the more baffling.

NEXT: so what is it all about, then?

Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (3 of 5)

THE STORY SO FAR: a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the Potter books has led to a typology of world-building, including a frankly undisciplined digression into the mechanics of the Discworld series. Back to Potter…

Rowling’s world-building in the Potter books isn’t a weak form of nuts-and-bolts world-building, or of numinous, alt-religious world-building, or of satirical or polemical world-building. It’s type #4: a hazy amalgam of all three, covered by repeated register-switching between them – snatches of magical history or supernatural zoology here, mystical invocations of Love and Courage and Sacrifice there, broad satire of bureaucracy and the press over yonder. Hence also the continual revelation of new plot-mechanical devices throughout the seven books – and beyond. By the time you’ve finished the series, it seems a miracle that anyone ever gets anything done in the Potterverse: the combination of Apparating, the Floo network, the Imperius curse, Polyjuice Potion, Felix Felicis and Time Turners would seem to create endless opportunities for common-or-garden crime, never mind more elaborate shenanigans involving conspiracies to corrupt and subvert. On the other hand, most of those things would make life a lot easier for the police – who would also find it very useful to be able to invade other people’s minds and extract their memories for permanent, world-readable storage – so I suppose it would all balance out.

If the magic is over-cranked, everything that isn’t magic is underpowered, dimly-lit, thin. The main currency is common-or-garden gold (arbitrage much?); children are educated from the age of eleven without any exposure to science, mathematics, English literature or foreign languages; and the very language of magic itself is… Latin. But not just Latin; it’s Latin with errors.

Brief digression on Latin with errors
David Langford suggested that the innermost sanctum of the Department of Mysteries is given over to the book of ultimate power in the Potterverse: a Latin dictionary. It’s a nice idea, but in fact Latin on its own wouldn’t get you very far. It’s true that “crucio” means, precisely, “I torture”, while “confringo” and “impero” [without an i] are close to their ‘wizard’ equivalents, translating as “I shatter [something]” and “I command [someone]” respectively. Similarly, “exspecto patronum” means “I await a protector”, while “sectum semper” roughly translates as “[something that’s been] permanently cut”. I remember a character in a kids’ book explaining his sudden fluency in Italian by saying that he already spoke Spanish, and “if you relax your shoulders and think about spaghetti Spanish sort of turns into Italian”. Speaking as a part-time Italianist may I just say, No, it really doesn’t – but if you don’t look anything up and stop stressing about the details, Latin does sort of turn into spell-language. But only ‘sort of’. “Expellimus” [without the ar] has nothing to do with one person disarming another, as it means “we drive [something] out” – and I can’t do anything at all with “wingardium leviosa”. Never mind the W (or the word ‘wing’ for that matter); never mind that ‘leviosa’ seems to be formed by bolting an adjectival suffix (-osus) onto another adjective (“levis” = “light”); just look at the word-endings. Is that -ium a neuter singular or a non-standard genitive plural? Either way, what’s it doing with that -a? Similarly, “prior incantato” is Latin, and a possible sentence fragment, although it doesn’t quite mean what Rowling wants it to – “the previous person [who did something] with the enchanted thing [is doing something]”? – but “priori incantatem” just… isn’t. The lack of grammatical agreement is painful once you notice it. Rowling’s recent announcement that not every person in animal form was an Animagus – that there was another, hitherto unsuspected form of theromorph, the Maledictus (“maledictus” = “cursed man”) – was irksome enough for anyone who dislikes the smell of wet paint; her subsequent observation that “Maledictuses are always female” was the grammatical icing on the cake.

It’s bodged, it’s slapdash, it’s thrown-together, it’s (perhaps surprisingly) not where the author’s heart is.

Compare A Wizard of Earthsea: everything in that book is about the journey of the young man at its centre, a man discovering his power, overestimating his strength and finding wisdom by coming face to face with his own death. It’s numinous world-building, a world built around the humming magic of a single big story. There is a nuts-and-bolts element to it, but it’s reined in; there are maps (and what maps!) but you only really care about the islands for the part they play in Ged’s story – and for the sneaking sense that other islands are the setting for other stories, just as meaningful and compelling as the one you’re reading. The message of the book pervades its world-building; the whole book sings.

The Potter books are nothing like that. They aren’t even very much like the Narnia books, which seem to offer a closer parallel: the evolving Narnia series exhibits a similar kind of wild fertility and reckless pluralism, and a similar tendency to veer between all three of the main types of world-building. (Even the books set in Narnia itself might as well be set in different countries, so different is the use they make of their shared setting.) And yet, and yet. Put it this way: do the Narnia books sing? Are there resonant characters, themes, images, scenes that seem to sum up an entire book, justify an entire book’s existence? In reply, may I simply refer you to the golden chesspieces in the long grass, in what turn out to be the ruins of Cair Paravel; or to Jill and Edmund trudging through the oddly laid-out stone passageways in the land of the giants (‘UNDER ME’) – or Prince Rilian with the madness upon him; or to the shabby apocalyptic double-act of Shift the ape and Puzzle the donkey in a lion’s pelt; or to Edmund’s dragon skin, or the Island of Dreams, or Reepicheep in his coracle; or to the Wood Between The Worlds… or to as many examples again from the first book alone. (I’m reining myself in now, but I can’t forbear to mention the mice and the ropes. The mice! The ropes! Blimey Charley.)

Ahem. The world-building of Narnia is clunky and full of register-hopping – here a stab at in-world history and geography, there a heavily signposted swerve into contemporary social satire, and always an unsystematic sprawl of mythical beasts and characters – but there’s something about Narnia itself that outweighs all that. It’s a numinous world, almost despite itself: it’s shot through with Lewis’s intimations of Heaven as a “land beyond“. Imagine a state of being that would encapsulate the most real and true experiences one could have in this world and make them more real still; imagine a state that one could only hope to reach through trust in the loving power of something immeasurably greater than oneself. And imagine Narnia – not as that place or that power itself, but just a bit closer to them… Further up and further in!

Potter, on the other hand… well, what is Potter about?

NEXT: OK, chief, what is it about? You tell us.

Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (2 of 5)

THE STORY SO FAR: a meditation on the prevalence of ‘brass tacks’, non-metaphorical readings of the Potter books has led to the suggestion that the world-building of the ‘Potterverse’ may be at fault.

There are, I think, four main approaches to world-building in fantasy:

1. Nuts and bolts
A troll’s stolen your blanket. Where are you going to get a new one? Fortunately it’s Thirdday, and market day in Cedar Lake is Fourthday – and Cedar Lake is only twenty thryms away, so if you saddle up your quaghorn and ride all day and all night you’ll be there in good time. Unfortunately the road to Cedar Lake passes through the Merry Green Wood, which – despite its name – is dark and treacherous at night, so you’ll have to find another route… And so on. Nuts and bolts world-builders really do build a world – not only can they show you Cedar Lake on the map, they can tell you when and how it was founded, and about its longstanding rivalry with Willow Bank a thrym and a half up the river Hak. None of this need have anything to do – perhaps, should have anything to do – with anything we’re familiar with in our own world; there is no focus-pulling, no shock of recognition as the metaphorical import of a local detail hits home.

What’s interesting about this approach is that, although constructed worlds certainly don’t have to make sense, once you’ve accumulated a certain level of detail they do – at least to the extent that the edges all join up, and the world-builder can answer any question that may arise. (The real world isn’t that different: ‘Why Maundy Thursday’ is actually a perfectly good question, with an answer that makes sense on at least one level. (Latin, apparently.)) And there’s a certain satisfaction in that, even if after a while filling in the blanks gets to feel a bit like, well, filling in the blanks. Moreover, beyond a certain point what you have is, basically, a whole world, which in itself is asking to be compared with our own: here are the kind of things that people can do in this setting… Elaborate and painstaking though this type of world-building typically is (arguably has to be, if it is to be successful), in another sense it’s the most basic; it’s certainly the most undirected. You focus-pull the whole world or none of it.

Then there are two approaches to world-building that do relate to, or reflect on, our experiences in the world we know.

2. Spilt religion
We don’t have any experience of magic in this world, but we do – collectively – have experience of the supernatural, in the form of religion. Hence the second approach to world-building, which is light on geography and heavy on numinousness (is it numinousness, numinescence or numinosity?). This is the approach Mark Kermode is fond of lampooning in sword-and-sorcery films – “Lord Biddly-Bong armed with the Sword of Fiddly-Flop,” and so on. The grammar of a world like this isn’t religious, but it is religiose: it’s filtered through some combination of the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the Latin Mass. So if there’s a lot of kneeling in reverence, with people being addressed as supreme high lords and kings; if you’re dealing with a lot of hierarchies and/or family trees; if a lot of characters and things have Big Important Names; and if spells and incantations in incomprehensible languages are a big deal – then it’s a fair bet that the magic that’s ultimately holding up this particular world is the magic that’s practised in church on Sundays. (This isn’t a dig at Tolkien – he knew perfectly well what he was doing.)

3. Spock’s beard
A second kind of reflected world is the parasitic world, a world whose roots in our own aren’t hidden. Satires and political parables obviously come under this heading, but it also covers utopias, near-future projections, what-if’s and alternative histories told in the form of fantasy (Star Trek was a mine of those). The mark of a world like this is that you don’t have to ask how it would all work, because you already know: it works just the way it does in our world. Either that, or it works on the basis of rules and mechanisms that are hidden or disavowed in our world, but brought into the open in the fantasy; or else it doesn’t really work at all, thanks to the exaggeration of trends which, again, exist in the world we know. There aren’t so many titles of nobility or neologisms in a world like this, and there are a lot more jokes.

Some worlds in this category are parasitic on fictional worlds; Discworld is an unusually well-developed example of this approach. Or rather, it began that way and then changed. Or rather, it began that way and in one sense developed in that way, although… hold on, let’s do this properly.

Brief digression on Discworld
The first couple of Discworld books set out to be a kind of Tough Guide to Fantasy Land in fictional form; we see the tropes of post-Tolkien, post-Conan fantasy through the eyes of a literal tourist, accompanied by a local informant who is also an amoral, self-centred cynic. As a result, ironic distance between the narrative voice and the world-building is built in; the world is constantly having to be explained, and it’s explained very much in terms of which bits will hurt you and which will let you stay out of trouble and mind your own business, preferably while getting drunk.

[Author’s note: Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasy Land was in fact published in 1996, thirteen years and approximately 28 books after The Colour of Magic, so perhaps she was setting out to write TCOM/TLF in encyclopaedia form. Or perhaps this analogy doesn’t really work.]

[Author’s note to the author’s note: if 28 sounds like an awful lot of books, that’s partly because I’m counting books other than the Discworld novels, of which only(!) 17 were published in that period. It’s also because, once you start looking at Pratchett’s complete bibliography, it’s really hard to arrive at a definitive number of books (do you include the Maps? the graphic novels? the Josh Kirby art books? The Annotated Cat?). But fundamentally, the reason why 28 sounds like an awful lot of books to complete in 13 years is that it is. The man just wrote.]

Discworld stays parasitic – right to the end, it’s always in some sense ‘about’ this world – but it doesn’t stay put. The first major development is when other characters, in addition to the rather one-note Rincewind – whose emotional repertoire doesn’t run to much beyond cynicism and panic – start to act like people rather than fantasy characters. Specifically, they start to look beyond the plot and think about the world they’re in, and in particular about what this world is like to run. Granny Weatherwax is the first, followed by Vetinari and then Pratchett’s greatest (and favourite?) creation, Vimes. The invention of politics, in other words, is what keeps the Discworld series fresh, after that first volcanic surge of creativity had died down. (Bear in mind that there wasn’t a ‘Death series’, a ‘witches series’ or a ‘Watch series’ when Pratchett wrote Mort, Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards!; they were just the fourth, sixth and eighth Discworld books, all of which appeared within three years of the second.) I remember an Interzone article from around the time of Guards! Guards!; the author cited one of Vetinari’s more jaded observations, on the difficulties of governing a city full of thieves, idiots and idiotic thieves, and expressed concern for Pratchett’s state of mind – might it be time for him to give Discworld a bit of a rest? He had no idea – but then, neither did any of us.

Pratchett always seems to have been on the lookout for different ways in which Discworld could reflect our world; the first ‘political’ books were rapidly followed by a cluster of books (not the most successful) in which elements of our reality literally leaked into Discworld (e.g. Moving Pictures), and a series (e.g. Hogfather) in which Pratchett’s borrowings from myth and legend were explained as free-floating story elements, drifting through the multiverse and spontaneously instantiating themselves. Finally, Discworld seemed to embark on a process of convergence with the Industrial Revolution, from The Truth (the press) to Raising Steam (the railways). However many details were filled in, though, the edges never quite met; the contours of the map were always shifting as new stories emerged and needed to be told – driven ultimately by what Pratchett had to say about our world.

Hail and farewell, Discworld; what an amazing achievement that world was. (But always – as I was saying – a parasitic world.)

4. Wet paint
So there are nuts-and-bolts worlds, numinous worlds, parasitic worlds; lastly, there are (in the immortal words of Helga Hufflepuff) “the rest”. These are worlds where somebody’s set out to achieve something quite specific – a religious parable in which the humblest are elevated through unmediated communion with Jesus Christ; a satirical wish-fulfilment fantasy in which an orphan is hideously mistreated by grotesque parent-substitutes but discovers he is vastly more powerful than they are – and then lost interest in the necessary world-building, but ploughed on with it anyway. These are bodged-up worlds, without any consistent register; the local effects often work brilliantly, but the whole doesn’t even try to hang together. It’s not a world reflecting and meditating on the religion and wonder that we know; it’s not a world reflecting and lampooning the society and politics we know; and it’s not a world existing independently, an island entire of itself. It’s just… well, here’s a world, and here’s a story, and here’s another one. The telltale sign of a world like this is the continual discovery of new wonders, mysteries and other plot mechanisms, as the developing stories require. The Queen proverbially thinks the world smells of fresh paint; characters in worlds like this have a similar experience, as the sets are continually dressed and re-dressed around them.

NEXT: …and we’re back to Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (1 of 5)

Attention conservation notice: five-part series on world-building in fantasy fiction, focusing on Potter, Discworld, Narnia, Earthsea and Middle Earth in descending order. Nothing obscure. Not entirely uncritical of JKR. May contain Moomins.

Adam:

One thing that sometimes surprises me … is how wedded [sf/fantasy] fans are to the in-text reading of their favourite works, and the inertia of the resistance to the idea that these might be logics of representation rather than actual things in the world … That Harry Potter and his friends don’t literally have magical powers, even in the context of the Harry Potter novels (that these magical talents are how Rowling articulates the potency, specialness and vitality of young people as such). That MCU superhero texts are saying things about non-superheroic aspects of life, and not pretending that the Homeric gods have returned to the world in spandex. But there we are. Representation is a slippery logic, and we think we’re on solider ground with brass tacks. We’re not, of course; but we often think we are.

I’ll also pull in an interesting comment from Greg Sanders on Adam’s post:

I think your coda does a good job of explaining the fairly short half life of many series and worlds for me. The longer series go that take their representations seriously, the more they often become about their conceits, their world building, past volumes, and less about the representation and metaphor that made the original so exciting.

As some series progress, author as well as fans succumb to brass-tacks-ism, investing less in what’s supposed to be going on in the imagined world than in the puzzle-solving challenge of filling in the map – as if to say, “we’re ‘ere because… it’s there because it’s there… because we’re ‘ere…”. As time goes on the map has fewer and fewer blank spaces – despite having been more powerful when it was half blank. Remember Discworld, and Pterry’s successive statements on the question of maps – that the Discworld was unmappable, then that the Discworld was unmappable but a map of Ankh-Morpork was a different question, and finally very well, there you go, here’s your map. But Discworld, despite some similarities, is very different from the Potterverse – particularly on the ‘brass tacks’ question – as I hope to show later on.

But back to Potter and brass tacks. To borrow Adam’s term, there’s something slippery (or perhaps, something insufficiently slippery) in the assertion that Harry & co “don’t literally have magical powers, even in the context of the Harry Potter novels“. It’s certainly true that when we read about Harry’s courage and agility (with magic), Hermione’s resourcefulness and ingenuity (with magic) or Ron’s dogged persistence (with magic), the clause in brackets is the least important part; the magic isn’t what the books are about, any more than Hamlet is about a poisoning in an orchard. But Harry Potter does literally have magical powers (in the world of the books) – just as it’s crucially important to Hamlet (and to Hamlet) that Hamlet’s father has literally been killed (in the world of the play), despite the resemblance which Adam points out between the killer’s supposed M.O. and a well-known metaphor for giving bad advice.

That said, there’s a crucial distinction between those two worlds. Poison isn’t commonly administered aurally, but the reality of poisoning – and of assassination generally – was known to Shakespeare’s audiences as it is to us. (Nor does the ghost of Hamlet’s father make a better dividing line: our breezy confidence that apparitions of the dead aren’t part of the natural order wasn’t universally shared by Hamlet‘s original audiences, any more than it is by the characters in the play.) By contrast, Harry Potter’s magical powers, in and of themselves, correspond to nothing in our world: there’s a suspension of disbelief involved, and once you’ve made it different criteria apply. Boggling at the amazing things that can be done with the flick of a wand is no more appropriate than Arthur Weasley marvelling at the Muggles and their elec-trickery. This in turn means that nothing which happens through the medium of magic has to rhyme thematically or make any kind of poetic sense, any more than the details of diurnal contemporary reality make poetic sense in mainstream fiction. Sectumsempra is a curse which magically inflicts a deep flesh wound, incurable by non-magical means. Why ‘Sectumsempra’? In that world, it just is – you might as well ask why Maundy Thursday, or why Armitage Shanks. Reality doesn’t have to make sense. The same goes for Rowling’s world-building more generally: it’s just the furniture for the story arc, and within that for the characters and their relationships. As teenagers with fairly limited life experience, Harry and Ron wouldn’t understand, or need to understand, the Ministry of Magic – any more than Jennings and Darbishire need to understand the Home Office – so we don’t need to understand it either.

In short, the outlandish elements in the Potter books don’t have the same focus-pulling doubleness (“now you see metaphor, now you don’t”) as the outlandish elements in Hamlet. Moreover, this isn’t despite the fact that Potter’s magic is even more outlandish than what happens in Hamlet, but because of it. Hamlet is a densely textured story studded with weird and unworldly details, set in our world; watching Hamlet you’re seeing what you’re seeing, but you’re also seeing something else, something that tells you about your own world. The Potter books tell a fairly straight story, set in a world which isn’t like ours; reading Potter, you’re reading what you’re reading. In that world, everything is brass tacks, magic included.

The mundane case for the mundane defence rests, in a mundane sort of way. I don’t think it’s satisfactory, though – in fact, I sense that the prevalence of ‘brass tacks’ readings of Potter has something to do with a weakness in the work, and in particular in the world-building.

Next: nuts and bolts – do we need them?

Credo

Once more on Labour’s problems with anti-semitism and the “IHRA Definition”. Here are a few points – five, to be precise.

The first point may seem frivolous, but I think it’s worth making. It’s just that the situation we’re in is really quite odd. I’ve knocked around on the Left for quite a while now – I’ve been called out on strike after a show of hands, I was at the first Chesterfield conference, I’ve been to Greenham – and I can’t remember a massive public row about a definition before.

“Adopt the definition!”
– Well, this is an issue we take very seriously, and of course…
“Stop dodging the question! Adopt the definition! Adopt it!”
– I’m sure we can look at it, and… Yes, actually that definition seems fine. No problem.
And the illustrative examples!”
– And the…
You’ve got to adopt the examples as well! Honestly! Don’t try to pretend you didn’t know!”
– All right, but we’ll need to see if they need to be modified in the light of our…
“Modified? Modified? What do you think this is? Adopt the illustrative examples!”
– Clearly there’s a process that will need to be gone through, and…
“Right, that’s it. Adopt the illustrative examples! Now! Adopt them! Adopt them!”

The fact that the definition was explicitly labelled as a working definition, and that it was devised fifteen years ago by an organisation that no longer exists (and whose successor organisation didn’t adopt it) makes it all the odder to see the furious intensity with which Labour are being pressurised to adopt it entire, root and branch, omitting not one jot or illustrative tittle.

So that’s my first point: when people start acting oddly and making strange demands – and, viewed with any kind of analytical distance, making verbatim adoption of the EUMC “working definition” into an unconditional red line is a strange thing to do – I’m reluctant to jump to it and endorse those demands; not because they’re wrong, necessarily, just because they’re… odd.

Secondly, why the EUMC definition specifically? Let’s look at the definition; it won’t take long.

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

The second sentence isn’t really part of the definition; it supplements it by identifying the targets of anti-semitism in practice – although, other than specifying Jewish religious and non-religious institutions, it only identifies them as “people and/or things”. The trouble is, the second part of the first sentence isn’t really part of the definition either, as it says how anti-semitism may be expressed. Nothing in the definition requires that hatred should be expressed towards Jews before anti-semitism can be said to exist. So we can lop off that clause as well – which leaves us with

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews

This is almost entirely uninformative, and the one thing it does specify is wrong – anti-semitism isn’t a perception of Jews, singular (even the Nazis had trouble explaining how it could be that Jews had bestial appetites and super-human cunning, or that they were behind Wall Street and Communism). The abiding impression is that the definition is there to introduce the “illustrative examples”, which will do the real work of sketching out the boundaries of a definition – labelling some behaviours as potentially anti-semitic and others, by omission, not. The definition itself basically says

So, antisemitism. What do we know?

The EUMC definition itself, then, isn’t an advance in clarity; if anything it’s a deliberate retreat from clarity. If it’s important to adopt it – and not to adopt an alternative definition such as the one put forward by Brian Klug, discussed in this post – we’ll have to look elsewhere for the reasons why.

We could look at those illustrative examples, for a start. Taken individually, to be fair, the examples are mostly uncontroversial. Actually, even the controversial ones are uncontroversial, as defenders of the definition have been at pains to point out. Applying double standards to the state of Israel “could, taking into account the overall context,” be anti-semitic; who could deny that?

But the question to ask of a definition is not what it says but what it doesn’t say, and/or what it makes it hard to say. I asked my father once why the Christian Creeds went to such lengths to nail down particular details of the faith, given that so many of the points they affirm are uncontroversial among believers, irrelevant to the Church’s everyday work, or in a few cases both. My father said that creeds aren’t aimed at the people who find them easy to say, but at all those people who can’t say them; every one of those stipulations is there to nail down a question that somebody, some time, wanted kept open, and to define the Church by excluding those people. Every public affirmation is also a denial, or a shibboleth: “I attest, in sight of you all, that I believe this – which in turn demonstrates that I am not one of them.”

To say that critics of Israel have nothing to fear – because, according to the definition, applying double standards to Israel isn’t necessarily anti-semitic (and why would they be applying double standards, anyway?) – is to miss the wood for the trees, or to grasp the definition on paper but overlook the work it’s doing. To put it another way, the question isn’t who would be found guilty by the definition but who would be put under suspicion by it – and the second group includes everyone who might be presented as applying double standards to Israel for anti-semitic reasons (presented, specifically, by their factional enemies).

This is the third point: the merits of the definition as a whole – and a fortiori the merits of individual clauses and examples – shouldn’t be taken in isolation from the project of which the definition is part. (Historical background here, here and here.) As an aside, I think everyone involved in this debate needs to be a lot less squeamish about terms like “lobbying” and “behind the scenes”. From local party branches up to the Cabinet, lobbying – including “behind the scenes” lobbying – is how politics gets done; and politics is how democratic representation gets done. (Imperfectly, in other words.) Anyone who tells you that he organically represents a broad groundswell of public opinion (whereas you’re just a well-organised minority of activists) is lying; lying to himself, possibly, but lying, definitely.

If there had been goodwill and trust, Labour could have sat down with the Jewish community and ironed out any wrinkles, perhaps by adopting the IHRA’s definition in full and then adding a couple of caveats explicitly protecting free speech. The trouble is, there is no such trust, and Labour attempted no such thing. Instead it drew up its code of conduct itself, without consulting the organised Jewish community at all.

Jonathan Freedland‘s equivocation between “the Jewish community” and “the organised Jewish community” is symptomatic. What does “the Jewish community” think about Corbyn’s Labour Party? Generalising about what any group of 300,000 people think about anything would be a bold move, and it’s not hard to enumerate Jewish individuals and groups known to be strongly in favour of the Corbyn project. What does “the organised Jewish community” think? Ah, that’s an easier one.

The EUMC definition hasn’t floated down from the sky, or bubbled up from the collective unconscious of “the Jewish community” – and it isn’t just an acknowledgment that anti-semitism can take many forms. It’s a proposition that anti-semitism tends to take some forms and not others, which tends to put some areas of public discourse under suspicion, and not others. As such, it’s the product of a sustained effort to establish that proposition and embed it in the ‘common sense’ of organisational activity. I’m not qualified to comment on exactly why organisations such as the Board of Deputies have bought into the definition, and got behind the campaign to shame the Labour Party for not adopting it; in any case, that’s a secondary question. The important thing is to recognise that there is an organisational dimension here: organised groups of people pushing for the adoption of the EUMC definition (just as I and my comrades regularly push for our local Labour Party to adopt left-wing positions), and other organised groups getting on board with this effort for their own reasons (just as we occasionally get a motion through or a couple of delegates elected, because something about it or them has appealed to another faction).

As for the point about anti-semitism coming in “some forms and not others”, here are the topics covered by the eleven illustrative examples:

  1. Advocacy or justification of killing Jews
  2. Dehumanising stereotypes of Jews
  3. Accusations of Jewish responsibility for world events
  4. Holocaust denial
  5. Alleging that Jews (or Israel) exaggerate the Holocaust
  6. Accusing Jews of having greater loyalty to Israel than their own nations
  7. Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination
  8. Applying double standards to Israel
  9. Applying antisemitic stereotypes to Israel or Israelis
  10. Comparing Israeli policy to that of the Nazis
  11. Holding Jews responsible for actions of the state of Israel

Granted that all of these can be an expression of anti-semitism (many, many things can be an expression of anti-semitism), there’s still room to be concerned by the scope of the implicit definition mapped out by these examples. Four of the eleven – numbers 7-10 here – aren’t about Jews or Jewish identity as such, but about critiques of Israel and Zionism considered as proxy targets for unavowed anti-semitism; the seventh example in particular seems designed to outlaw outright opposition to Zionism and its presentation of the Jewish people as a nationality (an opposition which has been expressed by substantial currents within the international Jewish community, and still exists today). The eighth, ninth and tenth, for their part, would be entirely unproblematic if we could be confident that they would never be abused in faction fights by people committed to making pro-Zionist prevail over anti-Zionist positions. Considering that the entire context of this definition is exactly this kind of faction fighting, this amounts to saying that the illustrations give pro-Zionist activists additional weapons to use against their bitterest enemies in a political conflict which is currently raging, but that there won’t be any problems just as long as they consistently use them with integrity and self-restraint.

There’s nothing very problematic in the other seven examples, although the sixth would seem to make Theodor Herzl an anti-semite; Zionism as he proposed it meant precisely that the primary loyalty of Jews, wherever they found themselves, would be to the new National Home. What’s interesting, as always, is what’s not here. Not here, for example, is any suggestion that it might be anti-semitic to promote the interests of Israel at the expense of those of Jews in the Diaspora; or to denigrate the history and culture of the Diaspora in contrast to the new society of Israel; or to conflate Jewish identity with the nationalism of a militarised state, tied to western imperialism and entrenched in confrontation with the Muslim world; or to defile the holy name of Zion by identifying it with the goyim naches of a mere nationality. Every one of those positions is arguable; every one of them is held, and has historically been held, by non-negligible numbers of Jews. Perhaps a majority of Diaspora Jews are committed to Zionism (certainly a majority of Israeli Jews are) – but is a majority good enough for a question like this? Can you declare what does and doesn’t constitute Jew-hatred – can you identify which political quarter another Haman would or wouldn’t come from – by taking a vote?

In short, there are many ways of defining anti-semitism, or rather ways of defining areas where it’s likely to be found. There are some approaches to this question which put Zionism and the state of Israel under suspicion, and others which throw suspicion on opposition to Zionism and the state of Israel; what we’ve got with the EUMC definition is, very much, the latter.

But – fourth point – aren’t Labour handling this badly, irrespective of all this background? So the illustrative examples (and hence the overall definition) tilt Zionist; so what? Maybe that’s just because the Jewish community tilts Zionist. (Its representative bodies certainly do, most of them anyway.) What gave Labour the right to mess around with the definition anyway? Shouldn’t they be listening to the victims?

Taking the second question first, it’s frequently been argued that “the Jewish community” supports the adoption of the EUMC definition; that we generally believe that the victims of racism should be the ones to say when and where it exists (this is sometimes referred to as the “Macpherson principle”); and hence that Labour (and, presumably, everyone else) should adopt the EUMC definition, as failing to do so would be represent discrimination against the Jewish community relative to other ethnic minorities.

This looks persuasive, but unfortunately it’s nonsense. The Macpherson principle – dating back to the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence – was that a ‘racist incident’ should be recorded by the police whenever an ‘incident’ was reported and anyone – not just the victim – alleged a racist motive. (An ‘incident’ is essentially anything that’s reported to the police but isn’t a crime.) It doesn’t say that the view of the individual victim on a specific incident should be taken as definitive – still less that we should privilege the views of an entire ethnic community on the topic of racist incidents in general. In point of fact, there is no comparable definition of (say) anti-Black or anti-Asian racism, devised by the respective community and generally accepted; failing to adopt the EUMC definition, far from representing discrimination against Jews, would put Jews in the same position as other minority groups. (There is a widely-accepted definition of Islamophobia; however, it was devised by the Runnymede Trust, not by the British Muslim community or any of its representative organisations.)

As for the Labour National Executive Committee’s amendments to the definition, once again the context is crucial. The context here is an organisation which is committed to taking anti-semitism seriously, to the point of suspending or expelling numerous activists. (Was that a hollow laugh I heard? How many anti-semites have the Tories expelled?) It follows that any definition Labour adopts won’t be ornamental; it has to be something that can be referred to and used. As we’ve seen, the EUMC definition is hopelessly vague (“a certain perception of Jews”); the only point at which it has any possible disciplinary bite is in the list of examples. These, however, are introduced with the rubric

Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:

So anti-semitism could, but doesn’t necessarily, take the form of applying double standards to Israel (for example); moreover, if double standards are being applied, that could be anti-semitism, but it isn’t necessarily. From a disciplinary standpoint this is singularly unhelpful; anyone who’s ever studied harassment (or the later Wittgenstein) knows that literally any individual action can form part of a specified pattern of behaviour. If people are going to face expulsion for antisemitic statements or activities, the definition needs to be a lot tighter than this; instead of “could … include, but are not limited to”, it needs to be couched in terms of the actions or statements which are likely to be evidence of anti-semitism. This in turn will mean the definition becoming narrower; higher levels of culpability necessarily apply to a narrower range of acts. This, as far as I can tell, is pretty much the direction in which edits have been made.

In short, Labour has made a good-faith effort to engage with the EUMC definition and turn it into something usable for disciplinary purposes. While we may or may not agree with individual changes to the definition, specific problems with individual changes are the level at which the argument should be had; there is no sense in which Labour’s failure to endorse the definition precisely as it stands represents any kind of differential treatment or discrimination against the Jewish community.

Having said that, I can’t help feeling – fifth and final point – that engaging with the EUMC definition at all represents something of a missed opportunity. Do we know what racism is? Is there a canonical definition? The answers are Yes and No respectively, surely. Do we know what anti-semitism is? I tend to think we do; it’s a range of forms of hostility towards Jews, considering Jews as fundamentally and inherently different from non-Jews. To put it another way, it’s anti-Jewish racism. This is not a mystery.

Moreover, the EUMC definition doesn’t add to this rule-of-thumb definition or refine it. If anything it subtracts and makes it coarser, before supplying some of the missing detail in the form of those illustrative examples – a sort of ‘paint chart’ approach to definition. There’s a perception that examples like these make a disciplinary process more straightforward by removing excuses – excuses like “I’m not anti-semitic, I just think the Holocaust never happened” – but I think this is an illusion. Anyone who’s capable of saying “I’m not anti-semitic, I’m just concerned about the Jewish control of the media” is perfectly capable of saying “I know that conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the media are anti-semitic, but the evidence I’ve seen makes me really concerned about media ownership and how it’s concentrated in a few hands”… and so on. Whether you’ve got a definition or not, if you’re going to offer those people any kind of procedural justice you’re going to need to have that conversation. (What if “Jewish control of the media” turns out to mean “I hate Rupert Murdoch, and my mate told me he’s Jewish”? Expel them anyway for being dim and credulous?)

The merit of having a formal definition (with illustrative examples) is, essentially, the same as the merit of having a creed – it doesn’t make the accusations any easier to prove, it just means that when you’re making accusations, the people you’re accusing are likely to be from groups A, B, C and D. (Or groups A, B, F and K, depending on the definition.)

The leadership is right to be reluctant to embrace this particular definition; in fact they’d be justified in not adopting it at all. Certainly the definition has nothing to do with the separate – and much more important – question of how seriously Labour take anti-semitism. I hope to see continued progress on that front; I hope to see the spurious and dangerous row over a definition blow itself out and be forgotten.

Updated 1st August; reference to “Alexander Herzl” corrected.

Aristotelian thoughts, possibly

Alasdair MacIntyre writes in After Virtue:

Aristotle tries to use the notion of a mean between the more and the less to give a general characterization of the virtues: courage lies between rashness and timidity, justice between doing injustice and suffering injustice, liberality between prodigality and meanness. For each virtue therefore there are two corresponding vices. And what it is to fall into a vice cannot be adequately specified independently of circumstances: the very same action which would in one situation be liberality could in another be prodigality and in a third meanness.

This is a decidedly foreign way of thinking to us now; we tend to locate ethical debates at the level of societies rather than individuals, think in terms of individual positive qualities which can each be independently maximised (liberty, equality, security etc), and unpack political disagreements in terms of different orderings of those qualities (putting security above liberty, liberty above equality, etc). Morality for individuals has a similar shape, with unquestioned virtues such as truth-telling and promise-keeping, each of which can be maximised until some unpredictable point where they may turn out to conflict. Whether for individuals or societies, the idea of not maximising anything – of seeking a point between two opposed maxima – seems counter-intuitive. The Aristotelian ‘mean between extremes’ also has overtones of the complacency of moderate centrism – the frame of mind according to which ‘extreme’ political views can be dismissed unheard purely because they are ‘extreme’ – which makes it unappealing, at least if you’re not a moderate centrist.

I think it may be more useful than it looks, though. Here are two cases where this approach has some value, both of which should ring some bells with anyone who’s been involved in political debate recently.

In Saturday’s Graun, Oliver Burkeman wrote about what looks like an interesting paper on “prevalence-induced concept change”. I haven’t been able to access the full text, but here’s the abstract:

Why do some social problems seem so intractable? In a series of experiments, we show that people often respond to decreases in the prevalence of a stimulus by expanding their concept of it. When blue dots became rare, participants began to see purple dots as blue; when threatening faces became rare, participants began to see neutral faces as threatening; and when unethical requests became rare, participants began to see innocuous requests as unethical. This “prevalence-induced concept change” occurred even when participants were forewarned about it and even when they were instructed and paid to resist it. Social problems may seem intractable in part because reductions in their prevalence lead people to see more of them.

Does the point generalise? Is it possible that things are in fact getting better, but that we don’t realise it because we treat whatever our current worst social problem is as the worst social problem? Durkheim certainly thought it was possible; in fact, he thought it was happening in nineteenth-century France:

Imagine a society of saints, a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals. Crimes, properly so called, will there be unknown, but faults which appear venial to the layman will create there the same scandal that the ordinary offense does in ordinary consciousness. If, then, this society has the power to judge and punish, it will define these acts as criminal and will treat them as such. … Formerly, acts of violence against persons were more frequent than they are today, because respect for individual dignity was less strong. As this has increased, these crimes have become more rare; and also, many acts violating this sentiment have been introduced into the penal law which were not included there in primitive times.

(See also “anti-social behaviour”, “problem families” etc.)

The question then is, does this matter? Yes. And then again, No. Burkeman cites a neat analogy from Dan Gilbert, one of the paper’s authors:

an emergency doctor is right to prioritise gunshot wounds over broken arms; but if there are no gunshot wounds to treat, she’s perfectly correct to expand her definition of “what needs immediate attention” to include broken arms. Conversely, a neurologist shouldn’t expand his definition of “brain tumour” simply because he can’t find any.

Unpacking the analogy, we can envisage two main approaches:

A: We can be thankful that problems causing really serious harms have abated, and alert to prevent their recurrence, while still devoting most of our attention to the problems that we face now. This does not mean that major and minor problems are equally serious; to treat them as equivalent would represent not only a loss of proportion but also a betrayal of historical memory. Things can get better; the fact that things have got better is proof of it.

B: We face new types of problem now – many of which we previously saw as minor, as causing less serious harms – but they are just as serious for us. After all, every problem is serious if it causes genuine harm. Not to take our current, supposedly minor problems just as seriously as the old major problems would demonstrate the persistence of outdated ways of thinking and show contempt for the people who are actually suffering now.

Which is right? It’s probably clear that I lean one way rather than the other – indeed, it could be argued that the way I’ve set up the problem is skewed* – but I don’t think one argument is right and the other wrong; indeed, I don’t think it’s possible to conclude that one’s right and one’s wrong. Historical memory, and keeping faith with those we’ve learnt from, are important virtues; so is attention to the present, and keeping faith with people who may need us now. And it’s hard to do both at once; beyond a certain point, it’s impossible to do both. The answer is, frustratingly, somewhere in the middle; even more frustratingly, there’s no single answer that can be applied at all times. Like Trillian’s handbag, life teaches us that there are times when it’s important to keep a sense of proportion and think of the past, and that there are times when it’s important to keep a sense of urgency and learn from the present; what it doesn’t teach us is which is which.

*Have I put an authorial thumb on the scales by insisting that we know which is a major problem and which a minor one? Isn’t the severity of contemporary problems actually unknown, given that they haven’t finished harming us yet? I don’t think so – or rather, I don’t think that the unknowability of contemporary problems is a point at issue between A and B. Someone who maintains that a certain kind of speech act is actually violent, or that failing to affirm Israel’s right to exist is anti-semitism, isn’t generally saying that the unknown longer-term effects of a relatively harmless speech act in the present could ultimately reach the level of a harmful action; that would be a different argument, one which conceded that those speech acts were in fact relatively harmless.

Another example: you support a cause, or a set of inter-related causes; they’re reasonably coherent and comprehensive, so you don’t generally find it hard to read off your position on a contemporary issue. On one issue, however, you find yourself at odds with some – perhaps a majority – of your usual allies; they make arguments that sound familiar, referring back to the broad set of causes both you and they support, but on this issue you find you’re not convinced. On ‘your’ side of the problematic issue, you’re pleased to find a number of people who share those same causes with you; alongside them, however, are people with whom you share nothing but this one issue. What to think? If you believe something, does it matter who else believes it?

A: You can tell a lot about an issue from who supports it. If the far Right are agitating on an issue, that means one of three things: it’s part of a right-wing programme, in which case Leftists should oppose it; it can be twisted to support a far Right agenda (“green belt” campaigning targeting new mosques, “animal welfare” targeting Halal meat), in which case Leftists need to take care not to get dragged in; or it’s just being used to exploit splits in the Left, in which case Leftists shouldn’t play their game for them. Brexit is a perfect example; the fact that the EU is an anti-democratic capitalist institution fooled some Leftists into giving their backing to what was always a neoliberal project exploiting xenophobic nationalism, in which the hopes of the anti-EU Left could play no real part.

B: My political outlook is my own; the issues I agitate on are issues that I believe are important. More importantly, given that I’m a Leftist, these are issues that I believe can – and should – be articulated as part of an overall Left agenda. We should not be put off from doing so by the fact that an issue can also form part of a Right-wing agenda – let alone the fact that it can be exploited by the Right. (The Conservative Party supports full legal equality for gay and straight people; that doesn’t make it a reactionary demand.) The EU is a perfect example: while we need to oppose the reactionary neoliberal project of Brexit, this should not fool the Left into making common cause with the pro-EU ‘remain’ lobby and overlooking the intractable problems which the EU poses for any Left project.

Again, which is right? My discouraging answer is, again, that I don’t think we can say that one’s right and the other’s wrong; in some situations “look who you’re lining up with” will be a correct and appropriate response, in others it will be a distraction that should be ignored. And, again, it’s impossible to do both. Life teaches us that there are times when it’s important to see where your allies and enemies are and form your opinions accordingly, and that there are times when it’s important to keep your wits about you and make your own mind up; what it doesn’t teach us is which is which. Or, as Douglas Adams (and Michael Bywater) put it in Mostly Harmless:

[Trillian] reflected that if there was one thing life had taught her it was that there are times when you do not go back for your bag and other times when you do. It had yet to teach her to distinguish between the two types of occasions.

This isn’t a counsel of despair, or a justification for impulsiveness and actes gratuits; there is still a scale, and it is still possible to hit the right spot on it. But it’s a scale with two ends, and heading for either one won’t reliably get us where we want to go. To complete that MacIntyre quotation:

what it is to fall into a vice cannot be adequately specified independently of circumstances: the very same action which would in one situation be liberality could in another be prodigality and in a third meanness. Hence judgment has an indisputable role in the life of the virtuous man which does not and could not have in, for example, the life of the merely law-abiding or rule-abiding man.

Interesting, no? Reads a bit like a dispatch from a neighbouring universe, but it’s interesting. (Sorry about the early-80s sexism – although, to be honest, I don’t think “the virtuous person” is much less foreign a concept to us now.)

I was a young man

It started (as things so often do these days) with a tweet:

As Alex commented, there are some interesting contrasts in there – particularly between 35-44 and 45-54, and then between 65-74 and 75+. Three age cohorts, then. Let’s assume that those _5 dividing lines are partially smoothing out sharper divisions ending with 0 rather than 5; there’s no real reason for this assumption, admittedly, other than the tendency for people to think in terms of being in their thirties or forties rather than being in the 25-34 or 35-44 age range. If that is the case, our cohorts looks like this: under-40s mostly pro-Remain; 40-70 fairly evenly divided, but with Leave sympathy growing with age; and 70+ mostly pro-Leave.

Why, though?

Kicking this around on Twitter, I thought of Douglas Adams’s dictum (from The Salmon of Doubt, which presumably means from his journalism) about technology:

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

I think the effective opposition between 1. and 3. is psychologically true and useful to think with. It’s a bit disquieting – as it suggests that we’ll be equally positive about LimitlessFreeEnergy plc and Unmitigated Charlatanry Inc. if we come across them at the right time in our lives, and equally cynical about both if it’s the wrong time – but that’s no bad thing. I also think that something similar is true of politics and political change, with a couple of qualifications. First, we need to do something about that blank between birth and 15 – and should it really be birth? How much of anything do we retain from before the age of five, say? Second, 35 doesn’t look right for stage 3; I think what we’re looking at there is the point in life at which you’ve got a job, you’ve got somewhere to live and you basically know your way around, whereupon some clever bastard pulls the rug out from under you by inventing some la-di-da ‘spinning jenny’ if you please. Thirty-five seems very old to reach that stage – or rather, thirty-four seems very old still to be finding your feet and keeping an eye out for the Next Big Thing. I wonder if Adams (who became a lifelong Mac user and advocate at 32) had his thumb on the scales at that point.

So here’s a modified set of rules, which I’ve modified some more by relating them to politics rather than technology.

  1. Any political development that happens before your fifth birthday is part of the landscape, for you; it’s how things have always been. This applies even if later changes appear to have reversed it – at a deeper level it’s still how the world is.
  2. Any developments that took place between your fifth and fifteenth birthday are done and dusted. Things did change, but those changes are over now and of no interest to anyone but historians; that’s how things are now.
  3. Any political development between your fifteenth and twenty-fifth birthday is a live issue – it’s important and, in your mind at least, it’s still up for grabs. Even if a particular controversy in this category seems firmly settled now, the position reached is still worth defending or attacking.
  4. Any new political development since your twenty-fifth birthday is less important, less relevant, and not final at all. If you’re in favour, it seems like a lucky break, a good result that couldn’t have been expected; if you’re against – or indifferent – it just seems weird and random. But that’s just what politics is like these days.

Now back to our age groups. Feast your eyes on this:

Not pretty, I know. (You should have seen the original version, with individual years on both axes.) You get the idea, though: each five-year cohort remembers each five-year period, and the events in it, differently. Like the sparrow flying across the mead-hall, our sense of historical events begins with a long retrospect of stuff that’s unproblematically part of the landscape (stage 1), passes through twenty busy years of political contention (2 and 3) and then enters the long decades (4) of disengagement and disorientation – longer the older we get.

Caveat: this isn’t about ‘for’ vs ‘against’, but about ‘taken for granted’ vs ‘new and different’ (or rather, ‘taken for granted’ vs ‘current and interesting’ vs ‘new and challenging’). I’m not saying all old people are bigots, in other words; I am saying that they’re predisposed to take seriously some attitudes which the verdict of time has classified as bigotry, but that’s a different proposition. My late mother, on this scale, would have been firmly in the “not entirely used to this” camp for most things that had happened since the War. She was also a lifelong opponent of racism, sexism and homophobia, and of the laws that (for much of her life) upheld them. But the legalisation of homosexuality, say, was for her always something that had happened, and been brought about by forces unknown to her; it was an achievement, but one that had come out of nowhere and could easily have gone the other way. She was generally in favour of gay people living normal, indistinguishable lives – ‘gay’ just being one more character trait – but she didn’t fundamentally think that that was how the world was; she always had one foot in the world of Julian and Sandy (or rather the world in which Julian and Sandy were new and shocking).

What does this mean in practice, though? I’ll pick out each decade cohort’s head-year and look at some events and changes in each category, to get a sense of how different their mental worlds are. To reduce the inevitable repetition and heighten contrasts, I’ll omit categories 2 and 4 – the “how things are now” developments we witnessed in childhood and the “what politics is like these days” changes that came along after we were 25, when the real issues had already been established.

I am 20.
How things always have been: Britain in the EU; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; no British Empire, no Cold War, no Communism; peace in Ireland; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal duty on local authorities to combat racism; equal ages of consent for gay and straight people; legal abortion; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; health and safety at work; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; 9/11 and the War on Terror; privatised utilities; academy schools; all-day pub opening; the Tories as transformed by Thatcher; Labour as transformed by Blair
The real issues: Brexit; Corbyn; Trump
My first general election: 2017

The way the world truly is, for this cohort, is: democratic, efficient, well-regulated, progressive, but not socialist and not particularly friendly to anyone who falls by the wayside. The live issues are, essentially, the way that everything’s been thrown up in the air inside the last five years. The problems that occupied my generation don’t really figure. Last year I gave my third-year students a lecture on the Troubles; I might as well have been talking about the Wars of the Spanish Succession.

I am 30.
How things always have been: no British Empire; no Cold War; Britain in the EU; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal abortion; legal homosexuality; comprehensive schools; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; health and safety at work; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; privatised utilities; all-day pub opening; Thatcherism
The real issues: gay marriage; the Gender Recognition Act; the smoking ban
My first general election: 2010

The way the world truly is, for this cohort, is pretty similar to the younger cohort, but with more of a sense that the programme of liberal modernisation is incomplete; the live issues are essentially continuations of that programme. I wonder how many #FBPE types are in their early 30s: the sense that a certain kind of regulated social liberalism is basically ‘in the bag’, that there are very few really big issues left to argue about, and that everything that’s happened in the last five years is irrelevant froth, all seems to fit the profile. (On the other hand, by this reckoning a fifty-year-old would see everything that’s happened in the last 25 years as irrelevant froth, which is surely overstating the case. But I think there is a particular mentality associated with having a recent time horizon on the ‘real issues’ category – the meaninglessness of current politics is accentuated and made poignant by the feeling that the ‘proper politics’ train has only just left the station, carrying our own sense of relevance and centrality inexorably into the past (along with David Miliband).)

I am 40.
How things always have been: no British Empire; the (second) Cold War; Britain in the European Community; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal abortion; legal homosexuality; comprehensive schools; health and safety at work; the Race Relations Act; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; Thatcherism
The real issues: New Labour; 9/11 and the War on Terror; peace in Ireland; academy schools; legal duty on local authorities to combat racism; equal ages of consent for gay and straight people
My first general election: 1997

The world, for this cohort, is inherently a regulated and liberal world, but one that was built in some long shadows – sixties social democracy on one hand (the Cold War, comprehensive schools), the defeat of seventies radicalism on the other. The implicit limits of progress are pretty tight. Similarly, this cohort’s sense of the ‘real issues’ is an odd mixture of tendencies towards greater regulated liberalism and away from social justice and civil liberties. (Tendencies, in both cases, which they may either support or oppose; younger cohorts don’t really have that option.)

I am 50.
How things always have been: no British Empire; a bi-polar world, but no Cold War; Britain in the EEC; decimal currency; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women in the same jobs; comprehensive schools; legal abortion; legal homosexuality; compulsory crash helmets; Enoch Powell
The real issues: Maastricht; the end of Communism; privatised utilities; the Miners’ Strike and pit closures; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; all-day pub opening
My first general election: 1987

The way the world is, for this cohort, is a country struggling to modernise after the loss of its imperial role. This group are likely to have mixed emotions both about the modernisation and about the imperial role, perhaps shifting with age. (Decimalisation is an interesting issue here; to have any memories of the old money you’d need to be over 55 in 2018.) Real issues, still at some level up for debate: more regulatory liberalism, plus (the defeat of) Communism, (the defeat of) the unions and (the advance of) the European project. This is the first generation for which major elements of the regulated liberalism project are up for debate, and the first in which ‘Europe’ in some sense isn’t a done deal (the next will be 70). This and the next are also the only age cohorts where recognisably ‘class’ issues are salient.

I am 60.
How things always have been: the British Empire in decline; the Cold War; Britain outside the EEC
The real issues: equal pay including ‘work of equal value’; health and safety at work; the Race Relations Act; metrication; compulsory seatbelts; the Three Day Week; Thatcherism and the Falklands
My first general election: 1979

The world, for this cohort, is an unfriendly place where a slightly reduced Britain goes it alone. The real issues are mostly about that push towards regulatory liberalism – for this generation the entire regulatory programme is a live issue, one on which it’s quite possible to argue both sides (note the appearance of metrication in this category). However, all this is taking place against the backdrop of 1970s radicalism and its eventual defeat by Thatcherism – something which this cohort shares to some extent with the previous one, although the key event here is the Three Day Week (effectively a defeat for the government) rather than the Miners’ Strike (a defeat of the union movement by the government).

I am 70.
How things always have been: the British Empire; the Cold War (and Korea); Britain outside the EEC; rationing
The real issues: colonial independence; Britain in the EEC; decimalisation; Enoch Powell and Powellism; equal pay for men and women in the same jobs; comprehensive schools; legal abortion; legal homosexuality; compulsory crash helmets
My first general election: 1970

The shape of the world, for this cohort, is an impoverished nation, making the best of the legacy of its imperial past. The first small moves towards modernisation and racial or sexual equality are very much up for grabs; other real issues are precisely about the legacy of Empire (colonial independence, relations with Europe, non-White British subjects). A 70-year-old in 2018 would have started earning money before pounds, shillings and pence went out (metrication came even later). Again, to say that these are live issues for this generation is not to say that this cohort supports them – or that it’s against them, for that matter; rather, this is the youngest generation for which these questions were generally treated as being unsettled, as still up for debate.

I am 80 (they can still vote, you know).
How things always have been: the British Empire, allied with the USSR and USA; no EEC; rationing
The real issues: the decline of the British Empire; the end of rationing; the Cold War (and Berlin)
My first general election: 1959

Perhaps the most disappointed cohort: the way the world truly is, for them, includes an imperial power that bestrides the world like a colossus. Significantly, the ‘real issues’ – the issues on which this generation first took (both) sides – include colonial independence and Suez. British power in the world – and the loss of British power – is a ‘hot’ issue for this generation like no other. Rationing is relevant here; an 80-year-old in 2018 would have reached the age of 15 before rationing of sweets ended, 16 before rationing ended entirely. Austerity? Been there, done that.

We carry the history of our lifetimes around with us, and the history of our world in our lifetimes – especially in our first 25 years. In particular, we’re carrying three big historical developments – or, perhaps, two really big developments and, in between them, a dog that barked for a while and then shut up. From 80 down to 50 we’re living in a world defined by the British Empire and its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, with the big questions being about the legacies of empire and Britain’s redefined place in the world. From 70 down to 30 the big context is the long march of regulated liberalism, the melting-away of all the old common-sense prejudices and institutional barriers, the smoothing-down and boxing-up of all the risks and harms we used to take for granted. (Twenty-year-olds for their part are living in a world where this project has succeeded – and witnessing the return of political polarisation in the aftermath. Well digged, old mole!) In the middle, from 60 down to 40 we find a world characterised by class struggle – verging on victory if you’re 60, a gruellingly even match if you’re 50, firmly defeated if you’re 40. Class struggle makes the loss of an imperial role all the more challenging (or frightening) for 60-year-olds, and gives rights-based liberalism a cutting edge for both them and the 50-year-old cohort; for the 40-year-olds its defeat frames the liberal project differently, as the only reforming project in town. (If you put it all together, clearly the people with the broadest political vocabulary and the richest sense of possibility are those 60-year-olds, give or take a couple of years. The fact that I myself am closer to 60 than 50 is merely a meaningless coincidence, however.)

To get a clearer sense of generational change, we can think of pairs of neighbouring age cohorts as disputatious friends or squabbling neighbours, firmly united on some things and divided on others.

30 and 20 agree that we live in a safe, peaceful, liberal, regulated society, albeit one that doesn’t owe anyone a living. 30 knows that politics, as older generations knew it, is dead and gone. 20 disagrees; 20 thinks it’s coming back.

40 and 30 agree that we live in a modern, liberal, regulated, European society. 40 knows that there’s plenty more to be done, and that the liberal project may be threatened by external forces such as terrorism. 30 doesn’t agree; 30 thinks there’s not much to worry about, as the job is pretty much done.

50 and 40 agree that a relatively liberal and modern Britain has some sort of role to play in Europe. 50 knows that our involvement in Europe has definite limits, and that our liberalisation is built on the defeat of class politics. 40 is less conflicted; 40 knows that this defeat has been successfully completed, and that it needs to be entrenched in order to push liberalisation further.

60 and 50 agree that equality and public health are important; that working people don’t like being pushed around (although that doesn’t stop it happening); and that there’s a limit to Britain’s involvement in Europe. 60 knows that Britain stands alone, with no close European partners and only the relics of Empire, in a world overshadowed by Communism. 50 lives in a different world, one in which the threat of Communism is dying, the Empire is dead and gone, and Britain has gone into Europe – but only thus far and no further.

70 and 60 agree that the Empire is becoming a thing of the past, and that Europe and liberalising reforms are in the future. 70 knows that there are things to be said for and against these reforms, and wonders if we could have kept the old ways going. 60 thinks reform is going to be necessary but knows that working people aren’t going to put up with being pushed around, and/or that if you are going to push them around you need to push hard.

80 and 70 agree that Britain stands alone, as far as its European neighbours are concerned; that it’s in the nature of Britain to play an international role; and that Britain could yet play that role again. 80 knows just how imperial that international role was, and doesn’t entirely regret it. 70 knows that you’ve got to move with the times – including the possibility of engaging with Europe, as well as reform on issues like race and sex – but doesn’t entirely welcome it.

Perhaps there are three phases, corresponding roughly to the dividing lines I suggested initially. 70 and 80 grew up in an imperial or post-imperial world; 20 to 40 in a world of EU membership and liberal regulation; 50 and 60 in a more complex and contested world, where the first attempts to find a place in Europe and implement socially liberal reforms were cut across by class struggle politics (from the miners’ defeat of Heath in 1974 to Thatcher’s defeat of the miners eleven years later).

Or there’s a shorter answer, which hinges on the dates of British accession to the EEC (1973) and the Treaty of Maastricht (1993). The odd thing about these dates, though, is that the age cohorts they suggest are ten years out. (NB this paragraph has been updated: the first draft suggested that these dates did work. The first draft was wrong.) Before 1973 Britain wasn’t in the ‘Common Market’. In 1973, today’s 60-year-olds were 15, but 50-year-olds only 5: this would suggest that the European project as a whole is a live issue for over-60s but nobody younger. (Survey says: over-70s.) Before 1993, on the other hand, Britain was in the European Community but not the European Union, meaning that the longer-term project of European integration – together with Britain’s weird patchwork of opt-outs and concessions – wasn’t an issue for anyone below 15 at the time. In 1993, today’s 40-year-olds were 15, but 30-year-olds only 5: this would suggest that European integration is a live issue for over-40s but nobody younger. (Survey says: over-50s.)

Guess it’s the big generational shifts after all.

Updated: forgot the obligatory musical accompaniment. Hey, you young people…!

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.

 

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?

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