Anti-Semitism & the Labour Party

People seem to be very tribal. Travelling the world, it’s hard not to conclude that they’re almost all racist. Not necessarily vindictively so, but often even that. Even among the swelling ranks of Corbyn supporters, denouncing straw-man Conservatives for intolerance and xenophobia, it’s not uncommon to find surprisingly ethnically homogenous friendship groups, and a tendency to avoid substantive conversation — or, even, eye contact — when faced with someone speaking English as a second language.

For much of European history, Jewish communities were a major — if not the principal — target for racism. They’re not any more. They’re certainly not in the UK. Members of the white British Generation X know exactly whom the most nationalist, bigoted, and isolationist elements of society have goaded each other to tease, bully, deprecate, or tyrannise over the past thirty or forty years. And the targets are all more recent immigrant communities.

It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing, for me to say that at school through the 1980s and 1990s, I happily don’t recall a single incident of Jewish schoolfriends being a target for racism. By contrast, then and since, I can’t begin to recall the number of incidents that have left me winded over racism targeted at South Asian, Afro-Caribbean, or East Asian friends, partners, or even strangers.

In the South East of England, I had a harder time for being thin than my Jewish friends had for being Jewish. Other friends had a way harder time for having acne, or for being gay. Without doubt, experiences would have been different, and worse, for Jewish children living in more culturally homogenous enclaves, geographically adjacent to — but socially detached from — other British communities. Mine is an idiosyncratic account but, being the direct experience of over 40 years in provincial England, one that is hard for me to completely dismiss as a test of attitudes outside of particular regional flashpoints.

That there is a specifically anti-Jewish racism penetrating the UK body politic — something different to the racism that depressingly menaces relations between all communities — is a notion I’ve not experienced. That, I must emphatically convey, is not to claim that the crime has not been committed, but rather a confession that I can’t offer myself as witness to it.

That this particular strain of social pathology in endemic within the Labour Party membership — to an order that almost defines it demographically against the Conservative Party membership — seems an even more eccentric idea. It is, at best, a happily anachronistic anxiety. At worst, it’s a political device.

Many of us grew up with no axe to grind in the Middle East, had uninformed parents that were unable to make head nor tail of Middle East politics, and a mainstream media narrative that attributed the woes in Israel to a terrorist called Yasser Arafat, who hijacked planes, bombed civilians, and cackled at his victims’ demise like a cartoon villain.

Those of us that went on to discover that the region had a somewhat more complex past and present, unwittingly also went on to discover a second expanse of unchartered territory: that is, being on the receiving end of accusations of racism. Except not for the name-calling, teasing, or bullying that we’d witnessed on racial lines at school, but: for publicly demurring over Israeli government policy.

And right here is, for any newcomers to this political domain, a baptism of fire: A surprising number of people support security policies in Israel that are so dramatically deleterious to Palestinian civic life that they would be unconscionable in Britain. And yet to criticise those policies, with no agenda beyond challenging a friendly nation to manage criminality with more civility, can put you in a uniquely invidious position. Protesting against issues such as ‘detention without trial’ — uncontroversial if levelled at, say, North Korea — weaves you into a discursive tapestry that, by merely following the path of your conscience, can leave you depicted as the xenophobe.

Ever present in this ethical and political labyrinth is the shadow of the Holocaust, and it’s easy to appreciate why. But the unprecedented, industrial scale of human suffering inflicted upon European Jewry less than a hundred years ago is not, first and foremost, a Jewish tragedy: it’s a human tragedy. Any greater ethnolinguistic affiliation I might have with the British prisoners of war working on the Burma Railway, than I do with Jewish families summarily murdered in Eastern European death camps, counts for nothing when reflecting on their fate. They’re all my cousins, and the horrors they endured rank equal to me — in empathy, in sorrow, in opprobrium, and in fact.

Any other view would be a benign version of the ethnic, cultural, or religious exceptionalism that, in its most malignant form, mandated the atrocities in the first place.

And, given how easy it remains to imagine, in flashpoints across the globe, the word ‘Jew’ being displaced by ‘Yazidi’, or ‘Rohingya’, or even by ‘gay’, the relevance and poignancy of our collective memory of the Holocaust is not set to diminish any time soon.

Ethnocentric fascists in the early 20th Century framed, and then blamed, ‘other people’ for society’s problems in an act of political expediency that won them a mandate, at the cost of millions slain. Each time lobbyists invoke pejoratives reserved for those ideologues — purveyors of among the most evil doctrines ever to have terrorised humanity — to institutions as benign as the modern-day Labour Party, another pillar of the history’s potency collapses.

The misuse of history’s most important lessons by the most conservative elements of Israel’s political defenders, in order to silence its most vocal critics, is squandering one of the most valuable pedagogical assets that humanity owes posterity.

Illustration © 2017 Rikki Hewitt

War Games

There’s a wealth of critical histories of the lives of British subjects during the colonial era. But if any of those histories presents a narrative that suggests the colonial system was primarily an abuse of power, an agent for rapacious politics and economics — or that the empire might have imposed itself upon its subjects at their exclusive cost, for the exclusive benefit of the imperial haute monde — it quickly becomes the subject of controversy. Niall Ferguson fumbles for his mobile to answer a Radio 4 producer, and gets ready for an early morning huff on the Today Programme, applauded by terraces of readers, fans, or otherwise indignant, besmirched listeners.

At the root of their rancour is, essentially, the assumption that the end justifies the means — be that proverbial end either: (a) railways; (b) a globalised economy; (c) political institutions; or (d) some other bequest sufficiently dignified or sexy to warrant trans-generational gratitude.

My principal contention with their contention is not ideological but, rather, the enduring lack of consistency. We see it each time the same constituency unites in a chorus of antipathy towards our political enemies. Reflecting on their own totalitarian past, they celebrate it, boast about it, eulogise and dramatise its most violent proponents, recreate and reminisce in endless lavish dramas for stage and screen, and neutralise its political toxicity by presenting it as an essential part of a process.

A process that, it’s claimed, led via Magna Carta, the Provisions of Oxford, and the Bill of Rights, to parliamentary democracy and, ultimately, to universal suffrage.

Faced with the Edwards of their political enemies, however, they pity their system, malign its beneficiaries, and advocate for its victims: first in sententious rhetoric, and later by bombing them.

Contrast, for example, mainstream opinion over the Kim family’s culpability for the North Korean famine with the same constituency’s opinion over the British Government’s culpability for the Bengal famine or, closer to home, the Irish famine. Most interesting is when you garner that opinion from those who openly confess to knowing very little about either. Try it at home! We’re peculiarly, and reliably, more tolerant of our own totalitarianism than others’.

Whilst making sense of whether we’re in the throws of a 21st Century Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s easy for amnesia to set in, in regard to how little we know about life in North Korea. The most interesting insights have been those that have challenged the western public’s received wisdom — with photos of normal people going about their lives in Pyongyang, candid photos of families playing at seaside resorts, or accounts of restaurant and market life on the Vladivostok border. As the growing montage of images of Pyongyang increasingly dispels visions of the dilapidated, Soviet-era basket-case city imagined by the western public, so the story grows of a city reserved for the privileged elite. Yet, housing 2.5m souls, or 10% of the national population, how relatively different is the exclusivity of Pyongyang from that of the affluent residential centres of London, New York, and Hong Kong?

The mainstream media consensus is doing little to enrich or inform public discourse, preferring instead to merely reaffirm poorly informed preconceptions, allowing the readership to nod through the analysis without pausing for thought.

North Korea is now, unambiguously, a nuclear state — so any ambitions, strategies, and actions based around preventing that outcome have failed, and western foreign policy must now be reframed. If there was ever a state for which ‘nuclear deterrent’ wasn’t simply a euphemism, it’s North Korea. Now with three children, Kim’s primary concern will be the continuation of his dynasty, which he well knows will end the day he invades his neighbours. So he will not. If a future smoking gun that triggered World War III on the Korean peninsula has North Korean fingerprints on it, they were put there by the PR agents of Kim’s enemies.

Left alone, the sociopolitical environment in North Korea will evolve, like it will everywhere else — and probably more swiftly in the absence of a foreign invasion force thirty miles across the border. Commentators and policymakers in the west still committed to their unique brand of sententious schizophrenia, which holds that we mustn’t sit idle while North Korean citizens suffer — but must instead send our children to kill theirs — are still living in Kissinger’s Cold War reality distortion field.

When the informational landscape is so sparse, as it is with North Korea, we should be suspicious when the public discourse is filled with more answers than questions. To some, North Korea may be intolerable; to some, it may simply be home; to others, it may be a source of pride. We could say the same of our contemporaries from Edwardian England. And perhaps Song China might have looked on in pity for England’s 13th Century peasants, and mused intervention with their greater social, political, and technological sophistication. How kindly do readers think imperialist Chinese warrior-philanthropists might have been received by England’s Plantagenet subjects?

Through the western cultural lens, the dress, style, language, and tone of North Korea is one-dimensional, tyrannical, eccentric, absurd. North Korea continues to fulfil the stereotype of the Cold War Bond villain. Trump says, in opposition to the new South Korean president’s nascent policy of appeasement, that there’s only one thing that the North Koreans understand — one of the few Trumpian claims considered uncontroversial by the wider public. But, in its anxiety to survive, North Korean policy has exposed the bitter irony of that premise. In the superpower’s unwillingness to relinquish its monopoly on power in the Pacific, there’s only one language that US foreign policy understands. And, with a nuclear deterrent, Kim’s speaking it fluently.

‘Enough is Enough’

Beyond the immediate violence and horror of a terrorist attack, and its wider fallout, the last of its victims is always perspective. It’s designed to be.

For the desperately unfortunate minority directly affected by heinous acts of violence, that perspective might reasonably be unrecoverable. For the more fortunate majority, it’s essential it never slips from our grasp.

It seems that the sub-cerebral response of an alarming range of political figures—if someone’s stabbed, bombed, or shot by some petty criminal-turned suicidal zealot—is to ramp-up public surveillance, erode civil liberties, dismantle civil protections within the criminal justice system, rant about ‘cowardly acts’, and anthropomorphise cities.

I’m unclear whether that’s because certain policymakers perceive an opportunity in the lack of public perspective, or whether they simply lack perspective themselves. In either case, what’s even more worrying is that the public seems to be in a growing state of consensus with them — if not emulation.

Usefully, The Telegraph on Sunday cited some figures from the Global Terrorism Database, which are altogether more helpful than HM Government’s public statements for making sense of recent chaos:

UK Deaths Owing To Terrorism

15-year period Number of Deaths
2000-2015 90
1985-1999 1,094
1970-1984 2,211

To add further perspective, I looked up the Office for National Statistics’ figures on UK homicides, which record 518 murders in the UK in the year ending March, 2015. Of these, 186 victims were women, of which 82 were murdered by their partner or ex-partner. That was, continuing a decade-long trend, the lowest number of homicides in ten years.

So:

  • 2015 saw the lowest number of UK homicides in the late modern era.
  • In 2015, 82 women were murdered by their partner or ex-partner.
  • In the 15 years from 2000-2015, 90 people were murdered in terrorist incidents.

If it’s a question of quantum, heterosexual relationships appear to be a greater threat to public safety than extremist Islam, by a factor of 15.

Shouldn’t we be affording crimes of passion 15 times the disapprobation than we afford a crime of terror? Has the heterosexual community had too little to say on the subject, given the heinous atrocities committed by its members?

With the benefit of perspective, we readily attribute cases of criminal violence to a minority of nut-jobs who have fallen off the wagon, and park the problem with the criminal justice system. Without perspective, we readily attribute cases of criminal violence to a wider narrative, and seek solutions from law makers, rather than from law enforcement. The threat becomes quantified by column inches, social media real estate, and leveraged by pre-existing prejudices.

The threat of ‘Islamic terrorism’ has been a constant background noise in the informational world of western societies since 2001, and wider debate about the true nature, origins, and threats, is not one I’m suggesting that we mute. But, in the meantime, Khuram Butt’s decision to watch the Champion’s League final, and then embark on a murder-suicide rampage in a hired van, simply must not be used to calibrate civil liberties. And if Abedi’s murder of 23 people in Manchester alters someone’s perceptions of British Muslims, more than Harold Shipman’s murder of over 230 people alters their perceptions of white British GPs, we need to understand why.

Trump/Paris

Ok, so he pulled the trigger.

Or did he?!

Trump wants the withdrawal to be ‘consistent with the Paris accord’, which White House officials have confirmed to mean that the US will remain in the accord until November 2020 — that is to say, throughout Trump’s remaining term of office.

In the meantime: ‘We’re getting out, but we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair’.

But the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, cited in the FT, stated that within the accord: ‘The US does not need to negotiate with others to adjust its contributions’.

Trump is pulling the US out. But leaving the US in for the remainder of his term. And he is going to adjust the US’s contributions, by negotiation — which the accord already allowed him to do, without negotiation.

Isn’t this just more Trumpian political theatre, placating his base by muscling to the centre of the global stage and making bombastic public statements, whilst quietly leaving almost all of the existing state machinery largely untouched?

Under the fiscal austerity of the Tory government, a highly controversial benefits cap has been established — at an income level that would secure a beneficiary his or her place amongst the top 1% wealthiest people in the world.

And most of the remaining 99% of the global population have to pay for their treatment of serious illness and long-term care out of that lesser income, or die painfully at home.

When voters wonder at the self-interest of the top 1% of UK earners, they might do so by reflecting on their own financial choices — and how they might be judged by the 99% of the global population that will regard them with similar moral despair.

While the UK population carries on its pillow fight in the business class cabin of humanity, those of us genuinely wanting a system that serves the greater good must engage the various constituencies that we share our highly privileged society with. That means selling a progressive agenda to the growing population that now enjoys unprecedented property wealth.

These are not people that fit the widely maligned conservative caricature, but rather comprise a generation that has worked hard to adapt to an unfair system — and who may fear their hard-won gains will be diminished by a political shift.

Preserving and advancing a progressive agenda can be achieved only with information, negotiation, and compromise. Nothing will be won by demonising the increasingly established middle class; by trading in soundbites, headlines, and incomplete or decontextualised factoids; or by a slavish commitment to the increasingly anachronistic wings of political ideology. The traditional left must engage the middle classes in a more cerebral and nuanced debate regarding who gets what, and how it’s funded — and to unite all classes on internationalism over nationalism.

The virtues of a stiff upper lip took a bashing in the lead up to the London Marathon, with the House of Windsor Millennials extolling the greater virtues of opening up about your feelings.

Personally, I’m all for droning on about me to the couple of poor sods whom I’ve learned will let me get away with it. I’m equally happy to listen: Despite too much casual judging of people that I don’t really know, when eyeball-to-eyeball with another human being I’m all ears.

Bob Hoskins was right all those years ago: It’s good to talk.

What I’m less certain about is consigning a growing share of our emotional life to mental health professionals. I won’t be depositing the most awkward parts of my mental life in the sickness account. Naturally, some of those that choose to do so — before or after the Heads Together campaign — may claim that their experiences are more disabling than mine. But that is a stubbornly complex claim.

Our biological life loaned the word ‘health’ to our mental life long before now. But as recently as the second half of the last century, leading left intellectuals dedicated their energy to deconstructing the role of mental illness as an establishment weapon, rather than to expanding its scope. Mental illness was, the likes of Foucault opined, a device for marginalising people, ideas, and behaviours that the state deemed undesirable — marginalising, very often, by way of incarceration.

Modern democracies marginalise people, ideas, and behaviours, on an arguably unprecedented scale — only in more subtle ways than incarceration. Subtle ways that might, indeed, benefit from increasingly subtle notions of mental illness. Powerful systems, particularly systems of power, adapt well to public demands, often granting them as a smokescreen for widening their own remit.

Care workers that spend their working lives assisting the most difficult autistic clients, or violent schizophrenics, may cite good cause to reject the theory that mental illness is fundamentally a myth. But it remains compelling that explanations for more common seemingly pathological emotions and behaviours — from stress, anxiety and depression, to alcoholism and suicide — might be less energetically sought from the individual, and more from the society we live in.

Mental health science relies in large part on the assumption of a certain ‘biological ~ psychological’ equivalence. It’s assumed, widely without challenge, that both might be understood in similar terms, and described in similar language; that both might be either healthy, or unhealthy, and — when the latter — treated in the same or similar institutions. It’s an assumption that is in the DNA of the political rhetoric in lobbying efforts for changes in public policy: in particular, for the expansion of public service provisions for mental health issues.

On the face of it, this is a progressive agenda. But the expansion of public services must not be mistaken as a discrete benefit that can be won without a cost. Beyond simply new fiscal implications, every benefit won brings an additional part of our life into the realm of public policy.

The state response to health issues has long been cross-departmental. Policy relative to smoking-related diseases is not limited to funding treatment: it extends to product-specific excise duty to regulate consumer choice; regulation of the advertising industry; regulation of behaviour in public and private spaces; information campaigns, and broader deployment of soft power to influence public life.

Many of us may agree that this is an example that has served the greater good. But it is important not to sleepwalk through the lesson that in the wake of our new entitlements, we are subject to new regulations. New provisions are woven into public policy, extending government reach, insidiously; irreversibly; in perpetuity.

In the wider context of many government departments — including the Department of Health — being granted the right to request UK citizens’ web browsing history, the state has already leveraged technological and legislative tools to gain unprecedented access to our psychological life. In our pursuit of mental health entitlement spending, we seem more likely to secure a Faustian pact than a more progressive social policy.

Our liberation from the morally and emotionally constipated sensibilities of our Victorian forefathers is a triumph for society that warrants a public holiday. Perniciously pathologising our thought processes, however, threatens rather than crystallises that liberation.

The current generation’s willingness, or otherwise, to endure with a stiff upper lip might have significant implications on the reach of the state into our children’s psychological world. Chaos theory’s butterfly wings flap particularly vigorously across generations of lawmakers.

Better Together?

Under the leadership of one of the most credible contemporary political voices, and with just historical context, it’s no surprise to see the SNP stirring for another crack of the independence whip. More so, one might say, being faced as they are with a predominantly English vote to leave the EU.

It speaks volumes about the enduring Celtic enmity—with the Anglo-Saxon invader—that Scotland’s mourning of ‘ever closer union’ with Germanic tribes on the continental mainland gives reason for its ever greater disunion with the Germanic tribes closest to home.

In a fervour to distance ourselves from English nationalists, it would be easy for me and many of my English comrades to brother-up with Scottish nationalists in an act of Anglo-bashing empathy. Particularly, that is, for those of us that take no pride in the Edwards’ perversely celebrated obsession with using every manner of innovation in politics, economics and violence to bring independent Celtic kingdoms to the English monarchic heel. Or for those of us that are embarrassed by the muted tones in which Anglo-centric histories of Imperial Britain whisper of its Scottish economic, intellectual and cultural backbone.

But, in an increasingly fragile global system, with new, powerful state actors—already in conflict over territory, resources, and influence—I find it hard to parse the grammar of Scottish secessionist ambitions.

There’s also the inevitably nationalist premise of the project. As a general historical observation: whatever is said in mainstream media, rumour, and pub talk about the nihilism of Islamic terrorism, there’s been no greater force for bigotry, intolerance, and militaristic arrogance than nationalism. There has been no greater scourge of human solidarity than the cesspit of ideas that have festered under its banner. Even the most infamous religious wars in medieval Europe were largely using pontifical doctrine as a proxy for nationalism.

Those aggravating for ever-greater fragmentation of the most socio-culturally liberal bloc in the contemporary world—be it the UK dissolving its union with Europe, or Scotland dissolving its union with the UK—may ultimately celebrate their self-determination in increasingly inaudible cheers. The progressive decline of our collective cultural, political and economic relevance—however ardently dismissed by the nationalists as hyperbolic guff—is inevitable. That includes the diminishment of the Enlightenment values of logic and equity — the genesis of many of humanity’s most sane aspirations, and a particularly poignant reference in a discussion about Scotland.

However shrill it may sound on the lips of an Englishman, surely we’re Better Together.