“Oh Dear”

Charlie Brooker’s end of year news round up, “2014 Wipe,” contained an interesting segment by Adam Curtis. The peg was an adviser of Vladimir Putin’s whose unique MO for controlling internal opposition was to sow paradoxical political stories in the media in order to forment confusion and paralysis. Curtis’s case is that this process is also happening here as well. I think that he somewhat overstates his case, but pretty much accurately describes the natural by-product of the rapid turnover news and opinion generation of the 24 hour news machine and social media. Comedian Frankie Boyle, covers some of the same ideas, though from a slightly different angle, in an excellent comment piece on manufactured offence and media hypocrisy. The response to the French terror attacks, barely a week into 2015, exemplifies these trends.

First we have a perfect example of one of Curtis’s contradictions.   Politicians lined up to protest in favour of “free speech,” many of them with a litany of infractions of that right to their names. Within days of the solidarity protests a controversial French comedian had been arrested for a provocative post on Facebook. American comedian, Jon Stewart, summed up the atmosphere with the quip “je suis confused.”

Besides paralysis, the major response has been the clutching of ideological comfort blankets. First, as an aside, I must deal with the response of much of the organised (and disorganised) left. A London based activist writing under the pseudonym “John Smith” sums it up in an article entitled, “The British left’s desperate confusion over Charlie Hebdo.”

“Three days ago, no-one, or almost no-one, on the British left had heard of Charlie Hebdo. Now, however, the internet and much of the leftwing blogosphere is awash with pronouncements about the paper, its contents and its political character. Since Wednesday’s shootings, it has been affirmed and reaffirmed that the cartoons of the paper are in fact racist. Perhaps most interesting and problematic in the context of recent days is the fact that so many commentators, for instance Richard Seymour, have sought to lay emphasis not merely on critiquing Charlie Hebdo’s contents, but to confer a category upon it – that of a “racist publication”.”

The clamour has been to characterise a publication that, a few months ago, most Britons had never heard of, based on the selective, out of context, quotation of some of its output, as if this made the slightest bit of difference to the moral nature of the attacks or the forces unleashed by it.  “John Smith” goes on:

“But the real question is why the contents of Charlie Hebdo are being scrutinised and denounced so thoroughly. Is it because the magazine is alone, or even particularly egregious, in its depiction of Muslims? It isn’t: France’s political and satirical culture is awash with anti-Muslim bigotry and casual orientalism, including on the left, and this is far from the first time that Muslims have been portrayed in such a way. Is it because the cartoons appeared recently? They haven’t: most date back years.

But the reason why many on the left are now concerned with attacking Charlie Hebdo is, in the vast majority of cases, not because they have been consistently concerned with the plight of French Muslims, but because several members of Charlie Hedbo’s editorial team have been murdered in cold blood, their bodies barely cold. The fact that this situation is a trigger for an emphasis on attacking the victims of the atrocity would, in a healthier political culture, be regarded as utterly perverse, even chilling. Instead, we are witnessing a desperately confused attempt to ward off a racist backlash not by opposing state violence or fascists, but by attacking the dead cartoonists as racists.”

It’s a comfort blanket and a distasteful one at that. My position on Charlie Hebdo is that even if Charlie Hebdo could be described as an “equal opportunity offender,” and even some of its former supporters questioned it (trans.), France is not an equal opportunity society. Much of the imagery used kicked down at an already marginalised group, and further stigmatised the already stigmatised.  Nevertheless, that seems almost academic in the face of the enormity of what has happened and its potential consequences.

Most of the population, not affiliated with any organised political movement, the most traditional of which having been severely weakened over recent decades, are tossed around by the tide of spontaneous emotion, harnessed by social and 24 hour news media, and intruded upon and exploited by those with longstanding agendas of their own. Within a short while there were voices snapping at the heels of the admirable spontaneous outpouring of solidarity with those murdered, trying to make poking fun at a minority religion a measure of liberal masculinity. Rod Liddle gives a round up of some of this, although the fact that he cites Cohen and Aaronovitch as surprising examples of this shows that he hasn’t been paying attention to their output.

It’s true that the Charlie Hebdo satirists lived and died in aid of a principle, albeit not one I entirely align with, and there’s much to be admired in that. Nevertheless, it is also correct to point out, as Martin Rowson has, that journalists have families. The dead Charlie Hebdo editorial team all leave behind loved ones devastated by their loss. It is also right to point out that others died alongside them, administrative and security staff and police, who didn’t pick that particular fight. Journalists have the right, when they put themselves and others on the line, to pick a cause that is worth the sacrifice.   It’s not clear that that cause is getting into a pissing match with terrorists, a diffuse, amorphous minority within a minority, whose actions they can’t control and who rarely intrude on their day to lives.   Islam and its adherents haven’t exactly been short of critics, even trenchant ones. The attacks may yet have far reaching consequences beyond the dead, injured and bereaved, emboldening forces that cannot be predicted and controlled, both violent Islamic fundamentalists and the amassing far right. The more recent attacks in Denmark only add to the danger, as would any repetition.

The official response of the Government to the increased terrorist threat has manifested in the onward march of the counter-“extremism-” whatever that ill-defined concept might mean- agenda, blurring the lines between real acts in incitement, preparation and recruitment for terrorism, and the promulgation of ideas that the authorities find distasteful or threatening. Faced with the daunting threat of domestic terrorism the Government has sought refuge in the illusion of ideological control. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Antisemitism (a concept it defines expansively), have taken the opportunity presented by the focus on the dangers faced by some parts of European Jewry, to bang the drum. John Mann MP, co-chair of that group, writes at Labour List:

“A second theme in the report which relates to language, is ensuring a responsible public debate. Sadly, on a cross-party basis, some of the language about the Middle East conflict was simply unacceptable. There has been much discussion of the ‘right to offend’ in recent weeks and whilst free speech is a critical and central facet of our democracy, that does not mean that we should accept trends towards grossly offensive, misleading and indeed antisemitic rhetoric in our public debate. The trivialization of the Holocaust, accusations of dual loyalty and malign influence and the categorisation of Jews as ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ were all recurring themes during the summer and we discuss them in depth in our report. We on the left must solemnly reflect on the nature of our discourse. Public figures and institutions should be setting a responsible tone for our national debate and whilst we recommend clear guidance in this area, avoiding the dangerous themes to which I have referred would be wise.

Appropriately for a blog, the fourth theme relates to modernising the fight against antisemitism. Those that followed the horrendous abuse against Luciana Berger and against me having defended her, will understand clearly the need for action against the perpetrators of cyber hate. A key recommendation of the report relates to the use of prevention orders to limit the abuse spewed out by the most determined delinquents.”

This would all seem to be very reasonable were it not for the fact that Mr Mann had been personally discredited at in court over some of the very same issues. In a judgement regarding an employment tribunal between maths teacher, Ronnie Fraser, and the University and Colleges Union the Judge describes a meeting arising out of a previous report by the APPG:

“The meeting was not particularly a productive one. Ms Hunt and Mr Mackney referred to parts of the report which had described Jewish students feeling threatened on campus and explained that they wished for further information because that matter called for investigation. The parliamentarians did not provide any detail and did not genuinely respond to that inquiry at all. Mr Mann led for them and the more conciliatory tone of Dr MacShane gave way to a somewhat hostile display in which Mr Mann made no bones about his view that the union was operating in an anti-Semitic way and that those at its head must address the problem. He did not explain what the anti-Semitic behaviour was supposed to have consisted of besides referring to the boycott debate and characterising any boycott of Israel or Israeli institutions as itself anti-Semitic.”

On Mr Mann and disgraced former MP Denis Macshane, he further states:

“We did not derive assistance from the two Members of Parliament who appeared before us. Both gave glib evidence, appearing supremely confident of the rightness of their positions. For Dr MacShane, it seemed that all answers lay in the MacPherson Report (the effect of which he appeared to misunderstand). Mr Mann could manage without even that assistance. He told us that the leaders of the Respondents were at fault for the way in which they conducted debates but did not enlighten us as to what they were doing wrong or what they should be doing differently. He did not claim ever to have witnessed any Congress or other UCU meeting. And when it came to anti- Semitism in the context of debate about the Middle East, he announced, “It’s clear to me where the line is …” but unfortunately eschewed the opportunity to locate it for us. Both parliamentarians clearly enjoyed making speeches. Neither seemed at ease with the idea of being required to answer a question not to his liking.”

It certainly sounds like Mr Mann is exactly the kind of individual we do not want arbitrating on “responsible” public discourse.

Europe faces a great many serious issues arising from the attacks that need to be discussed. The fact that the killers were able to access Kalashnikovs and later robbed a petrol station with rocket propelled grenades, and this apparently wasn’t the first time, raises serious questions, mainly about the mainland EU’s open border arrangements under Schengen, whereby the EU acts as a single state with it’s borders close to some of Europe’s least economically developed and most historically stable regions. The fact that the only politicians in France seriously questioning this are on the far right bodes ill, and is potentially another example, along with the single currency, of Euro-idealism sowing the seeds of its own destruction.

A second, more complex, issue is how European countries deal with their increasingly multi-cultural demographics. In contrast with North America, where multiculturalism has been written into the state’s DNA from conception, European societies have had a much more ambivalent relationship towards these changes. The conflict between an elite that supports increased multiculturalism for (variously) economic and ideological reasons, and populist resistance, has led to this ambivalence being expressed in unhealthy and disingenuous ways. Everyone supports multiculturalism in principle, so the enforced consensus goes, were it not for the fact that real, existing minorities are so awful. In France this has manifested itself in the debate over religious dress, discomfort at increased ethnic diversity targeted at its most visible and yet inanimate form.

In the UK this has manifested in various ways, one example being the fallout of the “Trojan Horse” affair (which was allowed to grow the extent it did almost entirely as the result of the Government’s own academies policy) and the Government’s response calling for the schools to be judged on their fostering of “British values,” again, whatever that might mean. Tasked with translating a racist dog whistle into something that could be applied with the appearance of even-handedness, Ofsted has been reduced to quizzing 11 year olds on their knowledge of LGBT, and sixth-formers on their knowledge of current affairs and citizenship.*   In another example of the creep of the anti-extremism agenda, schools with a significant Muslim intake are now at the mercy of pupils external social media activity. The other recent example was a failed prosecution of a doctor for “FGM,” arising out of some allegedly misplaced stitches in a post-partum patient.** The allegation is that the CPS pursued the prosecution due to political pressure over the lack of prosecutions for FGM, the focus on which had arisen out of a combination of legitimate human rights concerns and moral panic over the “backward” practices associated with some ethnic groups.

I believe that countries that are already largely mono-cultural have the right to make the political decision to remain that way but such countries, including our own, need to take ownership of those wishes and more broadly what sort of society they want to become. The issues arising out of these attacks require a nuanced and informed public conversation. Less than two months later, with the caravan already moving on, this is unlikely to take place. And all that is left is clamour and noise and it’s hard to see what to do about that.  As Adam Curtis put it, “oh dear.”

*The latter would not have been so bad had they introduced this new focus on citizenship education with proposed syllabuses, greater allotted curriculum time and training for teachers rather than holding schools immediately accountable for the arbitrary whims of government ministers. The other question begged by this episode, since the school in question was overwhelmingly White British, is what else the values show by those pupils were, for better or worse, if not British?

**The elephant in the room in this case, is the fact that many doctors maim and even kill their patients through poor judgment up and down the country, and are very rarely subject to criminal investigation. Why then should Dr Dharmasena ended up in front of a jury rather than the usual disciplinary processes, whatever he may or may not have done?

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