Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Lament of a Woolly Liberal

By Euclides Montes @Gatulino

I’m worried. That in itself isn’t new, worrying is the favourite pastime of us woolly liberals. In fact, worrying is precisely the reason that I haven’t eaten anything Nestlé in years, or why I have never had a cup of coffee from Starbucks in my life.

But this is different. Overt racism, currently in vogue in its Islamophobic manifestation, is suddenly thriving in the United Kingdom [and The West at large] and it really worries me. Worse than that, I would argue that liberals are giving these formerly extremist views an almost free passage into middle ground politics. When fear mongering about Muslims ‘conquering Europe’s cities, street by street’ is not only accepted but praised and commentators are confident to make statements like ‘The Serbs figured [it] out... if you can’t outbreed the enemy, cull’em’, I worry that we have a serious problem on our hands. A problem compounded by a self-imposed liberal myopia that refuses to accept the prevalence of racism in our society.

No matter where you stand on the issue, it would be hard to deny that racists and racism are apparent through all levels of society right now. They are in the papers that we read, they are representing some of us in office, they are gaining a legitimate foothold in the national discourse. Heck, they are so confident that they’re taking to streets, in numbers.

And Islam seems to be taking the brunt of this xenophobic wave that’s washed up on our shores. For instance, the English Defence League (EDL) is slowly but surely becoming more confident in its actions, and its arguments are more honed to deliver a message through which Muslims are invariably cast as the proverbial boogie men. And what’s even more surprising is that whilst hundreds of EDL protesters marched through the streets, throwing Nazi salutes and racist chants, most of my friends [well educated folk and mostly woolly liberals like me] are unaware of the EDL's existence, let alone their actions. You could argue that the EDL by themselves aren't actually the main problem, the main problem is that the EDL are just the tip of the iceberg you see. Wherever they go, the ugly face of racism appears. They’ll be marching through the streets of Manchester later this week and the signs of yet another wave of racial attacks have begun propping up everywhere. Just last Friday, over 25 Muslim graves were desecrated in the Southern Cemetery in Manchester, an item of news that didn’t even get a couple of lines in any national newspaper. It worries me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we’re experiencing the dark days of fascism all over again but no matter how many times we joke about the way they look, how many times we dismiss their views as marginal, how many photoshopped pictures of their leaders sporting toothbrush moustaches we release on the blogOsphere, no matter how inconsequential we feel it is that some of them gained public office, dismissing it as nothing more than a ‘fluke’ or a ‘wake up call for the mainstream parties’. No matter any of these things, the racists are moving further and further towards the centre and they’ll openly be on our televisions soon. And soon we’ll have to hand over a large wad of taxpayers money to these elected members in public office for their campaigns. No, I’m not suggesting we’re experiencing the worst of fascist racism but it worries me how easy it has been for them.

And what worries me even more is how much of the responsibility for this sad state of affairs – where a person of Nick Griffith’s calibre is one of our faces in Europe and a legitimate political option in the United Kingdom – lies in the heart of the mainstream left. Many would argue that racism has always been there and that closet Mosleyians are just feeling more confident in expressing their views, making this fresh wave of overt racism a bi-product of complex social circumstances. But none of these arguments gets us off the hook. We cannot dismiss the intellectual bankruptcy in leftist flanks that has allowed this situation to arise.

Whereas previously the Griffiths, Caldwells and Manchester rioters of this world would’ve been met by a strong, committed left; confident in its own values, arguments and merits. Whereas before we could have seen off the challenge of a racist party in electoral contest, now, we have to sit and stare. Now, the only heated arguments we feel confident to hold are with other lefties about the tactical merits of ‘going green’. We’ve lost our intellectual backbone, if you ask me. Where are our EP Thompsons and our Battles of Lewisham? Even that vanguard of left-of-centre journalism The Guardian can sometimes get muddled up in the dark waters of centrist appeasing. You can go and blame Tony Blair for that. I blame all of us.

When faced with these great political challenges of the 21st Century, we’ve resorted to navel gazing. When faced with one of the greatest racist uprisings in our country in the last 50 years, we have resorted to the intellectual equivalent of ringing doorbells and running away. We are far too ready to shout ‘racist’ but not that willing to stand our ground and defend our point. This cerebral anaemia is not only unacceptable but it’s also untenable in modern society.

We need to be ready and willing to challenge racism wherever we may find it, whatever shape it takes. Dismissing someone’s fears over foreign appropriation of jobs or the country being ‘overrun’ by over-breeding, benefit-claiming asylum seekers as simply racist without instead providing a reasoned and sensible challenge to these views, is not only unhelpful but worse, it helps recruit supporters for those who are trying to stir up feelings of victimisation for the "indigenous population". Regardless of whether they are backed up by fact or reality, the concerns of the British working class people who are now turning their backs on the Labour party and are instead joining ranks with the likes of the EDL are genuine concerns that cannot, and should not be dismissed with a cry of racism. Our reluctance to face these issues head on has paved the way for a malignant racist minority in our society to successfully foster a culture of misinformation, rife with stereotypes and prejudice. It’s our duty to challenge them rather than dismiss them. Crying ‘racist’ only plays into the hands of the wolf.

This brings me back to my original point. Muslims are the main target of that part of our society where prejudice and xenophobia breed and prosper. And although I truly believe that the open hostility towards this important part of our society is purely symptomatic of a deeper, more dangerous and, suddenly, more confident and vocal racist streak embedded in the very fabric of western culture, I worry about the immediate consequences this may have, especially if the Left doesn’t come out of the wilderness with a revived sense of purpose and, more importantly, a stronger intellectual backbone. Until then, I worry about what might happen. But I guess I’d say that because I’m a woolly liberal, right?

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  1. I'm not normally one to jump on the it's-the-media's-fault bandwagon", but, when Ian Wright can go on national tv and say the recent storm around Anton du Beke is "political correctness gone mad", then we know we're in a particularly worrying time.

    Excellent article Euclides, the more people start talking about this, the sooner we can shut it down.

  2. Fantastic summary of the problem. I'm still in two minds about attending the counter-demo on Saturday: I don't want to add to the idea that the "indigenous population" are being attacked or silenced but I also can't think of an alternative way to show opposition to the EDL.

  3. 'Hey chill out guys. Racism is ok these days! Haven't you heard? It's cool now! Just kidding. Sorry to start off my response in a jokey manner but the serious point behind it will be explained at the end'.

    I agree, liberals have gone soft on combating hatred. For much of the last decade we have had fairly good grounds for dropping our guard. For the majority of the 12 years under Labour we enjoyed a society where overt racism came close to extinction. There were no large-scale BNP rallies, equal opportunities pervaded everything we did, read or spoke about, political correctness was not an oblique notion it was a fact of life and the socio-cultural status of black and ethnic minority people in Britain reached higher levels than ever. The complacency of the left has been to sleep walk through the past 3 or 4 years in which the right wing press has had free reign in inventing lies about illegal immigrants, gypsies, eastern European migrants and Muslims. The Labour government in particular the Home Office gave the right wing a helping hand in this respect through sheer incompetence. In failing to do a straightforward function; keeping accurate records of who is and isn’t in the country.

    The fuel this gave to the Daily Mail was immense. It forced Labour into many public admissions and to change its liberal tack on immigration to hardline to win political points. The effect of these measures by the Labour has been to legitimise racism. Institutionally, socially, covertly or overtly, racists now have ‘evidence’ to back up their propaganda.

    How does the left fight back? The Anti-Nazi League rallies of the early 90s are now few and far between, instead we prefer to pretend there are no fascists on the streets on England. Yet the fear of racist violence is returning. Here is something to ponder, should violence be met with violence?

    The Battle of Waterloo in 1992, one of the last of its kind, involved the ANL, AFA and other militant anti fascist groups attacking skinheads with half bricks, chains and bottles. It was extremely violent. The anti fascists won and until recently we have not seen large collections of fascists like that on our streets. So, was violence the answer?

    Of course organised racism in Britain today is more subtle in its approach. No seig heiling, bovver boots or combat jackets. Instead Griffin and his cronies couch everything in ‘the threat to indigenous Britons’, ‘the priority given to non whites to Muslims to gays’. This is how they are winning the hearts and minds of young naïve people in Britain today, in communities where prospects are bleak and it is easy to find targets to blame. I believe where violence is meted out by fascists, that violence should be met blow for blow…(contd.)

  4. (contd.)
    But the real answer to fight the new wave of racism is to continue integrating and reinforce the structures of multiculturalism that made this country one of the most mixed and accepting societies in the world. The nonsense talked recently about multiculturalism having failed, restrictions on immigration, the removal of funding for minority groups by the likes of Boris Johnson and the coalition with far right groups by the Conservative party seems to prove that politics is not addressing the problem but rather pandering to ignorance and bigotry. The power and the will of the people will be the only thing to succeed. I for one am still convinced that racists form a small minority in this country. Most British people recognise and stand up against fascism when they see it, and always have done. We can and most continue to.

    To end by going back to my original quip, the serious point is that liberals like us have become too comfortable with the notion that ‘everyone is enlightened nowadays it’s ok to joke about racism’. A danger exists here; misinterpretation and missing the underlying point. While the subversive genius irony of Ricky Gervais, Brass Eye or Alan Partridge is important in laughing at racist tendencies through the comedic tool of faux bigotry, when this humour is misinterpreted as ‘it’s now ok to laugh at anyone we like for any reason’ we have a problem.

    It is down to liberals to address these problems, not hide from them, or sit worrying about them. Raise awareness, protest, write about it, shout about it, just do something!

  5. Richard John Grayson7 October 2009 at 19:45

    I'm not really sure what to say, I debated whether or not to reply at all but here I am. I'll start by saying I teach. I teach Citizenship and I teach in an area that reaks of racism.

    One of the major aims of Citizenship is to explore the diversity of British identity...it is of course worth noting that this wasn't an original aim of the subject and infact was a result of a critique that the subject treated British ethnic minorities as an 'after thought'...I'm not really sure why I mention I teach it at all, apart from the fact that I am very proud that I am somebody who is as Josh says is "doing something"

    That 'doing something' is tiring. There is barely a day that goes by that I don't challenge some form of racism. I truely believe that on the whole it is just ignorant spouting and there is no real hatred but I'm not sure that makes it any better. It is tiring, I see my students maybe 3 times a fortnight for an hour. Not long to challenge/deal with all the misinformation they have in thier heads

    Education is key, as a teacher I am bound to say this, but its true. Lots of the rising levels of racism is based on misinformation, or rather the opportunism based on misinformation or misunderstanding. You combat misunderstanding/information by teaching. I have entire lessons where I just list the statistics of British Diversity, I have a whole lesson about what the defintion of "British" actually is (extremely inclusive and wide if you didn't know"...2 weeks ago I did another "The BNP are racist because..." lessons. And yes I said that exact sentence.

    I've now tried to write this final paragraph about 5 times so I am going to cut to it. I agree we ALL need to do something. Racism is and will be everybodies problem. Its true we are not in the bad terrible times of extreme facism, but then Nazi germany started with little racist jokes about jewish people. Things like Citizenship education and diversity teaching more generally are, at least addressing if not openly confronting racism. But what else is going on?

    Ok I think I'm done. I'm pretty sure I didn't have a point but maybe I made it anyway!

  6. Candice Carboo-Ofulue11 October 2009 at 15:59

    I aggree with Rachel. I am insulted by the calibre of discussions, which have taken a hold of our television and radio stations following Anton Du Beke's recent racist remarks towards dance partner, Laita Rouass. Whilst I welcome the debate, questions such as "Should he resign?" or "Should his apology have been more heartfelt?" would be more suitable in a goldfish bowl; another example of how a diet of overconsumption and reality programmes has deteriorated meaningful discussion to the level of sound bites and clichés. Maybe some well known talk programmes (or whatever they're calling them these days) should stick to maternity tests. Although it could be argued that I am expecting too much from a debate that has its origins in Strictly Come Dancing; a programme in which a bunch of arguably talentless celebrities attempt to master the skills of at least six different dance genres in a matter of weeks, I can't help but feel that the issue of racism, with all its nuanced complexities, is worthy a little more thought.

    The only real question should be "Why did he not know that his remarks would have been offensive, before they were made?" Ask any person of Asian descent if they would have been offended and they will probably tell you "Yes". So why it is that somebody that even Laita has admitted is "a real gentleman" was apparently ignorant of the racist connotations of his comments? This level of ignorance is dangerous.

    While I'm not surprised by certain invested interests being more preoccupied with TV ratings, it is frightening that nobody is questioning the fear and misinformation that is steadily creeping its way into mainstream opinion. Instead, commentators have been more concerned with justifying Du Beke's comments as harmless banter from somebody who grew up in an era when it was normal to use the term Paki. They argue that all this backlash is yet another example of political correctness gone made. After all, he is a nice guy. Hmmm. No. Thanks to New Labour, there are lots of examples of political correctness gone made, but this is not one of them. Words such as Paki were as offensive in the 70s as they are now, but then racism was acceptable.

    Fortunately, since then a lot has been done to highlight racism and raise the bar of equality. Although, as Josh says, recently all that progress of equal opportunities is being reversed - mainly because the concerns of the "indigenous population" are not being addressed, no matter how misinformed.

    Ultimately, it is irrelevant whether or not Du Beke is a nice guy since racism is in the business of exploiting ignorance. After all, I am sure that there were some people that thought that Hitler amiable, and George Bush has been known to raise a few smiles.

    Rather than being a personal attack on Du Beke, I agree with Euclides that we need to challenge racism and address its causes. I propose that we bring the experiences of those subjected to racism to the forefront of our discussions. Only then can we start asking the right questions.