Where There Were No Doors

Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before - Joseph Campbell

Monday, February 28, 2005

Head above the parapet

The world has gone mad.


I wrote the bulk of this piece a couple of weeks ago but decided against publishing it. The incident in question appeared to die down, and that seemed the best thing for it. But it's flared to life again. And I find myself with words unsaid and a compulsion to say them. It's daunting though. I'm well aware of my feelings on this particular issue. But it's a topic of such sensitivity that my choice of words could end up making me very unpopular.

That's something I find very strange... that despite the fact that I know my views on this subject are entirely decent, still an error in phraseology will brand me little short of evil in the eyes of many people.

Some of you who know me may have already guessed that I'm just about to leap to the defence of incumbent London Mayor, Ken Livingstone. Me? Defend a politician? Surely not! Let's not forget, after all, that since his election as mayor, "Red" Ken (as once he was), has made all manner of decisions that I disapprove of. He's made a hundred compromises and - in my view - shifted noticeably to the right. He's not spoken out on some important issues, not grasped certain opportunities, and been too half-hearted about others.

And yet Ken Livingstone is still one of the handful of politicians on the planet for whom I have genuine respect. He is not a great visionary leader, untouched by the corrupting influence of political power. He's just one of us... a reasonable, decent man. And he's trying to do his best in an impossible job.

I honestly don't believe that a democratic city of 7 million people, and the support systems to maintain it, can be managed without a lot of compromise. There's too many competing interests. Too many different groups to keep happy. And I actually believe (naive fool that I am) that Ken Livingstone is a basically good man who is pained by each compromise. I believe this because of two things. One is that he very often takes positions on issues which are obvious vote losers. The second, and more important of the two, is the fact that I had a ten-minute conversation with him on the platform at Willesden Green tube station after he'd been mayor for about a year.

I put a lot of faith in my ability to assess character when I'm talking to someone. I'm enough of a hippy to use the phrase "getting a vibe" from a person, and I do apologise for that. I get it wrong once in a while, of course. And there's an argument which says that a professional politician is the obvious job for someone who can "fake that vibe". But all the same, I do put a lot of faith in my ability to assess character. I don't expect you to put any faith in my ability to assess character of course. I'm just explaining why I think Ken's a decent man doing his very best. Because that's how he came across to me that day.

And I like a man who speaks his mind. Let's not forget that it was just as Ken Livingstone was pressing to be readmitted to the Labour Party (from which he'd been expelled), that Dubya Bush made his self-styled, so-called "State Visit". Ken could've kept a low profile... not show up to the ceremonial events, but basically kept his trap shut. Nobody would've batted an eyelid.

But no. Ken did pretty much everything he possibly could to embarrass Blair, short of personally mooning Dubya's motorcade. The elected mayor of the capital city of Bush's closest ally, just as the president visited in pomp and ceremony, gave a magazine interview in which he described George Bush as "the greatest threat to life on the planet". Then, on the night of Bush's big banquet at Buckingham Palace, the mayor of London isn't merely absent; he's throwing a banquet of his own at City Hall... in honour of "Everyone Who Is Not George Bush" with guest of honour Ron Kovac, American war veteran and peace activist.

That's fucking style!

But does that really mean I have to leap to his defence now...? Just when he's outraged so many people with his anti-semitic remarks?

That drew you up pretty sharpish, didn't it? See what I did there... I had you warming to the guy, just getting on his side, and then boom! I called him an anti-semite and everything changed. There may of course be good reason for that, if it turned out that he actually was one. But even if he's not... it's all changed anyways. He's been called one, and there are some people who will believe there's no smoke without fire. Especially when it comes to allegations of anti-semitism.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews has lodged a formal complaint to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It reads:
In making such comments mayor Livingstone demonstrated a gross insensitivity to, and a wilful disregard for, the feelings of appreciable numbers of those he is supposed to represent as holder of the office of Mayor of London, including but not limited to Jews and gays and lesbians in London.
And the London Anti-Semitism Unit presented a petition to City Hall saying that the mayor's comments had shocked them deeply, and urged Livingstone to give a "swift and unequivocal apology".

Now. Before I remind you what it was Livingstone said the other evening, I'm going to provide some context. It's about time we did some historical perspective stuff.

Ken Livingstone has done more than almost any politician I can think of to champion race relations in London. He's renowned for it. His BBC biography describes him as: "a strong supporter of the recognition of gay rights and measures to address inequality faced by women and ethnic minorities." You may well disagree with the way he generally goes about it; but you've got to be in serious denial if you fail to acknowledge his intent is always to further racial harmony in his city. So as far as this particular issue goes, let's just say that Livingstone has a track record that should at the very least earn him the benefit of the doubt.

It's true that recently Livingstone has invited an Islamic cleric to London whom many found objectionable (and who has been guilty of saying objectionable things in the past, I believe). But the idea that he's been doing this specifically to what? Stir up racial hatred in the city he's responsible for policing? That's just silly. The mayor (as seemed obvious to me) was attempting to ameliorate some of the tension building in Muslim areas of the city. The cleric in question clearly has credibility in the eyes of the Islamic population, and appeared willing to work with the mayor in order to defuse tension. Certainly whenever I saw him on the news, he was preaching peaceful coexistence and moderation on all sides.

This message is surely all the more important if it's coming from someone who was once preaching a militant one. Of course it's possible that the mayor screwed up. Perhaps that cleric was holding secret rallies in London mosques preaching Jihad. But to imagine that Ken Livingstone was motivated out of anti-semitism seems to be willfully misunderstanding his intent. Hate his politics if you like, but the man's not a fucking racist.

How's that for context setting?

There's another point that should be made in Ken's defence (seeing how the media is filled with people baying for blood). He has had a long-running feud with a particular newspaper (The Evening Standard) as well as the national paper owned by the same people (The Daily Mail). This feud has gotten quite bitter, with the Mail once offering Ken's ex-wife 50 thousand pounds to "dish the dirt". She, like any decent human being, turned the money down. But anyone who describes the people who made that offer as "decent human beings" is a liar.

So when a reporter from that newspaper hounds him as he leaves a social function (having had a glass of wine or three)...? Well... it wouldn't excuse an anti-semitic comment. But it does excuse running your mouth off at someone you consider to be a lowlife... someone who is harrassing you in exchange for money. Which is all that Ken did.

So what exactly did Ken say? Well, upon being confronted by the hack, Livingstone told him that he was "Just like a German war criminal". The hack responded by telling Ken that he took offence to that because he was jewish (Point 1: There is no reason for a jew to take more offence at that insult than any other person. It insults the person by comparing them to something evil. It is a personal insult and one's race or religion are completely irrelevant as it is making no reference to them). Livingstone then responded by telling the journo that jewish or not, he was still "... just like a concentration camp guard, you are just doing it because you are paid to, aren't you?"

That's it.

And once again, the second insult is just like the first. It is a personal insult. It can be made against anyone regardless of their race or religion. What it is essentially saying is that "your ethics are for sale". That's the essence of the insult. During the recent obscenities at the Abu Ghraib prison, I wrote that the people involved should not find shelter behind the claims that they were "just following orders". I wrote at the time that "The Nuremberg Defence didn't work in the 1940s and it shouldn't work now".

That wasn't saying that the torturers at Abu Ghraib were Nazi officers. And if one of those torturers was jewish and the others gentile, would it make the statement anti-semitic in the case of one individual, but not in the case of others? Or is it anti-semitic to use the phrase "Nuremberg Defence" in relation to any other trial? Or is it just plain anti-semitic to talk about what happened in Europe in the 30s and 40s?

I don't know the answer to these questions. But it seems (due to the involvement of the London Anti-Semitism Unit) that there is an anti-semitic interpretation of the mayor's comments. Rationally that means one or more of the following statements are true:

1. It is anti-semitic to compare anyone to a concentration camp guard. Presumably it is also homophobic, and insulting to gypsies, communists, evangelical christians, the mentally ill and the physically disabled.
2. It is not anti-semitic to compare just anyone to a concentration camp guard, but is anti-semitic to compare a jew to one. This assumes that jewish people are ethically distinct and could never act in that way, despite other people being capable of it.
3. It is anti-semitic to personally insult anyone who is jewish.

Statement 3 is obviously absurd. If some asshole gets drunk in a pub and decides to start a fight, then calling him an asshole doesn't become anti-semitic even if you know that the guy is jewish. Similarly if a jewish reporter is hounding you (or even if they are being perfectly polite, and you're just in a foul mood), calling him an asshole isn't anti-semitic.

Statement 2 is also absurd. What occurred in Europe in the middle of the last century is one of the greatest stains on human history. And I understand that many of the extreme policies of the current State of Israel are as a direct result of that. It doesn't excuse these policies, but it does explain them. A person who has been violently mistreated and tortured in almost unimaginable ways will be psychologically scarred by it. We have learnt to accept the truth of that with regards to individuals... but seem curiously reluctant to discuss it in relation to peoples. Almost certainly it doesn't work the same way with mass psychology as it does with individuals. But it doesn't seem unreasonable to suggest that there's a possibility that the actions of the Jewish state need to be viewed in the context of an extreme case of post-traumatic-stress.

However none of that means that an individual, born jewish, would not be capable of acting in a manner just as evil or inhuman or unethical (whatever word you wish to use) as anyone else. And I obviously don't buy into any of this "Chosen People" bullshit (a philosophy, incidentally, which I find just as abhorent as anti-semitism. Anti-semitism is the belief that people are inferior because of their judaism. Judaism includes the belief that people are inferior because of their lack of same. Both are divisive, arrogant and destructive). Jewish religious beliefs are just as absurd as Christian or Islamic ones, and certainly don't give jewish individuals any ethical superiority over the rest of the people on the planet.

So I say that Statement 2 is absurd because a jew could just as easily be a guard at a concentration camp full of non-jews, as a gentile could be at one filled with jews. Neither religion nor race bestows ethical superiority.

Which brings us to Statement 1. "It is anti-semitic to compare anyone to a concentration camp guard". The theory behind this - if I understand it correctly - is that the holocaust was an entirely unique event. Uniquely evil. And comparing anything at all to it is to trivialise it. Trivialising the holocaust is anti-semitic.

Well, the holocaust was certainly unique. But so is every event.

Is it uniquely evil? Well, I don't think so. I don't believe in the idea of a "uniquely evil" event. What happened in Nazi Germany must never be allowed to occur again. But there are many attrocities which share that. A huge number of people were killed; but surely once you get above a few thousand you've pretty much blackened your soul. The millions killed by the Nazis are no more dead than millions killed elsewhere. I'm not sure it's helpful to define evil by the numbers involved.

The Nazis were attempting to wipe out a whole race, and entire culture. Well, again, that intent has been there sadly on many occasions. The desire to destroy "The Other" isn't just restricted to anti-semitic hatred of jews. History is littered with it.

But what about the manner in which it was done? And there, finally, is a point. The industrial genocide which occurred in fascist Germany was the first (and we can only hope, last) example of its kind. There is a possibility that the method used by the Nazis has left a unique psychological scar on the collective consciousness of the jewish people. But I just can't see why that makes it ethically any different. Is the savage slaying of millions in genocidal conflicts in Africa somehow less evil than the murder of millions of jews in Europe, just because of the methods used?

Well. I don't think so.

I think that a peculiar sort of political correctness is coalescing around the holocaust. I fear that very soon all discussion of it outside a narrowly defined prescribed context will be impossible. There are those who insist that the holocaust needs to be remembered. That we must learn from those events, and never forget them lest that leads to a recurrence.

Yet nothing could do a greater disservice to that goal than the insistence upon a single "official" version of events. A single, reverential context in which to discuss it. And a single strict script with which we may speak on the issue. It is precisely that attitude which leads to a backlash of holocaust-denial, and historical revisionism.

I don't believe that Ken Livingstone should apologise to the Daily Mail or the Evening Standard. They're both entirely dishonourable publications. The willingness to pay someone thousands of pounds to betray the confidence of their ex-spouse is sickening. It's how the scum of the earth operate.

I don't believe that Ken Livingstone should apologise to the reporter in question. He claims to have been personally offended by the remarks, but has clearly milked the exchange for every drop of publicity and anti-Livingstone political spin. Yes I'm being cynical, but I'm gonna say that the guy is a typical opportunist hack who will only merit the respect of his fellow human beings when he stops working for the scum of the earth.

And I believe that The Board of Deputies of British Jews and the London Anti-Semitism Unit should both apologise publicly to Ken Livingstone for making these deeply unpleasant and completely unfounded allegations of anti-semitism.


Blogger L said...

When I first read about this, I definitely felt that it was blown way out of proportion (as did a Jewish friend), perhaps exaggerated by those who support the Bush/Blair Tweedle Dum & Tweedle Dumber rhetoric...

Besides, anyone who describes Bush as "the greatest threat to life on the planet" and throws and anti-Bush banquet is doing something right.

1/3/05 01:50  
Blogger Justin said...

Anybody sticking it to Associated Newspapers should be applauded.

Conversely however, Ken's made a complete arse of himself over Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

1/3/05 09:22  
Blogger john b said...

Great post, Jim (I'm with you on Ken and the Sheikh as well, despite his objectionability).

1/3/05 10:15  
Anonymous Matthew said...

Yes Jim, a more measured response than the scum hyping the story deserve. And that includes the islamhopobic hawks!
Accusing Ken of racism is stupid, but beating people up with the good old nazi stick is too tempting to resist.

1/3/05 11:16  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A brilliant distillation of the whole affair. I'll be pointing one or two people to your piece in the hope that they'll read it and gain some perspective.


1/3/05 23:15  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

Wow. Many thanks for the comments folks. I was expecting a deluge of criticism to be honest... my fondness for Ken despite his flaws, has often come under fire. And because anti-semitism is a subject which can land you in hot water if you use the wrong terminology, it's always a bit of a worry to write about it.

Also chicken yoghurt, I don't believe that Ken has made an arse of himself over Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. If his dialogue with the cleric back-fired then he does have to take the consequences of that. But I really think he acted with the best motives.

There are very big things happening in the world at the moment... balances of power are shifting and cultures are being pitted against one another by extremists on both sides for reasons they lie about. This is creating tension all over the world.

In the time-honoured tradition of looking to history and seeing what actually works, Ken Livingstone realised that engaging in dialogue with those who call you "enemy" is the best way to diffuse a problem. Let's not forget, Ken is - above all else - a Londoner. He loves this city with a genuine passion. Yet he was willing to talk with Sinn Féin while they were bombing his city. Because ultimately that's the best way of stopping the bombing.

And yes, it was almost two decades before those with the power to actually effect change finally realised that dialogue was the correct strategy and the bombing stopped. But that's hardly Livingstone's fault.

OK... so perhaps the dialogue with this Sheikh hasn't worked. Perhaps it's even made matter worse! But that doesn't mean it wasn't the right thing to do. Because the demonisation of these people doesn't exactly seem to be doing the world a whole lot of good just now.

2/3/05 02:21  
Blogger Justin said...

Sorry Jim, it's just that spousal abuse and gay-bashing (among other thing) push a big red button inside me marked "Krakatoa".

If Ken had said "Here he is, I find what he says objectionable, but he's here nonetheless", I might have more sympathy.

It just seems to me that Ken called objecting to Yusuf al-Qaradawi's espousal of all manner of horrors islamaphobic. Which wasn't really the level of sophisticated debate that you've flattered him with.

2/3/05 13:14  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

CY... I'm not disagreeing at all with your assessment of the Sheikh. And spousal abuse and homophobia push just as big buttons inside me.

But I'll be honest... planting bombs in pubs pushes very big buttons too.

Livingstone wasn't endorsing the guys views. Indeed, the whole point of engaging in dialogue with the man was precisely because there's so much friction between his beliefs (plus those who listen to him) and the beliefs of the wider community.

The mayor (I believe) decided that tension between the more militant moslems in London (particularly around Finsbury Park) and the rest of the community was a major priority. One of the potential methods of reducing this tension, in his view, was to engage in dialogue with Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

That al-Qaradawi has other objectionable views is a problem, of course, but it's tomorrow's problem. I don't like that politics works that way... and I don't think Livingstone does either.

I recall back in the mid-90s when I was involved a little with the Newbury Bypass protest. Aside from the anti-roads folks who did all the front-line protesting, there was also a support system made up of locals who would donate supplies to the various camps. One of the elements of that "support network" was the local hunt. I, and many other protesters, had hunt-sabbed in the past. We weren't exactly natural allies.

But sometimes you have to put aside your distaste for the opinions of those who see themselves on the other side of the fence from you if you want to make sure that an immediate priority is addressed.

But listen... on the other hand, nobody would be happier than me if all the moslems, christians and jews woke up tomorrow and realised just how fucking ridiculous their Myth of The Great Sky Bully really is.

2/3/05 23:06  

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