On marginalised groups and fair-weather friends

February 3, 2013 at 10:56 am (Anti-Racism, anti-semitism, conspiracy theories, culture, Guest post, humanism, islamism, multiculturalism, music, philosophy, populism, song)

Guest post by Robin Carmody

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One of my favourite songs is “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, a US Top 3 hit in 1971 for The Undisputed Truth which represents the apogee of Motown’s experimentation with “psychedelic soul” (it never charted in Britain, of course, and here begins the paradox of the Left in modern British history; the radio and TV structure which denied it exposure – and which allowed Jimmy Savile to do what he did – was the same one which enabled outstanding achievements in drama and documentary).  Written in the disillusioned wake of a turbulent period in black American history – the achievements of the Civil Rights movement having been co-opted by the bourgeois New Left which were, between them, alienating the white working class from the Democrats and setting the stage for the eventual Reagan and Bush years and the embrace, as in Britain, of populist reactionary nationalist politics by the very class which suffers most from it in practice – it suggests to marginalised groups, with the lines “your enemy can do you no harm” and “beware of the pat on the back, it just might hold you back”, that those co-opting their causes for their own purposes may, in fact, do their advances and acceptance far greater damage than the unequivocally and unashamedly right-wing and racist.  Very much the same thing applies today, when the EDL and similar groups are – fraudulently – presenting themselves as the only true supporters of Jewish and LGBT rights, and many right-wing columnists – especially but by no means exclusively those on the Murdoch papers – are making themselves out to understand working-class forms of cultural expression through popular art.
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Reading the works of Peter Hitchens is strangely reassuring in this context; precisely because he is such an extreme reactionary, he cannot possibly fool anyone that he represents progressive causes as a bulwark against Islamism in the way that many other right-wing columnists – who, underneath it all, are just as profoundly opposed to working-class emancipation and self-expression as they ever were – have successfully been able to do.  In a recent piece on his blog, Hitchens Minor admitted a total lack of concern or interest in what happens in Algeria or Mali, implied that Islamists’ criticism of Western values are justified because Western society apparently consists of nothing more than “eating too much and driving around in cars”, and inferred that any concerns about Al-Qaeda should be addressed towards fast food franchises, which are apparently far better-organised, instead, as though irritation about cultural change from the world of your childhood were on a par with the most extreme forms of hatred and bigotry.
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This extreme nativist British version of Islamism – suggesting that Western life and culture have become decadent and deserve to be undermined and threatened, and effectively agreeing with Islamists on such issues as LGBT rights and the “evil” of popular music but cynically not feeling able to say it in those words in that order – is in some ways strangely reassuring, because in my childhood it was pretty much the default option for the Daily Mail, whose op-eds were still then largely written by the pre-pop culture generation to which Hitchens Minor is a throwback.  The world that existed then, where nativists, conservatives and closet anti-Semites supported the most nativist, conservative and openly anti-Semitic force in the modern world while liberals, internationalists and progressives opposed it – the divisions that formed themselves in my childhood at the time of the Satanic Verses controversy, when Rushdie was defended by the SWP and The Guardian and condemned by Tory government ministers and Tory papers – really makes far more sense than the world that exists today, where conservatives pretend to support progressive causes out of geopolitical convenience, while much of the Left have given up those causes as geopolitically inconvenient, and allowed the very people they should be defending to fall into the hands of the most reactionary forces in the modern world.
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I myself at one point absorbed the Left-wing version of the Hitchens Minor position as most notably promoted by Neil Clark and David Lindsay, believing that the global influences of popular culture were the only true threat to Britain, as though British culture were a frozen object that must never be allowed to pick up any new influences, rather than a palimpsest whose greatest strength has been its absorption – and hybridisation, giving the working class a form of identity that official, unchanging culture could never have provided them – of influences marginalised elsewhere.  I believed, as though I had been Richard Hoggart or Ted Willis in 1963, that there was no real difference between Craig Douglas and the Beatles, that the latter were ultimately as much a ruling-class tool and a passive, one-way absorption of mass consumerism as the former – I had allowed the effects of almost all right-wing columnists today except Hitchens Minor distorting their meaning to distract me from their real meaning at the time.  I had – and there is evidence of this out there in my name, and I urge those reading this not to search for it – fully absorbed the effects of the EDL, and before it Griffin’s BNP, pretending to care about Jewish and gay rights and right-wing columnists pretending to believe in the full implications of popular culture as a working-class movement.  That is, I had become a Left Fogey – rehabilitating the puritanism and fear of new experiences of the Old Left out of a mistaken belief that there was no difference between One Direction and Scrufizzer, a failure to recognise that the former are simply a ruling-class safety valve whereas the latter is a genuine expression of social alienation and rage at the ruling class’s betrayal of millions, a deluded insistence that the support for the former shown by Murdoch journalists meant that they were also unafraid of the latter, and therefore I didn’t need to support him against the ruling class (whereas now I know that I very much do, and that the right-wing columnists who do like rock music are, if anything, more afraid of him than Hitchens Minor is).
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Much worse even than that, though, I had become cynically indifferent to anti-Semitism and in some cases even homophobia and political censorship, always responding with an almost robotic “what about anti-Muslim headlines in the Express” whenever the dubious imagery of cartoons in The Guardian or the New Statesman which portrayed Israel as global puppet-master was invoked, as though two wrongs made a right, as though one set of papers which are unashamedly and openly prejudiced justified another set of papers which claim not to be so reducing themselves to that level, when in fact I now know that it makes it a million times worse, that the existence of populist-nationalist right-wing papers demonising one group is an argument for liberal-internationalist papers to be better, not to demonise another group.  My stance was very much that, because British Jews had Richard Littlejohn on their side, they didn’t need people like me, that the support of those for whom they are merely fairweather friends – who only support Jewish causes because of who Jews are not and who they can be defined against; in other words they are not pro-Jewish first and foremost and support Jewish interests entirely in negative terms – justified people on my political side abandoning them and leaving them to their fate.  I was very close to the path which, grotesquely, saw Unite Against Fascism linking up with the most homophobic forces in modern British life to prevent a Gay Pride march in East London, while the EDL pretended to support it.
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Now I know that Littlejohn and his ilk would, had they lived in another place at another time, supported the wearing of yellow stars or at the very least the portrayal of Jews as the ultimate “Other”, the ultimate threat, and my mission now is to reclaim their defence and their causes from those fairweather friends – to expose the Murdochian supporters of minority groups and pop-cultural radicalism as cynical operators, and to bring such causes and their advocates back to the Left, to reassert our side as their true supporters and as the true opponents of religious fundamentalism and mediaevalism.  Likewise, my response to a repulsive character such as the neo-Powellite Tory MP and Nazi impersonator Aidan Burley – infamous for his tweets during the Olympics opening ceremony – has shifted.  I am as sickened as I ever was by his blatant double standards, with the intend of dividing and conquering and splitting “good” working class from “bad” working class – his mental picture of Robert Plant or Ozzy Osbourne, who barely acknowledged their West Midlands origins in any of their music, as true, indigenous, native island Britons while Trilla, who has recorded an anthem celebrating Birmingham and redefining civic pride for a new generation, is to be treated as a “bloody foreigner” who should “go back where he comes from”.  But my response to such political cynicism – so much more slippery and harder to pin down than the Toryism of Zeppelin and Sabbath’s peak years – is not, as it would have been a few years ago, to dismiss as worthless neoliberal paraphernalia the music of those bands, to regard it as simply what these people want it to become, justification for institutional classism and racism, and leave it to them, therefore effectively letting them win.  It is to recapture for the Left – for our side – the primal howl of this music, its sense of alienation from the ruling class and its rage against their abuses of power (especially so in the case of early Sabbath), which channelled the isolation and frustration of the blues just as Trilla and Lady Leshurr channel those still denied full belonging even in modern America.  It is to restore this music to its original socio-political and cultural meaning, to assert that it has more in common with Trilla and Lady Leshurr than it has with those misusing it today for their own purposes.  It is to tell the Aidan Burleys and Richard Littlejohns of this world that, however much they think they own this music, they never really will, just as much as they will never own LGBT causes or unconditional opposition to anti-Semitism.
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This is part of the Left’s responsibility, and let us distance ourselves from all the neo-reactionaries and Left Fogeys who deny it.  And let us curse, again, the emergence of a new generation of right-wing columnists and thinkers who have allowed reactionary socialism and Left Fogeyism to resurge on “our” side.  As Norman Whitfield and The Undisputed Truth foresaw all too accurately 42 years ago, back when the future fulminator-in-chief was a student Trotskyite, Peter Hitchens is the least of our worries.

5 Comments

  1. Dave Kirk said,

    Peter Hitchens actually talks about the “disaster that was the 60s”. As a reactionary he is far more explicit then Heffer and the rest. Whithout wanting to Psychologise his views probaby have something to do with blaming the sexual revolution for his mother leaving and later her Suicide pact with here new partner. I imagine as a lefty he was as grum

  2. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    ‘Now I know that Littlejohn and his ilk would, had they lived in another place at another time, supported the wearing of yellow stars ‘

    Whoah – I thought it was impossible to be unfair about Littlejohn but this is way OTT – the man is odious reactionary piece of shit but he’s not a Nazi.

    And the ‘in another time and place’ line is an absurd one – had you or I been born in Germany in 1925 and gone through the Hitler Youth then we too would probably have become exterminatory anti-semites.

    As for ‘Robert Plant or Ozzy Osbourne, who barely acknowledged their West Midlands origins in any of their music’ and ‘the Toryism of Zeppelin and Sabbath’s peak years’ – Jesus – where do you begin?

    These guys were not earnest middle class singer-songwriters but the 1970s equivalent of old fashioned music hall entertainers working within a narrow set of genre limits – the idea of Sabbath and Zeppelin working in a couple of downbeat acoustic number about unemployment statistics in the West Midlands between 15 minute guitar solos and and all that hippie twaddle about demons and goddesses and magic mushrooms is just ludicrous as that is not what they were for.

    You might as well criticise Morecambe and Wise or Lulu for failing to challenge Wilson’s exchange rate policy and Heath’s industrial relations legislation in their Saturday evening shows…..

    And where is this resurging reactionary socialism and left fogeyism?

    All I see are the broken remnants of a defeated left bickering amongst themselves as the apocalypse unfolds around them.

  3. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    The Undisputed Truth song is however pretty cool.

    But it not charting in the UK is because it was never released here as we did not have an Afro-American segment of the population that liked soul – not due to some populist-elitist BBC conspiracy,

    You might equally ask why reggae singles never got proper airplay or charted in the US until some late 70s Don Draper figure decided that white middle class stoner college students were bored with Che Guevara and would just love Bob Marley.

    Capitalist popular culture is not about grand cultural conspiracies – its about money and marketing – and this is as true of Motown and psychedelic soul as it is of punk or any other style or genre you care to mention,

    Forgive me for being overly critical about a piece which actually introduced me to something I didn’t know and am sure that I like (psychedelic soul – I knew some of the bands but had never made that connection),

    I’d love to see more of this kind of stuff.

    But this article tries to cram into a few labyrinthine paragraphs a small book’s worth of argument to the degree that while there is clearly a thread in there I just can’t keep hold of it.

    For example after a couple of re-reads of the penultimate paragraph I did get that your view of Sabbath and Zeppelin is not as dismissive as I assumed at first read (although being of that age myself I still have not the vaguest idea of who Trilla or Lady Leshurr are….) and would scratch that part of my previous comment.

    But there is just too much in there to be casually absorbed without a level of analytical effort that you’d normally reserve for a particularly difficult passage of Habermas and Zizek – blog posts aren’t meant to be hard work!

  4. Laban said,

    TL;DR

    But while Robert Plant may not have sung about “West Midlands origins” he still lives in the area – which is more than you can say for Billy Bragg.

  5. Richard Bayley said,

    For the record, “Smiling Faces Sometimes” was released on UK Tamla Motown (TMG 789) in 1971. Oh, and Britain did have a substantial soul & R&B fanbase in the early 1970’s….. might it be a good idea if people had a little basic knowledge on the subject before sounding off?

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