I have been asked, by a regular reader, to carry more material explaining our position on antisemitism – and, in particular our allegation that a lot of contemporary antisemitism comes from the “left” and takes the form of Palestinian solidarity (a cause that, in principle, Shiraz supports). I intend to write at some length on this subject soon, but as a starting point I’d refer readers to Galloway’s recent refusal to support Palestinian statehood (and his explanation, here) and the following account of a meeting at Oxford University. Note that one of the main speakers is an Oxford academic who frequently writes for the liberal-left Guardian. In other words, these people are not fringe elements within the pro-Palestinian movement in the UK. Support for the total destruction of Israel (ie the Hamas position) and casual comparisons between Israelis and Nazis, are now commonplace in the pro-Palestine movement. Even placards stating “Hitler was Right” are allowed on pro-Palestine demos, apparently unchallenged by the organisers or other marchers. As usual, when we re-publish material, it should go without saying that we don’t necessarily agree with all the article’s contents or endorse all the politics of the author.:
15 October 2014:
Tonight I had the misfortune to attend the inaugural Palestine Society event here in Oxford. I went with Sapan and Jonathan out of a mixture of open mindedness and intellectual curiosity.
What I heard and saw genuinely shocked me. I’ve heard a lot in my time but this was by far the worst event I have ever attended. I can only describe it as a two hour hate fest of the variety described in George Orwell’s ‘1984.’ It went from the downright idiotic to the explicitly anti-Semitic – and often both. I heard a girl complain about the evils of ‘Zionist’ control in her native America – she even attacked ‘Zionists’ for controlling the make up she wore! No one challenged this girl’s delusions: they only reassured her that fighting Zionism must remain paramount. I heard numerous people glorify the ‘right of the resistance’ and reject non-violent tactics, even including an Oxford academic on the panel (Karma Nabulsi).
I had a question of my own. I read to the panel a quotation from John Molyneux, a theorist from the Socialist Workers’ Party;
“To put the matter as starkly as possible: from the standpoint of Marxism and international socialism an illiterate, conservative, superstitious Muslim Palestinian peasant who supports Hamas is more progressive than an educated liberal atheist Israeli who supports Zionism (even critically).”
I then added – “I’d be interested to know what the members of the panel think about this mode of analysis. Do they support what I consider to be a totally irrational – and dangerous – position?”
Not only did the panelists evade my question – Avi Shlaim, Karma Nabulsi and Barnaby Raine – to my horror, they actually agreed with its sentiment. Mr Raine, a student at Wadham College and a student activist, mocked me by saying that “anyone would stand up for the oppressed against an oppressor.” It should also be noted that Mr Raine noticeably hesitated when I put up my hand – he looked everywhere around the room before reluctantly taking my question. This person excuses the most morally reprehensible actions. He practically fetishises totalitarianism.
It got worse. Near the end of the talk, a local PSC activist defended Molyneux’s remarks by arguing that he’d rather be a Medieval, backward Chassidic Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto than a cultured German in a Nazi uniform. A sizable proportion of the room – hundreds of people – applauded this awful anti-Semitic distortion of history and trivialization of the Holocaust.
I am aware this status is long and most students couldn’t care less about student politics. However, I think it’s important that all students know that here, in 21st Century Britain, at one of the best universities in the world, political extremism is flourishing. Whereas far right fascists are, rightly, tarred and made into social pariahs, their equivalents on the far left get away with it time and time again. These are the totalitarians in our midst.
I have done what I can. I tried exposing rampant anti-Semitism in the Palestine Society at the start of this year and I was treated with ridicule. It’s time to take this stuff seriously. I saw many freshers at this event – freshers whose minds have been poisoned and given a wholly false narrative which demonises one people at the expense of the other, one that demonises the forces of peace and rewards the actions of hate and terrorism. I saw a room of intelligent, perhaps highly naive students, express the most hideous and morally warped trash. I saw no effort to condemn outright anti-Semitic prejudice when it was expressed. I saw pure intellectual fascism – people attending a talk to confirm their prejudices, and actively ostracising those that disagree with them.
I cannot think of a worse introduction to Oxford for incoming students to this University. Anyone who genuinely cares about Palestinians – whether in the West Bank or Gaza, or elsewhere in the Middle East or the diaspora – should stay the hell away from Oxford University’s Palestine Society. And remember that all it takes for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.
My friend Victor
Guest post by Mick Rice
Above: Saltley Gates mass picket, 1972
Vic Collard was a friend of mine. We met in the late 1960’s when the heady days of revolt embraced the young. I was a “child of 1968” when the French events demonstrated that different politics were possible. Vic was 10 years older than me and a worker intellectual of the finest calibre. As well as being widely read he was also an AEU Shop Steward! There could have only been a handful of AEU Shop Stewards who knew about Marshall McLuhan never mind being conversant with his theories. Vic knew about the Frankfurt School. He was deeply interested in philosophy and psychology. He knew about Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse.
How much different the world might have been if the Left had concentrated on perfecting the “Orgone Box”! It has, unfortunately, so far, been singularly unsuccessful in promoting world revolution.
Vic once confessed to me about his role in the Second World War. I thought I was going to be entertained by a humorous Spike Milligan type – Adolf Hitler-My role in his Downfall – story. But Vic was ashamed of his behaviour. He had gone out, with a relative, for a walk by the canal. He must have been 5 or 6 years old. Alongside the towpath a group of German prisoners-of-war were clearing overgrown vegetation. Vic, our intrepid Brit, took a run at the first German POW and kicked him in the shins. No doubt thinking the juvenile equivalent of: “Take that you dirty Hun!” The Dandy and other boys’ comics of the time have a lot to answer for as they, of course, were bastions of British Imperialism. Vic had not yet read Marx.
The poor prisoner was probably just a conscripted German worker. However, if Vic felt that he had something to atone for, he certainly made up for it in later years. In the early 1970s the Birmingham East District Committee of the AEU was considering submitting motions to the union’s National Committee. One branch had sent in a motion supporting the boycott of goods to Pinochet’s Chile. If I remember right a Scottish factory with AEU members had already blocked the export of vehicles. Ted Williams, the leading right-winger, was pouring scorn on the motion. “These do-gooders want to interfere with international trade”, he thundered. “They risk putting in jeopardy AEU jobs”. Normally the later point was the ace that floored left-wing opposition as “AEU jobs” was paramount.
Vic played a blinder which completely changed the meeting. “No doubt”, said Vic, “If Brother Williams had been a member of this committee in the 1930s’ he would have been in favour of exporting Gas Chambers to Hitler’s Germany so long as they were made by AEU members”. Yes Vic was great with words and great at thinking on his feet.
Another time the full time officer was singing the praises of equality as he proudly told us he had negotiated an agreement to allow women to work night shifts! Vic had to point out that we wanted equality up and not equality down as working nightshifts was bad for men. It could not be regarded as a giant leap forward for womankind that they were going to be subjected to the same anti-social, unhealthy working patterns!
In the mid 1960’s Vic and his friend Geoff Johnson, were members of the “Labour Loyalist” group. They would go around meetings campaigning for an end to Incomes Policy which had been introduced by the Labour Government. Of course their intention was to be entirely disloyal to the Labour Government of the day. Calling themselves “Labour Loyalists” confused their opponents and, as they explained to me, it was really the Labour Government that wasn’t being loyal to the workers! A neat strategy that put Labour apparatchiks on the back foot! Read the rest of this entry »
Noam Chomsky’s new article in The Nation on the BDS campaign against Israel has caused a stir. He makes quite a few highly controversial points, not all of which Shiraz would necessarily agree with. We republish this important piece, exacty as it appears in The Nation (starting with the Editor’s note) in the interests of information and debate:
Editor’s Note: BDS has been a topic of vigorous debate in the Nation community. For more on that debate, and for a range of responses to this article in the coming days, go to TheNation.com/BDS.
On Israel-Palestine and BDS
Those dedicated to the Palestinian cause should think carefully about the tactics they choose.
By Noam Chomsky
The misery caused by Israel’s actions in the occupied territories has elicited serious concern among at least some Israelis. One of the most outspoken, for many years, has been Gideon Levy, a columnist for Haaretz, who writes that “Israel should be condemned and punished for creating insufferable life under occupation, [and] for the fact that a country that claims to be among the enlightened nations continues abusing an entire people, day and night.”
He is surely correct, and we should add something more: the United States should also be condemned and punished for providing the decisive military, economic, diplomatic and even ideological support for these crimes. So long as it continues to do so, there is little reason to expect Israel to relent in its brutal policies.
The distinguished Israeli scholar Zeev Sternhell, reviewing the reactionary nationalist tide in his country, writes that “the occupation will continue, land will be confiscated from its owners to expand the settlements, the Jordan Valley will be cleansed of Arabs, Arab Jerusalem will be strangled by Jewish neighborhoods, and any act of robbery and foolishness that serves Jewish expansion in the city will be welcomed by the High Court of Justice. The road to South Africa has been paved and will not be blocked until the Western world presents Israel with an unequivocal choice: Stop the annexation and dismantle most of the colonies and the settler state, or be an outcast.”
One crucial question is whether the United States will stop undermining the international consensus, which favors a two-state settlement along the internationally recognized border (the Green Line established in the 1949 ceasefire agreements), with guarantees for “the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of all states in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries.” That was the wording of a resolution brought to the UN Security Council in January 1976 by Egypt, Syria and Jordan, supported by the Arab states—and vetoed by the United States.
This was not the first time Washington had barred a peaceful diplomatic settlement. The prize for that goes to Henry Kissinger, who supported Israel’s 1971 decision to reject a settlement offered by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, choosing expansion over security—a course that Israel has followed with US support ever since. Sometimes Washington’s position becomes almost comical, as in February 2011, when the Obama administration vetoed a UN resolution that supported official US policy: opposition to Israel’s settlement expansion, which continues (also with US support) despite some whispers of disapproval.
It is not expansion of the huge settlement and infrastructure program (including the separation wall) that is the issue, but rather its very existence—all of it illegal, as determined by the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice, and recognized as such by virtually the entire world apart from Israel and the United States since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who downgraded “illegal” to “an obstacle to peace.”
One way to punish Israel for its egregious crimes was initiated by the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom in 1997: a boycott of settlement products. Such initiatives have been considerably expanded since then. In June, the Presbyterian Church resolved to divest from three US-based multinationals involved in the occupation. The most far-reaching success is the policy directive of the European Union that forbids funding, cooperation, research awards or any similar relationship with any Israeli entity that has “direct or indirect links” to the occupied territories, where all settlements are illegal, as the EU declaration reiterates. Britain had already directed retailers to “distinguish between goods originating from Palestinian producers and goods originating from illegal Israeli settlements.”
Four years ago, Human Rights Watch called on Israel to abide by “its international legal obligation” to remove the settlements and to end its “blatantly discriminatory practices” in the occupied territories. HRW also called on the United States to suspend financing to Israel “in an amount equivalent to the costs of Israel’s spending in support of settlements,” and to verify that tax exemptions for organizations contributing to Israel “are consistent with U.S. obligations to ensure respect for international law, including prohibitions against discrimination.”
There have been a great many other boycott and divestment initiatives in the past decade, occasionally—but not sufficiently—reaching to the crucial matter of US support for Israeli crimes. Meanwhile, a BDS movement (calling for “boycott, divestment and sanctions”) has been formed, often citing South African models; more accurately, the abbreviation should be “BD,” since sanctions, or state actions, are not on the horizon—one of the many significant differences from South Africa.
Read the rest here
By Gabriel Noah Brahm (at The Times of Israel):
Step by misstep, the faltering BDS (Boycotts, Divestments, Sanctions) movement is stumbling into an abyss of hatred that will soon lead to its rejection by reasonable people everywhere. In fact, at this rate, critics of the campaign to unfairly stigmatize Israel for its supposed lack of “academic freedom” (news to Freedom House, the respected organization giving the Jewish State a laudable rating of 1.5 on a seven point scale, 1 being the freest) will have little more to do than quote BDSers themselves–in order to discredit an extremist ideology that rejects a two-state compromise solution to the Israeli/Palestinian dispute in favor of denying Israel’s right to exist. First, one of its otherwise more intelligent spokespersons, the distinguished political theorist, Corey Robin, of Brooklyn College, is reported by Jonathan Marks, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, as having surprisingly confessed to an undeniable overlap between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in the BDS movement:
“You say you’re a left-wing critic of Israel, so I presume you’ve supported some actions against the state. Well, guess what: I bet among those who also support those actions there are people who want the Jews to disappear. “
Next, to make matters worse, the prominent Italian philosopher (and member of the European Parliament), Gianni Vattimo, comes out with the following statement of his own, in a recent book called Deconstructing Zionism–in which, if nothing else, the emeritus professor candidly names names, identifying unabashedly who at least some of Robin’s (and his own) allies and would-be Jew-disappearers, as a matter of fact, happen to include:
For good reasons of international stability, one never dares—or almost never, except in the case of Islamic heads of state like Ahmadinejad—to question the very legitimacy of Israel’s existence…. When Ahmadinejad invokes the end of the State of Israel, he merely expresses a demand that should be more explicitly shared by the democratic countries that instead consider him an enemy.
Yes, the philosophy of BDS embraces the “philosophy” of Iran’s former President, and Holocaust denier, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–the one who, like Professor Robin, dares to speak the truth. Israel is illegitimate. Its end should therefore be sought.
So! With that bracing reminder. Knowing for sure who at least a couple of BDS’s more recognizable fellow travelers include–a terrorist-sympathizing dictator/puppet who famously threatened to wipe Israel off the map, and a Heideggerian postmodernist who thinks that “democratic countries” above all should give credence to the essential thought behind the Iranian nuclear bomb project–do the opponents of BDS really need to mount arguments in favor of peace and reconciliation instead?
As the preeminent man-of-letters, Edward Alexander, helpfully reminds in a brilliant editorial of just a day ago, Jews Against Themselves: The BDS Movement and Modern Apostasy, it was the courageous German historian Matthias Küntzel who accurately discerned that “Every denial of the Holocaust contains an appeal to repeat it.” Well, Küntzel’s point is to the point, indeed. And furthermore–the point I myself would stress here and now–today the additional link that needs to be made above all is to the analogous denial inherent in the BDS campaign for the delegitimation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. For what BDS, Ahmadinejad, Corey Robin, and other leaders of the not-so-stealthy “stealth campaign” to seek to infiltrate the norm of a one-state “bi-nationalism” from-the-river-to-the-sea all seem to forget (including the influential Queer Theorist, Judith Butler, and the anti-Israel activist, Omar Barghouti, who openly proposes to “euthanize” Israel) is that the real tragedy, the true nakba even, of modern Israel’s rebirth is that it came a decade or more too late.
Is rolling the clock back now supposed to help? BDS and its allies–”well, guess what”–want to do just that. Only it’s far too late for that, and the only people they are really hurting with their fantasy of time-travel are the Palestinians themselves. Which is why I join with Abu Mazen in rejecting BDS for the ideological arm of a new kind of terror campaign that it is. For, as Marc H. Ellis also frankly avers in his grotesquely phantastical contribution to Vattimo’s same edited volume,
“At least in the present the very announcement of a process of ending a Jewish State of Israel would probably precipitate a mass exodus of Jewish Israelis to Europe and the United States—if, that is, the borders of the various states would accept millions of Jewish Israelis.”
And “if not”? The ideologists of BDS don’t really care to comment. After all, why should they? Disappearing Jews is what BDS is all about.
H/t: Terry Glavin, via Facebook
By Camila Bassi (at Anaemic On A Bike)
“[…] Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”).” (Said, 43)
Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1977) is a retort to his conceptualisation of a dual camp schema of the world called Orientalism, which effectively inverts this dual camp and with a method devoid of class politics. He opens his book with a quote by Karl Marx:
“They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”
The tone is thus set for a necessary antidote to a paternalistic and patronising Western system of political representation and domination, of which Marxism is an inevitable part.
Said attributes Orientalism to three interdependent meanings: firstly, the academic discipline of Orientalism and its research on the Orient and the Occident; secondly, a particular style of thought that differentiates, ontologically (on the nature of being) and epistemologically (on the theory of knowledge), ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’; and finally, commencing from around the late eighteenth century, the corporate institution that deals with the Orient “by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it” (Said, 3). With this threefold definition in mind, Said reviews Orientalism as a Western-style discourse employed first by British and French imperialisms and later by US imperialism, to dominate, restructure, and have authority over the Orient.
Orientalism is seen to be heavily imbued with geography, that is, imaginary spatial prejudices infused with power and exploitation, and a Western-centric notion of development and progress. Said goes as far as describing Orientalism as a delusion of exaggerated self-importance:
“Psychologically, Orientalism is a form of paranoia, knowledge of another kind, say, from ordinary historical knowledge. These are a few of the results, I think, of imaginative geography and of the dramatic boundaries it draws.” (Said, 72-73)
This paranoid form of knowledge, Said argues, ennobled British, French, and later US imperial projects:
“The important thing was to dignify simple conquest with an idea, to turn the appetite for more geographical space into a theory about the special relationship between geography on the one hand and civilized or uncivilized peoples on the other.” (Said, 216)
Above: excerpt from John Akomfrah’s film ‘The Stuart Hall Project’
The death yesterday of Stuart Hall, aged 82, robs the British left of a major intellect, an energetic organiser and a warm, charismatic human being. I should declare an interest: in the early 1970’s Stuart was one of my tutors at Birmingham University (where he was director of the Centre for Contemporary Studies) and, together with Dorothy Thompson in the History department, was instrumental in ensuring that I wasn’t chucked out and eventually obtained a degree (albeit an ‘Ordinary’). So I owe him a great deal: I only wish I’d got to know him better and found out, for instance, that we shared a love of jazz (although, I learned from Desert Island Discs, his favourite musician was Miles Davis, so even that might have generated some disagreement).
So I hope it’s clear that I liked and respected Stuart Hall a great deal, and if the articles reproduced below, in his memory, are quite sharply critical of aspects of his politics (particularly his rejection of the centrality of the working class to the struggle for socialism), that’s because serious, honest people can (or, at least, ought to be able to) disagree and still hold one another in high regard.
Paving the way for New Labour
By Matt Cooper (2013)
Cinema documentary has undergone a renaissance in recent years, with fine examples exploring subjects as diverse as sushi in Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) and death squads in 1960s Indonesia in The Act of Killing (2012).
Nonetheless, a film about the semi-Marxist cultural theorist Stuart Hall is unexpected. Hall was born in Jamaica in 1932, went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1952 and was the founding editor of New Left Review (NLR) in 1960. This was a journal which explicitly adopted a “third way” approach between Soviet Communism and social democracy, but was ambivalent about the working class and its revolutionary potential.
After resigning as editor of NLR in 1962, Hall became a leading radical academic joining the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1964 and becoming its director from 1968 to 1979. Cultural studies grew out of the New Left interest in the culture of the working class, which had largely been ignored by academia, and was part of a rise in a form of academic radicalism that mixed some real insights in an overly abstract and obtuse theoretical carapace and, like the New Left, often had little relationship with real struggles.
The last phase of Hall’s career commenced after 1979, when, despite his earlier rejection of both Stalinism and social democracy, he was one of the key theorists of bringing the two together. Through the pages of Marxism Today (the journal of the right wing of the Communist Party), and his own books, Hall argued that Labour needed to form a new progressive alliance in tune with “new times” where the organised working class was a diminishing force.
The problem with Akomfrah’s film is that it fails to address the development of Hall’s thought. It is strongest on his part in the formation of the New Left, and here hints at the weakness of this approach. While Hall’s co-thinkers were well established in Oxford and London, he reports that he was perplexed by an early encounter with the northern working class in Halifax. Like much else in the film, which is straitjacketed by its choice to use only the words from radio and TV appearances by Hall, this is left undeveloped.
Similarly, the film moves briefly over Hall’s work in the 1970s and fails to communicate what was specific about Hall’s understanding of culture — particularly his work on the moral panic over mugging in Policing the Crisis (1978).
Worst of all, the film entirely misses out Hall’s analysis of Thatcherism in the 1980s and his increasingly pessimistic response about how the left should respond to it.
Strangely, the film includes a clip of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, but there is no reference to any words from Hall to accompany it. Hall, while clearly sympathetic to the strike, thought it the doomed expression of class struggle that could no longer win. Without any clear sense of transforming society, Hall looked only to create a new more progressive ideology removed from such outdated class struggle. Unwittingly, he was preparing the ground for New Labour (which was more enthusiastically supported by many of his Marxism Today collaborators).
Without much grasp of Hall’s place in the movement away from class politics from the 1960s to the 1980s, The Stuart Hall Project ends up with a fragmented kaleidoscope of images without any clear narrative.
It neither does justice to Hall’s ideas nor shows any critical understanding of them.
“Post Fordism”: collapsing into the present
By Martin Thomas (1989)
Capitalism has changed and is changing. Vast new areas in the Third World have industrialised. The introduction of small, cheap, flexible computers is revolutionising finance, administration, retailing, manufacturing. The majority of the workforce in many capitalist countries is now “white-collar” – but white-collar work is becoming more industrial.
Dozens of other shifts and changes are underway. Which of them are basic? How are they connected? What implications do they have for socialists?
Into this debate has marched the Communist Party’s magazine “Marxism Today”, bearing a banner with a strange device – “post-Fordism”. “At the heart of New Times”, they write, “is the shift from the old mass-production Fordist economy to a new, more flexible, post” Fordist order based on computers, information technology and robotics” (Marxism Today, October 1988). These New Times call for a new politics: in place of the old class struggle, diverse alliances.
There are several issues here. Do the political conclusions really follow from the economic analysis? Is the economic analysis sound? Where does the economic analysis come from? What do the terms “Fordism” and “post-Fordism” mean? Read the rest of this entry »
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Above: Kassim Alhimidi (left) and Trayvon Martin (right)
By Unrepentent Jacobin (Reblogged from Jabobinism):
On the Hounding of Adele Wilde-Blavatsky
There is a damaging idea fast gathering influence on the Left that – like a lot of contemporary postmodern Leftist thought – urgently needs dismantling. This idea holds that racism is only possible when prejudice is married with power. The corollary of this premise is that racism may only travel in one direction – from the powerful to the powerless – and it is therefore nonsensical to discuss, still less condemn, racist attitudes expressed by ethnic minorities. In the West, racism is the preserve of the white majority who use it – often, it is claimed, unconsciously – to sustain their advantage and to oppress those they deem to be ‘other’. In the geopolitical sphere, meanwhile, this racism is the preserve of the world’s wealthy democracies and is expressed as Orientalism, Military and Cultural Imperialism, and Neoliberalism, all of which are used to dominate and subjugate the Global South.
Furthermore, racism exists independently of individual prejudice and cultural mores – like the power systems of which it is a part, it is abstract; metaphysical; unavoidable; unchanging. It is all-pervasive, ‘structural’, endemic, systemic, and internalised to such a degree that even (or especially) white liberal Westerners who perceive themselves to be broad-minded and non-prejudicial are not even aware of it. It is therefore incumbent on every white person, male or female, to ‘check their white privilege’ before venturing to comment on matters pertaining to minority cultures, lest they allow their unconscious ethnocentricity to reinforce oppressive power structures. Instead, moral judgement of minorities by universal standards should – no, must – be replaced by a willingness to indulge and uncritically accept difference.
In the view of this layman, this kind of thinking is wrong, both morally and in point of fact.
Postmodernism is notoriously unhappy with anything as concrete as a dictionary definition. However, the inconvenient fact is that racism remains clearly defined in the OED, and by the common usage its entries are intended to reflect, as follows:
Racism, n: The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. Hence: prejudice and antagonism towards people of other races, esp. those felt to be a threat to one’s cultural or racial integrity or economic well-being; the expression of such prejudice in words or actions. Also occas. in extended use, with reference to people of other nationalities.
That the effects of this prejudice and antagonism are aggravated, perpetuated and sometimes institutionalized by the effects of power is undeniable, but this is a separate issue. Many unpleasant aspects of human nature and behaviour (greed, for instance) are also exacerbated by power, but that doesn’t change the ugly nature of the behaviour itself, nor allow us to infer that the powerless are incapable of making it manifest.
Efforts to effect an official change to this definition should be strongly resisted on grounds of egalitarianism (an idea the Left once cared about deeply). The difficulty with the power + prejudice formulation lies, not just in its dilution of what makes racism so toxic, but in a consequent moral relativism which holds people to different standards. It is manifestly unjust to hold some people to a higher standard of thought and behaviour based on their unalterable characteristics. However, it is far worse to hold others to a respectively lower standard based on those same characteristics, which insists on the indulgence of viewpoints and behaviour by some that would not be tolerated from others.
This separatist thinking has given rise to identity politics, moral equivalence, cultural relativism and what Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others have called “a racism of low expectations”. As Hirsi Ali remarked in her memoir-cum-polemic Nomad (excerpted here):
This Western attitude is based on the idea that people of colour must be exempted from “normal” standards of behaviour. There are many good men and women in the West who try to resettle refugees and strive to eliminate discrimination. They lobby governments to exempt minorities from the standards of behaviour of western societies; they fight to help minorities preserve their cultures, and excuse their religion from critical scrutiny. These people mean well, but their activism is now a part of the very problem they seek to solve.
Identity politics reinforces the racist argument that people can and should be judged according to their skin colour. It rests on the same crude, illiberal determinism, and results in what the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner has described as a “racism of the anti-racists”. This, as we shall see, leaves those vulnerable to oppression within ‘subaltern’ groups without a voice and mutes criticism of chauvinism and out-group hatred when expressed by minorities.
The alternative to this, now routinely derided as ‘Enlightenment Fundamentalism’, is a principled commitment to egalitarianism and universalism – the notion that what separates us (culture) is taught and learned, but that what unites us is far more important and fundamental: that is, our common humanity. On this basis, the same rights and protections should be afforded to all people.
This is what underpinned the idealism of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence, two of the most noble documents produced by Enlightenment thought. It was the foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted and adopted in the wake of the carnage of the Second World War. And it is the basis upon which civil rights groups and human rights organisations have sought to advance the laws and actions of nations and their peoples.
The answer to prejudice, and to the division and inequality it inevitably produces, is not exceptionalism based on a hierarchy of grievance, but to strive for greater equality on the basis that we belong to a common species, divided only by our ideas. As Martin Luther King declared on the steps of the Lincoln memorial:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
On 20 December, the feminist writer and activist Adele Wilde-Blavatsky published an article in the Huffington Post entitled Stop Bashing White Women in the Name of Beyonce: We Need Unity Not Division. Wilde-Blavatsky’s post was a rebuke to those – on what she described as the post-colonial or intersectional feminist Left – who use identity politics and arguments from privilege to delegitimise the voices of white feminists speaking out about the abuse of women in the Global South and within minority communities in the West. Read the rest of this entry »
As a keen follower of structuralism, post-structuralism and other post-modern banality and pretentiousness, I’ve noted the increasing use of the word “intersectionality” (often accompanied by the exhortation “check your privilege”) throughout 2013. ‘Sarka’, a BTL commenter at That Place, wrote the following (which I found very useful, and reproduce below without permission). As usual, when we reblog a piece, it should go without saying that we don’t necessarily agree with all of it:
“Intersectionism” is one of those tiresome constructs that are either just cumbersome names for the obvious (even if we confine ourselves to viewing the social order just in terms of positive/negative relative privilege, it is clear that in any complex society more than one criteria is at work, and these “ïntersect” or at least interact…see my old hands of cards dealt to individuals simile) or else if explicitly or implicitly assigned more explanatory content, they are very dubious….
E.g. in the Graun article on “intersectionalism” much was made of the “huge explanatory power”of the thing….WTF? Surely only to people so mentally challenged that it has never struck them before that being e.g. female and gay, or disabled and black and poor, may multiply relative disadvantage Duh – as you Americans so irritatingly say, Go figure! No shit Sherlock! And wouldn’t that be characterisation rather than…er…explanatory power?
But obviously when apparently reasonably intelligent people make totems out of truisms something more is going on than the belated growth of two brain cells to rub together.
Here – to be very crude – the elevation of the truism is cover for a) the activity (well described by you, elsewhere) of establishing and adjusting competition in victimhood hierarchies, or indeed the apparently zero-sum victimhood market, and b) despite the apparently differentiating dynamic of intersectionality (it seems to admit the existence of different forms of oppression), it enables some supposed – usually very very thin – unity of all the variously oppressed against their oppressing oppressors, conceived (by their aggregate privilege!) to be responsible for the whole bang caboodle of oppression..Or alternatively – blacks used to blame whites, feminists used to blame men, the poor used to blame the rich, gays the straights etc etc… but rather than pulling these strands of oppression apart, “ïntersectionality” tangles them all together again….Suggesting that the fault is in the aggregate: it is white, western, straight, male, rich people who are ultimately responsible for every form of oppression, and every form of oppression is – though separate – ultimately traceable to the same source.
Hence it is a faux pas, e.g. to criticise brown people, especially poor ones, for oppressive behaviour to women or gays, for they are not the real source of the trouble…which can only lie with any with a greater aggregate of trump cards in their hands.
This is what [Laurie] Penny laughably thinks of as “structural explanation” – which in another guise presents itself as the (essentially wilfiully paralysed) position that no kind of injustice or oppression can be addressed unless ALL injustice or oppression is addressed…