A demonstration against The Satanic Verses, in Bradford, 1989. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features
Peter Tatchell can usually be relied on for common sense, decency and a an instinct for fair play, especially when it comes to those difficult personal-meets-political questions that seem to crop up so often these days.
So when Tatchell came on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, saying that Keith Vaz has “not broken any laws” and should not resign from his position as chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Committee in the light of the Sunday Mirror‘s revelations, my initial reaction was to agree.
Tatchell said he could see no public interest in publishing the story:
“As far as I can see he has not broken any laws, or caused anyone any harm and there’s no allegation of hypocrisy; buying sex in this country is lawful,” Tatchell told Radio 4’s Today Programme on Monday.
“Keith Vaz has a strong record of supporting gay rights. He has never gone tub-thumping in terms of supporting family values so what is the public interest in publishing this story … Whatever you think about Keith Vaz behaviour and some people might take the view that it was irresponsible and wrong, I don’t think it’s a resigning matter. I don’t think there is a serious conflict of interest there” [The Home Affairs Select Committee is currently overseeing an inquiry into prostitution laws. An interim report published in July recommended significant changes to existing laws so that soliciting and brothel-keeping are decriminalised].
Tatchell also suggested that Vaz may have been entrapped by the paper and argued it appeared to be a “classic tabloid sting … “It’s a throwback to the sensationalist tabloid style of the 1980s. It’s not something you’d expect to see in 2016”.
All of which is true and needed saying: well done Peter!
So why am I not inclined to take up cudgels in defence of Vaz?
It isn’t just because ever since entering the Commons in 1987 (the first Asian MP since 1929, alongside pioneer black MPs Paul Boateng, Diane Abbott and Bernie Grant), he’s been a rank opportunist and unprincipled careerist of almost breathtaking shamelessness (well described here); his personal dishonesty and contempt for free expression, secularism and enlightenment values was exposed once and for all within two years of entering parliament:
Rushdie affair (from Wikipedia):
Shortly after being elected in 1989, Vaz led a march of several thousands of Muslims in Leicester calling for Salman Rushdie‘s book The Satanic Verses to be banned. According to Rushdie’s autobiography Joseph Anton, as quoted by Douglas Murray in The Spectator, Vaz had earlier promised his support against the fatwa:
- Vaz said, in that phone conversation, that what had happened was ‘appalling, absolutely appalling,’ and promised his ‘full support’. A few weeks later he was one of the main speakers at a demonstration against The Satanic Verses attended by over three thousand Muslims, and described that event as ‘one of the great days in the history of Islam and Great Britain.’
Vaz is a Catholic of Goan origin. But even so, I’m sure he’s familiar with the Buddhist concept of Karma (an attractive idea, even for an atheist like myself): it means, roughly, “what goes around comes around.”
Above: Bouattia speaks
By Champagne Charlie
Malia Bouattia, the new President of the NUS, stood on a supposedly “left wing” platform consisting largely of identity politics, simplistic, reactionary anti-imperialism and undifferentiated hostility towards Israel and most of its people in the name of supposed “solidarity” with the Palestinian cause.
Normally, student politics are not of much interest to us at Shiraz, but the politics behind Bouattia’s victory are of significance to the left – and a warning of what can happen when the serious class struggle left fails to vigorously oppose identity politics and reactionary anti-imperialism.
Bouattia made headlines last year after opposing a motion to the NUS executive condemning Isis and supporing the Kurds, claiming that to do so would be “islamophobic”, “racist” and “imperialist”.
This brought criticism from Kurdish and left wing students, but when the press picked up the story, she responded by whipping up a storm against the proposer of the motion, Workers’ Liberty supporter Daniel Cooper (see Cooper’s statement on this below).
The left majority on the NUS executive has repeatedly discredited itself by taking ridiculous positions – to take one example, voting down support for Palestinian workers fighting Israeli bosses in Israel’s settlements, on the grounds that this would supposedly legitimise the occupation…
On the issue of free speech on campus, which has been a major issue this year, the majority NUS left has been on the wrong side, promoting the idea that suppression of views they don’t approve of, and the promotion of so-called “safe spaces”, is the way to challenge oppression and backward ideas.
NUS has campaigned against the government’s Prevent programme, but done so by promoting the thoroughly reactionary Islamist campaign Cage. It has helped promote a “left” politics where the idea that Germaine Greer (or indeed, following their rape scandal, the SWP) should be banned from speaking and/or organising on campus, is combined with a sympathetic attitude towards an organisation, Cage, whose central leaders admire the Taliban.
Almost everyone in NUS is in favour of support for the Palestinian struggle. But the unthinking, absolute “anti-Zionism” which all too often shades into a form of political anti-Semitism, does a disservice to the Palestinian cause and can only set back any prospect of a just peace (not that Bouattia & Co want peace – see the video at the top of this post).
The new NUS President is representative of all these problems. Her record is defined not so much by being a leader of struggles as a spokesperson for these kinds of political ideas and positions.
Workers Liberty made many of these points (perhaps slightly more tactfully worded) in a statement, adding:
We remind the movement of this because we believe that Bouattia behaved like a petty and unprincipled factionalist, putting her resentment at her bad luck, her prestige and the chance to attack a political grouping she doesn’t like above the massive issue of the Kurdish struggle. Although the NEC eventually, two months later, passed a motion about Kurdistan, NUS circles spent far more time and energy on the row than on supporting the Kurds. So much for anti-imperialism!
We have little confidence that an NUS led by Malia Bouattia would be more habitable for political minorities and dissenters, more democratic or more serious about political debate and discussion than one led by [the “right wing” incumbent] Megan Dunn.
Workers Liberty, however, decided to give Bouattia critical support against Dunn:
Bouattia and co are more left-wing than Dunn and co on a whole series of class struggle-type issues. In the context of a Tory government attacking all along the line, and important battles against them – junior doctors, other strikes, anti-academies fight, Labour Party struggle – breaking the grip of the old right over NUS is of no small importance. That is why our position is to vote for Malia Bouattia above Megan Dunn – not because we can in any real sense endorse her candidacy, let alone her politics. (Although it is secondary, we also think NUS electing its first black woman, and first Muslim-background, President would be positive.)
Daniel Cooper’s statement on his motion on Iraq, ISIS and the Kurds
I have read on social media various criticisms of my report of the September NUS National Executive Council meeting. Here are some thoughts in response.
Didn’t you go to the press about the NUS Black Students’ Officer, the row about Kurdistan and ISIS?
No. I have had a number of requests from newspapers to comment and I have turned them all down, the ones from the Sun and Daily Mail very rudely. This is because I am a socialist, anti-racist and feminist and have no intention of helping any right-wing campaign. I also have my own experience of being witch-hunted by the political right and the press: in late 2012 and early 2013 there was a major national campaign against me for publicly declining to take part, as ULU Vice President, in a pro-war/pro-imperialist “remembrance” ceremony (see here).
I condemn the press, right and far right attacks on Malia Bouattia, many of which are disgusting examples of racism and sexism.
After I published my report of the September NUS NEC meeting, it was covered by some (left-wing) blogs and then noticed more widely. At that point the story was picked up and repeated, naturally in distorted form, by the right-wing online student paper the Tab, and from there by the mainstream press. It is absurd to suggest I am responsible for this, unless you think people on the left should never publicly criticise each other in case the right makes use of it.
Didn’t you accuse Malia of not condemning ISIS?
No. Read the report. I never said anything of the sort. I objected to Malia opposing the motion on Iraq proposed by me, Shreya Paudel and Clifford Fleming, and responded to her claims that it was Islamophobic and pro-imperialist. Some people have claimed I misrepresented Malia. The only justification I have heard for this is, firstly, that I did not state that Malia condemned ISIS. That is because it was so blindingly obvious: before the right-wing attacks on Malia, the idea that anyone on NUS NEC would not condemn ISIS had not even occurred to me. And, secondly, that I failed to report that Malia offered to support a different motion on Kurdistan at the next NEC if it fitted with her politics. Whether or not I should have reported this or not, it is hardly decisive! Does anyone seriously believe that if I had stated either of these things it would have prevented right wingers distorting and making use of what I wrote?
Why didn’t you talk to Malia about the motion before the meeting?
Firstly, I am under no obligation to consult Malia, who has different politics from me, about what motions I want to submit to the NEC.
Secondly, I did. I specifically sent Malia the motion after it was submitted (she will also have received it as normal in her NEC papers) and asked for her views. She responded saying that she would have liked to be consulted before the motion was submitted, but when I replied and asked for her views on the actual contents of the motion, she did not reply.
Malia and her political allies could have moved amendments in advance, through the normal process, or moved parts to delete particular lines or elements on the day. They didn’t.
I would add that we had submitted a very similar motion to the previous NEC in July (it fell off the agenda for lack of time), so the general contents were available to consider and discuss for even longer than normal, and Malia had ample opportunity to move her own motion about Kurdistan in September. Again, failing that, she could have amended mine.
Isn’t “resolves 5” of the motion (“Encourage students to boycott anyone found to be funding the IS or supplying them with goods, training, travel or soldiers”) Islamophobic? Doesn’t it effectively propose that MI5 spies on Muslim students?
Resolves 5 was a point that Roza Salih, NUS Scotland International Students’ Officer, wanted in the motion. In general (not always), I am opposed to be boycotts as I believe they are ineffective and strip agency of people on the ground to bring change. I also think that there are indeed issues about seeking to establish who ISIS supporters are. I considered removing this line after Roza proposed it, but then didn’t. I should have. If anyone had emailed me stating their opposition to it (or replied to my emails asking for opinions!) I would almost certainly have removed it.
But it’s worth noting that in Bouttia’s speech in the NEC meeting she did not state why she believed the motion to be Islamophobic.
It’s only after the meeting that I have been informed that this particular point was contentious. I am still confused about why, then, it was not amended or deleted from the motion in the meeting itself, rather than opposing the whole motion outright.
I understand that, in a society such as ours, in which anti-Muslim feeling is wide-spread, this point in the motion might be misconstrued. However, it was clearly never intended in this way, by Roza or by me.
I am also curious as to how most of those that opposed the motion, especially on the left, square this with their support for boycotts of Israel.
Why are you attacking the NUS Black Students’ Officer?
I’m not attacking her as a person, much less because she is BSO. I’m expressing a political criticism of a position she took and arguments she made, because I disagree with them.
Why did you single out Malia in your report?
Because she was the person – the only person – who spoke against the motion. There was one speech for and one against – Shreya Paudel and Malia. I moved for another round of speeches, but Toni Pearce, as chair, over-ruled me. That is why that section of my NEC report focuses on Malia’s arguments (plus the tweet from Aaron Kiely celebrating the motion being defeated).
Why did you call Malia a Stalinist?
Again, read the report! I said the political approach she argued in opposing my motion – putting flat opposition to everything US imperialism does above questions of democracy, liberation and working-class struggle, in this case the democratic liberation struggle of the Kurds, as well as Iraqi socialists, feminists and labour activists – was informed by the legacy of Stalinism. I stand by that. That is the real political disagreement here, and one that few if any of my critics seem willing to engage with.
Why have you done this now?
Actually I submitted a similar motion about Iraq in July, for the obvious reason that I was concerned about what was happening in Iraq and Syria. (I have worked and still work closely with Iraqi Kurdish socialists in London.)
Please note: between the two NEC meetings, an almost identical motion to the one defeated at the NEC was passed, I believe unanimously, at NUS’s Scottish Executive Committee, where it was proposed by Roza. I’m not sure, but I think some people voted one way at the Scottish EC and another at the NEC. That’s ok if they genuinely changed their minds because of the arguments, but not ok if they were doing what they thought would make them popular (at both meetings!)
I resubmitted a motion in September because, far from going away, the issue had got bigger and more urgent. That is surely the point of being on NUS NEC: to raise important issues and try to agitate and mobilise people about them.
Support the Kurdish struggle!
That is the absurdity of all this: hardly anyone in NUS, in the leadership or on the left, has done anything to support the Kurdish struggle and other democratic, feminist and working-class struggles against the odds in the Middle East. While hundreds if not thousands of Kurdish students in the UK have taken action to protest against genocide and extreme oppression, their national union is failing them. And in this debate, the voices of Kurdish left activists have been largely ignored.
Right-wing attacks on student activists and officers, particularly attacks on black activists motivated by racism, must be opposed, condemned and fought. At the same time, the fact is that Malia and others on the NEC did the wrong thing when they voted down the Iraq motion at the NEC.
I’d urge everyone to read this interview with Roza Salih about the Kurdish struggle, and get active to support it.
If anyone would like me to respond to a different argument or objection, please feel free to drop me an email: email@example.com
Goldsmiths: Islamist Bullies try to intimidate this brave champion of freedom and secularism.
Reblogged (and slightly edited) from Tendance Coatesy:
Before reading this, the following statements by comrade Pierre Rousset, made in March in the wake of the murders at Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper-Casher, are important,
For many years now, sections of the Western radical Left, and not minor ones, have cast the strong rise of fundamentalism in the Muslim world in a very positive light – as a (more or less distorted) expression of anti-imperialism, whereas they are actually (as in other religions) reactionary and counter-revolutionary currents.
More broadly, a number of currents have adopted the detestable habit of only defending the victims of their “main enemy” (their government, their imperialism), without worrying about the victims of the “enemies of their enemies” – in this case, fundamentalist Islam. They do so in the name of exclusive “priorities” or, worse, on the basis that defending such victims amounts to an act of complicity with imperialism. We should note in passing that the same kind of reasoning can be applied to victims of a so-called “anti-imperialist” dictatorship such as the Assad regime in Syria.”
“The British SWP pushed things particularly far in this area. The Central Committee statement released following the Charlie Hebdo massacre is written from start to finish in such a way as to minimize the responsibility of the assassins, even if the attack is described as “wrong and completely unacceptable” and the killings as “horrific”. Alongside imperialism, Charlie Hebdo comes off as a major guilty party due to its “provocative and racist attacks on Islam,” adding for good measure that while “that does not justify the killings, but it is essential background.” The only task of the hour is therefore to “unite against racism and Islamophobia”.  It’s easy to understand why the SWP would react in this way, given that it has to erase its tracks and blind readers to its own responsibilities. It was one of the main organizations of the radical Left to describe the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as the expression of a new anti-imperialism. And when women in Britain itself called on progressive forces to support them against the fundamentalist threat, the SWP made it nearly impossible for them to get a hearing on the Left.”
March 2015. International Viewpoint.
Goldsmiths ISOC fails to intimidate and silence dissenters. Maryam Namazie.
From Freethought Blogs.
I spoke on 30 November 2015 at Goldsmiths University at the invitation of the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH).
The night before my talk, the ASH president received an email from the president of Goldsmiths Islamic Society (ISOC) saying the following:
As an Islamic society, we feel extremely uncomfortable by the fact that you have invited Maryam Namazie. As you very well probably know, she is renowned for being Islamophobic, and very controversial.
Just a few examples of her Islamophobic statements, she labelled the niqab- a religious symbol for Muslim women, “a flag for far-right Islamism”. Also, she went onto tweet, they are ”body bags” for women. That is just 2 examples of how mindless she is, and presents her lack of understanding and knowledge about Islam. I could go on for a while if you would like further examples.
We feel having her present, will be a violation to our safe space, a policy which Goldsmiths SU adheres to strictly, and my society feels that all she will do is incite hatred and bigotry, at a very sensitive time for Muslims in the light of a huge rise in Islamophobic attacks.
For this reason, we advise you to reconsider your event tomorrow. We will otherwise, take this to the Students Union, and present our case there. I however, out of courtesy, felt it would be better to speak to you first.
On the day of my talk, the “ISOC Brothers’” Facebook Page [the ISOC Sisters’ have a separate closed page) posted the following, which has since been deleted:
Despite claims of “safe spaces” and concerns about “bigotry”, the Goldsmith ISOC never made any formal complaint to the Student Union, which had already approved my talk, showing that it was an attempt at intimidating ASH organisers.
After my talk began, ISOC “brothers” started coming into the room, repeatedly banging the door, falling on the floor, heckling me, playing on their phones, shouting out, and creating a climate of intimidation in order to try and prevent me from speaking.
I continued speaking as loudly as I could. They repeatedly walked back and forth in front of me. In the midst of my talk, one of the ISOC Islamists switched off my PowerPoint and left. The University security had to intervene and remain in the room as I continued my talk.
Eventually the thug who had switched off my PowerPoint returned and continued his harassments. At this point, I stood my ground, screamed loudly and continued insisting that he be removed even when the security said he should stay because he was a student. When he was finally escorted out of the meeting, discussions on many issues from apostasy, the veil to Islamism and Sharia laws continued, including with some of the ISOC “sisters” who remained behind.
In the Q&A, a women’s rights campaigner who had been kidnapped by Islamists in Libya and held for three days said that the attempts at intimidation reminded her of those dreaded days.
Another CEMB activist said one of the ISOC thugs disrupting the meeting threatened him by pointing a finger to his head.
The behaviour of the ISOC “brothers” was so appalling that a number of Muslim women felt the need to apologise, to which I explained that no apology was needed from those who were not to blame.
Absurdly, this very group which speaks of “safe spaces” has in the past invited Hamza Tzortzis of IERA which says beheading of apostates is painless and Moazem Begg of Cage Prisoners that advocates “defensive jihad.”
The ISOC’s use of rights language are clearly a cover to silence any critic and opponent of Islam and Islamism and to normalise the far-Right Islamist narrative under the guise of Islamophobia and offence.
Despite the many attempts of the ISOC “brothers,” the meeting ended successfully and raised critical issues, including that criticism of Islam and Islamism are not bigotry against Muslims who are often the first victims of Islamism and on the frontlines of resistance. The meeting also helped expose the Islamists for what they are – thugs who cannot tolerate dissent.
Nonetheless, the Islamists at ISOC will need to learn that apostates, and particularly women, have a right to speak and that we will not be intimidated or back down.
Freedom of expression and the right to criticise and leave Islam without fear and intimidation is a basic human right. We have a responsibility to fight for these universal values at British universities and also across the globe.
A video of the talk will be made available shortly.
Germaine Greer has said some unforgivable things in the past eg about FGM. But she is a great woman, a splendid writer, a courageous human being and in her time was an inspiring feminist. Trans activists’ attacks on her are gross.
Here’s an excellent piece on the issue.
Pop feminism has willfully abandoned political analysis for the feel-good factor of disposable aphorisms. See for example Laurie Penny (@pennyred) who recently performed the ultimate no risk “coming-out” of announcing she’s a femme-presenting, female-assigned at birth, no-transition “genderqueer” . . . which is the LGBT equivalent of claiming one retroactively looooved punk rock before it was mainstream.
And to prove her gendercred to her fans, she’s been eager to defend Caitlyn Jenner’s perpetual womanhood — that Bruce was female when winning the decathlon. Egregiously, Penny backs this up with the usual cut-and-paste misinterpretation of Simone de Beauvoir.
I’ll say it again: Beauvoir is spinning in her tomb over the intellectually dishonest, quote-mined appropriation of her life’s work. It is simply wrong that Beauvoir means “one … becomes a woman” as an endorsement of gender/femininity as empowering to female persons. It is embarrassingly clear that Penny, and her cadre of retweeters, hasn’t actually bothered to give Beauvoir the decency of a good read.
Laurie Penny, always modish, always wrong. It’s startling to be told you are “a femme-presenting, female-assigned at birth, no-transition” creature when you’d always described yourself as a “girl” or “woman”.
By Maryam Namazie (from her website):
I was invited to speak at Warwick University by the Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists’ Society on 28 October 2015. The University Student Union has declined the request for me to speak saying the following:
This is because after researching both her and her organisation, a number of flags have been raised. We have a duty of care to conduct a risk assessment for each speaker who wishes to come to campus.
There a number of articles written both by the speaker and by others about the speaker that indicate that she is highly inflammatory, and could incite hatred on campus. This is in contravention of our external speaker policy:
The President (or equivalent) of the group organising any event is responsible for the activities that take place within their events. All speakers will be made aware of their responsibility to abide by the law, the University and the Union’s various policies, including that they:
- must not incite hatred, violence or call for the breaking of the law
- are not permitted to encourage, glorify or promote any acts of terrorism including individuals, groups or organisations that support such acts
- must not spread hatred and intolerance in the community and thus aid in disrupting social and community harmony
- must seek to avoid insulting other faiths or groups, within a framework of positive debate and challenge
- are not permitted to raise or gather funds for any external organisation or cause without express permission of the trustees.
In addition to this, there are concerns that if we place conditions on her attendance (such as making it a member only event and having security in attendance, asking for a transcript of what she intends to say, recording the speech) she will refuse to abide by these terms as she did for Trinity College Dublin.
The Atheist group is of course appealing their decision, however, it’s important for me to comment briefly on the Student Union’s position. I will be writing a more detailed letter to the university to formally complain about the Student Union accusations against me after taking legal advice.
For now, though, suffice it to say that criticising religion and the religious-Right is not incitement of hatred against people. If anything, it’s the religious-Right, namely Islamism in this case, which incites hatred against those of us who dare to leave Islam and criticise it.
The Student Union seems to lack an understanding of the difference between criticising religion, an idea, or a far-Right political movement on the one hand and attacking and inciting hate against people on the other. Inciting hatred is what the Islamists do; I and my organisation challenge them and defend the rights of ex-Muslims, Muslims and others to dissent.
The Student Union position is of course nothing new. It is the predominant post-modernist “Left” point of view that conflates Islam, Muslims and Islamists, homogenises the “Muslim community”, thinks believers are one and the same as the religious-Right and sides with the Islamist narrative against its many dissenters.
It is the “anti-colonialist” perspective which always unsurprisingly coincides with that of the ruling classes in the so-called “Islamic world” or “Muslim communities” – an understanding that is Eurocentric, patronising and racist.
This type of politics denies universalism, sees rights as ‘western,’ justifies the suppression of women’s rights, freedoms and equality under the guise of respect for other ‘cultures’ imputing on innumerable people the most reactionary elements of culture and religion, which is that of the religious-Right. In this type of politics, the oppressor is victim, the oppressed are perpetrators of “hatred”, and any criticism is racist.
These sort of Lefties have one set of progressive politics for themselves – they want gay rights, equality for women and the right to criticise the pope and the Christian-Right, and another for us.
We are not worthy of the same rights and freedoms.
We can only make demands within the confines of religion and Islam. If we dissent, if we demand equality, if we demand to live our lives without the labels of “kafir” or “immoral” – and all that which they imply, then we are inciting hatred…
It’s a topsy turvy world when “progressives” who are meant to be on our side take a stand with our oppressors and try to deny us the only tool we have to resist – our freedom of expression.
Well, it’s not up for sale or subject to the conditions of a Student Union too enamoured with Islamism to take a principled position.
By the way Warwick, in case you’re wondering, I will speak at your university – as I will be soon at Trinity College Dublin despite my initial talk being cancelled by organisers.
Above: genocide denier Chomsky
The Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University, Belfast, has cancelled a symposium on the issues raised by the Charlie Hebdo killings. The professed reasons for the cancellation were supposed security concerns and – more worrying in many ways – concern for the “reputation” of the University. Nick Cohen has written a typically good piece about this and other attacks on free speech in higher education, but the article we re-publish below (from Little Atoms) is by one of the invited speakers, Jason Walsh, and you can tell that despite his measured tone, he’s angry:
Illustration: Fiona Hanley
The tragic irony of censoring Queen’s University’s Charlie Hebdo discussion
Censorship by the Vice Chancellor of Queen’s has done far more damage to the university’s reputation than an academic discussion on citizenship after Charlie Hebdo ever could
I hate to break it to you, but there’s a security risk in Northern Ireland. No, don’t stop reading just yet. I promise you it’s interesting. A threat has been issued, apparently, against that most august and liberal of institutions: Queen’s University Belfast. Well, “issued” is perhaps too strong a word. Perhaps we should go for “perceived”. Or “made up”.
No, it’s from not a dissident IRA splinter group; no, it’s not from loyalists demanding the Union Jack be flown above the campus. In fact, we don’t even know who this spectral threatening force is. What we do know, however, is that the “security risk” relates to a symposium where a bunch of academics would sit and talk about the nature of civil society after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
We know about this risk because the office of Queen’s Vice Chancellor Patrick Johnston has cancelled the symposium. He is also concerned about the risk to the reputation of the university. He should be. Now.
The symposium, entitled “Understanding Charlie: New perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo”, doesn’t sound to me like a hotbed of radicalism or Islamophobia, so any claim of risk hinges on the threat of violence by whom, exactly? Who could possibly be offended by a good faith discussion of the fallout from such an appalling event? No-one. That’s who.
Among the participants at this conference was to be yours truly, the Ireland correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, the world’s most measured, careful and, critics (with whom I would disagree) would say, stiff newspaper. Other participants included, well, academics. It was an academic symposium, after all. As I was a putative participant there is an ethical conflict in me reporting on the matter. There is no such impediment, however, on me complaining about it, so buckle-up while I take you for a spin around the insanity that is the modern university.
We all know about recent events at universities across the UK: shutting down a debate about abortion because it was between two men; the routine “no-platforming” of radical feminist Julie Bindel, the banning of the Sun newspaper and Robin Thicke’s pop song Blurred Lines. To that we can now add merely talking about the concept of freedom of speech.
There you are: you are not free to speak about whether or not you are free to speak. Honestly, in this case I feel sorry for the organisers of the conference. I have only a faint notion of what the internal politics of universities are like, but this is not an isolated incident in a single institution.
These bastions of liberal education have, over the last few years at least, fallen far short of the measure. Some blame “neo-liberalism”; others “political correctness”. Both views have some merit: the transformation of the student into a consumer is a serious issue and, sadly, more and more things are simply declared unsayable for nakedly political reasons. But I am a mere reporter with pretensions toward the academy so for now I will stick to what is observable and leave the epistemology to my ballooning PhD thesis: the real problem is cowardice.
Read the rest of this entry »
The announcement today of the death of Günter Grass brings to mind the late Prof Norm‘s wise words following the Israeli government’s decision to declare Grass persona non grata in the light of the poem published below. This row erupted in 2012 – six years after Grass confessed to having been drafted into the Waffen SS as a teenager.
What Must Be Said
by Günter Grass
But why have I kept silent till now?
Because I thought my own origins,
Tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,
meant I could not expect Israel, a land
to which I am, and always will be, attached,
to accept this open declaration of the truth.
Why only now, grown old,
and with what ink remains, do I say:
Israel’s atomic power endangers
an already fragile world peace?
Because what must be said
may be too late tomorrow;
and because – burdened enough as Germans –
we may be providing material for a crime
that is foreseeable, so that our complicity
wil not be expunged by any
of the usual excuses.
And granted: I’ve broken my silence
because I’m sick of the West’s hypocrisy;
and I hope too that many may be freed
from their silence, may demand
that those responsible for the open danger we face renounce the use of force,
may insist that the governments of
both Iran and Israel allow an international authority
free and open inspection of
the nuclear potential and capability of both.
Wisdom from Norm on the Günter Grass row:
Yesterday Eamonn McDonagh posted about the Israeli government’s decision to declare Günter Grass persona non grata. With the aid of a couple of counterfactual analogies, he argued that Israel was ‘entirely justified’ in excluding Grass from its territory for representing the country as a danger to world peace. As Eamonn also wrote:
There’s no reason for the victims of genocide and their descendants to feel themselves obliged to allow Grass or anyone with a similar history or views to enter their country to lecture them on their immorality and how they continue to pose, just like when he was a young man, a special danger to the world.
Also yesterday, Nick Cohen put up a post of contrary tendency. ‘The only legitimate reason for banning a writer or speaker’, Nick wrote, ‘is if his words will be a direct incitement to crime.’ It was, he added, an insulting assumption on the part of the Israeli government that its citizens ‘cannot listen to arguments they do not like and respond to them with better arguments’. This was a logic of censorship and cultural boycott:
To the Israeli government’s mind, Grass is wicked and therefore cannot be heard.
I have intimated here that the feature of Grass’s poem that was most repugnant was not the world peace stuff but his suggestion that Israel might be contemplating an attack on Iran which could wipe out the Iranian people – so making the Jewish state, on the basis of nothing but his own fancy, an agent of nuclear annihilation. In any case, in what follows I shall argue – though not in this order – that the Israeli government should not have banned Günter Grass as persona non grata; but that Eamonn is right (subject to one reservation) and Nick is wrong on the fundamental principles at stake.
Let’s begin with the opinion of someone else altogether – Salman Rushdie, who said on Twitter:
OK to dislike, even be disgusted by #GünterGrass poem, but to ban him is infantile pique. The answer to words must always be other words.
This sounds good, and of course it’s only a tweet, which doesn’t allow room for contextualization and qualification; but it isn’t true. Generally it is a good principle to meet words with words, and governments certainly shouldn’t prohibit people’s views (unless they incite violence) simply on account of disliking them. But there are other ways that people may legitimately choose to deal with opinions they find odious: for example, they may decline to keep company with those who propagate such opinions, decline to host them in their homes, decline to publish their writings when they have this power of decision, and so forth. Not every exclusion of someone from a space – whether physical, literary or virtual – amounts to censorship.
A government should not ban opinions which don’t constitute incitement; but, to the best of my knowledge, the Israeli government has not done this with respect to Günter Grass’s views. It has not done it on its own territory, where presumably anyone is free to articulate those views, publicize them, support them, criticize them, or whatever; and it has not done it anywhere else for obvious reasons, since it does not have that authority. It has simply declared that Grass is no longer welcome in Israel – and this is a matter that Israel may, with perfect legitimacy, decide. When Eamonn says, therefore, that Israel has no obligation to admit Grass, he is right: as a country it has a definite right to decide on who is and who isn’t welcome to visit. This is not the same thing, however, as saying that Israel is entirely justified in excluding Grass. It has a right to exclude him, but there may be reasons why it should not do so nonetheless (reasons I will come to shortly). It’s the same as saying that someone has the right not to let another into her house, but that she was wrong on the specific occasion to insist on her right, because (say) the putative visitor was cold, wet and exhausted and needed shelter for a short spell to get out of the raging storm.
On the other hand, Nick’s ‘only legitimate reason for banning a writer or speaker’ – namely, direct incitement to crime – applies to the opinions that should be expressible within a government’s territorial jurisdiction, but not necessarily to the admissibility of persons. It strikes me as not at all unreasonable for national communities to decide that there are individuals whose ideological track record renders them unwanted as guests. At the same time, contrary to what Nick suggests, by the exclusion of Grass the Israeli government is not preventing its citizens from listening to arguments they do not like or suppressing Grass’s views. Neither is his exclusion from the country comparable to the logic of cultural boycotts. The latter target whole categories of people independently of anything they have done or of what they have said or may think, simply on the grounds of their national identity.
Why, then, do I say that the Israeli government is wrong to have declared Grass persona non grata? I say this because it has made it a matter of authoritative political decision who is welcome as a guest in Israel, when (or at any rate so I assume) it does not actually know whether there would be a national consensus to this effect. If it had security and intelligence reasons for the exclusion that it could not disclose, this would be a relevant consideration. But I cannot believe Israeli intelligence would back the view that a visit from Günter Grass could pose a serious threat to Israeli society or public order. In free and democratic polities, who may be invited into the country as a guest is generally left to private individuals and organizations. The interests of Israel would have been better served by leaving it so in the present case. If some group of Israelis should be stupid enough to think the opinions expressed in Grass’s latest ‘work’ are worth hearing out of his own mouth, then bevakasha, let them host him and enjoy the privilege of hearing him malign their country, just like numberless Jew-haters the world over, as exterminationist and genocidal. The political health and reputation of Israel will likely suffer less from indulging this stupidity than from putting in place a ban which may be entirely pointless anyway.
Dave Osland wrote:
The website of Socialist Resistance – a organisation of which I was once a member – is currently running two articles on the transphobia debate [JD adds: Dave wrote this before SR took down the article by ‘Author A’]
Author A, a radical feminist, sets out her position. Author B, a trans woman, subjects it to critique.
The first writer does not stoop to Julie Burchill-style cheap shot invective aimed at ‘chicks with dicks’ but simply sets out her stall in entirely reasonable terms.
This is what most people would consider a rational exchange of opinion, a process whereby both camps can potentially gain, if only by better understanding their opponent’s case.
But for its pains, SR is now subject to an online petition, in which dozens of activists – including some big names in the bubble politics of the far left – have signed up in protest against ‘the hosting of transphobes’.
In its small way, this affair encapsulates much of the mindset that relegates revolutionary socialism to the margins of the margins.
It is as if to say: “We have the correct line, comrades; no other line can even be permitted the ephemeral existence of a posting on a small readership website.”
This is an attempt at petty cyber-Stalinist bullying on the part of people who believe that they are in the business of politics to work towards a fundamentally more democratic society.
If they cannot handle debate now, at this level, than how would they handle it in the event that they actually exercised some degree of real influence in society?
By all means take on Bugs Brennan and her ilk. But freedom of speech is as vital on the radical left as it is within society as a whole.
As far as I know, this is something of first. But now the precedent has been set, I wonder where this madness is going to stop.
Here is the ‘offending’ article, with an introduction, written by the author (Victoria Smith, aka ‘Author A’) since the piece was taken down; it comes from Victoria’s blog glosswatch – a feminist blog. We reproduce it here at Shiraz not because we necessarily agree with it, but because we think it is a serious contribution to a serious debate, and should not have been suppressed:
I originally wrote this piece for Socialist Resistance – in response to an idea that came from them, not me – but asked to have it withdrawn in light of this editorial announcement. I think it’s important for women’s work to be represented fairly and I don’t consent to my work being presented in contexts which don’t reflect the actual commission. The insistence that women’s voices in particular – particularly when women are describing their lives and needs – require “trigger warnings” is patriarchal to the core. When people are offended by women speaking or writing, it’s rarely women who are the problem.
In this particular instance I think Socialist Resistance need to be honest about their editorial policies and their political principles. There is a word for people for whom discussions of female bodies, female labour and male violence cause “offence and distress.” That word is not “trans”, “queer”, “marginalised” or “oppressed,” but “misogynist” (it’s been around for quite some time). If that is a publication’s desired readership, fine, but it is frankly bizarre for it to then use the term “socialist” when any analysis of the means of production expressly excludes the exploitation of female bodies and the experiences of female people as a labour class.
Moreover, if an editor believes it is contentious to claim that the exploitation of women is something which benefits a more powerful group (as opposed to something based on a random, free-floating “phobia”); if he or she thinks it is triggering to suggest male violence should be named; if he or she is unconcerned about the age-old exclusion of female bodies from understandings of what human bodies are, then that editor should say so. It’s not okay to make glib statements about not “supporting the exclusion of transwomen from women’s spaces” when that is not what is being debated. If you’re going to slap a trigger warning on someone’s writing and make dog-whistle references to phobias, you need to give precise reasons why. And if your “socialism” is actually “redistribution amongst male people while female people carry on cleaning up everyone’s shit,” you need to be clear about this. Because selling your publication on the back of moral principles you don’t have simply isn’t fair.
I am wondering if an alternative title for this piece should be “why are some feminists so mean?” After all, this is the assumption made by many upon hearing that when it comes to trans inclusion, many feminists still want to talk about difference. “But trans women are women!” we are told, as though this will make everything alright. But it doesn’t. The impression is that we are cruel. Surely what is at stake matters a great deal to trans women but very little to us? Why can’t we just loosen up and let everyone join the “being oppressed as a woman” party on the same terms? Shouldn’t the excluding be left to the men?
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that, at least not if feminism is to mean anything as a political theory which analyses how and why women are oppressed, with a view to dismantling the structures which dehumanise, objectify and exploit. This is no more an abstract discussion for feminists than it is for trans people. It is not a matter of discomfort with particular words. It’s about real, flesh-and-blood suffering. If we cannot talk about how patriarchy arises, how it functions and who benefits from it, then we cannot help ourselves, let alone each other. We might as well go home.
In a 2014 piece for the Guardian, the trans journalist Fred McConnell describes gender as “one’s innate sense of self.” This is not a definition that many feminists would use. To us, gender is a hierarchical system aimed at enforcing women’s subservience. It is neither natural nor innate. As the philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards writes, “much of what is believed about women stems from what is wanted of women.” If you decide that woman = innately predisposed to meet the needs of men (and dress it up in fancy wording which suggests womanhood is actually to do with being pretty, nurturing, communicative etc.), you have a ready-made justification for abuses which have endured for millennia and are going on to this day. That is what gender means to us.
I am conscious the feminist definition of gender sounds a little depressing compared to the trans one. Maybe so, but it is a description of what is. Forced marriage, unpaid wifework, reproductive coercion, sexual slavery, educational exclusion … all of these things continue to be justified by the insistence that women are “naturally” subservient, caring, decorative etc. Moreover, the women to whom these things happen do not have the opportunity to identify out of their oppression because this oppression remains material in basis. Saying “I’m not a woman – my innate sense of self tells me I’m not THAT!” does not work (I write this as a pregnant woman and believe me, no amount of insisting “I’m a pregnant PERSON!” grants me an exemption from laws which were written on the assumption that women, as a reproductive class, should not have full bodily autonomy at all times in the same way that men do).
So what is the solution? Feminists propose that we abolish gender and accept that both male and female people are human, free to express themselves however they choose regardless of their sex. Trans activists propose that we abolish sex difference (as if one could) and accept that whether one is male or female depends upon how one identifies, using gender as a guide. Quite how the latter option deals with the material exploitation of sexed bodies under patriarchy – beyond making it unmentionable – isn’t very clear. Nor does it tell us how we might confront male violence (over 90% of all violent crime is committed by male people, regardless of how they identify). Are we therefore to assume that a predisposition to violence is merely a part of someone’s innate sense of self? And is it now up to perpetrators to say whether their violence really counts as “male violence,” dependent on how “male” they feel? Indeed, under the rules of trans politics, can we identify any forms of material oppression and dominance at all?
When feminists point out that trans women are not biologically female, we are not, as some would have it, behaving like “knuckle-dragging bigots.” We’re saying our bodies exist and matter, too. This isn’t a minor point. The idea that male bodies are the default bodies is patriarchy 101. Eve is constructed from Adam’s rib; Freud clocks our lack of penis and comments drily that “a hole is a hole”; modern medical research is still biased towards using male bodies. Denying sex difference by making male bodies the only “real” bodies is not some modern stroke of genius; it is conservative to the core. Moreover, it is directly contrary to the feminist objective of ensuring that biology is not destiny.
Many people find this hard to understand, thinking that to associate being female with having a female reproductive system is akin to “reducing women to their genitalia.” It’s a non-argument that’s rather akin to saying anti-capitalists “reduce people to their earnings” or anti-racism campaigners are “obsessed with skin colour.” If we don’t talk about biology – and hence never demand the structural changes which ensure the world is built to suit the needs of all bodies – then for female people, biology always will be destiny. For instance, it’s highly unlikely that company bosses ever sat down and decided to actively discriminate against people who look like they might have the potential to get pregnant; they just built the rules on the assumption that the default employee is someone who definitely can’t. This then leads to enormous inequalities, forcing women into lower-paid, part-time work or excluding them from employment altogether (while allowing male people to continue to benefit from the disproportionate share of unpaid caring work undertaken by female people; unfortunately males who see “woman” as an identity rarely seem to identify with the floor scrubbing and arse-wiping aspect of the whole experience).
In all this it’s worth asking who really gains the most from trans politics in its current anti-feminist guise. Female people don’t and if we’re honest, neither do most gender non-conforming males. Whereas feminism seeks to dismantle male dominance, trans politics reinforces traditional masculinity by insisting that any quality that is considered insufficiently manly is shoved into the “woman/not man/other” box. Not only does this offer no challenge whatsoever to the global epidemic of male violence, but it ensures that women can continue to be blamed for it (If women were only more accommodating, men wouldn’t have to beat anyone up, as said by every single misogynist since the beginning of time). Moreover, this is entirely in keeping with a feminist analysis of gender as a hierarchy. When self-styled cis men order feminists to accept that “trans women are women,” what they’re really saying is “accept that my dominance is natural” (any admission that male people might freely identify with so-called feminine qualities without having to declare themselves female would be far too unsettling; it might show that patriarchy is a house built on sand after all).
A recent poster campaign asking feminists to be “more inclusive” showed a trans person trying to decide which toilets to use. On the door of the ladies’ were the words “get yelled at”; on the men’s, “get beaten up.” That’s patriarchy for you; men learn violence, the most women can do is seek to raise our voices. The trans solution? Demand entry into the “get yelled at” space, even if this also means granting entry to potential beaters as well as yellers. Accept male violence, but not female dissent, as a fact of life. The feminist solution? The opposite: no to male violence, yes to raising our voices. Confront the system that enables the beaters. Do so even if it means you get yelled at and called a TERF and told to die on a daily basis. Do it because you know male violence is wrong, that no one deserves to be beaten and that all people should be free to express themselves how they wish, regardless of sex.
I know which option I’d choose. Other people can make their own choices, but let’s be honest: this is not about identity and inclusion. It’s about power. Think about who and what you’re propping up.
Here’s an open letter to Cameron, Miliband etc. on the case of Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger who now again faces possible execution for apostasy.
The organisers are trying to move the campaign from petitioning and desperate pleas – amnesty style – to something a little more substantial. There is a translated letter being used in France and they are trying to get Charlie Hebdo survivors to sign.
We intend to send it end of Tuesday, sending to the press for Tuesday lunchtime. It would be good if we could get some signatures on it from trade unionists and socialists.
We are attaching the letter and signatures as of midday today (also below) but anyone thinking it would be useful to make contacts as well as get signatures please use it. Or obviously if you want to sign….. let us know in the comments below.
Open Letter to be sent to Cameron, Miliband and other Party leaders
Saudi blogger Raif Badawi is currently imprisoned in a Saudi Arabian jail having received the first 50 of a threatened 1,000 lashes. If Raif survives these floggings he faces another 10 years in jail. His ‘crime’ was to have set up a website that called for peaceful change of the Saudi regime away from the repressive and religiously exclusive regime that it is.
In another shameful act his lawyer Waleed Abu Al-Khair, and other human rights activists were also later arrested. On February 20th this year Waleed had his sentence confirmed as 15 years in prison.
The European Parliament in its resolution of Feb 12th made clear its demands on Saudi Arabia to release Raif, as well as his lawyer Waleed and others imprisoned there for exercising their freedom of speech.
But to free Raif from this nightmare needs more than politicians saying that they disapprove of his punishment.
The total EU trade with the Saudi regime is currently close to €64 billion a year. The UK alone has approaching £12 billion invested in Saudi Arabia whilst it continues to invite Saudi investment in the UK, particularly in the property market. Saudi investment in the UK is currently over £62.5 billion.
As the regime inflicts beheadings and floggings on its people, questions have to be asked about why more cannot be done to promote the human rights of citizens of a country with which there is such extensive business. Particularly questions have to be asked about the morality of providing such a regime with arms, particularly the weaponry and facilities they use in their brutal penal system.
We ask that you make publicly clear your complete opposition to the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and demand the immediate release of Raif and Waleed as the EU parliament has done. We also ask that you make publicly clear what measures you will take as a government to put any trading with this regime on an ethical basis and what conditions you will demand from the Saudi regime if all of that trade is to continue – particularly in relation to weapons that might be used in oppression or imprisonment.
If nothing is done to stop the brutality, beheadings and floggings that are committed there – then any moral stand taken against similar horrors committed elsewhere by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria can only be compromised.
In the spirit of consistency, transparency and humanity we ask you to take action to Free Raif and promote human rights in Saudi Arabia
Signatories as at Sunday, 8th March, 12pm: Read the rest of this entry »
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