The politics of privilege-checking

November 19, 2014 at 4:40 pm (Anti-Racism, class, Feminism, LGBT, liberation, multiculturalism, post modernism, posted by JD)

This article is republished from the website of the American International Socialist Organisation, a group once associated with the British SWP, but who broke their links with them some years ago. I think it’s an important contribution to the debate around identity politics, ‘intersectionality’ postmodernism and the relationship between class and oppression. It’s a longish piece, but quite accessible and well worth taking the trouble to read – JD:

Sharon Smith is author of the forthcoming Women and Socialism: Marxism, Feminism and Women’s Liberation [1] and Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States [2]. At the Socialism 2014 conference last June, she spoke at a session that took up the discussion about the politics of privilege theory and the practice of privilege-checking.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I THINK it’s important to make clear at the outset of this presentation that recognizing and appreciating the degree of gross inequality in capitalist society–which is a necessary feature not only of exploitation, but also of oppression–is much more important than the term you use to describe it. That is, whether you call it “privilege,” or “benefits” or “advantages” is not the main issue.

The only way we can hope to build a movement that fights oppression in all its forms, and also includes all oppressed people within it, is not by minimizing the degree of oppression that exists, but by recognizing its many manifestations–no matter which oppressed group you are discussing.

It is also the case that a solid proportion of people, especially young people, who have become radicalized in recent years have done so precisely because of their recognition of and opposition to oppression–be it racism, sexism, LGBTQ oppression, disability oppression or any number of other forms of oppression that exist today.

This makes sense. On the one hand, the dramatic growth in class inequality since 2008 has led to a sharp rise in class-consciousness–most recently demonstrated by the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. But this class-consciousness is mostly limited to anger at class and social inequality–without an obvious connection to a working-class strategy to transform society.

This is completely understandable, since anyone in the U.S. who became politically aware after the mid-1970s will have had little to no opportunity to experience firsthand the solidarity that is palpable among workers who are fighting shoulder to shoulder in an open-ended mass strike. So while the misery caused by the system is obvious to all those who are radicalizing today, the potential power of the working class is not.

Recent generations of young radicals have often gotten their first introduction to the issue of combatting oppression through reading the very influential Peggy McIntosh essay of 1989, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”

The best thing about this essay is that it forces its white readers to appreciate the many manifestations of racism in everyday life. But the essay itself primarily focuses on individual awareness, rather than putting forward a particular strategy for ending racism. I also find that it tends to conflate the meaning of “white” people with white middle-class people, without actually integrating a class analysis.

For its intended purposes, though, this essay raises awareness and does some good–mainly arguing that white people looking at themselves in the mirror should realize the many ways that people of color are victimized in ways that white people do not experience. And McIntosh certainly doesn’t call for privilege-checking as a strategy for social change. This strategy arrived to the radical left much later on. Read the rest of this entry »

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Stuart Hall, ‘Marxism Today’, “Post-Fordism” … and New Labour

February 11, 2014 at 12:18 pm (academe, Brum, culture, From the archives, good people, history, intellectuals, Jim D, Marxism, multiculturalism, post modernism, reformism, RIP, stalinism)

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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The word of 2013: “intersectionality”

December 31, 2013 at 5:08 pm (academe, Feminism, Guardian, Harry's Place, intellectuals, language, middle class, multiculturalism, post modernism, posted by JD, reblogged, relativism, statement of the bleedin' obvious)

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…

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Yasmin Alibhai Brown on the reactionary nature of the full veil

September 16, 2013 at 2:23 pm (capitulation, Human rights, Islam, islamism, liberation, misogyny, multiculturalism, posted by JD, relativism, religion, religious right, secularism, women)

We haven’t always agreed with Yasmin Alibhai Brown, but her column in today’s Independent is an honourable and quite brave statement of principle that needs to be thrown in the face of relativist/”multicultural” (sic) idiots and religious reactionaries everywhere:

.niqab anne 1

Fully veiled women hinder progressive Islam
Toleration is good but not when it prevents fair interrogation and robust argument

First a British judge, then dedicated educationalists running a British college have been defeated by the aggressive guerrilla army of Muslim Salafists and their misguided allies. At Blackfriars Crown Court, Judge Peter Murphy ordered a 21-year-old, veiled defendant to show her face. The accused had been charged with witness intimidation and pleaded not guilty. Whatever the results of that case, she and her supporters certainly intimidated the judge, who backed down so the trial could proceed.

Birmingham Metropolitan College was similarly cowed and had to reverse a directive forbidding students from covering their faces. One hooded lady crowdsourced a protest against the college. Some overexcited student union members, Muslim objectors and online petitioners have forced a U-turn. Shabana Mahmood, MP for Ladywood, Birmingham, welcomed the capitulation. Happy days. Muslim women can now to go to courts and college in shrouds.

That all-covering gown, that headscarf, that face mask – all affirm and reinforce the belief that women are a hazard to men and society. These are unacceptable, iniquitous values, enforced violently by Taliban, Saudi and Iranian oppressors. They have no place in our country. So why are so many British females sending out those messages about themselves?

Some think they are outsmarting anxious Western institutions by covering up, winning dispiriting culture wars which will give them no advantage in our fast moving world. Young women in niqabs are either testing the state as teenagers do their parents or think their garb is political action – but for what? Many women, mothers in particular, have been brainwashed by proselytisers who want to spread conservative Islamic worship across Europe and North America. They are well funded by sources based in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

And then there are those vacuous females who argue that it is their right to be objectified, that they must be allowed to live as invisible creatures. I don’t know which of these dubious forces prevailed in the examples above. But I do know that this trend is growing fast and cannot just be “tolerated” as a minority tendency, just one of many choices people make.

Toleration is good but not when it prevents fair interrogation and robust argument. I have written hundreds of times about the prejudices and discrimination experienced by Muslims, and other minorities. It isn’t easy being a Muslim anywhere in the world – not in Muslim lands or the West. But when Muslims wilfully create problems and build barriers, anti-racists and egalitarians have an absolute duty to engage with them critically and in good faith. I know frank engagement is avoided because it gives succour to the EDL, BNP, neocons and manic anti-Muslim atheists. I, too, have to think hard before penning columns like this one. In the end though, I don’t think we should abdicate these grave responsibilities because so much is at stake.

The woman before the judge must know that she or others like her will never be judges or barristers. Will she make her daughters do the same? The system wasn’t picking on her – a defendant in a micro mini would have caused as much disquiet. And the aggrieved college student, what future does she imagine? She denies herself jobs for the sake of what? They keep apart from fellow Britons by withholding proper human interactions. It’s not right or fair.

None of our sacred texts command us to cover our faces. Some branches of Islam do not even require head coverings. These are manmade injunctions followed by unquestioning women. We are directed always to accept the rules of the countries we live in and their institutions, as long as they are reasonable. For security, justice, travel, education and health identification is vital. Why should these women be exempt? We Muslims are already unfairly thought of as the enemy within. Niqabs make us appear more alien, more dangerous and suspicious. If it is a provocation for Ku Klux Klan to cover up so they can’t be recognised, it is for Muslims too.

This is a struggle between the light of the faith and dark forces here and also in Islamic countries. The clothes symbolize an attempted takeover of the religion just when believers are looking for liberty, autonomy, democracy and gender equality. Malala Yousafzai doesn’t hide her determined face. Nor do our female Muslim MPs and peers or civil rights lawyers.

Some of the bravest human rights activists are Muslim women. Take Tamsila Tauquir awarded an MBE for her charitable work with Muslims and Tehmina Kazi, director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, which I co-founded seven years ago. The two of them, with other idealists, have embarked on an “inclusive mosque” initiative, with pop-up prayers in various venues, where men and women, gays and straights, humanists and modernists can pray together. Many others are trying to promote progressive Islam, which fits our times and needs.

Islamic zealots must fear these developments and want to crush them. Whether they know it or not, fully veiled women are part of this reactionary mission. Our state must not aid and abet them. The judge and the college should not have retreated and handed them this victory.

NB: since this article was written, the judge in the (alleged) witness intimidation case has ruled that the accused woman must remove her veil while giving evidence and (presumably) while under cross-examination:

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Wadjda: a critique of multiculturalism

July 23, 2013 at 2:23 pm (children, cinema, civil rights, Cycling, Feminism, film, Human rights, liberation, Middle East, misogyny, multiculturalism, secularism, women)

By Andrew Coates (reblogged from Tendance Coatsey)

Wadjda: Joyous and Free.

Wadjda is  pioneering film by Saudi Arabia’s first female director, Haifaa Al-Mansour. She  is also the first person to shoot a full-length feature in the country itself.

The picture is  wonderful. It also raises serious political and cultural issues.

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a 10-year-old. She is referred to in reviews as  ”sparky” and “rebellious” and, somewhat patronisingly, a “sweet scamp”.

She reminded me of Marjane Satrap in Persepolis - someone  with the humour and wit to stand up for herself against the dead hand of religious pressure.

In that film Marji faced the power of Khomeni’s Iranian Islamists.

In Wadjda  the heroine has to live with the Saudi educational system and the male-dominated world of orthodox Islam.

The latter appears in the trap her mother is caught in: a life dependent on the good will of her husband, a daily commute provided by a Pakistani driver who speaks broken Arabic, and  her fears about him searching for another wife.

For her daughter we see  the continuous surveillance of her dress, and the sudden appearance of the religious police when Wadjda is seen playing around with a boy.

The scenario revolves around Wadja’s efforts to buy a bicycle.

Bikes are, naturally, not seen as suitable for modest women.

Listening to “satanic” rock music she plots to raise the cash. But selling football team colour bracelets does not get her far.

Her efforts also get ensnared by  her pious head mistress – whose constant enforcement  of the Islamic ‘modesty’ codes go against the fibre of the young rebel.

Wadjda hears that winning a  Qur’an  knowledge and recital competition could deliver her the money.

She suddenly becomes pious and sets out for victory.

As her project gets underway there are plenty of moments with a  political message.

With an admiring friend, a young boy, they pass a celebration of a suicide bomber’s death. He remarks that the martyr will  be enjoying 72 virgins in paradise.

Wadjda looks at him wryly and says,”Does that mean I’ll get 72 bicycles in heaven?”

It’s hard not to relate the film to recent discussion about multiculturalism.

It is the right thing to defend plural cultural identities, and, specifically, groups targeted by the Church and King mob of the English Defence League.

But do we want to defend those who wish to introduce a moral police like that of Saudi Arabia?

The curriculum followed by Wadjda is present in this country, in Saudi linked  schools – right up to their textbooks. It’s hard not to imagine that the religious policing that goes with it is not present.

Wadjda shows  how women can be joyous and free.

Like the Iranian film by Jafar Panahi Offside it expresses the universal hopes for human freedom.

And it does so beautifully.

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Enemy intelligence: ban the word “community”

May 27, 2013 at 8:51 am (Anti-Racism, communalism, London, media, multiculturalism, politics, populism, reblogged, secularism, terror)

Intelligent comment from behind enemy lines.

We occasionally publish worthwhile comment from unlikely sources. It should go without saying that this does not mean that we endorse the overall politics of the author, or indeed, everything in the article itself…

By Iain Martin (Daily Telegraph 24 May)

Above: can’t we go back to ‘Team GB’?

Tune into any BBC London programme at the moment and one word dominates. That word is community. Even on a normal day on the capital’s airwaves you will hear it a great deal, but in the aftermath of the Woolwich terror attack its use has gone into overdrive. On the BBC London news last night it – or the frequently used variant communities – was averaging 11 mentions per minute.

When did this word get such a grip that even passers-by vox-popped by a TV crew will deploy it a couple of times in a sentence when they are asked to asses the impact of a particular event? I wonder whether it really is widely used in everyday discourse or whether it is just what people feel they ought to say when tensions are high and a microphone is put under their nose. Having said that, yesterday I did overhear youngsters at a bus-stop discussing their horror at the Woolwich murder, and both used the word community, as in the perpetrators were a “disgrace to their community” (in the words of one). So perhaps it really has seeped into everyday speech through constant repetition in schools and on television.

The word took hold after the riots of the early 1980s, when there was a breakdown of trust, in certain inner cities, in the police and traditional institutions. After various inquiries, public policy was reconfigured to ensure that “communities” must be consulted on policing and much else besides. The traditional approach – in which people clustered together in a particular place voted for councillors and MPs who would then represent their interests – was out. With it went the widely held understanding that to live alongside each other none of us can get everything that we want.

From that point, other techniques were developed to make “excluded” people feel included. To facilitate this there suddenly emerged the “community leader”, someone unelected and usually possessing the gift of the gab. If they were smart they might get a well-paid gig with local government, or even national government, advising on “community relations”. Inevitably, under successive governments over three decades which all wanted to avoid tensions, this hardened into an orthodoxy, underwritten by third-rate academics in new disciplines. “Community” was the key word, used over and over again.

Of course, like many linguistic devices pushed by ultraliberals it actually has ended up with the opposite meaning from the one many people seem to intend when they use it. Rather than suggesting togetherness the term is actually highly divisive. Rather than emphasising common endeavour it sets one person’s alleged “community” against that of his neighbour.

I actively dislike the term and would refuse to be described as, say, a member of the claret-drinking community. Indeed, the traditional approach is still favoured by many, many millions of us in Britain of all creeds and colours. We think of life in terms of family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, perhaps religion, charity, hobbies such as sport or music and then the nation. Sometimes the various groups and circles involved are distinct and sometimes they overlap. We also accept common institutions as a bulwark of liberty, of course. And it is all wrapped up, ultimately, in that word that I used at the end of the list: the nation. How wonderful it was for a few weeks during the Olympics. The dreaded word “communities” disappeared. We heard instead of Team GB. Can’t we go back to that?

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Louis Armstrong’s greetings to the Irish

March 17, 2013 at 4:49 pm (black culture, comedy, culture, good people, humanism, internationalism, Ireland, jazz, Jim D, multiculturalism, music, surrealism)

On St Patrick’s Day, we bring you perhaps the most bizarre lyric ever sung by Louis Armstrong: “I was born in Ireland (Ha, Ha)”…

Louis Armstrong And His Hot Five, November 1926: Irish Black Bottom

Louis’s tireless biographer Ricky Riccardi writes:

Admittedly, this is not songwriting as its finest but as a novelty, it’s good fun. The “black bottom” was a popular dance of the 1920s so this tune humorously pretends that it’s also taken Ireland by storm.  If Louis had to record something so silly in the 1950s, critics would scream at the producers for forcing it on him.  But “Irish Black Bottom” was written by the aforementioned Percy Venable so more than likely, it was a staple of Louis’s act at the Sunset.  And can’t you imagine Louis bringing down the house with that vocal?  That “ha, ha” he gives after singing “And I was born in Ireland,” breaks me up every time.  I can only imagine what it did to the audiences who heard him do it live. 

The song begins with the funny sound of Louis and his Hot Five swinging through a sample of the Irish classic “Where the River Shannon Flows” before Louis swings out with the main melody, which is predominantly in a minor mode until the end. Louis’s lead sounds great and Dodds is bouncing around as usual but trombonist Hy Clark, a substitute for Kid Ory, sounds hesitant and doesn’t add much.  After a chorus and an interlude by pianist Lil Armstrong, Louis takes the vocal.  If you can’t make it out, here’s what he says:

All you heard for years in Ireland,
was the “Wearin’ Of The Green”,
but the biggest change that’s come in Ireland
I have ever seen.
All the laddies and the cooies
laid aside their Irish reels,
and I was born in Ireland
(Ha, Ha), so imagine how I feels.

Now Ireland’s gone Black Bottom crazy,
see them dance,
you ought to see them dance.
Folks supposed to be related, even dance,
I mean they dance.
They play that strain,
works right on their brain.
Now it goes Black Bottom,
a new rhythm’s drivin’ the folks insane.
I hand you no Blarney, when I say
that song really goes,
and they put it over with a wow,
I mean now.
All over Ireland
you can see the people dancin’ it,
’cause Ireland’s gone Black Bottom crazy now

I don’t know how you can’t get swept up in that offering. Armstrong doesn’t so much sing it as shout it, or talk it, but his spirit sure gets the message across (though sometimes, he’s so far from the written melody, it sounds like he’s singing a different song on top of Lil’s chording on the piano). After the vocal, Clark and Dodds take forgettable short solos and breaks before Louis carries the troops home with brio.  Louis’s lip trill towards the end is particularly violent and right before his closing breaks, he dips into his bag for a favorite phrases, one that ended both “You’re Next” and “Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa.”  The concluding break is so perfect in its phrasing and choice of notes that I believe it might have already been set in stone by Pops during his live performances of the tune at the Sunset.  Either way, that’s no reason to criticize him; it’s a perfect ending and puts an emphatic stamp on a very entertaining record.

That’s all for now. Have a happy St. Patrick’s day and don’t forget to mix in a little Louis with your Guiness.  I hand you no blarney, it’s a great combination…

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When exactly does “legitimate criticism” become “Islamophobia”?

February 19, 2013 at 9:03 am (Civil liberties, Free Speech, Guest post, Human rights, Islam, islamism, multiculturalism, Pink Prosecco, Racism, religion, secularism)

Guest post by Pink Prosecco

Above: “Islamophobia” or “legitimate criticism”?

In a recent article, Dr Leon Moosavi asserted that Muslims in the UK face “stereotyping, discrimination and even harassment.”  Anyone who has glanced at tabloid headlines much over the last few years, or who follows organisations and blogs which seek to counter this bigotry, will probably agree that Moosavi has a point.  He continues:

For example, in November 2012, the Leveson Inquiry which examined news media conduct from many angles concluded that Muslims, along with asylum seekers, immigrants and travellers, are commonly derided in the mainstream press.

‘ More recently, a couple of weeks ago, Keith Vaz MP tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament suggesting that Islamophobia be recorded by police forces across Britain so that it can be better understood.’

Towards the end of the article I began to question elements of Moosavi’s argument:

 ‘There are also protagonists who actively seek to dismiss Islamophobia as a concept because they claim it is one that prevents free speech and criticism of Islam as a religion.
It is important here to distinguish between legitimate criticism of a religious ideology and generalisations and attacks against those who have a Muslim identity. Just like it is possible to disagree with Jewish theology without being anti-semitic, it is possible to disagree with Islamic theology without being Islamophobic.’

Is Moosavi right to say that “legitimate criticism” of Islam is not in itself a problem? I suspect that many commentators Moosavi would consider Islamophobic manage to avoid even verbal, let alone physical, “attacks against those who have a Muslim identity.” But when people criticise Islam with single-minded and passionate dislike, when they cherry pick sources to exclude less conservative interpretations of the religion, then it is hard to say that such discourse doesn’t have an impact on people’s treatment of individual Muslims.

However Moosavi is also in danger of making “Islamophobia” embrace much that one wouldn’t want to ban or even censure. There is a potentially huge contested area between “legitimate criticism of a religious ideology” and “attacks against those who have a Muslim identity.”  What about illegitimate criticism? And who gets to decide what is legitimate?  Some people, for example, took great exception to Tom Holland’s documentary about Islam, based on his book The Shadow of the Sword.  That was a serious project; but what about Charlie Hebdo, The Innocence of Muslims, Jesus and Mo?  It would have been better (assuming this is what he thinks) if Moosavi had made a stronger and more unequivocal defence of freedom.  And unfortunately some of the most vocal opponents of Islamophobia (though not, as far as I am aware, Moosavi) are happy to weaponise that word in order to smear leftists, liberals and secularists who would probably be very willing to make common cause with them against racists like the EDL.

But the EDM (945) Moosavi is urging MPs to support seems like a reasonable and limited measure, responding to a genuine problem, and I have asked my MP to support it.

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On marginalised groups and fair-weather friends

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

Guest post by Robin Carmody


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

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Yes we Khan laugh…

August 31, 2012 at 5:27 pm (BBC, comedy, Guest post, Islam, media, multiculturalism, Pakistan, Pink Prosecco, Racism, religion, TV)

Guest post by Pink Prosecco

Citizen Khan (BBC 1, Mondays, 10.20 pm) has attracted formal complaints, and plenty of more informal negative comments too.  It’s certainly neither subtle nor original – but I find it more difficult to be sure whether or not it deserves complaints because it is racist or anti-Muslim.  The central character, ‘Citizen’ Khan, is a rather monstrous creation, and most of the characters seem stereotypical.  But this is the case with many sit coms.  Basil Fawlty and Alf Garnett were both grotesque.  Khan’s prospective son-in-law seems a bit daft – but so was the ridiculous Alice in The Vicar of Dibley.

Of course Muslims are targets of bigotry, which does mean that Citizen Khan can’t be judged in quite the same way, perhaps, as a programme about a white, culturally Christian family.  But it could be argued that the programme’s makers, by reducing the Khans to a set of cheesy stereotypes, have just helped pull Muslims more firmly into the mainstream in a way a more earnest and nervous programme couldn’t have done.  Although a few complaints have focused on the disrespectful treatment of Islam, the character who uses a mask of piety to conceal her party going tastes – and gets away with it – could strike a chord with anyone who has sneaked their way round parental restraints, whatever their religious background.

It’s not a great programme.  Goodness Gracious Me was cleverer and funnier.  But I don’t think it’s going to be giving the EDL any comfort.  As Adil Ray, who plays the title role, points out:

“The biggest, most important, thing you can do is laugh at yourself….You then negate anything anybody can ever do. It’s the ultimate weapon. If you can laugh at yourself, it doesn’t matter what anybody says to you as you’re laughing already.”

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