I'm not racist, but...: further thoughts on links and comments

We have already discussed at some length in several different comment threads some of the ethical, political and practical issues of dealing with racism in comment threads and so on. Two very different but related developments have made this stuff more pressing for me. This post briefly reflects on that, and is probably only of interest to regular readers, and so I'm putting it below the fold.

One is a request from Modernity (one of my favourite bloggers, and I think politically very close to me) that I stop using his material or links until I stop hosting racists. I have honoured his request and deleted my most recent references to his material and will not use his material again until further notice one way or another.

The other is the appearance of supporters of the English Defence League (EDL) in the comment threads of both my post at Though Cowards Flinch and several comment threads at Richard Millett's blog. The two appearances are of a rather different nature: in one case an apparently non-affiliated supporter of the EDL promoted it in an environment where several people batted him down robustly; in the other case large numbers of regular commenters defended the EDL activist who appeared, and the blogger allowed links to large amounts of EDL propaganda. The EDL activist on that thread, among other things, called mainstream Jewish leaders "kapos" for "appeasing" Islam, and called Victor Vancier a hero.

I have decided to be much more hardcore in my comments threads, using delete a lot more freely than I have. I may not do so as much as Modernity would like me to. And I might not do so in a consistent or speedy way because this blog is not my life's main activity. I will do so because I am tired of arguing with people who won't listen to reason, and because I don't want my place to be conducive to a mode of discourse I have no taste for.

I continue to believe that the principles of "no platform" and zero tolerance are not as straightforward as Modernity suggests (I would link here to the post on his blog where he sets out his position, but obviously I won't) in the context of the forms of racism in question and in the context of Web 2.0. But lots of my regulars and friends take a view not unlike Modernity's and have expressed it on and off-line. Only two commenters, the ones who irritate everyone else, have taken a different view. Quite simply, I prefer the company of the former. I therefore will act to re-create the sort of community I think I once had in my comment threads. This blog is partly about nuance, subtlety, critical thinking, openness, complexity, working things through, avoiding pre-determined positions. I thought that being tolerant in my comment moderation was the way to achieve this, and for some time (nearly half a decade) it seemed to be. But now I think that being intolerant, at least for a while, might be the way to achieve it. 

Thinking about this raises two more substantive issues for me. The first is about the political situation today, probably roughly since 9/11 although there were obvious precursors. On the one hand, certain forms of anti-Zionist, "anti-imperialist" and anti-American politics have become so hegemonic among mainstream liberals, socialists and even anarchists, that they are completely blind to particular manifestations of antisemitism, genocide denial, conspiracism, and racism. Hence, one click from any number of the left blogs I have on my blogroll (or Modernity has on his) takes you to: denial of Serb violence, denial of the Rwandan genocide, denial of Pol Pot's genocide; support for racial ideologies like pan-Slavism, pan-Arabism, Serbian nationalism; support for misogynist and homophobic right-wing jihadi Islamism; crackpot theories about Jews conspiracies wagging American foreign policy; denial of obvious facts about 9/11; etc etc. The shadowy cyberlands of Dissident Voice and antiwar.com are obviously nutty to some mainstream leftists; but this sort of thing is all over Counterpunch, which some of the most intelligent and interesting people on the left write for, it fills up several pages on Indymedia, and it soaks through the Socialist Workers Party, the largest hard left grouping in the UK and a major force in several trade unions and anti-cuts campaigns. In short, it penetrates right to the heart of apparently normal left-land. In this context, policing the line of acceptability is not an easy task. I've spent a large amount of this internet space on this blog fighting on that front, but I don't think the front is always easy to draw so clearly.

On the other hand, and I don't spend anywhere near as much time fighting on this front here as I should, many of the people who see all of the above very clearly cannot see something very similar on their side. A lot of indecentists make a big deal of the below-the-line commenters at Harry's Place, who do indeed include several anti-Muslim racists, but above the line they make a very strong distinction between Islam and Islamism and they have been active in denouncing and exposing groups like the EDL. But there is something very wrong when supporters of fascistic terrorists like Victor Vancier get a free pass on mainstream pro-Israel sites, when an EDL supporter has a regular slot on a mainstream Zionist site like Israellycool and Israel National News publishes his op eds defending the EDL, and when sensible blogs like Simply Jews continue to link to Israellycool. Just as anti-Zionism and "anti-imperialism" have smuggled antisemitism and other reactionary politics into the left, the counter-jihad movement has smuggled anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism into pro-Israel politics.

(This is not to say that all these groups are equivalent or even similar. There are discussions to be had about greater and lesser threats, and the specific contexts of time and place that might make a difference. That's not the issue for now.)

The other issue is about who or what is "a racist". The no platform policy is about fascists, members of fascist organisations. Racism, on an individual basis, is something different. Does saying something racist make someone "a racist"? If someone says something racist in one context, is everything they say to be ruled out of order? The obsessions with racists is very pervasive in our culture right now - examples include the high profile incidents around Mel Gibson, "celebrity hairdresser" James Brown, Lars von Trier, John Galliano, Richard Keys, Herb Sosa and so on. But, as I tried to argue once before, I think we need to move away from a concentration on racist individuals and their allegedly racist inner souls, to a concentration on racist actions, racist words and racist deeds, and the real effect these have in the world.

Needless to say, on this particular thread, I do not welcome comments either from those Modernity describes as racist, or from EDL supporters.


Will said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bob said…
Two offensive comments removed. I would have left Will's on another thread, but not on this one.
Flesh said…
Makes sense, Bob. Had a quick read of Kenan Malik's criticism of the NUS' No Platform policy. It's awkward to map it to blogs. Blogs aren't institutions. They're a bit like birdboxes. Bob made a habitat for loads of different birds. Then two cuckoos hatched, started demanding all the food and shoving the other birds about. Some fell out. I've reached the end of the metaphor now. Cuckoos are endangered. Relentless and racist commenters, two a penny.

"cunts from tyhe racist hate site known as... "

Neither accurate nor substantiated, Father Jack.
Jane G said…
I am regular reader who never comments, so don't know if I have a right to speak out here, but I wuld be glad to see the level of offenciveness toned down and not to have all the comment threads side-tracked by one or two maliscious people.
Jane G said…
Just realized how bad my spelling was there. That's one reason I don't comment! Sorry.
Sarah AB said…
I have followed links to Richard Millett's blog on a couple of occasions and recently I came across a thread which seemed to be dominated by supporters of the EDL - and others who weren't bothered. It may have been an uncharacteristic thread though. Clearly I'm fully aware that some threads on HP take an unpleasant turn too. What really irritates me is when 'indecentists' turn up in the comments to sneer but don't actually want to join in a constructive conversation even though - surely - they have more in common with HP bloggers than with either anti-Muslim bigots or with the weirder bits of the far left.
JM said…
I'm glad you're taking action. I'm sorry if my personal disagreement has come off as hostile.

"some threads"?

I tried engaging below the line at HP for four or so years and I got tired of being nearly the only one on a thread not to be either a Eurabian fantasist, Ultra-Zionists, a smug tory "wit" or a self-loathing lefty masochist without an OP in sight. I got tired of Neo-birthers being given polite engagement rightly denied their leftist equivalent. I got tired of the same red meat chosen every day or the same Erza post again and again and again. And then you have scum like Libby T ABOVE THE FUCKING LINE.

If you keep putting rotting meat out on your doorstep, don't ask people to come help chase off the stray dogs.

When even Brownie starts asking what happen to the place, you have problems.

As i've said, see out ten years and clsoe it down
Sarah AB said…
I've definitely found myself in a similar position to the one you describe sometimes on HP, i.e. surrounded below the line by people with startling right wing views, so I see what you mean. I don't often see eye to eye with Libby T myself. But I enjoy HP even though I wish we had more commenters from the centre left, or simply from the centre.
bob said…
Thanks for all comments. Like the cuckoo metaphor a lot. Spelling mistakes are welcome here. On HP, I just never go below the line except in extreme circumstances, and think at least a half of the above line stuff is well worth reading, even though the remaining half includes some dodgy stuff.
Jessica Goldfinch said…
Thanks Bob. Keep going; it's one of the most inclusive and 'safe' blogs around.

With regard to HP, I have felt that a lot of it is very balanced/ mixed with pro-/anti-, all religions/genders etc. represented as contributors over the years - if read openly and carefully. I like the way I can read Peter Tatchell in one thread and then to someone from the opposite view in the next.

But, it is of course unmoderated, which has produced a slow-creep of some real shockers. I get the feeling that lots of ultra-righties and lefties trawl around trying their luck in trying to find an audience on these sites and sometimes this performs a good service, (as 'uncomfortable' as it makes me), in that they can bring out some regular contributors and show their true colours.

This is why I tend to read the headers on HP very carefully first and decide if to open them or not. It certainly has made me more savvy about how to identify the really dodgy posters and I have a choice to read or not.

It's a difficult balance for a moderator, but if you've laid out your stall as you have then people should respect that or try their luck if they 'dare'! :)
Torquil Macneil said…
This is all very interesting and I agree with most of the comments about HP, I wish they would take a stronger line with the comments which have become repetitious and dull when they are not downright offensive (despite the sterling rearguard efforts of Sarah AB to rebalance them)but the main editorial content is often excellent and it is the most consistently and effectively anti-racist left site I know. Most others are anti-racist ... up to a point. Why HP generates such hostility on other blogs is beyond me except that they are pro-Zionist on the whole and for many people that is just intolerable.
Andrew Coates said…
Bob I agree with your stand, but it's not always easy, particularly with loads of comments, and if a Blog is for a mass readership that wants people to respond.

The Ipswich Unemployed Action site, which I run with other people, has to have fairly strict policies. Lots of people who are very unhappy post their opinions and experiences. They are often very moving, and extremely well aired.

But we have to bar 'anti-foreigner' rants, nearly always against Eastern Europeans. Apart from anything else they tend to go on and on. Sexist obscenity is another no-go area.

I have had to put quite a list of words in a filte...
Flesh said…
Hello Jess, this is very interesting, reading about how people draw their lines and filter on the web.

Sarah, I have a question. I can't fault your Harry's Place posts (I'm also an Ezra fan - Laurie Penny, Hasbara operative - Mikey breaks the mould - and on Social Republican's rotten meat comment, I don't think that's fair. Have a look at the 'Anti-Muslim Bigotry' category, for example).

To return to my question - Sarah, I was wondering, have you noticed whether the kinds of comment your posts - which invite calm deliberation and are the opposite of incendiary - attract are different in quality and content from the kinds that, say Libby T posts attract?
Sarah AB said…
Hi Flesh - off the top of my head I'd say we attract the same commenters - both left/liberals and wingnuts from the right (I'm not saying everyone on the right is a wingnut)but that they take different positions in relation to my posts and Libby T's.

One blog where I feel (though I don't comment that often) people are *generally* pretty civil even though they position themselves against HP is Aaronovitch Watch. I still haven't quite worked out why DA needs to be watched, or why the blog is in fact mostly focused on Nick Cohen, but the threads can veer off into interesting tangents about topics such as the relationship between religion and music.
Flesh said…
Sarah, that makes sense. At any rate, I think that Harry's Place has taken drastic but effective action to limit the impact of bad comments by deleting the entire thread after a week. (This view of comment as process not product is fair enough, but as well as wondering if it becomes a bit of self-fulfillment in terms of people really letting themselves go in the knowledge that their sins will be washed away at the end of the week, I also miss being able to tag a page of unfolding argument and revisit it as and when. I have a lot of 'key discussions' bookmarks, and back in the day I used to devour those HP discussions. Remember Son of Muffin? What a nice man. David T used to be very puckish, a delight to read.

Yeah I have a look at Aaro Watch every so often, another blog with a community (bit impenetrable at times) - saw your comments there on Nick Cohen and women fairly recently and remember thinking I had noticed that too.
Excellent post, Bob. In particular, this comment is spot on:

'Just as anti-Zionism and "anti-imperialism" have smuggled antisemitism and other reactionary politics into the left, the counter-jihad movement has smuggled anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism into pro-Israel politics.'

Comments moderation is inevitably going to be a difficult balancing act, but bloggers tend to err far too much on the side of leniency, and I very much sympathise with Modernity's view. There is absolutely no need to tolerate comments that would be deemed wholly unacceptable if they were made at even a relaxed public meeting.

Although I would not describe Libby T as 'scum', I otherwise wholly agree with Social Republican's critique of Harry's Place. Even some of the pieces that are reasonable and correct in their own right, really should not be posted in such a forum if they are going to attract a swarm of comments by the Muslim/Arab-hating fringe that are then left undeleted or treated with kid gloves. Frankly, for any post about Palestinians at HP, the comments should be kept closed.

PS I don't agree with Sarah about Aaronovitch Watch - it's an extraordinarily petty, ad hominem sneer-site. Given that it's actual politics are rather reasonable and moderate, I find the depth of its obsession with Cohen and Aaronovitch, and anti-Decent hatred, wholly baffling and rather creepy.

By contrast, although I'm no fan of Harry's Place, it does at least have some interesting posts about real issues.
Sarah AB said…
Marko - I only intermittently engage with AW and I agree that its ostensible focus is an odd one, but I have found it possible to have a genuine exchange there. I see what you mean about posts about Palestinians etc on HP and have been accused of writing 'moderate' pieces in order to wind people up and see what happens which isn't the case. Sometimes I have found people who are not exactly default pro-Palestinians coming round, in the commments, to condemnation of bigotry against them, or some appreciation of, for example, Mahmoud Jabari, a WB Palestinian who actively tries to understand the Israeli point of view.
Waterloo Sunset said…
I agree with socialrepublican on HP, as you can imagine.

I disagree with Marko about AW, but I think a lot of that may come down to simple matters of aesthetic preference- I like the more snarky bitchy style of posting whereas Marko obviously doesn't. I don't think the focus on Aaro/Cohen is unfair. Both are, to all intents and purposes, public figures. And neither are strangers to using their 'media weight' to gain prominence for their attacks on people they disagree with. As such, while it's not really my area of interest, I don't think focusing on them is that different then the stuff we see over at Daily Mail Watch.

I'll also say that FlyingRodent's comments over here have always been interesting and worthwhile in my view. As have BenSix's. I know FR is part of AW, not sure about Ben.

@ Bob

the ones who irritate everyone else

Hmm. I think you'd be better advised to try and come up with at least a general policy and implement it. Basing stuff on who people find irritating isn't a good idea. Catch me in the wrong mood and I'd want you to ban 90% of your regular commentators because I'm having one of my Victor Meldrew moments.

@ Sarah

What really irritates me is when 'indecentists' turn up in the comments to sneer but don't actually want to join in a constructive conversation

Have you considered that the atmosphere at HP really isn't one that encourages people trying to have a constructive conversation? Seriously, why would anybody bother while the below the line comments are dominated by the current atmosphere? (I used to comment below the line at HP but haven't properly for years. I don't see the point. I'd genuinely have a better chance of having a proper debate over at SomethingAwful).
bob said…
If I recall right, there was some real, below the belt, personal bitchiness about Marko at AW. I find there is some nice humour there, but don't like that sort of personalised carping, and also quite like Aaronovitch and Cohen.

I think Shiraz Socialist often has good comment threads. Dave Osler has nutters, but surprisingly few considering the number of readers/commenters. A Very Public Sociologist had good commenters, but I have to confess I've not visited for a while.

And, of course, the commenters here are the best.
Sarah, I don't at all think you're guilty of deliberately writing 'moderate' posts for HP in order to wind people up. I think the polite, measured and non-confrontational tone you bring to the blog is a blessing to it. I just fear that the sort of topics that you and other HP bloggers write about aren't ones that should really be discussed with a large part, if not the majority, of the people who regularly post comments there. It's a case of casting pearls before hyenas.

I was also initially relatively positively disposed toward AW, and tried at various times to engage with them, but gradually came to the conclusion that I was missing the point, and that the site exists solely to stifle and poison any possible discussion between the Decent left and other parts of the left. It's a wholly negative expression of the sort of pathological, personalised sectarian animosity that blights the world of left-wing discussion. Horrible blog.
Sarah, I don't at all think you're guilty of deliberately writing 'moderate' pieces in order to wind people up. I think the polite, measured and non-confrontational tone you bring to HP is a blessing to it. But I fear that many of the topics that you and other HP bloggers post about are ones that simply shouldn't be discussed with a large part, if not the majority, of the people who regularly post comments there. It's a case of casting pearls before hyenas (if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor).

I also was initially favourably disposed toward AW, and tried at various times to engage with them, but was invariably taken aback at the extraordinary level of aggression, animosity and sheer arguing in bad faith that any attempt to debate the Decent vs non-Decent cases provoked from them. I gradually came to feel that I was missing the point, and that the blog did not exist so that non-Decents could debate with Decents, but on the contrary, to stifle and poison all such discussion.

WS, I agree about Flying Rodent; I don't particularly like his politics, but he's a good-natured fellow. Decentpedia manages to have a go at the Decent left without the sort of nastiness that characterises AW. But I don't think it's appropriate to have a 'watch' site targeting two people over a period of years who are, after all, just two individual journalists. I can't help thinking that the agenda - at least subconscious - is that if you sneer at someone long enough, you'll silence them. It really isn't very honourable...

PS Apologies for the errant apostrophe in my comment above - shame on me.
Sarah AB said…
WS - can't quarrel with your perceptions and experiences and don't mind if you don't visit or comment of course - but some people who are on the left come to HP to make snarky comments from the sidelines when they could help win the debates instead.

I suppose I think (in my slightly evangelical mode) that HP covers some important topics but that it's also important to reinforce the point that it is possible to be concerned about Islamism and a/s, but also concerned about Islamophobia and the Palestinians.

Marko - sorry you had a bad time on AW - perhaps I have tended to join in conversations where I happen not to disagree with the OP particularly. Yes, agree that FR is decent enough, if not Decent, and that Decentpedia is quite funny in places!
bob said…
Another reason my comment threads are superior: people apologise for errant apostrophes.
Your comments threads are indeed superior, Bob. They are a tribute to the positive atmosphere you cultivate. It's a quality you share with others present or mentioned on this thread - Sarah, Flesh and Modernity. If only all bloggers were like you.
Flesh said…
In the words of a great man "I will work myself into the ground, just realising on my death bed that I am at best mediocre and have wasted this precious gift of life writing about talking anuses when I could have been laughing in the sunshine with the people I loved."
Flesh, I've also had that epiphany (except that I don't consider myself mediocre :-)) Yes, it is objectively crazy to spend one's time indulging in mutual hate-fests with trolls on the internet when one could be out enjoying the sunshine; maybe sitting down on the riverbank with a nice cold beer and a good novel. It's one thing to forgo such pleasures to devote time to a worthy target - someone like Bashar al-Assad or Vladimir Putin. But some irrelevant nonentity who wouldn't even exist if one were more discriminating about which links one clicks on ? Really, it's mad. Those of us for whom commenting on the internet isn't simply about giving vent to pent-up anger and hatred should really try harder to ignore those for whom it is.
Sarah AB said…
oh dear. I think I must just - like arguing (though less so in real life). I was about to write that I suppose most readers and commenters of a site such as Harry's Place have made up their minds about issues already, but then I remembered that I sought out political sites a few years ago and found that they helped me work out answers to the questions which were on my mind - mostly to do with the fact that I didn't think my views had changed yet found it harder to agree with many on the left than I used to. I'm glad there were plenty of sensible people taking the time to commment on blogs - they helped me think through issues such as, for example, my union's boycott moves against Israel. So - don't just focus on the idiots you are arguing with but the quiet lurkers too.
Roland Dodds said…
I don't post to your comment threads often Bob, but I am a lurker who generally reads them all. I will say it has gotten less enjoyable to do so in the last few months, and I am glad you are taking a firmer stand on your comments policy. This is one of the few places that I see quality debate and discussion, and it would be a shame to have that derailed.
bob said…
Thanks Roland, Marko and others for kind words. I will from now on endeavour to make this that sort of space again.

The points Marko and Flesh and others make is not incompatible with Sarah's enjoyment of argument, or the fact that one can learn from arguing. But I think the point is one can learn the most when one is open-minded in an argument, and arguing with people who are also open-minded, and there is a sense that either of you might change your mind. Arguing in this way with people who only take fixed positions might be helpful from time to time to test your views or develop mental muscles or toughen your arguments, but that is not a good way to be always.

I think there is also something about cultivating a sensibility, to use a phrase Noga used a few threads back. Levi thinks that all of us are the same because we are all "pro-Zionist" or something, but in fact the political differences between us seem to me enormous - we have anarchists, libertarians, Liberal Democrats, Greens, centrists, Marxists, etc here - but we seem to share a certain sensibility that is hard to put your finger on. I think that's something worth holding on to and working on.
Rosie said…
Bit late commenting, but I'm all for comments spaces where people don't conduct feuds and throw out insults. It turns blog threads into happy hour at the hen party pub - all squawking and noise. Fun for a short time only. So keep up your chucking out policy, Bob.

Re HP and its notorious commenters - yes, what gets me is how some of them make what would be an intelligent, heartfelt point but make it over and over and over again. Most of us are embarrassed if we find that we've repeated ourselves in the same conversation and treat it as a symptom of age related dementia. That doesn't stop some of the HP regulars. I agree that some comments threads should be closed.

Re Ay Watch - I once wrote a piece which used AW & HitchWatch as examples of a kind of deranged anti-fandom - a black version of a fan site. Villain worship - i.e. paying a lot of attention to something you hate unless it's of some importance like fascism, indicates a corroded soul. Actually I was unfair on AW where they do have good threads on subjects and they are less obsessively sneering and jeering than HW.
Flesh said…
"paying a lot of attention to something you hate unless it's of some importance like fascism, indicates a corroded soul."

Rosie, you do such authoritative bon mots you really should get on twitter. Not joking.
Sarah AB said…
It seems wonderfully calm and sane here after one or two of the recent threads on HP. I think I spend too much time below the line - I'm going to close my computer and read a book. (Well, might just check a couple of things first.)
Harry's Place reports today:

'All comments seem to have disappeared from current articles. We’re working on this problem.'


What problem ?
Sarah AB said…
I think it was just the same technical problem HP has had once or twice before. They are back now.
bob said…
Ah, and I thought it had collapsed due to our incisive criticisms here.
It was a rhetorical question, not a genuine enquiry.
Sarah AB said…
Sorry to be dopey, Marko! I think there have been attempts to sabotage HP in the past so if things go wrong people do sometimes look for a conspiracy.
Matt said…
"But, as I tried to argue once before, I think we need to move away from a concentration on racist individuals and their allegedly racist inner souls, to a concentration on racist actions, racist words and racist deeds, and the real effect these have in the world."

I can't follow the link here (It may be broken. Or, being in Korea and unable to read the error screen that coms up, it may be on my end.) But I'd like to state my agreement. Too much anti-racism doesn't take the actual targets of racism to be much of anything, which is just another way of elevating the dominant society over the subaltern. Unfortunately, talking about the lives of minorities is often harder for a lot of people to do, because it requires getting off a soapbox long enough to listen. (And, at times, I'm no better than others.) But it's well worth the effort.
bob said…
Thanks Matt. Link is http://blog.z-word.com/2009/05/the-new-antisemitism-sharpening-the-debate/#comment-5259

Or, if no good, try http://blog.z-word.com/2009/05/the-new-antisemitism-sharpening-the-debate/ and my comment starts at Jun 2nd, 2009 at 5:46 am
Matt said…
Or this: http://www.illdoctrine.com/2008/07/how_to_tell_people_they_sound.html

It's often frustrating because we aren't reinventing the wheel here. These principles have been hashed out and are widely accepted in "anti-racism 101." So why is it none of them seem to apply to Jews???