Saturday, April 30, 2016

Friday, April 29, 2016

Undigested thoughts on Labour's antisemitism problem

These thoughts are are the most undigested I've ever put in a blogpost, but I just wanted to get them down. They're based on an email I dictated into my phone while walking this morning, so blame Apple's auto-correct for any typos. Actually, why not blame Apple for any errors of judgement on my part too. 

The start is responding to Asa Winstanley in Electronic Intifada, but it could just as equally be responding to Jamie Stern-Weiner in OpenDemocracy, Graham on Twitter, the Jewish Socialist Group or half my left-wing friends. 

Basically, I have two problems with this sort of response. First, I find the whole idea of an all-powerful "Lobby" making accusations of antisemitism and manipulating the party smacks of conspiracy theory thinking, reminiscent of right wing fantasies about "Eurabia", "creeping sharia" or "white genocide", and specifically reminiscent of old antisemitic fantasies of secret Jewish tentacular power.

Second, it requires a highly selective sampling of the recent antisemitism allegations in Labour. Some of the allegations can be dismissed or at least aren't that serious. Others, however, are harder to dispense with in this way. The list of allegations is just so long that it is unsustainable to say they don't add up to something worrying and significant. I think, as Owen Jones says, we need to really take this seriously and try to understand it.

I'm tired of seeing Labour councillors and local Momentum branches retweeting active Holocaust deniers. I'm sick of hearing that the accusation of antisemitism is used to "shut down criticism of Israel" - as if joking about deporting Jews or saying that Hitler's early work was good "before he went mad" is simply "criticism of Israel". 

Sure, not all anti-Zionism is antisemitism - but some is. When a Ken Livingstone social media acolyte who dismisses antisemitism then calls George Soros (who has basically only ever criticised Israel) a "Zionist" you know that "Zionist" means something other than what it used to mean for that person. When John Mann (who has never, to my knowledge, actually expressed a view about Israel and is not a member of Labour Friends of Israel) is routinely called a "Zionist" because he cares about antisemitism, then something is wrong.  

The response that it is a question of "crying antisemitism" is a dangerous one, and we see it too when the right talk about the "Islamophobia industry" or about black people "playing the racism card" or women "playing the sexism card". Leftists (e.g. OpenDemocracy) would not consider giving the time of day to this kind dismissal of other racisms, and shouldn't here. (Imagine if they defended UKIP on the basis that it's just a few rotten apples that are actually racist.) 

I'm not saying everyone who ever utters an antisemitic comment should be sent to the gulag or silenced - or even necessarily kicked out of the party. (I think Naz Shah's apology, for example, is heartfelt and serious and she should be welcomed back to the party.) But I think there needs to be a really serious, difficult process of working out where things went wrong and actually stamping this shit out.

However, I do feel that a kind of hysteria has developed around this. A few untruths, half-truths and exaggerations have diluted the authority of those calling out antisemitism. Baroness Neuberger's bizarre allegation that Militant were antisemitic would be one example; Boris Johnson's description of antisemitism as a "virus" in the party is also absurd. 

And all too often people calling out Naz Shah for her antisemitism on social media would, quite quickly, descend into making racist generalisations about Muslims,  thus forfeiting their right to lecture anyone about racism against Jews.

And clearly the agenda of Andrew Gilligan or Guido Fawkes (those doing the muck raking) is deeply distasteful. It sickens me to hear Cameron and Johnson lecture Labour about this - not least while Lynton Crosby runs Goldsmith's dirty, dog whistle racist campaign against Sadiq Khan and Tory Brexiteers drop ominous warnings about "uncontrolled immigration".

And I'm sure there are some Labour "moderates" fanning these flames out of resentment at Corbyn. (Although the widely circulating idea that they have orchestrated this to undermine Labour's election chances next week is frankly absurd - unless you think that Ken Livingstone's motor mouth is secretly under their control.)

It's also clearly true that some of the strongest antisemitism allegations relate to people who joined long before the Corbyn win (e.g. Gerry Downing) and/ or to members who have nothing at all to do with his movement (e.g. Khadim Hussain). However, there does seem to be some overlap between the pro-Corbyn keyboard warriors and the most vociferous defenders of antisemitism. (If you look at the Twitter scene around Scott Nelson for example.) It's important to distinguish this milieu from the people who are actually active offline in Momentum - and clearly it serves the interests of both Tories and Labour "moderates" to blur that distinction - but it does disturb me, given the numerical dominance of the Corbynites in the new Labour Party.

So, I would strongly defend Labour from those who say that this stuff is "rife" in the party. It's not, contra Boris, a "virus" in the party. Most party members are appalled by it. But I do think that Labour, and the left as a whole, does have some kind of a problem with antisemitism. And it needs - we need - to face up to it.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Merle Haggard z''l

I was very sad to see last night that the wonderful Merle Haggard has passed away.

I've collected here some of the times I've blogged about him over the last decade...

Untamed hawk

Johnny Cash coined the term "dove with claws", talking about the Vietnam war:
This past January we took our entire show, along with my wife June, we went to Long Bien Air Force Base near Saigon. And a reporter friend of mine asked, said, "That makes you a hawk, doesn't it?" And I said, "No, that don't make me a hawk. No. No, that don't make me a hawk." But I said, "If you watch the helicopters bring in the wounded boys, then you go into the wards and sing for 'em and try to do your best to cheer them up so that they can get back home, it might make you a dove with claws."
Wade Tatangelo characterises Cash's position as "anti-war/pro-soldier", which is not a bad place to be.

Merle Haggard takes it one step further. Asked "Do you feel like a dove with claws these days?" He replied:
How about an untamed hawk? I’m not going to be a part of the mainstream ever. I’m an American, and I think America is about differences of opinion, and it’s also about integrity and honesty and all those things. We need to gain that respect and that reputation around the world again, as well as in the middle of this country. I think the average American is in a state of confusion as to what to do or who to turn to for help.
By strange coincidence, Haggard's beautiful song "I wonder if they ever think of me" has just come on my shuffle. Although the sound is a little schmaltzy, the opening line is "There's not much a man can do inside a prison", pretty raw for the time. After lamenting the prisoner's loneliness for a couple of verses, you suddenly get this:
I wonder if they know that I'm still living
And still proud to be a part of Uncle Sam
I wonder if they think I died of hunger
In this rotten prison camp in VietNam.

Norm and Karl

In 2008, the late Norman Geras, a big country fan as well as a life-long Marxist, did a Normblog profile of Karl Marx. One of the best bits:
If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be? > Johannes Kepler, Philip Roth and Merle Haggard.
 Being Norm, this was footnoted. The footnote went to the chapter in Capital on the length of the working day. The YouTube link from Merle's name is now dead, but I think we can presume it's this song, which rates, with Dolly Parton's "9 To 5" and Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It", as among the best ever Marxist country songs:

Politically uncorrect

Back in 2006, Chris Dillow wrote something about the complicated politics expressed in songs like those, and how the gap between their sentiments and today's left tells us something depressing about the latter. Here's an extract:
Haggard – and the millions of people he sings for – is regarded as a right-winger simply because the left ceased to be comfortable with conservative (small c) working people. And the discomfort, I suspect, is reciprocated: many working class people (on both sides of the Atlantic) don’t want anything to do with a “left” that consists of multi-millionaire managerialists who hate their way of life.
Healing that gap, healing the left and connecting it with the humanly concerns of the people Haggard sang for, is of course a (necessary, impossible) task that Norm set himself and the rest of us. On that note, I'll leave the last word to Merle, and one of his last songs:

More: Bob's Beats; Merle Haggard on Barack Obama's inageration; Haggard defends Obama