On Writing and Silence

A loyal follower of this blog and Internet friend asked me last week why I haven’t blogged much recently, so I thought I should explain to those who are interested. There are three main reasons.  In the first place, I’ve been extraordinarily busy.  I’ve been writing two books, one of which required a lot of rewriting.  I’ve also been helping to organize the One Day Without Us campaign, which really has eaten into my working day, particularly in October, when it was almost impossible to do anything else.

Secondly, so many horrific,depressing – and complex things have happened this year that I have felt unable to keep up with them or say anything meaningful about them in the time that I have had.

My inability to speak out about Trump, Brexit, Syria, Yemen and so many other things is also related to an ongoing personal political crisis that I have yet to resolve.  In November last year, one of the people who criticized my ‘international brigades’ post asked me why I kept writing things.  I told him I wrote because there wasn’t any choice for me.  It’s what I do and what I’ve always done.   At the same time I’ve always asked myself what value writing has – not just mine – but any writing.  What does it do?  What does it achieve?

One of my favourite writers is the great Austrian satirist Karl Kraus ‘ the master of venomous ridicule’, as Stefan Zweig once called him.  Kraus’s venom and his ridicule sometimes bordered on the misanthropic – not a position I’ve ever wanted to find myself in – but he wrote with real brilliance about the nationalist insanity of World War II, in his essays and also in his sprawling play The Last Days of Humanity.   In an essay on the outbreak of World War I, Kraus said that essentially that the world had become so corrupt and debased to the point that language itself had not meaning and therefore the only thing writers could do was step forward and say nothing at all.

Of course he didn’t do that – he was a writer after all.   But one writer who did retreat into silence was Isaac Babel.  Estranged from Stalinist literary culture and from Stalin himself, he decided to write nothing and say nothing.  In Stalinist Russia that wasn’t good enough of course.  Silence was a political position, because it wasn’t support for the regime.  Because Babel didn’t loudly proclaim the revolution and its inane cult of socialist realism, he was objectively counter-revolutionary and that’s why he was eventually shot, in effect, for saying nothing.

My own temporary silence on this blog owes more to Kraus than to Babel.  It isn’t that I consider silence a statement, but lately I have just not been able to find the words with which to respond to the depraved lunacy and collective stupidity that is sweeping my country and the Western world lately.

And that isn’t all.   I’ve always thought of myself as on the left and of the left and I still do, but there’s so little I admire or respect about the British left right now it’s really hard to feel I ‘belong ‘ to it. On one level I never did . I didn’t call my blog ‘notes from the margins’ for nothing. If I had any use as a writer writing about politics, it was from that marginal critical position, which didn’t pin me to any established party or network or make the representative of anything.

That changed somewhat when Stop the War began posting my pieces – something that I was ok with until I found myself accused of ‘representing’ positions that I didn’t have.   But 2016 has been a kind of critical rupture for me, following the debacle of last November w/ the ‘international brigades’ fiasco and the almost complete abandonment of critical faculties by sections of the left back then – which still continues albeit in trickles – , not to mention Stop the War’s cowardly abandonment of myself and Chris Floyd.

Then there was Brexit,and it’s little wannabe sister Lexit, propagating the cynical/opportunist and downright foolish idea that a no vote was somehow ‘progressive’ – coupled with a refusal to recognise the racism unleashed and legitimised by it, and a willingness to effectively throw some three million EU citizens under the Brexit bus in the vague hope that something good might turn up out of the mess for the left, or the working class or the revolution.

Let me make it absolutely clear – a left that behaves like this and thinks like this, no matter how cleverly, is not a movement that I feel anything in common with or want to ‘belong’ to, or speak for or speak to.   There really aren’t any words to express how disgusted I am by this and how shameful I find it.

And now we have McDonnell, McCluskey and Lewis coming from the soft left promising to ‘listen to concerns’ about immigration, when they should be challenging them.

And then there is the left and Syria. It isn’t just the ‘revolutionary’ posturing by people who would never go anywhere near a Syrian battlefield, many of whom are busy picking up MAs and PhDs while spouting platitudes about armed struggle.Or the vicious insults if you don’t accept their starry-eyed vision of the Syrian revolution. Fascist bag carrier. Truther. Ghouta denialist. Assad supporter. Piece of shit. ISIS lover – I’ve heard it all from these great humanitarians over the last few years.

It isn’t just the certainty about things that are not always certain. Or the jostling for a morally superior position, using Syria as an excuse to pursue old sectarian vendettas in a new form. There are also the leftists who talk about Assad as if he were the good guy in this, and a representative of the ‘axis of resistance’ etc, and now t’s all Israel’s fault etc

To me the Syrian war is an unmitigated horror. Is that the ‘correct’ line? Is it enough? No. Do I know the ‘truth’ about Syria?  No.   But I find it astounding that Syria has suddenly become a test of how left or how moral or how revolutionary you are. I do not accept that we ‘have blood on our hands’ for Aleppo and not for Yemen, or South Sudan, or Mosul, or Gaza.

Why does the ‘left’ play games like this? Why, when faced with wars, do so many leftists believe that you always have to support one side or the other? Suppose you don’t think any of the sides are ‘good’?

In the end I don’t know  why the left behaves like this, but like I said, I don’t admire or respect it (hey don’t worry, i know the feeling’s mutual), and it’s made it very difficult for me to write blog posts or even facebook posts – except on racism and migration.

The thing is, for much of my life I felt that the left were the good guys – regardless of the many historical crimes that some leftist regimes have carried out, and that the left, with all its contradictions, still offered answers to the various scourges of militarism, racism, war, poverty and social justice that it was incumbent on my generation to try and solve.

Now I’m not sure if that’s true. I’m not even sure the left, especially the ‘revolutionary’ left has any future at all except as a subculture – and a forum to attack anyone who isn’t Marxist enough for it or as revolutionary as they think they should be.

In fact I’m not really that sure about anything right now, and that’s why I haven’t written very much on this blog.   That doesn’t I’m going to retreat into silence or withdraw from the world. It doesn’t mean that I intend to follow the Nick Cohen route.

I have no intention of shutting down the Infernal Machine permanently.  After all,  I might have Karl Kraus whispering in one ear, but I also have Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s great poem Bol! [Speak} next to my desk, which declares quite rightly:

Speak, this brief hour is long enough
Before the death of body and tongue:
Speak, ‘Cause the truth is not dead yet,
Speak, speak, whatever you must speak.

So I wish you all a peaceful ending to this year of lunacy, and I look forward to seeing you all again in 2017, ready to wage the many struggles that still have to be waged.

Knuckle-dragger Nation

I’ve been very lucky these last few days.  On Thursday I was part of a panel at the Royal College of Art in London discussing culture, cultural identity and political crisis in a ‘borderless world.’  I was blown away by the passion, eloquence and thoughtfulness of my fellow panel members and so many of the students who participated in the talk back.  It was inspiring and uplifting to be amongst young people who were willing to grapple with the dire political predicament in which we all find ourselves, and so determined to find creative responses to it.

On Friday I took part in a discussion on ‘Paper Borders’ at my old university SOAS. Once again I found myself surrounded by men and women with a moral conscience, who were disturbed and alarmed by the humanitarian consequences of Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’ and trying to think their way towards alternatives to the dystopian nightmare unfolding across the European border regime.

These debates and discussions were as far removed from the surface of British national politics as it is possible to be.   Look at the newspapers over the last fortnight and you will see tabloids working themselves into a lather of righteous indignation at the possibility that 14 teenage refugees might not be teenagers.  Fourteen people.   And still these paragons of journalistic integrity think they are justified in going into attack dog mode, insinuating – yet again – that our noble generosity is being taken advantage of by devious pseudo-refugees and NGOs colluding in our national destruction.

Make no mistake about it, these claims were intended to make people hate, and they immediately produced the usual spittle-filled outpourings that we have come to expect, from knuckle-dragging trolls who seem incapable of understanding that if you are under eighteen you are still a minor even if you look older – or that fourteen refugees is a less than impressive act of national generosity.

Much of this vitriol was directed against Gary Lineker, who had the temerity to suggest that the attacks on these fourteen refugee kids was not that generous at all.  Lily Allen also got some of the same for apologizing on behalf of the UK for its treatment of refugees at Calais.  One London taxi-driver refused to pick her up and told her to ‘find an immigrant to drive you’.

Then there was parliament refusing to uphold the legal rights of EU nationals – proving that the majority of its MPs shared Liam Fox’s description of EU citizens – that is living men, women and children – as ‘bargaining counters’.   And more than 100 Labour backbenchers who preferred to let Saudi Arabia go on bombing Yemen with British weapons because undermining their own elected party leader was a higher priority.

And then on Friday, we had British newspapers calling three British judges traitors and ‘enemies of the people’ because they ruled that – who would have thought it in a parliamentary democracy? – parliament should be able to oversee the UK’s exit from the European Union.  We learned from the Daily Mail – a newspaper that seems to be moving closer towards its pro-fascist past with each passing day – that one of these judges was ‘openly gay’ – a fact that has no relevance at all except as an invitation to homophobic hatred.

Such hatred was not lacking, because hell hath no fury like a certain kind of Brexiter for whom ‘sovereignty’ is only significant if it means that they can do exactly what they want without any scrutiny or legal brakes of any kind.  Naturally there were calls for the judges should be hanged.  From the Ukip Society Facebook page we learned that most leading opponents of Brexit were Jews or influenced by Jews.  We could read charming recommendations such as ‘ Open Hitler’s gas chambers: Jews know the way in‘ and ‘ Rothschild. Soros. Rockefeller. Warburg. Du Pont. Morgan.  ALL JEWS.  It isn’t a coincidence they run the world.’

Oddly,  such observations received little attention from the British media or the MPs who had previously been so concerned about Labour’s ‘antisemitism crisis’.   The vile racist and sexist abuse directed at Gina Miller – the Guyana-born British citizen who had the immense courage to remind the country that its elected representatives should have a say in how the country exits the EU – was impossible even for the Sun to ignore.

Miller was brutally trolled, with all the licence that Twitter and social media have given to the knuckle-dragging troglodytes who are determined to transform the UK into a racist swamp.  She was threatened with rape of course – de rigeur for these brave keyboard patriots whenever any woman sticks her head above the parapet.  One Facebook user declared  ‘Who’s going to help me rape this b****? Sign up here’ – a post that even offended the Sun, regardless of the malignant role played by this newspaper in whipping up the hatred against Miller and the three judges.

As always, much of these venom emanated from Ukipland.   One post on the Facebook page, Ukip – The Peoples Forum 2020, read: “Kill her! 2 behind the ear. Throw her in the garbage. Dustbin, whatever…” and “I hope she gets f*****g killed”.

Another observed that ‘Miller should be hung as a traitor.  Crazy total s**m. ‘

Weird how these would-be executioners get so hung up about swear words isn’t it? But let no one say that knuckle-draggers don’t have a sense of propriety.   And before you accuse me of snobbery towards the ‘white working class’, let me say that knuckle-dragging is not a class pursuit.

A posh accent and an Eton education don’t make you intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive or moral, as Boris Johnson continues to demonstrate almost every time he opens his mouth.  The hapless Lord Chancellor Liz Truss has not even had the guts to criticize the newspapers that depicted High Court judges as traitors.   Liam Fox continues to shamble around from one conference to the next with his fists very close to the ground without any indication that he actually understands the rules and obligations that he is trying to tear apart.

The great tragedy of our country is that it is not only responding to knuckle-draggers.  It is actually being led by them and no one can say they are leading us to a good place. So we can only hope that there are enough men and women of good will out there, like those I had the privilege to spend time with over the last few days, who can stop them and remind the nation that it still has a brain, and that it would a really good idea to use it soon.

One Day Without Us

Being a writer isn’t always the most dramatic kind of life.  Unless you’re out researching in the field, most of the drama takes place inside your head, and most of your day is spent looking at a computer.  This is pretty much how it was for me until the last day of the Tory party conference in Birmingham.  It would be something of an understatement to say that I had’t really enjoyed the proceedings.  Most of the time I tried to ignore them, but this became increasingly difficult, as politician after politician stepped forward with a series of jaw-droppingly spiteful policies that really made my skin crawl. .

Foreign doctors? No thanks. Foreign students? Get rid.  Name and shame employers who employ foreign workers – even though employer after employer insists that the British economy needs foreign workers?  Bring it on.  Depict people who call themselves ‘citizens of the world’ as unpatriotic and rootless outsiders?  Icing on the cake.

In a famous essay on the origins of World War I, Freud once argued that barbarism is kept in check by a certain set of moral standards that society establishes to control its worst instincts.  Individuals might feel certain destructive impulses, he suggested, but most people won’t give into them because they don’t want to be censured or criticized by the community they belong to.

This risk of censure, he insisted, is precisely what holds a civilised society together.  But these standards can also change – in wartime for example –  and then primitive and destructive instincts  that have previously been kept in check can explode into the open and create a new normality.

Here in the UK, Brexit has shattered many of the standards that many of us previously thought were taken for granted.  It wasn’t that people didn’t rip the hijabs off Muslim women in the street or screech at foreigners to speak English before the referendum – they did. But since the referendum large numbers of people – larger than we are prepared to admit – now feel entitled to do these things.  They now think it’s ok to tell foreign doctors that they only want a British doctor, to rant at strangers to go home, and recycle old racist taunts that many people had not heard since the 70s.

Rather than combat these tendencies, the cascade of xenophobic proposals oozing out of Birmingham seemed explicitly designed to pander to them.   This was not dog-whistle politics.  It was out-in-the open nastiness, a post-referendum nativist walpurgisnacht in which it was painfully and shockingly clear that the government is now prepared to pander to the worst instincts in the British population in order to manage the UK’s exit from the European Union.

In normal circumstances I might have expressed these opinions in a blog or ranted at the tv, but this time I did something different.  I wrote a brief Facebook post in which I asked what people thought of the idea of staging a mass day of action on the lines of the 2006 ‘One Day Without Immigrants’ protest in the US and a similar protest in Italy in 2010.  The essential idea of both protests was a 24-hour boycott, by immigrants and their supporters.

Some downed tools.  Some closed their restaurants and businesses.  Others took their kids out of school and didn’t spend money or go shopping.  The two protests took place in very different contexts, but their aims were broadly similar – to demonstrate the contribution that immigrants made in societies that were increasingly hostile to their presence, and which often marginalized or ignored their contributions.

It seemed to me that this would be a good idea right now,  at a time when similar sentiments were running rampant in the Uk both on the street and also at the political level. Within a few hours of my post, it became clear that many people felt the same way.  The post went quickly viral, and within a few days a group was formed with over two thousand members, and a broader discussion about the protest was unfolding across the Internet.

By the following Monday, One Day Without Us was firmly established.   It had a date – February 20 next year – and the nucleus of an organization.  It was receiving offers of help from individuals and organizations across the country, from a range of nationalities and political persuasions.  It had become the subject of national and international media attention.   By the end of the week at least fifteen groups were formed or in the process of forming in various towns and cities.

The idea of a mass protest has clearly caught a wider mood of indignation, despair and concern, following the national tragedy that has unfolded as a result of the referendum campaign.  Today some three million EU nationals, many of whom have lived here for decades and thought this country was their home, are now undergoing the painful experience of being described as ‘migrants’ – a word that has acquired almost entirely negative connotations in British vocabulary through decades of tabloid usage.   Some have already begun the extraordinarily convoluted process of applying to become naturalised British citizens. Others are preparing to abandon the country they thought was their home.

Many feel insecure and even despairing about their legal status and vulnerable in the face of the increasingly vicious mood of the British public, and a post-Brexit racism that makes no distinctions between EU national, between ‘migrant’ and ‘immigrant’, and which doesn’t care if you come from Poland or Pakistan.  Whether the xenophobes and racists see difference in skin colour, your language, your nationality or your religion – they have only one message for foreigners and people who look like foreigners – get out.  This is what happened in a London street only two days, when a gang of racists chased a young Portuguese woman down the street and told her to get back to ‘whatever hellhole you came from.’

Millions of British-born citizens – both Leavers and Remainers – are appalled and shamed by the alarming transformation of Brexit Britain into a xenophobic dystopia.   And that is why this emerging movement has taken off.  Its members all share the same common goals.  We want to remind the British public and politicians that immigrants have a past, a present and a future in this country, and celebrate that presence.

We don’t want to do this with a march.  These are extraordinary times, and we wanted to do something extraordinary to get our message out there.  Everybody involved in this project  is conscious that more dramatic, wide-ranging and inclusive was required than a single march or mass rally.  We wanted something entirely different; a peaceful mass protest, unfolding simultaneously in towns, cities, communities and workplaces across the country.  We wanted a demonstration of solidarity and unity that no one will be able to ignore, which might help burst the poisonous bubble that Brexit has created.

We know that some opinions will never be changed, but we also know that there are millions of people who are shocked and disturbed by the divisive and dangerous politics that are leading us all to disaster, and we urge them to join us on February 20 and make make One Day Without Us a day to remember.

 

 

 

Who let the dogs out? Brexit

More than two months after the Brexit referendum, the surge in hate crime and racism unleashed by the referendum shows no sign of abating, and the politicians who did so much to help bring it about continue to deny any responsibility for it. Farage has done this on various occasions, and now MEP and arch-Brexiter Daniel Hannan has joined the dismal chorus.  

Asked by Dermot Murnaghan on Sky News whether he felt there had been ‘an increase in hate crimes involving foreign nationals in the UK’,  Hannan denied that any such increase had taken place and accused Murnaghan of being ‘tendentious’ in his questioning.

How so?  Because, according to Hannan,   ‘ there has been for a long period a rise in the reporting of hate crime incidents because of the way in which the police have their websites and treat every report as an incident.  There hasn’t been any increase in the number of cases referred for prosecution and some of the cases the media have jumped on have turned out to have nothing to do with Brexit at all.’

Of course tracing a direct causal link between every instance of racist violence and Brexit is difficult, if not impossible, but Hannan’s denial of any connection at all is weak, self-serving and intellectually dishonest.  Police figures make it clear that there has been an exponential rise in the number of reported racist or hate crime incidents in the months since the referendum, which has nothing to do with ‘the way in which the police have their websites,’ whatever that means.

Hannan is right that such incidents preceded Brexit.   Long before the referendum, politicians and newspapers were portraying migrants and foreigners as feckless parasites who come here either to take ‘our’ jobs or batten off the taxpayer.  If you routinely criticize people for not speaking English in public and accuse them of being cultural usurpers or invaders, you can’t be entirely surprised when Polish migrants are physically and sometimes verbally attacked if they speak to each other, or when mothers are frightened to talk to their own children in their own language in public.

After all, some of our leading politicians and newspapers have saying for years that migrants must be like us or leave, and they’ve done this without a sliver of shame and without any acknowledgement that their words might have actual consequences for the men and women who they were directed against.

This steady drip-drip of contempt, disdain, paranoia and chauvinist poison has eroded decades of slow and often painful progress towards a society in which overt expressions of racism were not socially legitimate or acceptable.

So on one level the surge in post-Brexit racism is something that has been incubating for a long time.  But the referendum brought out into the open what had previously been covert and underground, to the point when too many people now feel legitimised and justified in persecuting migrants or anyone who looks and sounds like one.

The politicians who directed the campaign may not have wanted this to happen, but they deliberately and cynically inflamed the most primitive xenophobic and nativist instincts in the population, because they knew that these were the sentiments that would bring them victory.    They may not think of themselves as racists and xenophobes, but in moral terms you don’t really look that great if you aren’t a ‘genuine’ racist, but someone who merely uses racism and xenophobia to your own political advantage.  It’s nothing to boast about, frankly.

In his Sky Interview Hannan tells Murnaghan that he has no right ‘ to insult 52% of the British electorate by suggesting there is some connection between voting to take back our laws and being unpleasant to people who have made their lives here, I think that’s an extremely dangerous way of going.’

Not nearly as dangerous as the menacing forces that Hannan and his cohorts have helped to unleash.   And regardless of what he says, I will insult and condemn the politicians who made this happen, and never more so than when they have the gall to pretend that it was nothing to do with them.