Tag Archives: racism

Can’t a gesture be just that? #jesuischarlie

Yesterday, when news of the shooting at the Charlie Hebdo office was just emerging, my main reaction was simply to feel extremely sad. Fortunately I’m not a politician, a journalist or even much of a blogger these days so I’m allowed to feel that way without having my motives examined for signs of possible racism or bigotry.

Over the last day of so I’ve made a number of comments and shared stuff on my usual social networks using the hashtag #jesuischarlie. What I meant by it was merely “there but for the grace of God go I” – a simple statement of solidarity.

Apparently that isn’t the case however. According to countless righteous people who have been all too keen to leap on the bully pulpit, I used that hashtag because I’m either a crypto-racist/islamophobe or hopelessly naive, thinking of Charlie Hebdo as some kind of bastion of western satire when in fact it is a scurrilous rag and not even very funny. And apparently I’m an idiot for thinking that this was about cartoons when it was in fact about much wider issues. I’ve even read suggestions that any act of solidarity must automatically mean I’m in favour of cracking down on the very civil liberties that yesterday’s murderers were attacking.

As it happens, from what little I knew of it, Charlie Hebdo did seem pretty scurrilous, insensitive and unfunny. As it happens, I’m not so stupid as to believe this is simply about a drawing of Mohammed. And needless to say, the last thing I want to see as a result of this attack is a crackdown on civil liberties or the end of multiculturalism.

It is too much to ask for people to not use atrocities like this to advance their own agendas. Indeed, that can be useful. But is it really too much to ask that people don’t insult everyone else’s intelligence whilst doing so, inferring far more into a simple expression of grief than it warrants?

Thank you. As you were.

Only an idiot would ever agree with Daniel Kawczynski

Over on LabourList, Tom Guise cites five examples which suggest that my favourite Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski is a couple of strawberry creams short of a Quality Street selection box. He could have added Kawczynski’s bizarre attack on the BBC and the “liberal elite” for waging a propaganda war against Poles (but not the Daily Mail and its swan-eating nonsense, you understand, that was all fair comment).

But the most uncanny omission of Guise’s list is Kawczynski’s utterly moronic defence of the first past the post electoral system (Kawsczynski is the chair of the All Party First Past The Post Group). I mean, seriously, only a complete cretin would think such a dreadful system which sucks pluralism and diversity out of our political system is a good idea.

Given that is proof positive for Tom’s theory and LabourList’s love of bashing Tories, I wonder why he didn’t mention it?

A final word on Carol Thatcher

I haven’t been able to avoid this story in the way that I would have wished. One thing that I’ve been wondering about this whole debacle is: why didn’t the BBC insist on Thatcher doing race sensitivity training?

It’s a serious question. It is now clear that she was referring to a black man and not Andy Murray and that being the case, there is no question whatsoever that it was a racist and unacceptable remark. That is not the same thing however as saying that Thatcher herself is racist. Meral Ece, herself justifiably rather intolerant of the special pleading brigade, makes the following point which I think is crucial:

What may have been acceptable 40 years ago, is not anymore. As the ‘Paki-gate, and Sooty-gate’ episodes, and now this, demonstrate that some sections of the privileged classes in British society seem to be living in the era of the Black & White Minstrel Show – hugely popular in its time.

Taking no action whatsoever would have been clearly unacceptable, but I remain unconvinced that simply sacking her was the answer. The resultant row hasn’t changed a single mind about racism and it has degenerated into a partisan spat. The only tangible effect has been to bring back a term that I for one hadn’t heard for years – and you can bet it is now doing the rounds on the school playgrounds. What has burning the witch actually achieved?

By contrast, forcing her to go on a course – possibly at her own expense (or rather, taken out of her own pay) – would have been far more difficult a prospect for those who rushed to Thatcher’s defence to object to. She might well have learned something. And if she had refused to go on the course, she’d have looked very silly indeed. Wouldn’t it have been a more proportionate, and ultimately productive, response?

Finally, let me give the last word to Iain Dale. I try not to make a habit of being nice about Iain, but Derek Draper’s hounding of him over the past few days verged on the bullying, and he makes an extremely astute point here:

Draper’s crowd should be proud of themselves. They rail against imagined racism, yet introduce laws which allow muslim women to be traduced like this.

That Thatchgate, names-for-tennis-players scandal

This week, Charlie Brooker gave the world the New Media Dictionary. For me, the most memorable term described in this list is this:

nowtrage (nowt-rage) n. Lame and unconvincing tabloid outrage designed to create a self-perpetuating storm of controversy. Also, nowtrageous (adj); eg: “This Jonathan Ross pensioner sex-joke story in the News of the World is embarrassingly nowtrageous.”

Two days later and we are in the grip of “Thatchgate” – yet another example of the collective nervous breakdown that is currently going on inside Auntie Beeb.

My first reaction to this story was “ooh, doesn’t Mark Stephens’ hair make him look like a…” (one of the things that bugs me the most about this story is that people are now running around using the offending word as if there was no tomorrow, just as the Prince Harry incident a few weeks ago suddenly made it okay to mention the word “Paki” every thirty seconds). In fact, I nearly blogged to this effect last night. I have since learned that even having that casual thought, let alone blogging about it, is enough to render me an unforgiveable racist, even though it doesn’t involve holding any view about any black people at all. Merely having seen a jar of marmalade in my youth is enough. Bring on the scarlet letter.

This morning Iain Dale made a perfectly valid defence of Carole Thatcher on the Today programme. At the heart of his argument was that she was referring to Andy Murray’s hair. It turns out that was not the case, which is clearly a problem for him. Yet for even attempting to defend her, LabourList has branded him “racist” and declared that “it is up to him to clear his name.” Thoughtcrime is not enough – now we are in the territory of presumed guilt until proven innocent.

I’m not in the business of defending Thatcher or denouncing the BBC. To do that would involve researching this story in a lot more detail than I consider to be sane. I am a little concerned however that the only meaningful contribution Derek Draper seems to want to add to public political discourse is to import the lowliest of gutter journalist values into the blogosphere. And it was pretty near the bottom to start with.

The problem is, I get the impression that he loves it. My first encounter of him was back in 1997. At the height of his glories as a Mandelson staffer and before “Drapergate” he came to address the Manchester Student Labour Club (I seem to recall him having a book out at the time). His single most wistful anecdote that he recalled of his student days was being dangled out of a second storey window by a bunch of Socialist Worker types, having enraged them to such an extent that they were willing to contemplate actual murder. I got the impression then that those were the moments he lives for. Twelve years later and I suspect I was right.

People like that are bad news for politics, whichever side of the fence you are sitting. The sad thing is that a lot of relatively respectable Labour people seem to have thrown their lot in with him with this LabourList adventure – the exact sort of people who like to whinge endlessly about how awful Mandelson and Ali Campbell were (but did nothing about it then).

If this sort of thing is really what it takes for Labour to win a fourth term then on no account should they be permitted to do so. My suspicion though is that it will backfire spectacularly before the election is called.

Those of you currently on LabourList might want to consider jumping ship before the captain decides to play chicken with an iceberg. Feel free to ignore me.

Is UK politics institutionally racist?

Trevor Phillips thinks it is:

The public in this country would, he believes, embrace a black leader but the system would prevent it happening. “Here, the problem is not the electorate, the problem is the machine.” It was no coincidence that there were only 15 ethnic-minority MPs, he said. “The parties and the unions and the think-tanks are all very happy to sign up to the general idea of advancing the cause of minorities but in practice they would like somebody else to do the business. It’s institutional racism.”

I actually disagree with Trevor Phillips in as much as I don’t accept that the UK political system is any more institutionally racist than the US system. The House of Representatives does relatively better than the House of Commons, but the Senate does far worse than either the Commons or the Lords: Obama was the only black senator and he’s now out of the door. Meanwhile, in terms of gender balance, we do significantly better. But Adam Afriye does have a good point when he says:

“In the US a fresh face like Obama can make it in one electoral cycle. In Britain it’s generally a gradual process of service and promotion over many years, and often decades, before leading a political party.”

If we had a presidential system, it is certainly true that we would create within our own system a similar opportunity for an anti-establishment candidate such as Obama to come out of nowhere. But would we want a presidential system? I can see strong arguments either way, although my mind opposition to directly elected mayors has hardened over the past two years after seeing London’s gradual shift towards post-Livingstone politics. The same system that would prevent the meteoric rise of a “British Obama” also prevents the meteoric rise of a “British Palin.”

But we should also be mindful of the fact that neither Obama or Palin did, in fact, come from nowhere. Obama had been a state senator for eight years before entering the US Senate in 2005. Palin also made it in local and state politics first. The difference between these levels of government and their UK equivalents is that they wield far more influence and power. In the UK, even the Scottish Parliament has very few tax-raising powers; in that respect it is no different from a local authority which can only control how it allocates the cash not make strategic decisions about the level of that cash and how it should be raised. As Mayor of Wasilla (pop. 10,000), Palin had powers that Alex Salmond would hanker for. If we don’t have proving grounds such as these, how can we expect our stars to rise (indeed, I made this point about the London Assembly last year)? Currently the only real avenue is the House of Commons, and that is where there is also the most party control.

The UK Parliament and the system we use to elect its members institutionally favours candidates who are capable of running their own campaigns and working extremely long hours for years before polling day. Inevitably, this tends to favour rich people, successful entrepreneurs and lawyers, who tend to be (but are not exclusively) white, middle class and male. The Labour Party has an additional category of standard candidate background – the trade unionist – but these days these too tend to be white, middle class and male. For every Dawn Butler there are dozens of Tom Watsons and Sion Simons. Labour these days may be unlikely to foster an Obama, but it is unlikely to foster a Keir Hardie either.

Getting elected to the UK Parliament is, currently, an extreme sport. You have to be ever-so-slightly insane to want to put yourself through it. The serious question is whether this is actually healthy? Scrutiny certainly is, but in most parts of the country where we have safe seats, we have patronage in place of that. Fundamentally, we have a system that puts parties, not the public, in control.

Some have argued that the solution to all this is to have primaries, but for reasons I have already rehearsed, I don’t think that will work (nor do I think it works well in the US outside of presidential candidate selections). No, if we are serious about putting the people in control, we need a system like STV which combines a fairer electoral system with a more open system for selecting party candidates. If the Equality and Human Rights Commission are serious about exposing institutional racism (and sexism and all other forms of discrimination for that matter), then they should come out in support of electoral reform.

Who says atheists don’t give money to charity?

I donated my tenner this morning, but I’ve been keeping an eye on the Atheist Bus’ Just Giving page all the same.

When I donated, the £5,500 target had already been met. At the time of writing, the target had hit £20,300 and counting.

My only concern is that with this coming in the run up to Christmas, it will almost certainly be used as a hook to pin the “atheists want to ban Christmas” annual story on the media donkey once again. Can I suggest that a small footnote is made at the bottom to the effect of “* And have a happy Christmas, too!”?

UPDATE: I’ve since been informed that the poster campaign is due to start in January, so that kills that idea.

Sarah Palin: are the democrats worried?

That’s Iain Dale’s rather improbable analysis, over a series of increasingly aerated posts this weekend, based on the fact that, erm, a lot of people on the left are talking about her surprise nomination in its immediate aftermath. Who’dathunkit? The most surprising political event in months has happened and people are actually talking about it? They must be pooing themselves!

More hilarious is Iain’s transformation into a feminist, citing Peter Hitchens as a fellow traveller. According to Iain and Peter, the left hates women because the left like anti-women policies such as abortion. Genius analysis there. Suddenly, the brains behind “it’s DD for me!” has become super-concerned about how sexist the coverage of Sarah Palin is in the sunday papers. Funny that I don’t recall him having similar concerns about the media’s portrayal of Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith and Hillary Clinton.

As for the claim that “[the left] cannot stand it when a black person becomes famous as a Conservative – remember Ray Lewis?” – it wasn’t the left that took down Ray Lewis but the Church of England. And despite having defended him here in the past, what I’ve heard since suggests that they were right to do so. Can’t Iain think of a better example of the left’s alleged racism? And you simply can’t imply that Ray Lewis must be innocent on the basis of his skin colour (and political views), and expect to be taken seriously, whilst simultaneously writing this.

Speaking personally, I think appointing Sarah Palin was a mistake which smacks of panic. I think Iain thinks that too, given that a week ago he was citing Mitt Romney as a dead cert. Iain’s subsequent attempts to tar Obama with the Palin inexperience brush simply doesn’t wash: she has been governor of one of the US’s smallest (population-wise – Alaska has roughly the same population as Glasgow) and certainly most isolated states for two years.

Her appointment comes across as too calculated – to be blunt, she ticks far too many boxes. It is too ‘cute’. And many of these boxes are mutually exclusive – how many disaffected Hillary supporters are likely to be wooed by a shootin’, fishin’ and anti-abortion candidate? How many sanctity of marriage obsessives are likely to be convinced that a woman with five children is fit for the job? They certainly have the anti-corruption line in common, but if I were running McCain’s campaign I’d be worried that she reminds voters about what McCain is not, and not in a good way. Do the democrats really need to do more than show the screen of a heartbeat monitor superimposed with her face to get their point across?

I didn’t read any of the allegedly sexist stuff out there about Sarah Palin this weekend, but I did read a perceptive piece by Michael Crowley in the Observer. However much they might try to keep open the rapidly healing Clinton-Obama wound, it is the Republicans who are divided in this election, not the Democrats. Sarah Palin’s appointment on Friday very briefly looked like a masterstroke, but the shock of the new is already diminishing and she has just been dropped in at the deep end. Things like the Daily Kos’ allegations over the maternity of her fifth child may be unfair (the picture of her daughter Bristol does look incriminating but I’m not so sure that the pictures of Palin herself are that convincing – Alaskans tend not to walk around in bikinis in spring), but surely in this post-Rove era no McCain supporter can really convincingly put on the ingenue act? After eight years of humiliation, the Democrats are in to win this thing and at the moment Palin looks like a pretty big target. They might cross the line occassionally, but going for the kill is not a sign of desperation, but rather indicate that the gloves have come off at last. And based on Iain’s rather hysterical reaction, the right just won’t be able to take it.

Do liberals hate Poles?

Yes, according to Daniel Kawczynski, who blames the “liberal elites” – and in particular the BBC – for increased attacks on Poles in the UK.

If there is a widespread vendetta by the BBC against Poles, presumably the Poles themselves are up in arms about it? Well, not on Polish Forums they’re not. The Federation of Poles in Great Britain are rather more exercised about the distinctly un-liberal Daily Mail (a paper which has lost no time in jumping on Kawczynski’s bandwagon), yet strangely Kawczynski doesn’t mention this fact.

Kawczynski’s speech doesn’t actually cite a single example of what his complaint is, merely assuring his Honorable Friends that “I have undertaken a study of BBC coverage of immigration” (where is it then? Can’t find it on his website) and that MPs “would be amazed at the amount of BBC coverage that focuses on white, Christian Poles because it is politically correct to do so.” When someone alleges something as grave as this using Parliamentary privilege as a shield yet can’t even come up with a single anecdote, it is only reasonable to view such allegations with contempt.

Over at Open House, Andy McSmith raises some other points which illustrate how bizarre, even sinister, Kawczynski’s comments are in other ways. The thing that struck me is that in his claim that “9 out of 10 immigrants are not Polish” he appears to be confusing the concept of “immigrant” with that of “member of an ethnic minority”. No-one denies that there are a lot of people with brown skin in this country. They have made a big impact on our society (in my view an overwhelmingly positive one). But the rise of Eastern European shops and workers is a recent phenomenon and that’s why it has been getting a lot of airtime of late. Surely the role of news is, well, news – not history?

The biggest joke is how Kawczynski blames all this on “political correctness”. How is calling for a bank holiday to celebrate a specific ethnic minority and alleging victim status not political correctness? There’s an interesting debate on PC over at Lib Dem Voice; I suggest he goes and reads it.

What interests me most about this incident (tangent alert!) is Kawcynski’s allegations about the “liberal elite”. I’ve been meaning to comment on the Well Known Fact that the BBC has a “liberal” bias for quite some time now. This claim has been accepted by a number of people including Andrew Marr. Marr’s comments are particularly interesting because in my view he gets close to the truth, but doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head:

The BBC is not impartial or neutral. It’s a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.

I would not disagree that the Beeb has a cultural, urban middle class bias. What I quibble with is the inclusion of the word “liberal.” As an habitual Today Programme listener, what strikes me every morning is quite how similar the editorialising of John Humphries and James Naughtie is to the Daily Mail’s.

The Today Programme’s particular obsessions are with bird-watching, poetry, why young people today are so rude, house prices, shares, most sports except football and anything Saint Lynne of Truss happens to be banging on about at any given moment. None of these are particularly liberal, some of them teeter on the illiberal side of things, but all of them are unremittingly urban, middle class and middle aged obsessions. I simply can’t fathom how a channel that has as its main political interviewers Humphries, Andrew Neill and the Brothers Dimblebum can be described as “liberal” but it is undeniable that it has a certain middle class bias.

These same biases are prevalent within the Daily Mail as well. The fact that the Beeb has a tendency to veer between the worst excesses of the Mail and the Guardian suggests that politically it has probably got the balance right but culturally is failing woefully.

What does all this have to do with Daniel Kawczynski? Not a great deal, except to suggest how empty his attacks on the “liberal elite” really are. Meanwhile, I suggest everyone goes and reads what James Oates has to say about Poles and Ukranians.

Racist or clown?

Just a bit of housekeeping from my appearance on 18DS’ Vox Politix on Monday (it’s still available to view at the moment), to follow up on an issue that has been bugging me.

Caroline Hunt took great exception to my reference to the various attacks that have been made about Boris Johnson’s views on black people in recent weeks. To be clear, I didn’t call him a racist; that isn’t an argument I’m particularly interested in having (I note however, that it was an argument the Tories were jonesing for a few months ago). What I was trying to say before we were moved on is that public figures are accountable for the words they say and write and that it is thus entirely justifiable for political opponents to attempt to make capital out of them.

Johnson’s feeble jokes about ‘watermelon smiles’ and ‘picaninnies’ may not count as explicit racism, but they are appallingly insensitive. It simply isn’t good enough for him to say that he didn’t expect to be taken seriously when he wrote that article while simultaneously demanding that we take him seriously now. There are far more extreme examples of politicians’ utterances being used against them. Jody Dunn springs to mind, and compared to her experience Johnson has got off lightly.

His views on the Macpherson report are more interesting. After 8 years, it is time we cast over this report with a critical eye. Its definition of ‘institutionalised racism’ and that effectively racism in the eye of the beholder are problematic for any liberal. It is hard to see what progress we have made in race relations over the past decade. But, to be brutally honest, it is a third rail issue and one that it will be difficult to tackle without being portrayed in the most unflattering terms. Frankly, if Johnson was serious about wanting to do something about them now, having a back-catalogue of less-than-nuanced articles behind him is not going to help.

The question is, will Johnson make anything of this issue in his campaign, or is he going to shy away from it completely? It will be a tough call. His rivals will pore over his every word and be eager to make hay if they can. If he tries to sweep it to one side on the other hand, then it will look as if he lacks the courage of his convictions; not a good thing to be labeled in a campaign if you are also a dilettante who has cultivated such a comical public image. And there’s a serious democratic issue too: if he runs away from the issue, we can have no idea what he would do if he got elected.

Ultimately, Johnson’s problem is not that he is a ‘colourful’ character. British politics could do with more mavericks and he is surely that. His problem is that he lacks authenticity. His stock in trade is vagueness and it will be tough for him to present himself as anything other than even more vague every time someone trots out another potentially embarrassing thing he wrote or said in the past. He’s also the top hatted toff to end all top hatted toffs. For a certain demographic that is screamingly hilarious and endearing. The same demographic thought that voting for Robert Kilroy-Silk would be a good idea and look how that turned out. Even if he won, he’s in danger of making the Conservatives look less like a serious party of government than they were before the election.