Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Two new Guardian articles

The Guardian published two more articles from me this week.

The first is entitled, "How Scientific is Political Science?" The argument I make there is that it is neither possible nor desirable to research the subject of politics in an apolitical, value-neutral way, as many mainstream scholars claim to do.

The second is entitled "I welcome the 'Where are you from?' question my brown skin elicits", which is a response to Ariane Sherine's article in last week's paper, where she expressed her exasperation with being often asked about her background. Like her, I'm born and brought up in the UK and of mixed-ethnicity, but I take a different view of being asked about my family origin. I think its positive when people have a friendly curiosity about difference, and certainly not something to be discouraged. That article's published in today's print edition, as well as on the website.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Fascists ruined my sex life

The British National Party advocate banning mixed ‘race’ relationships. Being of mixed background myself, that poses me with a particular problem. Under a BNP government, would I only be able to go out with a girl who’s half Indian, quarter English and quarter Scottish? My Scottish side is actually descended from French Huguenots who made their way to Scotland via Ireland, so there might be some Celt in there as well. For all I know the quarter English bit could be any kind of mixture of Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Celt, Viking, etc etc. The Indian half is Telugu-speaking from Andhra Pradesh. But they came to the UK via Mauritius, so does that have a bearing on it?

Anyway, thing is, you don’t meet that many girls like that.

Also, if these new laws condemned me to a chaste life, restricted to seeking solace in pornography (not a particularly monkish definition of 'chaste', I grant you), would I then only be allowed porn that starred only girls who were half Andhra Pradeshian Telugu Indo-Mauritian, quarter French Huguenot Scots and quarter miscellaneous English? Cos that is one niche market, and I’m not sure how well its catered for.

The BNP would be a bad joke if they didn’t exist. It’s a worse joke that they do, especially in the country whose most credible claim to national glory is our grandparents’ defeat of Nazism in the Second World War. They only need a small proportion of the vote in Thursday’s elections to get themselves a seat in the European parliament (the BNP, not our grandparents), and that would give them access to European funds and parliamentary facilities, the right to vote on new laws, and a level of credibility their deranged views hardly deserve.

Think it’s unlikely? The BNP have already had councillors elected, and their leader Nick Griffin polled 16% when he stood for Oldham West and Royton in the 2001 general election. That’s one in six voters in Oldham turning out for the Nazi. Far right parties have made big gains in Europe recently, especially in Italy where they form a substantive part of the governing coalition. And though the prospect of a BNP government in Westminster is certainly remote, any strengthening of their presence in British society will make life very uncomfortable, not only for those of us who don’t look like them, but for anyone who likes multi-cultural, multi-‘racial’ Britain just fine the way it is.

Griffin once described the BNP as “a strong, disciplined organisation with the ability to back up its slogan 'Defend Rights for Whites' with well-directed boots and fists”. “When the crunch comes”, he went on to say, “power is the product of force and will, not of rational debate.” With the world economy in meltdown and the credibility of Britain's corrupt political class standing at roughly zero, Griffin will hope that “the crunch” is coming soon (as it did in the 1930s). Bottom line: the BNP is not a normal political party, and even slight electoral gains for them could translate into seriously unpleasant outcomes for the rest of us.

Because of the proportional representation system in the European elections, any vote you cast for any other party will shrink the proportion of the vote polled by the BNP., blocking their route to public office. If you’re voting in council elections you might need to look up the last set of results for your area and decide if you need to vote tactically. But the main thing is to vote. For anyone but the BNP. Voting takes just 10-20 minutes of your day, but the effect – of voting or not - is felt for years afterwards.

Do it, if for no other reason than for sympathy at how complicated my life would become if these goose-stepping, peabrained shitsacks ever got a whiff of power.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The perfect Muslim

"Somewhere out there is the Muslim that the British government seeks. Like all religious people he (the government is more likely to talk about Muslim women than to them) supports gay rights, racial equality, women's rights, tolerance and parliamentary democracy. He abhors the murder of innocent civilians without qualification - unless they are in Palestine, Afghanistan or Iraq. He wants to be treated as a regular British citizen - but not by the police, immigration or airport security. He wants the best for his children and if that means unemployment, racism and bad schools, then so be it.

He raises his daughters to be assertive: they can wear whatever they want so long as it's not a headscarf. He believes in free speech and the right to cause offence but understands that he has neither the right to be offended nor to speak out. Whatever an extremist is, on any given day, he is not it.

He regards himself as British - first, foremost and for ever. But whenever a bomb goes off he will happily answer for Islam. Even as he defends Britain's right to bomb and invade he will explain that Islam is a peaceful religion. Always prepared to condemn other Muslims and supportive of the government, he has credibility in his community not because he represents its interests to the government, but because he represents the government's interests to Muslims. He uses that credibility to preach restraint and good behaviour. Whatever a moderate is, on any given day, he is it."

Gary Younge - Where will we find the perfect Muslim for monocultural Britain? - Guardian, 30 March 2009

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Britain, 1789-1867: In the Shadow of Revolution

Continuing my notes on the evolution of the British political economy and Britain's foreign policy. I've now moved on to the third in Simon Schama's "History of Britain" books, and the following is drawn from the first three chapters of that volume, all quotes being Schama's unless otherwise stated (this time, I've included page references in the text).
As before, rather than just summarising the chapters in question I'm pulling out and offering my own comments on those parts pertinient to my PhD research, skipping the less relevant bits. While the following interpretation of events will inevitably be influenced by Schama's writing, it remains my own, so any inaccuracies or misjudgements are my responsibility.

A final introductory point: these notes concentrate on the battle for political reform in Britain during the period in question, and what's striking is that a battle is just what it was. We are given the impression by politicians and opinion-makers today that liberty and democracy are serenely interwoven into the very nature of Britain and Britishness itself. That while other countries arrived at democracy through the painful processes of revolutionary bloodbath or colonial instruction, Britain's liberty simply blossomed into being in the natural, unflustered and unhurried course of things. This is very much not the case.

Britain's becoming a democracy was a long-drawn out and deeply contested affair. It was, essentially, a bitter and protracted struggle, lasting well over a hundred years, between a cruelly-treated and increasingly agitated and mobilised popular majority, on the one hand, and on the other, the vested interests of the governing elite, who fought tooth-and-nail to maintain their decidedly non-democratic hold on power. This struggle occasionally saw Britain under what we would today describe as something tantamount to martial law or even a military occupation, as the authorities stamped down hard on the pro-democracy movement with all the force they could muster. Battles were fought, dissidents imprisoned, traitors executed. It should be understood that, at this time, the elites felt a genuine fear of popular revolution, and that these fears were well founded. Above all, the history shows that British democracy was not a gift from the great and the good but a victory won by the dedicated efforts of millions of ordinary people.

Far from being an age of linear “progress”, the long nineteenth century saw a range of competing forces at work. The most noted of these forces, the industrial revolution and the birth of modern capitalist economics and associated modes of production and social relations, was but one of many narratives, though others could, to an extent, be seen as reactions to it.

The Romantics – comprising a number of poets, philosophers, writers, artists – were repelled by the mechanisation of the times, and pined for an uncorrupted arcadian life of moral purity and simplicity. Their leading light was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who saw childhood as the humanity’s prelapsarian state, to be cherished, encouraged, and referred back to throughout one’s life.

The romanticisation of rural life was a natural reaction to the upheaval that was taking place in the country, where traditional ways of life were being swept away by the new economics, and at serious human cost. Acts of Parliament were being passed to enforce land “enclosure”, i.e. the transformation of commonly held and worked land into private property to be exploited on a large scale business model. These Acts were voted for by MPs who, like the tiny electorate permitted to vote for them, were themselves landowners. Those who lost the smallholdings upon which their families had relied for countless generations had no say in the matter. To justify this, the classic colonial rationale for landgrabs around the world was employed in a domestic context: those unable to make best use of the land are to forfeit it (“best use” to be defined by the expropriators). p30

The new landowers set about raising rents, pushing many tenents off the land and towards the cities, into new forms of work, such as manufacturing. This resulted, not only in pauperisation for many, but also in the transformation and destabilisation of the existing social and political order. “The country came out of the fiery years of food riots, troop mobilizations and hangings [in the late eighteenth century] with its institutions intact but with its faith in the paternalism and even the moral legitimacy of the aristocracy, the judiciary, shaken”. p33. The English landowning oligarchy that was busy accumulating ever greater economic and political power was now viewed with widespread mistrust, as was the established political order.

“That Parliament needed reform [in the 1780s] was obvious. The electorate was actually 3 per cent smaller than it had been before the Civil War; there were rotton boroughs, like Old Sarum with an electorate of seven, which still returned a member. ‘Placemen’ bought their seats on the understanding that they would vote with the government; and the newly populous towns were grossly under-represented.” p35

Joining the Romantics in their concern over social and moral issues such as poverty and slavery were the non-conformist churches such as those of the Unitarians and the Methodists. These played a major part in a general political awakening which saw debating societies springing up all over the country, “including some in London expressly for women”. p36

The establishment was represented by the two-party system of Tories and Whigs. For the Tories, it was absolutely correct that the monarch, Church of England, and Parliament of property owners should govern the land, and that the people should obey their natural masters. For the marginally less illiberal Whigs, the toleration and regular elections instituted by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 were all the reform that was needed.

But the ideas of Thomas Paine and the American revolutionaries, of sovereignty resting ultimately with the people and of government as a task contracted out to those capable of performing it and only for as long as they were so capable, were finding a receptive audience amongst radical Whigs and yet more radical groups outside of Parliament. These sentiments were not marginal but widely popular – outside of the narrow governing class – and when the French Revolution came in 1789 it represented a profound and immediate new source of inspiration (and, for the elite, fear). There were now competing claims on the patriot-myth of England/Britain as history’s beacon of liberty, with the new democrats portraying the establishment as, essentially, traitors to the national spirit; less authentically “British” than the American and French revolutionaries.
In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, Edmund Burke poured scorn on the Romantic philosophy that had supported the overthrow of the ancien regime. Burke rejected the idea of universal rights born of nature. Nature, for Burke, was something quite different, represented by the established order, tried and trusted over centuries, which the Romantics would seen done away with and replaced with the tyranny of the baying mob. Burke pointed to the ugly turn events had taken in France to make his point that the “swinish multitude” neither had the right, nor were they fit, to govern. Burke declared:

“The occupation of the hairdresser or of a working tallow-chandler cannot be a matter of honour to any person...Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression if such as they ... are permitted to rule” [my emphasis] p43

The liberals responded to Burke with equal force. Mary Wollstonecraft in her “Vindication of the Rights of Man” wondered aloud where Burke’s attachment to hereditary monarchy had been when he had supported, with some haste and enthusiasm, George III’s being replaced by the Prince Regent, who also happened to be Burke’s patron’s patron. When Burke had claimed that God had hurled King George from his throne, had he not sounded a little, well, French? p45 Thomas Paine’s reply to Burke, “Rights of Man”, massively outsold “Reflections”, becoming the best-seller of the century. Part II of that book set forth a radical welfare state agenda, advocating resdistribution of wealth through progressive taxation.

There was now a real groundswell of radical politics, not just in London but in the ‘new Britain’ of Glasgow, Manchester, Sheffield, Derby, Nottingham and Newcastle. The 282-41 defeat in Parliament of a very mild reform bill in 1793 only served to strengthen the revolutionary strand within this movement against their more reformist comrades. The government responded with brutality to the new popular politics, banning “seditious” assemblies, arresting the movement’s leaders and shipping them off to Australia p51. Prime Minister William Pitt warned of “bloody revolution” if Paine’s ideas caught on p52. When war with France began in 1793, the opportunity was quickly grasped to brand the radicals as traitors.


Mary Wollstonecraft followed up her attack on Burke with “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, proposing a feminist element to the liberal revolution. “Many of [the book’s] insights – the conditioning of girls to correspond to male stereotypes – of the doll-playing, dress-loving minature coquette; the surrender of independence of mind and body for the slavery of idolization; the assumption that their anatomy disqualified them from serious thought – have since become commonplaces of the feminist critique of a male ordered world. But when Mary Wollstonecraft set them out they were still profoundly shocking, even to those who thought themselves on the side of Progress and Liberty” p59. The latter point was especially true since Wollstonecraft had attacked the Romantic’s patron saint, Rousseau, for his espousal of the notion of biologically-determined female subserviance.

Wollstonecraft, like Paine and others, moved to revolutionary France as a sort of political-philosophical pilgramage, but soon became horrified by the bloodletting and terror and disillusioned with what the revolution had become. Paine, though he had publically opposed to execution of Louis XIV, stuck with the revolution longer than Wollstonecraft. Indeed, he was even nominated by Napoleon Bonaparte to be head of the government in a post-invasion Britain. But as time went on and Bonapartist tyranny revealed itself, Paine renounced Napoleon in strong terms and left France.

Meanwhile in Britain, the authorities were clamping down hard on dissent. Advocating republicanism or even male suffrage were now classed as treason. Habeas corpus was suspended, and hundreds imprisoned. But the combination of a failing war effort, an economic slump and food shortages made Britain a difficult place to control. Mass protest meetings were held, riots broke out, and, in a near-echo of events in France, the King’s coach was attacked by a mob, with King George barely escaping with his life p67-8. Pitt responded by extending the sedition laws yet further.

“Not surprisingly, the combination of propaganda, gang intimidation, genuinely patriotic volunteer militias, censorship, political spying and summary arrests [deployed against the dissidents] succeeded in stopping the momentum of democratic agitation” p69.

How best to crush the threat of democracy was by no means Pitt’s only concern. Bonaparte’s France now controlled Europe, while Ireland - Britain’s swinging back-door - was becoming unstable. Concessions to the Catholics, aimed at forstalling the threat of their becoming a strategic asset of France, only succeeded in angering the Protestants; and when moves towards greater Irish autonomy were hastily withdawn, no-one was happy. There was enough discontent for a revolt to start but, even with France’s help, not enough to expel the British. Instead, a huge wave of violence erupted before Ireland was eventually absorbed fully into Britain in 1801.

The real threat of invasion in 1804-5 rallied the public to the cause of King and Country, but by 1807 the dissenters were back, ending the slave trade (though not slave ownership) in the Empire with a huge petitioning campaign.

At the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson had ended the threat of invasion, but not Napleon’s power in Europe. Britain was now shut out of European markets. Continental industruy thrived under this protection, but the British economy staggered and stumbled. Unemployment and food prices soared, “Luddites” expressed their outrage by smashing machinery and a ruined businessman assasinated Prime Minister Perceval.

By 1813 “[s]ome 12,000 regular troops – more than Wellington had to use against the French – were stationed at home to deal with the marches, riots and machine-wrecking that had become a regular feature of British life” p92.

When Napoleon was finally defeated altogether in 1815, the potential gains in terms of lower food prices were negated by the Corn Law protection granted to landowners, which allowed them to enrich themselves further while the poor – their ranks swelled by war-veterans – went hungry.

These social iniquities drew the ire of writers such as Williams Hazlitt and Cobbett, who attacked a governing class that claimed itself inheritor of England’s rural tradtion even as its enclosures and Corn Laws drove the people of the countryside into destitution. There was an audience for these views in both urban and rural areas, since “the industrial towns of Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Midlands were crammed with first-generation migrants from [the new] capital intensive, labour-extensive, commercialized countryside. Both [urban and rural dwellers] were now suffering” through lack of work and poverty wages p98. Cobbett noted the correlation between agrarian reform, private wealth and public squalor, since it was not in the north and north-west but in “the grain-belt of the Home Counties and East Anglia, where land had been most heavily exploited to maximise profit [that] the condition of the labourers was worst” p99.

Though no saint - and in fact a pretty vicious racist towards Blacks and, especially, Jews - Cobbett was also, through his ‘Weekly Political Register’ which sold in vast numbers, a major force behind mass political mobilization against (other) social and economic injustices in Britain. And when, in 1819, soldiers charged with swords drawn into a crowd of 50-60,000 in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, causing 11 deaths and 421 serious injuries (the latter number including 100 women and small children) in what became known as the “Peterloo massacre”, it was clear that this popular mobilization, and the backlash from the authorities, was to be no sideshow in British politics. Even a further round of state repression, and the imprisonment by the end of 1820 of most of the democratic movement’s leaders, could not mask that fact, at least not for long.

Political movements augmented by the non-conformist churches and now organised as pressure groups in the recognisably modern sense formed to take up the causes of civil rights for Irish Catholics and the abolition of slavery. It is now believed that one in five adult males signed an abolitionist petition in 1787, 1814 or 1833 p104. Elite claims that political dissatisfaction was confined to the margins and got up by extremists and foreigners – which Schama says were even echoed in the school textbooks of his childhood – were a self-serving fantasy. Dissidence of whatever colour was the political mainstream. It was Parliament that was at the margins.

In 1830, more high prices, unemployment and continued poverty wages brought the southern counties out into open revolt, which the authorities put down with force. 19 rebels were executed with a further 200 death sentences commuted to transportation to Australia.

The fear of revolution was now causing many in the ruling elite to think seriously about pre-emptive political reform. Tory Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington, ruled it out, despite having previously backed down on Irish Catholic emancipation, but he was soon gone, replaced by a Whig administration promising serious changes. Riots in Derbyshire, Nottingham and Bristol served to further concentrate their minds; the town of Merthyr Tydfil had even been briefly occupied by the rebels. Lords reform was effected to remove that barrier to franchise extention,and the Reform Act was finally passed in 1832.

The Act was one of establishment self-preservation, not democratic emancipation. The vote was only extended to men holding £10’s worth of property which, as the Whigs calculated correctly, was enough to split and weaken the democratic movement, albeit temporarily.

So Britain was still not a democracy, and nor would it be for the better part of a hundred years. But the efforts of this revolutionary generation had not been for nothing. In 1833 Britain outlawed slavery in all its colonies “at a time, notwithstanding recent historical writing, when the demand for slave-products was actually increasing and not diminishing” p108. The monopoly of the Church of England was weakened by the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act. And, most important of all, the voices and concerns of ordinary people had, through their own self-organised and sustained actions, become impossible for the ruling elite to ignore. Their struggle was far from over.


Though the Great Exhibition of 1851 was intended to showcase a nation singing in harmony – unifying the rural and the urban, religion and technological progress, the ‘quality’ and the great unwashed - fear of mass revolt was still never far away. The now octogenarian Duke of Wellington, as commander of the garrison of London, judged that the capital would only be secure at any one time with no less than 15,000 troops on stand-by, backing up a huge police presence p115.

The Duke was right to be nervous. The preceding decade had seen enormous political unrest, made even more threatening to the existing order when seen in the context of events on the continent, where revolutions were forever bubbling under or exploding through the surface. The 1832 Reform Act, predictably since it had not empowered the general population, had not resulted in an improvement in their conditions. Cities like Manchester, for example, were the scenes of appalling levels of squalor. In that city, the life-expectancy of ‘mechanics and labourers’ in 1842 was, statistically, 17. For ‘professional persons’ it was 38. Unemployment stood at between a quarter and a third. Disease and ill-health was rife. p133

The attitude of the Victorian ‘quality’ towards its inferiors was not one that we are entirely unfamiliar with today. There was a keenly perceived moral hazard to be avoided in allowing the poor any kind of social safety net. Poverty was, after all, clearly the result of some moral failing such as sloth; a view which, based as it was on the assumption that economic outcomes were a reflection of virtue, had the happy side-effect of casting the well-to-do in a semi-saintly glow. What measures were therefore taken to prevent the poor from simply dying altogether needed to be as harsh as possible, so as not to encourage idleness. The result was the workhouses, popularly known as the ‘Bastilles’ whose inmates were brutally shorn to make them instantly identifiable on the outside. A society which claimed to see the family as the first school of virtue saw fit, in the workhouses, to seperate husbands from their wives and parents from their children. The ‘Bastilles’ were designed to replicate prisons so closely that people would take any kind of legitimate work to avoid them. In this sense, they must have helped underwrite the most exploitative employment practices. Employers like the Manchester oligarchs saw profits, not the condition of their employees, as their primary concern. Low wages were simply an economic fact-of-life since higher wages would threaten business, and where would we all be then?

This was how the higher classes rationalized a status quo that they so happened to benefit enormously from. But their worldview did not go uncontested. In 1839, 1842 and 1848, millions signed petitions in favour of a People’s Charter demanding universal male suffrage with no property qualifications, equal votes, annual Parliaments, paid MPs and the secret ballot. The rationale was put succinctly by Bronterre O’Brien, editor of the ‘Poor Man’s Guardian’:

“Knaves tell you that it is because you have no property that you are unrepresented. I tell you, on the contrary, it is because you have no representation that you have no property” p135

With their demands ignored by Parliament, a distinction (though not a schism) became visible in the Chartist movement between reformers (favouring “moral force”) and revolutionaries (favouring “physical force”). In the autumn of 1839 armed uprisings in South Wales and Yorkshire resulted in “the largest loss of life inflicted by a British government on its own people at any time in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries” when 15 were killed and at least 50 seriously injured in a battle with Chartist rebels at Newport. The 1840s saw the Chartists develop into a well-organised, centrally co-ordinated pressure group, with individual active units answerable to a central office.

So when the massive Chartists demonstration on Kennington Common, south London coincided – in April 1848 – with the ‘springtime of the people’ in a Europe set ablaze by revolution, the governing class, for all its patronizing sniggering at the jumped up hoi polloi, was, in truth, plain scared. London had to be defended, lest the demonstrators decide that they would not be going home until they had got the democracy they came for.

“Some 85,000 men were sworn in as special constables to supplement the 4,000 Peelers of Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police and 8,000 regular troops. Government offices were barricaded with crate-loads of official papers and copies of Hansard. Guns and cannon were posted at critical sites: the Bank of England and the Tower of London. The Stock Exchange volunteered some 300 of its own employees as ‘specials’ to defend the bastion of captitalism. Defenses, complete with light artillery, were set up on the Mall to prevent access to Buckingham Palace. (The royal family had in any case, on the advice of the government, taken themselves off to the Isle of Wight to avoid anything disagreeable.)” p140-1

In the end, determined to prove themselves emphatically not the bloodthirsty Jacobins of elitist scaremongering, and perhaps less than confident in their ability to successfully effect an armed revolution in any event, the Chartists’ demonstration passed off for the most part peacefully. This may have proved the high water mark of militant Chartism, but the energies generated by the movement did not fizzle out. Rather, they were channeled into trade unionism, cooperatives, friendly societies and other vehicles of working class empowerment and self-determination. Schama argues, plausibly, that it may have been this new, less confrontational manifestation of discontent amongst the masses that caused Parliament to allow household male suffrage in the second Reform Act of 1867, less fearful perhaps than it had been nineteen years earlier, of letting in the Jacobins by the backdoor. It is also possible that the improved economic conditions of the years between 1848 and 1867 drew some of the militancy out of the pro-democracy movement. In any event, the mobilised general public had won another victory from their masters and Britain had taken another small step towards democracy.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Islamophobia: the bigotry you can vent without shame

Yesterday evening, Channel 4 showed a wonderful documentary, "Dispatches: It Shouldn't Happen to a Muslim", an example of that rare and precious thing called public service broadcasting. It is my view that every last person responsible, from the tea-boy up, should be given a knighthood. At least.

Journalist Peter Oborne investigated "the rise of violence, intolerance and hatred against British Muslims....He discover[ed] that for many in the Muslim community, Britain is becoming a very frightening place. Dispatches [met] a range of British Muslims who now live in daily fear, some because their homes are constantly vandalised, others because they or family have suffered devastatingly violent attacks."

The Language of Hate

Some important and authoritative research was commissioned by the film-makers, which will serve as valuable resources for those fighting Islamophobia in the future. There's a report by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, which found that "the bulk of [press] coverage of British Muslims - around two thirds - focuses on Muslims as a threat (in relation to terrorism), a problem (in terms of differences in values) or both (Muslim extremism in general)." "Decontextualisation, misinformation and a preferred discourse of threat, fear and danger, while not uniformly present, were strong forces in the reporting of British Muslims in the UK national press."

The Cardiff School of Journalism report is a very solid bit of social science research and well worth reading in full. Like the documentary as a whole, it provides a thorough analysis of how a dangerous bigotry is constructed and maintained in public discourse. The British press is shown to constantly present Muslims as an alien presence; a threatening "other". Rarely if ever in the coverage is it accepted that if a person lives, works, votes, pays their taxes and abides by the law in this country then they are no less British if they are a Muslim than if they are CofE or anything else. Instead, Islamic traditions are presented as a threat to a nebulous concept called "our way of life", from which British people of Islamic faith are excluded by definition. It is clear that, for the press, "Britishness" means a narrow concept of white Anglo-Saxonism; and that should be a cause for concern to a great many of us besides Muslims.

The other point about the press coverage is that so much of it is simply false, to the point where it appears that many journalists are in the business of systematically lying about the subject. It becomes plain that the assumption you should work from when you see a scare-story about Muslims in the gutter press, or even the broadsheets, ("Muslims Ban Christmas", "Mosques Beat Churches", "Gay Muslim Paedophile Asylum Seekers May Cause Cancer/Fall in House Prices") is that the story is probably false.

Furthermore, "Oborne conclude[d] that in today's climate the media say things about Islam and Muslims they would never say about other groups [and this includes supposedly liberal commentators like Polly Toynbee]. When he replace[d] the word' 'Muslim' in some recent headlines with 'Jews', 'Blacks' and 'Gays' and show[ed] them to members of the public, they [found] those headlines deeply offensive".

A particularly interesting moment came when Oborne interviewed Rabbi Pete Tobias, a expert in the anti-semitism of early twentieth century Britain. Tobias showed Oborne an Evening Standard article from 1911, a time when many Jews were arriving in the UK from Europe. The language was familiar: dangerous and backward people from the east threaten our values and way of life by swamping our communities and refusing to integrate or submit to our superior culture. Chilling to consider that, even after the twentieth century, the essential components of racist discourse are still not being recognised for what they are (see the election of the lovable clown Boris Johnson, for a separate example).

Crucially, the documentary gave many British Muslims the chance to speak for themselves, which makes a change from having other people talking about them. And their responses to the prejudice that had been thrown their way were the best and most telling of all. Asked about the Sun's political editor's comment that it is correct to spotlight Muslims because of Islamist terrorism, one Muslim cleric asked, if all rapists are men, then why don't we spotlight the entire male gender for the issue of rape? A Muslim medical student said that when Muslims like her get abused or attacked by white British people then no one asks broad questions about the defects of white British culture, but when a Muslim commits a terrorist act then every member of the Islamic faith is held guilty of hate-filled extremism until proven innocent.

This gets right to the crux of it. In reality, we do not have a problem with Islam; we have a problem with terrorists. Actually, we have a problem with terrorism and with bigotry towards Muslims, which often manifests itself in Muslims being violently terrorised.

Terrorising Muslims

The documentary makers commissioned a poll, one of the most important results of which illustrated the fact that Islamophobia does a lot worse than hurt people's feelings. Fully thirty seven percent of Muslims - over one in three - says they have been subjected to hostility or abuse since 7 July 2005 because of their religion. Oborne interviewed people who had had their houses and cars vandalised, been abused in the street, beaten and stabbed, and targeted by fire-bombings.

The information pamphlet accompanying the programme (also well worth a read), describes an incident where "[o]n Wednesday 7 May 2008 in Bolton a group of young people allegedly chased a group of Muslim men shouting racial and religious abuse. A chainsaw was allegedly held to the throat of one man. A 17-year-old girl and a 22-year-old man have been charged with affray and possession of an offensive weapon, and are awaiting trial". Elsewhere "[a] Methodist chapel being converted into an Asian community centre in Quenchwell, near Carnon suffered an Islamophobic attack in early June. In the wake of a local row about the plans to create an Asian centre at this location urine was found inside a builder’s helmet. The words “Fuck off you Asian bastards” were written on a table. On the morning of Monday 2 June a pig’s head was found nailed to the door in a clear attempt to offend Muslims. The words “God says fuck off” and a cross were daubed on the door".

"On 17 April three men were jailed for three years for a campaign of racial harassment lasting nine months against a Muslim colleague, Amjid Mehmood, who was tied to railings and force-fed bacon, which he cannot eat because of his religious beliefs. His attackers filmed the whole incident on a mobile phone. In total, nine separate incidents of racial harassment occurred over the period. A rucksack with protruding wires was put on his locker and his trousers were set on fire. During the Birmingham riots he was driven to an Afro-Caribbean area and told locals were “coming to get him.”"

Its never been a secret that the language of racism is spoken with fists and knives as much as it is written in newsprint or insinuated in the statements of politicians. But many powerful people seem happy to ignore this, while the costs are paid by ordinary and entirely innocent Britons of Islamic faith. Violence is of course the logical consequence of a public discourse in which Muslims are constantly demonised and lied about. Thus, the self-styled victims of fictional Muslim aggression become the enablers of actual aggression against Muslims. The press and politicians (like the odious Jack Straw whining about how veiled women discomfort him, or any given right-wing hack complaining about "political correctness gone mad") portray themselves as the pitiful victims of extremist Islamism. But when Muslims then suffer actual physical aggression as a result of this demonisation, politicians and the press have nothing to say.

Attitudes: differences and similarities

The poll also shows, as other polls have done, that Muslims are not significantly less tolerant than non-Muslims, which sweeps away at a stroke the fantasy of an ultra-conservative Islamist invasion. So we can expect the press to ignore that completely, since it doesn't fit with the approved story.

Speaking generally, the poll results highlight the sorts of differences in perceptions of Islamophobia that you'd probably expect between Muslims and the rest of the population, which are certainly dismaying, and a serious level of prejudice obviously exists. But I hope I'm not being panglossian in saying that this prejudice is also not as widespread as it could be, given the nature of press coverage and elite political discourse. Note for example that 78 per cent of Muslims and 70 per cent of non-Muslims agree that "there is more ... religious prejudice against Muslims in Britain today since the London bombings in July 2005". Most non-Muslims felt that Muslims were bearing the brunt of unjustified criticism (51 per cent) while 31 per cent felt that the level of criticism was justified. When you subtract the decent people who have just been misled by politicians and the press (and would probably change their minds when presented with the facts) from that third of the population, then you're left with a small minority of bigots. Which is not to say that a small minority of bigots can't be very dangerous, but it does help to put a rather frightening picture of British Islamophobia in some sort of context. In a way, it shows what polls often show, that the public are largely decent and reasonable people, and that the political class (media and politicians) is broadly to the right of the general population. Islamophobia is propagated by the political class and a potentially small minority of the public; making it dangerous, but not invincible.

The political utility of hate

Finally, I'd like to make a point that wasn't made in the documentary but which I think is essential for putting all of this in context. We should bear in mind the central, enabling role that Islamophobia plays in the War on Terror, and the potential usefulness to the political class of this species of bigotry.

The documentary aired 3 years to the day after the London tube and bus bombings. As I wrote at the time, the security services had repeatedly warned the government that Britain's involvement in the invasion of Iraq strongly increased the chances that attacks like this would occur. The government joined the US invasion of Iraq - a country that posed no threat to us - in spite of these warnings. It is a truism that one is responsible for the predictable consequences of ones actions, so on the afternoon of 7/7/2005 the British government had a serious problem, as indeed did the media that had played a key enabling role in taking the country to into an unpopular war. It was then extremely convenient for these elites to change the subject from Western foreign policy, the known inspiration for these brutal terrorist crimes, and instead place the focus on the Muslim community. And when you observe the people who run our country first starting a war of aggression that has by now claimed probably over a million lives, and then passing the blame for one of the predicted consequences of that war onto one of the most vulnerable communities in the UK (many of whom had actually voted New Labour, incidentally), then you get the measure of the sheer moral bankruptcy of British ruling elite.

It should also not be forgotten that the demonisation of Islam plays a broader enabling role for Western foreign policy. As I noted in this article, which I wrote in response to the controversy over the Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad:

"It is no coincidence that those who most enthusiastically peddle the fiction of a "clash of civilisations" also portray the opposing "other" as a force that seriously threatens to destroy "our way of life", and therefore advocate an aggressive US-led military strategy across the Islamic world. Manichean rhetoric eulogizing the liberal idealism of "our values" and the necessity of defending them against those who "hate our freedoms" has been the very essence of Western pro-war advocacy in recent years. Observing essentially imperial foreign policies being depicted as altruistic endeavours aimed at bringing enlightenment to backward, inferior (if exotic) cultures, or at least at defending us against them, hardly places us in unfamiliar territory. Indeed, subjugation almost invariably goes hand in hand with the deliberate dehumanisation of those who are being subjugated by those responsible for or whose acquiescence is essential to the act of subjugation".

As competition escalates for strategic control over the planet's dwindling oil reserves, the need for our esteemed leaders to present aggressive imperial policies in Western Asia within the conceptual framework of a "clash of civilisations" will only increase. Violence against innocent people on the streets of Britain will be but one lamentable but neccessary byproduct of this propaganda campaign, along with the massive violence meted out to the people of the region and the predictable terrorist backlash against our own country. Such are the calculations made by the statesmen who run the world on our behalf.


But while the documentary did not place British Islamophobia into this broader context, it should still be applauded for giving such serious treatment to an important subject, and for speaking out with a strong moral voice against this dangerous tide of hatred. Hopefully before too long, Islamophobia will go the way of anti-semitism and anti-black racism, becoming seen as something you at least don't say out loud, as a prelude to it and those other forms of bigotry disappearing forever. If that is to happen, then people like Peter Oborne and the Dispatches team will have played their part. If only more of their peers could say the same.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Liberalism in 'Londonistan'

My new article, "Liberalism in 'Londonistan'", is published by UKWatch. An excerpt:

"Much has been heard from Britain’s political class in recent years about the role of “values” in the fight against terrorism. The problem, we are told, is that the Muslim community in the UK is failing to integrate with British society and accept our nation’s intrinsic liberalism."

"The message has been imparted to us in several ways. According to a recent study, over 90 per cent of the articles referring to Muslims or Islam in British newspapers on a typical week presented the religion and its adherents in a negative light. The picture presented by the media was of a strict and irreconcilable dichotomy between Islam and British “values”, with the former posing a serious threat to the latter. "

"[However] According to a recent poll, 96 per cent of London’s Muslims, along with 97 per cent of Londoners as a whole, “think that everyone should respect the law in Britain”; 89 per cent of Muslims and 88 per cent of all Londoners “believe that everyone in Britain should be free to live their lives as they want so long as they do not prevent others from doing the same”; 94 per cent of Muslims and 92 per cent of all Londoners “believe that everyone in Britain should have equal opportunities”; 95 per cent of Muslims and 86 per cent of all Londoners “think everyone should be free to practise their religion openly”; and 86 per cent of Muslims and 91 per cent of all Londoners “also think it is important that the Metropolitan Police work closely with communities such as the Muslim community to deter terrorist attacks”."

Read the whole thing here.

Also on this topic, see my "Are Muslims from Mars and Europeans from Venus?" and "Understanding Britain".

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Monday, November 19, 2007

The "problem of the alien"

Ronan Bennett today delivers a stinging rebuke to the novelist Martin Amis for the latter's anti-Muslim bigotry, and to the political class in general for its acceptance (if not encouragement) of Amis' racism.

"What do you make of the following statement: "Asians are gaining on us demographically at a huge rate. A quarter of humanity now and by 2025 they'll be a third. Italy's down to 1.1 child per woman. We're just going to be outnumbered." While we're at it, what do you think of this, incidentally from the same speaker: "The Black community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order." Or this, the same speaker again: "I just don't hear from moderate Judaism, do you?" And (yes, same speaker): "Strip-searching Irish people. Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole Irish community and they start getting tough with their children.""

"The speaker was Martin Amis and, yes, the quotations have been modified, with Asians, Blacks and Irish here substituted for Muslims, and Judaism for Islam - though, it should be stressed, these are the only amendments. Terry Eagleton, professor of English literature at Manchester University, where Amis has also started to teach, recently quoted the remarks in a new edition of his book Ideology: An Introduction. Amis, Eagleton claimed, was advocating nothing less than the "hounding and humiliation" of Muslims so "they would return home and teach their children to be obedient to the White Man's law"."

[DW - When Amis responded to Eagleton's criticisms by saying "Can I ask him [Eagleton], in a collegial spirit, to shut up about it?", was it just me who sensed a hint of a desperate plea behind the bluster? As in "can I ask him, please pretty please, to stop exposing my grubby middlebrow bigotry for what it is?"]

"Why did writers not start writing [in response to Amis' racism]? There is Eagleton and there is the Indian novelist and essayist Pankaj Mishra, who took apart Amis's strange and chaotic essay on the sixth anniversary of 9/11. But where are the others? Four days after the Pentagon and the twin towers were attacked, the novelist Ian McEwan wrote on these pages: "Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality." As an expression of outraged, anguished humanism, McEwan's formulation was truthful, moving and humbling, and can hardly be bettered. But it seems to me the compassion is flowing in one direction, the anger in another. I can't help feeling that Amis's remarks, his defence of them, and the reaction to them were a test. They were a test of our commitment to a society in which imaginative sympathy applies not just to those like us but to those whose lives and beliefs run along different lines."

"And I can't help feeling we failed that test. Amis got away with it. He got away with as odious an outburst of racist sentiment as any public figure has made in this country for a very long time. Shame on him for saying it, and shame on us for tolerating it."

Read the rest here. Also on the same subject, see this report showing that the socio-political attitudes of Muslim Londoners are every bit as liberal as those of non-Muslim Londoners. Perhaps Amis or some other self-styled "Enlightenment liberal" critic of "Islamofascism" could explain how their well developed rationality computes these particular empirical facts?

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Shared Values

"[Gordon Brown] also underlined the importance of the relationship between America and the UK, saying that it was "a partnership that is founded on more than common values and common history, it is a partnership that is founded and driven forward by our shared values"."
31 July 2007

"[Gordon Brown] told the Fabian Society that some groups were "playing fast and loose" with the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. He said the UK was a country "built on shared values" which served as a "model for the rest of the world"."
13 January 2007

"One reason is that Britain has a unique history - and what has emerged from the long tidal flows of British history - from the 2,000 years of successive waves of invasion, immigration, assimilation and trading partnerships; from the uniquely rich, open and outward looking culture - is I believe a distinctive set of British values which influence British institutions."

"Indeed a multinational state, with England, Scotland, Wales and now Northern Ireland we are a country united not so much by race or ethnicity but by shared values that have shaped shared institutions."
Gordon Brown - 27 February 2007
"I believe ... that we the British people must be far more explicit about the common ground on which we stand, the shared values which bring us together, the habits of citizenship around which we can and must unite. Expect all who are in our country to play by our rules."
Gordon Brown - 25 September 2006
"On Monday, Foreign Office minister Kim Howells called for Britain and Saudi Arabia to work more closely together, despite their differences. He said the two states could unite around their "shared values"."
30 October 2007
"Overall human rights conditions remain poor in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy. "

"Saudi law does not protect many basic rights and the government places strict limits on freedom of association, assembly, and expression. Arbitrary detention, mistreatment and torture of detainees, restrictions on freedom of movement, and lack of official accountability remain serious concerns. Saudi women continue to face serious obstacles to their participation in society. Many foreign workers, especially women, face exploitative working conditions."

"A former prisoner in Mecca General Prison alleged to Human Rights Watch that prison guards regularly beat him, burned his back on a hot metal block, and kept him in solitary confinement for six months. He said such abuse was routine during his time as an inmate between 2002 and 2006. Thirty-six inmates of al-Ha’ir prison in Riyadh in late 2005 issued a “Cry for Help to Global Rights Organizations” detailing their “despondence” due to beatings in prison and public lashings."
"Saudi judges routinely issue sentences of thousands of lashes as punishment, often carried out in public. The beatings lead to severe mental trauma and physical pain, and the victims do not receive medical treatment."

"Women in Saudi Arabia continue to suffer from severe discrimination in the workplace, home, and the courts, and from restrictions on their freedom of movement and their choice of partners. The religious police enforce strict gender segregation and a women’s public dress code of head-to-toe covering. Women are excluded from the weekly majlis (council), where senior members of the royal family listen to the complaints and proposals of citizens."
"Women need permission from their male guardian to work, study, or travel. In February 2006 the Transport Committee of the Shura Council declined a motion to discuss the possibility of allowing women to drive."

"Many of the estimated 8.8 million foreign workers face exploitative working conditions, including 16-hour workdays, no breaks or food and drink, and being locked in dormitories during their time off."
Human Rights Watch World Report 2007

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Principle as Propaganda

Following the Prime Minister's speech on civil liberties this week (how he values them, how he can name lots of famous thinkers who've valued them, how Britain invented them and then generously gave them to a stunned world that had never conceived of such things, etc, etc....), we find this revealing quote in today's Observer:

"......this was no dry trot round a familiar academic course: the aim was deeply political."

"'Gordon is trying to build up a systematic argument in a slow burn,' one cabinet minister said. 'If you talk about Britain's, and his, commitment to liberty, then you provide a context for further debates about issues such as 90 days [for detention without charge.] It is a new approach. Under Tony, the 90-day idea came out of nowhere.' A change on detention without charge - doubling the current limit of 28 days to 56 - is likely to be signalled in the Queen's Speech once Brown's message on liberty has been digested."

Got that? Brown needs to let you know how much he cares about liberties, so when he takes yours away, you'll know that he meant well.

So much of New Labour's strength has relied on the assumption of good intentions. Saving the NHS by privitising it in increments, destroying efficiency and service levels in the process. Saving Africa by forcing it to "open up" to Western business interests, though that is proven to impoverish it. Building peace between Israel and the Palestinians by starving the Palestinians as punishment for voting the wrong way in a free election. Making the world a safer place by launching a war of aggression that kills hundreds of thousands and destabilises one of the most volatile regions in the world. The unsophisticated observer may see here policies that simply serve power, whatever the human costs. But when the propaganda message has been "digested", you'll see its all driven by good intentions.

Don't worry about the details or the actual effects of policy, says the statesman. Just trust me and my good intentions.

To what extent is this cynicism at work, and to what extent do politicians believe this stuff, no matter the contradictions? We can at least say, judging by the above quote, that cynicism plays some part.

One more thing. Look at Brown's increasingly sinister references to "Britishness" in the context of the above remarks. If you can get people to "digest" the notion of Britain as intrisically a force for good (which for instance, according to Brown, has no need to apologise for its imperial past) what sort of things can the British state get away with doing on the international stage?

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Priyamvada Gopal on Apologising for Slavery

"Atonement-speak obscures the distinction between "guilt" - a private, often religious emotion connected to personal wrongdoing - and a more demanding and necessary move: acknowledging that our lives are shaped by historical processes through which we have accrued benefits at the expense of others. .... [T]he atonement mode of acknowledging the past comes complete with built-in absolution, a rhetorical clean chit that you can give yourself without further consideration of how the past lives on in the present, and how you might redress material inequities inherited from that time.

This dual mode of atonement and celebration is also profoundly self-regarding, reinforcing the idea that white Christian Britons are the main agents of moral sensibility, courage and historical transformation. We are told by, among others, Bishop Nazir Ali - who routinely plays the role of loyal defender of the White Man's Burden - that Britain should be remembered not for its part in slavery but for its role in ending the trade. Apparently we shouldn't feel responsibility for the past but are allowed, indeed exhorted, to feel pride in it. We are to distance ourselves from those who actively participated in slavery, but we can rightfully claim an abolitionist lineage.

...the horrors of the past were not merely momentary lapses of moral judgment that can be redeemed through public enactments of remorse. They were systematic projects of national self-enrichment at the expense of other societies. A clear acknowledgement of this fact would deprive Britain of the cherished historical mantle of the "moral empire", the coloniser with a benevolent mission...."
Priyamvada Gopal - "It is contradictory to condemn slavery and yet celebrate the empire"

For more on this, see "Slaves and slavery, 1807-2007: the past in the present" by Marika Sherwood. See also my UK Watch article "Understanding Britain" and a recent post on this site "Celebrating the bicentennial anniversary of slavery's abolition...121 years too early".


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"Britishness" and British Foreign Policy

My latest article, “Understanding Britain”, is available on UK Watch. The article examines the relationship between UK foreign policy and the current debates about “Britishness” and national identity. An excerpt:

If we are to understand the nation’s role to be that of performing certain functions for our benefit and its value as the extent to which it performs those functions, then a utilitarian view demands not reverence but a dispassionate assessment. History can be used to inform both the democratic utilitarian and the mystical views of nationalism: the former, by an objective analysis of the factual record designed to inform the value judgement described above, and the latter by making selective use of that record and subordinating history to the aggrandisement of the national self-image. As we examine how an objective and rounded understanding of history might help us to influence our society and government productively in the present day, the nature of the problems that arise from taking the chauvinistic course will quickly become apparent.

Read the rest
here. A supplementary to the article is a recent post on this site entitled “Celebrating the bicentennial anniversary of slavery’s abolition …121 years too early”.

UK Watch is not only a really excellent site already, though only in its infancy, its also a site that offers lots of hope for the future. As it says in their "
about" section

"In an age dominated by corporate media control, the importance of alternative media – in contesting mainstream interpretations, promoting alternative understandings and supporting the development of a radical popular culture – can hardly be overstated. ukwatch.net is our contribution."

...and in addition...

"We particularly wish to promote constructive visions of a better society and work that discusses the tactical and strategic choices required to achieve them. Toward this end, we seek to encourage organisations, authors, activists and scholars to share their knowledge and experience with others in the UK activist community."

So if you have something you think you can
contribute, be it ideas for the site, tech support or an article, then get in touch with them and let them know. I think UK Watch has the potential to be as multi-faceted, informative, and high-quality a resource as its US sister-site ZNet. If you can contribute to that then don’t be shy.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Celebrating the bicentennial anniversary of slavery’s abolition …121 years too early

This March, many government-sponsored events will take place around the UK to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery. This feeds in to government attempts, led by Chancellor Gordon Brown, to define in the public mind so-called ‘core British values’ of tolerance, liberalism and so on.

I’ve written more
here about the political utility of engendering specious nationalistic conceits like Brown’s notion of “Britishness”, and how such attempts run exactly counter to what a productive view of the nation’s history might entail. This is exemplified in the gap between the official and the actual history of Britain’s role in the abolition of slavery.

First, take a look at the government’s version of events as set out in
this document, particularly the chronology. It mentions Britain’s banning of the slave trade in 1807, notes that slavery itself did not end in Britain’s empire for another 3 decades, notes the sterling efforts made by Britain to stamp out the trade, and notes that other less civilised countries took far longer to abolish slavery themselves (France in 1848, the US in 1865 and Brazil in 1888).

Now contrast this with the factual record.
Joseph Hanlon, a senior lecturer in development and conflict resolution at the Open University writing in yesterday’s Guardian, sets out a rather less flattering chronology. In fact, slavery persisted in some British colonies for as long as 121 years after the abolition of the trade in slaves, not of slavery itself, that we are set to commemorate in a few weeks:

The 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act …was always intended to only "gradually" end slavery, and the law was initially only applied in the West Indies. Slavery was abolished in the Gold Coast in 1874 and in southern Nigeria in 1916.

In 1924 Britain was forced to admit that slavery was still practised in Sierra Leone, northern Nigeria, Gambia, Aden, Burma and Hong Kong.

When the governor [of Sierra Leone] wanted to abolish slavery there in 1921, Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for the colonies, replied that "the abolition of slavery could not, however, have any immediate beneficial effect on the finances of the colony".

Captain WB Stanley, commissioner of the Northern Province, reported in 1924 that there were 219,275 slaves in Sierra Leone, 15% of the total population. Governor Sir Ransford Slater wrote that year: "My first impression [on arrival] was one of surprise that in Sierra Leone … there should still exist, even in the hinterland, an admitted form of slavery.

Britain in 1926 signed the League of Nations slavery convention. But it was quickly in trouble with the League, following a ruling by Sierra Leone's supreme court on July 1 1927, which declared that the status of slavery "is clearly recognised" and thus "the use of reasonable force [by the slave's owner] in retaking of a runaway slave must also be recognised". Court president Mr Justice Sawrey-Cookson added: "It must be as absurd to deny an owner of a slave his rights to retake a runaway slave as to deny a husband certain rights which follow on a lawfully contracted marriage."

Slavery was finally abolished in Sierra Leone on January 1 1928, nearly a century after the Abolition of Slavery Act. In marking the end of slavery, this is the date which should be used.

I’m sure there’s more to be said about the gap between the official and the actual version of events, but this is the most striking account that I’ve seen so far. British slavery did not end until 1 January 1928, barely a lifetime ago. But since this doesn't fit in with the "core British values" of New Labour fiction, the government instead leaps upon the 1807 Act banning the trade in slaves - the first step on the 121 year-long road to the end of British slavery – and presents it as being, to all intents and purposes, the substantive end of this vile practice as far as our country was concerned. The official abolition in 1833 is thus rendered a mere footnote in the official history, and the date of the actual ending of slavery itself – which his what many people in March will think they are celebrating – is ignored altogether.

There are three things to note about slavery. Firstly, that it was a monstrous crime. Secondly, that the descendents of its victims have had to suffer its legacy as well, even up until the present day. And thirdly that by contrast, many of us have done and continue to do rather well out of its legacy. As Cambridge historian
Richard Drayton points out, the historical debt Britain owes to Africa is “incalculable. For without Africa and its Caribbean plantation extensions, the modern world as we know it would not exist. Profits from slave trading and from sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco are only a small part of the story….English banking, insurance, shipbuilding, wool and cotton manufacture, copper and iron smelting, and the cities of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, multiplied in response to the direct and indirect stimulus of the slave plantations…African slavery and colonialism are not ancient or foreign history; the world they made is around us in Britain”.

So if not for the sake of historical accuracy then out of respect for the victims of slavery, for their descendents, and out of contrition for our continuing to gain from the crimes of our predecessors, we should at least rise up to the level of not fictionalising the history of British slavery, any more than we would fictionalise the Nazi holocaust.

The role of history for the nation and for humanity should, like the role of experience in one’s personal life, be to inform our future actions and aid our development by drawing lessons from as clear and accurate a view of the past as we can possibly assemble. This is never more true than in the case of episodes such as slavery. To instead do something as ugly as to hi-jack and misrepresent the history of British slavery in order to spin a national myth about our essential goodness as a country would be essentially to admit that we’d barely escaped the moral level one might hope we had left behind in 1928 - and that furthermore, we don’t intend to. It would also be the sort of cynical and tawdry exercise in making
political capital out of other people’s misery that New Labour specialise in.

By all means let’s commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of the end of British slavery. But lets leave it until 2228. And lets spend the intervening period learning the facts about British slavery, not to find some source of fuel for our national sense of conceit, but as a serious exercise in learning its lessons.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Shilpa Shetty: When Racism Isn’t Racism

The row in Britain, and now in India, over the racist behaviour directed towards Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty during the celebrity game show "Big Brother" raises several questions, beyond this specific case, about the notion of racism itself. What has been highlighted is a widespread and persistent failure to come to terms with the meaning and nature of racism and what constitutes racist behaviour. The current debate therefore provides an opportunity to discuss an issue that has escaped widespread, serious consideration for far too long.

On the day the Shetty controversy broke into the headlines, the Guardian reported that a crown court judge in Exeter had been forced to clarify his views on race after earlier saying he found it "rather odd" that a charge of racially aggravated intentional harassment was brought against a man who called a police surgeon a "f...ing Paki". The Guardian reported that in the case in question the defendant, Matthew Stiddard, had been "complaining of back pains following his arrest for a public order offence at Dawlish in Devon. When Dr [Imraan] Jhetam attended, the 36-year-old said: "F... off you Paki; I want an English doctor, not a f...ing Paki."" The case for bringing a charge for racially aggravated intentional harassment would certainly appear, on this basis, to be fairly clear, and certainly more clear than the source of the judge’s confusion.

This week's events also brought to mind the reaction of Australian cricketer Jimmy Maher to the row over his team-mate Darren Lehmann's description of his Sri Lankan opponents as "black c...s". "[Darren] calls a spade a spade," said Maher, "which is not necessarily a bad thing". Other team-mates rallied round, describing Lehmann's outburst as "out of character", made "in the heat of the moment" by someone who is "universally regarded as a nice guy".

It appears that when it comes to acknowledging instances of racism or racist behaviour for what they are, calling "a spade a spade" is something that not everyone finds particularly easy.

On "Big Brother", Shilpa Shetty's race and nationality have been consistently referred to in the most pejorative of ways and generally used as a stick to beat her with. Her fellow contestants have variously told her to "go back to the slums", asked her whether she lives in a house or a shack, failed or refused to pronounce her name properly on the basis that they didn't speak her language, instead referring to her as "the Indian", with this epithet later upgraded to “Shilpa Poppadom”. One contestant said that "she can't even speak English properly" and that "she should f... off home", another that she "wants to be white". Her personal hygiene has been questioned, on the basis of her race, with informed contestants musing thoughtfully that "they eat with their hands in India, don't they? Or is that China?", and that Indians must be thin because they are always ill as a result of undercooking their food.

Having considered the evidence, the show's broadcaster Channel 4 decided that there had been "no overt racial abuse or racist behaviour". A spokesperson for the bullies' ringleader, Jade Goody, said "I would urge anyone who says that Jade is a racist to produce the evidence to support the claim....I have not heard Jade say anything that could be interpreted as a racist remark." Another of the bullies, Jo O'Meara was defended by a friend, who said: "she's not racist". A friend of the third bully, Danielle Lloyd, said that the suggestion Lloyd was racist was "absolutely absurd. I've known Danielle for five years now and not once has she had a racist undertone in her voice ever," as though the problem were merely one of “undertones”.

Though these defensive responses are perhaps to be expected, they can hardly be seen as justified on that basis alone, or even as coherent when set against the facts. What is more worrying is the palpable reluctance on the part of many (though not all) commentators, talk show guests and others venturing an opinion over the last few days to recognise this undoubtedly racist behaviour for what it is. How can this be explained?

Over time, as immigration into the west has continued from the former colonies and elsewhere, racism has gradually become a taboo (a phenomenon that right-wingers, with customary self-pity, have described as the emergence of 'political correctness'). But whilst racism is now known to be a 'bad thing' - something with which polite and decent people do not associate themselves - society has never made a definitive attempt to confront, discuss and agree a common understanding of what racism actually is. The effect has been perverse. It now appears that rather than discouraging racism, its becoming a taboo has simply meant that no matter how racist a person's behaviour, it is considered beyond the pale, even taboo, to describe it as such. Thus racism persists, now not only misunderstood but also with its very identification becoming a line that many people dare not cross. It is particularly surprising that this mode of thinking may even extend to Shetty herself, an Indian raised in India, who later denied that the abuse she had suffered was racially motivated (though this might also be due to her perception of what was the expedient thing to say whilst she was still involved in the game show and vulnerable to continued bullying).

In attempting to (re)establish what racism actually is, it may be useful to distinguish between the sort of 'hard racism' that brings to mind jackboots and burning crosses and the 'soft racism' which affects a far broader range of people at one time or another. The latter may well be more dangerous than the former, being more widespread and insidious in character. Racism is the making of pejorative assumptions about others on the basis of their race, which may include the hardened opinions held by members of far right parties or the softer assumptions that are only revealed or betrayed in certain situations. We can also identify another distinct concept: racist behaviour. This can take all manner of forms, but in the examples discussed here, it has manifested itself as persistent, aggressively pejorative references to a person’s racial or national background. Its cause can be either 'hard' or 'soft racism', but it should also be pointed out that its root cause maybe neither. Racism is often a symptom of fear, ignorance, jealously or personal animosity.

In other words, barring a few ignorant assumptions, a person may not be much of a racist at all yet still be guilty of behaviour as unequivocally racist as that of Goody, O'Meara and Lloyd. The danger is that with the common understanding of racism so narrow, such behaviour will not be identified as such.

Many of the defences and apologias for the racist behaviour of the Big Brother contestants appear to have an implied theme in common: the person in question is asserted not to be a racist, whilst their actual racist behaviour is either left unaddressed or deemed not racist if it doesn't conform to the strictest definition of 'hard racism'. What this appears to exhibit is a prevalent understanding of 'racism' that is restricted purely to the 'hard' sense of the term, specifically the alleged racist character of the person in question, rather than their actions. Therefore, if a person falls somewhere short of being a card-carrying member of the BNP, then their behaviour can not be racist by definition, no matter what they have actually said or done. The effect of the taboo (as opposed to an understanding of the problem) of 'hard racism' has been a widespread refusal to acknowledge the more common forms of 'soft racism' and general racist behaviour. Needless to say that this does not leave us well equipped to deal with the realities of racism as it actually exists.

Racism that falls short of overt Nazism is no small matter. There are large numbers of people who have experienced at first hand, in schools and in workplaces up and down the country, racist bullying identical to that seen on "Big Brother". They will also recognise, with depressing familiarity, the squirming authority figure who refuses to live up to their basic responsibilities and defend the victim or restrain the racists. These people will no doubt recognise what is happening in the “Big Brother” house for what it is, and probably make up a large proportion of the tens of thousands of people who have complained to the communications regulator Ofcom about the treatment of Shetty.

Indeed, this brand of collective bullying, characterised by the ignorant besmirching of the victim’s character and tacitly condoned if not actively exploited by those whose responsibility is to prevent such behaviour from occurring has been exemplified on a grand scale by the now familiar attacks on asylum seekers in the UK. We have seen a hysterical tabloid hate campaign in recent years against refugees and ‘economic migrants’, condoned and even exploited by politicians of both main parties at the highest levels, inevitably accompanied with plaintive whines that “its not racist to talk about immigration”. This has gone together with a rise in physical attacks on immigrants, some of which have been fatal. Recent manufactured controversies over British Muslims also fit into this trend of collective scapegoating, bullying and ignorant hysteria. Racism is certainly not the preserve of skinhead thugs. Those complicit in the phenomenon may come from all walks of life and draw on a variety of motivations, not only heartfelt racial hatred.

Pulling back from the prevailing narrow definition of racism, and engaging with the problem in all its forms, depth and complexity, will reveal many other issues of concern, in addition to racist bullying. We may come to recognise the straightforward racism of the "clash of civilisations" paradigm so beloved of the political class, wherein the west cultivates a conceited image of itself as being essentially liberal and benign, with other cultures caricatured in opposition as backward and in need of correction. We may come to recognise the instrumental effect such prejudice has in formulating foreign policies that cost hundreds of thousands of lives, as it has done throughout the history of imperialism in all its guises.

Racism remains a dangerous, blunt instrument, wielded both by ordinary ignorance and institutional power. In what many believe to be an enlightened western culture an assumption persists that it is no longer a significant problem. On the contrary, not only does the issue of racism persist, it is still not even properly understood, to the point where many seem unwilling or unable to acknowledge its existence when they see it.

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