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, February 07, 2009

The Empire of Good Intentions: Part II

Continuing my notes on the evolution of the British political economy and Britain's foreign policy. Again, I'm drawing on the third volume of Simon Schama's "History of Britain", all quotes being Schama unless otherwise stated. Page references are included 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 pertinent to my PhD research, skipping the less relevant bits.

While the following interpretation of events will inevitably be influenced by Schama's writing, it is an attempt to create my own analysis from that.


When the sepoys garrisoned at Meerat, northeast of Delhi, fired the first shots of the war of Indian independence (to the British, the ‘mutiny’) on 10 May 1857, it was through anger at far more than being ordered by their British officers to grease their rifle cartridges with beef tallow (taboo to Hindus) or pig fat (taboo to Muslims). These were merely the latest of a host of indignities, insults and injustices suffered under a British rule which they now resolved to tolerate no longer. Rallying to the Mughal court in Delhi, they declared the emperor the legitimate sovereign of India and the start of a national uprising.

The grievances of the rebels were religious, cultural, material and secular. The influx of Christian missionaries – including those that adopted children orphaned in the famines and then brought them up in their own religion – as well as the general imperial contempt for Indian tradition and customs gave the uprising the overt character of a holy war against infidels. But it was also a war against economic exploitation and tyranny. Schama cites a particularly notable example.

“One of the triumphs of British ‘engineering’ in India was the building of the ‘Great Hedge’, a staggering 1500-mile barrier of thorns and acacia designed to prevent Orissa salt from being smuggled into Bengal to compete with imported salt from Cheshire; any that did get through was subject to penal tariffs. As many as 13,000 men were employed by the customs police to enforce this discriminatory practice, even as the pieties of free trade were being trumpeted in London and Manchester” p240.

The gap between imperial rhetoric and reality was plainly visible all over the world. If a mutually beneficial exchange between colonial producers and British manufacturers did exist, it tended to involve the white colonials of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Southern Africa. Their darker skinned neighbours – like the indigenous peoples of Australia and Africa expelled from their lands or simply massacred in order to make room for livestock grazing – saw rather less of the material improvements promised by the empire.

Imperial grandees like Lord Palmerston, who served 15 years as Foreign secretary on and off before becoming Prime Minister, claimed that peace and prosperity went hand in hand under British rule, and that domination of the world economy had fallen into Britain’s lap as a just and natural reward for commercial skill, energy and ingenuity. The truth was rather less uplifting.

When the China attempted to resist British opium imports, it was met with demands for market access and extra-territorial rights for British traders in Chinese ports. Outrage at this denial of the laws of global economics was unconfined, and augmented wherever possible by laments about the more backward and repressive elements of Chinese culture, which were suddenly of great concern to those determined to turn millions of Chinese into drug addicts. The Opium Wars were, by this rationale, wars for economic freedom and the civilisation that was sure to follow in its wake. “But of course the British and the rest of the Europeans were not arresting, but accelerating, the destruction of imperial China; and then, as the century wore on, making the resulting ‘anarchy’ a pretext for further military and political intervention. It was as if the doctors who had brought the disease in the first place were decent enough to show up offering – at a price – the cure” p242.

British military expansionism in Asia was now in full cry. The northern territories of the subcontinent were invaded and annexed, their treasuries looted, all, naturally, in self-defence (this time against ‘potential’ aggression from Russia). With the increased confidence of power came increased heavy-handedness . After annexing the province of Awadh, the British swept aside the local ‘rajahs’ and inserted themselves as the new tax collectors. But the ‘rajahs’ had been more than simple exploiters of the peasantry whose removal would be welcomed as long as taxes were slightly reduced into the bargain. They were feudal lords and patrons whose paternal role was intimately woven into the fabric of local peasant society. So when the people rallied to their rajahs during the uprising, though it shocked the British it was, in reality, only to be expected.

The demeaning, sometimes sadistic treatment of sepoys by their British officers combined with each broader injustice to the extent that, even though the offending cartridges had been withdrawn before the uprising began, the total breakdown of trust engendered by the sheer arrogance of British rule had rendered the point moot. That particular straw had already broken the camel’s back.

The war threw up scenes of huge bloodshed, with atrocities committed by the sepoys answered by savage British reprisals. The rebellion was largely put down in about 12 months, contained as it was broadly within the Ganges valley, but pockets of resistance endured until as late as 1860.

Britain’s approach to the governance of India now changed markedly. EIC rule was replaced by that of a viceroy, council, and secretary of state. Ambitious plans of westernisation were set aside in favour of stable maintenance of the status quo. The problem, it seems, was that the British had been working with defective material. “The universalist assumption of the Enlightenment that all men, given the right education, could become much the same had been replaced by the harder, ‘scientific’ fact of incommensurable difference; it was put most brutally in the 1890s by one viceroy the Earl of Elgin, who jovially complained what ‘a terrible business [it is] this living among inferior races’” p256-7.

Some came to romanticise the rural, “real” India just as the likes of Coleridge and Wordsworth had romanticised rural Britain earlier in the century. Mixed in with this was the enduring racism through which the colonial subjects continued to be judged. “One of the worst things his enemy, [Liberal Party leader] William Gladstone, thought up to say about [Conservative leader Benjamin] Disraeli was to call him ‘Asiatic’, by which he meant constitutionally irresponsible, amoral and shamelessly devoted to pleasure, self-indulgence and dandyism” p259. But the othered image of an anachronistic Asia – be it as romanticised exoticism or denigrated semi-savagery – was at odds with the reality of the very modern India which the British themselves were involved in creating. “The reality of British power in India was coming to depend more, not less, on the world of the great port cities they had created; on the ruthless exploitation of plantation economies in Assam and Burma for teak, mahogany, tea and the always tempting though seldom reliable indigo (with chemical dyes it would fade altogether); on the mesh of connections that brought together Indian entrepreneurs with the British bankers, shippers and insurance men who made the export business tick along” p258.

“When in 1876, Disraeli, with the help of the Rothschilds, pulled off the huge coup of buying the Khedive of Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal (and with it control of European access to India) he transformed the strategic and economic prospects of the British Raj” p263 and, in doing so, guaranteed the continuing, transformative march of imperial history. And yet, at the same time, liberal ‘progress’ was giving way to jingoism and the romanticisation of old orders. At home, Disraeli’s attempted to dazzle the newly enfranchised masses with the pomp and circumstance of the rejuvenated Victorian monarchy. A similar revival of old world pageantry was underway on the subcontinent, as the British co-opted the Indian aristocracy using ‘durbars’, or audiences with the viceroy to bestow favour, status and the trappings of empty power. The rationale was articulated by Lord Elgin who “unblushingly and cynically insisted that ‘all orientals are children, amused and gratified by external trappings and ceremonies and titles and ready to put up with the loss of real dignity if only they are permitted to enjoy the semblance of it” p263.

There was then to be a new, grounded and stable hierarchy. At the top, the newly declared (by Disraeli) Empress of India. Below her, the Raj, and its new viceroy, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, arriving in India in 1876. Below him were the pet rajahs and their semblances of dignity. And at the bottom, the Indian population. This was deemed preferable to the previous attempt to create a class of ‘brown Englishmen’ to administer the subcontinent on London’s behalf. “Politically speaking”, opined Lytton, “[India] is an inert mass – if it ever moves at all it will move in obedience, not to its British benefactors but to its native chiefs and princes however tyrannical they may be” p265.

But the oriental “children” had more pressing concerns than the manufactured pageantry of the Raj. The ‘prosperity’ and ‘welfare’ promised by Victoria in her message to the Grand Durbar of 1877 had not merely failed to materialise, their suggestion had become a bad joke. In the week of that ceremony alone “100, 000 were estimated to have died of starvation and cholera in Mysore and Madras” alone. “In 1860, 2 million had died in the Punjab. In 1866 nearly 27 per cent of the population of Orissa, some 800,000 had died; in 1868 a quarter of the population of Ajmere. In 1877-8, during Lytton’s administration, the famines have been responsibly calculated to have cost over 7 million lives” p268.

As had been the case in Ireland, British administrators saw the famines as “a ‘natural’ or ‘providential’ event that it was beyond the powers of government to ameliorate” p268. But there was nothing natural about, for example, the systematic destruction of salt production in Orissa, through tariffs and finally outright prohibition, which had robbed that region’s people of an income. Relief, in the form of grain imports or tax suspension, was rejected as interference in the market. “An Anti-Charitable Contributions Act (something that should modify our assumptions about the ubiquitous philanthropy of the Victorians) was passed expressly to prevent aid coming from Britain and the Indian cities, which was said to be, delaying the necessity of ‘soft’ Indians being made to stand on their own two feet” p269. Again, as in Ireland, what relief there was was only made available in labour camps, to few people and in tiny amounts.

“At the same time, grain depots in Madras and Bombay were full of imported rice, heavily guarded by troops and police to prevent thefts or riot. The famished...dropped dead in front of the fenced stockpiles. By a bitter irony, by the end of the century it was evident that it was those areas of India that had the most railway mileage and the most commercially developed economies that suffered most brutally in the famine years, because of the ease of transporting grain to markets where it could be hoarded to maximise the profits from price rises” p270 [emphasis in original].

“The problem...[was] one of income, not of gross food supply”. Imperial administrators insisted that the natural workings of the market would resolve the issue, ignoring “the hypocrisy of a policy that purported to be free trade but was in fact unscrupulously interventionist. Tariffs were nakedly manipulated to favour British imports and disadvantage Indian products; millions of tons of grain were shipped out in 1877-8 to stabilise British home prices, while Indian prices were allowed to soar in Bombay and Madras to levels that guaranteed starvation. Lytton had even enacted a cut in the tariffs on imported British cottons at the precise time when the Gujarati weavers were suffering more than most urban populations in India. And still could be heard the reiteration of the ancient, sanctimonious nostrums: let them stand on their own two feet” p217

Schama continues:

“What was in the process of utterly breaking down was the original liberal axiom of reciprocal prosperity. Prosperity at home in Britain seemed to be bought at the expense of the accumulation, of wealth in India. Only those in India who collaborated with this institutionalised and legislated economic inequality, such as grain shippers and textile importers, got their due rewards. Three particular circumstances in the 1870s and 1880s made this unlikely to change. First, Britain itself was in an economic downturn and very unlikely to feel charitable towards India at the expense of its own recovery, or to raise not just prices but the spectre of working-class unrest at home. Second, the home economy was feeling the pinch of competition from the United States and European rivals like Germany: exports were shrinking and once again Britain was unlikely to sacrifice its captive imperial markets for the sake of long-term economic maturity. (By the end of the century India was easily the biggest of all Britain’s export markets, taking fully 10 per cent of total exports – overwhelmingly cheap manufactured Lancashire cottons, the product that more than any other had destroyed the Indian textile industry.) Of all the facts to refute the ‘benevolent development’ thesis of British imperialism, this was perhaps the most irrefutably damning. Finally, revenues for investment in infrastructure that would actually benefit Indian peasant producers (rather than import-export merchants) had to compete with what, for viceroys like Lytton, was the supreme and over-riding interest – that of strategic military expansion on the northwest frontier lest the Cossack hordes come pouring through the Khyber Pass. The Indian taxpayer paid the full price for British strategic paranoia” p272.

Lytton even pillaged the famine relief fund to pay for his military campaigns in Afghanistan [p272] as well as gagging the increasingly dissident Indian press with the Vernacular Press Act of 1878 [p280].

In 1880, Gladstone came to power, replacing Disraeli, with some understanding of how Britain’s mistreatment of its imperial subjects was both wrong and counterproductive. Gladstone was no great progressive, believing in franchise extension only for those who, in his own assessment, merited it. But though his was a Victorian morality, it was also a genuine one, in so far as it went. So while he was prepared to imprison leaders of the Irish land league without charge, he was also prepared to listen to and to try and understand their grievances: extortionate rents, summary evictions (without compensation for improvements made to the smallholdings during tenancy), and so on. Gradually, Gladstone became convinced of the need for Home Rule (i.e. limited autonomy) for Ireland.

But elsewhere, Gladstone, for all the distrust of imperialism that he had expressed in opposition, did seem to take to empire’s task rather well. When the Khedive of Egypt was threatened by a military uprising (partly provoked by his economic mismanagement which had led France and Britain, Egypt's creditors, to seize control of the country’s revenues) Gladstone waded in with all guns blazing to restore the Khedive’s ‘legitimate’ rule, not to mention Britain’s revenue stream. This led to Egypt effectively becoming Britain’s colony, with a permanent military presence. Gladstone, like every imperial hypocrite before him, convinced himself that this was all merely in the name of ‘peace’ and ‘stability’ p280.

But in the case of Ireland, at least as far as Gladstone was concerned, pragmatism demanded a move towards autonomy since, given the growing antipathy towards British rule, the only alternative might soon be total severance. This assessment was by no means widely shared. The arguments put forward by the Tory Arthur Balfour, in his warnings to the Irish Unionists on the dangers of Home Rule, were the direct descendant of those expressed by Ireton 240 years earlier on the dangers of popular enfranchisement. The Unionists, said Balfour, would be “put under the heel of a majority which is greater than you in number [but which] is most undoubtedly inferior to you in political knowledge and experience – you the wealthy, the orderly, the industrious, the enterprising portion of Ireland, are to supply the money for that part of Ireland which is less orderly, less industrious and less ...law-abiding” p284.

The defeat of Gladstone’s moves for Home Rule exposed, again, the fiction of Britain’s claim to be pursuing a liberal-paternalist mission that would one day, someday, lead to the colonial subjects running their own affairs. Indiginous movements for self-governance that did emerge in Ireland and India drew on their own traditions and histories, rather than the myth of Britain’s liberal progress through the ages. Britain made belated attempts to buy off those calling for self-determination – as had happened at home with the piecemeal extention of the franchise – introducing limited forms of elected government. “But it was very much a case of too little, too late” p291. The methods of ‘swadesh’ (boycott) and ‘hartal’ (non-cooperation) were making the Raj ungovernable. Gandhi’s concept of ‘satyagraha’ – truth, and love even for one’s oppressor, as a liberating force – was drawn from India’s own proud liberal tradtions. Moreover, Gandhi not only rejected the version of modernity imposed by British rule, but hoped to liberate both the oppressed and, perhaps, even the oppressor from the idols of profit and power. There was a civilising mission at work here, but it was being instigated not by Whitehall, but against it.

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The Empire of Good Intentions: Part I

Continuing my notes on the evolution of the British political economy and Britain's foreign policy. Again, I'm drawing on the third volume of Simon Schama's "History of Britain" books, all quotes being Schama unless otherwise stated. Page references are included 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 is an attempt to create my own analysis from that.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as had ever been the case, British Imperialism was characterised by the chasm between the lofty claims of its advocates and the gruesome depths of its reality.

Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, declared the Empire to be “the greatest force for good the world has ever seen”, later stating that “[t]he message is carved granite, it is hewn in the rock of doom, that our work is righteous and it shall endure” p195,197. Elsewhere, (now quoting Schama), “[p]uffers of empire, like J.R. Seeley, the Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, talked often and loudly of Britain’s civilising ‘destiny’” p195.

The Indian people’s experience of empire was a little different. “[T]he period [at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries] when [the empire’s] triumphalists were boasting most noisily of the material and medical benefits that the British had brought to the subcontinent happened also to be the decades when India experienced the most horrific death toll in its entire modern history”. The medical journal The Lancet estimated that excess deaths (above the norm) from famine and disease had been at least 19 million in the 1890s; equivalent to half the population of Britain. Estimates of the death toll of the 1899-1900 famine in western and central India ranged between 6.5 and 10 million. One quarter were claimed by the bubonic plague in 1991 alone. “An earlier famine in Orissa in 1865-6 had, according to government sources, killed fully a quarter of the population” p198-9. Schama says that the empire’s administrators “had - most of them – only the best of intentions” p194. Yes they saw a profit to be made, but also an altruistic mission to fulfil, namely the eradication of poverty disease and ignorance in its colonies. The vision was not one of imperial subjugation but of “trusteeship”. “India would one day rise and walk again on its own two feet and be judged (by the British) capable once more of governing itself” p199.

What a happy coincidence that the point where India suddenly and mysteriously mislaid its ability to govern itself (after centuries of producing a succession of the world’s leading civilisations) was the very same point in history that Britain appeared on the scene, ready to nurse the patient back to health and, again entirely coincidentally, make an enormous profit in doing so.

“There is no doubt that these ideals were sincerely held....There is equally no doubt that it seldom occurred to the governors of empire (although it certainly did to its adversaries) that their military and economic power had actually caused many, if not most, of the problems they claimed to be in India to correct” p199. Schama also notes that the “ignorance” and “arrogance” of those like Thomas Macaulay who, in the 1830s, declared the “indolent and superstitious” peoples of the Orient in need of a schooling in “European knowledge” so as to make them “capable of all the privileges of citizens” p200-1. Another word Schama might have used is ‘racist’, not least to describe Curzon’s statement, to an audience at Calcutta University, that “truth is a western concept”? p206

Macaulay’s vision, and that of his contemporaries, was of “taking ‘inert’ Asia (another favourite cliché) and injecting it with the dynamism of progress” p202. Under British paternal guidance, India would produce surpluses of cash crops for export and purchase manufactured British goods with the profits, in a cycle that would produce both economic and moral development for the colonial wards.

Though it cannot be said that Indian society was free of barbaric practices, the British never missed an opportunity, whether they understood these practices properly or otherwise, to use them as a justification for the civilising mission, not withstanding its own barbarous and far more lethal nature p210-1.

British rule over India in the early nineteenth century had, in some respects, been at its most enlightened. Administrators had shown an notable degree of sympathetic cultural engagement and thirst for knowledge, immersing themselves intellectually in their surroundings. But, alongside this, the familiar dynamics of imperialism were ever-present. Wars for ‘stability’ begat instability, which begat further wars, further militarization, and further taxation to pay for an East India Company (EIC) army that by the 1830s comprised nearly a quarter-million (mostly Indian sepoys), making it one of the biggest in the world p205.

Soon the sympathetic scholars of early imperial rule were pushed aside by the likes of James Mill, Macaulay, and Charles Trevelyan who, though they felt qualified to write about or actually govern India, evidently saw no need to engage with its culture and history in any serious way. Mill wrote his “History of British India” without ever having visited the country. What, after all, was there for the British to understand, outside of their own exalted perspectives? Macaulay proclaimed that he had “never found [anyone] distinguished by their proficiency in the eastern tongues who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” p212

The orientalists resisted the new chauvinism for a time. The Macaulays and Trevelyans envisaged effecting their civilising mission by co-opting an upper strata of Indian society, educating it in the finer points of the white man’s culture, and then allowing that knowledge to cascade down towards the lower orders. But in this “class of person, Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, opinions morals and intellect [p212 – it is not clear who Schama is quoting at this point. Macaulay or Trevelyan presumably] the orientalists saw only the prospect of “a clique detached from the rest of Indian society ... a cultural mongrel group, with a vested interest in telling the sahibs what they wanted or needed to hear” p212. But it was the chauvinists’ mode of imperial rule that was to prevail, and the orientalists - with their hookahs, their Sanskrit, their Indian mistresses (and sometimes wives) and mixed-race children – that were to be consigned to history, soon to be followed, it was hoped, by the corrupt and effeminizing culture that they had so foolishly embraced p215.

But far from raising its subjects up from their backward squalor, the new imperial model performed what Schama describes as a “rolling economic demolition job” on Indian society p218. The loss of the EIC’s monopoly on the indigo trade devastated exporters, while the mass import of Lancashire-produced textiles did the same to Indian manufacturing industry and the local economies built around it. No pain no gain, was the considered view of the British modernizers content to see the modern industrial economy do its work. But the gains proved sparse while the pain was deep and extensive. Emily Eden, sister of the Governor-General Lord Auckland, described her journey through famine-ravaged India northwest to the Sikh court of Ranjit Singh:

“You cannot conceive the horrible sights we see, particularly children; perfect skeletons in many cases, their bones through their skin; without a rag of clothing, and utterly unlike human creatures...The women look as though they had been buried, their skulls look so dreadful” p219-20 [ emphasis in original].

Between 1846 and 1850, Charles Trevelyan presided over another civilising famine, this time in Ireland which, in those short years, “lost a quarter of its population: 1 million died of starvation or famine-related diseases, and another million turned to emigration as their only chance of survival” p220. Trevelyan viewed this as “the judgement of God on an indolent and unself-reliant people, and as God has sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated: the selfish and indolent must learn their lesson so that a new and improved state of affairs must arise” p221. It was the luck of the Irish that Trevelyan should be the Treasury official in charge of the relief effort , as well as God’s spokesperson on Earth.

Part of the problem had been a failure to predict understand or know how to deal with the fungal infection attacking the potato crop. But the real problem was that of a population forced to live on a razor’s edge of high rents for the land they worked and very low wages. They had no capacity to deal with any further hardship, let alone the devastation of the very crop that was “the beginning and the end of their diet” p225.

However, as far as Trevelyan was concerned, if the Irish could not afford to eat then this was a natural outcome of market forces, and not something to be interfered with. Trevelyan therefore opposed any attempts to stop the export of oats from starving Ireland, on the grounds that this would cause “discouragement and feeling of insecurity” to business, and thus do more harm than good p226.

As was the case with the workhouses on the mainland, the fear of the great and the good that the poor and malnourished may try to exploit them resulted in relief provisions so brutally sparse as not to attract the no doubt ever-present shirkers and freeloaders. Harry David Jones, the chairman of the board of public works, warned Trevelyan, “I believe everyone considers the government fair game to pluck as much as they can” p226. Hard-labour in exchange for a pittance of sustenance kept hundreds of thousands teetering on the edge of starvation. In one workhouse at Skibbereen, 226 inmates died between October 1846 and January 1847 p227.

As the tragedy became increasingly hard to gloss over, wealthy benefactors (including the Queen and Prince Albert) began to fund charitable efforts such as soup kitchens. But the callousness of official policy remained stubbornly intact. The public works relief projects had been so inundated that they were wound up and replaced by a new generation of workhouses. But these would be available only to those holding a quarter of an acre or less, thereby excluding “the vast majority of even the poorest” peasant families p228. The choice was no choice, give up what little you have to the landlord so as to qualify for the workhouse, or keep it and starve. Thus was Trevelyan’s social revolution brought about. Smallholders migrated to the ports or the workhouses (or were simply evicted), the landlords then demolishing the cabins in their wake as the small plots were consolidated into tenant farms. So every cloud (for the starving poor) had a silver lining (for the landlord class).

His career untroubled by the role he played in these events, Trevelyan went on to preside over the creation of what we now recognise as Whitehall: a cluster of spacious buildings around London’s Houses of Parliament in which the main departments of government would have their offices. Trevelyan argued that this was far more than a practical, administrative exercise.

“[W]e are organising, Christianising and civilising large portions of two ancient continents, Africa and Asia; and it is not right when the inhabitants of those countries come to the metropolis they should see nothing worthy of its ancient renown. Now I conceive that a plan of the kind I have sketched... would give the honour due to the focus of our liberties, of that regulated freedom which we hope will overspread the world” p233.

This new citadel of imperial government - like the communal burial bits of Ireland, and the tiny infant graves marked with shapeless rocks, marked with no epitaphs, at Connemara on the Atlantic shore p227 – would stand as the monuments to the civilising mission of Charles Trevelyan and Britain’s empire of good intentions.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

In Defense of White Americans

"[W]hite Americans are not remotely the bigots the G.O.P. would have us believe. Just because a campaign trades in racism doesn’t mean that the country is racist. It’s past time to come to the unfairly maligned white America’s defense."

"[D]espite the months-long drumbeat of punditry to the contrary, there are not and have never been enough racists in 2008 to flip this election. In the latest New York Times/CBS News and Pew national polls, Obama is now pulling even with McCain among white men, a feat accomplished by no Democratic presidential candidate in three decades, Bill Clinton included. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey finds age doing more damage to McCain than race to Obama."

"Nor is America’s remaining racism all that it once was, or that the McCain camp has been hoping for it to be. There are even “racists for Obama,” as Politico labels the phenomenon: White Americans whose distrust of black people in general crumbles when they actually get to know specific black people, including a presidential candidate who extends a genuine helping hand in a time of national crisis. "

"Such human nuances are lost on conservative warriors of the Allen-McCain-Palin ilk. They see all Americans as only white or black, as either us or them. The dirty little secret of such divisive politicians has always been that their rage toward the Others is exceeded only by their cynical conviction that Real Americans are a benighted bunch of easily manipulated bigots. This seems to be the election year when voters in most of our myriad Americas are figuring that out."

Frank Rich in the NYT. For more on "racists for Obama" see this and this. Apparently McCain is so incompetant he's persuading racists to vote for a black man.

Here's MSNBC's Rachel Maddow talking with Melissa Harris-Lacewell on the declining influence of racism in America.

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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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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Boris Johnson: lovable clown

Boris Johnson, eh? You've got to laugh haven't you?

First one of his advisers says that black Britons who don't welcome the new London mayor's election victory should "go if they don't like it here".

Then Tory activists everywhere (that's David Cameron's Cuddly New Tories) are incandescent ..... because the adviser gets sacked. Clearly political correctness has gone so completely mad that you can't even tell black people to go back where they came from without being called a racist. Its a bit like Stalinism, probably.

Then Johnson makes it very clear that the adviser's done nothing wrong in his eyes, and has only been sacked for political expediency. The poor lamb was clearly the victim of entrapment, and was actually forced by a mischievous journalist to tell black people to "go if they don't like it here". Furthermore, any suggestion that he's a racist - based on mere evidence and not the fact that he says he isn't - is a vicious, irresponsible slur. Doubtless some of his best friends are machete-weilding piccaninnies who should f**k off back to Africa.

ah, Boris. With his funny hair and his "cripes" and his "crumbs" and his "oh golly, have I let it slip yet again that I see black people as worth a little bit less than other human beings?". You've got to laugh, haven't you?


Friday, April 04, 2008

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968)

Martin Luther King was assasinated 40 years ago today.

Most people know of Dr King's early battles against discrimination in the Southern states, but fewer are aware of how his thinking developed in the latter part of his life. By 1967, Dr King was tying his critique of racism in American society into a broader social critique that encompassed the role of Western economic and state power - then imposing itself as ruthlessly on Vietnam as it is today in Iraq.

This was crystallised in his awesome speech of April 1967, at the Riverside Church, Manhatten.

King said that the US was in Vietnam, not to liberate it, but "to occupy it as an American colony". He roundly condemned his government as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today". The Vietnamese, he said, "must see Americans as strange liberators", describing the US record of denying Vietnamese independence, including support for "one of the most vicious modern dictators, our chosen man, Premier Diem [for Iraq, read former US-UK favorite Saddam Hussein]"

He continued:

"Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy....They watch as we poison their water...They wander into the hospitals, with at least 20 casualties from American firepower for each Viet Cong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children...How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem, and charge them with violence while we pour new weapons of death into their land?....Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases...We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These too are our brothers"

And then King went further, identifying the war as "but a symptom of a far deeper malady...[a] pattern of suppression". He warned that "We will be marching and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy...When machines and computers, profit and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered". Describing "the Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them", King warned that "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death".

Lets be under no illusions. King would have been sickened by the Iraq war, and would have seen through the nonsense of "liberal interventionism" in an instant. Members of the political class on both sides of the Atlantic will spend today, in their public utterances, trying to borrow a part of the great man's legacy for themselves. But how many among them would be able to give a speech like the one King gave at the Riverside Church?

Rest in peace.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Enlightenment or unreason? William Dalrymple and British neo-conservativism

Last summer I had the pleasure of reading William Dalrymple's "The Last Mughal", an account of the siege of Delhi during the Indian rebellion of 1857. I could write a lengthy eulogy on this brilliant and highly readable book, but for now I'll mention two aspects of it that made a particular impression on me at the time.

One was the sheer quantity of research that Dalrymple had undertaken. It was plain that he had spent an extraordinary amount of time carefully mining the historical record to get at the truth of what took place in those fateful months when Britain’s empire on the subcontinent was brought to the brink of destruction. Many of the primary sources he drew upon were seeing the light of day for the first time as a result of Dalrymple's efforts, making this a truly original scholarly contribution.

The book is enlivened in particular by a treasure trove of first-person testimonies, revealing how events appeared at the time to those who lived through them. Letters and diary entries make up a large percentage of the text, to the extent that Dalrymple is mostly just allowing the protagonists to tell their own story. This is the second important point about the book. I can think of few writers barring Edward Said whose work is characterised to such a profound degree by their respect for humanity and their genuine empathy for others. In allowing the subjects of his research to speak for themselves, and in allowing the human qualities of all to inform the narrative, Dalrymple ensures that his readers are informed by the full complexity of the situation and granted an opportunity to empathise with figures from all sides of the story.

Dalrymple's diligent scholarship, his willingness while in search of the truth to accept whatever complexities and contradictions he encounters, and the value he places above all on the humanity of those whose lives he is studying, are the qualities that, for me, really make "The Last Mughal" an exceptional work of history. It is these virtues that provide the foundation upon which he is able to apply the light touches of observant and insightful analysis that from time to time cause you to look up from the pages and spend a few moments reflecting upon what you have just learnt. The best books are those that leave you feeling that your understanding of the world has been enhanced substantively. This, more so than most, is that kind of book.

I mention this now having just come across two book reviews that Dalrymple has written for The Times which highlight vividly the dissonance between his own approach to trying to understand the world and that employed by the broad neo-conservative tendency that has dominated US-UK foreign policy since at least 11 September 2001. The reviews are for "The Second Plane" by Martin Amis, and "Celsius 7/7" by Michael Gove. It is appropriate that Dalrymple should be the person to review these books since the contrast between them and his own works could not be greater. Their principal qualities are apparently the polar opposites of those evident in his own writing: first, an almost embarrasing ignorance of their subject matter, and second, an belligerent refusal to attempt to understand the very people - radical Islamists - that they purport to be presenting an analysis of.

This central contradiction does not escape Dalrymple and, presented as he is with two pieces of work that so thoroughly violate his own intellectual principles, he sets about dismantling them in the careful, insightful manner that we have come to expect from him. He argues that the qualities which made Amis a great novelist, such as his "taste for the extreme and grotesque", are the same qualities that render his political writing self-indulgent and lacking in nuance. "The result", says Dalrymple is a book that "is not just flawed, but riddled with basic misunderstandings". For Amis, unlike Dalrymple, has apparently undertaken little or no scholarly effort to gain a detailed knowledge of his chosen subject matter or to seriously engage with the humanity, however warped and pathological, of the Islamist terrorists he decries. Their alleged fetishisation of death, their sexual frustration, are not qualities that Amis has discovered through reasoned, careful enquiry. They are simply the products of his own lurid imagination.
Dalrymple notes that "Only in one place in the book does Amis actually come across a living Muslim. Arriving at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem after it has closed for the night, he tries to talk his way into the enclosure, and is rebuffed by the guard. “I will never forget the look on the gatekeeper’s face,” he [Amis] writes, “when I suggested . . . that he . . . let me in anyway. His expression, previously cordial and cold, became a mask; and the mask was saying that killing me, my wife, and my children was something for which he now had warrant.

"This hysterical reaction", comments Dalrymple, "and the strong whiff of racial prejudice it gives off, is smelled again and again throughout this book."

The same disinterest both in the factual record and in the complex realities of human nature is found in Michael Gove's "Celsius 7/7" - the title a cringe-inducingly pompous little-Englander pun on "Farenheit 9/11", the anti-war film by Michael Moore. My familiarity with Dalrymple’s genial and understated writing style made his palpable scorn for Gove all the more powerful: "A prominent example of the sort of pundit who has spoon-fed neo-con mythologies to the British public for the past few years is Michael Gove. Gove has never lived in the Middle East, indeed has barely set foot in a Muslim country. He has little knowledge of Islamic history, theology or culture — in Celsius 7/7, he just takes the line of Bernard Lewis on these matters; nor does he speak any Islamic language. None of this, however, has prevented his being billed, on his book’s dust-jacket, “one of Britain’s leading writers and thinkers on terrorism”."

"Gove’s book", Dalrymple continues, "is a confused epic of simplistic incomprehension, riddled with more factual errors and misconceptions than any other text I have come across in two decades of reviewing books on this subject"; errors and misrepresentations which Dalrymple then goes on to list in depressing detail.

But the crucial point that Dalrymple makes is that "none of this would matter if Gove were still ring-fenced within his op-ed-page padded cell; horrifyingly, however, he now sits in the Conservative shadow cabinet and is credited with having influence on Conservative policy in the region. Worse still, this book was named as the one most taken by British MPs on their summer holidays. Blair was bad enough, the blind leading the blind; now it seems the madmen are taking over the asylum".

Indeed. Blair's demise does not necessarily mark the end of neo-conservatism's malign influence. It was reported in Jasper Gerrard's interview of Gove published in the Observer last January that none other than "Gordon Brown [had] stopped to congratulate [Gove] on his hawkish work [i.e. "Celsius 7/7"]". The Gerrard interview itself is positively toe-curling in its obsequiousness, describing Gove, hilariously, as a "rigorous intellectual" and a "sharp debater" whose "deadliest tactic is to sound sympathetic while tearing your argument to shreds" ('with what?' one wonders). But this is par for the course in the once liberal now staunchly neo-conservative Observer, which also offers the likes of Amis, Andrew Anthony and Nick Cohen page after page upon which to break wind at length on subjects - Western liberalism and political Islam – that they show a singular failure to understand in any serious way.

Dalrymple's point is well made. The madmen are indeed taking over the asylum. Ill informed, even quasi-racist views emanating from the fetid depths of the British neo-conservative imagination are hailed even by ostensibly liberal members of the political class as brilliant visions of moral clarity. After the catastrophe of Iraq, the dangers posed by governments seized with this sorts of chauvinistic hallucinations should hardly need to be explained. And yet, here we are, with so many in positions of power having apparently learnt nothing from the past 6 years of bloody disaster.

It seems to me that the appropriate response to this can be found if we return to what I described at the beginning of this article: the approach taken by Dalrymple in his own writings. Because it is he, rather than the self-proclaimed neo-conservative champions of Western civilisation that is the true heir to the Enlightenment values of open enquiry and the worth of the human being above all else. And it is by utilising those same values in our own political activity (be that on a personal or a public level) that we are able to counteract the dangerous fantasies of those who are forever imagining a world gripped by some Manichean struggle between the white knights of western civilisation and some barbarous horde from the east (led, invariably, by the latest incarnation of Hitler).

Such fantasies inevitably evaporate when confronted with reasonable representations of the truth, as is evident from Dalrymple's reviews of Gove and Amis's turgid efforts, which he blows away with a casual ease. Ultimately, in the political battles of our times, Enlightenment values will indeed prevail over the forces of unreason. Just not quite in the way that British neo-conservatives would imagine.

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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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