Archive for May 2013

Rod Liddle, “black savages”, and Louise Mensch

So I need to write this quickly, for two reasons. The first is that my blood is up, and the second is that I am swiftly moving beyond a deadline for an article that is currently lying open and sorrowfully untended elsewhere on my laptop. But back to the first reason. My blood is up.

My blood is up because of an article recently published by Louise Mensch, in which she stated that people should not rise to Rod Liddle’s Spectator comment, since redacted, about the “black savages” who killed Lee Rigby at Woolwich. Her thoughts were that we should not “feed the trolls”.

In her article Mensch recommends practical action to dismantle these structural prejudices that people face, as opposed to getting wound up by the deliberately provocative pronouncements – or “race-baiting”, as she correctly calls it – by columnists such as Rod Liddle. I see her point, but – with the greatest respect – I disagree. I am stating the staggeringly obvious here, but it is possible both to challenge phrases immediately such as “black savages” and to do the hard, long-term work of changing perceptions that she recommends in her article.

For what it’s worth, I used to believe, like Louise Mensch, that we should “not feed the trolls”. Thing is, though, that these trolls aren’t hiding under some digital bridge on Twitter with an egg avatar and only a handful of followers. They are being published regularly by some of our country’s most influential media outlets. That’s a pretty big megaphone.

When bile such as “black savages” is sent unchecked into the atmosphere, it poisons the air. In this context, after all, “black savages” suggests that beneath the thin veneer of the apparently civilised Western-born black male lurks an irredeemably violent thug, and that all it takes is the right triggers to unleash him. That is precisely the same thinking upon which imperial attitudes were, and indeed still are, proudly based.

Rod Liddle is absolutely entitled to such views. What I find more interesting, as I tweeted the other day, is the platforms from which he is continually commissioned to project them. He once edited BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. He came very close to editing The Independent. These are two of the most prestigious jobs in journalism. His success is worrying evidence that it is possible to retain proudly the prejudice that he espouses and still reach the very peaks of his profession.

Now I’ve calmed down and I fear, for the second time in a few paragraphs, that I am stating the staggeringly obvious. So I’ll try to wrap this up soon. It’s like this: a young man gets hacked to death in Woolwich. Rod Liddle then uses this utterly horrific event to peddle appalling racial stereotypes. That’s not a good look in any shape or form. In fact, it actually makes the work of people like Louise Mensch harder, because it reinforces the same attitudes that, in her article, she is committed to challenge.

That’s it, really. I need to get back to this other article, which is sitting there in a neglected window and looking even more despondent than before. I don’t think that we are “feeding the trolls” by replying to them and making them acknowledge the wilful ignorance – and, in some cases, overt racism – of their critiques. After all, judging by the prestigious positions that they hold in the media, they are pretty well fed already.

“Beckham”: a poem

With the news of David Beckham’s retirement, here’s my new poem, “Beckham”; I’m recording it for the BBC World Service, to be broadcast on the morning of Saturday 18 May.

He went from a football man
To a global brand;
From Manchester United,
To, maybe, a knighthood;
To get there, he did two things; first he ran, and he ran, and he ran;
And secondly, he made a weapon of his right foot.
If you were a target on which its red dot was placed
Then not until you’d marched back seventy yards
Were you safe.
Madrid, LA, Paris, Milan: his career sounded like a catwalk;
He had charm and the national armband,
Was one of the few men that women might cat-call.
His style was
James Bond meets sarong.
As if they were blond curtains,
He brushed aside his harsh critics;
You could trust him to bring home cups
Or free-kicks in last minutes.

BDS, and why manners may be overrated

Lately I have been thinking that maybe manners are overrated.

Yesterday, on Twitter, I was having a vigorous yet polite online debate with someone about the right of same-sex couples to adopt. My opponent was unsure about the wisdom of letting gay people raise children, and wanted to see research that children would not be adversely affected by the experience. I was in the process of patiently deploying my arguments when, all of a sudden, someone else who had become furious at my opponent suddenly interjected.

“Fuck off”, he tweeted.

After a short and angry exchange, their conversation ended, and we returned to ours.

Here’s the thing. I was raised to believe that he who loses his temper loses the argument. But every now and then I’m not so sure. As I continued the debate, it rapidly became clear that my opponent wasn’t as interested as I’d hoped in the empirical data that I was offering him. There was ample and recent research, after all, that gay people can raise kids just as well as straight ones. What my opponent seemed to be doing, in the face of the facts, was expressing his discomfort at the rapid pace of social change. Yes, same-sex marriage was absolutely fine; but same-sex adoption just seemed a bit much, a bit too soon.

In my gut I felt rage at the implication that my sexual orientation, of itself, made me less fitting a parent than someone else. Nevertheless, I chose to argue my case with remorseless logic. However, I am not sure what I achieved. I don’t think that I came remotely close to changing his mind. And I fear that my relatively placid tone may have made him feel that this was merely an energetic disagreement, an abstract matter for elegant after-dinner debating contests. I may, in my own way, have enabled an enduring and casual prejudice.

In the hours that followed, I long wondered whether “Fuck off” is sometimes the most eloquent response. Fury can be a tool for progress. It may not score intellectual points, but it may have a greater value in certain cases: it lets people know in the most visceral way of the daily oppressions and disadvantages that people suffer.

This is why, though I can’t bring myself to embrace the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) campaign against Israel, I can see its power; and, moreover, its value. Temperamentally, I don’t really do boycotts. My instinct is always to engage in conversation, to drive relentlessly towards consensus. After all, at least these sides are interested in meaningful conversation: as opposed to, say, the bloodbath in Syria, or the situation brewing nastily in Bahrain. The problem with my approach, though, is that it presupposes a desire for social progress, as opposed to what increasingly looks like the eternal delaying tactic of vigorous, polite and elegant after-dinner debates.

By contrast, the academic boycott of Israel represents a “Fuck off”. It represents a refusal to deal in any intellectual way with a state that refuses to address adequately the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948. I believe that the longer this refusal continues, the more that the gangrene of anti-Semitism will continue to fester in the wound, taking that land further from a peaceful long-term solution. I have also believed for much of my life that constant engagement in debate is the best way to address this problem. But I look at the urgency with which BDS is being received, at the speed with which it is shaping the public conversation, and increasingly I am not so sure.

Paul Scholes: a tribute

In his first few years at United,

He wasn’t seen as the danger.

It was just Beckham, Keane, Giggs –

And some ginger.

Sometimes, he seemed to bring his shyness

Onto the field of play,

Waiting politely for everyone to enter the box

Before he did:

After you, after you,

Letting his other team-mates approach,

Then sending ahead the ball, and, last of all,

Silently slipping in at the far post:

Head down, always down, in an aggressive burst,

Like a fervent worshipper arriving late for church.

I don’t know how he managed

To stay so long out of the media’s sight.

Perhaps because his shots travelled faster than the speed of hype.

Perhaps it was his playing style, elegant and minimal,

Often seeing even two-touch as too much.

Whatever his ploy, it was several seasons till I heard his voice,

Since those quietly great have others to speak for their legend:

People like Zidane, who considered him an equal.

He was a man of erratic passion,

Followed by fiery confetti

Throughout his career, conjuring plumes of red and yellow

From topmost pockets:

But those sins are forgiven

For all the rhythm he brought to endless games,

Over which on YouTube we can cast our endless gaze.

Paul Scholes: twenty-odd medals, all told:

He came, he saw;

He scored goals.