Monday, 20 June 2016
The “I” word
Against the terrible events of the last two weeks the general political response from left and right has been dire. It is not, as some have argued, wrong to immediately impose political agendas when something like the attack on an Orlando gay club or the murder of Jo Cox happens. It’s the inability of those political agendas to get a grip on what actually did happen that’s the problem, and the cynical way it was used in Australia immediately after.
After the Orlando shooting it was the right that could identify it as Islamist terrorism while the left dissembled the motive of the killer. Within a few days both sides had clambered over each other to take opposite positions on the murder of Jo Cox. This time it was the left who could call it the far right terrorism it was, while the right tried to shift the discussion away to his mental health.
But it was not just the back-flipping and hypocrisy of both sides’ positions in a matter of a few days. It got much worse than that.
A few weeks ago ISIS was reported to have made a call for “lone wolf” attacks across the Europe and the US during Ramadan. Within a couple of weeks there were two attacks close to each other, the Orlando shooting and the stabbing of two police officers outside Paris. Both followed the usual pattern: claiming allegiance with ISIS on Facebook and, in the Orlando case, by dialling 911, and holding hostages for maximum publicity. Both were designed to increase ISIS’s profile around the world at a time when it was on the retreat in Iraq and Syria.
What ISIS may not have allowed for, however, was the extent to which sections of the US political class and media would go out of its way to deny that the killer did what he several times said he was doing. Instead, the first response from some was to claim it was just another problem of gun control, ignoring not only the fact that he had a security licence and been twice cleared by the FBI, but the particular targeted intent of this attack rather than just a random cinema. Even worse, some jumped on the theory that it happened because Mateen was a repressed homosexual, as though that explained anything, a particularly tasteless speculation given the target, and the sort of psychosexual babble you’d expect in the 1950s of Agatha Christie and her homicidal lesbians. Reports that the FBI is dropping that theory are unsurprising.
The result of all this wriggling on the left side to avoid saying the “I” word – summed up by the President’s meaningless labelling of it as a “terrorism of hate” (as opposed to a “terrorism of love”?), a tactic followed by Clinton (wisely abandoned) – was to let the right completely off the hook and sound almost sensible. It obscured that Trump had no solution than to revive the Muslim ban he previously dropped, out of time not only because after the event, but given Mateen was born in the US, would have required time travel to around 1979 when his father came to the US and Islamic fighters were being armed by the US to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
When the left side did acknowledge that Mateen might be who he said he was, the usual response then was to argue that this shouldn’t reflect on other Muslims, even if they hold anti-gay views.
Actually, this is fair enough. Words are not deeds. There is a world of difference between saying a religious belief, no matter how vile, and carrying it out in practice (otherwise the world would be full of good Christians). Even the so-called “hate speech” preacher who was in Orlando weeks before the shooting and hurriedly (and opportunistically) denied a visa to Australia can hardly be directly linked to such killings.
Mateen’s profile is similar to many observed in Europe going to fight for ISIS in not being especially theological or even that clear on the myriad of Islamic militarist groupings in Syria. The answers surely more lie in the social reality they live for which Islamic radicalism is more likely a vehicle than the primary driver. For example, it has been reasonably suggested that the second generation immigrant status of many who go to fight for ISIS, and Mateen, is more pertinent to their radicalisation – nicely described as the Islamification of radicalism than the radicalisation of Islam.
The trouble is, however, this is not what the left actually thinks. Generally for politicos words are deeds, or at least an incitement to them. The whole concept of “hate speech” is embedded in much of left politics and the calls for bans on, er, black US rap artists coming to Australia is based on the idea that inflammatory speech will directly link to violent acts.
Thirty years ago, it tended to be the censorious right that was more willing to ascribe words or images to violent acts (the new-fangled “video games” were a particular target) while the left’s attitude was more to take pride in criticising what was said to reveal the social reality behind it. With the left having since lost its direct connection to social reality and also ascended into the ether, clamping down on words and images is now presented as an act of social change.
That’s why on Islamic terrorism it has nothing to say. So embedded is the idea that words drive action, that it is hard not to ascribe terrorism to the anti-progressive elements of Islamic teachings, rather than the particular lived reality of the terrorists in the west, and their response to it.
With the murder of Jo Cox, however, to this blogger one of the saddest political events, positions were at least initially more back to normal, and it was instantly ascribed to the far right ideology as details emerged.
But then it changed and it began shifting to something else than just about far right ideology. To understand why it is necessary to look at what was happening in the days leading up to the murder.
As noted before, the dynamic of the Brexit campaign was similar to last year’s Scottish referendum with two campaigns running at the same time: an official nationalist campaign, that was more a middle class concern, and a more hidden anti-establishment anti-elite campaign running in working class areas.
Cameron did the same thing he did in Scotland: wheel out the experts to warn of the economic danger of leaving, something that appears to have some impact on the traditional Conservative base. But the result was also to polarise the “anti-expert” mood in the Leave supporters, especially with traditional Labour supporters.
Labour’s low profile has been noted and explained by its unenthusiastic leader and as a tactic to let the Tories tear each other apart. But when tight polls put increasing pressure on Labour to bring its supporters in line, the real reason for the Labour reticence became clear, it had completely lost touch with them.
That Labour has disconnected from its base is hardly new and has been going on for at least 30 years. But until recently it could be ignored as politically in England there was nowhere else to go. While Scotland, its historical stronghold, was wiped out to the SNP, in England the only party making inroads was UKIP, and even here not as much as some thought – although the fact that an ex-Tory stockbroker could make any headway at all in northern England showed how bad the situation was.
With the EU referendum there is no reason to hold back, and the breach between Labour and its traditional working class base is now fully in the open. There is a highly illuminating video of a Guardian reporter following a Labour MP around her constituency in northern England campaigning for Remain. What is illustrative is not only the surprise of the Guardian reporter at the depth of Leave sentiment with white working class and Muslim communities, but the cluelessness of the MP that is supposed to represent them (the MP seeking refuge in the pottery factory near the end is especially amusing).
By midway through last week, Labour was in full panic mode. The problem was not only the breach with the base, but precisely because of that breach that Labour is desperate to retain ties with the EU bureaucracy. By mid-week some senior Labour figures were promising to make a deal with the EU to restrict immigration (unlikely) while being flatly contradicted by its leader. Guardian columnists were warning darkly of forces being unleashed from a working class no longer under Labour influence.
Then the murder happened. Almost immediately the panic in the Remain camp meant the traditional response to blame the message became focused not just on far right ideology but on the mainstream Leave campaign as well.
Leaving aside that Mair has been a far right activist decades before the EU referendum, from a democratic point of view this is not such a great development. For a UK political campaign, the Brexit campaign is pretty run of the mill. Indeed the farcical “flotilla war” the day before summed up for many what had been a petty and silly campaign. Britain has certainly had more vitriolic campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s. Nor is immigration being a centre-piece that unusual. The Conservatives ran directly on it in 2005 under the classic Crosby dog whistle slogan “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” (it flopped). Even at the last election, immigration was enough of an issue for Labour to issue reassuring mugs and Cameron to promise an immigration level he had no intention of fulfilling.
For a start, it is surely up to the public in a democracy to determine how a campaign is conducted and on what issues. More importantly, letting the actions of a far right nut job determine the limits of what can be talked about is hardly healthy. Even worse, the murder then became linked to a broader “anti-politics” mood against the “elites” that stemmed from the quite justifiable anger about MPs expenses – a bizarre accusation that had nothing to do with the murderer who seemed to be suffering less from anti-politics, than a bit too much of it. It seemed more about the reasserting the battered reputation of a political class than the murder of Jo Cox and her killer.
Cynicism at home
In Australia we saw last week just how crass this approach can get. In the Facebook leaders debate, fortunately watched by no one, Shorten tried to make a link between the Orlando and Cox shootings and the dangers of holding a plebiscite on same sex marriage (from which he later backtracked).
The hypocrisy of Shorten and Labor on this is staggering. Leaving aside that a plebiscite wouldn’t be needed if Labor had passed it in six years of government, it will be remembered that last year Shorten took the lead in blocking an attempt at Conference to make support for same sex marriage Labor policy in favour of keeping it a conscience vote. Funnily enough a block on same sex marriage that was policy when Labor joined the Coalition to apply it in 2004, must now be a conscience vote to lift it.
In reality, same sex marriage has been an internal party political football in Labor even more than it is in the Liberals. Support for same sex marriage has usually been taken up as part of a modernising push against right-wing union control. Their declining grip might have something to do with the shift in “consciences”, especially with NSW right MPs, over recent years, making it otherwise the biggest simultaneous conversion of consciences since the Resurrection.
This is just politics. But to then turn and echo the sentiment in the UK against the public, as being unable to do what the Labor party still can’t, is really too much. Probably one of the most annoying offenders is Senator Wong, who has spoken before about the homophobia in the public that makes her concerned over holding a plebiscite, forgetting that the “homophobic public” was able to tell pollsters they supported same sex marriage before her political career allowed her to do the same. Yesterday she was again warning of the dangers of a public debate, raising hurtful comments about bestiality, while forgetting that it came not from the masses but a fellow South Australian Senator opposite her in the chamber we are now supposed to solely trust with the debate.
The final irony to all of this concern over a public campaign on same sex marriage is, of course, it is precisely what Labor is doing right now in the election campaign. It seems the only safe way to campaign on any issue is when it ends in Vote Labor. And if words are now deeds, it seems the only responsible guardians of them from the public are the politicians they are supposed to elect.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 20 June 2016.Filed under Society