“All Lives Matter”: how could anyone take issue with that statement? When people, outraged by disproportionate violence against black people in the United States, set up the ‘Black Lives Matter’ hashtag and campaign, this was the inevitable right wing and alt-right reply. What a grotesque, outrageous response to what is very clearly violence committed specifically against black people. Its general truth in this case takes away from the specific truth of the issue at hand. It dismisses the glaring necessity of exploring the manifold issues which lead to the disproportionate accosting, investigating, and even shooting, of African-American people within American society. It suggests that this is a problem that can be easily solved by saying ‘all lives matter’. Yes, yes, your wife’s death is sad, but then so is any death. How callous. By abusing the general truth of this statement in order to cover up gaps in its validity, it so dangerously equates the deaths of actual African-Americans with fictional non-African Americans, thus avoiding dealing with the issue. One asks why, of course, anyone would think ‘all lives matter’ is an appropriate response to a campaign which highlights real demographic discrepancies and one concludes that such callousness is an indication that the proponents, at best, do not care and, at worst, are seeking to disrupt the investigation.
The similarities between the Far Left and the Far Right have often been conceived on the basis of the results of their political systems. Hitler and Mussolini had systems of government-sponsored terror keeping the population in check, killed and imprisoned political opponents, and promoted ideology as a thing worth dying for: so too Stalin, Pol Pot, or the Kim family in North Korea. As Hannah Arendt argued over half a century ago, if one strips away the niceties of their ideologies, one is left with gangsterism on all sides. Even in its theoretical forms, extremism has a misanthropic effect on its proponents: ideologies are seen as complex and people as simple; ideologies are the great course of history, and people are merely their conduits. People are therefore considered more expendable than ideologies. We all fall victim to such disturbing thinking at times: the key thing is to work to destroy this baser instinct within us and root it out of our politics.
These days, however, there is considerably more for us to ponder. Twitter is a very useful tool for gaining insight into the way that different people treat their MPs. From Corbynism to Britain First, we are seeing what is clearly a rise in abuse, attacks and, most concerning of all, death threats against our MPs. One of our MPs was recently murdered on the streets, meaning that we cannot simply dismiss such behaviour as the fantasies of “keyboard warriors” as we may well have done a few years ago. Strip away the niceties of their causes, and the death threats against Labour MPs from neo-fascists or from deranged far left conspiracy theorists (forget, as it were, the colour of the ink in which the note was written) and the threat is the same.
This is not to equate the far left with the far right, they are, of course, very different animals. Similarly, politics may simply be the chosen vehicle for psychopathic, pre-existing, non-political violence looking for a home – it often is. What I am trying to suggest is that politics of the extremes, so often governed by extremities of emotion, lends itself to the same kinds of dangerous and spurious claims and actions regardless of the particular side taken. As Nick Cohen has pointed out repeatedly and painstakingly for over a decade, not only is the left mistaken in thinking it always constitutes virtuousness and goodness, but it is mistaken in seeing itself as the natural opponent of the right. Left-wing support for totalitarian regimes, Labour MPs appearing on Russian and Iranian State TV, and the appropriation of neo-Nazi terminology for Israelis demonstrate that the left has much work to do to make its distances from the far right clear.
In fact, as those very few of you who have endured my thoughts on this know, anti-Semitism is one of the key links between the far right and the far left. I would have said conspiratorial thinking in general was the larger link, but that particular malaise dominates all of our political discussion nowadays. We live in an age of cynicism, conspiracy theory and paranoia. And such conditions are ripe for the imagining of shady groups arbitrating over all of us from behind the scenes, actively taking our wealth, freedom, or power from us. And as usual with conspiratorial thinking, Jewishness becomes an index of all that imagined evil.
Labour’s problem with anti-Semitism is widely documented, and I do not wish to repeat my arguments about this. However, Jeremy Corbyn’s defence against accusations linking him to anti-Semitism requires a little bit of scrutiny as it will be in the news again in the coming weeks. His defence, as many of you will know (perhaps some of you endorse it), is that he ‘is against all racism’. This is a noble thing, and as a statement on its own, how can one have a problem with it? Well, context. This was his response to David Cameron asking him to condemn anti-Semitism on its own terms. It smacks of the same abstract avoidance applied by his supposed political opponents on the right. What is it about anti-Semitism that means Corbyn cannot condemn it without adding what, effectively, feels like a caveat? ‘I condemn all racism’ seems to cover anti-Semitism, as it is a subset of all racism. For a man steeped in the excesses of identity politics, it is a curious response, though. In a way, it avoids taking on the actual issue, not least because Corbyn seems deeply unsure that the issues under discussion actually constitute anti-Semitism. Rather than nail his colours to the ‘it is not anti-Semitism’ mast, he chooses to make a generalised statement. Is anti-Semitism bad? Of course – but then all racism is bad. This seems to be acceptable to many of his supporters. And yet its logical counterpart on the right, ‘All Lives Matter’, would, I hope, be dismissed as what it is: a reprehensible attempt to avoid a necessary discussion.
So why should this be any different with anti-Semitism? Corbyn would, I suspect, wholeheartedly agree with me that ‘all lives matter’ is a sinister and spurious response. I suggest he applies that attitude to himself the next time he thinks that simply denouncing ‘all racism’ on the end of a specific question about anti-Semitism will suffice.