All Lives Matter, apparently

By James Dowthwaite

“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.

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8 thoughts on “All Lives Matter, apparently

  1. “Labour’s problem with anti-Semitism is widely documented”.

    Already, I must take issue. To what are you referring ? Ken Livingstone’s slightly clumsy remarks about Hitler (clearly now we cannot even discuss our own history) ? The Labour MP having re-tweeted (prior to her becoming an MP and at the height of the 2014 Gaza massacres by Israel) a tweet from Norman Finkelstein ? The fact that many Asian Labour people do not pussy-foot around the almost daily Israeli crimes against the Palestinians as they are not steeped in WW2 history like the rest of us are ? There are plenty of good articles from serious people documenting how the whole “Labour has a problem with anti-semitism” thing has been trumped up by a gleeful right wing media (faithfully echoed of course by the BBC) who see grave danger in Corbyn moving the “Overton window” towards more re-distributive policies and…his biggest crime…Palestinian human rights.

    Black Lives Matter. The reason why “All Lives Matter” is a disgusting response is that, clearly, as all videos show (and statistics), black males (and not only males) are disproportionately targeted by US police forces and in an ultra-aggressive para-military fashion, often resulting in Tazers or guns being fired. Even for traffic violations !!

    Back to racism and anti-semitism. Are Jews disproportionately the victims of racial attacks in Britain ? No.

    Is anti-semitism, where and when it occurs, leading to real hardship, job discrimination, fewer Jews being presented in influential jobs either in politics or the media (where the BBC has, for blacks and Asians, operated a policy of positive discrimination) ? It would be preposterous to pretend for a moment that the few hundred reported acts of anti-semitism have any other effects than unpleasantness. For other victims of racism, this is clearly NOT the case: they are often physically attacked, barred from jobs etc etc.

    There is no antisemitism in the UK, Western Europe, US, or Canada in 2016. None. There is no systemic, structural effort to deny Jewish people income or access to housing, healthcare, or education; there is no attempt by the carceral state to surveil, harass, arrest, prosecute, or imprison Jewish people disproportionately; there are no significant economic, political, or cultural leaders in “the West” blaming Jewish people for real or perceived social ills. This wasn’t always the case (e.g., for about 1,000 years in Europe): in other words, we know what real antisemitism is. The fact that there are parochial bigots on the internet or willfully misinterpreted comments by (and ONLY by) Labour Party leaders or leftists, or the occasional violent attack (which is widely, vehemently denounced and prosecuted by those with real, systemic power) only prove the extent to which antisemitism has been removed as a social-political-economic organizing or structuring ideology and programme.

    The risk of inflating every act against Jewish people into antisemitism is that people will stop taking that word seriously. The greater risk is that all political language will be suspect, all analysis of and organizing against current systemic austerity, oppression, and war-making will be impossible. No doubt that last bit is the real objective of contemporary claims of antisemitism in “the West.”

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    • To be honest, there’s not much I can respond to you with other than: I so utterly disagree. First, you have assumed that you – rather than those of us who have working knowledge of these issues – are the great arbiter of what constitutes anti-Semitism. Your judgment that there is ‘none’ is, frankly, astonishing and seems beneath someone so clearly eloquent as you are.

      So: first, you have assumed that you are able to identify anti-Semitism. It is a particularly pernicious form of prejudice, hidden in tropes and codes. That makes it hard to spot and even harder to make clear, but alas we try. Such as it is, you disagree, OK, but try to take our judgements in good faith – they were given in good faith at least. Second, I think we can dismiss your rather ill-judged remark that there is ‘none’. Let’s assume (and this is a stronger point) that there isn’t much anti-Semitism. Even if there is one anti-Semitic remark, it must be countered and fought against. Third, and most pertinently, that the purpose of my post was not to make clear the depth or breadth of anti-Semitism. Rather I was taking on the deeply problematic nature of dismissing an accusation of particular prejudice with a generalised response. It is avoidance. If Corbyn genuinely doesn’t think the various remarks for which people, Livingstone amongst others, have been suspended or expelled are anti-Semitic, let him make that case. I would probably disagree, but it would be in far better faith than all this.

      I am truly sorry you feel I am devaluing the meaning of the term ‘anti-Semitism’, but I feel a greater crime would be to overlook it where I think it exists. However, that really is a debate for another day and I look forward to taking you on then. I respectfully suggest that we are fighting over that in slightly the wrong place.

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  2. Thanks for the reply.

    To correct/elaborate: obviously there are anti-semitic remarks, incidents. I would posit that many of these do not mean the perpetrator is an anti-semite, merely clumsy or ignorant. Anti-semites also clearly exist, but there is no concentration in any political party I would say, and they constitute no threat to anyone. Highly unpleasant yes, a danger, no.

    If we are to rank anti-semitism alongside general racism and racist incidents, I would suggest that it’s occurrence is minor, it leads to no systemic effects, no livelihoods are threatened and so on. It is positively grotesque that it receives such attention, when other people are harrassed, aggressed etc.

    As you realize, I am not Jewish, but I think, if I were, I would cringe at the over-zealous non-Jews who bring this up all the time and would seek to defend me, and would also be embarrassed by the people who are supposed to represent me.

    I do think, after 10+ months of trying to smear Corbyn with this, that each new round will have less effect and yes, will weaken the impact of a real occurrence of the real thing.

    What is a “working knowledge of these issues” ? Is that reserved only for Jewish people ?

    The “tropes” of which you speak are only reinforced by this and the prominence it assumes in political discourse, careers threatened and ruined etc.

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    • Again, I think you are totally missing the point I am making here. First, I am not Jewish either, but by working knowledge I mean those of us who work on anti-Semitism. I don’t claim to speak for any homogenous masses of people – this is a question of intuition and expertise, not my identity. In my case, I’ve just come to the end of a short research project on anti-Semitism in early twentieth century literature – which should be published soon. The ‘tropes’ to which I refer include: Rothschild conspiracy theories; a belief in “Zionist” control of world media; modernised versions of the blood libel (manifest as Israel harvesting Palestinian organs. Now this is alongside stereotypes of Jewish appearance or interests. And indeed alongside more obvious neo-Nazi ideas – which is of course nothing to do with Corbyn.

      Again, I am not making any point about widespread anti-Semitism. Frankly, I don’t know if it is widespread amongst the population or not. I sincerely hope not, and doubt that it is so. But my point is about the left’s attitude towards anti-Semitism, which is curiously out of sync with its attitude towards other forms of prejudice. Similarly, I am noting that Corbyn’s attitude to anti-Semitism is curious compared with his attitude towards other forms of prejudice.

      Now, I hope you respect that I can’t engage in a long conversation here, I simply thought the length of your posts warranted a reply. We are getting into a slightly different debate and it is best saved for another time. I look forward to that.

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  3. I guess my bottom line is: anti-semitism, like all forms of racism, is hugely unpleasant and disquieting.

    However, I, and I believe many others, are irritated that it is given higher political and media attention than other forms of racism (so a hierarchy exists), when, in reality, it has no traction among the elites, the police and so on, and the Jewish population thrives in the UK interms of life outcomes. This is absolutely NOT the case for victims of the other racisms, which are often institutional and therefore a lot more serious in consequence.

    I think this is also behind Corbyn’s insistence to treat all these bigotries as equally offensive, and give no more weght to one than another.

    Cheers and thanks.

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  4. Nibs. “There is no antisemitism in the UK, Western Europe, US, or Canada in 2016. None.” There’s a current of online anti-Semitism and Nazism (it calls itself ‘fash’ and ‘nat-soc’ / ‘national socialism’ now) disconcerting in its popularity and aggression. If you haven’t run into it you probably haven’t been targeted by it. We have an urgent problem here. You’re so completely wrong. Antisemitism is all the rage.

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  5. NPC: yes ok, “none” is an exaggeratiuon. But what you outline is unquantifiable and has no traction whatever in the wider world where it might actually affect lives and outcomes. This is not the case for the other racisms, which is why addressing these should be the urgent problem.

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  6. Pingback: Music of the Black Lives Matter Movement – It's music, not noise.

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