Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Julie Burchill: What is behind her supporters’ talk of the ‘right to offend’ ?

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The Sunday before last, Britain’s leading liberal Sunday paper, The Observer, published an article by professional troll (‘columnist’) Julie Burchill, consisting of anti-transsexual hate-speech (‘a bunch of dicks in chick’s [sic] clothing’; ‘a gaggle of transsexuals telling Suzanne Moore how to write looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black & White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look’; ‘But they’d rather argue over semantics. To be fair, after having one’s nuts taken off (see what I did there?) by endless decades in academia, it’s all most of them are fit to do.’; ‘a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs’; ‘Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days – don’t threaten or bully we lowly natural-born women, I warn you.’; etc.)

A barrage of complaints ensued from readers, not all of them trans. Lynne Featherstone, a Liberal Democrat member of the British government, tweeted that Burchill should be sacked. The Observer removed the article from its website, with the editor, John Mulholland, apologising for ‘the hurt and offence caused’. Burchill’s ‘censored’ article was then republished by Toby Young, a columnist for the conservative Daily Telegraph. The readers’ editor of The Observer then published a fuller statement, which again stressed the ‘offence’ caused by the article. A counter-barrage then ensued from right-wing and libertarian elements in the commentariat, who claimed that the removal of Burchill’s article from The Observer‘s website proved that Britain is a totalitarian state on the model of the Soviet Union, with its very own Thought Police to persecute the Politically Incorrect.

Vile, bigoted and hateful as Burchill’s article was, it was actually the least shocking element in this whole sorry story, which reveals the full extent of the moral degeneration of the British chattering classes. Much more shocking was the fact that one of our leading liberal newspapers would publish hate-speech directed against a vulnerable and widely persecuted minority. Not only did The Observer commission Burchill to write the piece in the full knowledge of what she was likely to say, it allegedly encouraged her to make the article more extreme and offensive than she might otherwise have done, in order to provoke a greater storm and increase its own viewing figures.

Perhaps still more shocking was the fact that many supposed liberals who should know better, seemed to be less concerned that The Observer had done this, than that the article was removed, since this was supposedly a grave violation of ‘freedom of speech’; moreover, of the ‘right to offend’. The real villain of the piece, some of them felt, was Featherstone, on the grounds that a government minister calling for a columnist to be sacked was a step towards Britain becoming North Korea.

This being so, it’s time to deal with a few of the straw men that the right-wing-libertarian commentariat-mafia has thrown up:

1) Burchill’s column was not ‘offensive’; it was hate speech. The principal problem was not that it ’caused offence’ to transsexual people (though this factor should not be dismissed as unimportant) but that an article of this kind, appearing where it did, served to legitimise and encourage persecution and harassment of transsexual people, thereby hurting much more than their feelings. For if our leading Sunday newspaper considers it acceptable to speak of trans people as ‘dicks in chick’s [sic] clothing’ or ‘a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs’, readers may draw the conclusion that this is a minority which it is right to ridicule and despise. And that when, for example, members of this minority are harassed in the streets by transphobic thugs, it is legitimate for bystanders to stand back and do nothing or even cheer on the attackers.

2) Repackaging hate speech as something that is ‘offensive’ is deliberately to prettify and sanitise it. The word ‘offensive’ has positive connotations; it makes one think of young people in the 60s growing their hair long and listening to rock and roll; or lesbian kissing on prime-time television; or sex scenes graphic enough to upset Mary Whitehouse; or punk haircuts and the Sex Pistols’ single ‘God Save the Queen’; or anything that might once have affronted the conservative mainstream.

Now that liberal values have conquered the mainstream, right-wing columnists would like to present themselves as mere iconoclasts challenging prudish liberal conformity. Whereas what they are really trying to do is to turn the clocks back to an era where it was acceptable to call black people ‘gollywogs’ and gay people ‘poofs’ and sexually emancipated women ‘tarts’. They would like to rehabilitate discourse that disempowers women, ethnic minorities, immigrants, gay people, transsexual people, and so on. If they succeed in making it acceptable once more to employ bigoted language against such categories of people in the mainstream press – the liberal press, no less – it will become acceptable once more to persecute them. Decades of legislation against discrimination and harassment in the workplace and public sphere will be undermined.

3) The ‘freedom of speech’ argument in defence of Burchill is a red herring. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has suggested that the state should take action to censor her or prevent her from writing or publishing wherever she is able. Protesters were, rather, urging that The Observer should not be hosting such articles. It should not need spelling out that in a democracy, in which people enjoy freedom of speech, they have the right to urge newspapers or other media outlets not to publish or host material that they consider inappropriate; and that the media outlets in question have the right not to publish or host material that they do not wish to publish or host. What the so-called champions of ‘freedom of speech’ seem to be arguing is that an independent newspaper like The Observer has no business removing an article from its website, and that its readers have no business urging it to do so. They are, in other words, a bunch of hypocrites.

4) Britain is not a totalitarian state or a state in which government ministers have the power to have journalists or columnists sacked from newspapers. Since Featherstone had no power to threaten The Observer or bring about Burchill’s dismissal (Burchill is, incidentally, a freelance writer rather than a sackable Observer employee), her call for Burchill to be sacked cannot be interpreted as an attempt to control the media, but was simply her expression of her personal opinion, which she has the right to give, since we live in a democracy in which even elected politicians enjoy freedom of speech. Again, the so-called champions of ‘freedom of speech’ are not as unequivocal in their defence of this right as they would like to pretend.

5) There is, probably, no group of people in the world who enjoy greater freedom of speech than British professional columnists of the Burchill variety, who are actually paid to write what they like and guaranteed vast audiences, irrespective of how little research and effort they put in (usually very little). The idea that members of this – in freedom-of-speech terms – ultra-privileged minority is in any way restricted in their freedom of speech is a joke. Their whining, on this score, is like the claims of persecution and exploitation made by members of the Republican mega-rich in the US at suggestions that they pay a higher rate of tax. Newspapers like columnists who ’cause offense’ because they create controversy, draw attention to the newspapers and sell more copies. Therefore, columnists boost their own market value by ‘causing offence’. Their talk of ‘freedom of speech’ in this case is simply a fig-leaf masking their defence of privilege and vested interests.

6) In mounting their assault on liberal values under the cover of defending ‘freedom of speech’ and the ‘right to offend’, the right-wing and libertarian commentariat is not so much seeking to restore traditional conservative values – which are largely dead, and in which they themselves do not particularly believe – but to promote a valueless society, in which every opinion is as valid as any other. They want a society in which well-off people pay as little tax as possible and are free to pursue self-enrichment and self-gratification with the fewest possible restraints, unfettered by any responsibilities or obligations to the wider society. For them, ‘freedom of speech’ is not so much about people being allowed to say what they think, but more about the entertainment provided by ‘offensive’ columnists and their own right to be so entertained. Public discourse is just a game to them.

Readers of this blog will be disappointed if I don’t somehow bring this issue back to the former Yugoslavia. So I’ll note that among the pioneers of this model of cynical and offensive commentary as entertainment masking an assault on liberal values was the magazine Living Marxism, which during the Bosnian genocide supported the Serb perpetrators, whose atrocities, it claimed, were fabricated by the Western media. Living Marxism and other such publications and individuals helped to make genocide denial acceptable in the mainstream media, and helped to ensure that the West would not intervene to halt the Bosnian genocide. Living Marxism was forced to close in 2000 after it was bankrupted in a libel case brought by the British media company ITN, over its accusation that the latter had deliberately deceived viewers in its coverage of the Serb concentration-camp Trnopolje, which Living Marxism claimed was not a camp at all, but a ‘detention centre’.

Among Living Marxism‘s supporters at that time was a certain Toby Young – today, the republisher of Burchill’s anti-transsexual rant. After being forced to close, Living Marxism re-emerged as ‘Spiked Online’, a website whose hallmark is to denigrate every liberal value as a reflection of racism or elitism (e.g. opposition to the far-right English Defence League is merely an expression of liberal-elitist hatred of the working-class; opposition to Japanese whale-hunting is an expression of Western anti-yellow racism; and so on). Spiked Online has also republished Burchill’s article, retitled as ‘Hey trannies, cut it out – Where do dicks in terrible wigs get off lecturing us natural-born women about not being quite feministic enough ?’ Burchill herself supported the Serbia of Slobodan Milosevic against NATO at the time of the 1999 Kosovo War (‘gorgeous, integrated, independent Yugoslavia’), in an article sprinkled with racist comments about Germans and Croats (‘scratch a Croat, find a Kraut’). She threw in a defence of Fidel Castro’s Cuba against ‘Uncle Sam’ for good measure.

From support for murderous regimes and genocide denial to anti-transsexual hate-speech; the progression is a natural one. I really don’t give a damn about the ‘right to offend’ of this pampered, privileged, malicious clique of paid loudmouths. Just as, thanks to people like them, ‘anti-imperialism’ became the defence of fascists and ethnic-cleansers, so they are turning ‘freedom of speech’ into the legitimisation of bigotry, hate-speech and abuse.

Stuff freedom of speech. As far as I’m concerned, the Politically Correct Thought Police can arrest a few of them and toss them in a gulag for a few years; it will give them something real to write and complain about for a change.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013 Posted by | Britain, Conservatism, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Marko Attila Hoare, Political correctness, The Left, Transphobia | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Better hostile democracies than friendly dictatorships

The democratic order that has reigned in Western Europe since World War II, and that has since expanded to include the Iberian Peninsula, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, owes its existence to our wartime alliance with one of the most murderous totalitarian regimes in human history. It was Stalin’s Soviet Union, heavily supported militarily and economically by the US and Britain, that bore the brunt of the fighting that destroyed Hitler’s Third Reich, thereby enabling the liberation of Western Europe from Nazism. In the cause of this war-effort, Allied leaders Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt befriended Stalin and hobnobbed with him; their medias extolled the virtues of his regime. It was not a pretty thing to do, as Stalin’s Western-backed forces carried out genocidal crimes of their own against Chechens, Crimean Tartars and other Soviet subject nationalities during and after the war. It defeated one mortal enemy of the democratic world, only to raise another in its place; one that took nearly another half-century to bring down. Yet history has generally looked favourably upon our wartime alliance with Stalin, as one born of necessity.

In the sixty-six years that have followed the defeat of Hitler, the dilemma has been posed again and again, as successive Western leaders have felt compelled to ally with one monster to contain or defeat another. Nixon brokered a rapprochement with Mao Zedong’s China so as better to contain the Soviet Union. Henry Scoop Jackson quashed a Congressional motion directed against Marcelo Caetano’s Portuguese dictatorship as the price for the use of a base in Portugal’s Azores Islands to transport military supplies to Israel during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Margaret Thatcher enjoyed crucial support from Chile’s Augusto Pinochet during the Falklands War of 1982 against Argentina’s Galtieri dictatorship.

These dealings with dictators often burn the hands of the Western statesmen who engage in them, or return to haunt them.The US tilted in favour of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against Khomenei’s Iran during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s; Donald Rumsfeld’s handshake with the Iraqi tyrant during his 1983 visit to Baghdad was widely publicised by his enemies during the 2000s. The US’s alliance with Islam Karimov’s Uzbekistan collapsed following US criticism of Karimov’s massacre of protesters at Andijan in 2005. Most recently, Tony Blair’s dealings with the now-embattled Muammar Gaddafi are being loudly trumpeted by his critics, despite the benefits they brought to Britain and the US in the War on Terror.

Those ready to condemn Blair over Gaddafi should ask themselves whether they would equally have condemned Churchill for his support for Stalin in the 1940s. Or whether Britain was wrong to go to the aid of Ioannis Metaxas’s fascist dictatorship in Greece, when it was attacked by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy in 1940. Or whether we would have done better to have left undemocratic Kuwait to Saddam Hussein in 1990. The reality is that, so long as the world is largely made up of tyrannical regimes, the West will be forced to collaborate with some of them. The alternative would be for the US and Britain to abandon foreign policy altogether and become like Switzerland or Sweden. Nobody should need pointing out that it was the US and Britain, not Switzerland or Sweden, that defeated first Nazi Germany, then the Soviet Union.

There is, however, no getting away from the fact that collaboration with dictatorships is discrediting and morally corrupting for the Western statesmen who engage in it. It may be imposed by necessity, but it should not be chosen by preference. Nor do such alliances work well in the long run. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab tyrannies may be long-standing allies of the US, but it was they that spawned al-Qaeda – led by the Saudi Osama bin Laden and the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. Pakistan, with its dysfunctional parliamentary system and history of periodic military rule, may be a traditional US ally, but its weakness in the face of Islamic extremism and the collusion of parts of its security forces with the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan makes it a much graver security risk for the West today than traditionally pro-Moscow but stable democratic India.

Conversely, though the US may have prickly relations with some of the world’s democratic states, most notably in Latin America, these states do not pose any major security risk. Hostile president Daniel Ortega of democratic Nigaragua may cause annoyance with his support for Russia’s dismemberment of Georgia, but this cannot be compared with the security threat posed by some of our own ‘allies’. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez may be more of a threat, with his collaboration with Russia and Iran, but he is the exception that proves the rule, since he is an authoritarian demagogue who has eroded Venezuelan democracy since coming to power. Even so, it is not Venezuela, any more than Brazil or Argentina, that is generating a global jihad directed against the West. Authoritarian Latin America did generate radical anti-Western movements (or radical movements perceived as anti-Western), from Fidel Castro’s 26 July Movement to FARC, the Shining Path and the Sandinistas; the region has ceased to do so as it has democratised. And at the end of the day, we can live with the hostility of an Ortega or even a Chavez, but God save us from allies such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan !

The current upheavals in the Arab world have been variously described in terms of the fall of America’s Middle Eastern empire, or the revival of Arab self-determination. Yet ‘empire’ – if that is indeed what the US exercises in the region – is a burden not a privilege, and should be relinquished just as a soon as there are Arab democracies capable of assuming responsibility for the region, even if we do not always agree with how they do it. Nor should Israel fear this change; it was dictatorships that attacked it in 1973, as it was a dictatorship that attacked our Falkland Islands in 1982. Today, democratic Argentina pursues its dispute over our ownership of the islands by peaceful means. Israel’s best chance for permanent security lies in the democratisation of the region – even if a democratic Egypt proves to be at times less straightforward to deal with than was Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Better hostile democracies than friendly dictatorships. Yet Arab democracies do not have to be hostile. We would do well to assist the Arab struggle against the ancien regime as best we can, so as best to ensure good relations with the Arab leaders who will emerge from this struggle. In Libya, this means doing our best to hasten the complete defeat of Gaddafi’s already moribund tyranny and restricting its ability to slaughter its own citizens, through the imposition of a no-fly zone. We cannot ensure that the battle for democracy in the Arab world will be won, but we can stop fearing its victory. For its victory would represent for us a burden lifted, not privileges lost.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Sunday, 27 February 2011 Posted by | Marko Attila Hoare, Middle East | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Miliband brothers and New Left Review

Readers will, I hope, forgive the name-dropping, but it isn’t every day that a childhood friend is one step away from becoming Labour leader, and two steps from becoming our next prime minister. I haven’t seen Ed or David Miliband for over twenty years, but at the age of around eleven and twelve, I used to meet up regularly with Ed to, ahem, exchange ZX Spectrum games, and I still remember the note of despair in his voice, when one of our laborious attempts to ‘back up’ a game proved unsuccessful. I saw less of David, who was older, but the last time we met made a vivid impression on me, when he was a rising star in Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party of the late 1980s. Kinnock was then desperately trying to modernise the Labour Party, thereby earning the hatred of left-wing hardliners, who viewed him as a traitor to socialism (‘Kneel’). I was one such Kinnock-hating hardliner; a teenage member of the Labour Party Young Socialists, which was dominanted by the Trotskyist ‘Militant’ tendency, with which I was then in sympathy. David turned up at a party, dressed immaculately in suit and tie, looking more like a business executive than the activist of a left-wing party, and I thought to myself, ‘He really has sold out’. I told him that I was feeling very disillusioned with the turn the Labour Party was taking. He knew exactly what I meant, but didn’t want to argue with me; ‘Faith !’, he urged me.

Of course, it was the people like David who turned out to be the revolutionary pioneers, and the people who stuck to the politics that I then adhered to who were the reactionaries. The Milibands’ parents Ralph and Marion, and my own parents, belonged to a broadly Marxist and ‘New Left’  intellectual and social circle, some of whose members were close to the journal New Left Review (NLR) and the publishing house Verso, or were members of the International Marxist Group, the British wing of the ‘Fourth International’ originally founded by Leon Trotsky. Other members of this circle included Tariq Ali, Susan Watkins, Robin Blackburn, Perry Anderson, the late Peter Gowan and others. Some of these people have evolved politically over the past quarter of a century, while others have not, but to the best of my knowledge, not one of their children – children like me, David and Ed – has remained true to that vision of politcs as it was in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

This is not surprising when you consider the respective achievements of those who did remain true to that vision of politics, and those who ‘sold out’ and moved toward the centre or moderate left. The New Labour revolution, of which David and Ed were pioneers, brought the UK the minimum wage; freedom of information; gay civil partnerships; peace in Northern Ireland; devolution in Scotland, Wales and London; a more multiethnic population through mass immigration; and in foreign affairs, humanitarian interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq, at least three of which have been successful. By contrast, the only ‘achievement’ in the same period of the members of the New Left circle who remained hardline anti-capitalists and ‘anti-imperialists’ has been to contribute to the anti-war demonstrations over Iraq in the first half of the 2000s that, although large, dissipated after failing to prevent or halt the war, leaving nothing behind.

Shortly after the Kosovo war of 1999, I spoke with Tariq Ali and his partner Susan Watkins, the editor of NLR, who bemoaned David Miliband’s role in supporting the British intervention in Kosovo: ‘What would his father say ?’ Ali, Watkins and Perry Anderson - NLR‘s intellectual guru - have by contrast remained faithful to the politics of anti-capitalism and ‘anti-imperialism’, which has meant the publication by NLR and Verso of books and articles sympathetic to the regimes of Slobodan Milosevic, Fidel Castro and Kim Jong-il. According to a Guardian editorial earlier this year celebrating NLR‘s fiftieth birthday, probably written by Seumas Milne, ‘Left-wing in an age in which prospects for the left are so bleak, serious in a celebrity culture and thoughtful in a time of instant opinions, the NLR remains a necessary publication.’ Necessary, perhaps, for ageing lefties of Milne’s type, who have an emotional need to convince themselves that the dead-end politics of yesteryear are still somehow ‘radical’. For what young person today honestly believes that Castro’s Cuban dictatorship is a harbinger of a better world, as opposed to a clapped-out anachronism ? 

What is most offensive about this brand of politics isn’t even its moral bankruptcy. It is the peculiar combination of intellectual bankruptcy and unwarranted arrogance. Ali, Anderson and co. simply haven’t had any original political ideas since the 1980s at best; they stopped evolving over two decades ago, yet still feel they represent the cutting-edge, radical alternative to the neo-liberal order. They are like old-age pensioners sitting on the park bench, muttering to one another about how the whole world has gone to pot, and how things were much better in the old days, and periodically shouting at teenagers that they didn’t fight in the War so that young people could go around dressed like that. Or like ageing baby-boomers who are still awestruck by how technologically advanced are their calculator digital-watches and portable cassette-players, with which they listen to the music of dangerous, anti-establishment bands like Wham and Duran Duran. The NLR is the political equivalent equivalent of a calculator watch; it is ‘new’ in the same way that the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea is ‘democratic’.

The Miliband brothers were born of Marxist parents at a time when radical left-wing politics still had some rationale; they took what was best in their parents’ politics and moved forward. Others have been left behind.

Thursday, 20 May 2010 Posted by | Britain, The Left | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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