Friday, 20 September 2013

Loan Words

David Cameron has said it's OK for Tottenham fans to chant "yiddo" and "yid army". When asked by the Jewish Chronicle if Spurs fans who use the word should be prosecuted, he said: "You have to think of the mens rea. There’s a difference between Spurs fans self-describing themselves as Yids and someone calling someone a Yid as an insult. You have to be motivated by hate. Hate speech should be prosecuted — but only when it’s motivated by hate."

This has led to David Baddiel and others pointing out that the word is as offensive as "nigger" or "paki", and its use in this way should not be tolerated. It's also the case that many Spurs fans have come to think that the adoption of the term, in ostensible defiance of others with an antisemitic agenda, has been counter-productive. On the other hand, some Jewish Spurs fans claim to be happy with the use of the word. Even the Daily Telegraph is conflicted, expressing doubts while a poll of its readers (presumably mostly gentile) showed a majority supportive of Cameron's stance.

The PM's lapse into lawyerly Latin in a philological debate is amusing in itself, but he is making an important distinction. Mens rea means a wrongful mind, in the sense that a person has an evil intention. For a crime to be committed, the accused must be shown to have both a mens rea and to have carried out an actus reus, a wrongful act. If you accidentally kill someone, you are not guilty of murder. Cameron is tacitly accepting that chanting "yid" is prima facie (this Latin is catching) an actus reus, i.e. illegal, but that if a Spurs fan appropriates the term as a badge of honour, there is no mens rea (no "hate" in his formulation) and thus no actual crime.

This type of thinking is hardly novel given the decades-long debate over whether it's OK for black people to use the term "nigga", on which it's fair to say the jury is still out. As the recent documentary on the jobs and freedom march on Washington of 1963, which featured Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech, reminded us, it was a novel and radical act for John Lewis, one of the other speakers, to eschew the word "negro" and use the term "black". Words are mutable yet never fully drop their historic freight.

Cameron is right that the value of the word is a matter of context, but he is wrong to think it's solely about intention. Language is a social construct, which means that words mean what we agree they mean, not what any one individual decides. The joke in Alice Through the Looking Glass was not Humpty Dumpty's positivist worldview but his egomania.

Because society is dynamic, and constituted of many overlapping subcultures, language can have multiple, simultaneous meanings, which is an affront to those who would rather society wasn't dynamic. The constant struggle to control language is manifested in the trope that treats words as a type of property, whose ownership (and thus the right of interpretation, i.e. exploitation) can be prescribed by law and convention. This originates in the twofold movement, starting in the 17th century, that equated language with nationhood and territory, and simultaneously sought standardisation and conformity within the language. These trends were both facilitators of, and responses to, the evolution of mercantile and industrial capitalism.

This is why we use property-related terms, like "appropriate" or "reclaim", when we refer to one group changing or inverting the meaning of a word, such as Spurs fans adopting "yid" as an assertive identity. There is the sense, on the part of those who regret this mutability, of "rights" being trampled on and "liberties" being taken. When words (such as "yid" itself) jump between languages, we even talk of them being "borrowed" or "loaned", as if there is an expectation that one day they'll be given back, that property will be restored to its rightful owner. Who knows, perhaps the Romans will reappear to reclaim mens rea.

The reason why it is regrettable that Spurs fans use the term "yid" is because the vast majority of them (95%, according to Baddiel) aren't Jewish, so this carries no more personal consequentiality than a white lad from Aberdeen with a taste for Rap calling his mates "niggas" (innit, blud). In fact, Tottenham aren't an unusually Jewish club, despite the claims made about their "heritage". This is a relatively recent invention (and lazy received wisdom today), dating from the 70s and 80s when the NF/BNP strategy of converting terrace crews into "streetfighters" gave Chelsea and West Ham fans a new trope for their hate. If you're going to start sieg-heiling on The Shed and singing songs about Auschwitz, characterising Spurs as the exceptional Jewish club is a no-brainer.

Ironically, this occurred at the tail-end of the historic migration of Jews out of the East End, with the decline of the garment and furniture trades, to places like Brentwood and Harlow, which gradually reduced their proportion in the crowd at White Hart Lane. Today, Arsenal are the most widely-supported club among London's Jews (the recent change in Chief Rabbi saw an Arsenal fan replaced by a Spurs fan), which hasn't stopped some Gooners routinely chanting "yiddo" at ex-Spurs players, even when Yossi Benayoun was in our team. Outside of London, Man City and Leeds both have strong Jewish support, but don't feel the need to make a totem of it. The "reclamation" of the term by Tottenham fans is not an "I am Spartacus" moment, showing solidarity with Jews against antisemitism, but an example of the ironic strain of terrace humour, with the added frisson of lines being crossed, not unlike Baddiel and Skinner's baiting of Jason Lee on Fantasy Football in the 90s.

Back in the 80s, there possibly was a moment when the adoption of the term by Spurs fans might have had some value as resistance to the knuckleheads at Stamford Bridge and the Boleyn Ground, but that moment has long since passed. If Jewish Spurs fans gleefully used the term today, it would be a different matter, but they (generally) don't. It's pretty obvious that the persistence of the "yid" vocabulary, when other offensive language has declined in grounds, is in part due to the continued use of it by non-Jewish Spurs fans. If they stopped, we could more easily isolate and deprecate its use elsewhere. Like a loan deal gone wrong, leaving a disaffected player in limbo, it would be best to cut your losses and move on.

Cameron's nuance is not an example of wishy-washy relativism (though you could have fun quizzing him about the mens rea of muslim women wearing veils), but an assertion of property rights. He is channelling classic conservatism, both the Burkean notion that the little platoons should be left to their own devices and the reactionary resistance to words such as "queer" being appropriated and retooled. It's about ownership and his view that gentile Spurs fans have at least as much right to the word as the various Jewish community bodies that have abhorred its use. "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - - that's all."


  1. It's just a word, it can't hurt anybody unless they let it, grow a pair. You want to tell people what they can and can't say because somebody is getting upset about it? What kind of Orwellian nightmare are guys cooking up back there?

    Last weekend some geyser came me up to me, looked me in the eye and said "I fucking hate white people". I laughed, I fully support his right to hate me, telling him it's illegal to tell me he hates me really changes nothing except that maybe I would live in a fantasy world where nobody hates white people.

    You know what does upset me though, you compared Tottenham to Stoke in one of your posts, will this sort of behavior be sanctioned in future?

  2. I'm not telling people what they can or cannot say. I was merely pointing out that the debate over the word "yid" at Spurs is essentially a dispute over property rights. The media report it in a "balanced" way as a debate between different blocs of supporters with no racial/religious dividing line (hence they always turn up a Jewish fan who is happy with the word's use), but it's obvious that the popular deployment of the word is driven by non-Jewish fans, many of whom think they have a greater claim to the word than Jews do.

    By the way, it is not illegal to say that you hate white people, or black people, or even Ryan Shawcross. There is no crime of racism per se, but a number of crimes that can be aggravated by a racist context - i.e. a crime plus a racist element, where the crime has to be proven first. Hate is not crime, nor is swearing or moaning. Assault is a crime, threatening behaviour is a crime, incitement to racial hatred (where that might lead to assaults, threats etc) is a crime.

    Talking of Stoke, if Tony Pulis accepts the manager's job at Palace, and relocates to London, he will then be handily placed when Levy is looking for a successor to AVB. You might think this unlikely, but remember that few would have originally given you odds on Redknapp (a boyhood Gooner) sauntering into White Hart Lane.

  3. Fair enough, on rereading you are not telling anybody what they can/cannot say, although you clearly disapprove, but possibly you disapprove of anything Spurs fans say...or chant. I guess as usual I am coming at this from a different angle in that it's a word...nobody has any claim on it, you know....kind of like your lot and the means of production ; )

    I know it's not illegal to tell people you hate them based on a physical attribute, I hope it stays that way. Threatening behaviour is quite righty a different matter. Oh hang on...Rhea Page (of "kill the white slag" fame) and Emma West (of "go back to your own country" fame), what happened there? Well they are an example of why I believe it's dangerous for over-educated North London intellectuals in ivory towers deciding who can say what, or having a say in anything for that matter.

    Hahahah, are a funny Woolwich Wonderer. Well that may seem plausible to you considering the appointment of Redknapp (damage limitation imo) but that doesn't fit with Lewis and Levy's long term vision . As much as Levy is a Spurs fan he is a smart cookie and in this to make money for ENIC, they want to build a global brand and I would imagine sell it off to an Ogliarch for an obscene profit. Whatever you think of AVB's tactics he is well regarded in Europe and is far more marketable than Pulis, so while AVB might not be at WHL long term I don't see him being replaced with a my humble view.

    BTW I would much rather Spurs stay as they are, a medium size club punching above it's weight, than buy it's way to success.

    Thanks for humouring my waffling again.

  4. Or maybe, everybody has a claim but nobody has an exclusive claim, like your lot and the means of production.

  5. Given that some Spurs fans support the use of the word, while others abhor it, I can't fairly be accused of automatically disapproving of anything Spurs fans say. You see the bind those cunning Lilywhites have put me in?

    I don't know what happened to Rhea Page, but I do know the Emma West case was dropped because the police couldn't find the target of her diatribe (or any witnesses), so were unable to prove that her behaviour was threatening - i.e. it boils down to whether the victim felt threatened: no victim complaint, no crime.

    We at least see eye to eye re Spurs. I too am happy for them to stay a medium-sized club, punching above their weight on Thursday nights. I love it when they re-release Ossie's Dream.

  6. Well I can see you are losing interest so I will keep this brief.

    Rhea was physically attacked by four girls of East African origins, they battered her unconscious while screaming "kill the white slag". The whole incident was caught on CCTV (it's on youtube) and witnessed by passers by and the police who arrived on the scene. All four of them were let off with a slap on the wrist and the judge decided there was clearly no racial element to the attack.

    Ah yes, Emma West, justice served, dragged through the court system for years and vilified by the press but no hard feelings in the end 'ey...I mean Jesus she might have threatened somebody.

    Tbh I am not surprised you have heard of Emma West and not heard of Rhea Page, says a lot in itself.

    Ah I see you are resorting to mocking my football team, very mature. Yeah we're a small shitty club, just makes moment like these all the more special:

  7. I didn't say I hadn't heard of Rhea Page, merely that I didn't know what had happened in her case - i.e. the judicial outcome. This does not "say a lot in itself", but it does suggest you are easily misled by your own prejudices about "over-educated North London intellectuals in ivory towers" (none of that applies to me, well, except for the fact that I live in a tall cylindrical structure made out of elephant tusks - the stairs are a nightmare).

  8. My prejudices...that's rich. My ivory towers comment wasn't directed at you although in hindsight with the Arsenal/North London connection I can see how you could construe it as such, I don't know enough about you but it was directed at people you probably ally yourself with looking at the blogs you follow.

    Tbh I read your blog because the inherent authoritarian aspect of Leftism always concerned me and coming across somebody like Mr. Dillow who claims to be a Libertarian blurred the lines between my understanding of left and right and I thought you might be the same, but I realise this is not the case and you are very much an authoritarian so I won't be reading your blog anymore and I definitively won't be commenting because as one of the few people who comments on your posts I wouldn't want to encourage you to write any more. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    Am I meant to feel sorry for you you live in a council block? WTF? I arrived in this country with £500 at age 18, I begged, borrowed and stole to get here, slept wherever I could find space, literally hundreds of job interviews before I found work, and I love this country for the opportunities it affords to people who persist and work hard. My mother back home gets a state pension of £80 per month, her state provided accomodation costs £120 per month before bills, I make up the difference in her living expenses, and you want me to feel sorry for you? Fucking joker. You may think 3rd world immigrants to this country are your natural allies but I can tell you the vast majority I speak to can't belive the sense of entitlement among this countries "working class". Fucking pathetic, you'd be eaten alive in the real world.

    Funnily enough your sense of entitlement is also reflected in your football team, you happened to have grown up in the vicinity of a successful football club and seem to feel this gives you the right to belittle smaller clubs, I can only deduce from this that had you been born into an upper middle class family you would feel just as entitlement to the priviledges it provided, looking down on the plebs. Funny that. When I moved to London and geographically could have supported Arsenal or Tottenham, I chose Tottenham because they were underdogs and the Arsenal fans at my local were arrogant bell-ends. Did you used to drink in the Bell?

  9. The pleasure has been all mine. Cheerio.