Monday, 4 September 2017

The Discourse Lovers

Some pundits have sought to link the "Tower Hamlets fostering row" with Sarah Champion's comments on the disproportionate involvement of British Pakistani men in child sexual abuse rings. The snide implication is that vulnerable children are made more vulnerable when they are exposed to Muslims. You'd expect this sort of bigotry from the right, and even the clich├ęd fictions about crucifixes and pork ("barred from eating carbonara", no less), but the equivalence has also proved popular among muscular liberals such as Keenan Malik who fretted in The Guardian that "The Rotherham and Tower Hamlets cases, and the debate around them, reveal the polarised ways in which Muslims are discussed in Britain. It is a discussion too often trapped between hostility towards Muslims and a fear of creating such hostility or of offending Muslims". The latter is our old friend, "misplaced political correctness", which was given a lead role in the media coverage of Rotherham and other child sex exploitation (CSE) cases involving Asian men, despite the various official inquiries finding zero evidence that it was anything other than background noise (see chapter 11 of the Jay Report). It's also worth remembering that it's a noise produced in the general culture, and largely by the media, rather that a peculiarity of local government.

Malik seemed to be blithely unaware that his article was an example of the rhetorical polarisation he complained of, not to mention that his crude dichotomy denied space to the argument that there was no meaningful equivalence between Rotherham (hundreds of girls abused over decades by a criminal gang) and Tower Hamlets (one girl denied her favourite pasta). Malik finished by framing the issue as one of discourse: "More than simply bigotry, this failure to find an adequate language through which to discuss Muslims and Islam bedevils public debate". You don't have to be the ghost of Edward Said to see that treating Islam as a subject of discourse is patronising, or that the idea there is a "Muslim problem" (as Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun put it) that must be solved by public debate has echoes of the "Jewish problem" of old. Malik's article was written after key facts emerged that showed the Times and Daily Mail had severely misrepresented the Tower Hamlets case, but this simply allowed him to regretfully note the disparity in journalistic "care" displayed by Andrew Norfolk, the Times reporter who both broke the fostering story and won an Orwell Prize for his coverage of Rotherham. Malik did not see fit to question why this disparity occurred.

Not only was this not a story about a Christian girl forced into the care of Islamic fundamentalists, as suggested by some tabloids, but the actions of the council appear to have been reasonable and conscientious, with no evidence that "political correctness" played any role whatsoever. This didn't suit Malik's purpose, which is presumably why he expended so much effort linking Tower Hamlets back to Rotherham, where PC at least had a walk-on part. Thus: "The controversy over the Rotherham MP Sarah Champion, who resigned last month as shadow equalities minister, after writing an article in the Sun claiming that 'Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls', reveals the continued difficulties liberals have in knowing how to discuss the issue". In fact, the controversy over Sarah Champion revolved around a) her stereotyping of Pakistani men, b) her use of language that she must have known would be exploited by racists, and c) her willingness to take the Murdoch shilling (an offence compounded when she went on to give an interview to the Times in which she slagged off her Labour colleagues). Champion is in odium on the left because she seeks to inherit the mantle of Simon Danczuk, not because liberals have an inadequate vocabulary.

The Tower Hamlets case was fuelled not only by dishonest journalism (notably the doctoring of a stock photo by the Mail) but by the ready availability of Tory MPs willing to provide an opinion during the parliamentary recess. There was a sense of bored rent-a-gobs going through the motions and a particularly dog-eared template being employed, with the incompetence and malevolence of the local authority as predictable as the cultural incompatibility of Muslims. Champion herself employed a different but no less predictable template in berating what she described as "floppy liberals" - i.e. a metropolitan middle-class that has little understanding of the northern working class - though she scored an own-goal by claiming that Yorkshire folk were uniformly "blunt", which some affronted natives of God's own county considered a euphemism for "unsophisticated" if not "outright racist". It doesn't seem to occur to people like Champion and Malik that a reluctance to pile in on "the issue" of "British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls", might simply be an appreciation of the difference between a criminal sub-culture and a wider community defined by ethnicity or religion. Ultimately, the reductive caricatures of politics and the press jar with the lived reality of complex communities and overlapping identities.

The corollary of the "difficulty in discussing" trope is the claim that those who do say the unsayable, like Champion, struggle to be heard, despite their extensive media exposure (you have to laugh at press articles bemoaning "the shutting down of debate"). This claim depends on the idea that there is an amorphous PC lobby dedicated to controlling discourse. It's a reactionary myth that combines elements of liberalism (the valorisation of free-thinking), anti-establishment conspiracy ("they" seek to control your mind) and the old trope of the ill-advised monarch (in this case the sovereign being a people who are poorly-served by the "mainstream"). Muscular liberals have adopted much of this, but with an additional layer of lunacy in which the "far left" (rather than George Soros) have disproportionate power. For example, Malik claims that "Progressive critics of Islam are often attacked as 'Islamophobes' for challenging homophobia or misogyny within Muslim communities". This is as much a misrepresentation as anything the media published on the Tower Hamlets case, implying that self-styled progressives can't be Islamophobic, when there's no incompatibility between being a bigot and a liberal, and that homophobia and misogyny within Muslim communities go otherwise unchallenged. That some on the left excuse religious nut-jobs as anti-imperialists does not mean that all leftists are useful idiots.

What Malik's article highlights is that the supposed division between a fact-free political right and left and a fact-respecting centre is as bogus as the claim that Nazis are socialists. Liberals who deprecate Islam are just as happy to abuse facts as conservatives, even if they do prefer a more sophisticated approach in which their contempt is directed towards the "fellow-travelling left" (this is, of course, a variation on the old trope of a credulous native population misled by alien trouble-makers, highlighting once more the interchangeability of liberal and reactionary rhetoric in the modern era). Malik's emphasis on discourse allows the absence of evidence, or the presence of inconvenient facts, to be elided. Despite a large industry devoted to Islamophobia, no one has been able to prove that the religion authorises the rape of children, while its inherent homophobia and misogyny is scripturally no different to that of Judaism or Christianity. As conservative institutions that seek to arrest modernity, all religions are retrograde. The idea that some are ethically "worse" than others is simply ahistorical.

Meanwhile, the actual evidence from the various inquiries into CSE involving Muslim-heritage gangs points to the institutional contempt for working-class girls, primarily by the police and social services, as being the root problem that allows such abuse to become systematic and persistent. To give her her due, Sarah Champion has always been clear on the importance of this dimension, however her recent comments have helped shift attention from institutional failure to the behaviour of the perpetrators, which has allowed the usual suspects to reframe the issue as the "problem of some Muslim men's disdain for white working-class girls", as if society at large were otherwise respectful of them. The suspicion must be that this rhetorical turn indicates that institutional reform may now be running out of steam, even as CSE cases still come to court. In this light, commentators like Keenan Malik are not confronting uncomfortable truths but simply helping to divert public debate back into the dead-end of the "clash of civilisations" and "culture wars" that have marred politics since the 1990s.

The reasons for this turn, which is most visible in the UK and the US, are not hard to find. America now knows that it is facing 4 years of precisely fuck-all, with a ratings-obsessed White House indulging in grotesque gestures while an intellectually-bereft Congress spins its wheels. In the UK, the distraction of Brexit and the fear of the consequences mean that institutional reform of any sort is now in abeyance. In such an environment, the left can secure a hearing with relatively modest political propositions, hence the success of Labour in the UK and the advancing popularity of single-payer healthcare in the US. Without policy substance, both rightwing and centrist political rhetoric will increasingly oscillate between the divisive and the inclusive, with ever more groups demonised as problematic or condemned as illegitimate, from Muslims to "antifa". In contrast, the EU looks in better health, which appears to reflect institutional as much as economic confidence. Macron may be unpopular and Merkel has had her wobbles, but this reflects domestic differences of opinion over policy, not just the antagonisms of discourse. What the UK needs is fewer MPs and pundits chatting shit.


  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment4 September 2017 at 18:34

    The issues raised in the adoption row are interesting, just what is a foster parent. Are they a parent, i.e. someone who attempts to instil their values/culture on their offspring or are they glorified babysitters who have no right to influence them in any way? If it is the latter then maybe they should change the label.

    We should ask if anyone would have objected to meat eaters forcing a vegetarian child to eat meat or vice versa, vegetarians forcing a child to not eat meat. I doubt this would have made the headlines as I cannot recall this ever being given news time.

    Put a Muslim in the story and all hell breaks loose!

    There has been a subtext about a Christian child as opposed to a Muslim child, the claim is that this child is inherently Christian and must be treated accordingly. But why is any child inherently anything! What is wrong with turning a Christian child into a Muslim one, if we accept the child being indoctrinated with Christian values in the first place! In that view what is wrong with turning a secular child into a religious one or the other way round.

    Why does colour seem to matter here, why not in the name of integration actively encourage Muslims to adopt Christians, white folk to adopt black children, Islamists to adopt Jewish children or Jews to adopt Islamist children. Why not gay folk adopt straight children, or gay children to be adopted by straight couples. Spurs fans to adopt Arsenal fans (which would surely be a blessing!)

    This country does have a huge problem, that problem is the tabloid culture and all the total morons it has given birth to. Let us protect all children from this menace. I mean how do you rank the crime of debasing the entire human spirit? Above the holocaust, slightly below it. Is Trevor Kavanagh worse than Hitler? I think you can make the argument that he is!

    The fact that Sarah Champion thought for a minute that the Sun was the ideal place to provide sober reflection on these problems says all you will ever need to know about her (btw the way I have actually met her and can only say her appearance in the Sun came as little surprise).
    My idea is this; let every child be taken from their parent at birth, because looking around at the fucking arseholes who populate this green and pleasant land I think show me the cunt bigoted parent and I will show you the cunt to be!

    My socialism is this: Very simple living, deepened austerity and less for literally everyone, because wealthy people, people even mildly well off are total cunts!

  2. "In fact, the controversy over Sarah Champion revolved around a) her stereotyping of Pakistani men, b) her use of language that she must have known would be exploited by racists, and c) her willingness to take the Murdoch shilling (an offence compounded when she went on to give an interview to the Times in which she slagged off her Labour colleagues). Champion is in odium on the left because she seeks to inherit the mantle of Simon Danczuk, not because liberals have an inadequate vocabulary."

    Quite right, and you have to ask how this particular type of statement is intended, and how the likes of Champion believe the 'problem' should be dealt with? Do they envisage that it will lead to a mass-shaming of Pakistani Muslim men, with the formation of groups of Child Sex Abusers Anonymous?

    Given that I would give this kind of Labour politician the benefit of the doubt and assume they're not racist, the only real reason for these episodes is a bid to distance themselves from party activists by suggesting that as MPs they are more in touch with a mythical socially-conservative, at least slightly racist, majority. They've been playing this sort of dangerous game for a while now, and with very little success.

    1. A cynical view is that any move to deselect her, for whatever reason, will now be presented as an attempt to shut her up on this one issue. I'm not aware that she is at loggerheads with her CLP, and all reports suggest her selection was popular, not least because of her CSE campaigning. That said, this is suggestive ...
      Sarah Champion hits out after sacking of councillor who backed Pakistan abuse stance.

      The wider context appears to be a move on the right of the party to highlight Muslim "clans" as a problem within Labour (this obviously overlaps with the anti-semitism flap). Though the influence of vote-blocs is exaggerated, it has become more salient in recent years for two reasons. First, the increase in membership and lowering of subs has made traditional CLP factions less powerful. Second, the drift of Muslim Labour supporters from the right to the left, which was triggered by the Iraq War, has ironically depleted the vote-blocs that rightwing MPs historically relied on.

      Just as the charges of anti-semitism directed at the left are unlikely to go away any time soon, so we can expect an increase in tales of "powerful leftwing factions silencing brave women" to become more common.

    2. Herbie Destroys the Environment5 September 2017 at 18:03

      I think Sarah Champion is your typical careerist politician. She doesn't really have a set of values, more a radar for what is common sense and what is popular and what will move her up the greasy ladder. This is of course partly from actually meeting people, so the radar is often correct. And a politician who only listens to what they want to hear doesn't really listen at all I guess.

      Given the damage the tabloids have done to the human spirit any careerist politician worth their salt or without any scruples who attempts to talk to the masses has to dumb down several trillion notches and take positions that are pig dumb as fuck ignorant. (see Donald Trump as the ultimate example of this) - actually what Sarah Champion has said isn't that far removed from the startlingly ignorant statements Trump said about Syrian refugees in the US election.

      She is a typical salesperson I would judge, who smile at people they don't know, talk to people like they are their best friend, even if they hardly know them. This trait can sometimes be mistaken for being friendly but that would be entirely wrong.