The discussion about the days of rioting in England is continuing, amidst polarisation the likes of which I’ve never experienced in discussing politics before. Here we have Dr David Starkey – noted historian and frequent pain the ass – arguing about the riots being down to black ‘culture’ (read: ‘people’). I’ve always detested this man. Always. And after these exchanges on the BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ I can confirm I think even less of him now. Try this initial quote:
David Starkey: There has been a profound cultural change. I’ve just been re-reading Enoch Powell, the rivers of blood speech. His prophesy was absolutely right in one sense; the Tiber didn’t foam with blood, but flames lambent wrapped around Tottenham and wrapped around Clapham. But it wasn’t intercommunal violence. This is where he was completely wrong.
What’s happened is that a substantial section of the chavs that your wrote about have become black. The whites have become black.
A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture has become the fashion. And black and white, boy and girl operate in this language together.
This language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois, that’s been intruded in England. And this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.
Newsnight Interviewer: In that speech Enoch Powell talked about in 15 or 20 years time, the black man having the whip hand over the white man.
David Starkey: That’s not true. What’s happened is that black culture, this is the enormously important thing: it’s not skin colour, it’s cultural.
His final line is a neat side-step from saying black ‘skin colour’ doesn’t legitimise racist attitudes like his, but black ‘culture’ does. Riight. So black culture is gangster culture, which is the ’cause’ of the rioting? As Owen Jones points out he directly equates black culture with criminality! What a moronic way to try to legitimise racism! How many lies and misrepresentations can one man make in one sitting? Since when has there ever been a single, homogenous, black cultural entity? Since when is hip hop or rap a uniquely destructive cultural form? This man presents himself as an intellectual, yet doesn’t have any means of directly linking subcultural attitudes to skin colour to the violence which took place. Seumas Milne reflects on mainstream attitudes which very much did link into the violence, and strangely enough they have nothing to do whatsoever with race, sorry, ‘culture’:
Politicians and media talking heads counter that none of that has anything to do with sociopathic teenagers smashing shop windows to walk off with plasma TVs and trainers. But where exactly did the rioters get the idea that there is no higher value than acquiring individual wealth, or that branded goods are the route to identity and self-respect?
While bankers have publicly looted the country’s wealth and got away with it, it’s not hard to see why those who are locked out of the gravy train might think they were entitled to help themselves to a mobile phone. Some of the rioters make the connection explicitly. “The politicians say that we loot and rob, they are the original gangsters,” one told a reporter.Another explained to the BBC: “We’re showing the rich people we can do what we want.”
Most have no stake in a society which has shut them out or an economic model which has now run into the sand. It’s already become clear that divided Britain is in no state to absorb the austerity now being administered because three decades of neoliberal capitalism have already shattered so many social bonds of work and community.
What we’re now seeing across the cities of England is the reflection of a society run on greed – and a poisonous failure of politics and social solidarity. There is now a danger that rioting might feed into ethnic conflict.
So maybe it’s not ‘gangsta culture’ responsible at all, or (more significantly) the concept of ‘gangster’ needs to be seen in a much broader context than it already is. Helen Dexter looks into the causes of violence, and finds far more varied (and difficult) answers than simply blaming it on race:
Richards in Fighting for the Rain Forest (1996) talks of ‘excluded intellectuals’: educated youths with few if any opportunities, or youths who feel they have been denied the education they deserve. A young, educated population with few opportunities has played a significant role not only in Sierra Leone and Liberia but also the Arab Spring and recent protests in Greece and Spain. Richards’ work suggests that it is not poverty per se that provokes violence but rather relative deprivation, the perception that your situation is deteriorating in contrast to others around you.
In Modern Hatreds (2001) Kaufman writes about the power of narratives, history and myths in producing and legitimizing violence. In the Balkans those trying to provoke violence told stories about historic conflicts between peoples, telling a particular version of history that served their purpose. Commentators bought into these stories, re-telling them, reinforcing them and in stressing the ethnic origins of those involved – created the very ethnic war they claimed to be observing. Tottenham has conflict narratives aplenty. There is a history of police racism to draw on. Race is a much simpler narrative for the press and politicians to draw on than the more complex class and social exclusion.
Not all conditions have to be complex though. It is not a coincidence that these riots are happening during the summer holidays. An ex-community worker in Northern Ireland once commented that street violence was noticeably worse in Belfast during the school summer holidays. She discovered the power of ‘bouncy castle diplomacy’ – give the kids something fun to do and they tend not to throw bricks at each other. Never under-estimate the power of boredom.
So, are the riots in London to do with social exclusion and deprivation? Absolutely. Norman Tebitt had a point though when in 1981 he told an audience in Blackpool that although his Dad had been unemployed in the 1930s he hadn’t rioted. Certain structural conditions seem to make violence more likely but they don’t make violence inevitable; clearly agency is involved. However where violence does not make sense agents are unlikely to choose it.
Violence is also rarely if ever spontaneous: it is a reaction, it needs a spark. The surest way to make violence appear an appropriate course of action is to have suffered violence against you, either directly or indirectly – the shooting of Mark Duggan, the suicide of a Tunisian street vendor, a history of domestic violence.
One of the most ingrained and comforting misperceptions in politics is that humans are naturally prone to violence. We’re not. Most people find violence very difficult to do. Understanding the processes by which violence becomes a viable choice of action is not as much fun as declaring how awful it all is or heralding the overthrow of the government and rise of the underclass. It might help to stop it, though. Along the way we might also learn that our violence is not so different to theirs.
Strangely enough you can see much of this in Paul Lewis’ firsthand account of the riots. Maybe if our elected representatives read Dexter’s analysis and Lewis’ account, they’d choose more helpful options than collective punishment, political sentencing and threatening to restrict free speech for all. Kicking entire families out of council accommodation for any connection whatsoever with the four days of rioting is absurd, as is cutting off their benefits – how can this bring those who feel they’re at the fringes of society back into the fold? And whilst using rubber bullets and water cannon might make certain elements in society feel safer, they don’t just themselves undermine the rule of law, they miss the point entirely. As Seumas Milne said on Twitter today:
@BillyGottaJob Yes, agree about greed culture, underpinned by a capitalism that shreds communities, fuels inequality and delivers crisis
We have instead to start looking at the values upon which our society is based – our neoliberal capitalist project (note: I’m not knocking capitalism itself) is shredding communities and is fuelling inequality. What sort of society do we live in, where we say we should aspire to unhinged levels of materialism as a precondition to partaking in civil society, and then make it impossible for a sizeable number to join in? Charlie Brooker’s right when he adds:
If preventing further looting is our aim, then as well as addressing the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, I’d take a long hard look at MTV Cribs and similar TV shows that routinely confuse human achievement with the mindless acquisition of gaudy bling bullshit. The media heaves with propaganda promoting sensation and consumption above all else.
Jon Snow looks even deeper – at the gap between wealth and the law:
There is a sense in Britain too of a widening gap in both wealth and law – that there is a that there is one law for the elite and one for the poor. Take the MPs’ and Peers’ expenses scandal. A tiny handful of the expenses abusers have gone to jail. The vast majority have been allowed to pay stuff back or retreat to the political undergrowth. How many of the looters will be allowed to bring their plasma screens and running shoes back in return for their freedom? And yet it is the very unpunished abuse of the state by its elected and unelected elite which many argue is part of the landscape that the recent riots played out across.
We are told over sixteen-hundred rioters and looters have been arrested. Hundreds have been charged, some have already been punished – many cases are still in train.
Many have pointed to the reality that an even smaller handful of bankers have faced the law even than those politicians who have been prosecuted. No British banker is in jail for what happened in 2008. And as financial upheaval cascades before us all over again, almost no serious measures have been taken to stop the same people from doing it to the people all over again.
I’m not an academic. I’m not a famous historian. But even I can easily conclude from the evidence that we have at least two Britains (and on multiple levels), moving ever faster apart from each other, and simply making unfounded connections between race and criminality doesn’t hold the agencies responsible for increasing our society’s inequality to account. These riots have legitimised the latent authoritarianism present during New Labour like never before, threatening to make conversations about the inequalities central to early 21st century British life impossible. Anyone who suggests kicking rioters out on the streets (yet conveniently not other criminals) is a bad idea is being labelled as soft and weak, whilst a government hell bent on instituting unimaginable cuts misrepresents liberal attitudes to get away with blaming the disadvantaged for their disadvantage. Until/unless a new generation of politicians comes to the fore, eager more to do the right thing than retain indefinite power for its own sake, we’re screwed. The answers to the tough questions which need to be asked won’t come overnight – they may not even be possible within an electoral cycle, but since when did that mean they weren’t desirable?
As with much of the stupidity coming out of America these days, I don’t necessarily have the words to capture how I feel about the right-wing furore over the proposed ‘Ground Zero mosque’. I’ll give you a few from Charlie Brooker instead:
Millions are hopping mad over the news that a bunch of triumphalist Muslim extremists are about to build a “victory mosque” slap bang in the middle of Ground Zero.
The planned “ultra-mosque” will be a staggering 5,600ft tall – more than five times higher than the tallest building on Earth – and will be capped with an immense dome of highly-polished solid gold, carefully positioned to bounce sunlight directly toward the pavement, where it will blind pedestrians and fry small dogs. The main structure will be delimited by 600 minarets, each shaped like an upraised middle finger, and housing a powerful amplifier: when synchronised, their combined sonic might will be capable of relaying the muezzin’s call to prayer at such deafening volume, it will be clearly audible in the Afghan mountains, where thousands of terrorists are poised to celebrate by running around with scarves over their faces, firing AK-47s into the sky and yelling whatever the foreign word for “victory” is.
It seems as though freedom of religion in America for right wingers is contingent on being…well…Christian and right-wing. Brooker quite rightly points out the absurdity of this controversy, especially given that
Cordoba House, as it’s known, is a proposed Islamic cultural centre, which, in addition to a prayer room, will include a basketball court, restaurant, and swimming pool. Its aim is to improve inter-faith relations. It’ll probably also have comfy chairs and people who smile at you when you walk in, the monsters.
To get to the Cordoba Centre from Ground Zero, you’d have to walk in the opposite direction for two blocks, before turning a corner and walking a bit more. The journey should take roughly two minutes, or possibly slightly longer if you’re heading an angry mob who can’t hear your directions over the sound of their own enraged bellowing.
New York being a densely populated city, there are lots of other buildings and businesses within two blocks of Ground Zero, including a McDonald’s and a Burger King, neither of which has yet been accused of serving milkshakes and fries on hallowed ground. Regardless, for the opponents of Cordoba House, two blocks is too close, period. Frustratingly, they haven’t produced a map pinpointing precisely how close is OK.
Seriously what is this ‘hallowed ground’ garbage? Guess what Americans, we had four suicide bombings but we just got to grips with it and got on with our lives. You however are still doing this:
Yes it IS scary that there are people out there who are prepared to commit mass murder, and take themselves out doing so. But resorting to intolerance, lynch mobs and turning your backs on every principle on which your country is based is an act of incalculable stupidity. Nearly 3,000 people died nearly ten years ago, many at the site of the former World Trade Center, but to call that site ‘hallowed ground’ (which by extension covers the entire neighbourhood or any other radius taking people’s fancy really) is extraordinarily dangerous, not to mention specious, for the reasons Brooker gives earlier. Bush may be gone, but the people who gave him license to do what he did haven’t gone away. They’re not PNAC, nor any other special interest group – they’re just average, ‘God-fearing’ Americans.
And they need to get a grip.
At least the horrible Nigel Farage knew how to keep a lid on UKIP’s racist element. His successor as leader Lord Pearson however seems to have no such qualms:
The UK Independence Party is to call for a ban on the burka and the niqab — the Islamic cloak that covers women from head to toe and the mask that conceals most of the face — claiming they affront British values. The policy, which a number of European countries are also debating, is an attempt by UKIP to broaden its appeal and address the concerns of disaffected white working-class voters.
UKIP would be the first national party to call for a total ban on burkas, though the far-Right BNP believes they should be banned from schools.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch, the leader of UKIP, said yesterday: “We are taking expert advice on how we could do it. It makes sense to ban the burka — or anything which conceals a woman’s face — in public buildings. But we want to make it possible to ban them in private buildings. It isn’t right that you can’t see someone’s face in an airport.”
He explained that UKIP wanted to bring to the fore the issue of the increasing influence of Sharia in Britain: “We are not Muslim bashing, but this is incompatible with Britain’s values of freedom and democracy.”
He’ll start claiming to have Muslim friends next. I don’t like the burka or niqab either. They irritate my sense of equality, I feel they’re an exercise is misogyny, and their basis in Islam is open to interpretation. But I’m well aware that Britain’s real values of freedom and democracy are based around people being allowed to live their lives as they choose. If a Muslim woman feels the cultural need to cover her entire body in a public space she should be as allowed to, as say any other woman would be to wear the most immodest clothing. Not Muslim bashing? Of course the rotten little racist is. The country’s no more at risk from Sharia law than from imminent Nazi German invasion.
I’m not one of those people who felt Nick Griffin shouldn’t have been allowed on Question Time because his and the British National Party’s (BNP) views on race, religion, nationality and sexual orientation were perverse. They clearly are, but I acknowledge too that freedom of speech has to include those views you despise, as well as those you agree with – you can’t preemptively say even someone as hateful as Nick Griffin shouldn’t be allowed to speak. If he breaks laws then he has to pay a price, if he indulges in hate speech he needs to be prosecuted, if he says appalling things about the holocaust he needs to be condemned for it, but be stopped from speaking because he’s a homophobic racist? Absolutely not. So what was Question Time like after all the hype? In my view it was a mixed bag.
If Griffin wanted to continue his process of ‘cleaning up’ the BNP brand he did a pretty lousy job of it. He came across as blatantly homophobic (he wasn’t alone on the panel in that, you Tories), he was unapologetically anti-semitic and refused to be drawn into sensible discussion by Bonnie Greer about just what he meant by the ‘indigenous British people’. Anyone with any degree of common sense will have watched that and been thoroughly appalled when he tried to wriggle out of his penchant for holocaust denial, and when he tried to justify homophobia. He’s a disgusting man, with a disgusting message, but he will sadly have made significant political capital out of two aspects of the show. Firstly when Jack Straw was asked whether he thought New Labour’s authoritarian immigration policy had contributed to the rise of the BNP, Straw pointedly dodged the question. Typically lawyerly Straw simply answered another question, and it was tragically the key pitfall which lay in wait for him, and which he unceremoniously threw himself into. A government which demonises ‘failed’ asylum seekers, which makes legal aid next to impossible for people fleeing persecution, and expecting help under the Geneva Convention, and which locks up their children, is hardly in a position to preach tolerance to the BNP. Straw knew it, the panel knew it and a smirking Griffin knew it too; Blair and now Brown have given him part of a constituency previously unthinkable in modern times.
The other gain for Griffin was even more alarming. The entire show was debated on the BNP’s terms – their talking points were justified by concentrating only on them. Even Chris Huhne demeaned himself by trying to prove that, yes, the Lib Dems too could be tough on immigration. Every word uttered was a gain for the BNP; whilst it was a delight to see him hammered comprehensively (notably by David Dimbleby), the man who claimed to be a legitimate elected representative wasn’t ever called to express his position on education, the health service, energy policy or transport. By making the programme an attack on Griffin, however justifiably, the BBC played right into his hands, as did every guest on the panel other than Bonnie Greer.
The BBC has said it might invite him back onto the show – if it does I sincerely hope they hold a normal panel, and stop enabling him to play the martyr, particularly one who isn’t expected to live up to the standards expected of the office he now holds. We must remember Griffin’s rise is inextricably connected with the failure of the political system, which forces all three major parties to fight for marginal advantage over a tiny number of swing voters, and all are now entirely disinterested in concerns outside of that bubble. When they either bother to get round to addressing the issues affecting their former supporters, or are forced to by a more proportional voting system, Griffin and his scummy ilk will soon fall back into irrelevance. Until then, we have a problem on our hands, and need to start coming up with less sensationalistic ways of dealing with it.
It’s almost sacreligious in some circles to say it, but the BBC was right to invite BNP leader Nick Griffin onto Question Time:
Nick Griffin, the BNP leader who was elected to the European parliament in June, is expected to be on the show in October. The corporation has decided that the far-right party deserves more airtime because it has demonstrated “electoral support at a national level”.
The move has caused consternation among politicians, with some Labour MPs and at least one cabinet minister pledging to boycott Question Time. They fear the BNP will use the publicity to promote a racist agenda.
I can understand why, but freedom of speech surely has to apply to people you don’t like as much as people you do, otherwise it’s pretty meaningless. It’s not as if Nick Griffin doesn’t have a constituency – he does – and part of the reason why has been the refusal of mainstream politics to address that fact. In an age where people see their needs being increasingly met by non-traditional political parties, he’s used his isolation to paint himself as an outsider who knows how to speak for a significant number of people who consider themselves left behind by mainstream politics; to pretend that isn’t the case is to court disaster. But of course just blithely inviting him onto the show and hoping that his arguments get soundly thrashed also courts disaster – those who complain that his presence on the show will legitimise the racists’ agenda do have a point, and why tolerate intolerance anyway? Bart Cammaerts suggests:
that extreme right parties should not be ignored altogether and the societal tensions and conflicts they are the symptom of, even less so. But the media should expose extreme right parties for what they really are and lay barren internal conflicts (just as with other parties) rather then give such parties and their representatives a platform to repeat their discourses of hate and exclusion.
Journalists should furthermore be very aware of the dangers of legitimizing extreme right discourses when reporting on the extreme right and when interviewing their representatives.
Pluralism should be radical in a democracy, but for vibrant multi-cultural and ethnical democracies to be able to survive, a common ground relating to basic values such as equality, respect, solidarity, difference, etc. is crucial as well. Popper’s paradox of tolerance sums it up pretty neatly, up until what point can intolerance be tolerated before it destroys tolerance all together?
(via Charlie Beckett)
I think he has a point – if the BBC are determined to go down this route, then very difficult and contrasting issues will quickly be in tension and need to be kept in check. The BNP should be as free to speak its mind as UKIP, Respect and the Greens, but only on condition that it agrees to use its freedom responsibly – there’s no freedom to incite racial hatred after all, and nor should there be. David Dimbleby and the show’s editors must also be prepared to examine the legitimate social issues which have in part accounted for the nationalists’ rise to greater prominence – doing so will undoubtedly provide an important journalistic insight into forces at play within the BNP (and amongst its constituents), and hopefully begin to expose and explain the gaps in their own support which the parliamentary parties have not yet fully understood. Philip Hensher is right when he says the BBC isn’t obliged, in the way it claims, to represent every political opinion, but I don’t think that’s the issue in play. Not prominently challenging the BNP as it continues to build its mystique as the party of outsiders, while the gap between rich and poor is larger than ever, causing ever more Britons to feel left out and left behind, would be the height of journalistic irresponsibility.