Why racist narratives matter


8:18 am - June 30th 2008

by Sunny Hundal    


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The image on the right is a good example of modern xenophobia. Its not racist in the traditional sense, with a picture of some black guy running off with a white woman for example.

It’s part of a narrative that says: the Muslims are not only here, but they’ll take over by multiplying and destroying us. The bomb is the womb… etc. I don’t even have to deconstruct it too much – its obvious what the message is.

Stuff like this has a long tradition. Decades ago the narrative was that the world was controlled by a “Jewish copnspiracy”, and you can still this prevalent on far-right websites where they talk of the ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government).

The “Islamic Bomb” narrative has become so prevalent that the Wall Street Journal even allowed the barely sentient being otherwise known as Mark Steyn to talk about it at length.

In India, where the Hindu fundamentalists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) regularly talk about this, the need to reduce Muslim numbers was regularly used as an excuse during the anti-Muslim Gujarat riots of 2002. The xenopphobia rolls into misogyny and women become the problem.

My point is that racist narratives matter. It is why many Jews stridently oppose any attempts to de-legitimise the existence of Israel, because they fear the thought process could eventually gain mainstream acceptance.

This is why Rod Liddle’s latest piece of tripe is worth rebutting:

And here’s the justification for the sacking: one commentator, Sunny Hundal, said that telling black people to clear off “has deep associations with BNP language and terminology”. Another said: “We have heard similar comments from racists.” So in fact nobody suggested that McGrath had been racist – he clearly hadn’t – merely that racists had said the same sort of thing in the past. So now you can be done not for being racist per se, but for saying things that aren’t actually racist but that people who are known to be racist might have said. Bizarre.

That is some funny verbal gymnastics here. You can only be “known to be racist” if you actually say something racist; people hardly go around with a sign on their forehead declaring as much. If you go around saying that black people are mentally inferior, then you can hardly claim “yeah but I’m not a racist…” and get away with it credibly.

I don’t want to regurgitate the James McGrath controversy endlessly here. It’s irrelevant to me whether he was fired or not, the point I wanted to make was that there are racist connotations to what he said that should not go unchallenged otherwise they become part of acceptable discourse by politicians.

Anyway, this kind of rubbish is par for the course from Rod Liddle, who has not only indulged in similar xenophobia himself, but twisted around immigration figures to bang his usual outraged drum.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality ,Race relations ,Realpolitik

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Reader comments


1. Mike Killingworth

Well, perhaps what I’m going to say has racist connotations, too – the old issue of whether offence taken is therefore offence given will doubtless be given a thorough airing on this thread.

The difficult truth is that every narrative of cultural identity – which we all need to complete our sense of self – is a narrative of descent from conquerors. White people have it to excess; Muslims have it and so do almost all other Africans and Asians in one form or another. Afro-Caribbeans, blacks in the USA and “first peoples” – notably in North America and the Australasia/Pacific region – don’t, and I don’t need to rehearse the tragic consequences of that here. Traditional religion devotes a lot of effort to giving its believers a sense that the accident of their birth into a particular place and time is itself a sign of divine favour. Democratic political activity privileges the citizen who has a vote over the foreigner who doesn’t.

At this level we are all racist and we’ll all go on being racist. That is why, for instance, Sunny and his co-founders feel no compulsion to arrange for the translation of Liberal Conspiracy into Urdu, Polish or Welsh: if you want to read and contribute to a London-based blog you can darn well learn English…

This kind of – in my view, inevitable – racism is of course sharply to be distinguished from remarks which express racial prejudice, or even incitement to racial hatred, which is rightly illegal. The problem is how to make that distinction, and I think that people of good will will often disagree. (See first paragraph above.)

I’ll end with a thought experiment. Suppose McGrath had said “people who don’t like living in Britain have the choice to go and live elswewhere – and that applies to black Britons every bit as much as it does to white ones” – which is what, I suspect, he wishes he’d said – would we still be taking the same view of him?

A couple of things:

On the ‘offence’ part the way language is deployed always interests me – people are described as ‘taking’ offence, i.e. it’s not a passive thing but something somebody actually embraces. That troubles me. Obviously you can’t really prove whether somebody intentionally set out to ‘give’ offence but the concept has to be felixble – choosing to ‘take offence’ (and it is a choice) can’t be a right and shouldn’t be allowed to be the final word.

Sunny – “the point I wanted to make was that there are racist connotations to what he said that should not go unchallenged otherwise they become part of acceptable discourse by politicians”.

I completely agree with that but there are many different ways to ‘challenge’ the remarks and those anxious to combat racism (the vast majority surely) need to think about the best long-term method of doing that. In the short-term a sacking may look like a strong move and a signal that racism won’t be tolerated but we all know the media storm that develops around that, particularly when we’re talking about someone who’s simply been lazy in their language, someone widely recognised even by those calling for their dismissal as ‘not actually a racist but…’.

The story quickly ceases to be about banishing such thoughts from our discourse and becomes a debate over intentions and semantics – people completely supportive multiculturalism will panic in the knowledge that basically decent people might find themselves beyond the pale for unintentional slip-ups or inappropriate jokes. In the medium-to-longer term I don’t think this advances the cause of anti-racism – it elevates stupid and crass language to the same plane as outright racial oppression and violence.

I understand the link Sunny draws and I’m not advocating an absolutist free speech position here – every case on its individual merits and all that. I’m just suggesting that it’s possible to combat these ideas and eradicate them while adopting a more nuanced approach to the people behind them.

Imagine this left / liberal response to the McGrath thing

“a silly, silly remark, he should recognise the potential for offence and clarify his meaning and offer an apology. Under those conditions there’s no reason why James can’t continue in his post with the confidence of ALL Londoners…”

That would have challenged the remarks just as forcibly as before but acknowledged their benign context and prevented some of the anti-PC hysteria that often follows these things. A better result for all surely…?

p.s. In case anyone spots the inconsistency I did supported his sacking but the above represents a more considered view…?

Just for clarity can you explain the link between the first six paragraphs and the cartoon image and what Rod Liddle wrote?

If none, is it fair to conclude that you Sunny are at least as guilty as Rod Liddle is of the ‘verbal gymnastics’ you accuse him of.

You’ve utterly failed to counter the thrust of Rod Liddle’s fine article. Yours is a piss-poor ‘guilt by association’ piece of agit-prop.

I’m not satisfied when the ‘race’ tag is applied to religious groups.

Nor am I particularly satisfied when definitions of racial biology arise – we are all human infidivuals within one species and any subsets that may be cared to be identified are in the minority with regard to ‘purity’ compared to the rich mix which already makes every one of us so interesting.

The ‘Islamic bomb’ poster is exactly the kind of misinformation which spreads the confusion and causes these disputes because it fails to distinguish between universal nature and learned culture.

What Rod Liddle fails to appreciate is that there is a cultural tradition of racist attitudes which have (not so) historically been used to justify violence. By failing to appreciate the consequences of this history he fails to hold James McGrath to account for the bad politics which he expressed and failed to mitigate or apologise for.

It is not a question of whether a person is racists or ever exhibits a racist attitude, but whether they are sufficiently well adjusted to be able to cope with their unconscious, unknowing or inadvertent reactionary foolishness where it conflicts with the responsibilities of their employed role so as to make their position untenable.

By contrast Boris Johnson famously let his mouth run away with itself and was forced to make several very public acts of contrition and has spoken at length about his challenge to seek self-discipline as a matter of record in his part-confessional, part-promotional ghost-written autobiography.

It is a sign of courage and honesty to admit fallibility and be willing to improve your ways, so it is more to do with his failure on this account that James McGrath lost public confidence and it was right for him to go.

I, too, do not like the conflation of religion and race. Even given the hatred of apostasy among the faithful, religion is still a matter of choice, not a matter of biology.

That would have challenged the remarks just as forcibly as before but acknowledged their benign context and prevented some of the anti-PC hysteria that often follows these things. A better result for all surely…?

p.s. In case anyone spots the inconsistency I did supported his sacking but the above represents a more considered view…?

Liam – I agree with what you said above. There’s a few problems though – most of us weren’t even aware this happened until he got sacked. Secondly, no one was consulted on what should happen.

Thirdly, the anti-PC hysteria will continue regardless of actual incidents. On Friday I was asked to debate the Tory MP Philip Davies on Five Live. The guy has contributed to tons of stories complaining about overtly PC gestures when the story later falls down. What does one do? Some people are trying to make a name from this stuff.

Praguetory – I think it may help if you re-read the post again, properly.

Point taken Sunny that no-one knew until he was sacked but I suspect that’s a result of City Hall knowing all too well how these stories play out once they break. I still think there’s merit (the next time we see one of these ‘slip of the tongue’ type gaffes) in a more sensible, moderate reaction – ‘wrong to say it, let’s get an apology and move on’.

Also, the cleverest way to counter the anti-PC hysteria isn’t to get all confrontational and mis-call those moaning about it. That just offends decent ordinary people who are equally appalled by genuine racism. Rather pull the rug from under some of them and acknowledge PC’s more nutty manifestations that do exist – that then lends all the more force to your argument when you spot something that’s seriously objectionable….

So his position was still tenable because the story hadn’t broken and damage limitation could still have occured. Which suggests something more sinister happened and raises more questions than answers – why wasn’t he ‘saved? why was he sacrificed? why was he appointed in the first place?

It sounds to me like this was a put-up job to deliberately demonstrate the process of decontamination going on within the tories, which leaves all commentary complict in advertising the ‘fact’. Now that’s cynical.

Do these tories share a PR account with Heinz?

I read it fine the first time. I’l try again.

Just for clarity can you explain the link between the first six paragraphs and the cartoon image and what Rod Liddle wrote?

“Stuff like this has a long tradition”

The demographic stuff has, so I’m surprised that you don’t quote any examples. In Northern Ireland the higher fertility of Catholics for years led to predictions that demography would do Sinn Fein’s work for it. In fact declining Catholic fertility and the phenomenon of pro-Union Catholics meant that unionism still commanded the majority of votes at the time of the Good Fric=day agreement.

Similarly in Israel the fact that the 700,000-odd (approx – the figures are disputed) refugees who fled in 1948 have multiplied to four million-odd today is a major factor in the Israeli refusal to allow a ‘right of return’. As Wikipedia puts it, not unfairly, “Jewish Israelis from the mainstream political parties often view the acceptance of a “right of return” as “national suicide,” because if every Palestinian refugee were admitted to Israel, the total population would be nearly 40% Arab and likely to be come majority Palestinian.”

In the UK the native population are likely to be a minority by 2073 – much sooner in the big cities. For good or ill, our rulers don’t have the same attitudes as the Government of Israel.

BTW, you didn’t read Steyn correctly when you describe that barely sentient being (and very good writer and speaker) Mark Steyn as talking ‘about the population bomb’, unless you mean this :

“There is no “population bomb.” There never was. Birthrates are declining all over the world–eventually every couple on the planet may decide to opt for the Western yuppie model of one designer baby at the age of 39. But demographics is a game of last man standing. The groups that succumb to demographic apathy last will have a huge advantage.”

Sunny,

Right on.

I wonder if you’ve heard of Donald Findlay QC. He’s a leading advocate in Scotland who’s been repeatedly censured for anti-Catholic bigotry. On one occasion, he was caught on camera drunkenly singing The Sash. Now, Findlay is a well-known atheist; we must assume that he couldn’t possibly have intended ‘our… Religion… to maintain.’ He was sacked because he was willing to participate in a practice that expressed contempt for Catholics; there were arguments that he wasn’t a bigot because he didn’t believe what he sang, and that, therefore, he oughtn’t have been sacked. But (i) knowingly engaging in a practice that expresses contempt for Catholics (for their Catholicness) is bigotry, and (ii) knowing participation in a practice that expresses contempt for Catholics, and especially in a country with Scotland’s history of sectarian violence, is itself reprehensible.

The comparison with anti-semitism is apt: people who’re willing to say anti-semitic things not because they believe them, but for other reasons – notably, to display their un-PCness – are not in short supply. But if one’s willing to participate in practices that express contempt for Jews, and one knows, or could reasonably be expected to know, the consequences of those practices in the past, then the fact that one hasn’t got the beliefs usually associated with anti-semitism doesn’t show either (i) that one’s actions aren’t reprehensible, or (ii) that one isn’t anti-semitic.

Likewise McGrath: he was willing to engage in a practice that expresses contempt for black people (because they’re black). Then there’s no difficulty in seeing how that was both racist and reprehensible. (Which, by the way, isn’t to say that he ought to have been sacked.)

The difficult truth is that every narrative of cultural identity – which we all need to complete our sense of self – is a narrative of descent from conquerors. White people have it to excess; Muslims have it and so do almost all other Africans and Asians in one form or another. Afro-Caribbeans, blacks in the USA and “first peoples” – notably in North America and the Australasia/Pacific region – don’t, and I don’t need to rehearse the tragic consequences of that here. Traditional religion devotes a lot of effort to giving its believers a sense that the accident of their birth into a particular place and time is itself a sign of divine favour. Democratic political activity privileges the citizen who has a vote over the foreigner who doesn’t.

At this level we are all racist and we’ll all go on being racist. That is why, for instance, Sunny and his co-founders feel no compulsion to arrange for the translation of Liberal Conspiracy into Urdu, Polish or Welsh: if you want to read and contribute to a London-based blog you can darn well learn English…

This is just daft: Christianity – which is a cultural identity is any is – makes much of the fact that it is a religion for the despised and downtrodden. There’s no necessary connection between cultural identity and ancestral success in the application of violence. More, not every form of particularism is the same as, motivated by, or implies, racism; in particular, the citizen/non-citizen distinction very obviously does not imply racism. White Brits extend the customary privileges of belonging to non-white Brits while denying them to non-British whites. National belonging and racism are simply not the same thing.

At this level we are all racist and we’ll all go on being racist. That is why, for instance, Sunny and his co-founders feel no compulsion to arrange for the translation of Liberal Conspiracy into Urdu, Polish or Welsh:

That is totally going to be in the next round of designs for the Liberal Conspiracy template. There’s something rather aethetically attractive about other languages, I think.

Laban Tall,

I assume that the passages that particularly irked Sunny began immediately after you stopped quoting.

“…Of the increase in global population between 1970 and 2000, the developed world accounted for under 9% of it, while the Muslim world accounted for 26%. Between 1970 and 2000, the developed world declined from just under 30% of the world’s population to just over 20%, the Muslim nations increased from about 15% to 20%…We are living through a remarkable period: the self-extinction of the races who, for good or ill, shaped the modern world.”

I don’t get what is wrong with Rod Liddle’s article. What he said wasn’t the slightest bit racist in any possible sense. And because it sounded a bit like some of the things that the BNP says, it becomes “part of a racist narrative” and should be stopped?

But. It. Wasn’t. Racist. In. Any. Sense.

Sunny is correct when he points out that xenophobia against religious groups is often similar to racism.

However, there is a big difference. A religion, as well as being a label of belonging to a cultural/ethnic group, is also a belief system. Religious people believe things, and sometime what they believe harms others.

I like drinking alcohol. I also like playing poker. Muslims, if they take their religion seriously, will think I am an immoral person because of this. I have friends who are gay or bisexual; again a Muslim who takes their religion seriously will disapprove of this — and indeed, in some countries where Muslims are in charge, people who drink or gamble or are gay are put in prison or even killed.

I don’t think I’m a bad person (not for drinking or gambling anway) and I don’t think my friends are bad people either. And if someone is hostile to me and my friends, isn’t it rational for me to be hostile in return?

This website is called Liberal Conspiracy. I’m a liberal — that is, I beleive in liberty, in the principle that people should be free to do whatever they damn well like as long as they don’t harm others.

I don’t think all Muslims are bad people, and if someone came up to me and said “I’m a Muslim, but I don’t think that someone is a bad person if they have homosexual relationships, or drink socially, or gamble in moderation”, then I’d accept him as an OK person. But unfortunately many Muslims seem to have deeply illiberal attitudes, and I am against illiberal people.

Still, I’m grateful to Sunny for having the courtesy to actually link to Steyn’s piece. This bit is pertinent :

“This ought to be the left’s issue. I’m a conservative–I’m not entirely on board with the Islamist program when it comes to beheading sodomites and so on, but I agree Britney Spears dresses like a slut: I’m with Mullah Omar on that one. Why then, if your big thing is feminism or abortion or gay marriage, are you so certain that the cult of tolerance will prevail once the biggest demographic in your society is cheerfully intolerant? Who, after all, are going to be the first victims of the West’s collapsed birthrates? ”

Some change is already with us. Fifteen years ago, what happened to the red light areas of Bradford and Birmingham ?

http://ukcommentators.blogspot.com/2006/01/id-stick-to-attacking-christians-if-i.html

Oh my Goodness. If you are at that advanced level of reason where you believe that the Muslims are going to take over the world because there’s more of them than anyone else, why don’t you reassure yourself with the thought that they’ll keep themselves in check with regular suicide bombings and honour killings?

*shakes head*

It’s not so much part of a narrative as it is part of a conspiracy – and not a liberal one, either!

‘The “Islamic Bomb” narrative has become so prevalent that the Wall Street Journal even allowed the barely sentient being otherwise known as Mark Steyn to talk about it at length.’

Um… the WSJ recently passed to the infamous Mr. Murdoch, didn’t it? I would therefore say that the Islamic Bomb story, while prevalent, was probably picked up more because it’s just the sort of stuff ol’ Rupe loves to peddle.

‘So now you can be done not for being racist per se, but for saying things that aren’t actually racist but that people who are known to be racist might have said. Bizarre.’

I am disturbed to note that the lady in the picture is a skellington – they can’t reproduce! Bit of a gaffe on the part of the makers of the image.

This isn’t verbal gymnastics, this is (to invoke the spirit of Ronan Keating) saying nothing at all really. Liddle’s essentially saying:

‘McGrath got fired because he said something that I don’t think is racist but might appear racist to others.’

I’m no journalist, but wow, that’s a really terrible way to end an article – stating the obvious. It also sounds like he might be scared of getting ‘done’ himself.

Laban, I can’t speak for Brum, but I live close enough to Bradford to know tht the red light district is alive and shagging… but what does that have to do with the price of fish anyway?

“But unfortunately many Muslims seem to have deeply illiberal attitudes, and I am against illiberal people.”

Such a quantified statement that we should all clearly take for granted.

I, too, do not like the conflation of religion and race. Even given the hatred of apostasy among the faithful, religion is still a matter of choice, not a matter of biology.

This needs to be unpacked in greater detail in an another article, which I don’t have time for right now.

Attacking religious beliefs, or theological arguments is not only perfectly fine with me, but a sign of a healthy, liberal society. I’m all for it.

the danger is when people of a religious group are packing into one “community” and then attacked on that basis. I know its a common misconception but Jews are not a race either. There is as much racial diversity amongst Jews as there is with Muslims. There are Indians Jews too, for example. But attacking Jews as a grouping is racist because they’re being attacked not on theological grounds but for merely belonging to a grouping.

I put it under the umbrella of xenophobia and bigotry than ‘racism’, but the pernicious effect is the same. By all means criticise the conservative attitutides of some Muslims or say you disagree with their holy book – doesn’t really bother me as long as you’re not generalising and attacking all of them.

Ah well, you know my passionate belief in allowing people to be individuals and not shovelling them into categories, Sunny. You charmer 😛

I do wish you had engaged with Tim’s comments over at Tree of Knowledge more directly. Tim knows his countrymen better than most and I think he is right when he argues that by this level of ‘carefulness’ you are actually doing liberal ideas more harm than good in the long run.

For those on this thread interested in what Tim said, go here:

http://tokblog.org/?p=624#comments


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