Wednesday, February 08, 2006
I promise I don't want to bang on some more about these blasted cartoons. It's just that the discussion around them has occasionally left the original samples behind and shifted onto interesting territory which is worth probing. And whatever else you think about it, it is simply unarguable that these cartoons wouldn't have been revelled in and defended with such vigour and tenacity if it had been another group targeted, as Subject Barred illustrates.
However, it occurs to me that there is an undeclared but more or less open alignment forming here in reactions to cases where 'political correctness' rears its policeman's head and 'free speech' is somehow implicated. Just over two years ago, Jenny Tonge MP got in a huge amount of trouble for saying that she sympathised with the plight of Palestinians to the extent that she could understand why some would resort to suicide attacks and might find herself in a same position under similar conditions. It was not condoning, and was in fact not much stronger than similar sentiments expressed by the lachrymose prosecutor of poll-tax non-payers, Cherie Blair. Disgust at Tonge's remarks was ubiquitous. Outrage! Infamy! How dare Tonge utter anything other than liberal pieties over this issue! She lost her job, to general applause. Little was said in her defense.
Shortly before that, there had been the most enormous fuss made about Kilroy's right to free speech after he expressed his grotesquely racist views toward Arabs. The political Right was in an extraordinary huff about this. Some said that, after all, the poet Tom Paulin had been allowed to make derogatory remarks about the Jews - whereas what in fact happened was that Al Ahram attributed comments to him describing American colonialists in occupied Palestine as "Nazis" who should be "shot". He denied having made the comments, but the fury resounded all the more because of it. Still, the defenders of Kilroy battled on. His position at the BBC untenable, he nevertheless found a multitude of supporters for his right to utter racist lies. He was given political patronage and a pile of cash for writing about his kampf in the express.
At the end of last year, there was the case of Nasser Amin who was publicly vilified for supporting the Palestinians' right to use violence against their oppressors. He has been, and continues to be, treated disgracefully by his college who ought to be defending him. He did not defame anyone, and his words were deliberately misrepresented by an American pro-Zionist student who had decided to whip up an 'antisemitism' hysteria about SOAS. Some publications, including the FT, tried to insidiously link him to the 7/7 attacks, and one pro-war Labour MP tried to get him jailed. He has also been on the receiving end of death threats. Anyone care to raise a point or two about free expression here? It's one thing if John Malkovich threatens to kill Robert Fisk for some articles he has written, since Fisk can easily write an article about that and embarrass the berk, but Nasser Amin does not have those resources. Only a few non-Muslims have actually cared to defend him. Why, I wonder, might that be?
And Chabert reminds us of the most glaring recent case of what is usually called double standards (which, of course, advert to a single hidden standard): Abu Hamza is to go to jail for seven years over his speech, while Nick Griffin and Mark Collett of the BNP have just walked free. See Dave Renton for an informed account of the latter trial proceedings here.
So, isn't the real political correctness (if I may call it that) as follows: you may dispense insults, racism, lies and innuendo against Muslims or Arabs, but the second you attempt to behave as if they are humans beings too, there is a strict prohibition in operation. Discourse does not take place in a neutral space, in which everyone's speech is equally efficient: torturers and victims are not equally empowered to speak, for instance (about which, more later). This is all related in one way or another to John Derbyshire's statement on the National Review Online the other day. Okay, Derbyshire was being honest about his empathic propensities. His immediate sympathy is for Americans (even though he is English, as an e-mail correspondent pointed out to me), and beyond that identification he doesn't care much at all. On the one hand, it would be ridiculous to suppose that everyone thinks like Mr Derbyshire; on the other hand, of course, few people are actually consistent in how they weigh human suffering. What Derbyshire's comment reveals is the precise contours of the ideological screen separating privileged Westerners from the suffering Other. It is this which facilitates the blase dismissal of mortality figures from Iraq, for instance. It is this which allows one to tuck the mortality figures from Afghanistan which, one some estimates, were close to double those accrued on 9/11, safely away from one's purview. Zizek noted in Welcome to the Desert of the Real that Americans, having had their fantasy of immortality and reposeful seclusion ripped apart, would have to decide whether to take another step and identify with the rest of the world or to retreat back into the 'innocence' of identification with the status quo, nationalism and an aggressive reassertion of US power. Clearly, American reactions have polarised along these lines, with a large number of people sympathising with the suffering of Iraqis and, in increasing numbers, Palestinians, and another group of people preferring to revel in a religious and nationalistic reflux whose guiding principle is death-dealing aggression toward the Others whom 'we' had been simply too soft on in the past. However, what is noticeable is that even while American reactions have changed, at an official level the discourse remains exactly the same. When mainstream news organisations speak of war casualties, they are almost always referring to the number of US soldiers being returned in caskets or on stretchers. The Washington Post specifically accentuates its commitment to American nationalism in exactly this fashion.
And, of course, that screen is flexible, so that the suffering of New Orleans and the immense burden of the crimes committed there by the US government can be made sort of invisible. If you paid attention to the mainstream news organisations in America, you would have no idea that the residents of New Orleans have just had to fight a lengthy battle to force the state to comply with the law, to even enforce their property rights. And so it is unsurprising that when Ray Nagin instructs officers to kill looters and refuses to provide help for the city's poor despite foreknowledge of the likely effects, he is just seen as doing his job - but when he says New Orleans must be "chocolate brown" (which basically means allowing the city's residents to keep their homes and what is left of their property), suddenly he's an anti-white racist who must be roundly condemned. There again, a radical right-wing bigot who described New Orleans residents as "scumbags" is rewarded for his efforts with a CNN contract, while Bill Bennett remains in his job with the same network after remarking that "you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down", and is allowed the freedom to continue to defend those remarks. But Kanye West says George Bush doesn't care about black people, a fairly mild way to put it, and outraged gasps abound.
Free speech, then, is in material terms, in this climate, and at this conjuncture, the freedom to denigrate black people, Muslims, Arabs and just about anyone liable to come on the wrong end of Western power. So cut it out. It's not funny any more, just quit it. The laughter track on this 'free speech' gig is wearing thing. Even if, for some bizarre medical reason, you still refuse to acknowledge manifest and obvious racism, don't persist in the insulting pretense that issues of free expression emerge in an ideological vacuum. Don't pretend there aren't institutions with their own interests at work, states, corporations, corporate media and so on. And certainly don't pretend to be even-handed about it.