Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Of baboons and racists

Recently, the London Review of Books contracted the South African writer and Rhodes scholar R W Johnson to write a series of blog posts on the World Cup. Johnson, an Anglophone liberal, was once the authoritative source for the centre-left press in the UK on apartheid. He has long since moved to the right, disappointed by post-apartheid South Africa and almost comically paranoid about Marxist racist black nationalist conspirators having taken control of the ANC and driven the country into the dirt. South Africa, he bewails, has degenerated every single year since the overthrow of apartheid (which wasn't really an overthrow, but rather an act of staggering generosity and political maturity by F W de Klerk). If he was ever a reliable source, it is fair to say that he has long since ceased to be. Still, if the LRB wants to trade on his reputation, that is the LRB's business. Unfortunately, Johnson has embarrassed his employers with a rather peculiar racist outburst in an article entitled 'After the World Cup' (or rather that appears to have been the title finally chosen - the URL of the now vanished post suggests that it was originally called 'The Coming of the Baboons'). Allow me to excerpt:

We are being besieged by baboons again. This happens quite often here on the Constantiaberg mountains (an extension of the Table Mountain range). Baboons are common in the Cape and they are a great deal larger than the vervet monkeys I was used to dealing with in KwaZulu-Natal. They jump onto roofs, overturn dustbins and generally make a nuisance of themselves; since their teeth are very dirty, their bite can be poisonous. They seem to have lots of baby baboons – it’s been a very mild winter and so spring is coming early – and they’re looking for food. The local dogs don’t like them but appear to have learned their lesson from the last baboon visit: then, a large rottweiler attacked the apes, who calmly tore it limb from limb.

Meanwhile in the squatter camps, there is rising tension as the threat mounts of murderous violence against foreign migrants once the World Cup finishes on 11 July. These migrants – Zimbabweans, Malawians, Congolese, Angolans, Somalis and others – are often refugees and they too are here essentially searching for food. The Somalis are the most enterprising and have set up successful little shops in the townships and squatter camps, but several dozen Somali shopkeepers have already been murdered, clearly at the instigation of local black shopkeepers who don’t appreciate the competition. The ANC is embarrassed by it all and has roundly declared that there will be no such violence. The truth is that no one knows. The place worst hit by violence in the last xenophobic riots here was De Doorns and the army moved into that settlement last week, clearly anticipating trouble. The tension is ominous and makes for a rather schizoid atmosphere as the Cup itself mounts towards its climax.

I trust you follow the juxtaposition. African migrants are "baboons", while "local black shopkeepers" are "rottweilers". This is neither subtle nor reticent. For thirteen days, this edit of Johnson's post was allowed to stand, despite complaints from readers. A letter was composed, protesting about the LRB's decision to publish this racist screed, which received the signatures of 73 concerned writers, academics, activists, etc*. In the meantime, the editors received a rather terse e-mail urging them to remove the article. Failure to do so within 48 hours, they were told, would result in a complaint to the EHRC and the PCC. This finally persuaded the editors to act. They removed the post. So, when the letter was sent, a response from the editors stated that "We had already taken this post down before we received your letter. Thank you for your concern."

There was no acknowledgment of the reason why the post had been taken down, or of the fact that it was racist. So, the letter was re-drafted to take note of the decision to remove the post, and sent again in the hope that LRB would publish it and acknowledge that something had gone very badly wrong. The editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, declined to do so on the grounds that the letter made explicit a series of connections that Johnson had not made explicit. "This isn't a comparison that should be in anyone's mind," she argued, "and we aren't willing to be the cause of its appearing in print." There would of course be no way to address the racist nature of Johnson's article without making the meaning of his racist juxtaposition explicit, but while Wilmers acnowledged that it was "possible" to interpret it in the way that the letter suggested, she nevertheless implied that the comparison between African migrants and baboons, and between black shopkeepers and rottweilers, had not in fact already been made under the impress of the London Review of Books.

Now, it seems to me that the story here is in part one of moral cowardice. The LRB has withdrawn the article, not because it recognised that it was disgusting and offensive, but because it was placed under pressure. They have left no explanation as to why the post was withdrawn, merely citing "complaints". And they decline to have the objections to the article aired in their publication. They are attempting, having only belatedly reacted to the problem, and having then only buried it, and under pressure, to keep it buried.

Quite coincidentally, I've recently been reading a collection of Harold Pinter's writings. In one piece, originally written for the Index on Censorship, he describes the fate of his poem 'American Football', a reflection on the Gulf War composed in 1991. He submitted it firstly to the London Review of Books, which is a magazine I occasionally enjoy reading. Pinter explains: "I received a very odd letter, which said, in sum, that the poem had considerable force, but it was for that very reason that they were not able to publish it. But the letter went on to make the extraordinary assertion that the paper shared my views about the USA's role in the world. So I wrote back. 'The paper shares my views, does it? I'd keep that to myself if I were you, chum,' I said. And I was very pleased with the use of the word 'chum'." I suppose the point of citing this anecdote is to demonstrate that a stroke of the publisher's yellow-streak is nothing new; that, whatever advantages appear to derive from such cowardice generally tend to diminish in time; and that the resultant cop out never looks anything other than absurd, petty and grubby in retrospect. Which perspective I hope the LRB's editors might take on board, and adjust their present stance accordingly.

Update: Gary Younge reports...

Further update: LRB editors apologise.

*This is the letter as it appeared on its second edit, acknowledging the fact that the post was deleted:

20th July 2010

To the Editor,

With its stress on its own 'depth and scholarship and good writing' and its 'unmatched international reputation', the LRB has a responsibility to maintain high standards if it is to retain its enviable position of having the 'largest circulation of any literary magazine in Europe'.

We find it baffling therefore that you continue to publish work by RW Johnson that, in our opinion, is often stacked with the superficial and the racist. In a particularly egregious recent post on the LRB blog, 'After the World Cup', 6 July 2010, Johnson, astonishingly, made a comparison between African migrants and invading baboons. He followed this with another between 'local black shopkeepers' and rottweilers. He concluded with what he presumably thinks is a joke about throwing bananas to the baboons.

In the particular arena of football, some fans do not need to be encouraged to produce racist abuse. Across Europe for many years, black players have been spat at, subjected to racist chants often including references to monkeys or apes, and have been the focus of monkey chanting noises during matches. Neo-Nazi groups have also been known to use football matches as target areas for recruiting new members and promoting their racist practice. (How ironic that when Johnson does decide to write about ‘Football and Fascism’, 11 July 2010, he produces a piece about Italy that reveals the dearth of his knowledge.)

While South Africa has made great strides, overturning the racist politics of the National Party, it still has a long way to go in combating the racism that thrives among certain communities and individuals. Elsewhere, in the UK for example, this is no time for complacency about attitudes to race. Although British National Party leader, Nick Griffin, may have been humiliated at the recent General Elections, his party now has two MEPs. Let’s not forget that young black men in this country are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than young white men, and they comprise a disproportionate number of the prison population.

Whilst it might be unfair to pick on a man for his inability to be funny, we believe that it would be wholly wrong to stay silent when he resorts to peddling highly offensive, age-old racist stereotypes that the LRB editorial team deems fit to publish. (Indeed, we note from the comments that at some point the post was edited – and yet, in our opinion, it remained an appalling and racist piece of writing.)

We were relieved on Monday 19 July when, finally, the post was taken down. However, we remain appalled that it was published in the first place and appalled that it remained up for 13 days. Several of the comments beneath the post pointed out some time ago that the piece was clearly racist and yet the LRB still chose to leave it online. It is not good enough to remove the post – apart from its URL which, we note, ends ‘coming-of-the-baboons’ – and expect this nasty episode to be forgotten. We would like to know why it was published in the first place and we would like to read a public apology.

It is of deep concern to all of us that the LRB could be so impressed by RW Johnson that his racist and reactionary opinion continues to be published in the magazine and now, in the blog too. And there we all were thinking the LRB was progressive.

Yours sincerely,

Diran Adebayo, writer & academic, Lancaster University
Patience Agbabi, poet
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, journalist & writer
Candace Allen, writer, journalist & broadcaster
Cristel Amiss, coordinator, Black Women’s Rape Action Project
Baffour Ankomah, editor, New African
Nana Ayebia Clarke, publisher, Ayebia
Pete Ayrton, publisher, Serpent’s Tail
Sharmilla Beezmohun, deputy editor, Wasafiri
Benedict Birnberg
Professor Elleke Boehmer, University of Oxford
Professor Patrick Bond, University of Kwazulu-Natal
Victoria Brittain, writer & journalist
Dr Margaret Busby OBE, publisher & writer
Teju Cole, writer
Eleanor Crook, sculptor & academic, University of the Arts
Fred D’Aguiar, writer
Dr David Dibosa, academic
Kodwo Eshun, The Otolith Group
Gareth Evans, writer, editor, curator
Katy Evans-Bush, poet
Bernardine Evaristo MBE, writer
Nuruddin Farah, writer
Professor Maureen Freely, writer & academic, University of Warwick
Kadija George, publisher, Sable LitMag
Professor Paul Gilroy, London School of Economics
Professor Peter Hallward, Kingston University London
M John Harrison, writer
Stewart Home, writer
Michael Horovitz, poet
Professor Aamer Hussein, writer & academic, University of Southampton
Professor John Hutnyk, Goldsmiths
Dr Sean Jacobs, The New School
Selma James, coordinator, Global Women’s Strike
Gus John, associate professor, Institute of Education, University of London
Anthony Joseph, poet & novelist
Kwame Kwei-Armah, playwright & broadcaster
Candida Lacey, publisher, Myriad Editions
Alexis Lykiard, writer
Firoze Manji, editor in chief, Pambazuka News
Shula Marks, emeritus professor, School of Oriental & African Studies
Professor Achille Mbembe, University of the Witwatersrand & Duke University
Dr China MiƩville, writer & academic,
Professor David Morley, University of Warwick
Professor Susheila Nasta, editor, Wasafiri
Courttia Newland, writer
Dr Alastair Niven OBE, principal, Cumberland Lodge
Dr Zoe Norridge, University of Oxford
Dr Deirdre Osborne, Goldsmiths
Lara Pawson, journalist & writer
Pascale Petit, poet
Caryl Phillips, writer
Dr Nina Power, Roehampton University
Jeremy Poynting, managing editor, Peepal Tree Press
Gary Pulsifer, publisher, Arcadia Books
Michael Rosen, poet
Anjalika Sagar, The Otolith Group
Richard Seymour, writer & activist
Dr George Shire, reviews editor, Soundings
Professor David Simon, Royal Holloway
Lemn Sissay MBE, writer
Keith Somerville, Brunel University
Colin Stoneman, editorial coordinator, Journal of Southern African Studies
George Szirtes, poet & translator
Dr Alberto Toscano, Goldsmiths
Professor Megan Vaughan, University of Cambridge
Patrick Vernon, chief executive, The Afiya Trust
Professor Dennis Walder, Open University
Verna Wilkins, writer & publisher, Tamarind Books
Dr Patrick Wilmot, writer & journalist
Adele Winston
Professor Brian Winston, University of Lincoln
Dr Leo Zeilig, University of the Witwatersrand