The virtuous left wallows in cruelty

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Stereotypes aren’t always pernicious. Leftwingers have benefitted for years from being typecast as decent people. They may possesses the self-righteousness of “a teenager who had just become a vegetarian”, as Jess Phillips, the marvellous Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, warned. But like teenage vegetarians, they mean well. If the world does not always turn out the way they planned, that is the world’s fault. It would be a better place if it did as the left told it to, sat up at the table and ate its greens.

Stereotypical rightwingers could not be more different. They are sexist, racist and hypocritical. Tories are motivated by greed and prejudice. The far right is driven by brutish blood lusts.

The hold of these stereotypes among the progressive, university-educated middle classes explains why you never hear a rightwing political comedian on Radio 4 or see a leftwing villain in a television drama. Comics and writers tear into Daily Mail and Sun readers but never Guardian and Observer readers. They assume that you are virtuous.

Anyone who saw Gordon Brown and his aides in action, or watched the student left ban speakers for disagreeing with them, has found the myth of leftwing decency hard to swallow. But it has taken the triumph of Jeremy Corbyn’s “new politics” to finish it off.

Police are investigating a death threat made against Neil Coyle, the Labour MP for Bermondsey, after he voted to allow the RAF to attack Islamic State in Syria. His colleague Diana Johnson said the abuse of Labour MPs who supported the action was horrendous. “‘Murderous cunt’ is one of the terms I have seen.”

Now, as so often in the past, the similarities between the far left and far right are more striking than the differences. Coyle received death threats from the far left for supporting war against Isis. Phillips received rape threats from the far right after she mocked the idea that Britain needed an international men’s day so “their voices could be heard”.

Paula Sherriff, the Labour MP for Dewsbury, was treated no better. She made an appeal for unity between communities after a local teenager left to murder for Isis. Detectives intervened because a local racist left a message on her Facebook page that read: “Dead girl walking. Hope you get raped. We got your phone number and details. Thanks.”

Death threats, rape threats – choose your extreme and take your pick. Meanwhile, Corbyn has ensured that everything the left once said about mainstream conservatives can be thrown back its face. I cannot see how the left can attack Tory racism while Corbyn remains leader, although doubtless it will try

You want sexism? Long before the Syria vote, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper complained of misogyny, and not just from the Mail, which was more interested in Kendall’s “lithe figure” than her politics. You expect that from the Mail if you are a woman on the left. Indeed, you expect it if you are a woman on the right or any place in between. Cooper spoke with feeling at the Labour women’s conference about the shock she and Kendall felt at finding it in the one place she never expected it: the left, whose decent adherents called them “witches” and “cows” for opposing the great Corbyn.

You can hear the same shock in the voices of other leftwing women: “The Labour party was like my family,” Ayesha Hazarika, a former aide to Harriet Harman, told me. I knew what she meant. You had your disagreements, but you kept them within reasonable limits so that relationships were not damaged beyond repair. Now, to paraphrase George Orwell, the Labour party is a family with delinquent children in control.

Hazarika learned about the new politics when she made the mildest criticism of Corbyn on television. Her Twitter timeline filled up with insults about her appearance, her dress sense and her hairstyle. “Some people stayed up all night shouting at me.” A sliver of ice has entered her heart and it will never beat with same warmth when she looks on the Corbyn Labour party again.

As for racism, Corbyn has associated with the worst type of antisemites: Holocaust deniers, men who think Jews made bread from Christian blood or were behind the 9/11 atrocities. No blood libel was too bloody for them. He keeps saying he’s not a racist, but he’s happy to keep racist company. I cannot see how the left can attack Tory racism while he remains leader, although doubtless it will try.

Or indeed attack Tory hypocrisy. Corbyn says he is against abuse “from whatever quarter it comes” and does not want to purge the Labour party. Yet he never punishes the abusers and warns MPs who defied him on Syria that “there will be “no hiding place”, which sounds like an incitement to purge to them – and to me.

In his Poem to Posterity, Brecht offered an explanation of far left excess and a partial justification for his own support for the crimes of Stalin.

Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.

His lines endure because they acknowledge a truth about political commitment. Brecht understood that the certainty of your virtue will lead you into cruelty. Leftwing men can treat women appallingly and leftwing agitators can mimic the language and tactics of the far right. They are so convinced of their righteousness they cannot admit their faults.

Leftists would behave better if they stopped acting like teenage vegetarians and found the honesty to acknowledge their kinship with the rest of compromised humanity. The Corbyn generation shows no sign of doing it. And it ought to be obvious by now that Labour people will be their targets.

Brecht’s communists spent as much time fighting social democrats as Nazis in the 1930s. The Corbynites’ real enemies are not Tories, whom they rather respect for standing up for the interests of their class, but Labour MPs who fail to show the required radical virtue and betray the leftwing cause. They don’t mutter darkly that there will be “no hiding place” for Tory MPs who voted in favour of bombing Isis. They don’t scream that Conservative women are “witches” and “cows”. They don’t deliver death threats to David Cameron.

Their virtuous hatred is righteously reserved for their own side and its ugliness will destroy the myth of leftwing decency more thoroughly than the right ever could.

Progressives are the enemies of liberalism

The Observer 22 November 2015

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Fear makes hypocrites of us all. Conservatives pump taxpayers’ money into security services from a public sector they habitually denounce as wasteful. Progressives make excuses for reactionary movements they would describe as fascist in other circumstances. Everyone stands on their heads and says the opposite of what they once believed, while all the time assuring passers-by that they haven’t changed in the slightest.

As you do not buy the Observer to hear how wonderful you are, allow me to spell out the contradictions in liberalism. On the one hand, traditional liberals say they must oppose political Islam. It is oppressive in its attitude to women, freethinkers and gay people, dogmatic in its intolerance of believers in other religions and none, and contemptuous of democracy and human rights. In Saudi Arabia and Iran, it mandates theocracy. In Syria and Nigeria, it justifies slavery and the mass murders of unbelievers.
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“Sinking giggling into the sea” Satire and politics

The Observer 8 November 2015

A few years ago, Jonathan Coe denounced the dominance of comedy in British culture. A country where Have I Got News for You had political significance was in danger of sinking “giggling into the sea”, as Peter Cook had once warned. At best, political comedy encouraged an easy cynicism about everyone in public life. At worst, it substituted sniggers for protests. It certainly didn’t change society. Boris Johnson and other slippery political operators responded by adopting comic personas of their own, and neutered well-founded attacks by showing they could give and take jokes as well as any standup.

The critique reappears in Coe’s state-of-the-nation satire, Number 11. A detective investigating the murder of celebrity comedians reads an anonymous blogpost. Comedians who turn corrupt politicians and rightwing newspaper columnists into jokes, the post thunders, made the “fucking Guardian-reading Pinot Grigio swilling middle-class wankers feel they have to do NOTHING except wait for the next crappy one-liner”.
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After Paris, Europe may never feel as free again

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The Observer 14 November 2015

The aftermath of a terrorist massacre is the worst time to make predictions. The extremity of the outrage pushes policy-makers and citizens to play with equally outraged responses.

It is worth steadying yourself with the thought that until Friday night, Europe’s response to terrorism has not been extreme. Despite gruesome predictions to the contrary, European democracies have not turned themselves into police states. There have been no backlashes or pogroms against Muslims. EU countries, including Britain, have remained free and good societies overall; nations we can be proud of in our necessarily grudging way, for all the faults and abuses we must tackle.
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The silencing of liberal Muslims

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The Observer 4 October 2015

Tell MAMA is the only pressure group that undertakes the hard but necessary work of encouraging Muslims to report religious assaults. MAMA stands for Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks and its workers use the information it collects to persuade the police to take sectarian violence seriously.

I admire Tell MAMA because it follows the cases that rarely get national attention: reports that Ulster loyalists are behind threats to Muslims in Northern Ireland or news of yobs insulting worshippers when they leave a mosque. It ensures that abuse of Muslims does not become an accepted fact of British life and offers a way into a criminal justice system, which is meant to protect their rights.

Naturally, Tell MAMA and its founder, Fiyaz Mughal, have enemies. They receive, as one might expect, racist abuse from supporters of the English Defence League. The rightwing press isn’t much better. Mughal despairs of the “there’s no such thing as Islamophobia” pieces that do the rounds. But it is not the “Tory press” that is stopping Tell MAMA from holding meetings in mosques. Nor is the EDL threatening to destroy its efforts to contain anti-Muslim violence.
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Labour and the child abuse mania

aaTom-Watson-009The Observer October 11, 2015

A few years ago, the Aye Write literary festival in Glasgow invited me to discuss press freedom with Tom Watson. I thought it would be a standard debate until I arrived at the hall and learned it was a set-up.

On one side, there was your humble correspondent, still making the battered old argument that free countries can never allow state censorship. On the other was Watson, his fellow Hacked Off campaigner Brian Cathcart, Christopher Jefferies, the retired English teacher, who was falsely accused of murder by the tabloids, and who, understandably, became a fervent Hacked Off supporter thereafter, and one Ruth Wishart. The organisers had told me she was a journalist, which perked me up considerably, but she turned out to also be a member of Lord McCluskey’s inquiry into the Scottish press, whose recommendations were so authoritarian even Alex Salmond rejected them

Four against one, then. An audience justifiably outraged that the Murdoch and Mirror groups had broken the law and made the lives of innocents a misery. A genuine victim in Christopher Jefferies. And, in Tom Watson, a heroic politician who had fought the unelected Murdoch power. Continue reading

The nationalist attack on learning

Spectator 17 October 2015

In the grounds of Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University stands a one-tonne sculpture. Roughly hewn and about five feet high, it carries in its top corner an ill-carved sun. Beneath it are some words of Alex Salmond, half-sunk in the sandstone, as if they were the thoughts of a Scottish Ozymandias:

The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.

This clunky celebration of SNP policy should raise a few doubts. Free higher education is not free for all in Scotland. Edinburgh can afford to pay the fees of only 124,000 students in Scottish universities. Their contemporaries might have the grades, but they must go elsewhere because Scottish universities need fee-payers from England and Wales to balance their books. More pertinently, the Heriot-Watt stone ignores the class warfare in Scottish education. To fund free university education for largely middle-class students, the SNP has hit the budgets of the further education colleges of the working class.

But the biggest question is the most basic: what the hell is a university doing plonking a lump of rock covered with party political propaganda on its campus?
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