Animals Or Savages?

Some commentators who have opinionated about the recent murders in Afghanistan, murders supposedly committed “in response to” a US pastor’s burning a copy of the Koran, have resorted to what I ironically call “good racism”. Bad racism is what unemployed people living on council housing estates display when they blame their being unemployed on immigrants. Good racism is what people in desirable jobs express when, for example, they prefer to hire better-off non-whites over worse-off whites for other desirable jobs or, in this case, when people in the West treat people in the East as though they were too primitive to be capable of moral discrimination1.

A friend on the Right, Claire Berlinski, wrote aptly about this today, just as I found myself engaged in an increasingly surreal dispute on Twitter with a representative of The Democratic Society. If the person responsible for The Democratic Society’s Twitter output is who I think it is, he isn’t a member of a tiny pseudo-Leftist sect like the Socialist Workers Party, but a man whom I engaged in what-seemed-sane conversation in a pub after a Labour Party Conference fringe meeting a couple of years ago. Our bite-sized debate today was triggered by this gobsmacking tweet from him:

7 people dead because of the actions of one western bigot - lessons for us about why multiculturalism and respect matter.

7 people dead because of the actions of one western bigot - lessons for us about why multiculturalism and respect matter.

Sometimes I think the only way to make this kind of poison unacceptable in educated middle-class circles is to keep pointing at it and pointing out how poisonous it is until you lose all your educated middle-class friends. You can visit our respective Twitter pages to browse the rest of PootBlog‘s debate with demsoc. I left the discussion because I was lost for words. I had hoped he would think better of his original remark and delete it, but, instead, the subsequent attempts to explain it spiralled on, like the words of a man on a bus trying to justify an “I’m not racist, but…” outburst.

I wanted to give its author the chance to delete the tweet because, if he isn’t already embarrassed by it already, one day he will be; so I waited some hours before taking a snapshot of it here for future generations to gaze upon in head-shaking wonder as one might at a clip of The Black And White Minstrel Show.

Perhaps its author will be round later to object to being taken at his own words, like this guy did back in 2006. Follow the trackback link at the bottom of the comments below that PooterGeek post to enjoy the full glory of the subsequent thread, the finest of the examples here of people ranting at me for misrepresenting them by quoting their own words and linking back to their original context.

That last link reminds me that one of the most common accusations aimed at the authors, signatories, and supporters of the Euston Manifesto was that we had erected “straw men” to rail against; that the bizarre, illiberal, irrational, racist drivel that had been spilling from the lips of self-proclaimed Leftists since the turn of the century was a figment of our imaginations, or vanishingly rare, or restricted to the output of an extremist minority. This was absurd for at least two reasons:

  1. The manifesto’s original signatories had accumulated a vast, linked, documentary corpus of examples of exactly this kind of nonsense—from supposedly respectable, mainstream sources—a corpus so vast that critics (sometimes the same people) accused us of being obsessed with such stuff.
  2. Even as one group of our critics accused us of making this stuff up, other critics actually generated still more of it in a response to the manifesto itself.

Five years on, the drivel continues to spill out:

The UN’s chief envoy to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, blamed Friday’s violence in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif on the Florida pastor who burnt the Koran on 20 March.

“I don’t think we should be blaming any Afghan,” Mr de Mistura said. “We should be blaming the person who produced the news – the one who burned the Koran. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from offending culture, religion, traditions.”

No, that is exactly what freedom of speech means. Freedom to say only that which fundamentalists deem inoffensive and respectful—or suffer bloody consequences—is no freedom at all. It’s the shroud that imprisoned us in the darkest of the Dark Ages.

  1. There’s more good racism and good sexism here []


  1. Posted 04Apr11 at 13:02 | Permalink

    A friend of mine was comparing this to the burming of certain effigies in Northern Ireland. But there are so many differences. Firstly, there’s what the action symbolises: in NI, the people who throw a Gerry Adams doll on a bonfire are doing it as a reminder that they will enact real physical violence against Catholics. The Floridian Koran-burning represents nothing more than what it is. Secondly, there’s the relationship between perpetrators and victims: say what you like about the paramilitaries, but Belfast Catholics never killed just whoever happened to be nearest because a Protestant in New Zealand had criticised the Pope. When one side aggravates the other in NI, the retaliation goes back in the other direction, at the people who’ve done the aggravating.

    But then it struck me that more important than the differences is the similarity. The fact that the Irish have a predominant culture of believing that its your own fault you got kneecapped because you spoke your mind, or spoke to the wrong person, or walked through the wrong bit of town, or had the wrong ancestors, shows that they’re as bad and uncivilised as Afghans, not that Afghans are as good and civilised as the Irish.

  2. Thick Paddy
    Posted 04Apr11 at 16:45 | Permalink

    The fact that the Irish have a predominant culture of believing that its your own fault you got kneecapped because you spoke your mind, or spoke to the wrong person, or walked through the wrong bit of town, or had the wrong ancestors, shows that they’re as bad and uncivilised as Afghans, not that Afghans are as good and civilised as the Irish.

    Do we? Thanks for letting me know. There was me thinking that actually we had decisively and repeated rejected that at the ballot box and everywhere else.

    But maybe I am wrong, it’s the knuckle draggers who represent the “predominant culture” after all.

  3. Anthony Zacharzewski
    Posted 04Apr11 at 16:52 | Permalink

    Hello, I tweeted that.

    I suppose it’s a risk of the Twitter format that things are taken out of context. I certainly don’t, as you seem to imply, share the views of Steffan de Mistura that Afghans are not to blame for the murders – of course the murderers are to blame, and not to be excused on the basis of any insult they perceived to their religion.

    I also agree with you that freedom of speech is essential, and I don’t think that Pastor Jones should have been banned from doing what he did, or that there should be laws against it.

    I do think that he’s not immune from criticism, though, just because he’s exercising his rights. There are plenty of ways to exercise your rights that are irresponsible or open to criticism – and you can criticise without implying that things should be banned.

    I also think that, without saying foreigners are animals or automata, that there was a connexion between his act and what happened.

    Perhaps multiculturalism and respect are too loaded for them to have been right in this context – my wish is that the fear and hatred of the other that Pastor Jones expressed should die out, not that it should be banned. The current political debate in Europe, and the rise of the EDL came to mind, which is probably why multiculturalism etc did as well. I’m not talking about some technical term or a political concept, just the idea that people should be treated equally as citizens with equal rights, and not (though for clarity, I wouldn’t ban it) unfairly branded as an evil and malicious presence in society on the basis of their faith.

    As for deleting the tweet, well, it is what it is – a quick dashing-off of an instant, badly phrased thought,but with no wider motive or theory behind it than a stab of anger at the extreme right’s stupid provocations and rhetoric (which, for clarity, I criticise but don’t believe should banned).

    What it isn’t is a statement of philosophy, or a worked-up thought-through world view, and I don’t mean it to be, either for me or the organisation I represent.

    It’s the question everyone asks of politicians – do you stand by your words? And my answer in this case is, not particularly – I wasn’t writing them with that much care. I stand by my sentiment, that the world would be a better place if extremists like Pastor Jones didn’t feel the need to do what e did (and of course if people didn’t riot and murder others, which I think goes without saying).

    But however that tweet read, I don’t hold the views you associate me with in this post.

  4. Posted 04Apr11 at 18:14 | Permalink

    Thank you for taking the time to respond, Anthony.

    Imagine that a Georgia sharecropper’s wife had been lynched because the Klan had heard (correctly) that her husband had stood in his own backyard and cursed a Bible before burning it.

    Imagine that you had quickly dashed off a badly phrased note about this murder in your anger at the new widower’s stupid provocation and rhetoric and it contained the phrase

    “lessons for blacks about why respect matters”

    Everything in your comment above would have been equally applicable to this situation—and would have had equal mitigating power.

  5. Posted 04Apr11 at 19:26 | Permalink

    Hi, Thick Paddy.

    You misunderstand me, which is largely my fault. Pootergeek knows that I live in NI and have a Northern Irish family, but I should perhaps have mentioned that for the benefit of anyone else reading. I should also probably avoid commenting on such issues when I’ve had as little sleep as I have lately. Still, I’m here now, so may as well keep digging.

    A couple of things. I’m sure Afghanistan is full to the brim of good honest friendly kind hospitable people. Most places are, frankly. Ireland certainly was during the Troubles. And yet the Troubles still happened. A predominant culture is not usually defined by a majority.

    Secondly, the Peace Process is largely based on not antagonising people. So, for instance, don’t go walking down the Falls wearing a Union Jack bowler hat singing “God Save The Queen” in an RP accent. If you were to do so, you would be regarded by most Irish people as being, to a greater or lesser extent, responsible for what would happen to you. Like I said, the whole train of thought was triggered by a (Northern Irish non-violent) friend of mine saying that Jones was to blame for the deaths just as anyone who burned certain effigies in Belfast would be responsible for the violence that would inevitably follow. Thinking that way — that people who express opinions are responsible for the violence of people who disagree with those opinions — is a large part of the reason why the Troubles happened.

    Finally, I’d’ve put the whole thing in the past tense and pointed out that marked changes in that sort of attitude are big part of the reason why the Troubles ended, except that the Newry bomb nearly got me. Call me a cynic.

  6. Posted 05Apr11 at 14:40 | Permalink

    This is an odd one for me. One friend is digging at something that another (unconnected) friend said. On the one hand, having heard both sides, I’m still with Damien on this debate. On the other hand, I know Anthony well enough (and am generally intimidated enough by his intellect) to know that he’s not as ill-considered as short tweets can make all of us sound.

    I’m also against deleting tweets unless they’re full-blooded mistakes (typos, factual errors) and I’m not keen on leaps to judgement on them either – I say things that I’d probably say differently on reflection. Tweets are sometimes a sort of expression of the Freudian Id – think-say-reflect – in that order.

    There’s a difference between this and an article-for-publication.

    Anyhoo, all of this brings Harry Lime to mind – the little dots seen from the big wheel. Squash em? No-one’ll know. So do we squash them?

    We do know that opportunistic demagogues will respond to some actions in particular ways with terrible consequences for innocent bystanders.

    Would I burn a Koran knowing this? I don’t think I would. Would I burn a Koran if I didn’t know it? Probably not, but I’d be slightly more likely to do so.

    And should someone who does so *for personal advancement* having been told about the likely consequences be immune from criticism?

    I think not.

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