This is the 18th episode of the Sex & Censorship podcast. You can listen or subscribe on this page (see below) or via the YouTube Channel.
Courtney Hamilton is a black Londoner, an activist and writer with a deep interest in race and racism. Like me, has has reservations about the transformation of the anti-racism movement. Once, a genuinely progressive force against bigotry, but now something new and less progressive. Courtney is opposed to the new “call-out culture” where accusations of racism fly like confetti. While the anti-racism movement once sought to unite people across race lines, now it is guilty of segregationist attitudes: separating people into racial categories and redefining “privilege” and “oppression” based on skin colour rather than economic status.
He also attacks the dubious concept of “cultural appropriation”, under which “people of colour” claim the right to tell others what they can wear, and even how they can wear their hair.
Every now and then, I need to take a step back and check I’m not exaggerating the looming threat to free speech. And then, along comes a story like this, which confirms: nope, things are bad for free speech, and they’re getting worse. This week, things took another little turn for the dystopian when a teenage girl was convicted of racism for posting rap lyrics on Instagram.
Yes, you read that correctly. A British teenager has been convicted for posting the lyrics from a rap song (I’m Trippin’ by Snap Dogg) on a social media site. As if to illustrate a fundamental problem with censorship, we don’t know exactly which lyrics she posted, because news sites didn’t specify. Thus, not only is the girl being censored, but so is coverage of the “crime”.
To give a feel for the Orwellian atmosphere, here’s the BBC trying to report the trial, without itself offending anyone:
“The words Russell used on her account contained a racial label which some people find extremely offensive… PC Dominique Walker… told the court the term was “grossly offensive” to her… Russell’s defence had argued the usage of the word had changed over time and it had been used by superstar rapper Jay-Z [at Glastonbury]…”
Being somewhat braver/stupider than the BBC (and having listened to the track), I’m going to hazard a guess that the word was Nigga, a term that is liberally used in hip-hop (and, of course, has its roots in the racism of the old US Deep South).
This court case is worrying at multiple levels, and should deeply concern anybody that is worried about the future of the Internet as a free medium. It provides yet more evidence that the Establishment has now seized on “hate crime” as a tool of authoritarianism. PC is no longer the realm of well-meaning (if misguided) students, but of the police state. As I’ve blogged previously, Theresa May – hardly a well-known leftie – previously banned Tyler the Creator, a rapper, from touring the UK because his lyrics were deemed to be misogynist and homophobic. Did May genuinely care about the feelings of people who never listened to Tyler’s music anyway? Or did she simply enjoy finding a new excuse to ban a black man from entering the country?
Context should be important, and yet has been apparently ignored by the court. The fact that the girl (it seems) meant no offence is deemed to be of no importance. The fact that the word formed part of a song was of no importance. The fact that the word was not being used to abuse somebody was of no importance.
The ruling, bizarrely, appears to have been strongly influenced by the view of an individual police officer, who claimed the word was “grossly offensive” to her as a black woman (one presumes that she isn’t a fan of the work of Snap Dogg and other rappers). In doing so, the court has made a deeply racist judgement that the view of one black woman is representative of all black people. No white person would be deemed capable of speaking for white people – so why does the legal system patronise black people in this way?
Not all black people agree with PC Walker. The rap artist Greydon Square makes this clear in his hard-hitting tune, N-Word. In 2007, the black American (but London resident) comedian Reginald D Hunter named one of his stand-up tours “Pride, Prejudice and Niggas”, and was promptly banned from advertising it on London transport. If anything illustrates the madness of censorship, it’s the irony that a black man from the Deep South was censored by a British bureaucracy in order to protect the feelings of black people.
The teenager – whose name I won’t repeat here, but who has been named in the mass media – is now branded a racist: something she probably is not. This, in the current era, is akin to being labelled a “communist” in 1950s America.
Most of all, the ruling raises a serious question about impending censorship of the Internet. Snap Dogg’s videos and lyrics can be found on YouTube and in many other places. Should his work now be taken down, to avoid offending people like PC Walker? Of course, this would apply broadly to hip-hop, as well as to literature and cinema.
People that think the state might censor non-black people, but not black people, for use of the offending word, is doubly naive. Firstly, that would be illegal under equality law. And second: Really? Which part of “the lessons of history” did you miss?
The word also appears in the great anti-racist novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Would the state be misguided enough to censor this work too? I think they just might.
I’ve attended London’s Notting Hill Carnival most years since 1981. This year, like most, I went both days: Sunday with the family, Monday just to dance. Carnival showcases a West Indian culture that (unlike European cultures) shows no shame in blurring the line between dance and sex. And of course, this openness is bound to upset western sensibilities. Once, conservatives would have complained bitterly about the displays of sexuality, but the mantle of anti-sex puritanism has now been firmly taken over by the political left, and especially by parts of the feminist movement.
As an anti-censorship activist over the past decade, I began to notice about five years ago that anti-sex feminists had particular issues with black music and dance. I dedicated some time to documenting this in my book Porn Panic!
“Since their invention, music videos had come under fire from morality campaigners, but this was a phenomenon better known in the United States, with its powerful Christian right, than in Britain. Many of the attacks on popular music in America contained thinly-veiled racism. US Society was racially segregated for most of its history, until relatively recently, and most white Americans had had little contact with black Americans or their cultures, until the rise of music recording and radio. Although black artists were often boycotted by radio stations, white performers, from Elvis Presley onwards, began to copy black music, and young white people began to dance to it. Unsurprisingly, this infuriated white conservatives.
A 1960s circular from the Citizens Council of Greater New Orleans reads as follows:
“Help Save The Youth of America
DON’T BUY NEGRO RECORDS
(If you don’t want to serve negroes in your place of business, then do not have negro records on your jukebox or listen to negro records on the radio.)
The screaming, idiotic words, and savage music of these records are undermining the morals of our white youth in America.
Don’t Let Your Children Buy, or Listen To These Negro Records…”
Such a message shows more than hatred or anger: it reveals fear. As well as breaching the carefully constructed walls of racial segregation, black music and dance had caused a deeper concern: it was highly sexual. African dance had always been more ‘wild’ than the European equivalent. Now, as civil rights and anti-colonialism movements peaked, and segregation ended, continents were belatedly colliding. For the first time, black music entered mainstream Western culture. The dam broke. This was not a meeting of equals: African culture poured over white society like a tsunami.
Blues, jazz and rock and roll had just been the beginning. Now soul, hip hop, disco, reggae, dancehall, afrobeat, soca, dub, house, R&B, and many other genres sold records by the millions and entered the charts worldwide. By the turn of the century, it was hard to find music in the British charts that did not have some black roots.
And the videos that came with the music showed another African influence: clothing became skimpier, hips and backsides rolled in a way that white bodies had never before moved. As the moral panic against ‘sexualised’ music videos took root, it was not just a reaction to music; it was a reaction to blackmusic.
Black female artists came under particular attack during the Big Panic. Especially singled out for criticism were Beyoncé, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. But far from apologise and cover themselves up, all three of these artists revelled in their displays of sexuality, and responded to attacks by becoming more ‘sexualised’, apparently taking enjoyment from taunting the mostly white, middle-class commentators that were attacking them. Beyoncé’s famous performance outfits became more revealing. Rihanna turned up to the 2014 Council of Fashion Designers Awards in a near-transparent dress, which generated an inevitable barrage of outrage. Minaj’s Anaconda video gave the finger to her critics, being a celebration of her famously rounded backside, and featuring the line, delivered as a parody of a prissy, white girl: “Oh. My. Gosh. Look at her BUTT!”
Prudish anger mounted, with article headlines such as “Don’t call Beyonce’s sexual empowerment feminism” trying to create a faux-liberal case for demanding that the singers cover themselves up. But there was no contest: three of the world’s most confident and talented black female performers could easily handle whatever the bloggers and journalists could dish out. Commentators were reduced to whining, inaccurately and patronisingly, that the singers were the ‘victims’ of a white, male-dominated capitalist music machine. The women, and their millions of fans, paid little attention.
Given how deeply rooted the Big Panic was in the political left, and that the anti-sex movement was dominated by white, middle-class women, endless overt attacks on black performers would begin to look suspiciously racist. A white target for the rage was needed. Enter Miley Cyrus.
Cyrus had committed multiple sins in the eyes of moralists. She had been a child star, and now had the nerve to grow up and become an attractive young woman. She appeared naked in the video for her single, Wrecking Ball, and, most outrageous of all, during a 2013 live TV performance, she twerked.
Although twerking was a fairly new term, it described a dance move that had been around for decades, if not centuries. Nobody who has seen videos for hip hop, dancehall, R&B or other black music styles could be unaware of the ways in which some black female dancers could move their hips, buttocks and thighs. I had been a happy witness to this at least since I started attending London’s Notting Hill Carnival and West Indian parties in my teens. It is hardly surprising that twerking provoked the backlash it did among so many commentators: the link between dance and sex had never been more obvious.
Now the anti-sex movement could finally take aim from the moral high ground. Object teamed up with black feminist group Imkaan, created an astroturf campaign to censor music videos called Rewind and Reframe, and, with help of the ever-supportive Guardian, began to insinuate that Cyrus’s twerking was not just sexist, but in some way racist too. Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman ludicrously complained that Cyrus had ‘culturally appropriated’ black people by daring to move her buttocks in a certain way, and having apparently worked herself into an angry froth, described the performance as a ‘minstrel show’. Under the guise of anti-racism, here was a white ‘liberal’ journalist doing what racists had done in the Deep South decades earlier: trying to stop black culture from being adopted by white people. In place of an exhortation not to buy ‘negro records’, the new left had found new language to express their discomfort that white kids were copying the dance moves of black artists.
Freeman’s real problem was revealed in the article when she wrote of Cyrus “…adding in a racial element while she copied the dance moves of strippers and bellowed her love of drugs”. Black people, nudity and drugs: the triumvirate that has upset white conservatives for centuries. She even dared to invoke (or appropriate, perhaps) Martin Luther King, ending the article by stating that she ‘had a dream’:
“I have a dream that female celebrities will one day feel that they don’t need to imitate porn actors on magazine covers and in their stage acts. I have a dream that the predominantly white music world will stop reducing black music to grills and bitches and twerking. And I have a dream that stupid songs about seducing “good girls” will be laughed at instead of sent to No 1.”
Freeman’s dream, of a world free of strippers, porn, drugs, good girls doing bad things, and white people doing black things, is hardly a progressive one. She could have found her dream in Selma, Alabama, in 1963, where King made his famous speech. If any article summed up the 21st century collapse of the left into ugly conservatism, this one did.
If it had appeared alone, Freeman’s article might have simply been a one-off piece representing her own views. But it was not: the Guardian was in campaign mode. The piece was handily followed and supported a couple of months later by an article from Imkaan’s Ikamara Larasi titled ‘Why must we accept the casual racism in pop videos?’, putting the boot in on Miley Cyrus once again, and adding the ‘authenticity’ of a black voice to Freeman’s messy argument (albeit a black voice with close links to Object). And in case we did not get the message, a month later Larasi wrote another Guardian piece, ‘Sexed-up music videos are everyone’s problem’. Beyond her two attacks on music videos, Larasi was not again seen in the Guardian; her work was done.
In addition to Freeman’s and Larasi’s contributions, the Guardian carried a surreal ‘news’ piece on the story that 73 year old Christian singer Cliff Richard also disapproved of Cyrus’s behaviour, and he “just hopes she grows out of it”.
However clumsy and quasi-racist it might have been, the Guardian’s attack on ‘sexualised music videos’ helped do the trick. It was never about convincing Cyrus fans – the goal was to put pressure on the UK authorities. Just one month after Larasi’s second article, in January 2014, the Guardian wrote in approving terms that the BBFC wanted to regulate (i.e. censor) music videos in the same way it did feature films. Of course it did: the BBFC, let us not forget, is a private business.
“Following the issuing of new classification guidance from the BBFC on Monday, the organisation’s assistant director, David Austin, said it was responding to pressure from parents who were concerned about the sexual imagery freely available to children who had access to the web…”
And a few months afterwards, in August 2014, the Prime Minister, David Cameron announced in a speech on (ominously) The Family that the government was backing censorship of music videos:
“From October, we’re going to help parents protect their children from some of the graphic content in online music videos by working with the British Board of Film Classification, Vevo and YouTube to pilot the age rating of these videos.”
The Big Panic had claimed a an important cultural scalp. Without any genuine public discussion or outcry, and certainly without any research showing that ‘sexualised music videos’ were causing any harm to anyone, music – and especially black music – would be subject to prurient censorship controls. The old Citizens Council of Greater New Orleans would be proud.”
Watching the past four years unfold in western politics has been like watching a train wreck in ultra-slow motion. It’s been painfully obvious where all this is leading, and equally painful that the people who created the wreck were – and still are – utterly oblivious to what they were doing. President Donald Trump (and Brexit, come to that) could have been avoided, in theory.
I fully woke up to the sickness on the political left in 2012. My awakening had been coming for many years – I can look all the way back to the 1980s, and see the sickness there – the signs were there for all to see; but as the working class gradually abandoned the left, so the left gradually abandoned the working class. As progressive class politics died, regressive identity politics filled the void.
I’ve witnessed so many signs of this growing problem. I vividly remember one moment: a huge anti-Apartheid march and rally in Hyde Park, circa 1989. This was a moment in British history when, for the first time, gay men could openly hold hands and kiss in public. It was a warm summer day; I was sitting on the grass with my young son. And nearby, a gay man was viciously assaulted by a young black man for daring to kiss his partner in public. Marchers were confused; surely blacks and gays are both oppressed groups? Why would they turn against each other, at an anti-Apartheid rally of all places? Perhaps the black man had been programmed by the white supremacist state to hate other minorities? Here was the white, middle-class identity-obsessed left in action, unable to see the simple truth: a bigot (colour irrelevant) had assaulted a man for being gay. They couldn’t see the black man as aggressor, because they could only understand black people in one role: victim. They couldn’t see that a black bigot is every bit as responsible for his actions as a white bigot. They couldn’t deal with the bigot, because he was black. They couldn’t see beyond skin colour. Here was an early sign of something that is today rampant: left-wing racism.
But 2012 seems to be a particular turning point. At that moment, it became generally acceptable – for the first time in generations – to openly express bigotry. New, racist ideas suddenly became fashionable: among the most dangerous was that black people were incapable of being racist: only whites were afforded this right. Although I’d been involved in the anti-racism movement since 1979, I had never before heard such a divisive idea. Racial bigotry had never been tolerated on the left, by anyone, or towards anyone. And yet now, for the first time, the left was creating a racial hierarchy, and assigning different rules of behaviour to different people based on nothing more than their skin colour. The most fundamental value of the civil rights era, racial equality, was under sustained assault by white, middle-class people masquerading as liberals.
Although this superficially looked like an attack on white people, it wasn’t. It was an assault on that most hated of all groups: the working class. The mostly white, middle-class new left – which had long ago been rooted in the industrial labour movement – had declared class war. Even the anti-racism movement joined the fight against the working class. I had been heavily involved in countering the anti-Islamic propaganda of the English Defence League, but I became uneasy with the people who I thought were on my side. As I recount in my book, Porn Panic!
[Many] EDL supporters apparently joined simply for a social life. Coaches were chartered from working-class towns and estates to take supporters to each protest. Thanks to the wonder of Twitter, one could see them on their way to demonstrations, boasting about how many cans of beer they were bringing, how many lines of mephedrone or cocaine they had consumed on the way. Here were young, white, working-class people finding a rare opportunity to assemble and feel pride in their own beleaguered identities: hatred of the white working-class is, after all, the last acceptable prejudice. And online, I began to feel uneasy about my own Twitter followers. I saw middle-class student leftists mocking working-class people for their poor spelling rather than their racist views, telling them they were scum; those EDL supporters who tried to explain why they were uneasy about immigration were told they were racists, and blocked. Many of those I spoke to were clearly not racists, though they had absorbed lies about Muslims that needed to be countered. How were we to defuse the EDL if we refused to speak to them?
Twin narratives – feminism and black nationalism – declared identity war, and the left became apologists for an outpouring of bigotry from these two groups. For feminists, “patriarchy” (i.e. men) was to blame for everything. For black nationalists, “white supremacy” (i.e. white people) was the cause of all evil. In practise, the two narratives borrowed heavily from each other. Feminists would silence men by accusing them of “mansplaining”; and then black racists would attack people for “whitesplaining”. Ultimately, the identity fascists united around a belief that white men were the greatest evil in the universe – and their class bigotry was hidden beneath this veil.
The left became obsessed with the idea that sexism and racism were everywhere, based on the flimsiest of evidence. Racism was found where none existed: Twitter storms raged over imaginary problems, such as the alleged under-representation of black people in the 2016 Oscars (actually, it turned out that black people were slightly over-represented, but screaming had taken over from fact).
A growing, once united movement against police brutality was suddenly hijacked by identity fascists, and became Black Lives Matter; and yet, 76% of police shooting victims were not black. Police brutality affected poor white men as well as poor blacks, but an opportunity to create common cause was lost. In this Kafkaesque nightmare, to suggest that All Lives might Matter became “racist”. And so the anti-racists had become the racists.
Many liberal black commentators tried to speak out against the rising black racism, but were screamed down. Racist language was deployed against black people who refused to accept their victimhood. They were told they were not “pro-black”, or that they were “self-hating”, or (in the UK) they were labelled “coconuts” (an old term of black-on-black abuse, suggesting they are white people in black skin). Morgan Freeman suggested that the way to end racism was to stop talking about it, upsetting those who were revelling in their self-declared oppression. Whoopi Goldberg mocked the “cultural appropriation” idea, again to derision from black people who were using the idea to attack white people for their musical or clothing tastes. And when the actress Raven Symoné decided she no longer wanted to be labelled as African American, she was again attacked by bullies who refused her right to self-determination. Black self-pity was increasingly mocked by black people (such as in this amusing video by the rapper Doc Brown); but identity fascists missed all this, because it didn’t match their deep belief that people are mostly defined by their race or gender. Like all authoritarian movements in history, they rejected individuality for group identity.
And meanwhile, rage grew among some of America’s poorest people, who (in the new left narrative) were dismissed as privileged and entitled, on account of being white. There can be few sights more vile than a wealthy person attacking a poor person for their “privilege”, but this was now becoming normal.
And nobody understood all this better than Donald Trump. His racist and sexist remarks were designed to mock an identity narrative that was (for good reason) becoming widely hated beyond the liberal echo chamber. His “pussy grab” comment was ugly and childish, but the hysterical response to it was laughable, and only bolstered his position. Liberals assumed that no woman would vote for someone who talked in this way, which only underscored how completely out of touch liberals had become. Many women did vote for him, because women didn’t see themselves as the downtrodden victims of patriarchy that feminists had declared them to be. Many Hispanics voted for him, because (to the surprise of identity fascists) people are defined by more than their race and colour. Even a good number of black people voted for him, perhaps sick of being told how black people should behave. And many working class white Democrats who once voted for Barack Obama now voted for Trump. Predictably, liberals are accusing these people of racism or sexism, only underscoring how out of touch they are with reality, and helping to demonstrate why Donald Trump won.
Rather than sit back and wonder why voters didn’t behave as they were told, identity zealots have doubled down, deciding that the Trump victory proves that everybody is sexist and racist. A particularly silly post in (supposedly liberal) Slate attacks white women for betraying “the sisterhood”; demonstration, if any, of the left’s loss of class consciousness.
Trump is a deeply dangerous man, and not because he’s racist or sexist. He is dangerous because he intends to attack free trade and disrupt the world order. He is dangerous because he denies climate change, because he will empower dictators in Russia, China, and other countries. He is dangerous because he will undermine the global shift towards democracy and international law. His election unleashes a new era of nationalism that ends the globalist era of the past four decades.
I warned in a post in June that identity politics was fuelling fascism. We learned the truth of that with Trump’s election, and will continue to learn it as fascists triumph in Europe in the coming years. This will continue until the left rids itself of identity politics and nationalism, and once again learns the lesson of the liberal movements of the 1960s: to treat people as equals, irrespective of race, colour, gender or sexuality.
There was a time when we on the British left owned terms like Unity and Solidarity. The broad left had formed around a single, enormous issue: the obscenity of poverty. Thus, the left once represented the disadvantaged, and the right fought to maintain the old status quo. When fascism last surged in the 1930s, it was the left’s broad base that ensured British fascism was crushed: it alone could unite the mighty industrial working class with immigrants and sympathetic liberals. It was opposition to poverty that united white working class people with the immigrants – Irish, Jewish, Black and Asian – that came to Britain over the past century. Ultimately, this was why the left eventually championed the fight against racism: because it understood that the biggest problems faced by immigrants – bad housing, low pay, state indifference, routine violence – were shared by poor white people, and formed alliances in factories and poor communities that transcended race.
Racism was never a one-way street. Tension and violence grew in high-immigration communities because of mistrust and misunderstanding on both sides. Mass immigration – then, as now – benefited the economy as a whole, but placed a disproportionate burden on poor communities. People who complained about rapid, disconcerting change in their neighbourhoods were not uniformly attacked as “racists”; instead, the left sought to find common ground and build unity. The Notting Hill Carnival is one of the lasting testaments to this approach: it was a community creation designed to bring white and black people together in the wake of race riots.
But the Labour Movement, the foundation of the old left, effectively collapsed during the 1980s and 90s for a variety of reasons. The left dwindled, and found new power bases: no longer in factories or council estates; instead in academia and the public sector. It lost touch with working class people, and lost interest in poverty. It instead adopted identity politics, dividing people by race, gender, sexuality just as it once united people across these lines. It became whiter and more middle-class, and gradually came to represent the interests of white, middle-class people above all others. Step by step, from the 80s onward, the left took on the attitudes of the old fascist movements, seeking to divide society into isolated, opposing groups of people.
None of this mattered much, until a new surge in left-wing support followed the 2008 financial crash. My initial excitement at the left-wing resurgence turned into disgust as I saw what the left had now become.
I first noticed the shift via my involvement in sexual freedom causes. The old Christian right had died along with Mary Whitehouse. Now, a new conservative movement surfaced, this time based around the remnants of the old feminist movement. The new attackers of sexual freedom came from the organs of the new-left: universities, trade unions, local authorities and the Labour Party. This new left had lost all interest in tackling poverty and disadvantage, because they had no experience or understanding of it. Instead, they declared gender, skin colour and sexuality to be the true marks of oppression. So, porn and other sexual expression came under attack, not because it was “ungodly” but because it was deemed to “oppress women”. Thieves had stolen the language of the (now defunct) progressive left and used it to advance fascist agendas.
So we saw the grotesque sight of middle-class “left-wing” people declaring themselves to be “oppressed” (for reason of possessing a vagina or extra melanin in their skin), and attacking poor white communities as “privileged”. The new-left had restarted the class war, but this time was firmly on the other side.
So when Edie Lamort, a stripper-activist (who I interviewed some time back), declared herself some years ago to be the “canary in the coalmine”, she was very prescient. The attacks on her and her comrades, by fascists in left-wing clothing, were indeed an early sign of a broad attack on liberal values from the political left.
The pus-filled boil of identity politics, quietly swelling since the 80s, really only burst within the past couple of years. And now, the identity fascists are dismantling all remnants of cross-community solidarity as rapidly as possible. Every progressive movement of recent years is collapsing as identity politics moves in. Among the most spectacular examples has been the undermining of the campaign against police violence in the United States. A few years ago, thanks to smartphones and social media, and campaigns such as Copblock, a bright light was shone for the first time on the astonishing violence of US policing. Although there was clearly a strong racial element, police violence was meted out across all communities. If there was a particular “identity” group at the receiving end, it was overwhelmingly poor, young men, of all races.
But to make it a “male issue” would have been foolish and divisive. A Martin Luther King character, should one exist today, would identify a common cause and an opportunity for cross-community solidarity; but this is not the liberal 60s, and there appears to be no room for uniting characters like MLK today. Instead, the issue was seized by black nationalists. The hashtag #filmthepolice gave way to #blacklivesmatter. In a remarkable reversal of logic, black nationalists – backed by identity fascists – declared #alllivesmatter to be a “racist” sentiment. Never mind that numerically, the single biggest identity group to be shot by police was white men; or that, proportionately the greatest sufferers were native American men. The issue was now owned by the 24% of victims who were black, and the other 76% were excluded (Source: The Counted). This marked the high watermark of the campaign against police violence: it had been killed by sectarianism. If there ever was a signal to white working class people that nobody cares for them, here it was.
Now, when a 12 year old (white) girl was shot dead by police, there would be no community mobilisation, no public outcry. After all, what hashtag does one use in such a case? #Alllivesmatter was already deemed racist, and #whitelivesmatter would be even worse. So, the girl’s name never made it into the public consciousness: Ciara Meyer RIP: killed by police, forgotten by identity politics.
Now, it seems, the scourge of mass shootings in the US is going the same way. While only a couple of years ago, every shooting was met with horror, and renewed calls for gun controls, now the campaign has been targeted, divided and sunk by identity politics. A steady stream of mass killings – driven by easy access to guns, however much the gun lobby denied it – was punctuated a year ago by the killing of nine people in Charleston, South Carolina. Like many such mass killings, the shooter was an angry/crazy/hateful (take your pick) white man. Unlike most others, the targets were exclusively black.
Dylan Roof, the shooter, was no doubt motivated by racist views: but statistically, the event was an outlier. It makes no sense to declare a single atrocity, carried out by a single person, to be representative of anything but the views of that person. Racial violence has, in fact, tumbled a long, long way since the days of the lynch mob. But identity politics (which previously had no interest in the long succession of mass shootings) now awoke, and declared the issue a black-owned one.
And with the recent mass-shooting in a gay club in Orlando, the divisiveness reaches a whole new level. This time, identity fascists of the right blame “Islam”, while those of the left are determined to blame “Homophobia”. But neither explanation is matched by a genuine trend: neither Islamist nor homophobic atrocities are regular enough events to be anything but outliers. Homophobia may still be commonplace, but is almost certainly at its lowest level in US history. The same old explanation holds true for this mass shooting as for all the hundreds of others: an angry/crazy/hateful individual managed to get hold of military-style weaponry.
Identity politics is really the politics of the self. The identity warrior’s deepest instinct is: “How can I make this all about MEEEE?” Thus, the ever-vapid commentator Owen Jones walked out of a Sky News dicussion on the Orlando shooting, ostensibly because the other commentators were refusing to acknowledge homophobia. But in reality, Jones had finally found an American massacre that he, as a gay man, could associate himself with, and so become outraged about. Never mind that, as a British person, the chance he will ever encounter a mass shooting is close to zero. Never mind that many of the dead were undocumented Latino migrants rather than middle-class British journalists. Jones’ sexuality is the hook with which he can claim a stake in the misery of strangers, far away.
And here is the real tragedy of identity politics: solidarity is dying. While, only a few years ago, we could all unite to express shock at the killing of a black person by a racist, or a gay person by a homophobe, or a Jew by an anti-semite, now this is quietly breaking down. Now, every atrocity is an identity atrocity, and so every atrocity fosters further anger and division, while not so long ago we could unite in our common humanity against the tiny minority that commit vile acts of hate.
Identity politics is the politics of self-pity. If I were to choose this route, I could assert my Jewishness: henceforth, I could declare any anti-semitic attack to be all about MEEE. But I choose not to be defined by my Jewish heritage, however much self-pity it could allow me to wallow in. My children are Nigerian-Jewish; should they revel only in the victimhood of Jews and Nigerians? Should my daughter declare herself a Judeo-Nigerian Feminist, and add gender self-pity to black and semitic self-pity? We are in a race to the bottom: when we selectively ignore horror, because we don’t identify with the identity of the victims, we are losing our humanity.
Is it surprising, therefore, that poor whites would now also choose to unite around their racial identity? Is the rise of Donald Trump or of Nigel Farage so surprising in this climate? This new ascent of the fascist right was clearly preempted and driven by the rise of fascist politics on the left. We have no chance of resisting the rise of of the far-right in Europe and America if we adopt fascist methods and ideas ourselves. We need to rediscover the solidarity of the old left: we must stand shoulder to shoulder with those who suffer, however much – or little – they resemble ourselves.
France’s prostitution ban is a sign of a deep historical shift in French politics
Yesterday, France adopted the “Nordic Model” for attacking the sex trade, making it illegal to buy sex. As ever, supporters of the attack denied that prostitution was being outlawed – for example, in response to my tweet on the news, I received this:
@PornPanic France is not banning prostitution actually quite the contrary. We are banning the buying of sex and de-criminilising prostitutes
But it takes a truly Orwellian mindset to believe that one can outlaw the buying of a service without hurting those who sell it. This is, of course, designed to hurt sex workers. The bigotry of the anti-prostitution movement is there for all to see. Sex workers are not divided on this: they are clear, whenever they are listened to, that sex work must be entirely decriminalised. Impartial observers – such as Amnesty International, who recently adopted a policy of decriminalisation – have not found this a tricky, two-sided argument. It is well known that criminalising any aspect of the trade clearly harms sex workers.
So let us not treat prohibitionists as misguided people who care, any more than we should waste breath over whether it is right or wrong to lynch black people or gas Jews. Anti-prostitution campaigners are bigots, plain and simple. They seek to attack what they hate and fear. And this bigotry born of fear and loathing, that is rising in France, is part of a far bigger historical shift. France is sinking back into fascism.
What is disconcerting is that, unlike last time around, the driving force of French fascism is the the political left. A few days ago, for example, French Socialist government minister Laurence Rossignol said that women who wore veils were like “negroes who supported slavery”. The anti-veil law was presented with a thin progressive veneer, using ‘secularism’ as an excuse. But France’s secularism is not the religious freedom of the Enlightenment. It is an opportunity to viciously abuse minorities.
And as the sex work commentator Laura Agustín wrote on Facebook yesterday, this anti-prostitution law, too, is rooted in France’s deep racism: “In France where more than half those who sell sex are migrants the law is overtly anti-migration. The message is if you want to do this – Leave.” France has always been one of the worst places in Europe to be an immigrant. Now the French war on immigrants is getting vicious, and the left is at the forefront of it. The job of far-right leader Marine Le Pen is done: who needs the far-right when fascism is just as comfortably at home on the left?
The collapse of the progressive left is not just a French thing. It is no coincidence that, in the UK, a Labour-led parliamentary inquiry is also trying to ban prostitution. Open anti-sex attitudes, and veiled racist attitudes are now commonplace on the political left everywhere: the recent attack on a student wearing dreadlocks – simply because the student was white – shows the rot is there on the American left too.
As someone who once felt at home on the left, this change in the political landscape is disconcerting. The left’s shift towards fascist attitudes forms the heart of my new book, Porn Panic! Liberal values of equality, liberty and reason are collapsing across the political spectrum. France’s prostitution ban, and that of the veil represent dark clouds rising over the western world.