Two days rest have perked me up. Or I hope they have. We’re recording a podcast in a couple of hours and I’m trusting that my brain won’t be too fogged up.
August is my least favourite month in terms of the weather – though I’m delighted that we seem to have had it a relatively cool/damp – but always my favourite month when it comes to work. I think it’s the slow season, when the real journalists clear off on holiday, leaving the rest of us with room to find a little extra work.
But there I go again. “Real” is such a telling word. Do I think I’m less “real” than others? I don’t know what I think. I’ve been reading quite a bit about the media in the past few days, especially people advocating for journalism from voices that aren’t often read. I’d definitely count my own voice in that set, though I doubt if I’m ever thought about in those terms. I’m certainly from a non-traditional background, don’t live in a media bubble, and yet also don’t define myself by those things that non-traditional/anti-media-bubble people usually define themselves. I’m not a pipe-smoking, donkey jacket wearing, left-wing writer from Halifax. I’m too moderate to be noticed; neither loud nor abrasive enough to cause much trouble.
Media, it seems, is engaged in a fight for who gets to speak for the majority, most of whom probably defined by the non-traditional tag. Words are hunted down from both the left and the right. Where we once talked about “trots” and “crypto-fascists” we now have people seeking to hide behind more comfortable terms like “progressive” and “classic liberal”. Douglas Murray writes a typically callow article in The Telegraph today, attacking Biden for his weak response to the violence in Portland.
He writes: “Night and night so called ‘Antifa’ stalk the streets of this Democrat-run city looking for ‘Nazis’ to assault”.
It’s an odd line when you read it a couple of times. He sticks ‘Antifa’ in inverted commas yet ‘the so-called’ only modifies what it’s called, rather than whether it exists or not. The same isn’t true of ‘Nazis’ later on in the line. There, the doubt rests on if they exist, not what they’re called.
First, “Antifa” isn’t coherent enough to stalk anything. A phrase I read today which I liked called it an “amorphous movement”. It’s a bit like claiming the streets are filled with vegans and that would constitute a vegan riot. Lots of people attend the protests and many people share the same objections to cops shooting blacks, white nationalists, right-wing bigots, and people shouting “the Jews will not replace us”. That some of those people will go too far is not in question but nor should it be doubted that others won’t.
Yet that’s overlooked quite wilfully. There’s a rush to note extreme responses as if they totally invalidate the root position or cause. Black Lives Matter… except you just broke that window so they don’t. Or so many the right would have us believe. World War 2 was one of the most calamitous events in human history but that does not invalidate the point that the Treaty of Versailles was a bad treaty, that enshrined a power dynamic that was never going to hold after the Great War. Even if it were proved that climate science is wrong and our polluting the planet isn’t changing our weather patterns, that doesn’t mean it’s right to blast all kinds of shit into the atmosphere or dump it into our rivers.
Yet that’s precisely what so many of these arguments seem to attempt: invalidating an argument because some of its supporters express themselves in extreme ways.
This is fairly typical. The sin, I suppose, is in using outlier examples to make easy arguments. There was a story from Liverpool a few years ago when a young girl was prosecuted for posting some rap lyrics in a Facebook post for her dead friend. It included the ‘N’ word, which was seen as racially abusive and she was prosecuted. It was an outlier case; bad policing leading to ridiculous prosecution and a terrible verdict which was overturned not long after. Yet the Right still use that example in order to condemn censorship and no-platforming. They routinely speak of the “madness” of political correctness but the only madness is the lack of nuance; the inability to distinguish between restrictive censorship and something akin to civic language, the things that shouldn’t be said in order to maintain the peace.
This is what I find so slippery about so much of the language on both sides. People like Murray are no different to Jeremy Corbyn (or, for that matter, Boris Johnson) in that both conceal more extreme opinions in moderate language – the very anti-Semitic problem around Corbyn’s Labour was largely about how language masked deeper prejudices. There was an interesting piece by Caolan Robertson in The Byline Times a while ago, where this former producer to Tommy Robinson said that Murray once spoke of his admiration for Robinson but warned that his group’s behaviour didn’t become “unsightly”. Sort of sums up one entire subset of UK journalists (and many politicians) at the moment. It’s wink, wink, you know what I mean but, heavens, don’t make me have to say it!
This is why, I think, Murray defends Trump today against charges that he praised racists. Yes, that argument can be made but only by cherry-picking facts (which he does). Yet to understand Trump is to understand a man who is willing to say anything and to hold every opinion, therefore giving himself deniability. The only consistent quality about Trump is his inconsistency yet Murray writes as though gaslighting isn’t the predominant political language of the Right. Just last week, Mike Pence have a big law and order/anti-protestor speech, promised that “America will never forget or fail to honor officer Dave Patrick Underwood” whilst not noting that Officer Underwood died at the hands of The Boogaloo Boys, a far-right extremist movement currently engaged in raising tensions by committing crimes under the BLM banner. The RNC spent so much of its time promoting black figures praising Trump, proving he’s not racist, whilst gesturing wildly with barely veiled warnings to white voters that Biden will bring blacks into their neighbourhoods. There have been so many “yet buts” written about Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year old vigilante who killed two protestors Wisconsin, that one wonders where the madness will end.
Well, perhaps “wonders” isn’t the right word. I think the word now is “fear”. I fear that America sits perilously close to civil war of a kind that we’ve not seen before; less Gettysburg and more akin to skirmishes. It doesn’t take much to make gang-against-gang into militia-against-militia. When those Trump supporters drove their caravan through the protestors in Portland last night, firing paintballs into the crowd, they arguably got the response they wanted. People will argue a long time about who fired first but that’s missing the point that the bullets are already flying. And if anybody things that Trump’s interests aren’t served by that, then they don’t understand American politics.