Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Why has the Left abandoned Peter Tatchell?

let's try this one again, shall we? New Blogger ate it first time round, bastard.

On topic with "World of Decency", the new ish of the Decent house journal Democratiya is out. Still no explanation why it's got a dog Russian title, but a long essay by Peter Tatchell about how the Left really doesn't deserve him any more.

PT is a national treasure, of course, but he really is flirting with self-parody these days. It used to be the case that no Tatchell campaign was complete without a high-profile slapstick stunt, like handcuffing himself to Mugabe or storming the pulpit at Canterbury. These days, no Tatchell campaign is complete without a finger-wagging sermon aimed at an undefined "The Left" for their failure to jump on his bandwagon. Since Peter Tatchell is kind of the campaigning equivalent of a footballer's WAG - he is no more able to resist the cause of an oppressed minority, than Danielle Lloyd is to stay away from a nightclub opening - there are about a million of these campaigns going on at any one time, each with Peter being appalled anew at the lack of "The Left" being involved. I don't think that he necessarily realises that some of these causes are really quite obscure.

I mean, at one point half way down, he has a go at us for not doing anything for gay Rastafarians. Did you know that any such thing existed? I didn't[1]. In any case, what the hell am I meant to do on behalf of gay Rastafarians? Since my view on Hailie Selassie is not so much "Conquering Lion of Judah, I and I and King of Kings" as "middle-ranking African kleptocrat, installed by the Brits after we chucked the Italians out", I am not really all that well placed to contribute to any debate in Rastafarian theology at even a basic level, let alone to reconcile the mainstream of that religion with whatever faction within it has decided that a revision of its position on homosexuality is in order. As far as I can tell, if someone has ended up in the position where they are gay, but nevertheless believe in the Rastafarian religion, then that sounds like bloody bad luck, but I really don't see how I can help. If the gay Rastas are having a bring and buy sale I'll go if the weather's nice, but is the sight of my pasty face on a March For Gay Rastafarianism really going to turn the tide?

If I was being mischievous, I'd suggest that we ought to consider that the common thread running between all these causes that "The Left" have failed to support is Peter Tatchell himself, and that he might want to check his antiperspirant, so to speak. I'm told that he's utterly charming in person, but he has a really annoying style in print, full of monolithic certainty and extreme language. It's bound to get people's backs up and make them think, however unfairly "no, fuck the Ahwazi Arabs, I'm not going to join Tatchell's fucking campaign if that's his attitude". He also seems to be really rather ungrateful - as I remember it, his campaign against homophobic lyrics in reggae music got a lot of support from all corners of the media industry and in local government, but in his Democratiya article it has been rewritten as Peter against the world, with no support from "The Left". This is partly Nick Cohen's "honourable exceptions" doctrine which allows you to make sweeping and false generalisations, and partly the weird habit of defining out of "The Left" anyone who behaves sensibly or normally, implicitly assuming that it is constitutive of "The Left" that they have to be nutters outside the mainstream. Anyway ...

Peter has two substantial arguments, and in both cases, I sort of agree with them, but I think they prove my point, not his.

1. People on "The Left" are reluctant to criticise repressive regimes in the Third World because they are scared of building a movement that might be co-opted at a later date to start a war.

My considered response to this can be summarised in the single word "yup". Have a look at the Darfur campaign for many examples of the Decent Left, including Tatchell himself trying to take a humanitarian campaign and paste their own doctrines about international "intervention" onto it. I for one would certainly be a lot keener to discuss the education of women in Afghanistan if the War Party weren't always trying to add it to the "plus" column of their latest military disaster, and indeed, to stick it onto the Iraq and Iran projects whenever they think nobody's looking. Not necessarily one of the least sins of the Decent Left is that they've corrupted a lot of left discourse, because everyone is frightened of the way that they abuse a lot of left wing analysis (cf, Amnesty International lodging an actual complaint about Blair's abuse of their Iraq dossier). And then they complain that left wing discourse is corrupted, rather like a man farting in a lift and complaining about the smell.

(It should be noted at this point, in fairness, that Peter Tatchell does usually step back from the brink when it comes to supporting actual wars. However, let's use the Nick Cohen standard here. He allows his movement to be led by war-mad nutters. He does not denounce Brian Brivati and Oliver Kamm (or at least, not often enough by the arbitary standard I'm choosing to use here. The logic which places George Galloway in the vanguard of the Liberal Democrat Party is much more appropriate here; Peter Tatchell does provide the raw material of propaganda to the War Party, and here he is appearing in their journal so he can't claim he doesn't know he's doing so.)

2. People on the left don't sufficiently criticise "brown racists, sexists and homophobes"[2] because they are scared of being called racists by the dreaded multiculturalisses.

Again, Peter has a point here, but makes it in a really weird way. For one thing, he is surely wrong to implicitly believe that the multicultural movement (such as it is) for greater tolerance of the lifestyle and beliefs of ethnic minority groups is a different thing from the more general movement toward greater tolerance overall, from which movement he has clearly benefited substantially because it is due to this effort on the part of "The Left" that homophobia has been driven out of polite society.

For another, he is surely aware that being nasty to minority groups, who in general have a hell of a time, is something that you have to do very carefully indeed if you're not going to cross the line into ordinary garden-variety racism. I can't find any reference on the internet to Peter's views about Pim Fortuyn and would be grateful for any pointers since I'm sure that he's said something about him. It's not exactly as if we're in any danger of the List Peter Tatchell becoming a big force in British anti-immigrant politics, but Fortuyn does represent the far end of where it's possible to take this line of reasoning, and those people on the Left who don't feel comfortable in having a go at immigrants for this reason aren't scared of nothing. A quick glance at the notorious "Harry's Place" comments boxes shows how careful you have to be about the kind of mates you tend to pick up if you make a career out of saying that we are in danger of being overwhelmed by aliens whose values are inimical to our own.

The really fundamental mistake here though is the common thread which runs through a lot of Decency - the sheer damnable egotism of demanding that one's own personal priorities must be those of everyone else. It makes a certain kind of sense if you have convinced yourself that you're engaged in the greatest intellectual struggle of our time, but for those of us who remain to be convinced (not least because there is a fucking war on, which does rather tend to consume quite a lot of energy and attention), it's just a little bit irksome to have the Decents stamping their feet and demanding that we all pay attention to them right now. Anyone who has ever had any involvement at all with left-wing politics will know that there is nothing more tiresome than the guy who keeps badgering you with "oy! Why weren't you on that demo?", and that, at base, is what Peter Tatchell's critique boils down to.

[1] I did know there were Jewish Rastafarians though, although not I think in Jamaica.
[2] This phrase copyright Nick Cohen and scheduled for more detailed analysis at a later date.

26 Comments:

Blogger Matthew said...

An excellent post. Tatchell does, as you say, tend to draw back from some of the looniest aspects of Decency, e.g. he did apologise for his part in the hate-fest that was 'Unite Against Terror', and I would add that he at least can unhypocritically ask of others what they have done for this or that cause. It's not something I think you could say of the great mass of Decents, who nevertheless love to attack others for their inactions.

3/20/2007 04:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matthew or anyone else who cares to answer- in what sense was UAT a "hatefest"? I'm genuinely interested in your take on UAT as its a campaign that I harboured deep suspicions about.

3/20/2007 07:34:00 PM  
Anonymous redpesto said...

re. the name Democratiya: maybe it comes from the same aesthetic flourish as the fake-Cyrillic header for the Harryettes' blog (I've no idea if they're still using as I've better ways to waste time at work) - it looks sort of leftish, but I'm sure it will become an embarrassment in the light of the new friends the Decents keep making on the right.

3/20/2007 07:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are always a great read, BB (or DD), and I think you have the tone pretty much right here. Tatchell is a national treasure who seems to be firing at odd tagets these days.

My question is, when are you lot going to go all out for Harry's Place? When will Geras get his due? Hell, I think Butterflies and Wheels would be a reasonable target as well, but maybe thats a little too "decent" for a pacifist like me.

3/20/2007 07:53:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

I don't think it's advisable to get in a spat with HP as opposed to just slagging them off in general now and then: they have an awful lot of stamina and as they don't really care whether what they say is true of false there's not really any way of engaging with them.

3/20/2007 08:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Peter said...

Yes, their track record is abysmal.

3/20/2007 09:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Indeed, an excellent post. The fact that Blair is now touting the idea that we should go to war with countries because of their values means that most rational people are more reluctant to talk about other societies' values. And as trying to understand other societies' values is some sort of crime in the eyes of the Decents then most rational people simply give up.

3/20/2007 11:00:00 PM  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

Harry's Place - I don't know why but I don't see it happening. Since more or less everything we disagree with on this blog has been asserted on HP at some time or another, it's implicit in the whole blog, but HP itself is really not as relevant as it used to be; it's like the second series of Blake's Seven without Blake.

Butterflies and Sneers - certainly at some point in the near future. They really do remind me of the sort of character who must have been ubiquitous in 18th century Edinburgh - someone who has discovered that they don't believe in God and on the strength of that and nothing else believes that they are making a huge contribution to the Enlightenment. Their contribution to Nick Cohen's book (the section on postmodernism) is certainly something that needs a bit of attention.

3/20/2007 11:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Darius Jedburgh said...

God you are so right about that 18th-cenury thing at B & W.

3/21/2007 12:53:00 AM  
Blogger Dr Zen said...

Excellent post. I'd love to see the trashing of Butterflies and Wheels. Its guiding philosophy is "If you don't think exactly like me, you are wrong wrong wrong and I'll thcweam until I'm sick". It's weird how Ophelia Benson's brand of antimulticulturalism often makes her sound like an old Torey fogey, because she'd surely consider herself a "liberal" of some sort.

3/21/2007 12:54:00 AM  
Blogger Sonic said...

"it's like the second series of Blake's Seven without Blake."

What a lovely analogy, and an excellent bit.

3/21/2007 04:54:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Except that Blake's Seven were the good guys, mostly. Whereas HP are more like Servalan.

Except not so attractive.

Or indeed so clever.

3/21/2007 08:03:00 AM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

I do like Peter Tatchell, although he does seem to send himself up unintentionally sometimes.

What with Democratiya burbling on, and the Eustonista pub meets, this whole Decency malarkey is going to run and run - and the great thing is it entered the self satirical stage some time ago.

Surely Alan Johnson is heavily pregnant with another front group by now?

3/21/2007 08:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Simon said...

I gave up on HP a while back, partly because I found their coverage of the Lebanon war disgusting, partly because it was fairly obvious that they were being highly selective in which extreme comments they were deciding to block, with the effect that certain kinds of bigot were swamping the comments section.

3/21/2007 09:15:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

the sheer damnable egotism of demanding that one's own personal priorities must be those of everyone else.

There is that, but it's also an unacceptable intellectual approach as well as an objectionable personal characteristic. What it involves doing is extracting one element (or only the elements of one's choice) from any given situation and saying "this trumps everything else, all other considerations are to put aside in view of this".

One can of course do this from any given political position - and one of course can always be right, if all we take into account in a discussion is whatever best suits us. But the Decents do it as a matter of course: "Saddam was bad, therefore you must support the war and anybody who does not is either a villain or a fool" is essentially what they say, isn't it?

Otherwise you can't really have the notorious HP column accusing antiwar people of marching "for fascism".

3/21/2007 10:02:00 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

On the 'hate fest' I'm thinking along the lines that (presumably) Alan 'Not the Minister' Johnson asked Peter Tatchell, Stephen Pollard, Nick Cohen, (to name the highest-profile 'uniters') to make a statement reflecting on and 'uniting' in response to, the horrific events of the 7th July, which killed 52 people. And their way of doing this was to ignore the atrocities, and instead rant and rave at the 'left'. Cohen refers to “the left” as morons and wonders if there can be a 'decent left', Pollard calls them “fellow-travellers of terrorism” and Tatchell says that they are “guilty of the greatest betrayal since the Hitler Stalin pact”.

Either this indicative of the sort of people they are (as I said Tatchell has apologised for his response) or Alan NTM Johnson gave them a steer.

3/21/2007 11:01:00 AM  
Anonymous James O said...

Just a reminder of the fatuousness of Tatchell's argument, this week's SW contains articles on both the repression in Iran and Zimbabwe, as well as a number of other Afro-Asian countries about which he seems strangely unconcerned:

http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/article.php?article_id=10998

http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/article.php?article_id=10997

3/21/2007 11:35:00 AM  
Blogger The Couscous Kid said...

Do remember, though, that just as the Decent world view can absorb any intervention by Amnesty or Human Rights Watch using the handy phrase, "with the honorable exception of...", any time the indecent press does cover any of the issues about which it is supposed to be maintaining a "shameful silence", this can be dismissed as "throat-clearing".

3/21/2007 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Williams said...

I'd like to put in a word for B&W. Ophelia may have signed Euston but she also signed the Third Camp Manifesto, and I think that as far as B&W are concerned, the WCPI and their affiliates are more than just cutouts to be dragged out of the cupboard when it's convenient.

Style? Well, AW isn't the Polite Society either, is it?

3/21/2007 04:32:00 PM  
Blogger Martin Wisse said...

Spot on about Fortuyn and when genuine criticism of any given group's less than enlightened views on homosexuality, position of women etc can become cover for racists.

Via Fortuyn and Hirsi Ali, both of whom combined genuine concerns with careerism and Islamophobia, we've gotten in the Netherlands to Geert Wilders, who just uses these concerns as a cover for quite a nasty sort of xenophobia [1] and a resurgence of nazi/white power groups.

[1] The difference is that those just agitated about those filthy foreigners while Wilders is clever enough to disguise his attacks in liberal language

3/22/2007 12:16:00 AM  
Anonymous James O said...

'any time the indecent press does cover any of the issues about which it is supposed to be maintaining a "shameful silence", this can be dismissed as "throat-clearing".

a revealing expression given that the engagement of the Decent Left in activism is practically nil - which is one of the differences between Tatchell and HP/Kamm/Cohen/Aaronovitch - whom restrict themselves to advocacy for state policies in the media and blogosphere. one consequence of this approach is that the numbers they are able to mobilise in practical activity, as demonstrated by the rally for free expression, are pitiful.

3/22/2007 12:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tatchell reminds me of the image of the Left of the 1980s eg the stories about the GLC giving grants to groups of gay, disabled, battered, vegetarian squatters. This was always a bit of a myth but the Left has also (over the last 25 years) got away from a tendency of ambulance-chasing of more and more obscure oppressed groups. Tatchell seems to still be flitting from one cause to another: the rest of us have realised that you don't achieve very much that way.

3/22/2007 02:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anscombe said...

I don't know much about "Butterflies and Wheels", but I have read (most of) Benson and Stangroom's "Why Truth Matters" ("A fine polemic" - Nick Cohen; "heroic ... their defence of the Enlightenment ought to be better known" - Oliver Kamm) and it is utterly, un-remittingly, and quite hilariously dreadful. They rant on, and on, and on, about the importance of rational argument, thinking for oneself, and not deferring to authority, and in the process make such a vast number of howlers. Let me take two examples.

After telling us how important it is not to defer to authority, they embark on a lengthy, and inept, discussion of Cartesian scepticism; but, realising that they are unable to refute it, their central argument consists simply in quoting Simon Blackburn, and his view that scepticism is "probably" self-refuting.

Later, after telling us how important it is to engage in rational argument and not simply enunciate prejudices, they embark on a lengthy, and inept, discussion of relativism; realising that they are unable to refute it, their central argument consists simply in saying that relativism is something we all know to be false "in our bones".

Such abominable rubbish speaks volumes about those who endorse it, as I sure we all agree.

3/23/2007 11:39:00 AM  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

I kind of agree - politically, Butterflies and Wheels are very much the acceptable face of Decency, but intellectually their two main themes are god-shaped-hole atheism of the Dawkins sort, and really really mindless anti-relativism.

3/23/2007 12:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anscombe said...

I can't speak for Benson and Stangroom's political views. I know Benson is a Euston signatory, and I did read an interview with her by a chap called David Thompson, in which he tried to get her to say various sweepingly critical things about communism, and she very admirably refused to do so. I also know she is a big fan of Christopher Hitchens, which was once a not too bad thing. But is their website really the acceptable face of the misnamed Decent Left?

All I do know is that their book is completely dreadful from a philosophical point of view. Unlike any truly "decent" critique, they don't even attempt to give relatvism - a view which I think is probably unsustainable, even in its most sophisticated forms (such as conceptual relativism, the target of Donald Davidson's fine paper "The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme") - a fair run for its money.

3/23/2007 02:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tatchell is now in the Independent (Saturday 24th March)

3/24/2007 10:20:00 AM  

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