This is our truth, tell us yours
Traffic wardens? What, you may well ask, have they got to do with the Tricycle Theatre?
Here on the interweb it’s common to describe a particular style of debate as whataboutery. When X is caught doing Y, they cry, in a shrill voice, ‘But what about Z?’
To the man in the street whataboutery can be a little obscure. So let me introduce you to Martina the traffic warden. She’s patrolling her patch, and she sees a mass of cars which may or may not be legally parked. So she starts with the one in front of her, decides if it’s illegally parked, decides if there’s evidence of a lawful excuse, and if not, starts to write a ticket. The owner comes rushing along, and starts a dialogue painfully familiar to Martin.
It has a number of components. ‘Why haven’t you ticketed all those before me?’ ‘What about that one over there, he probably hasn’t even got an MOT?’ ‘Haven’t you ever parked illegally?’ ‘But I parked here yesterday…’
All of these arguments are painfully familiar to Martina, and boring to her, and she carries on writing the ticket. Someone else, who was illegally parked, will arrive while Martina is engaged with the angry motorist, and drive off, escaping unticketed because Martina was busy with the irate and irritating complainant. All too often the illegally parked and apprehended motorist will drive off, convinced the ticket was unfair because someone else didn’t get a ticket. Martina meanwhile will move on to the next car. She can only write one ticket at a time, and she can only deal with the car in front of her at that moment. She has made no greater moral decision, and has had no great stratagem, than to deal with the problem in front of her then move on to the next one. Martina knows, as all traffic wardens know, that if you try and work out which decision has the highest moral imperative, if you try and work out which car most deserves a ticket, you’ll never issue a ticket. Over drinks, with friends, she may mutter ‘In an ideal world…’ but she knows she lives in a imperfect world where decisions are made often and swiftly, not in an ivory tower after an eternity of agonizing over the principles and issues.
Nick Cohen and his partners in sophistry, the Gerasites, have been using much the same tactic against the Tricycle Theatre as motorists use against Martina. How, they ask, can the Tricycle Theatre refuse Israeli money when it accepts money from the Arts Council, funded by a British government that engaged in an illegal war in Iraq? The irony of a claque of liberal interventionists who argue for more liberal interventionism using the supposed illegality of a liberal intervention to defend Israel escapes Cohen and the Gerasites of course, but let’s get to the nub of their argument.
Arts Council funding. Being a Northern blog we’ll park, for a moment, the debate about the way in which a small theatre in Kilburn gets to draw down more funding than all the theatres in Northumberland. For Londoners who don’t get out much, Northumberland is the size of the area surrounded by the M25. It has three Arts Council funded theatres, and two of its touring theatre companies (yes, both of them) have had funding withdrawn in the last three years. Instead of debating the iniquitous state of Arts Cuncil funding let’s focus on the sophistry behind arguing that accepting Arts Council funding is somehow the equivalent of the disputed Israeli funding for a Jewish Film Festival.
Draw breath here, dear reader, for I fear this will be a long haul. Let me start with a simple explanation of why Arts Council funding is not the same as funding for a Film Festival. Because it’s not.
There, you can let the breath out again. Arts Council National Portfolio Funding goes towards the costs of organisations who set out and fulfill certain objectives that the Arts Council specifies. The objectives are around types of work, and types of audience, but not values or policies related to government.
The useful idiots who wrote the Gerasites letter to the Tricycle Theatre probably know all this, but have ignored it. They are not disinterested liberals, keen to see an idealized and idealistic debate about principles who’ve made an embarrassing category error about the difference between funding a whole portfolio of work and funding a specific programme. Rather, they are partisans, keen to promote the Israeli side of the debate, and, like Nick Cohen, they’re not above the use of casual sophistry and childish analogy to make their point.
Similarly, the Gerasites (and Cohen – it’s hard to know who’s plagiarizing who) use the facts that
i) Indian government money helped sponsor an Asian Film Festival, and
ii) India has been involved in a prolonged dispute, and sometime war, over Kashmir
as if these are prima facie evidence of hypocrisy. Helpfully, the Gerasites torpedo their own argument by stating ‘you must understand both the unique significance Israel has for most Jews and the deep sensitivity to suggestions of boycott…’ I would struggle to see the analogy – will anyone really see the unique significance India has for most Asians? The argument, as I have said previously, is undermined hugely by the way, against the protests of some Jews, the Israeli government seeks to claim all Jews as Zionists and Israelis as of right, even if they have never been to Israel and have no desire to go. Not even the most deluded of Indian nationalists would claim all Asians as Indian, or offer them the right of return.
In internet debating it’s almost always the case that someone who says ‘you must understand’ is about to make an untrue, fallacious or deeply divisive point that they wish to use to silence anyone who disagrees with them. I know I’ve been guilty of it, and I cringe now, because I try to apply as a rule of writing that any statement that needs to be prefaced with ‘you must understand’ almost certainly is indefensible, or incomprehensible, or both.
I began to get irate about the Tricycle Theatre for a small reason, I have to confess. Someone on Twitter posted a picture of a demonstration outside the Tricycle where another useful idiot held a placard that said ‘boycotts divide cultures’ as if that was a killer argument. (There’s a similar image here.)
Dear reader, when I boycotted apartheid South Africa I was absolutely intent on dividing myself from the culture and practice of apartheid. I refused to be distracted by whataboutery, or sophistry, or the fucking idiots who claimed that worse things happened in Russia, or that the bantustans were just a geographical equivalent of India’s caste system (and yes, I heard all those arguments and more besides).
The whole purpose of boycotts, their absolute reason for existence, is to say ‘Not in my name’. If there are supporters of Israel who are so morally compromised they cannot reject what has been done to Gaza, I want the world to know that they are not on the same side as me.
I’ve argued here before that what was done by the Tricycle Theatre was not some grand gesture, not some kind of sweeping moral imperative, but a hasty decision poorly made by people in what they felt was an impossible position, but the sophistry of the supporters of Israel leads me, implacably, to the position that actually, refusing the money was morally right because to accept it would give comfort to those who think genocide in Gaza is a workable solution to the Palestinian problem.
Incidentally, I’ve also argued here that we have no time for this kind of debate, and I stand by what I said in that post, and in the comments.If I want to stand for anything, it is for informed, intelligent debate, not schoolboy debating points cheaply made by partisans whose only desire is to win the argument for their side, whatever the cost, in the same way the military murderers of Hamas and the IDF want to ‘win’ their military struggle, whatever the cost.