Sometimes, it's just a cigar

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Moral equivalence and the moment

During the Miner’s Strike I spent a lot of time, in a lot of places where angry men and women discussed how they might fight back. We were not naive, or innocents. From the moment I read Frederick Forysth’s ‘The Odessa Files’ I had enjoyed a naive interest in explosive mechanisms and devices. (In case you haven’t read it, in amongst the casual sexism and awful writing the Odessa Files features a slightly complicated way of making a bomb to kill a car driver that could have been done much more easily with a mercury tilt switch or a bi-metallic strip type of heat sensitive switch.)  Some of my friends believed that they should strike back gainst the state; people discussed everything from improvised caltraps to ways of disrupting the rail and transport networks.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but, in each moment when these things were discussed, I tried to make a moral decision, about what I could or could not do, alongside the political decision about whether the means would deliver the ends desired. I’ve not always been a moral man (in the sense of having a coherent moral stance, or, more recently, in the sense of meeting the standards I set for myself), and I’m always grateful that my absolute political opposition to terrorism and vanguardism meant that my morals were never tested.

In today’s Guardian/ Observer Nick Cohen, who seems to covet notoriety as a journalistic bully is intent on telling us all that we should all become Jews in order to experience the lives of Jews who experience anti-semitism. Cohen’s logic, that he is an atheist Jew who declared himself a Jew in order to experience anti-semitism has some of the inauthentic narcissism of Rachel Dolezal about it. His insistence that in order to escape accusations of anti-semitism, we should all join him, is bullying. Nothing more, nothing less.

In the decades that I’ve been active on the left I’ve learned to avoid debating Israel, and its position in the world of geo-politics. Geo-politics is a sterile area anyway, the province of overgrown schoolboys whose world view is hardly more complex than a game of Risk, treating people, communities and societies as plastic tokens to be moved round the board with no concern for the consequences.

One of the weaknesses of the geo-political world view, of power blocs and nation states, is that it sees the world as made of discrete elements, as separate as hen’s eggs in the box that they come in from the shop, and unchanging, as if an omelette can be unmade by simply putting the eggs back into the box.

Israel can’t be un-made. Believing,as Israel’s creators did, that the pre-existing society in Palestine could be un-made, and replaced by the utopian vision of Israel that so intrigued many on the left, the Israel of the kibbutz and mutuality, was delusional, and narcissistic. Israel’s founders were so entranced by the beauty of their vision for Israel that they could not understand that not everyone shared their vision.

To be critical of every colonial plantation, even when, as with Israel or Patagonia, they were the vision of well intended millenarians reacting to oppression, is not to endorse every response to them. It is possible to criticize both the Israeli army as it destroys Palestinian homes, and Palestinian terrorism,without resorting to either the abstentionism of ‘a plague on both their houses’or the amoral algebra of equivalence, that says X was justified because Y, where X is a Palestinian boy shot dead for throwing a stone in the street because a boy not much older than himself took a suicide bomb onto a bus.

It isn’t my job to fix Israel, to demand that it abandon the apartheid style practices of walls and travel documents for Palestinians, no more than it is my job to explain to the people of Syria why they should not follow ISIS, or to debate with the people of Gaza the morality or otherwise of Hezbollah. The belief that it is my job, that the stance I hold matters in the larger scheme of things, is narcissism. To me what matters is how I am, and how others experience me, not what I tell the world about a country far away about which I do not know enough.

Nick Cohen’s point today is that we should all declare that weare Jews in order to experience anti-semitism. I’m sure I’m not the first person to wonder when Nick will out himself as queer, so he can experience homophobia, or as trans so he can experience transphobia. Before the shouts of outrage begin, let’s be clear; queer and trans people have died because of the hatred of others. In Hitler’s Germany my sexuality and my  ancestry would, along with my socialist politics, have made me a prime candidate for a ticket on the trains to my own private holocaust, but Nick Cohen thinks I need to become a Jew. Unless he is engaged in special pleading, that there is an oppression that he thinks is more important than all the others, he may have missed the point.

The whole point about universal human rights, about being a moral and decent person, is that it’s not a position that is mediated or shaped by your experience of oppression. It’s about not being the oppressor. Ever. Experiencing oppression does not prevent you from being the oppressor to others; the experience does not preclude the behaviour.

The behaviour of some on the centre left, singling out Labour activists who are anti-semitic and making them the focus of all their activity is perplexing. All political parties harbour anti-semites,racists, misogynists and the like. The fuckwittery of the anti-imperialist left, with their belief in power bloc politics and their infantile binary belief that their enemy’s enemy must be their friend does not require anti-semitism at its root, just a focus on external perceptions, not on our behaviours.

One of the things I learned in those conversations with other activists, back in the 80s, was that I did not become the same as them by talking to them. Sometimes, in order to learn, you have to have conversations with people whose views you do not endorse.

Instead of inciting a new inquisition about who can or cannot be part of the Labour Party, an inquisition where Cohen consistently takes only one side, the conversation needs to begin from a simple premise; do not be the oppressor. I can say, with some caution lest I behave unconsciously in an oppressive way, that that is all I claim, that I try not to be the oppressor. That’s all the advice I offer,and all I ask. Claiming that one form of oppression is more significant, more important, or more evil, than others, risks silencing and oppressing others. That is why despite Nick Cohen’s insistence, I am not going to become a Jew.


5 comments on “Moral equivalence and the moment

  1. Pingback: The Sunday Sermon;Palm Sunday | Sometimes, it's just a cigar

  2. Wickedjulia
    March 23, 2016

    Maybe Nick should declare himself to be an Ethiopian Jewish woman to cover as many bases as possible


    • jemima2016
      March 24, 2016

      lol, with an invisible disability 😀


  3. dwpandme (@dwpandme)
    April 5, 2016

    Another excellent piece.

    Especially refreshing to read:

    “To me what matters is how I am, and how others experience me, not what I tell the world about a country far away about which I do not know enough.”

    I have noted a number of times that the philosophy underlying the world view of the booming opinionated and ferociously principled evangelist types that can sometimes be found in fashionable drinking spots does appear to be at odds with the callousness revealed by their conduct towards those closest to them in their everyday life.


    “One of the things I learned in those conversations with other activists, back in the 80s, was that I did not become the same as them by talking to them”

    It is regrettable that many of those who should really know better have so enthusiastically embraced the blocking facility on Twitter and seem to use it as a way of negatively demonstrating their allegiances. Its almost as if, having selected an “off the shelf” political identity package, they are so at a loss as to how to robustly defend its claims that they look for anything to shield them from the opinions of the apparent ideological enemy. It’s madness.

    “It’s about not being the oppressor” -Often forgotten completely once the moralising and victim -blaming gets underway.


    • jemima2016
      April 7, 2016

      Having come across people of all shades of the political spectrum through talking about sex work i can see your point around “off the shelf” political identities. I block liberally, and often, but not to make a point about who i want to be seen as. i feel you are right that this is exactly what some people do


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This entry was posted on March 20, 2016 by in Uncategorized.

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