Monday, August 25, 2008

How not to drive drunk. Or, what can be learned from linking to David Duke

So, over in Boycotting Britania, a certain member of the UCU (that's the union for university professors) has "accidentally" recommended something on David Duke's website. I put "accidentally" in quotes not because I think it was intentional but because I think it's like getting into a car accident while driving drunk. Apparently, the person in question has threatened to sue for libel because some people had the chutzpah to point out to her that she's, to extend the metaphor, a drunk.

Modernity has a post at Harry's Place on how not to do such things. You know: check that your tires are properly inflated before you get into your car. (Never mind that some people should just give their keys to a friend.) And even if there are no swastikas prominently displayed on the website you'd like to recommend, if it has prominent links to sites that do have swastikas prominently displayed, that's a good indication that you should sober up before entering the debate.

David Hirsh adds, "I would add this: if you agree with what is written on a fascist website then you should stop and wonder why that might be."

I will add that it is imperative that minority voices not be silenced or ignored. If you want to avoid antisemitism (and for some people that seems to be a big if), it is absolutely necessary to pay attention when Jews tell you something is antisemitic. That doesn't mean agreeing uncritically, but it does mean listening carefully and ensuring that representative (an important point - Tony Greenstein doesn't count) Jewish voices are part of the conversation. Even if you disagree with the views Jews are expressing -especially if, and everyone knows this is true in the present case, it's plainly the view of the majority of Jews- it's still important not to exclude them from political debate. That's like when the road signs are blurry and you still won't admit you're too drunk to drive.

Modernity's post was prompted by a UCU member who wrote, "This has made me crucially aware of how difficult it is to set out rules, even guidelines, for avoiding errors." This person accepts that David Duke is a vile antisemite, but can't understand that perfectly normal people who hold the same precise views might also be antisemites. Of course, despite the clarity of Modernity's helpful guidelines, it really is difficult to set out rules. You see, it's the refusal to even entertain Jewish perspectives that's antisemitic. Citing David Duke's website is just the final straw that proves the need for an intervention.

I'm not going to take a stand against whiny idiots who scream libel at the drop of a hat. But there are several features worth noting. One, it is impossible for such a process to be neutral in deciding what is and isn't antisemitism. The effect, as in the recent Galloway case, is to reify antisemitism into law by prescribing rules in a process where the communal Jewish voice is excluded from the outset. Two, if libel laws (whether stricter or looser) are applicable, then hate speech must be much more vigilantly guarded against. Since libel laws do not cover instances where a specific individual is not being spoken about, and racism wouldn't be racism if it weren't about broad groups, without enforcing hate speech with greater vigor even the most vile antisemite could take unfair refuge in libel laws.

It is becoming so that Jews are legally prevented from speaking out against antisemitism.


ModernityBlog said...

you express it so well :)

Matt said...

Thanks, I appreciate the feedback.

bob said...

This is a great post Matt. I like the point about "representative" Jewish voices.

I also agree about the danger of reifying antisemitism into law. I was not completely happy with the Engage strategy of using anti-racist law to fight the boycott: I think the argument needs to be won politically. Legalistic anti-racism opens up the door to heavy-handed bureaucratic application and then to censorship, and the good guys are as likely to be the victims as the bad guys. (Just as with the public order law brought in in the wake of Mosley's blackshirt marches which were only ever used on anti-fascists.)

(P.s. it's David Hirsh - Hirst is a Guardian Middle East correspondent and/or a former Sheffield Wednesday striker. Most people write "Hirsch", which I attribute to antisemitism, except Jews do it too...))