A very dim engagement

Posted on 7 June, 2009 by


A few month before, the racial laws against the Jews had been proclaimed, and I too was becoming a loner. My Christian classmates were civil people; none of them, nor any of the teachers, had directed at me a hostile word or gesture, but I could feel them withdraw and, following an ancient pattern, I withdrew as well: every look exchanged between me and them was accompanied by a miniscule but perceptible flash of mistrust and suspicion. What do you think of me? What am I for you? The same as six months ago, your equal who does not go to mass,or the Jew who, as Dante put it, “in your midst laughs at you”?

Primo Levi, The Periodic Table, p. 40

This evening, the Euro election results for the UK will be announced. The Dutch elections have already seen the far-right PVV become the Netherlands’ second-largest party in the European parliament; now, we wait and see whether our home-grown fascists have gained any Euro seats to go with the three council seats they’ve won.

Any benefit to the BNP means we will definitely be hearing more about engagement. Matthew Goodwin writing in The New Statesman is typical of this line:  “Working-class anxieties over immigration and multiculturalism are often dismissed as bigotry, but concerns run deep,” he writes.

There then follows a barrage of uncontextualised percentages: “60 per cent of Britons feel that there are too many immigrants in Britain”, “80 per cent feel that the government has lied to them about the scale of migration”, “nearly half of voters said they would support policies encouraging migrants to return to their country of origin”, “immigration is brought up by between three and four in every ten respondents in regular MORI polls asking about the most important problems facing the country”. His conclusion? “Put simply, these concerns need to be addressed.”

These aren’t figures about the actual, quantifiable effect of immigration and multiculturalism on the UK. They’re figures about the perceived effect. And where do people derive these perceptions from? A popular media which propagates a constant sense of hostility and anxiety towards non-white, non-Christian groups, and a government which derives its idea of consensus from the opinion pages of the press and vomits up the rhetoric of fear and hate.

It’s possible that when Goodwin and others like him say that the BNP’s arguments must be addressed, what they mean is that the false divisions, abuses of logic and denial of fact given out by the BNP – and echoed, consciously or otherwise, by apparently legitimate bodies – must be addressed, corrected, crushed.

But Goodwin’s piece doesn’t exactly say that. It certainly doesn’t explicitly say at any point that the BNP is a party of racists whose political aspirations are purely anti-democratic. What is says is that “simply bashing the party as ‘Nazi’ no longer works. Voters in some areas are so exasperated with the political Establishment, and so desperate for an alternative, that they don’t care about the party’s extremist credentials.” So, according to Goodwin, writing in the mainstream journal of left-wing party politics, we must address the BNP’s appeal, but it’s pointless to call them racist – so what form is that address supposed to take?

He doesn’t say. But I suspect that “engaging” with the BNP, and yet not calling them for the contemptible and violent bigots they are, is one of the most thoughtless rhetorical steps politicians could take up. It’s the hollow logic of consumerism applied to manifestos, the contemptible drive to expand your party’s appeal, to give the voters something to beckon them into your little marketplace of ideas. Something – even, apparently, listening to witless racism as though it was a set of legitimate concerns.

And you want to attract that sort of voter, so you tolerate that sort of rhetoric rather than calling it what it is, and you let it seep further into the speech of general politics and daily life, and you allow the conditions of mutual mistrust and withdrawal experienced by Levi in 1930s Italy to grow up in Britain, now – yet the simplest thing to do, when faced with arguments of no merit, should be to dismiss them:

And finally, and fundamentally, an open and honest boy, did he not smell the stench of Fascist truths which tainted the sky?  Did he not perceive it as an ignominy that a thinking man should be asked to believe without thinking? Was he not filled with disgust at all the dogmas, all the unproven affirmations, all the imperatives? He did feel it; so then, how could he not feel a new dignity and majesty in our study, how could he ignore the fact that the chemistry and physics on which we fed, besides being in themselves nourishments vital in themselves, were the antidote to Fascism which he and I were seeking, because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness, like the radio and newspapers?

The Periodic Table, p. 42

In my daily life, I often feel a gentle Whiggish complacency about my life, the same tendency that gets condemned in Dawkins. I pull the advances of medicine, the welfare state and civil rights around me like a blanket to muffle out the terrible whine of global iniquity, exploitation, bigotry and aggression. But the severest repression and genocide has happened in living memory, in my continent, in nation states that are constituted like the one in which I live. The same beliefs which informed those hateful policies are still extant, and must be answered – not on the terms of their own stupidity and aggression, but on the terms of a better state which prizes knowledge and fairness.

Posted in: Culture, Politics