UCU and the siren call of “my enemy’s enemy”

1st June, 2011 2:09 pm

UCUBy Rob Marchant / @rob_marchant

Hate figures and bogeymen are convenient for everyone. Up to a point, they can be harmless. I’m not averse to a bit of knockabout with the Tories or the Lib Dems: that’s the rough and tumble of tribal politics. But, in some less-travelled corners of party and movement, we have developed some hate figures over the years which we don’t need: at worst, they become pathological.

The most obvious example of this is the European left’s mixed feelings about the United States. At lowest common denominator level, we can perceive that the centre of gravity in America is politically to the right of us, and that puts us off. We might confuse the American President and American politicians with the American people: or talk about “the Americans” as if they were a race of identical people, at one with their politicians. But some of us feel uneasy about America; and a few of us actively despise it.

Although most of us thankfully avoid this trap, there is a more advanced symptom of the same syndrome: the old doctrine of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. This doctrine, spelled out so brilliantly in Nick Cohen’s “What’s Left”, has come to represent a gently circling danger for the whole future of the left. It, and tolerance to it, saps our good judgement and, worse still, our credibility. It derives from that strange ability, prevalent in the far left, to compel one’s logical faculties to perform Houdini-like contortions and rationalise an argument in the face of all evidence to the contrary. We embark, if you like, on a game of Twister with logic, which ultimately results in our failure to see the reductio ad absurdum: far left meets far right.

An example argument starts like this: we dislike the American state and their works. So anyone who dislikes the American state, and can give them a poke in the eye on our behalf, is our friend, no matter how unpleasant. And, in small numbers, this thinking seduces activists in key positions in left politics; our unions; our community organisations. Hence the denial of Junaid Ahmed‘s terrorist links by the board of London Citizens. Or the TUC’s support for the nasty regime of Hugo Chávez. Or Ken Livingstone’s, George Galloway’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s support for Iran through presenting on its mouthpiece PressTV. The same PressTV which was recently sanctioned by Ofcom for its shocking transmission of an interview sympathetic to the Iranian regime, given under duress by a Newsweek journalist after being threatened with summary execution: and later calmly broadcast without mentioning the fact, as if it were just another interview.

Perhaps some of these activists are entryists; perhaps merely naïve. But these stances all derive, ultimately, from the same twisted argument of my enemy’s enemy. We are not allowed simply to say that some things America does are good and some of them not so good. We must choose either to be America’s lickspittle, or fully against it and its friends: it’s all or nothing. No grey areas are allowed, like, for example, exist in the Israeli-Palestine conflict: a conflict with a complexity and history far too involved for a single article. And in the last ten years, we might note that there have been reported rises on both Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attacks within the EU. Both are equally worrying: we do not need, of course, to take sides.

Unions are particularly susceptible to these kinds of strange stances, because they are not politically agile; the big ships take a lot of steering to change course. A poorly thought-out conference motion, proposed by a few fanatics, may haunt policy for years once passed, damaging the union and the wider movement. And so we come to UCU, the academics’ union.

UCU declared on Monday that the widely-accepted working defininition of anti-semitism, contained in the former European Monitoring Centre on Racism (EUMC) standard, is wrong, and have disowned it in all their work in tribunals, education or internal complaints:

“Congress believes that the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine antisemitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus”

Oh. So they don’t dispute any parts of the EUMC standard on other forms of racism, such as Islamophobia. Just anti-Semitism. But it sounds anodyne, doesn’t it?

It isn’t. Think about the following:

1. Why exactly would you want to unilaterally redefine anti-Semitism, if not to single out Jews? Why would you want to disassociate yourself from the standard position held by the Community Security Trust (monitors anti-Semitism in the UK); the National Union of Students and the Union of Jewish Students; the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency; the All-Party Parliamentary Enquiry into Anti-Semitism and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe?

2. How exactly would you then defend a Jewish member in a racial discrimination tribunal? Making up your own definition?

3. Finally, why is “debate about Israel and Palestine on campus” so important anyway, compared to the fundamental concerns of their members about racism?

And the subtext is crystal clear: anti-Semitism is often not genuine and raised merely to win arguments as matter of bad faith. The motion has already resulted in a number of Jewish members quietly leaving the union, as well as prompting some fine and reasoned articles from concerned academics (Eve Garrard at normblog, for one, points out the inanity of the Twister logic). As well as the depressing report of the Pythonesque debate from the UCU Congress, the arguments are laid out in, among other places, this excellent piece by UCU member Ben Gidley, which I highly recommend for its rationality and calmness, painstakingly detailing all the arguments in the case, as well as highlighting other troubling activity within the union.

In short, UCU, supposedly representing the cream of our intelligent people has, in its ignorance, rather shown itself deserving of our condemnation.

We must always be aware of the dangers of race-paranoia. But the reverse is also true: we are sometimes not aware of racism that really exists – like, for example, when institutional racism in the Met was highlighted by the MacPherson report – and that not everyone quite is as enlightened as we think.

UCU is just an example of a worrying wider trend. We spend a lot of time rightly criticising the white racists of the BNP and the EDL. But it’s high time we confronted those who condone those other kinds of racism around us. Before they really start to hurt the credibility, and the ethos, of the whole Labour movement.

And before the entryists really start moving in.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

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