By Tim Hardy
Yesterday as the English Defense League (EDL) marched through Luton, the Prime Minister David Cameron saw fit to borrow from the rhetoric of the far right with a speech in Munich that pandered to racists. Perhaps this should come as no surprise given his party’s happy relationship with right wing extremists in Europe.
The reaction online to Cameron’s words was heartening. The reaction to the EDL less so.
People who openly identify with mass-murderers and who associate with violent criminals and target individuals based on their ethnicity are terrifying. It is understandable that we would want to mock them. It helps reduce our fear. But that is not enough.
Snobbery is the racism of the rich.
Dismissing EDL supporters as ignorant boneheads is as stupid as the ideology they profess and an utterly inadequate response from the left.
While the most popular newspaper in Great Britain, the Daily Mail, is happy to whitewash the marchers as “defending” themselves against “extremist muslims”, the progressive left needs to use the communication tools available to us to offer alternative narratives. We cannot squander that in cherry picking examples of idiocy and making ourselves feel superior to their ignorance.
In Manhattan, Woody Allen’s character quipped that the proper response to Nazis marching in New Jersey was not devastating satire but bricks and baseball bats. It is neither. The answer is education and structural reform.
The roots of racism are complicated but the anger that drives these men and women has its origins, in part, in job and housing insecurity that are political issues with which we on the progressive left need to engage. Men like the Prime Minister and the proprietors of a newspaper infamous for backing Sir Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts in 1934 benefit from dividing those who suffer under a political system that benefits them. They turn each of us against the other, encouraging one side to blame “Muslims”, the other “chavs” as the root cause of the quiet, unnecessary miseries of everyday life.
We who identify online as the progressive left have privileges and advantages that many of those on the streets of Luton today have never had. Their hearts may be full of hate, their actions may be repellent, but their anger has roots in things that we too believe are wrong. They have been poisoned into blaming “the dark-skinned other” for the problems they face. How are we better than them if we content ourselves with mocking laughter at their ignorance?
We live in a system that justifies gross inequality with the vague promise that “it could be you.” We live in a system where we are encouraged to see life as a zero-sum game so that we will squabble and fight among ourselves for the scraps from the tables of the super rich. For years we have had no voice so our powerless conversations have been limited to the echo chambers of those who share our opinions. With the flattening of hierarchies and the breaking down of walls that comes with technological advances, we need a new maturity and an awareness that we no longer just preach to the choir.
Racism must not be tolerated. Racist attitudes must be challenged. But it is no longer enough for us to stay in our ideological silos mocking and sneering – not least because we display attitudes frighteningly similar to those we oppose when we do so.
With power comes responsibility. For years the criticism has been laid at the doors of mass media that they do not live up to their duties. Now that burden is ours. Social media gives us a voice: let us not squander it on mockery but use it to drive constructive debate and real, enduring change.