Monday, March 06, 2006

Taking potshots at the powerless

Gary Younge in today's Guardian retreds a well-worn theme from the anti war, pro-self-censorship lobby and mixes with it the now all-too familiar disagnosis of moral failure for those who take the contrary view:

"What, after all, is 'brave' about supporting the policies of both your government and the sole global superpower against a country that posed no threat? (...) To align yourself with the powerful and then take aim at the powerless takes not one ounce of valour. To prop up prevailing hierarchies and orthodoxies rather than challenge them demands not a scintilla of bravery."
I was going to give this a more charitable treatment because towards the beginning, there are some reasonable points about people being racist, sexist or whatever and then claiming bravery in the face of a censorious politically-correct establishment. But then when I read and understood that he believes the context in which speech is exercised to be crucial, the old red-mist begins to descend.

On his question, I can say on my part, none at all. Really doesn't require courage for me to take the position I did as a minority of one against ten in a pub on a Friday with other fellow-professionals, some of whom have authority over me - because I'm not afraid of any of them. Although I should stress that this isn't because I actually expected the boys from the Pentagon to come and assist me. And Mr Younge might also want to consider that not everyone is as indifferent to the prospect of promotion as I am.

Yes, the context is everything, as this trivial example illustrates. And the very triviality of it exposes Mr Younge's failure to give context its due. His is a rather simple world divided up between the imperialists and their apologists and the oppressed and their champions - he's the latter; if you disagree with him, that's because you're one of the former - and that's that.

But let us consider this context: you 'collaborate' with the imperialist occupier because you believe even the faint possibility that a secular liberal democracy may be established represents a better prospect for Iraq than anything on offer from the schism-perpetuating Jihadists, the ex-Ba'athists and the ultra-nationalists that dominate the insurgency. You didn't support the war yet you are willing to risk your own saftey by taking this chance. For this you are brutally-murdered, probably by ex-Ba'athists. In the West, those who you might have expected to defend your corner, those who wear their solidarity with the world's oppressed on their sleeves, don't say anything. Not a damn thing. Rather, they find something 'understandable' in the motivations of the fascists who cut your throat like a pig.

Younge's lazy use of leftish-sounding but conveniently-ambiguous phrases is absolutely infuriating. I mean, I understand I'm supposed to think "prevailing hierarchies" are a Bad Thing but which ones is he talking about? Doesn't the reign of Saddam Hussein count? And doesn't the view that rejected his ouster on the grounds of 'stability' count as an "orthodoxy"?

I dare say the editor of Jyllands-Posten "had illustrated not just an insensitive Islamophobic jibe but a racist mindset that has consequences for Muslims worldwide" - although unlike some, I don't claim to know his mind. But does anyone now doubt that to publish cartoons that might be for Mr Younge satire of an acceptable, non-racist nature, really would require some courage? But I suspect for people like Mr Younge, the notion of an acceptable satire of Islam is inconceivable and I really think he and others who share his view should start asking themselves why that is. Because at present, their advocacy of self-censorship in the name of protecting the powerless is looking increasingly threadbare. Oh, and while we're on the subject, how much courage does it take to accuse everyone who disagrees with you on the subject of Iraq, the Middle East, Islam and bloody Danish cartoons of being racist? I'm thinking probably not much - and it certainly doesn't seem to require much effort. Or are they just making it look easy?

The notions of courage and cowardice have been used and abused in this whole debate. But can we dispense with the idea that it requires "courage" to batter out our "controversial" opinions behind a keyboard? But the notion of power, political and economic, and how it operates in different contexts I'll stick with. Gary Younge sits behind his keyboard and tells us what he thinks, he gets lots of emails and letters to the editor, some disagreeing, some agreeing, some sychophantic, a smattering from the vicious and the insane, and then his employers give him some money. I sit behind my keyboard and do the same, don't get much mail, what with the ever so slightly-lower circulation, do it for free because if my employer finds out what I'm doing, I'll get my ass kicked.

It's all relative - but in this inconsequential context it looks to me like Mr Younge's the one with the most power between us. That's why I thought he might not mind if I took a potshot. After all, cuddly though it is, the Guardian is one of those evil business thingys, isn't it? And anyone who works for this one whilst simultaneously presenting themselves as the enemy of "orthodoxies" really does have a bit of a nerve, especially these days.

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