14 March 2009

Jews and Teddies, Syria and Sudan, Self-Righteous Idiots

Just read a fairly interesting article on "dinner-party" anti-Semitism in the New Statesman, which raised some very legitimate concerns but unfortunately contained this unusual statement, about a friend who invited her to visit Syria with him:
I said sadly, “but do you know that Syria is a hotbed of anti-Semitic terrorism? Their newspapers and radio and TV are full of attacks on Jews, and some of them actually say it is part of our religion to kill babies.”

He was silent for a moment, and then sighed. “Oh, can’t you forget about that? Just for two weeks?” I said I couldn’t.

My friend departed alone for Syria – where, he told me, he had a marvellous time and didn’t hear a single anti-Semitic remark – and I was forced to conclude that, sadly, as we say in my native land, three strikes and you’re out.

Now, I'm not actually sure what the "strike" in question actually is. On one hand, her use of hyphens implies it was quite simply the act of going on holiday to a country she didn’t like that put her back up. But on the other, not only is that ridiculous, but she clearly did get some feedback. Or on yet another hand, maybe he sent his now estranged Jewish friend a postcard anyway, which she grudginly read before including it in her column as a laughable excuse.

Either way, this seems to be a case of the same disorder as in this cretinous-even-for-Rod-Liddle article which appeared in the Spectator (and I should point out, Rod Liddle is cretinous even for the Spectator, so you can see what we're dealing with here). The bit that caught my attention was not the standard-procedure fanciful attack on Britain’s Muslims, the gratuitous dig at Liverpudlians, or even the fact that he decided to direct his trademark rage at the obvious victim of the affair. It was this statement:
Meanwhile, that strange Frank Spencer manqué Gibbons returns safely to Blighty all jolly with stories about how the Sudanese prison authorities gave her lots of apples, what lovely people they all are, and she doesn’t regret a thing, etc. Fine, love — however, on that latter point, we do, so you can pick up the travel bill for the Muslim peers who supposedly sprang you from chokey, you deluded, asinine fool.

My own rather uncharitable view is that she was released from prison far too soon; having told us all that Islam was a gentle and peaceable religion, she should have been allowed proper time inside to reflect upon this interesting perspective. And without apples.

Both Rod Liddle and Rhona Koenig have done exactly the same thing: Starting off with absolutist preconceptions about a country and then becoming exceedingly angry or dismissive when these are even slightly challenged by someone who had actually been there. Unfortunately, these probably aren’t isolated incidents. They’re just the angry, stupid tip of the ignorant, warlike iceberg.

This is cultural imperialism in action you see. To justify whatever economic, civil or explosives-based ventures we might be using to fuck over countries or cultures we don’t like, we need to believe that, as civilised, Enlightened Westerners, we know better than the savages, even about their own lives. We need a big wedge of prejudices behind our sense of superiority, so we can pretend they deserve it and that it’s probably in their best interests anyway. We need to believe that Muslims hate us and won’t listen to reason, that Africans can’t say no to a bribe or a spot of ethnic cleansing and that the Chinese really are run by a dirty great Fu Manchu who’s out to take over the world. If some felafel-bearded liberal comes along and trumps our preconceptions with empirical knowledge, some of us are rather reluctant to relinquish our world-view and get rather huffy with these evidence-wielding appeasers. This kind of cultural imperialism is not normally conscious dehumanisation or demonisation, but a flat refusal to recognise our own ignorance or lack of perspective towards other cultures.

Now Rod Liddle, I can understand. Rod Liddle is a one-trick pony. Rod Liddle whips himself into an irrational, self-righteous fury for a living, and probably has a mortgage and school fees to pay with his enraged leaps of logic. Not only that, he does it for a publication that considers Melanie Phillips to be not only brave, but actually employable. The worst consequence he had to face was an absolutely brilliant letter in the next issue, telling him how “contemptible” he was, and pointing out that Gillian Gibbons might well know a bit more about the Sudan than him, having lived there and all. But Rhona Koenig. Poor Rhona Koenig. She went so far as to part company with a dear friend on the grounds that he
  1. agreed when someone said Israel was “aggressive”,
  2. was curious about a conspiracy theory he’d heard, and considered his journalist friend authoritative enough to discuss it with,
  3. implied he knew more about a foreign country than she did, despite her having read a fact about it and him only having been there. And went on holiday.

I understand that the line between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel is not a clear one and so can quite rightly be a sensitive subject for Jews, and I concede that Rhona Koenig knows more about anything than anyone else, but still, it’s sad to think that the two may never speak again, and all because she found his lack of prejudice against Syrians racist.

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