Huckleberry Finn and Politically Correct Revisionism

The great thing about having an all-purpose blog is that you can write about things that are not in the news, and have no relation to current affairs. In this case, I thought I would post something I should have written a few weeks ago.

On the 14 of January, I was delighted to speak at the AGM of the Society of Young Publishers. The theme was banned books, and censorship. One of the questions was regarding Mark Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn. Apparently an academic in the USA named Alan Gribben decided to re-publish the book, replacing the word ‘Nigger’ throughout. What did I think of this?

This is quite possibly the perfect question for this blog, focusing as I do with questions of free expression and political correctness, and also how digital technologies affect publishing. How to reconcile the rights of people to publish what they want, with the uncomfortable Orwellian overtones that happens when you replace one word for another in a text? How to reconcile the bullying and harm that the dreaded ‘N-word’ can cause, with the historical context?

Continue reading “Huckleberry Finn and Politically Correct Revisionism”


Earlier this week I had a short exchange on Twitter with Mercury nominated Eliza Carthy, who pointed me towards a ‘Bollocks to Nick Griffin‘ video put together by the Imagined Village collective.  Griffin had claimed Carthy’s English folk music as somehow the preserve of white people, so the musicians created a rude online rejoinder. Continue reading “BTNG”

On Diane Abbott’s ‘Racism’

Labour MP Diane Abbott is in hot water, after some remarks on twitter that some have characterised as racist:

White people love their divide and rule. We should not play their game. #tacticasoldascolonialism

This has prompted a predictable backlash, with Tory and Lib Dem MPs demanding she resign from Labour’s front bench, and Ed Miliband ensuring she make a swift apology.

I find myself having mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it can be read as straight prejudice. Swap ‘white’ for ‘black’ or ‘Muslim’ and the tweet would certainly appear classically racist.

However, I think there is an element of context that is missing here. When I read that later Abbott posted a clarification, claiming she was referring to colonialism, I was not surprised (her original tweet had a hashtag about colonialism, a fact not reported in the mainstream media). When she said ‘white people’ in the original tweet, I read it in precisely those terms. In the context of race relations and Black History I can see how ‘white people’ could (and should) be read as meaning The Established Elite. As such, when I read the tweet, I did not consider it directed at or referring to an avowed white person such as myself. Thinking about it now, Abbott could actually have written ‘men’ instead of ‘white people’ and I would have been similarly ambivalent, despite my also being a confirmed man, too.

In my head, I know that Abbott is being racist, because sweeping over-generalisations are the definition of racism. But in my heart, I am simply not offended. This might be purely because I am a particularly self-centred and over-confident individual, but I don’t think so. Instead, I think the answer lies somewhere in the fact that white people (or men, or tall people, or heterosexuals, or English people, or middle-class people, or Southerners, or any of the other politically favourable groups to which I am lucky enough to belong) are simply not used to being discriminated against in this manner.

The confidence that comes from being politically ‘privileged’ in this way, the confidence that comes from having pretty much every part of your identity affirmed and protected by the culture and the system, affords a certain immunity, on two fronts.

First, an immunity to actually being offended. A mental block prevents the tall white middle-class heterosexual English man from considering the possibility that someone might be disparaging about him. “Surely there must be some mistake?” not “There they go again.”

Second – and this is the crux of the matter – there is a confidence that such sweeping generalisations will not actually harm me in any way. Being in part of the, shall we say, “preferred group” (which is not always a demographic majority), I know that the culture and the political system will ensure such ad hominems do not adversely affect my life, short term or long term.

This is therefore a difference between black-on-white racism and the more traditional white-on-black racism, or modern equivalents like, say, tabloid-on-Muslim racism. In the former case, the prejudicial statements simply aren’t as harmful. In the latter cases, they do much more damage because the society and the culture is not orientated to defend the subject of the abuse. Likewise with sexism, where the culture reinforces the narrative of male superiority. In this context, the ‘chav’ prejudice, so wonderfully described by Owen Jones, is extremely interesting. The targets of the racism are white, but it does have long term negative effects on the targets. Likewise with disparaging remarks about the Irish in decades past.

But I cannot ascribe a comparable vulnerability to the targets of Abbott’s ire, who are quite obviously elite. This is why I cannot bring myself, as a white person, to be offended. I cannot look into the souls of other men, but I suspect that many of the critics of Diane Abbott are actually less offended than they appear. The outrage feels distinctly faux to me, an opportunity for political point-scoring rather than a genuine defence of a vulnerable group. Do we really think that people will read Abbott’s tweet, and start treating white people badly? I would like to see a rebuttal to this from a disadvantaged white person who feels Abbott is harming them. So far, most of the outrage seems to be from distinctly elite MPs…

Robert Kilroy-Silk is a waste of space

Once again, real issues have been marred by people who do not know how to have an argument. I refer of course to the embarrassing piece of human discourse that was the Kilroy affair. The article at the centre of the argument was very bad, but in some ways the arguments against it were worse, because they lent credence to Robert Kilroy-Silk where absolutely none was due.

In years to come, historians will hold up the article as a prime example not of human ignorance or bigotry, but of human idiocy. It is likely that they will give short shrift to the article itself, which embarrasses itself with inaccuracies, sentence construction, and ignorance: Kilroy-Silk says that no-one can think of anything the Arabs have ever given us. To this, the long list of retorts begins with an ‘a’ for algebra, and continues from there.

His one vaguely pertinent point – that Arab states should not be supported – is given an entirely offensive new meaning by the fact that he confuses ‘Arab states’ with ‘Arabs.’ His “grammatical error” (if we assume that is what it was) betrays a general immaturity of thought – that to speak of a people, is to speak of their government, and vice-versa. It is not racist to criticise the policies of the state of Israel, the USA, or any of the Islamic middle-eastern states. I believe all deserve the criticism ten-fold. Indeed, it can never be racist to genuinely question the policies of anyone, or anything. However, it is the very definition of racism is to ascribe the policies of a few, to a whole race, for that is a prejudice. To rail against The Arabs, The Jews, The Americans is nonsensical, for they are groups of individuals about which we know very little except where they live.

It is therefore nonsense to say that Mr Kilroy-Silk has a right to free speech over this issue, because his article has nothing logical or interesting to say. It is as if he had declared that he was actually a Vauxhall Astra 1.6 convertible, and then someone said “Well, I disagree with him, but everyone has a right to their opinion.” With free speech comes the responsibility to string your words together in a proper order, a task at which Mr Kilroy-Silk has manifestly failed.

The right to free speech is also attached to the responsibility to research your topic. We should not expect everyone in the UK to understand that Iran is not an Arab state (indeed, their proximity makes this a forgivable mistake). However, such knowledge is a pre-requisite for someone such as Kilroy-Silk, who was commenting directly on the issue. The BBC took the ridiculous step of suspending Kilroy-Silk and his programme only after complaints were made. They should have sacked him immediately: not because they disagreed with the article, but for proving beyond reasonable doubt what a rubbish journalist he actually is. The Sunday Express should be vilified for printing what is unarguably shoddy journalism.

The editors at The Sunday Express are the chief culprits in this tale of human stupidity. Their response to the complaints was to remark that the article had been printed in April, and no one had complained! This is an argument that could be used to justify any of the holocausts that stain our history. If something is only made racist or wrong by the number of complaints received, then every unreported crime is acceptable… Perhaps during the article’s first publication, the complainants were reading a better newspaper. More likely, they were too busy complaining to the Express about something else.

Every day, the foolishness of our media, and the inability of our politicians to ever make a proper argument, draws me closer to my depressing conclusion: we still live in the dark ages, where false arguments justify false aims. Historians of the future will group this new century in with all its predecessors, and call it the pre-enlightenment age. They will not bother trying to learn anything from this era, for it is already stained with the mark of a village idiot. The controversy surrounding Robert Kilroy-Silk’s article is the latest in an infamous tradition of mad hatter tea-parties. Like the dormouse, we shall sleep through many more.