Thursday, January 05, 2012

Diane Abbott

David Cameron keeps on being proved right about Twitter (although, obviously you should all follow me @partyreptile). If there were ever an MP you would predict would be caught up in a row on Twitter, a medium that positively encourages speaking without thinking, Diane Abbott would be at the top of your list. And, sure enough...

Inevitably, it was Guido and Harry Cole who made the running with it, on the straightforward basis that it was, unarguably, a racist thing to say (and, c'mon, it just is. It identifies an entire race with a single characteristic. It's textbook) and that if roles were switched and a white Tory MP had said this about black people, then he'd be out on his ear. That line of attack (citing the Public Order Act...) was echoed by Paul Goodman over at ConHome, though he went further than a call for an apology, and argued that she should be sacked.

The defences were fairly predictable as well - Abbot herself initially said it was all taken out of context, and was actually part of a discussion of 19th Century colonialism (which was flat out untrue incidentally, and a particularly dumb excuse when people could just go and read the exchanges for themselves on Twitter). The New Statesman went for the other old stand-by when ethnic minority people are accused of racism - this isn't real racism (a variant of the Polanksi defence "it's not rape-rape"). Samira Shackle's argument goes as follows (though it's something you ought to be familiar with by now):

1. It was all out of context; and
2. Black people can't be racist, because they're not the dominant group.

This latter argument being made most succinctly by Cameron Duodo back in the mists of time, when this blog was young, fresh and updated more than once a week. It is, obviously, balls. Tell Kriss Donald that he could not possibly have been a victim of racism because he was white.

Yet, for all the coverage of this very minor little storm in a teacup, only Toby Young seems to have looked beyond the crass racial generalisation to see what it was that Diane Abbott was actually trying to say. And it's, well it's worse than a crass racial generalisation. Abbott was responding to a comment by a young black journalist to the effect that talking about 'the black community' was unhelpful, because there was no such thing - there were instead many different communities: West Indian British have different goals and problems to West African British - their differences are as important as their similarities.

Abbott's response - that white people just love to divide and conquer - is remarkable, especially coming from a Member of Parliament. The immediate message is, obviously, to adhere to communal identity politics with solid reliable leadership (i.e. herself), but the subtext is the threat that, if you don't stick with this, the white people are just waiting for the opportunity to pounce, and play one group against the other. That is, that white people are the enemy, and all black people need to ally themselves against the common threat.

The better argument against Abbott is not that she used a lazy, racist generalisation but that what she actually meant by her lazy, racist generalisation was a pernicious stirring of inter-communal dislike.

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