Monday 9 December 2019

Using a phrase can do political work: memes and antisemitism.

Some years ago, Richard Dawkins invented the word 'meme'. It's now come to mean something in the digital world but originally it was a way of describing how a word of phrase became so popular that it appeared to have a life of its own or that it so seemed to encapsulate a thing or a concept or a process that it then became the go-to word of phrase for many if not most people speaking that language. You could argue 'make love not war' was a bit like that or 'themos flask' (as we used to call them) or 'the few' referring to the RAF pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain.

I don't believe that language does things without human agency whether that's from the person producing it or receiving it. There is no such thing as language doing its thing without humans doing it with or through language. Language is in fact language-in-use. It's only by virtue of the academic study of language that people have treated language as if it can 'do' things on its own.

One meme - or catch-phrase or cliche that has emerged in the last few years is 'antisemitism in the Labour Party'. As a phrase it sounds logical and contained. But pause a moment and think, why should something like antisemitism be restricted to one section of the population? Who decided that the spread or extent of antisemitism should be sliced off from other areas in society? In fact, it's that slicing off that is ideological. A choice was made to attach 'in the Labour Party' to the word 'antisemitism'. This becomes clear to us if you attach alternative phrases and ask why they didn't become memes. 'Antisemitism in politics' or 'Antisemitism in political parties', or 'Antisemitism in public life'.

If, of course antisemitism was restricted to 'in the Labour Party' we might say, 'fair enough'. But if we were to find antisemitism in other parts of political life, party political life, or indeed in the other main political party, then the phrase 'antisemitism in the Labour Party' starts to sound like a trick, a means by which we don't or can't consider antisemitism in public life, or in the Tory Party.

On the public life front, one of the most absurd things of recent months is to see or hear broadcast journalists pointing microphones at Labour people and demanding answers on antisemitism as if they (the journalists) have spent lives caring about antisemitism or indeed as if they weren't in any way utterers of antisemitic tropes, sneers, jibes etc. themselves. Really? Is that possible?

But when it comes to 'antisemitism in the Labour party' preventing us from seeing antisemitism elsewhere in the political party most equivalent to Labour (ie the Tories), the phrase 'antisemitism in the Labour Party' becomes the most like a means of preventing us from seeing what's going on.

The fact that Boris Johnson edited a raving antisemite - 'Taki' - for years (when Johnson was editor of the Spectator') is invisible. The jibes of Rees-Mogg, along with his closeness to far-right organisations, is again, out of sight. There's a lack of scrutiny of Dominic Cummings singling out of 'Goldman Sachs' for his phrase 'the likes of Goldman Sachs' and his Hitlerian descriptions of Goldman Sachs and their apparent corrupt power over the EU. The casual antisemitism of Suella Braverman, Crispin Blunt and Priti Patel have slipped past with no dwelling on their effect.

Meanwhile there are numbers of councillors and candidates for the Tory Party who have said unacceptable things (according to the IHRA code) who've been 'suspended' but we are still waiting to see if their misdemeanours will be forgiven without a shout from the media.

To my mind this is how 'antisemitism in the Labour Party' is being used. It's a means by which the media can exclude oversight of Tory antisemitism. All they have to do is just make sure that the media keep repeating the phrase as true, self-explanatory, and a thing of its own, and there is no need to look at the Tory stuff. Job done.