The calumnies against Shaima Dallali highlight the left’s errors. Paul Demarty calls for a principled defence of free speech
Such a lot of nonsense is being talked about Shaima Dallali, the incoming president of the National Union of Students, and the purported “systematic anti-Semitism” of the NUS itself, that it is difficult to know where to begin.
We ought, at least for the sake of framing things correctly, to protest that it is all a pack of lies, with the possible exception of one ill-phrased social media post of Dallali’s, which is now over 10 years old - at which point the 27-year-old president-elect was in her mid-teens. Is this the evidence that Jewish students are about to face a reign of terror? Can anyone believe it - I mean, really believe it?
Surely not the 21 former NUS presidents who signed a letter expressing their concern, whose names - Jack Straw, Charles Clarke, Wes Streeting, and other old favourites - are a picture postcard of utterly cynical careerism. Some had connections with the left in their student days, like Clarke and Straw; others, like Streeting, started out as detestable careerists and were subsequently extruded into the usual quarters of adult life.
There is more than the (mostly) Labourite ranks of these ex-presidents to worry about, however. Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has weighed in to demand that the NUS clean up its act, on pain of the government severing ties with it. That would be no small matter - the NUS is less a union, in spite of its branding, and more a state-sponsored cooperative-cum-charity. There is no intrinsic reason for a university system to have such a national body corresponding to it; nothing like it exists in the United States, for example. So it is utterly unsurprising that all this opprobrium has been met with capitulation. Dallali has apologised, when people should be apologising to her; and the NUS has announced an independent inquiry into the ‘very serious matter’ of its wholly factitious ‘anti-Semitism problem’.
This episode fits into a number of long-running stories and we should first of all note the minor matter of the actual oppression of the Palestinians. This absurd charade happened to coincide with a new wave of violence against Gazans and Palestinians in Jerusalem - including yet another attack with tear gas and live rounds on the al-Aqsa mosque, which was packed for Friday prayers in the middle of Ramadan. These events were, naturally, reported as “clashes” between Palestinians and Israeli authorities in the western press, whose ‘even-handedness’ in such matters is as unwavering as it is dishonest.
The next, and the most obvious, is the overwhelming effort to recast pro-Palestinian sentiment as anti-Semitic. This really kicked into gear after Jeremy Corbyn saw off the 2016 ‘chicken coup’ leadership challenge, although it has informed bourgeois discourse on the Israel-Palestine issue for decades. A concerted effort, plainly driven in part by the core of the state, to discipline the Labour Party and the wider culture was set in train. Phony scandals were got up against Oxford Labour Students, against a whole series of prominent Labour left activists, and so it went on.
During this time, Al Jazeera put together a documentary, The lobby, which exposed the murky links between various student organisations and the Israeli embassy - journalistic efforts that were rewarded with total silence from the rest of the media. They were only interested in manufacturing more fatuous scandals.
It is not, of course, the Israeli embassy which is ultimately behind all this, but the common life of Israel and the UK as favoured subordinates of the US state. Thus the mewling of Zahawi, and for that matter our ‘ex-presidents’: their loyalties are to their own careers and, by extension, to the British state regime they serve; some small part of that involves the crude weaponisation of these accusations.
There is also the matter of what the right likes to call ‘cancel culture’ - the use of dubious accusations of one or another kind of impropriety to silence people, get them sacked, or whatever else. The idea of ‘cancel culture’ is, admittedly, rather a moving target. There are some places it never moves, however, and one of them is the suppression of anti-Zionism. Apparently innumerable are those bores who, in one Spectator column, will denounce the censoriousness of the woke left, and the next day over in Quillette magazine, demand that ‘something must be done’ about ‘anti-Semitism on campus’. Freedom of speech, contra Rosa Luxemburg, is always to be freedom for those who think ‘exactly the same as I do’.
The point I have just made is hardly original: liberals and leftists routinely use this and other examples to highlight the hypocrisy of the ‘cancel culture’ panic. Where we must depart from these voices is in the conclusions we draw. For the broad left, the conclusion is simply that the whole thing is a sham: cancel culture is a chimera and only deployed by people trying to get off the hook for their racism, sexism or whatever. The trouble is that it is quite real, and that ‘two can play at that game’. The right has long deployed the demagogic tactic of the moral panic to silence its enemies: the most famous example in the Anglophone world would be McCarthyism, but many others could be listed.
Moreover, the right - and the bourgeois mainstream more broadly - has a better chance of success. This is merely the same phenomenon as we mentioned above in relation to The lobby - the media is in enemy hands. And so these scurrilous and mean-spirited accusations against Dallali get vast coverage and interventions from cabinet ministers, while the left’s principal response - an open letter in solidarity with her, demanding that there also be investigations into the Islamophobia and anti-black racism experienced by people like her - is basically ignored.
The trouble is that the left has habituated itself to censorship. It has connived at spreading the idea that various forms of hate speech must be suppressed in civil society. Few indeed today are the leftwing voices prepared to actively denounce this drift (many are prepared to add a pro forma caveat in favour of free speech at the bottom of some interminable jeremiad about how racism is really really bad, but rarely is anyone actually willing to ‘die on that hill’). Both within the labour movement at large (ever more reduced to legalistic forms of defence on ‘health and safety’-type grounds) and in the wider radical milieu, questions of political division are treated as questions of harm. Arguing that racist (etc) speech ought to be protected from state suppression or employment discrimination then becomes an argument in favour of violence against people of colour (etc).
One very obvious problem with this - as this paper has tirelessly argued - is that we are basically creating a big, sharp stick for the enemy to beat us with at leisure. It is, precisely, leftwing anti-racist shibboleths which are weaponised in these campaigns against the anti-Zionist left. Zero tolerance for ‘hate speech’: check! Nobody can deny the testimony of ‘the oppressed’ about their own oppression: check! We cannot prevent our enemies from traducing our ideas and lying about us; but we can at least set ourselves up to fight back. The only grounds on which we can fight back - that there should be general freedom of speech, and that some testimony of so-called oppression is mendacious - are denied us not by the action of our enemies, but by our own errors.
It is not only our errors involved here, of course. In fact, in phases of decline, social formations have historically become more reliant on open tyranny, as classical antiquity went from the polis to the republic to increasingly centralised forms of imperial rule, and as the graduated hierarchies of feudalism, of peasant to squire to lord to king, and of monk to abbot to bishop to pope, gave way to the absolute monarchies of the early modern period. There is every reason to believe that capitalism is in such a declining phase, but no reason to suppose things should be any different: as its immanent laws decline, so must the state step into the breach, and therefore a more explicitly coercive logic must take hold.
During this process, the escalating irrationality of society will undermine the ‘liberal’ argument for free speech as tending to produce optimal outcomes rather than escalating polarisation; only for revolutionaries is the thing of the essence.