How crybullying works
Politics should have no ‘safe spaces’. Sob stories about ‘anti-Semitism’ on campus strike at a weak point in contemporary left politics, argues Paul Demarty
Pity poor Tabytha Shapps.
Not only does she have a name like someone out of a fifth-rate costume drama; not only is her father a certain inescapable Tory minister, Grant Shapps. (My own father mused the other day that perhaps she could take a page out of her daddy’s book, and adopt a number of different names for her nefarious purposes.) Worse than all that: she just doesn’t feel safe! As a Jewish student at Leeds University, the atmosphere is apparently quite chilling. A Daily Telegraph piece on her ordeal carries the headline: “Defence secretary’s daughter felt ‘unsafe’ at university after anti-Semitic chants”.1
The details are quite disturbing (!): “she was intimidated by people marching through campus shouting, ‘From the river to the sea’ and displaying placards with the message, ‘End Israeli state terror’, in protest at the conflict in Gaza”. How can a young woman ever feel safe if a faraway nuclear-armed country cannot pile high corpses supposedly in her name, eh? But if only it had ended at the door of the seminar room. She felt “compelled” to drop a module on the Israel-Palestine conflict when another student “talked about ‘Israeli apartheid and Israel’s agenda as a genocidal state’”. It is certainly unfair, in today’s university system, to expect a student to actually learn anything.
There is not much more to her case than that. We have had no end of such stories - mostly from the United States - detailing the suffering of ‘Jewish students’ (in reality, Zionist students) as they must find the inner strength to deal with the fact that the average college kid holds views on the Israeli occupation and now the butchery of Gaza diametrically opposed to theirs. Doesn’t everyone deserve a ‘safe’ environment to learn? (Except the 9,000-odd dead Gazan children, of course, who somehow deserve instead the grave.)
In the States, this endless deluge of crybullying and whataboutery has reached its zenith with the ouster of Harvard president Claudine Gay, who had the temerity to not immediately outlaw Palestinian activism on her campus, and to not immediately capitulate to questioning of the ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ variety at a ridiculous congressional kangaroo hearing in early December. The oppo researchers of the Israel lobby duly went to work, and found evidence of plagiarism in Gay’s academic papers, which was duly used to force her ouster. They do, of course, have her bang to rights; but how odd it is that they have her so only now.
These nonsensical non-stories have a couple of purposes. The first is to hijack the news agenda. The flattening of Gaza is pushed aside to make room for endless litigation of university politics, of all things; it is particularly egregious when the ‘scandal’ affects an elite school like Harvard, whereupon we are supposed to nod along sympathetically to the sob-stories of entitled, whining children. ‘Never mind the thousands blown to pieces by 2,000-pound bombs; what about my pain?’ they ask, before melodramatically dropping to the couch like fainting goats. Yes, Tabytha Shapps is the real victim here, having been given such a worthless moral education by her grasping father that she is unable to conceive of suffering except in the first person.
Far worse than her, however, are her enablers. By degrees, some of the liberal media have been forced to acknowledge the painfully obvious reality that Israel’s goal is rather grander in scope than the mere elimination of Hamas. Its ministers have too much a habit of stating plainly that they intend to, at best, ship vast numbers of displaced Gazans as far away as possible. Leaks suggest the perpetually war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, about which Shapps père knows a thing or two. For those who cannot satisfy their purported vocation as journalists, and first of all describe accurately and in due proportion the things going on in the world (Torygraph hacks very much included), there is only one option available: talk about literally anything else, and make the Gaza massacre a mere background rattle to the ‘real’ story of our own national psychodrama.
There is a more insidious purpose, of course. It has not escaped the notice of leftwing commentary that the very same people denouncing the ‘outrages’ at Harvard, Leeds, etc, powerhosing us with crocodile tears, have spent the last years ranting about cancel culture, liberal intolerance, and similar pathologies of the left. The hypocrisy is as astounding as it is obvious; but, as we have had cause to argue recently, explicable in terms of the way ruling ideologies work under capitalism.2
Yet, supposing the hypocrisy causes no cognitive dissonance against the erstwhile defenders of free speech on campus - which it clearly does not - it is a very useful argument, precisely because the liberals and the left really have embarked on a political course that leaves them vulnerable to this kind of political ratfucking. The view is very common nowadays that a non-negotiable political requirement is the ‘safety’ of participants, and that such safety is to be measured by the subjective feelings of the alleged victim. Of course, we have only the word of the ‘victim’ to go by, and in the course of history people have been known to lie from time to time. They have also been known to be wrong: the question of whether someone’s ‘safety’ is really threatened is bracketed by this procedure.
Back in 2016, we recall, Imogen Wilson - a sabbatical officer for Edinburgh student’s union - was denounced by leftwing fellow students for throwing up her hands in exasperation during a debate. At that time, it had become common practice to ban clapping and all demonstrative hand-gestures during debates because these could be conceived as threatening in some way. (We seem to recall that this in turn led to a backlash, since it was also the cresting wave of autism activism, and the autists objected that this amounted to a ban on stimming; but leave that aside.) We pick out this incident because the meeting went on to discuss a boycott, divestment and sanctions motion, and indeed did adopt it - over the objections of Wilson, who was a Zionist.3
Now the boot is on the other foot, it is profoundly difficult for the left to argue convincingly on the ground of procedural democracy. In adopting this politics of deference to people’s (alleged) feelings, the left exposed itself to symmetrical accusations of hypocrisy. My own sarcastic remarks on the anti-cancel-culture crowd above are mirrored exactly by many a centrist and rightwing commentator - ‘Oh, now you lefties decide that cancel culture exists; how convenient!’
Yet more insidiously, given the choice between fighting the oppression (and now mass murder) of the Palestinian people and bureaucratic safetyism, many choose the latter. They take claims of ‘feeling unsafe’ as dispositive evidence for the supposed scourge of “leftwing anti-Semitism”. This was already the case back in 2016. A couple of months after Imogen Wilson’s ordeal, Ken Livingstone was suspended from the Labour Party for asserting that Hitler supported Zionism for a time. This is incorrect in detail - Hitler showed no interest, but many senior Nazis did, including even Reinhard Heydrich, later the architect of the holocaust. It was not on the point of fact that he was ‘cancelled’, however, but on the sheer ‘offensiveness’ of bringing up this discreditable episode.
The left did not universally rush to Livingstone’s defence, despite the obvious stakes - that he was a major scalp in an attempt to render pro-Palestinian politics inadmissible in the Labour Party. The Morning Star published many articles of, at best, equivocal character. Liz Davies and Sue Lukes accused him of “victim-blaming” - another identitarian cardinal sin that, at this point, has basically reached the point of total meaninglessness. Editorials pulled their punches.4
At some subsequent point, the Communist Party of Britain, which in effect publishes the Star, began to mandate ‘anti-Semitism awareness’ training. Some of its members, notably Mary Davis, are clearly soft-Zionists of some description - apparently not a problem in this monolithic ‘party of a new type’. Though the Star in the present situation supports the Palestinians on its standard social-pacifist lines, it also continues its panic-mongering about anti-Semitism.
An editorial of November 2 urged the left to “confront surging anti-Semitism”, citing without any critical analysis figures from the Community Security Trust, which reported 900 incidents in the month of October. Around 200 of these concerned somewhat concrete categories of attacks, including assaults and property damage. The rest were indeterminate “abuse” (which, to organisations like the CST, certainly includes the sort of stuff Tabytha Shapps is currently whining about). To be blunt: no paper that considers itself an opponent of imperialism should be taking seriously these kinds of entirely unverifiable shock statistics, which are invariably wheeled out whenever Israel is a matter of public controversy.
A later editorial (of November 26), on the occasion of the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism march in late November, further urged the left to take this ‘problem’ seriously. It acknowledged that the demonstration was rightwing in its politics, especially in the context of the Gaza slaughter. Yet “we must reject any hierarchy of racisms” - another vacuous identitarian cliché, which is ultimately ignored in practice (see the adoption of the term “black and indigenous people of colour”, or ‘BIPOC’ in the US, to address the gaping disparity of interests between, say, the black people of Detroit and the elite-professional South Asian immigrants in the north-east and Silicon Valley, but without mentioning class).
The Star editor writes:
The left must also work to earn the confidence of Jewish communities that we will not tolerate any expression of anti-Semitism. That does not mean failing to challenge malicious accusations like so many levelled at Corbyn and his supporters. It does mean calling out conspiracy theories, rejecting any conflation of Jewish people with the actions of the state of Israel, and confronting those who from ignorance or prejudice perpetuate tropes about Jews’ supposed financial or political influence.
On the face of it, this is reasonable - banal, even. The problem is that “malicious accusations” very frequently consist of false accusation of conspiracy theorising, conflation of Israel and Judaism, and so forth. The idea that people attached to the Israeli embassy played a key role in witch-hunting the National Union of Students is easily presented as a conspiracy theory; but it also happens to be true, as demonstrated by al-Jazeera later.
You can only stand firm by rejecting the right of Zionist lobby groups to set where the line is, and by extension, you can only do so by rejecting the idea that self-appointed representative organisations of the oppressed have an inviolable right to narrate their own oppression. That idea is nowadays summarised in the slogan, ‘Nothing about us, without us’: the left’s inability to resist the Zionist ideological assault is where that slogan leads.
‘A curse on free speech’, November 9 2023: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1466/a-curse-on-free-speech.↩︎
I wrote about this silly controversy at the time: see ‘A bureaucrat’s tool’, April 7 2016: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1101/a-bureaucrats-tool.↩︎
See Peter Manson, ‘Blundering ineptitude’, June 16 2016: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1111/blundering-ineptitude.↩︎