NUS: Unreason all the way down
The National Union of Students no-platforms George Galloway, Galloway sues the NUS, the left talks nonsense throughout and Paul Demarty wonders what the hell is going on
A sad truth about today’s left is that it is pretty irrational, all told. Normally this irrationality comes out in more or less disguised form: the standard practice, adopted widely throughout the left, for example, is to dress up your own nominally revolutionary politics as one kind or another of right-on liberalism or social democracy. This policy is irrational, because it has failed consistently for the same reasons, over and over again - yet still it continues. But it does not seem that irrational, because not going to the masses with full-blooded revolutionism looks eminently ‘realistic’.
You have only to push the right buttons, however, to see the steady secular decay of rational thought blossom proudly before your eyes. This time around, the button is the big old one marked ‘rape’, with a couple of complementary prods of the one marked ‘no platform’ - and the result is truly terrible to behold.
Assange and Galloway
The whole farrago started with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange claiming - and obtaining - asylum from the Ecuadorian embassy, to avoid a European arrest warrant issued by the government of Sweden. The problem is the nature of the allegations against him, which amount under Swedish law to rape.
This is button number one. Much of the left has simply internalised the mode of argument typical to liberalism in general, and liberal feminism in particular - politics starts to look like a list of bad things which you should be prepared to loudly criticise. Rape, and violence against women, is a pretty obvious one. After all, (almost) nobody considers it a ‘good thing’, and rightly so. Even the Ku Klux Klan added wife-beaters to the list of its enemies fairly early on, along with Jews, Catholics, blacks and so on.
So the issue presented the left with an impasse: what is more important? Opposing bad wars, or opposing bad rape? George Galloway, the MP for Bradford West, stomped right into this delicate territory with insufficient attention to the lie of the ideological land. He described the allegations of rape against Assange as little more than accusations of “bad sexual etiquette”; which subsequently allowed an establishment reeling from his recent electoral victory, and very keen that Assange’s bad sexual behaviour should bring down as many troublesome anti-war celebrities as possible, to stick the knife into Gorgeous George.
It worked - Galloway lost his election candidate for Manchester, Kate Hudson, and his long-time ally, Salma Yaqoob, over his comments. Then the National Union of Students took its swing, with a motion from its women’s group attempting to ban ‘rape deniers’ such as Galloway from campuses.
The NUS is as it almost always has been: dominated by Blairites and sub-political careerists, to whom leftwingers (even as compromised as Galloway) are at best an annoyance and at worst a threat. The two NUS executive members who are delegated from the union’s women’s campaign are very much cut from the same cloth. Yet on this issue, the sub-Blairites could count on substantial sections of the left to go along with the purge - because, after all, rape is a very bad thing.
So who took the bait? Michael Chessum - leftish bureaucrat and mainstay of the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts - lays out the essential case.1
“A - Giving known and unrepentant rape apologists a platform is a fundamental barrier to creating a safe space. It effectively excludes a lot of people, especially survivors and victims of rape and sexual assault.
“B - Giving rape apologists a platform contributes to a dangerous culture of not taking rape seriously, and excuses potential rapists for their actions. Rape apologism normalises rape. This is a direct and present danger to real people.”
Meanwhile, there are our old friends, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Untroubled as they are by the lurking matter of imperialism, having consented to eight out of every 10 imperialist interventions in the last couple of decades, they had but one stake in this - a long-running, and by now quite pathological, vendetta against George Galloway as an individual. Riding a substantially Blairite attempt to smear him is utterly par for the course - after all, the AWL has consistently called for votes for Blairite apparatchiks over Galloway whenever the issue has been posed. Galloway for the AWL is some kind of devil figure - the mean average of Hitler, Pol Pot and Fred West.
Since the group’s role in all this is the same as its role whenever a war breaks out - offering mealy-mouthed support for the establishment and scurrilous attacks on left opponents - it is worth looking a little more closely at Chessum’s statement, the comrade not exactly being a nobody on the student left. And there is no other way to put this: in what universe does a woman feel less ‘safe’ because George Galloway is around?
The argument is rehearsed because ‘official’ feminism has come up with this notion of a ‘safe space’. Does it mean rough stewards at the door, keeping hordes of marauding rapists out? Of course not: it means defining, a priori, the terms of debate in a meeting room so that nobody will feel unduly intimidated by what is said. It is, in short, a weapon of the bureaucracy. It serves selectively to protect dubious political arguments from the level of attack they deserve. (As an aside, the AWL wheels out bureaucratic ‘feminist’ technicalities to get its way and attack enemies as a matter of course.)
For a woman genuinely to live by the implied calculus of the ‘safe space’ policy would be a pretty dire existence. You could not go to the pub; you could not step outside your front door, practically. You would only be able to hide under the bed sheets, and then under the bed whenever anyone knocked at the door. Nobody does live like this, of course; because the ‘safe space’ policy - like ‘public safety’ legislation in society at large - is about manipulation and control, not ‘safety’.
Arguments from the motion’s opponents were politically less dubious, but intellectually no better. The essential approach, embodied in amendments from the Socialist Workers Party and the sub-Stalinist Socialist Action (more precisely, its front, Student Broad Left), was two-pronged - in the first instance, the amendments restored the context of imperialism to the issue, the thrust of which is broadly acceptable (although SA/SBL’s guff on ‘Ecuadorian sovereignty’ is straight out of the Stalinist play-book).
The other side of the argument is a rehearsal of ‘no platform for fascists’ dogma, however. A statement from the Socialist Worker Student Society2 is paradigmatic. What it amounts to is an almost religious approach to ‘no platform’ - For It Has Been Written that ‘no platform’ is reserved for fascists; and incorporating other categories of bad people into it is a violation of the SWP’s Pharisaic purity laws on the subject.
Why are fascists so special? “Fascism is not based on rational arguments; we do not challenge these organisations to debate.” This ought to send anyone’s irony-meter into overdrive. It is the substance, for instance, of the liberal-imperialist Nick Cohen’s arguments against incorporating the depredations of imperialism into an explanation for Islamic terrorism - because, don’t you know, Islamism is irrational, so trying to rationally explain it is logically absurd!
More to the point, this is actually an argument for no-platforming Galloway. This man is a vocal opponent of abortion. His basis for being so? His Catholic faith - ie, it is an irrational position. You cannot argue with irrational people - so Galloway should be no-platformed! And the same goes, surely, for all the Christian unions, Islamic societies and so on ... and the SWP itself, since its attitude to no-platform is so irrational. Eventually the only people left in the student movement will be those whose politics are based entirely on cynical and rational calculations - that is, the Blairite careerists.
Elsewhere, the SWSS statement buys wholly into the moralistic attitude to Galloway’s comments adopted by the witch-hunters - hardly surprising, because no organisation on the far left has so thoroughly internalised the list-of-bad-things liberalism alluded to above as the SWP. “We should not no-platform rape apologists; instead we should demand that they retract their statements. People like Tony Benn and George Galloway have influence in our movement. We need to challenge them to ensure that it is never acceptable to make statements that undermine [sic] rape again.” As such, it is the weakest argument imaginable. Opponents of the SWSS amendment could simply disagree with its prioritisation of oppressions. They did. The amendments were ditched and the motion was carried.
In the final, bitter twist, Galloway has announced he will be suing the NUS for libel. I am no expert on libel law, but I know that the British system is the envy of all the world’s litigious bullies; and I would suspect that setting down in writing the notion that a person is a ‘rape denier’ probably constitutes an adequate level of defamation to bring a case. Galloway says that any damages he receives will go directly to the legal defence funds of Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, the US private held in virtual solitary confinement for over two years for allegedly passing on US military secrets to Wikileaks.
It is not a particularly principled act to use libel law to silence one’s critics, no matter how shrill and obnoxious they are. Galloway is thus doing exactly the same thing that has been done to him, and so his move should be condemned.
A better approach - which, even in the context of Galloway’s legal case, would still be legitimate - would be to call on students and local student unions to defy the ban and render it unworkable. The notion that the NUS can claim any kind of democratic mandate over its constituent elements is laughable; overthrowing its latest bureaucratic diktat (which, in substance, is exactly what this no-platform motion is) at the grassroots would be a service to anybody who wants students to think and act as political agents, independent of the bureaucracy.
This was already a hard sell, but it is substantially the same pitch that got Galloway elected in Bradford, where he successfully appealed to constituents to overthrow the Mafia-like grip on local politics enjoyed by the Labour Party. The patronising, infantilising discourse of ‘no platform’ and ‘safe spaces’ could quite easily be presented as such to students. Alas, Galloway’s egotism and litigious reflexes have made that pitch all but impossible.
Yet it is impossible to muster up any sympathy for the NUS bureaucrats involved in the case; still less their idiotic left outliers. Should all this shrieking bluster result, ultimately, in funds for Assange’s legal defence, the irony will be quite beautiful. This is a hole they dug for themselves, with the enthusiasm of the righteous zealot. Besides, given that talking to Galloway is now verboten in the NUS, dragging its people to court is pretty much the only way he can get them to look him in the eye and call him a rape-denier (except for AWL members, who do it for fun).
All this could have been avoided with one snip of the shibboleth scissors: accept that, in cases of sexual bad behaviour, the line between the problematic and the criminal is a legitimate topic of debate. The accusations against Assange suggest that his relationships with women are unhealthy. They do not suggest that the solution is a spell in the slammer. All those whose sole contribution to this issue is to repeat ‘Rape is rape’ like a shrill wind-up toy should ask themselves whether they would rather be cajoled and misled into unprotected sex by a dodgy partner, or dragged into an alley, beaten and sodomised. Neither should be acceptable - but to suggest that they ought not to be qualitatively different in the eyes of the law is frankly obscene.
Galloway’s comments are problematic, because they ignore the social dimension that produces the deformed sexual practices of individuals like Assange. The problems could be teased out by any intelligent person with any familiarity with feminist and socialist arguments for women’s equality in the context of a serious debate, which is why Galloway avoids such debates like the plague. To shanghai the question into the irrationalist dogma of no-platform is tantamount to closing one eyes, covering one’s ears and shouting, ‘La, la, la - I can’t hear you!’
Before that spectacle, Galloway may well conclude: ‘These people are not rational, so what’s the point in challenging them to a debate?’