The title of this wee piece scans a little like a football chant. That might, at least at the start, make it easier reading for Ian O’Doherty of The Irish Independent. But it’s mainly a direct reply to his article today on asylum-seekers in Mosney, “It’s not racist to say sorry we’re full“.
There is a curious aspect to this kind of headline, and if we were feeling at all pretentious on a Friday afternoon, we might call it a trace. O’Doherty is a local variant on a international archetype that has thrived in journalism since someone figured out how to hitch populist, differentialist racism to the figure of the liberal contrarian. Widely read, often widely syndicated, they nevertheless live in fear of the shadowy forces of repressive political correctness.
Well-rewarded in major newspapers and subject, as far as I can see, to minimal editorial oversight, they nevertheless steel themselves because, at any moment, they could be silenced. Convinced that racism is so last century, that it is – and here the writing is handed over to my Myers/Phillips/Steyn/Liddle auto-generator – nothing more than the special pleading of pampered minorities, the trump card of identity politics, and the bleating of middle class do-gooders, they nevertheless feel its trace. They can’t stop drawing attention to what they say they are not. And that’s because, for all the reductive, instrumental and vicious intent of their analysis, they are clever enough to realise that the gap between the discredited racism of biology and individual ignorance, and the hegemonic racism of commonsense cultural incompatibility and reluctant resource competition, is not in the end that wide.
Empirical facts, or at least those that can’t be tucked snugly into unshakeable culturalist frameworks, are not the primary currency of these fearless tellers of subordinated truths. But for those of us who just can’t help being quaint, here are some of O’Doherty’s contentions:
- ‘refugees/asylum-seekers, or whatever you want to call them‘: what you call them does matter, as these are statuses under international law. The residents of Mosney are asylum-seekers. But O’Doherty’s throw-away clause draws attention the wider political shifts that have made his limited schtick possible: the political assault, since the mid 1990s, on both the practice of asylum-seeking, but also on the image of asylum-seekers, deliberately blurred with ‘illegal immigrants’ in what Etienne Balibar calls the ‘immigrant’ as a racial category, including ‘not all foreigners, and not only foreigners’. For more on this background, see Fekete, A Suitable Enemy.
- ‘When we emigrating Irish didn’t get visas to Australia, that was just the game, we didn’t complain of racism‘: well, different system. Ireland also operates a green card system and an increasingly stratified immigration system. For more on this, see Bryan Fanning here.
- ‘We simply cannot afford to accommodate any more people who, through free accommodation, free legal advice, food, clothing and so on, become a burden on the State from the moment they arrive on Irish soil‘: they have been politicized as a burden, sure, but both the reception of asylum-seekers and minimum standards of provision are obligations under international law.
- ‘At what point did Ireland suddenly have a moral obligation to look after people who had probably never even heard of this country until they got here?‘ Since 1956. It took me 4 long googly seconds to find this out.
- ‘Is it now racist to point out that the vast amounts of money spent on the asylum process and the seekers themselves would have been better spent maintaining and preventing the HSE cuts to the already lamentable support given to respite carers?‘ Who said journalism is just creative cannibalism these days? Perhaps the actual figures, and the source of funding, is involved in pointing this out? It’s all here. Do your own research, ‘swampdonkey.’ [*] It’s economically illiterate, but such whataboutery is mainly about establishing the firm but caring persona of the writer (all the more ironic in that it depends on ‘victim competition’, a pet hate of muscular liberals).
Anyway, enuf pedagogy. What is really relevant about this piece is what it is symptomatic of. In 2002, the Dutch sociologist Baukje Prins published an influential paper on what she called ‘the new realism’ in Dutch public discourse. Contrary to visions of a Dutch multicultural paradise challenged by the radical liberalism of Pim Fortuyn, and the transformative horror of the murder of Theo Van Gogh, both anti-immigrant sentiment and assimilative state policies increased throughout the 1990s. Prins examined this shifting political climate in relation to a discourse predicated on the ‘courage’ – or ‘stones’, in O’Doherty’s terms - of self-promoting authors to confront taboos that the dominant orthodoxies have covered up. The crusading author assumes a populist relation with commonsense and the ordinary people, disdvantaged by all this elite posturing, as they really know what’s going on. Just in case some people are not convinced by the threat of the bare lives of warehoused asylum-seekers, the new realists need a mediating folk devil; the’left’ and middle class multiculturalists, who stifle debate at every turn.
Now, it’s a big ask, but read O’Doherty again through Prins’s schema. The joke about an auto-generator is only partially funny, as this is an easily learnt ABC of populism that transfers neatly from context to context. It provides the fairydust of contrarianism to commentators, and sometimes, if they have journeyed in life from left to right, allows the practised realism of discourse to be confused with a realism of maturity. This doesn’t always work, it should be said: the darlings of Danish new realism, Ralph Pittelkow and Karin Jespersen, often present their book Islamists and Naivists as valid because of their history on the left. This is somewhat undermined, perhaps, by the fact that Jespersen, as a government minister in the 1990s, wanted to corral asylum-seekers on an island off Copenhagen. Ah, the innocence of those pre-Muslim existential threat good old days. And this is why, from country to country, these commentators sound the same, repeating the same idioms of lego brick commonsense regardless of context or society. As Jenni Diski put it, in a brilliant review of Melanie Phillips’s new book The World Turned Upside Down, its repetition provide all the power of ‘Munch’s Scream in a singing birthday card’
But why is this racist? The genre of new realism translates the culturalist racism of the 1990s for a new era. Based on the false assumption that racism was always about biological difference, rather than a historically shifting form of thinking organised through the modern nation state that fuses biology and culture in systems of power and essential difference, new realism allows exclusion, inequality and hierarchy to be parsed through ideas of irreducible differences and exaggerated threats to our little land and its scarce resources. It frames racism as a moral criticism of ordinary people, rather than as a political critique of how power is distributed and inequality justified. It doesn’t matter if it is coded as ‘culture’, race-thinking remains constant. As Paul Gilroy puts it in After Empire
‘…the “race” idea is powerful precisely because it supplies a foundational understanding of natural hierarchy on which a host of other supplementary social and political conflicts have come to rely. Race remains the self-evident force of nature in society’ (2004: 9)
Currently there is some unrest about the take over of a nostalgic group about Mosney on Facebook by people posting racist comments. This should be countered. But let’s remember that these comments, by trolls, the angry, whomever, are the equivalent of the alibi caller that O’Doherty references in his article. The crudeness and violence of their language is what allows new realism to place itself as the common sense middle ground, speaking truth, but abhorring prejudice, and so very worried that the presence of those intolerable Others will inevitably stir up racism. It is no accident of unprecedented research that O’Doherty makes the argument that ‘stifling discussion’ allows space for the BNP. This is the move through which mainstream racism launders itself, through which Blunkett and Straw did their thing. The racialised stir up racism. And we are against that. So best not have them. And that’s not racist, at all.
Actually, he is right on one thing, it does need qualification. It’s neoliberal racism, but that’s another post.
Photo of the chalets at Mosney courtesy of Paul Rowley’s blog.
[*] ‘swampdonkey’: Ian O’Doherty finds this phrase hilarious when applied to working class women. So just piling on the hilarity by gender bending it right back! See how daring and funny it is?
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