The betrayal of anti-racism

So Shirley Brown called a colleague on Bristol City Council a “coconut”. And apparently that is now proven in the courts to be an example of a “threatening, abusive or insulting word, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress.” It is hard to express just how wrong-headed and fatuous is this utter waste of the time and resources of the criminal justice system. That in itself is not a trivial matter, nor is the fact that Ms Brown now has a criminal record. But the real damage is much more serious than that: it strikes right at the heart of our society’s long and largely ignominious struggle against the evil of racism. It brings that struggle into more disrepute than ever, makes it easy for white racists to dismiss the whole issue as “political correctness gone mad”, and leaves black people even more convinced that Britain’s commitment to racial equality is, and always has been, a sham.

Let’s step back. The laws in this country from the initial race relations legislation back in the 1960s until the latest amendments in 2003 and the statutory duties of 2006 were intended, in theory at least, to address the issues of inequality between members of different races in British society. Whether it has been about the direct criminalising of discrimination in housing, the jobs market, etc. or the duties on public bodies to publish their schemes of race equality, the purpose has been been clear. Black people face discrimination, and the Acts are there to protect them from that discrimination. The laws have often been good, despite the extraordinary difficulty that ordinary black citizens have faced in obtaining the practical justice those laws have promised them. Many black people are cynical about the laws in practice, some to the extent that they wonder about their intentions even in theory. But if we allow the benefit of the doubt on that, the issues the Acts have tried to address are serious, and have a serious effect on black people’s lives. How then do we end up with the travesty of Ms Brown’s criminalisation by a legal framework that is supposed to protect her? The answers are not pleasant, and have their roots in racism itself.

The key fact in Ms Brown’s case is that her use of “coconut” was directed at an Asian woman. Amongst the Afro-Caribbean community “coconut” is routinely used as a wonderful and pithy metaphor to describe a black person who has in some significant way done white society’s job for it. Black skin, maybe, but a white soul. Obviously you cannot with any meaning call a white person a coconut. How about an Asian? And there’s the rub. Many Asians fiercely resist the description of them as “black”, and this leads us into murky waters. Between the Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities in Britain there is a flow of racist ideology in both directions. I’m not going to get into the debate about whether expressing a racist ideology is the same thing as being a racist, with all the issues about whether any non-white person in this society can truly be called a racist in that sense. But racism is most certainly not only about the politics of power between races: it is also about ideas. And you don’t have to know many Afro-Caribbean or Asian people before you hear some pretty fruity stuff. “Paki” is as likely to come from the mouth of a young Afro-Caribbean as a young white. I’ve heard Asian people describe Afro-Caribbean people as “blacks” and it wasn’t supposed to be a compliment.

But it goes very much deeper than this. The experience Afro-Caribbean and Asian people had of British rule was very different. In the sub-continent there were very many appalling atrocities committed by the British, but there was also rule through the co-option of existing power structures. It was possible for some indigenous people to enter into a relationship with the colonial system that brought them advantages, or which secured their pre-existing power relations. To put it bluntly, there has been some tradition of operating in exactly the way that the word “coconut” is supposed to describe. None of this is to belittle the reality of colonial brutality, but the vastness of India simply could not have been ruled by British power alone.

For Afro-Caribbean people, the experience was utterly different, and inconceivably worse. I will doubtless be roundly condemned as an anti-Semite but it is not at all accidental that in our culture atrocity is now calibrated against the holocaust and the Nazis’ final solution. I shouldn’t need to (but I know I do) spell out for the avoidance of doubt that the holocaust was a criminal and inhuman atrocity of appalling and disgusting severity. But conveniently for the British, it was an atrocity that we were on the right side of. It was those pesky Germans who were responsible, gallantly defeated by the plucky British. Even more, it was an atrocity that did not really address the issue of white on black racism. The Jews may not have been Aryan, but they weren’t black either. So we are permitted, by deciding that nothing can be worse than the holocaust, to hide from our own genocide, and evade its racist core. What the Western European powers did in the Caribbean was to pile slavery onto genocide. We wiped out the indigenous populations. We used the cleared ground to grow our cash crops and we imported black people to do the work. We treated them like cattle. We stripped them of their cultural identity. And we certainly did not co-opt them into the governance of the territories. There was no tradition of the “coconut” in the founding of the slave states. This is the historical and cultural context of Ms Brown’s description of her colleague as a coconut. It makes no difference that this history is long, and reaches back 500 years.

Seen in this light, the utter triviality of Ms Brown’s conviction is beyond words. As is its breath-taking injustice. Anti-racism has become nothing more than manners. It is not racist simply to call someone a name that they don’t like. I have no idea if the cap fitted the Asian councillor Jay Jethwa’s head. If it did, she should have worn it with humility. If it didn’t she should have protested its unfairness. But when white people presume to tell a black woman that she cannot use a term that has meaning and power, then something has certainly gone mad. Worse than its madness, is its betrayal of the fight against the racism that we might like to think has gone but which, on the contrary, is ever present – and ironically is perfectly symbolised by this disgraceful incident.

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A tale of two meals

For those who’d noticed I’d been away – well, I’m back. For those who hadn’t, I’m sorry to have detained you with that pointless information. The former group will probably also be aware that France is the place that I’m back from, and the latter group can now pride themselves on having caught up with the pace.

France, as everyone knows, is the world’s gastronomic heart. Alas, everyone is probably seriously out of date, and France’s heart in these matters is now clogged up with the cholesterol of all those years at the top. One might have thought that bypass surgery would have been the treatment of choice, but unfortunately in this case bypasses are an intrinsic part of the problem and offer the therapeutic equivalent of a well-delivered head butt. France long since sold its heart, gastronomic and pastoral, to the dubious and flashy charms of l’autoroute.  Now that one can coast from, well, coast to coast and swap the grey waters of la Manche for the deep blue of la Méditerranée in a matter of hours one no longer has time for the leisurely dinners in hotels that introduced me to proper food when I first made the same trip, over three wonderful days, many years ago. France now makes me feel like the fretful parent of a wayward teenager (which of course I also am – fretful parent that is, not wayward teenager.) You love them dearly, but despair of the way they are throwing their talents away. I’m sure I’ll return to that particular hobby-horse another time, but in this post I want to reflect on just one aspect of my angst; what’s happening to restaurant food in France.

Before France became the country one dashes through on the way to somewhere else even sunnier, hotter, and trendier – Tuscany, in other words – it was the place where anyone serious about eating wanted to go, and needed to go if they were to sustain any pretence of knowledge in the fiercely snobbish world of haute cuisine. Or nouvelle cuisine, which is now neither new nor interesting, nor even a cuisine, come to that. In this last week, I ate at two establishments which demonstrate between them both the wonderful and the heartening, and also the inexpressibly sad, in French restaurants today.

The first was the Château de Bouesse which proves that the experience of eating in France is still sometimes done so perfectly that it makes you want die on the spot just so long as heaven consists of an unlimited supply of equivalent evenings (and of course, that one has been sufficiently blameless to qualify.) Of course it helped that the weather was stunning, and for the truly memorable and perfect eating experience there has to be a conspiracy amongst a host of factors beyond the food itself. The décor and ambience of the dining room must also play its part, along with tables big enough not to make you feel cramped, nor that if you reach for the bread you’ll inevitably knock over your soul-mate’s glass of wine. Actually, on this occasion I was soul-mate free, but you get the point. Those tables must also not be too intimately connected with one another, but rather maintain a respectful distance. The sun last Wednesday evening was playing its part in the conspiracy with aplomb, allowing golden shafts to suffuse the room with delicate warmth without blinding any of the occupants. And of course the service must be simultaneously inconspicuous but ever-present; a difficult trick to pull off, but one which is absolutely necessary to the entire ensemble. Finally, the stage for the whole event should for preference be a mediaeval château in which Joan of Arc once slept (and boy, did that girl sleep around!) Rather like this in fact:

And what of the food strutting its stuff on this perfect stage? In every respect it was fully worthy of its glorious setting. And it deserves spelling out in some detail. The amuses bouches were a little glass of cold cream of cauliflower soup, rillettes de saumon, and a potato pastry. It’s generally a good omen when you are served these not in the dining room, but along with one’s aperitif in a separate drawing room, and when they are of good quality, but even that did not prepare me for the delights ahead. My first course consisted of three of the most perfectly cooked langoustines I have ever tasted. There’s about ten seconds between undercooked and overcooked; these were timed to perfection, and beautifully arranged with a little saffron sauce. I can still taste them. Next came a plain fillet of fish (advertised as “salmon from the lake” but clearly brown trout) along with a delicate tart of spring vegetables and a frothy sauce. For me you can generally keep these ridiculous and pretentious aerated monstrosities that now seem to infest every chef’s sense of self-importance, but this one was exquisite in taste and not too foolish in texture. The main course was a breast of pigeon with the most superb combination of crispy exterior and bloodied pinkness inside, along with a tarragon sauce that was so perfumed it seemed as if one was breathing tarragon in gaseous form. For good measure the meat from the legs of the pigeon had been minced with oyster mushrooms and layered in a little potato sandwich as it were. Stunning. An excellent and generous cheese-board later, dessert was a soup of sweetened green tea with pieces of chopped fruits and topped with a ginger sorbet. I was driving, so no wine unfortunately other than a glass of Coteaux du Layon with the dessert which complemented it with just the right amount of sweetness. So that was – in case you were wondering – the wonderful and the heartening.

And the inexpressibly sad? I went with two friends to a little village restaurant not far from my house. We were the only three diners all evening. The patron produced rustic food just as good in its way as that the Château de Bouesse had provided a couple of nights earlier. He spent the whole evening popping in and out of the kitchen to talk to us, which I suspect had been alternated with glugs from the poison of his choice. But he was enthusiastic about the food he’d prepared, and I wondered just how drunk he’d have got if we hadn’t decided to eat there and no-one had turned up at all. Sorrows like that deserve to be drowned. The first course was a warm and robust tête de veau wrapped in a little crêpe and a tarragon vinaigrette. My main dish was a knuckle of cured pork, all gelatinous skin and melting meat that had probably been cooking most of the week. One cannot imagine food more honest, but yet more unfashionable. My dessert was a horrid couple of scoops of commercial ice-cream in a nasty chocolate-lined basket of cardboard wafer, but that was my fault for not choosing the alternative which was a lovely home-made madeleine de noisettes which I stole from my friend’s plate. When we asked for some digestifs after the meal, at first we were told a long story about how they could no longer dare to serve such things as anyone who drove home afterwards and had an accident would be asked where they had obtained the drink after which they had driven. And then the gendarmes would pay the patron an unwelcome visit and probably prosecute him. I don’t know if that is true, but if so it seems another nail in the coffin of his livelihood. I am no apologist for drunk driving, but blaming the restaurateur seems like pinning the blame in the wrong place to me. It seems inconceivable to me that this little restaurant will still be trading next year. There’s no passing trade to be had because no-one passes – they’re all charging down the A20 a few miles further east. The village is populated with as many English absentee home-owners as French these days, and few English stomachs are up to the challenges of veal head and time-softened pork gristle. And so, when he finally gets fed up with cooking food no-one comes to eat, or gets too drunk to cook anyway (and it’s a race to see which happens first, I suspect) another village restaurant cooking proper food will disappear. There aren’t many left to suffer the same decline. Speed kills, in every sense.

Thank you and goodbye – for now

I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks in a place where the Internet does not intrude. I wish I could say that my bolt-hole is in so exotic a place that technology cannot reach it, but actually it’s just that I’m too mean to pay for web access in my French house.

It would be equally untrue to say that I’m deliberately testing my resilience and coping mechanisms when denied my normal diet of blog-updating and Twit-browsing, although it might be an interesting side effect to note just how stressed I’ll become without my fix.

So please don’t think I’ve given up for good, and thank you for all your support and comments over the last few months. I will be back, whether you like it or not! In the meantime, you might like to commiserate with me having to wake up to this every bloody morning!!

Men, women, rape and justice

The fact that I’ve filed this under “topical thoughts” although the coalition’s statement on this came out weeks ago (now topical again as MPs debate the issue) can be taken as an indication of my trepidation about venturing into this most divisive and explosive aspect of the criminal justice system. I hope very much that spelling out that the controversy is about the anonymity of rape suspects is not necessary: we should all be exercised by this and familiar with the issues.

It’s not possible to think about rape in the criminal justice context without first addressing rape in itself. Much of the argument about how rape should be dealt with is predicated on the idea that rape is a unique kind of crime. Is that so? It’s not uniquely brutal, that’s clear. There are all kinds of appalling tortures that we inflict on one another that would vie along with rape for the right to sit at the ghastly apex of brutality. Is it uniquely invasive? There’s a stronger argument for that, but perhaps only if you also accept that sexual invasion is in a different category than are other kinds. But there is one sense in which the crime of rape is different from all others: it is the only crime that can only be committed by men. Whatever sexually coercive things that women may be able to do to men, they do not constitute rape. Rape requires the penis in the same way that pregnancy requires the uterus. It is its sine qua non. Of course, men can rape other men, so rape is not unique in that its victims must be women, and I’m certainly not going to try and determine if there is any difference between having a penis in one’s vagina against one’s will, or in one’s rectum. But the uniqueness of requiring a penis for its commission does indeed mark rape out.

Does this uniqueness bring anything else in its train? Caroline Flint made the very good point this morning that anonymity is only ever discussed in the context of rape – although I have heard similar arguments made about those accused of child abuse, at least in some circumstances. There are many crimes (I should have thought almost all) where the reputation of the person accused is soiled whether or not they are eventually found guilty. I accept that the more serious the crime, the greater the reputational damage, but justice being done, and being seen to be done, requires openness about the players. This is much more powerful as an argument against the anonymity given to victims than it is as an argument for providing anonymity to suspects. Anonymity for victims is in some ways an intolerable concession to the idea that a violated woman is somehow damaged in the eyes of men, and therefore needs protecting in the sexual marketplace. I am not opposing anonymity for victims, merely pointing out that a special case has to be made for it, and that the default position should be against it.

There’s another aspect about the anonymity for suspects debate. It’s hardly ever put forward when the rape is by a violent stranger in a public place. This is predicated on the notion that there are different kinds of rape, and that some are committed by monstrous fiends that most men can feel secure in the knowledge they will never be, whilst others are somehow the results of misunderstandings in the tragedy of manners when poor hapless men are in some bizarre way tricked by the fickleness of women’s sexuality. And of course, all men can relate to that.

Well, not this one. Penises do not end up in vaginas by accident. There is no point, from the first stirrings of sexual attraction, to the last moment before penetration, when the words “no” and “stop” can be misconstrued. Hugely disappointing maybe, but not misunderstood. Of course it is a travesty if a woman does not say no, but simply regrets the sexual act after the event and then recasts it as non-consensual. That is a nightmare which men rightly fear. But there seems little evidence that it is common. And for the avoidance of doubt, rape can still occur after consensual sex if a man decides on second helpings without their partner’s consent. Consent is not given without an expiry date.

So the anonymity debate, which on one level seems merely an effort at even-handedness, with the rights of victims being mirrored by the rights of suspects, is in fact based on a misapprehension about what is truly unique about rape, and what is not. Rape is not uniquely awful, such that suspects are tainted by the very accusation in a way that cannot apply to any other crime. Rape is unique in that only men can be suspects, and therefore anonymity for men is inextricably linked to the powerplay of sexual politics. Men fear the accusation of rape because it is an accusation that only women can make (other than the much fewer men who are victims: but oddly no-one seems to be getting agitated about anonymity then.)

For anyone falsely accused of a crime they did not commit, the consequences are catastrophic, and the more so the more serious the crime of which they are accused. But this is not a unique attribute of rape. As for the fair’s fair argument that anonymity for victims must be balanced by anonymity for suspects, I’d prefer to see the balance restored by removing anonymity altogether. That’s clearly not possible at the moment because society’s attitudes to rape preclude it. But perhaps a society in which rape is seen as a crime without even the slightest implication that women bring it on themselves, by their dress, or by their sexual fickleness, or by their moral decadence, will be a society in which women no longer feel the need to be anonymous if they are raped any more than they feel the need to be anonymous if they are robbed or defrauded.

Being 90

We celebrated my mum’s 90th birthday yesterday. It was a pleasant, low-key occasion, but not without its contradictions and unsettling undercurrents. The first of these was our collective decision on where to hold the event. We went to the local pub where my mum quite often goes for a lunch-time meal. We’d have liked to do something a bit more special, to mark out the achievement of hanging on for 90 years in a more distinctive way. But we knew that my mum really finds difference – the very thing that is needed to mark something as being out of the ordinary – very difficult these days. She would have spent the entire evening wondering where she was, and why. Excitement would have been overtaken by anxiety. So we stuck with the familiar.

I have two brothers, and very rarely do all three of us meet up at the same time. In fact, I’m not sure that the last time wasn’t my mum’s 80th. On that occasion we’d gone to a rather more salubrious hotel a good few miles out of town, with a wider guest list. It seemed somewhat poignant that this more significant milestone should have to be more mundanely recognised. We also decided that it would be good to celebrate mum’s birthday on the actual day, if for no other reason than to prevent further confusion. But this meant that a weekday evening would exclude my wife and son for whom a 400-mile round trip for a 2-hour meal was hardly a practical proposition. Not the worst thing in the world, but to me it felt like a compromise, and seeing my brothers with their children made me feel as if my branch of the family had failed to make sufficient effort. Irrational, I know, but that’s feelings for you!

And then there were the dynamics of the meal itself. My mum’s hearing is not what it once was. It would have been better perhaps if she’d been more centrally seated, but then the frequent toilet visits would have been more awkward and more embarrassingly highlighted. So we felt it better to ensure convenience of access to the convenience. But of course, knowing that she could easily make a toilet visit removed mum’s anxiety which is what stimulates her hyperactive bladder in the first place, and I don’t think she went during the meal at all. Best laid plans. But being at the end of the table accentuated the disadvantage of her hearing. One step forward, two back. Inevitably, when people meet up who don’t often get the chance, there’s loads of making up for lost time to be done. I felt torn between not wanting mum to be a kind of outsider at her own party and the almost irresistible attraction of the kind of dry, rapid-fire, ironic humour that is the staple diet of our brotherly conversations, and which mum simply can’t keep up with. Every now and again mum would say, “I really don’t know what you’re all talking about!” and we’d guiltily stop mid-flow.

I’d hate you all to get the impression that the whole event was a stressful and unsuccessful attempt to balance the unbalanceable. It was a lovely evening, and mum enjoyed herself royally. She made her usual dry observations about how much alcohol was being consumed whilst demanding to know why her glass was empty. There was one delicious moment when, somehow or another, hair-dyeing entered the conversation. Mum told us sagely that she never needs to because her hair is so dark a brown that it’s almost black.

“Mum, your hair’s been as white as the driven snow for a quarter of a century!”

“Oh, I’d hadn’t noticed!”

And so the evening shot past, with banter and jollity and gratitude for a mother and grandmother whose commitment to us all has been steadfast, and non-judgemental, and more than we deserved. And yet. And yet at the very heart of everything is an aching sense of loneliness and loss. Loss of her husband without whom she’s struggled on for 16 years so far. Loss of her sister with whom she was as close as she was argumentative. Loss of memory and perhaps purpose too. I don’t know. But I do know that getting to 90 has been bitter-sweet.

Should I raise my obscenity quotient?

I’ve noticed recently, via the links provided to me by various kind Twitter acquaintances, that the blogs that land the greatest accolades from the blogosphere seem to put a lot more effort than I do into ensuring that they make full use of the word “cunt”. Indeed, should you disagree with me, apparently I should be making it clear to you that the very act of disagreement itself makes you a cunt. Along with “fuck”. And all its conceivable inflections and compounds, of which a fair few are forms that personally I’d never conceived of, as it happens. But e-fucking-nough of that. I am also showing a lot less interest in male masturbation than it seems is necessary for the successful blogger, and in particular I’m not paying sufficient attention to its jizzy output.

Both the blogs I’ve linked to have won awards from TotalPolitics in various categories. Evidently the criteria for such approbations don’t include the ability to reason to any great extent, nor the ability to show even a modicum of respect to well-known figures who have doubtless got their weaknesses but who probably don’t deserve to be addressed as “Liam ‘putrid, knuckled-headed chimp’ Donaldson”.

Of course, it’s probably me that’s got it all wrong. I’ve no idea from whom I got the ridiculous notion that arguing a position might consist of a bit more than trawling through my entire back-catalogue of naughty words, and then assembling them into sentences I’d last used in adolescence. But whoever it was, I should clearly have informed them that they would have been better off fucking themselves backwards whilst jizzing liberally over the living room furniture. I can’t think why I never thought of saying it at the time.

Frankly, I’m disappointed. I feel I’ve missed the blog-boosting-awards boat completely. Slipping a sneaky “arsehole” and “fuck” into my otherwise linguistically blameless digression on the existence or otherwise of God – something I’d thought of as wildly risqué at the time – was self-evidently inadequate as a means to recognition. Well it’s not good enough. Indeed, it’s not good e-fucking-nough.

So, you load of brain-dead, cunt-shagging, jizz-soaked fuckers, I don’t need your piss-stained, shit-smeared apology for an answer to the rhetorical question I posed in this post. Hell, no, I’m fucking-well going to smear the goddam answer on your spunk-spattered tits with my own recently chuggered dick. You are all cunts.

Would it be OK to ask for my blog award now? I find profanity quite tiring, and I’m not sure I can keep it up. Not in an impotence sense, obviously.