IT’S GROUNDHOG DAY, minus Punxsutawney Phil, but with added fascists. Just as the BNP leader Nick Griffin had come to terms with the disappointment of his cancelled invitation to TCD’s Philosophical Society, UCC’s Government and Politics Society has provided him with a new excuse to discover Ireland.
According to Ben English, the society’s chair, ‘our invitation is by no means a defence of what he has to say, rather it is a defence of his right to say it’. That logic could make for a busy year. Nobody is threatening Griffin’s right to speak freely, instead he has been issued with an invitation. The right to freedom from coercion is not the same as an entitlement to speak, or to be listened to, on a given platform. If you accept this basic conflation, and if you haven’t received your invitation to speak at UCC yet, your rights are being infringed. Give your defenders a call; they say late spring is the best time to visit the People’s Republic.
Like an episode of Fair City, flimsy logic is no impediment to the tedium of endless drama. And like all soap opera plots, this depends on a triangular relationship. This menagerie à trois depends, as the philosopher John Durham Peters explains, on a ‘threefold drama of the liberal enabler, the convention-buster, and the outraged bystander’. This is a drama that is cost-free for the freedom free-riders that ritually instigate it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have consequences. The costs of racial harassment and political venom are passed on to ‘migrant-looking’ people who are never invited to speak, because even in this circus, they remain invisible.
For all it secular history, ‘free speech’ is casually held up like a liberal Eucharist. To invoke it is to appeal to a transcendental end-in-itself, and to place all criticism as blasphemy – look! There is somebody who does not believe in freedom of speech! However ‘free speech’ does not transcend politics, and debate, because of the basic fact that it involves making choices, is not a neutral arena. To understand how this ritual of ‘debate’ enables racist politics by pretending to stand outside of politics, we need to consider what unfolds in this drama.
‘For students seeking scandal, he is cheaper to import than an Elder of the Westboro Baptist Church’
Nick Griffin, whose divisive leadership of the BNP is under enormous pressure, increasingly depends on starring as the convention-buster. He probably benefits from the fact that, for students seeking scandal, he is cheaper to import than an Elder of the Westboro Baptist Church. Nevertheless, after a political career lived careering between the factions of the National Front and BNP, his impressive CV includes Holocaust Denial, conviction for incitement to racial hatred, and leadership of a party that, until 2010, denied membership to ‘non-whites.’
Griffin loves being invited to debates, while not taking too seriously the pursuit of rational exchange. As he put it in the 1990s, BNP supporters appreciated the organisation’s ‘ability to back up its slogan ‘Defend Rights for Whites’ with well-directed boots and fists. When the crunch comes power is the product of force and will, not of rational debate.’ The platform provided by a public forum is valuable strategically: it generates publicity, launders racist politics as legitimate options that deserve respectful engagement, and provides an opportunity to mobilize interest and support. Griffin is not interested in student societies in Ireland for the calibre of the intellectual jousting. As Brian Whelan has reported, the BNP has increasingly sought to develop links and provide support to extremist right-wing groups in Ireland, particularly with the aim of stirring up hostility to ‘migrants’ during the political-economic crisis.
Searching for ways to legitimise a politics that remains based in an ideology of racial hierarchy is a long-standing objective of the Far-Right. Ironically, a central strategy they use is playing the victim card. Immigration is being imposed on ordinary folks by a politically correct middle-class, but these real victims can’t speak of their fears without being branded a ‘racist’. Being invited to a debate allows a refinement of this strategy; if we get to speak, we get to ‘represent’ this voice, and what earnest middle class folks are going to say otherwise? If we don’t get to speak at the debate, then we gain a valuable media spectacle, whereby our victim status is enhanced.
‘Fascism is not explained by glib one-liners’
To a large extent, this tactic is political common knowledge. It clearly involves exploiting those who would host such a spectacle. The question then, is why do ‘liberal enablers’ offer themselves to be exploited?
In Saturday’s Irish Times, Donald Clarke noted the BNP’s desire for a ‘supposed status as suppressed, political outsiders.’ Political reality noted, he then went on to hoist the liberal Eucharist by arguing that: ‘if you don’t believe in free speech for fascists, then you don’t believe in free speech. If you don’t believe in free speech, then you are probably a fascist.’ In hoisting this Eucharist, he also hoisted a petard, as this article was published in the same week as Tom and Sally Ann Fitzgerald described how the Irish Times ‘butchered’ an article by their daughter, Kate.
Perhaps there is a posthumous buy-out clause that prevents the Irish Times editorial staff, in Clarke’s logic, from auto-mutating into fascists. Or, perhaps this obnoxious but hardly exceptional media industry incident illustrates how this kind of abstract logic ultimately has no meaning. It equates ‘fascism’ with bad things, which inevitably results in the realization that we all do bad things, and in the equation, fascism as a political logic, and network of movements, vanishes.
But fascism is not explained through glib one-liners. Fascists seek to ensure the coherence of the nation, a coherence that demands purging racially or morally degenerate populations through political violence. Opposing the circulation of a message that seeks to censor human life is not censorship. Organising against forces that threaten what little democracy we have is a basic value of democratic action, and social solidarity.
Clarke argues that ‘the thinking democrat should realize that the cause of anti-fascism is far better served by allowing such unsavoury individuals to speak.’ By this superficial measure, all the major British trade unions, including the National Union of Students, and most of the elected parliamentarians in the UK are ‘unthinking democrats’. Here Clarke comes up against the question that all of Griffin’s would-be Irish hosts must answer: what gives them special access to a truth that experienced politicians and campaigners in Britain appear to have unthinkingly missed?
A fuller understanding of democratic action explains why they adhere to a ‘no platform’ policy. Freedom of speech is a political right, as is freedom of protest. Many organisations in the UK enact these rights in refusing to be involved in promoting the BNP’s message. They do so out of an explicit solidarity with those that the BNP target. The more publicity and attention the BNP receive, the greater the threat they pose on the streets. By refusing to host or legitimate a message of racial hate that has political impact, a ‘no platform’ policy, such as that enacted in TCD, involved students, student groups, staff and unions in organizing democratically to have the event cancelled.
‘No one is obliged to provide the BNP with a platform’
No one is obliged to provide the BNP with a platform – it is not a question of rights. But basic democratic solidarity demands that people unite to prevent them attacking the rights of others, including the rights of ‘migrant-looking’ and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered staff and students to live and work on a campus where they are not the targets of hate and vitriol. The BNP does not engage in debate to be rationally persuaded, and witty seven-minute speeches by Irish undergraduates are not going to usher them down the road to Damascus. Not providing a platform does not equate with stopping people from knowing what the BNP have to say – the whole reason for the invite is because we know precisely what they stand for. For everything else, there’s Google.
‘Liberal enablers’ no doubt genuinely hold the principles they espouse. But this is not enough to sustain the fiction that they are neutral actors, driven by a higher calling. Standing outside of struggle and political reality, they nod ruefully while lecturing people who actually experience racist and homophobic violence that, well, this is the price of freedom. But they don’t, and won’t ever be asked to pay that price. Without irony, how can one invoke freedom and ask others to pay for it? Clarke rehearses this patronizing performance of broad-mindedness twice; once with the usual, misguided dismissal of BNP voters as ‘morons’, and when he argues:
“The Phil can invite whomever it likes to its debates. It is, however, probably as well not to overstuff the Graduates Memorial Building with, say, anti-Semites, neo-fascists, cockfighters, gay bashers or eugenicists. Nobody has a right not to be offended. But it is good manners to avoid upsetting decent folk as much as possible”.
This is the problem with the ‘free speech’ denial of power, not in a nutshell, but in a snow globe. You shake it up, and the arguments and insults fall like snowflakes, covering everyone, but leaving the world more beautiful than before. Except it only does this if you imagine the world without massive differences of power, and without the realities of daily harassment, prejudice and violence that ‘migrants’ all over Europe experience. The ‘right not to be offended’ is a luxury item in this reality – that a writer imagines it as the worst that can happen illustrates the liberal fiction of a world where racism, violence and inequality don’t really shape people’s lives. Keep one eye on the news these days, and the resurgent power of the far-right, and the attendant violence, is obvious. In this context, one can pretend to be neutral. But you cannot claim that you do not know what is at stake, and that with that knowledge, you have actually taken sides.
Gavan Titley lectures in Media Studies in NUI Maynooth. He is the author, with Alana Lentin, of the recent book The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age (Zed Books 2011). Information on the book, and further writing, can be found here.