The world is their playground.
I am going to write about something that I have been meaning to look into in more depth for a while. As you may be aware the Cambridge Union recently asked Marine Le Pen to speak.
Oxbridge student unions are no stranger to right wing freaks.
In the past Julian Assange, international fugitive from rape charges and hero of conspiracy loons and “anti-imperialists” everywhere has been invited to speak to the Oxford Union via video link, and they invited Nick Griffin to speak a few years before that.
On a thread on urban75 my attention was drawn to another incident where the “liberal” president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, who has been in favour of affirmative action and refused to allow an army-based program onto its campus because of its discrimination against gay people, invited Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to speak on its campus. A head of state whose hands are dripping with the blood of political opponents and trade unionists, who openly tortures people, who uses anti-semitic propaganda to bolster support for his regime.
When you think that YOUR intellectual curiosity exists in a vacuum devoid of any social responsibility, that you can ignore the motives of people coming to speak to you and treat the place simply as a “forum for robust debate” you are in effect treating the world and everyone in it simply as a playground, as one poster there put it, for your intellectual curiosity. A world where nothing else matters except YOU and whether YOU “develop” personally – and what kind of development? A world where the “debate” of “ideas” (in fact nothing so high minded, just networking opportunities and opportunities for people like Le Pen to persuade the up and coming bourgeoisie of other countries that they are “moderate” and “reasonable”) occurs independently of anything else and where nothing else matters except the members of that debating society themselves. A world where these ideas and the situations that produced them exist independently of any real world consequences and any struggle.
I am writing this article because I want to respond to a truly terrible piece in the Independent in which it is argued that
There’s a difference between Nick Griffin showboating for votes on national television and Le Pen exposing her views to the ridicule of a few curious students
The problems begin with the article immediately. While it is true that there is a difference (I’ll come to that later) Le Pen is said to be “exposing her views to the ridicule of a few curious students” rather than being on *shock! Horror!* television, “showboating for votes”. As if Le Pen is simply exposing herself to “ridicule” rather than trying to get votes and influence, as all politicians do. Secondly there is no guarantee that her views would have been ridiculed at all!
Nick Griffin himself went to Cambridge, where he studied history, then law – or was this lost on the writer of the Independent piece?
Finally, it hardly needs saying that the Cambridge Union are hardly a just a “group of curious students” – notable alumni include Ken Clarke, Michael Howard and Vince Cable, and the Cambridge Union have hosted several other guests from Ronald Reagan to Gaddafi, still described on their website in glowing terms.
The Cambridge Union is deemed to be better than Question Time – er, why? Because Question Time is targeted at a mass audience? I think it’s somewhat more than that. The entire piece is based on a mistrust of the working class who should not be trusted with hearing fascist ideas whereas the Cambridge Union are, despite the fact that the backgrounds many of them will have grown up in, the sense of entitlement, of belonging to an elite, cleverer, more powerful, perhaps superior to the rest of the population, and the resulting lack of contact with working class people and ethnic minorities could well contribute to a sympathy with the politics of the extreme right. Such an event would hardly be without precedence.
The beginning of the article opens with the claim that “the critics say that giving the MEP – who was re-elected for the second time in 2009 – a platform to speak at the Cambridge Union gives her ideas legitimacy and free publicity. Aaron Kiely, NUS Black Students’ Officer, has even demanded “the invitation to fascist Marine Le Pen [be] withdrawn immediately.”” Oh the audacity of him to demand that the representative of a party with a history of far-right views in a country which has hardly been noted for its fantastic record on racial relations is pulled out of such a debate.
The article goes on to say that Marine Le Pen doesn’t need free publicity, that she appeared supporting David Cameron’s stance on Europe a few days ago, and is now part of the mainstream. Later on it goes on to say that the Cambridge Union address will be a chance to show her how wrong she – and the FN’s British counterparts – are when they attempt to make far-right views part of mainstream society. It is confused, incoherent nonsense and all of it is wrong.
The article itself says that she is mainstream. She even supports David Cameron’s stance on Europe – well, so that’s OK then! Although we have a far-right government in power which has introduced workfare schemes and other draconian changes to the benefit system and is driving down working and living conditions, and although successive labour and tory governments have tried to head off far-right opposition by adopting, in name at least, much of their rhetoric and demands such as “british jobs for british workers”, it is not so far fetched that many of the students at Cambridge will not only be supporters of the Tory party but may be sympathetic to views that are further right than the official line of that party. If their views really are so similar then why would the idea of Le Pen convincing some of the people hearing her talk be so far fetched?
The article talks dismissively of a “prolonged debate about whether we should deny the far right a platform”. In the case of the Cambridge Union this is rather like shutting the gate after the horse has bolted. Suffice to say the principle of stopping fascists from speaking, breaking up their meetings, etc, in periods where the extreme right have been on the rise, is not simply a matter of interfering with “free speech” and spoiling these people’s fun. In the past it has been a matter of survival.
We have to look at the “very specific context” here, we are told, because rather than being on Question Time where all those chavvy proles are in the audience or watching on television, Le Pen will be speaking to a small audience predominantly made up of students. This makes a fundamental difference apparently – students at one of the country’s elite universities are inoculated against far-right views, even though they are “mainstream” and close to David Cameron’s. I think it may well make a difference but not in the way the author of this article thinks.
One of the arguments for allowing her to speak is because students who may be studying the rise of the far right will have an opportunity to see her squirm, “Paxman-like”. If they are Cambridge students they will surely have access to other material about the far right, and in any case she will have been on her best behaviour. She is speaking to people, many of whom will in all likelihood become a future political elite and she needs to persuade them that she is not an extremist, that she is “moderate”. That she is somebody they can do business with. Secondly a massive assumption is being made here, that watching Question Time (with Newsnight hardly the most proletarian show on earth, vanishingly few people watch it and those who do are probably already somewhat familiar with what fascism is) or another television programme where a fascist politician is interviewed cannot offer a similar insight. The unwashed masses who watch Question Time (!) are not to be trusted, Cambridge University denizens are.
After all, it’s an academic environment! Well, that’s me told!
“Those in the auditorium will at the very least have a brief background of Le Pen and will know to be sceptical of the dangerous words being uttered.”
The dangerous words like supporting the European policies of the British Tory Party, of which many of them will be enthusiastic supporters of? Didn’t think so! Why is it assumed that going to an elite university means you are clever, that you are able to distinguish in the rarefied atmosphere of a debating society that Le Pen’s words are “dangerous” yet many of the people watching television programmes, who have to face issues such as racism, discrimination, and so on and are at the sharp end of it, are somehow too stupid with their “vague notions of what a politician might stand for” to be trusted to hear the words of the extreme right – who are not so extreme now after all! She will downplay all of the FN’s troublesome racist past and pass for reasonable. But it’s all right people – “those in the audience will be well aware of this”. That’s OK then.
The whole article is symptomatic of the elitist bollocks that passes for journalism in the realms of the Independent and the Guardian. Rather than being dumb proles with their “vague notions of what a politician might stand for” (as if there are no students, especially not in Oxford or Cambridge, without a clue about politics) the Cambridge students “will force an answer on subjects that she has tried to avoid”. Not just might. Will. They will force an answer! Rather than allowing politicians to dodge questions as usual or to stop her political opponents from speaking because of arcane “points of order”, no! They will! They will force an answer!
There’s an assumption that because she’s not looking for votes this is somehow harmless. Are votes the only form of political influence – are they even the main form of political influence that matters these days?
The article gives the conclusion that “it will be up to the audience to show her just how wrong she is, and why nationalist parties such as her British counterpart the BNP do not have a place in British society.” Will it really be up to them – and will they even want to, or will they, like Nick Griffin and many other bourgeois and upper class fash here and in France, end up playing a key role in the development of such parties? Such massive assumptions and such fawning over the elite vanguard saving us all from the far right.
The world really is their playground. No responsibilities and certainly no consequences.