Livingstone is in the news accused of being anti-semitic, again. Unlike last time though I feel slightly less inclined to defend the man. Here's an excerpt from the BBC's piece on this Mayor in fresh Jewish controversy
"Ken Livingstone attacked David and Simon Reuben for their role in an ongoing dispute about the Stratford City development in east London. He suggested the brothers "go back (to their own country) and see if they can do better under the ayatollah". "
Now I find it hard to believe that someone with Livingstone's anti-racist credentials is anti-Semitic and stand by our article on the previous 'scandal' (What's behind the Livingstone suspension?) but there is a real problem here. You don't tell people to go back to 'their own country' and there is no context here to justify it. This seems like basic anti-racist common sense to me.
Of course life's a lot more complicated than being able to stick a label on someone (like racist/anti-racist, good bloke/wife beater) and I firmly believe that anti-racists are not immune to the prevailing ideas in society and that we can all slip up - but for someone of Livingstone's pedigree to say foreigners to go back to their own country if they don't like it here (although actually they are Indian / Iraqi not Iranian, but never mind) is a real problem and he needs to act swiftly, particularly because of his other problems, to head this off.
But regardless of the Livingstone case for a moment, can anti-racists accept racist ideas?
I think the answer is yes. I remember a massive scandal amongst the ranks of Essex university socialists about ten years ago when, at a Christmas Party, two women started having a rather loud and obnoxious conversation about how greasy mediteranians were and they tried to work out which nation was the greasiest. Others there were pretty embarressed and slow to say anything and, unfortunately, it was upto another woman, from Malta, to step in and object to this disgraceful conversation.
Now in the ensuing rows those people who decided to defend these women's actions (hmmm, yes) consistently used the argument "But how can you say they are racist when they've done so much anti-racist work" because they simply could not get their head around the idea that someone who is a genuine anti-racist could simultaneously hold racist ideas. Now all that we wanted was an apology for the incident and an acceptence that the idea of classing foreign nationals according to how greasy they are is not on - but we never argued that these people were racists, only that even the best person could succumb to an objectively racist theory, often unconsciously.
This black and white view of the ideas people hold is often responsible for wrong footing us when people step out of the role we've given them. It's responsible for the AWL described Tariq Ali as "the LibDem voting Tariq Ali", for example. What's important is that we try to approach the world with an open mind and try to see which direction people are going rather than insist that we cannot live with a contradiction and that we can be fully defined by just one aspect of ourselves.
Although I must say that some contradictions are harder to get your head around than others - like the ex-flat mate of mine who told me proudly how anti-racist he was and that he'd "been telling a coon" this that very morning... I confess I just stared at him not sure what to say - here was a man developing an understanding that racism was a bad thing and a lecture on appropriate language was unlikely to go down well with this particular individual - but I still think he had some way to go on the road to political purity... but then again don't we all?