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Whoever thought that a conference on education could be interesting? Last week, Laurie Penny and David Starkey made one so by having a loud dingdong about race. Ms Penny – a columnist for The Independent – called Starkey a racist because he implied that gang culture was an import from the Punjab. Dr Starkey – a freelance historian – lost his temper, pointed his finger at Penny and shouted, “I will not be lectured to by a public school girl like you!” The whole farce would have gone unreported had Penny not turned to Twitter to imply that Starkey physically assaulted her. The video that leaked out suggests different. Starkey’s rage contains all the terror of a bichon frise growling at a suspicious looking tree. Ms Penny has enough sangfroid to return to the microphone to, once again, call her opponent a big auld racist. It's pure Punch and Judy.

The story went global and partisans fell into two camps. The Left said Starkey’s insensitive pronouncements on British identity made his racism obvious. His vocal outburst, coupled with having the audacity to wear linen in the 21st century, confirmed an implicit violence within his politics. The Right argued that Penny was the real bigot for twisting the words of a respected historian to denounce all conservative views as inherently racist.

Both sides are equally guilty of misreading the politics of race. The Right often exhibits a paradoxical cultural chauvinism. On the one hand, they will insist that racism isn’t a problem in Britain – partly because our society is more homogeneous than the Left thinks it is and partly because Britishness is a byword for tolerance. On the other hand, they use this claim of tolerance as a reason to exclude outsiders, because they perceive the “invading” culture to be intolerant. Most of Britain’s problems are imagined to be the result of outsiders getting inside and exploiting the British soft touch: asylum seekers scamming benefits, Islamic sex rings, Muslims building super mosques to preach destruction of the West etc. The repugnant assumption behind much of the conservative take on multiculturalism is either that foreign cultures are breeders of violence or that individuals raised in those cultures are incapable of independent moral action. That’s why Starkey’s infamous claim on Newsnight that the London riots were a cultural import from Jamaica was so wrong. Civil unrest isn’t unique to the West Indies – the English have been revolting for centuries.

If the Starkey’s crime is myopia, Penny is guilty of trying to use the racist label to shut down debate. Consider what happened during the Starkey vs Penny confrontation. On the subject of “What is Britishness?” Penny said, “For people like my colleague Professor Starkey, it’s playing xenophobia and national prejudice for laughs. And if you ask people who organise conferences like this, it’s sitting by politely while people play xenophobia and national prejudice for laughs, pretending that this is an acceptable part of contemporary debate.”

I highlight the last part of that sentence because this is a key part of the contemporary Left’s agenda: dividing political opinions into legitimate and illegitimate. The Left insists that it is illegitimate to say that homosexuality can be a choice, that the fetus is a human being, that the welfare poor must take some responsibility for their life choices or that there is some other explanation for global warming. These positions may be wrong or even despicable. But the Left’s very undemocratic goal is to drive them from the public sphere. Happily, all we will be left with once we effectively outlaw cultural traditionalism is liberalism and socialism. Then we can all get on with the business of becoming the kind of people Laurie Penny wants us to be.

Of all the forms of thought policing that the Left uses, the most egregious is the accusation of racism. Of course, racism does exist in both conscious and subconscious forms – given its history of imperialism and slavery, it is truly the West’s Original Sin. But if we overuse the word racism, we dilute its meaning and lose our ability to judge between who is and who is not racist. David Starkey might be prejudiced, but he is in no way analogous to Nick Griffin and the BNP. By labeling Starkey as such, the Left empowers the BNP to claim that its views are both germane to the mainstream Right and the victim of the same kind of thought policing that Starkey suffers. It’s notable that Nick Griffin offered to make Starkey an honorary member of his party after his Newsnight appearance.

In the same way that overuse of the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to describe things that come nowhere near to the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust is offensive, so too is misuse of racism. It dilutes the power of that word, so that an ugly, stupid throwaway line by a politician about Africans is treated with the same seriousness as the Rwandan genocide. It also blinds us to non-political forms of prejudice that genuinely need tackling. The worst is the racism of low expectations – a variety of racial oppression that the Left unwittingly participates in. By constantly asserting that ethnic minorities can’t get ahead because of white bigotry, we often condemn them to a culture of low morale reinforced by shockingly bad schools. Aspiration and Capitalism have historically been far kinder to the poor than therapeutic welfarism.

In short, the Right constantly confuses the meanings of culture and race, but the Left does nothing to help by taking an already toxic debate and poisoning it further with a mix of righteousness and paranoia. And the discussion so rarely actually improves anyone’s lives. Step back from the Starkey vs Penny fight and you see two white figures from the establishment claiming to speak for the disenfranchised. They do not. The only thing that distinguishes their privileged voices is that Laurie Penny shields herself from criticism with the claim that she is being physically and intellectually oppressed by violent patriarchy. To his credit, Starkey’s bombast is more honest, cheerful and self-aware. David Starkey doesn’t care who he offends or what people think about him, and that's why his brand endures. He isn’t just thick skinned – he’s all skin.

 


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