Amanda Palmer
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Amanda Palmer: Playing the Hitler Card

We live in an age of endless, foaming outrage. The only answer is to try to feel empathy for other people, no matter who they are.

“You can’t play the Hitler Card,” said Neil. “Godwin’s law: once you play it, you’re out. Trust me.”

“But it’s different. Hitler’s the example people use. That’s why I’m using him.”

“Don’t do it.”

“You’re missing the point. If I’m talking about people talking about absolutes, I’ve got to use him.”

He looked at me with that polite, British look he uses when he knows I’m wrong.

“If you must use a Nazi as an example, darling, you’d be better off using Mengele. He was the one who did unthinkably gruesome experiments on pregnant women and their babies.”

“Thank you for that lovely image.” I looked down at my swelling belly. “But that’s not a meme. You don’t ‘play the Mengele Card’ . . . Most younger people probably won’t know who that is.”

“He was the villain in William Goldman’s Marathon Man.”

“Don’t change the subject. This isn’t about books. This is about Hitler.”

Neil sighed. I sighed back. This conversation was going nowhere.

 

****

“Playing the Hitler Card”, otherwise known as “reductio ad Hitlerum”, is the point in a discussion “where someone compares an opponent’s view to those of Adolf Hitler or the Nazi party”. Godwin’s law states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving the Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

Both Neil and I have been engulfed in our fair share of what we refer to as “internet kerfuffles” and we now discuss online PR tactics in the way that other married couples discuss whose turn it is to drop the kids off at school.

“Honey, your blog defending this person’s honour is really noble but if it kerfuffles, do you have time to deal with the three days of Twitter and Tumblr backlash?”

“Not really, I’m insane with deadlines.”

“Oof. Then don’t post it. You don’t have the time or energy to kerfuff this week.”

 

****

Everyone’s tired of internet outrage. It has got to the point where we censor ourselves so carefully to avoid kerfuffling that we might as well get off the internet altogether and go back to plain, old talking in cafés and pubs, because those places are where people can actually be honest. Erika Moen, who draws a sex-positive web comic called Oh Joy Sex Toy, wrote a blog recently about a handful of female celebrities who had had their naked phone selfies stolen and distributed. She wrote a friendly reminder to people that if they wanted to protect their identities from hackers while taking naked selfies, they should consider not including their distinguishing tattoos, or, obviously, their faces. She then got an outraged email from a long-time fan, calling her out as a “face shamer”.

People on the web are addicted to ­outrage. It’s become an epidemic but nobody seems to know quite what to do about it.

I look at Monica Lewinsky’s Ted talk about the “price of shame”, the US journalist Lindy West’s befriending of her worst troll and the inexplicable harassment-vortex morass that is Gamergate and I also see a widening conversation about the reality and effects of hatred. If there’s a theme in the backlash to the backlash, it is this: to defuse the Outrage Generation, we need better empathy skills.

A few years back, I endured a relentless ten months of internet controversy and I quickly learned the red flags, symptoms and lifespan of an average kerfuffle. There are two-day kerfuffles and two-week kerfuffles. There are kerfuffles that stay contained on Twitter and those that spill on to the blogs and, worse still, into print media.

The year 2012 began with my Kickstarter Kerfuffle (when I crowdfunded an album through online donations), which evolved a few months later into the Volunteer Musician Kerfuffle. Just as those were dying down, the spring of 2013 brought the Poem Kerfuffle, which started when I sat down to reflect on the harrowing days following the Boston Marathon bombing, which happened a few blocks from my apartment.

After the lockdown, Neil and I drove from Boston to New York and back, listening to the radio news non-stop as the ­horrific manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers crescendoed and exploded. We heard our friends on the radio – one of them had a son who had been friends with Dzhokhar, the younger brother. She had been at a backyard graduation party with him. Both of them had gone to high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near our house.

Dzhokhar was 19.

I wondered how he felt.

The poem I posted on my blog was a stream-of-consciousness sequence that connected the feeling of being trapped in “the bottom of the boat” (the location in which Dzhokhar was ultimately found, not far from the house I was raised in) and my flailing sense of helplessness in the face of overwhelming pain and tragedy. It was about my parents, my inability to
leave Boston because of a friend’s battle with cancer, my fragile marriage and my mundane indecision.

Before I uploaded it, I showed the poem to Neil, my personal kerfuffle filter. His red flags didn’t wave. He recognised the poem’s ingredients and commented on the punctuation and we set off for lunch. I called it “A Poem for Dzhokhar”, posted it and read the first few comments. The readers seemed to like it.

By the time I turned on my phone after lunch, the poem had been discovered by the right-wing news sites and the blog had 1,000 comments. One website said it was “the worst poem ever written in the English language”. Even generally lefty Boston journalists wrote op-eds condemning me for daring to write such an insensitive poem at such a sensitive time. Too soon, they said. Too far. Too much.

 

****

What frightened me about the Poem Kerfuffle weren’t the attacks on my poetry skills. It was the realisation that I was more alone than I had thought in my stance on compassion, expression and how we use art to cope with tragedy. How dare you empathise WITH A MURDERER? My Twitter feed had filled up with hate so fast that I couldn’t even read it all. A television news programme referred to me as “a loser”. Someone told me that I should have a bomb shoved up my cunt. An emailed death threat came in, credible enough for me to talk to the police. One concerned Boston journalist found himself “wondering if this trend of empathy had gone too far”.

Distinctions between empathy and jihad­ist leanings were quickly blurred; I was ­labelled a terrorist sympathiser. Some of my local friends told me that they couldn’t stand by “my support of the bombers”. But I wasn’t supporting their actions. I was imagining their feelings. I wasn’t totally alone, however. Most of my friends shook their heads in sadness about the misunderstanding. And slowly, over the next few days, I received a string of emails and voicemails from local Bostonians who wanted to tell me, in private, that they, too, had felt empathy and compassion and even concern for this 19-year-old kid. But they dared not say it aloud.

“He’s exactly my son’s age,” a friend wrote to me. “I can’t not imagine how he must be feeling. It’s heartbreaking. But you don’t blog those things, Amanda. That’s too much.”

Too soon, too far, too much.

I kept running the phrase in my head: “wondering if this trend of empathy had gone too far”. What’s too far? Is there even such a thing?

I believe that to erase the possibility of empathy is to erase the possibility of human progress. Erasing the possibility of empathy also threatens to erase the possibility of art. We watch Oedipus Rex not because we celebrate and condone the concept of motherfuckers and father killers but because it is cathartic to see our worst nightmares exposed in a safe context. We do not cheer when the blade cuts deep. We weep. We empathise. And we put the play on over, and over, and over again. These differences are crucial. Empathy is not sympathy and compassion is not condonation. Stage blood is exactly that. We spill it, on the stage and on the page, precisely because we can do it without harm.

I am, perhaps, an extremist in this regard. But I am starting to think that the only true antidote to extreme hate may be extreme love, a radical empathy. Jihads of compassion. Crusades of kindness. A movement in which we attempt to love our enemy . . . Oh, hold on. Jesus already said all that. Wait – did it work?

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that it might. In order to practise extreme empathy, you have to be able to empathise with . . . well, anybody. You have to be able to imagine loving and feeling compassion for the worst of the worst. Last year, this philosophy got me into a bit of a tangle with the various editors of my memoir-manifesto, The Art of Asking, when I drafted a section explaining that, yes, you must feel compassion even for the worst of the worst. For Hitler. There. I did it. I played the Hitler Card. But does it still count if I’m using the card not to tear down my opponent, but rather to point out that neither my debate partner nor Hitler is truly my opponent? My editors shook their heads. Frankly, nobody will care, Amanda. Please, take it out.

They won. I took him out of the book.

It is painful to imagine the ingredients – familial, cultural, environmental and mental – that can lead a person to commit actions so atrocious and so unconscionable that we cannot speak of them. But I think it is necessary. As the world grows more extreme, more violent and more polarised, as we wrap ourselves into ever tighter filter bubbles of news and opinion, as we find it easier and easier to divide the world into black, white, us and them – as these things happen, this exercise in imagination becomes increasingly essential. Not just for the artists, the poets, the musicians and the playwrights. For everyone.

On 13 May, the jury in Boston began deliberating over Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s guilt and fate. I found myself thinking not about the rights and wrongs of the death penalty but trying to imagine how it would feel to spend days, months, years in isolation, hearing the screams and wails of the guy in the next cell who mutilates himself with razor blades and swallows nail clippers. Trying to imagine how it would feel to be strapped to a gurney as a fellow human being inserts a death needle into both of my arms. I found myself imagining what it must be like to take the witness stand to explain how I looked down to see my own bloody legs lying on the sidewalk ­beside me. And I imagined how it would feel to be on a jury, having to drive home every night after court, my head hitting my pillow knowing that I must, along with 11 others, cast a vote for someone to live or to die. I can’t imagine I was alone in imagining these things.

The Martin Luther King biographer Taylor Branch recently shared a heart-rending piece of history: the last words uttered by one of the three civil rights activists killed by armed Klansmen during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, as they made a road trip to get folks to register to vote. In the moment before he was shot on a dark Southern highway, he said to the Klansman: “Sir, I know just how you feel.”

Then, bam. Dead. Given that his two friends were also shot and killed, you may wonder how we know. We know because the Klansmen who confessed to the murders shared that phrase in their testimonies. Those seven words apparently haunted them.

Frans de Waal, the Dutch primatologist, says: “Human morality is unthinkable without empathy.”

Here’s the thing: I did not and cannot know exactly how that teenage bomber felt. But I will dare to imagine. I must. I believe we all must. I believe it is only through the flexing of that small, frail, imaginary muscle of empathy that we will build the strength to erect a new human architecture on this fragile, fragile planet – a stronger one, one of connectedness and understanding.

Sir, I know just how you feel.

Wishful thinking. But perhaps. One day.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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