Higgins destroys Tea Partier

Irish president goes head-to-head with conservative radio host

Back in 2010, Michael Graham, a conservative American talk show host, interviewed Michael Higgins, president of Ireland. The interview (which you can listen to here) has recently gone viral, perhaps because the President’s indictment of the American right is ever the more relevant as election day looms.

Higgins incited the showdown by saying, “they deserve our support, the people Gaza”. Predictably, this spurred Graham into Tea Party mode. The interviewer retorted:

I wanna ask, why is it that when the withdrawal occurred why is it that almost the next day rockets started pouring into Israel?

The Irish President then went on to accuse Graham of ignorance (a theme that marked pretty much all twenty minutes of the interview)

Well of course it didn't happen that way, I was in Gaza five weeks after the withdrawal. I can tell you, this is the difference, i know the kind of stuff you're on.

To which Graham, rather unaware of the ass-kicking that would ensue, semi-humourously replied:

I’m proud to say it's Guinness

And so Higgins went on:

They should patent it because it's having an effect I've never heard before. The point is, I was in Gaza. I was there with Andreas van Aaght, the former prime minister of Holland, and six others. We had our own translator, our own bus. We spent about two weeks generally in Israel and going into Gaza. And the rockets did not start immediately, not at all. You're talking about Sderot, which I also visited. And in fact for several months before the invasion of Gaza there were no rockets at all. And what people are continually saying now is that you have an equal proportion of violence between supporters of Hamas and Israel. The response of Israel, if you look at the number of Palestinians (they don't 'call themselves Palestinians' they are Palestinians), you're talking about their homeland and you're talking about the West Bank, you're talking about people. And you're right about it, the children of Abraham for example, which include the Jewish people as well, all occupied the same place. But the issue is one of respect for the rights of Palestinian people to live in peace. The particular suggestion that has been around for some time is the creation of two states. You could never have created a state in Gaza. For example, you speak about the withdrawal. The withdrawal didn't include, for example, control over the sea ports, the right to land a plane. It didn't include control over the borders. What it did was it took the road blocks out of the internal part o Gaza and it increased a great deal of security on the border. So Gaza needed to be contiguous and connected to the West Bank, you needed to give that state the right to take its decision that any other state would. And then you'd be getting somewhere.

He concludes that Graham-type ignorance is the bane of US foreign policy:

But frankly, you know what it is - I’ve listened to you very carefully - the contribution of the fundamentalist madness from the United States into the Israelis is probably one of the greatest obstacles to peace in the region.

But Graham didn’t quite get it, and insistently kept asking Higgins “why the people of Gaza” kept “firing at Israels”. Higgins dealt a low blow:

You're onto the Sarah Palin madness now.

Graham took offence, of course, and went on a rant against how the President – and Europeans more generally – are anti-Semitic Hamas supporters. Higgins reacted to the rant by elaborating on the previous ‘Palin’ jab:

Both of you have the same tactic - the tactic is to get a large crowd, whip them up, try and discover its greatest fear, work on that and feed it back, and you get a frenzy. (…) You have one of the most gifted presidents (…) you regard someone that has been a professor at Harvard as handicapped but don't find anything wrong at all with this tea party ignorance that has been brought all around the united states which is regularly insulting people who have been democratically elected.

After being accused of ignorance regarding the Tea Party, the President went on:

I lived in the Midwest, in Willie Nelson country, I was a student there at the end 60s and a professor in Illinois into the 70s. The magnificent, decent, generous people of the United States (…) the difference between them and the tiny elite that are in charge of the warmongering foreign policy of the United States is just enormous. When you go on your picnic around the country you are not representing the decent United States people who are very proud, correctly, of the president they've elected.

Graham insisted on going back to initial issue, asking Higgins about the ships that were captured en route to Gaza with “loads of weapons (…) from Iran". When pressed about which ships, exactly, the interviewer was at a loss… “From Iran”?? Higgins pounced at this:

As you get farther and farther away from the facts you'll be able to increase the number of ships. The ship that my colleagues are on is called the Rachel Corrie. Who is Rachel Corrie? Why is it called Rachel Corrie? Because Rachel Corrie was bulldosed into the ground as a peace worker. But she doesn't matter. You’re not dealing with facts.

Graham replied:

I’ll keep quoting facts and you keep quoting propaganda

This clearly ruffled Higgins’ feathers:

You're talking about ships you don't know the name of, you don't know the number of. You’re really a good student of that kind of journalism that says, 'if I can get away with it’s good, if I can work people up its even better'. This is very very dangerous stuff. For example, how can you say I am in favour of anyone murdering any Jewish people?

Graham then, reflexively, accused Higgins of anti-Semitism, who replied in equal measure:

You're doing your Sarah trick now. Sarah Palin doesn't know where Russia is and she's going to look up at the sky and say 'I’m watching them and they’re coming and threatening you and me and my tea party’s might are going to defend you all. God help America'. (…) This is called the radio of hysterical ignorance. I’ve been in Sderot and I’ve seen the rockets. (…) This is the interesting thing: there were no rockets before the Israeli invasion for nearly nine months. I can tell you the number of rockets that landed in Sderot. Why? Because I went to Sderot and talked to the mayor of Sderot. But you have the neck to say that people like me, who are willing to talk to people and are on each side building peace, are somehow in favour of people who want to murder jewish people. That is an outrageous statement. I am not anti-Semitic, I am not in favour of murder. And unlike you, I make my profession in politics. And I worked in human rights, and I condemn Hamas for rockets. None of that will mater to you. I wish you well - keep drinking Guinness and keep ranting away. But don't suggest that those of us who are working for peace in the heat of the day are somehow interested in murdering Jews.

(…) There’s a man in the United States (…), he represents fourteen Jewish organisations in New York. He organized 45 members of the House of Representatives to sign a letter condemning Barack Obama for giving Mary Robinson the medal of honour. I was debating with him on a program like this. I said to him, ‘how can you conclude that Mary Robsinson is anti-Semitic?' and he said, 'Bishop Tutu, for example, is anti-Semitic as well'. You're going down that road, and really, it is very dangerous stuff. The fact of the matter is that young people form the United States are travelling all over the world again. They’re welcome in Europe, they’re backpackers in hostels. People are talking to them, because the image of the United States  - we've got away from this warmongering - is getting better. There are many mistakes Obama is making. At least 47 million people the likes of you condemned to no health care in a country I was proud to work in. These people are going to have some healthcare.

So therefore be proud to be a decent American rather just be a wanker whipping up fear.

 

Photograph: Getty Images
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The stand against Nazis at Charlottesville has echoes of Cable Street

Opposing Nazis on the streets has a long and noble history.

Edward Woolf – my grandpa Eddie – was a second-generation Jewish immigrant, whose parents arrived in London in the early 20th century after fleeing pogroms in Russia. They settled, like many Jews did, in the warren of streets around Whitechapel in London's East End. He was an athlete – he would later become a champion high-diver, and box for the army – and was soon to become a soldier.

The second time he fought the Nazis, it was as an officer for the Royal Artillery. He blew up his guns on the beach at Dunkirk to prevent them falling into enemy hands; later in the war he fought the forces of Imperial Japan in the jungles of Burma.

But the first time he fought the Nazis was at the Battle of Cable Street.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandfather as the events in Charlottesville, Virginia played out over the weekend. On Friday night, a neo-Nazi demonstration through the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville exploded into chaos as they encountered a counter-march by protesters and anti-fascists. A 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and 19 others injured when a car driven by a Nazi ploughed into a group of counter-protesters.

Police, outnumbered by both parties and outgunned by the Nazi marchers, many of whom held semi-automatic weapons, were unable to prevent the violence. A state of emergency was called; the national guard was brought in. In a jaw-dropping statement on Saturday, president Trump blamed the violence on "many sides".

Ever since a video of white nationalist leader Richard Spencer being punched in the face on the streets of Washington, DC went viral in the early days of the Trump administration, America has been engaged in a bout of soul-searching. Is it OK to punch Nazis? Is it OK to be gleeful about the punching of Nazis? After having spent all of 2016 slamming Obama and Clinton for refusing to say “radical Islamic terrorism”, why is Trump – who eventually, begrudgingly condemned the neo-Nazi groups involved in the violence on Monday, a full two days after Heyer's death – so incapable of saying “radical Nazi terrorism”?

It's all given me a strange sense of deja vu. In fact, that's not the right term. We really have seen all of this before.

In 1936, just three years before Hitler's Germany invaded Poland, triggering war with Britain and – eventually – America, it was not uncommon to see Nazis on the march. The Great Depression was at its height, and many working-class whites on both sides of the Atlantic, feeling that their jobs were threatened by immigration, turned to far-right ideologies as a panacea for their economic fears. (Let me know if any of this sounds familiar...)

In the UK, Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF), known widely as the Blackshirts for their distinctive uniforms, had also been swiftly growing. Mosley was a veteran of the First World War and a rising star politician, albeit something of a maverick. He had served as a Conservative, Labour and independent MP before he founded the Blackshirts in 1932. He was not a proletarian demagogue like Hitler or Mussolini; he was a wax-moustached aristocrat, a fencing champion and the son of a baronet, educated (until his expulsion) at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.

Mosley was drawn to the far-right after touring continental Europe following a 1931 electoral defeat, and became enamoured with the ideas, and the pageantry, of fascism. His second marriage, to the socialite Diana Mitford, was held at the Berlin home of Joseph Goebbels. Hitler was an honoured guest.

Of course, these groups weren't just a British phenomenon. Hitler's newly-appointed deputy, Rudolf Hess, had called on a man named Heinz Spanknobel to found US-based Nazi groups; Spanknobel formed an organization called the Friends of New Germany, and later another, called the German-American Bund, in Buffalo, NY in March 1936. They ran a summer-camp on Long Island called Camp Siegfried, and as late as 1939 American Nazis held a rally in Madison Square Garden attended by 20,000 people.

Back in the UK, Mosley planned an audacious and inflammatory march through London's East End, a route which would take his blackshirts through the middle of Stepney, Whitechapel, and Bow – areas almost entirely populated by poor Jewish immigrants. For Mosley, who had drawn a crowd of more than 20,000 to an earlier rally in 1934 at Olympia, the East End march was clearly meant as an intimidation play - a gleeful and glorious celebration of the fourth anniversary of his founding of the BUF. But he had made a wild miscalculation.

The morning of 4 October 1936 dawned with a sense of anticipation. Newsreels from the time show an intimidating crowd of 5,000 fascists, with their sinister black low-rent-SS uniforms, turned out to join Mosley on his march. 

But Mosley had severely underestimated the organising capacity of the burgeoning anti-fascist movement that was growing up in opposition to his ideas. A coordinated leafletting campaign had taken place, which, combined with newspaper and newsreel attention, meant that there were few in East London who were unaware of, or unprepared for, the day of the march.

By the time Mosley's men assembled in Shoreditch, a truly vast crowd had assembled across the East End to stop them. Estimates of its size vary wildly from the tens to the hundreds of thousands; according to some sources as many as quarter of a million Jews, Communists, anti-fascists, union members, Catholic dock-workers, local residents, and many more who just came to see what would happen, flocked to the route of the march. Among them, somewhere in the crowd, was my grandfather, linked arm-in-arm with his friends. He was 20 years old. 

The Communist Party was key in organizing the counter-protest, and the rallying-cry for the counter-protesters was borrowed from the Spanish civil war: no parasan, meaning: they shall not pass.

More than 6,000 police officers, many on horseback, were deployed to prevent violence, but, vastly outnumbered, they were unable to clear the makeshift barricades and the people standing arm-in-arm from the street. The march ground to a halt and swiftly dissolved into a riot.

The embattled police tried to redirect Mosley down nearby Cable Street, but the crowd overturned a goods lorry to block their path, and a pitched battle ensued. From the upper windows of the tenement houses along the street, people threw rotten fruit and vegetables, and even emptied the foul contents of their chamber-pots, over the now-trapped blackshirts. As shit rained down, the fascists fought back with sticks, stones, and anything else they could find.

After a series of pitched battles, Mosley was forced to call off the march. At least 150 people had been injured in the brawl.

“I was moved to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockers standing up to stop Mosley,” historian Bill Fishman, who witnessed the battle, said at a 2006 event commemorating its 70th anniversary. “I shall never forget that as long as I live, how working-class people could get together to oppose the evil of fascism.”

Cable Street didn't stop fascism in Britain - the outbreak of war, and the accompanying internment of Mosley and his lieutenants as possible enemy collaborators, did that. But it stopped their momentum, their confidence that power was almost within their grasp. The defeat showed them - showed everyone - that there was an opposition, and more, that the Nazis didn't hold the monopoly on intimidation. They too could be made to feel fear.

The echoes of Cable Street are crystal clear in the events this weekend in Charlottesville. Terms like “alt-right” and “white nationalist” are often chosen by journalists to cover these groups, but let's not mince words: Nazis again marched through the streets this weekend. The police were powerless to stop them. They were powerless to prevent the death of Heather Heyer. And the situation in America seems likely only to get worse. Spencer, who was one of the leaders of the Nazis in Charlottesville, announced that he is planning another march, this time in Texas, next month.

Enough has been written already about the need to stay above the baser instincts of mob violence and revenge. Let the Nazis call for lynching; we're better than that, but if I'm honest I can't summon much bile for the Antifascists who decide that Nazi violence should be met in kind.

Perhaps, in the wake of Charlottesville, the story of Cable Street teaches us that, in troubled times like these, it may be good to fill a chamber-pot or two for when the Nazis march again; or that the time will come when we, like my grandfather did, must stand together with arms linked and tell them: they shall not pass.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.