What the Diane Abbott metastorm was really about

Let's call this what it is. It's pretending.

It's not easy being white. Apart from the power, control, jobs and everything, it's a pretty tough life. Every now and then, people make sweeping generalisations about us, as white people, and we're going to have to pretend to be offended, even though we've never really suffered the wrong end of prejudice in our lives.

With the best will in the world, if you're not white, you don't know just how hard that is to fake.

People have told me there was a Twitterstorm about yesterday's comments from Diane Abbott MP. I didn't see such a thing unfolding before me, but then that might be because I don't follow people on Twitter who make a career out of pretending to be upset by things that haven't actually upset them.

I saw a storm about a storm -- a metastorm, maybe. What I have found is a few of the same old faces saying that this was racism, because they decided it was, and ooh wouldn't the lefties have been having kittens if it was the other way around?

Let's call this what it is. It's pretending. It's not genuinely being offended. It's artifice, completely made up in order to get a bit of publicity for people's vexatiously contrarian columns and to get their godawful faces on television.

If you're genuinely wounded by Diane Abbott's comments, I pity you. You're beyond saving. It's a wonder we white people manage to stay in control of everything in the world ever if we're so bloody sensitive -- we should be sitting in a cupboard crying all day about what the nasty lady said about us.

But it's not genuine hurt; it's the sensing of a mistake by a political rival, and the careful depiction of a representation of what these woeful human beings think being offended actually is, in order to capitalise on that.

Those of us on the left who enjoy the physically challenging combination of handwringing and self-flagellation might speculate that, whatever the rights and wrongs of Abbott's tweet, one simply shouldn't generalise about race, or anything like that. Well, as a general rule, that is probably the case. It wasn't the brightest thing for an elected official to say.

However, as far as the miserable, inane, dumbed-down wreck of a political discussion that was the Abbott saga this week, it just goes to show how we still can't be grown-up when talking about issues such as race and racism. A single tweet from an MP, and kaboom -- it's enough to get the same old faces whooping and hollering the same old garbage, the same old lies.

"If it had been the other way around," is the general thrust of these arguments. Well if it had been the other way around, it would have been the other way around. If it had been the other way around, everything would have had to have been the other way around. We would have to be living in a country where black people dominated and white people didn't; where black people had all the jobs but spectacularly untalented black columnists would be writing about how unfair it was, somehow.

As well as all that, you have to suspect that if it had been the other way around, the same faces so outraged and appalled by Abbott's comments would be finding ways to justify what had been said, to claim that it wasn't really all bad.

All this comes in a week when we've been seeing the horribly real consequences of actual racism, with two of the killers of Stephen Lawrence having been brought to justice. This pointless charade about Abbott would be a tacky sideshow at the best of times; in the context of seeing what real racism does, it's even more pathetic.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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