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.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage