Taylor Swift arriving at the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscars Party. Photo: Getty
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Taylor Swift’s success makes me hopeful for the future of humanity

Poet laureate of women’s inner lives, resolute booster of the girls who love her, healthily selfish, and heartily unconcerned with what the haters think about her: we could all do well to spend a bit of time in Taylor’s world.

There was a moment this year when I decided, actually, the next generation of girls has every chance of doing all right. The moment was the climax of a Taylor Swift concert at the O2 Arena, with Swifty as the ringmaster of a fantastical circus, dressed in red sequinned coat tails and top hat, singing “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” – and the audience sang it back. All around me, teens and tweens lifted up their handmade LED signs and flashing torches of allegiance to their heroine, and they raised their voices too and chanted along: “We-ee are, NEVER, EVER, EVER getting back together!” And I thought: you lot aren’t going to take any nonsense from boys, are you? As they spilled out into the night outside the dome, with lyrics painted on their faces, every girl there had been anointed with knowledge most women take several heartbreaks to acquire: guys just aren’t worth the anguish, but you should matter to you.

Swift is probably about to be the biggest thing in the world, and that’s one of the rare events that makes me feel hopeful for our species. Unequivocally, I love her. “Shake It Off”, the lead single from her new album 1989, has debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 (the album is named for the year she was born: implausibly, she’s still only 24, and has been in the business for a decade). Though Swift is surely used to smash hits and sell-out tours, this is likely to be an even more gargantuan form of success as she crosses over definitively from country-pop to POP-pop. “Shake It Off” itself is an endlessly relistenable manifesto of screw-you, as Swift enumerates some of the duller criticisms aimed at her (“Got nothing in my brain”/“Go on too many dates”) before dispatching them magnificently in the chorus: “Just shake it off, shake it off.”  

The video is possibly even more joyous, with Swift scampering to keep up with ever-changing troupes of dancers, and goofily failing, before the screen fills with fan kids freaking out delightfully to the song. It’s the perfect synthesis of the Taylor triple-threat: close to her audience (Swift was one of the first stars to build a fanbase on Myspace, and she still leaves unbearably sweet comments on her fans’ Instagram pictures), not too serious about her public image, and super respectful of hard work and talent. (There’s been justified criticism of the twerking section for insensitivity to the racial politics of white stars using black women’s sexualised bodies as props, but there’s also no doubt that the twerkers – like the ballerinas, the gymnast, the cheer team and the rest of the dancers – have been recruited for being absolutely amazing at what they do.)

Actually, it’s part three of the Taylor equation that is rapidly becoming my favourite thing about Swift: she’s manifestly unfaffed about looking aloof or sexy, but she knows she’s an A-grade songwriter, and she expects her due for it. “They can say whatever they want about my personal life because I know what my personal life is, and it involves a lot of TV and cats and girlfriends,” she said in a recent Guardian interview. “But I don’t like it when they start to make cheap shots at my songwriting. Because there’s no joke to be made there.”

Her last album, Red, has an almost inexhaustible supply of lyrical brilliance – the intoxicating invocation of falling recklessly in love on “Treacherous”, the gleeful celebration of being young and having fun in “22”, the chilly and sly “Last Time” that twists from desperate relationship-saving promise to irrevocable dumping in the last chorus. But I secretly believe that the most heartfelt line of all is one of the sick burns she delivers to the ex in “Never Ever”. “Go and listen to some indie record that’s much, much cooler than mine,” scoffs Swift. She doesn’t care what the try-hard boys think. She knows she’s good.

She knows she deserves to get paid, too. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal about the future of the music industry (Taylor Swift wrote an op-ed for the WSJ! She is truly a renaissance woman), Swift sounded an unusual note of optimism about the financial viability of the recording industry: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” Whether audiences will universally fall into line after a generation raised in Napster libertarianism is unclear, but what matters is that Swift clearly isn’t going to tolerate a set of rules that don’t value her correctly. It’s a principle that she expands on, too: “My hope for the future, not just in the music industry, but in every young girl I meet… is that they all realise their worth and ask for it.”

Until recently, Swift distanced herself clunkily from feminism. “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life,” she told the Daily Beast in 2012, and the world echoed to the sound of Swift-loving feminists shouting “Noooooo! You have made a fundamental error about the nature of both society and feminism there, Taylor!” But last week, she revised this in the Guardian interview: “I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities … I’ve been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.” Poet laureate of women’s inner lives, resolute booster of the girls who love her, healthily selfish, and heartily unconcerned with what the haters think about her: Taylor’s world is one we should all spend more time living in.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Anti-semitism and the left: something is rotten in the state of Labour

Labour held three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016. A new book by Dave Rich investigates how we got to this point.

The relationship between the left and the Jews has always been a complex one – ostensibly harmonious but with an underlying unease. For decades, the left’s ideological stance against racism and intolerance made it – in Britain, at least – a natural home for Jews. Its largest party, Labour, could rely on a majority share of Britain’s Jewish vote. Yet the 19th-century German socialist August Bebel, who described anti-Semitism as “the socialism of fools”, understood that, like a tumour, it has always existed in the left-wing body politic.

It is this duality that Dave Rich seeks to explore in his impressive and important book. How, he asks, did we get to the situation in which Labour, the party whose founding principles include opposing bigotry, felt the need to hold three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016?

For so long, the dichotomy was simple, consisting of a clash of two notions of the Jew: an oppressed figure deserving of the left’s solidarity and the perennial embodiment of socialism’s great enemy, capitalism. In the words of (the Jewish) Karl Marx:


What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money . . . Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities . . . The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew.


Whether or not Marx meant the words ironically (as many academics contend), he articulated the most prominent leftist critique of Jews of his time. However, as Britain’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks has argued, anti-Semitism, like any virus, must mutate to survive. Now the most significant word in the quotation above – which Marx uses figuratively – is not “money”, as he would have seen it, but “Israel”.

As Rich notes, the link between British Jews and Israel is almost inviolable. While support for Israeli policies is mixed (there is much opposition to the settlements), he records that 82 per cent of British Jews say that the country plays a central role in their identity, while 90 per cent see it as the ancestral home of the Jewish people. Set against this is his (correct) observation that: “Sympathy for the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel have become the default position for many on the left – a defining marker of what it means to be progressive.” He argues that once you discover what someone on the left thinks about Israel and Zionism, you can usually guess his or her views on terrorism, Islamist extremism, military intervention and British-American relations.

When Stalin’s show trials and bloodlust finally discredited communism, many on the left, bereft of an ideology, fell into a dull, almost perfunctory anti-Americanism, dressed up as “anti-imperialism”. Intellectually flaccid but emotionally charged, this strand of thought became – to those on the hard left who had for so long been confined to the margins – all-encompassing. The dictum “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”, in effect, was adopted as its slogan. Any Middle Eastern or South American dictatorship that “stands up” to the US ipso facto is an ally, as is any Islamist hate preacher who does so. Israel, viewed as a US-backed colonial outpost, became the physical manifestation of all that was wrong with the world.

With Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last year, this particular leftist world-view entered the heart of the party. In 2008, Corbyn wrote of the Balfour Declaration – the UK government’s promise to British Jews of a homeland in Palestine – that it had “led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of Palestinians . . . Britain’s history of colonial interference . . . leaves it with much to answer for.” The description of Israel as a colonialist enterprise, rather than a movement for sovereignty through national independence, and the culpability of an “imperial” Britain, encapsulate the twin impulses that drive Corbyn’s beliefs about foreign affairs.

The problem, Rich argues, is that it is just a short step from these beliefs to the ideas that Israel should not exist and that its Western supporters, who include most Jews, are racists. Combined with a resurgence of social media-charged conspiracies about Zionist wealth and power, the left has formed an anti-racist politics that is blind to anti-Semitism. Jews are privileged; they are wealthy; they cannot be victims.

Thus, “Zionist” has become not a term to describe a political position but an insult; thus, Jews, unless they denounce Israel (their “original sin”), are excluded from the left that now dominates the Labour Party. When such ideas become normalised, anything is possible. Jackie Walker, the recently suspended vice-chairwoman of the Corbyn-supporting group Momentum, can claim with sincerity that “many Jews” were the “chief financiers” of the slave trade, a modern myth and piece of bigotry popularised by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan – a notorious anti-Semite – in a 1991 book.

By the middle of this year, as many as 20 Labour Party members had been suspended or expelled for alleged anti-Semitism. At times, Rich appears bewildered. Though he never articulates it, the question “What has happened to my party?” echoes through these pages. Is it a case of just a few bad ­apples, or is the whole barrelful rotten? The answer, Rich concludes convincingly, in this powerful work that should be read by everyone on the left, is sadly the latter. 

The Left’s Jewish Problem by Dave Rich is published by Biteback, 292pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood