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From immigration to gender, the left is avoiding the hard work of persuasion

It's easy to mock the idea of “legitimate concerns”  but it's better to explain why they are wrong.

There’s a meme on Twitter among what I think of as the Woke Left :  a group that’s hard to define, but one you might associate with some or all of the following concepts: open borders, tone policing, privilege, “sex work is work”, no platforming, Corbynism.

The meme is this. You put heavy quote marks around the phrase “legitimate concerns”  –  maybe make it “““legitimate concerns””” if you really want to have them rolling in the aisles  –  particularly when it comes to discussions of immigration. The implication is that there are no such things as legitimate concerns . Those who claim to have them are probably, underneath it all, just racists, albeit with a more sophisticated vocabulary than your average EDL thug.

Really, though, this a dismissive rhetorical trick to avoid engaging with the whole subject. (And a dangerous one if you don’t want to look silly: Jeremy Corbyn himself stood up in Scotland last week and promised that Brexit would bring an end to immigrants undercutting the wages of British workers. Turns out even he has legitimate concerns, or perhaps these are also just “legitimate concerns”?)

The “legitimate concerns” meme is very Twitter: snarky, a bit dickish, superior. I understand the impulse: sometimes the temptation to rebut an opponent’s point by turning it up to 11 is irresistible. The trouble is that it absolves you of the hard work of argument. If you truly believe that immigration doesn’t drive down wages, there is academic evidence available to back up that thesis. But you also have to engage with the fact that, as one political adviser once put it, “voters don’t live their lives in the macro”.

Even if immigration is good for the health of the economy overall (and it has been, in the case of Britain), it might not feel that way to you, as an agency brings over dozens of eastern Europeans to work in the nearby warehouse. A left-wing case for immigration must include sharing its benefits more fairly: allocating money to help schoolchildren whose first language is not English, for example. Otherwise it feels to some voters as though their communities are changing rapidly, with no upside for them.

All those are arguments that a party such as Labour could, and should, make. There has been no robust defence of immigration in mainstream politics for many years. Instead, the default setting on the left has been to dodge the question, and try to suggest that it’s vaguely illegitimate. The trouble is that silence does not mean agreement.

Worse, the field is abandoned to the hard right, who are comfortable not only with the idea that some concerns are legitimate, but that all of them are, no matter how little basis they have in fact. The entire debate is poisoned and increasingly polarised. Now it feels like a betrayal of your “side” even to contemplate a dialogue. Sticking to the platitudes is the safest and easiest course.

The same dynamic is now apparent with transgender issues. A big debate has opened up about the relationship between biological sex and cultural gender, and how that should be inscribed in law. The left, by and large, is ducking it  –  using the same put-downs as it did with immigration.

Want to talk about how letting people self-define their gender might affect female-only spaces such as prisons and changing rooms? Then you’re a bigot, cloaking your bigotry in the language of “legitimate concerns”. Want to discuss whether we are rushing to medicalise gender non-conforming children because they and their desperate parents have been sold the idea there is a universal “fix” for their profound, genuine unhappiness? These are yet more “legitimate concerns” that can be dismissed, even as medical professionals warn that not every gender non-conforming child will benefit from puberty blockers and (later) medical transition.

Even worse, the shoutiest commentators refuse to engage with detail and complexity. They try to reduce these sensitive questions down to a simple test: are you in favour of “trans rights” or not? This is, of course, a trap. It’s designed to end the conversation: a thought-stopping cliché.

We should all be in favour of the right of transgender people to live their lives free of discrimination, harassment and abuse. When I see self-described radical feminists tweeting at trans women that they are delusional, perverted men, I recoil. But the right of someone who has been through male puberty, with the consequences for skeleton and muscle development that brings, to compete in women’s sports that depend on raw strength? That’s more difficult. There is no human right to compete in the Olympics. RuPaul’s Drag Race – a reality television contest for gay men – can exclude non-trans women, but is attacked for excluding trans women? You’ve lost me.

Our ideas about gender are undergoing a profound shift. I hope that they will end up in a place where a boy can wear a princess dress without people assuming he is “really” a girl. I hope that they will end up in a place where a trans man can get the medical treatment he needs to live his life to the fullest without people wondering if he is “really” a woman. I hope that we can recognise that women’s concerns about female-only spaces are not hysteria, and that even if you think they are overblown, they merit engagement rather than outright dismissal.

The left’s blithe rejection of “legitimate concerns” about immigration led us to Brexit. So please, if you think that concerns about gender ID reforms are wrong, explain why. Don’t offer wafty bromides about “trans rights” without explaining what you’re talking about. Don’t excuse yourself from the hard work of politics with a wave of the hand. If those concerns aren’t legitimate, your explanation might make a difference. Whereas snarky, superior air quotes will only make you feel virtuous.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game

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Arsène Wenger: The Innovator in Old Age

As the Arsenal manager announces his departure from the club after more than two decades, the New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, appreciates English football’s first true cosmpolitan. 

How to account for the essence of a football club? The players and managers come and go, of course, and so do the owners. The fans lose interest or grow old and die. Clubs relocate to new grounds. Arsenal did so in the summer of 2006 when they moved from the intimate jewel of a stadium that was Highbury to embrace the soulless corporate gigantism of the Emirates. Clubs can even relocate to a new town or to a different part of a city, as indeed Arsenal also did when they moved from south of the Thames to north London in 1913 (a land-grab that has never been forgiven by their fiercest rivals, Tottenham). Yet something endures through all the change, something akin to the Aristotelian notion of substance.

Before Arsène Wenger arrived in London in late September 1996, Arsenal were one of England’s most traditional clubs: stately, conservative, even staid. Three generations of the Hill-Wood family had occupied the role of chairman. In 1983, an ambitious young London businessman and ardent fan named David Dein invested £290,000 in the club. “It’s dead money,” said Peter Hill-Wood, an Old Etonian who had succeeded his father a year earlier. In 2007, Dein sold his stake in the club to Red & White Holdings, co-owned by the Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, for £75m. Not so dead after all.

In the pre-Wenger years, unfairly or otherwise, the Gunners were known as “lucky Arsenal”, a pejorative nickname that went back to the 1930s. For better or worse, they were associated with a functional style of play. Under George Graham, manager from 1986 to 1995, they were exponents of a muscular, sometimes brutalist, long-ball game and often won important matches 1-0. Through long decades of middling success, Arsenal were respected but never loved, except by their fans, who could be passionless when compared to, say, those of Liverpool or Newcastle, or even the cockneys of West Ham.

Yet Wenger, who was born in October 1949, changed everything at Arsenal. This tall, thin, cerebral, polyglot son of an Alsatian bistro owner, who had an economics degree and was never much of a player in the French leagues, was English football’s first true cosmopolitan.

He was naturally received with suspicion by the British and Irish players he inherited (who called him Le Professeur), the fans (most of whom had never heard of him) and by journalists (who were used to clubbable British managers they could banter with over a drink). Wenger was different. He was reserved and self-contained. He refused to give personal interviews, though he was candid and courteous in press conferences during which he often revealed his sly sense of humour.

He joined from the Japanese J League side, Nagoya Grampus Eight, where he went to coach after seven seasons at Monaco, and was determined to globalise the Gunners. This he did swiftly, recruiting players from all over the world but most notably, in his early years, from France and francophone Africa. I was once told a story of how, not long after joining the club, Wenger instructed his chief scout, Steve Rowley, to watch a particular player. “You’ll need to travel,” Wenger said. “Up north?” “No – to Brazil,” came the reply. A new era had begun.

Wenger was an innovator and disrupter long before such concepts became fashionable. A pioneer in using data analysis to monitor and improve performance, he ended the culture of heavy drinking at Arsenal and introduced dietary controls and a strict fitness regime. He was idealistic but also pragmatic. Retaining Graham’s all-English back five, as well as the hard-running Ray Parlour in midfield, Wenger over several seasons added French flair to the team – Nicolas Anelka (who was bought for £500,000 and sold at a £22m profit after only two seasons), Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès. It would be a period of glorious transformation – Arsenal won the Premier League and FA Cup “double” in his first full season and went through the entire 2003-2004 League season unbeaten, the season of the so-called Invincibles.

The second decade of Wenger’s long tenure at Arsenal, during which the club stopped winning titles after moving to the bespoke 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium, was much more troubled. Beginning with the arrival of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, the international plutocracy began to take over the Premier League, and clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City, much richer than Arsenal, spent their way to the top table of the European game. What were once competitive advantages for Wenger – knowledge of other leagues and markets, a worldwide scouting network, sports science – became routine, replicated even, in the lower leagues.

Wenger has spoken of his fear of death and of his desire to lose himself in work, always work. “The only possible moment of happiness is the present,” he told L’Équipe in a 2016 interview. “The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties. Man understood this very fast and created religion.” In the same interview – perhaps his most fascinating – Wenger described himself as a facilitator who enables “others to express what they have within them”. He yearns for his teams to play beautifully. “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”

Arsène Wenger is in the last year of his contract and fans are divided over whether he should stay on. To manage a super-club such as Arsenal for 20 years is remarkable and, even if he chooses to say farewell at the end of the season, it is most unlikely that any one manager will ever again stay so long or achieve so much at such a club – indeed, at any club. We should savour his cool intelligence and subtle humour while we can. Wenger changed football in England. More than a facilitator, he was a pathfinder: he created space for all those foreign coaches who followed him and adopted his methods as the Premier League became the richest and most watched in the world: one of the purest expressions of let it rip, winner-takes-all free-market globalisation, a symbol of deracinated cosmopolitanism, the global game’s truly global league. 

(2017)

Postscript

Arsène Wenger has announced he is stepping down, less than a year after signing a new two-year contract in the summer of 2017. A run to the Europa League finals turned out not to be enough to put off the announcement to the end of the season.

Late-period Wenger was defined by struggle and unrest. And the mood at the Emirates stadium on match day was often sour: fans in open revolt against Wenger, against the club’s absentee American owner Stan Kroenke, against the chief executive Ivan Gazidis, and sometimes even against one another, with clashes between pro and anti-Wenger factions. As Arsenal’s form became ever more erratic, Wenger spoke often of how much he suffered. “There is no possibility not to suffer,” he said in March 2018. “You have to suffer.”

Arsenal once had special values, we were told, and decision-making was informed by the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But the club seems to have lost any coherent sense of purpose or strategic long-term plan, beyond striving to enhance the profitability of the “franchise”.

The younger Wenger excelled at discovering and nurturing outstanding young players, especially in his early seasons in north London. But that was a long time ago. Under his leadership, Arsenal became predictable in their vulnerability and inflexibility, doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes, especially defensive mistakes. They invariably faltered when confronted by the strongest opponents, the Manchester clubs, say, or one of the European super-clubs such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona.

Wenger’s late struggles were a symbol of all that had gone wrong at the club. The vitriol and abuse directed at this proud man was, however, often painful to behold.

How had it come to this? There seems to be something rotten in the culture of Arsenal football club. And Wenger suffered from wilful blindness. He could not see, or stubbornly refused to see, what others could: that he had become a man out of a time who had been surpassed by a new generation of innovators such as Pep Guardiola and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. “In Arsene we trust”? Not anymore. He had stayed too long. Sometimes the thing you love most ends up killing you.

 

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.