I have mostly spent January eye-rolling so hard I’ve practically detached my retinas. It began when news first crept out from Cologne after New Year’s Eve, as across the media and the internet vast swathes of anti-immigrant right-wingers and racists who had never in their lives uttered a word of concern or complaint about sexual violence suddenly reinvented themselves as the bestest feminists in town, for whom nothing was more important than ensuring that never again would an innocent (ie white) woman be mauled by a disgusting, patriarchal (ie brown) man.
Well, racists gonna racist. But I was eye-rolling too at my peers on the broad left, the manner in which they continue to squirm and tiptoe around the extraordinary, horrific accounts from Cologne. I thought this had peaked last week with the remarks of Jess Phillips MP on Question Time that equated those events with any Saturday night on Birmingham’s Broad Street. The criticism she has since received has mostly focussed on outraged residents, coppers and civic leaders from the city saying “how dare you malign our city?” while simultaneously denying, downplaying or disbelieving women’s experiences of the extent of sexual harassment and assault on a typical British night out. I saw it the other way around. I was stunned that Phillips could so easily deny or downplay the statements from nearly seven hundred women that they had been sexually assaulted and/or robbed within a few city blocks in just a couple of hours, and so blithely dismiss the unique severity of that. I’m sure Phillips did not intend to suggest Cologne was really no big deal, but that was the precise effect of her words.
But the final straw for me, the prompt for this blogpost, came when checking the papers this morning, only to see the Guardian giving front and centre prominence to the news that a 13-year-old girl in Berlin had fabricated a claim that she had been gang -raped by migrants. This is the same Guardian which covers sightings of the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot with greater regularity than it covers false rape allegations. Meanwhile in a perfect, perverse mirror of the cynicism of the racist right, I saw the link being shared on Twitter by feminists and left-wingers who have, I am pretty sure, never mentioned false rape allegations in their life before, suddenly discovering that gosh, yes, perhaps people might indeed sometimes lie about such a thing.
There is a humanitarian catastrophe playing out all around us, right now. It is primarily (though not exclusively) spilling out of the Syrian civil war, and crystallizing as human tragedies washed up on the beaches of Italy and Greece, and in the squalor of refugee camps and holding centres from Mesopotamia to Scandinavia. I wholeheartedly and passionately believe we are beholden as a planet, a global community, to offer sanctuary, solidarity and security to those fleeing terror and misery. I’m not saying that doing so is politically, financially or practically simple, it may not even be entirely possible, but we can certainly do more than we are doing. To deliver on that human obligation, we first have to win a political and ideological argument against those who, by and large, oppose immigration even at the best of times. The faces and specifics may change, but it is essentially the same argument that had to be won against Norman Tebbit in the 80s, Enoch Powell in the 60s, the Daily Mail and Mosley in the 1930s
There is no escaping that my side of this argument (it’s simplistic and largely inaccurate, but I’ll call it the left) have taken an absolute drubbing over the past month. People are rightly shocked and terrified by what happened in Cologne, people are rightly shocked by the failure of the left to offer any kind of meaningful response or reaction. The Daily Mail Right have basically been pushing at an open door. As Jess Phillips demonstrated better than anyone, it’s not even that we’ve lost the argument, we have literally offered none and the reason for that is because we, the left, have been terrified of telling people the truth.
The truth is this: Asylum-seekers, refugees, emigrants and immigrants are people, human beings in a full spectrum of behaviours and qualities. Among every million migrants you will find hundreds of thousands of actual and potential doctors, engineers, nurses, teachers and plumbers. You will find a handful of future Olympic champions and Nobel prize winners. You will find a small minority of hardened criminals, psychopaths, murderers, terrorists and rapists and a large rump of souls who are basically decent but capable of acting like utter dickheads from time to time. You know, almost like they are human beings?
In Cologne on New Year’s Eve, a mob of young thugs went on a rampage of robbery and misogynistic sexual violence. They are not the first gang of droogs to behave like that and won’t be the last, but there is no escaping the truth that the manner in which events unfolded were culturally specific. This was a phenomenon that had not been seen in Europe before, at least not on that scale, but has certainly occurred in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. Does this mean that police and policy makers have to be alert to and ready to contain an unfamiliar form of public order threat? Yes, perhaps. Does this mean there are particular problems with misogynistic behaviours, attitudes and cultures among North African or Muslim men? Maybe. Does this mean that we should turn our back on the urgent needs of millions because of the crimes of the few? Absolutely not.
The first recourse of the racist fearmonger has always been to point to one atypical incident, a riot, a murder, a rape, and hold it to be typical, to be both representative of an entire population and the responsibility of that entire population. The left cannot win by pretending there are no criminals, no thugs, no rapists, no damaged people among the shifting sands of humanity. We can win by unequivocally condemning inappropriate and criminal behaviour while simultaneously and correctly insisting that we will not allow ourselves to judge the many by the sins of the few. We will not allow ourselves to be distracted and diverted from our humanitarian obligations by fear, because history shows us where that leads. We will not allow ourselves to turn our backs on those in desperate need, because we are smarter than that and we are better than that. That is the only way the argument can be won.