Sunday, January 09, 2011

The hysterical reaction to Jack Straw's words

The left's own version of tabloid hysteria?

It says something when you have to think 150 times before writing a blog post because you fear your words may be misinterpreted and land you into trouble.

By now, you will be probably aware of the stir caused by Jack Straw's words in the wake of the recent conviction of a gang of nine men for the vile grooming and raping of 26 teenage girls.

In particular, the former Home Secretary was criticised for saying that there is a "specific problem which involves Pakistani heritage men... who target vulnerable young white girls" and that "[W]e need to get the Pakistani community to think much more clearly about why this is going on and to be more open about the problems that are leading to a number of Pakistani heritage men thinking it is OK to target white girls in this way".

The Labour MP for Blackburn added that: "These young men are in a western society, in any event, they act like any other young men, they're fizzing and popping with testosterone, they want some outlet for that, but Pakistani heritage girls are off-limits and they are expected to marry a Pakistani girl from Pakistan, typically. So they then seek other avenues and they see these young women, white girls who are vulnerable, some of them in care... who they think are easy meat".

Now, I'm hardly Straw's biggest fan, but I find some of the reactions to his comments verging on the manic, and it's a shame as they all come from some of my most favourite bloggers: from accusations of "Nazi racial profiling" and "smearing ALL pakistani men" on Liberal Conspiracy to the baffling "Jack Straw's sex fantasy about dark men and white girls" by Madam Miaow, "Jack Straw's scaremongering" on Pickled Politics and "generating double standards" by Chris Dillow on Stumbling and Mumbling.

So here's some thoughts on the issue:

1. Hysteria

Bear in mind that Straw was particularly careful to also say that "Pakistanis, let's be clear, are not the only people who commit sexual offences", adding that "overwhelmingly the sex offenders' wings of prisons are full of white sex offenders".

He shouldn't have bothered. He got likened to a Nazi before you could even utter the word.

This is the disturbing aspect. No matter the disclaimers, the specifications and the carefully weighed words. The same people who, on the left, rightly criticise the tabloid press for whipping up hysteria and frothing at the mouth, are guilty of the same knee-jerkism and are quite happy to throw cries of "RACIST!" and "NAZI!" and "DEHUMANISING PAKISTANI MALES!" at the drop of a hat.

2. Religion and culture, not race or nationality

Jack Straw made one mistake. He was too restrictive with his reference to the word "Pakistani". Religion here matters way more than a specific national heritage.

And, in fact, the chief executive of charity Barnardo's implied it when he said that "[his] staff would say there is an over-representation of people from ethnic minority groups among perpetrators - Afghans, people from Arabic nations, Pakistanis. But it's not just one nation".

Race and the colour of the skin has got absolutely nothing to do with it. Sure, there will always be some racist dunce trying to exploit the issue to make up for their lack of brain cells.

But it would be criminal if we let them deflect the core problem (and that's where too many people on the left go postal the moment you even mention it): the culture of misogyny that is rife amongst certain Muslim communities.

It is a deeply-ingrained culture of misogyny, and nothing else, that still allows the scandal of an estimated 17,000 women a year who are victims of honour crimes, including murder. It is a deeply-ingraned culture of misogyny that makes it possible, according to government figures, for 300 school children a year to disappear for the sake of forced marriages. It is misogyny and its ideology of oppression that makes it possible "to force young girls – some so young that they are still in push chairs", in the words of Yasmin Alibhai Brown – "[to be] covered up in hijabs". And that's just in the UK.

But who will speak out for them if simply raising the issue will land you accusations of "tarring all Muslim men with the same brush" and "the Ku Klux Klan [too] lynched black men in the Deep South"?

Like Johann Hari wrote two years ago, "[I]nsulating a religion from criticism – surrounding it with an electric fence called "respect" – keeps it stunted at its most infantile and fundamentalist stage. The smart, questioning and instinctively moral Muslims – the majority – learn to be silent, or are shunned (at best). What would Christianity be like today if George Eliot, Mark Twain and Bertrand Russell had all been pulped? Take the most revolting rural Alabama church, and metastasise it."

3. Red herrings and whataboutery

I find it deeply counterproductive when bloggers like Chris Dillow, someone I've always admired and respected, feel the need to write: "You wouldn’t ask the “white community” to look into itself if a white guy commits a sex crime, so why ask the “Pakistani community” to do so if a Pakistani does so".

I don't know why Dillow decides to drag "colour" into the debate, so let's just focus on his actual statement. Now, since no comparison is possible between "white" and "Pakistani" (white being a "race" encompassing anybody from Moldova to Iceland and "Pakistani" being a nationality), let's stick to the words "English community" or "British community" to see if they are ever "asked to look into themselves" in the face of problems or specific crimes.

The answer is yes. Older readers may recall the humongous debates and soul-searching that took place at the height of football hooliganism across the 1980s and 1990s.

There were literally thousands of political statements, opinion columns and sociological analyses written to dissect what was being dubbed "the English disease" and the term is still used to these days whenever UK football supporters behave like troglodites (see this and this, for instance).

Of course you do get some people shouting that "it's not just the English!" and "what about the football violence that also takes place in Holland, Italy and Turkey?", but most people understand that exercises in whataboutery and hyperbole will do little good.

Or take the tons of analyses written on the "British drinking too much", or what the government dubbed "the distinctive characteristic of the British drinking culture", its violence and aggression.

So, yeah, "the English" or "the British" have been asked to do some soul searching when it comes to certain problems. And rightly so. Bring it on. If there is a specific problem that is prevalent within your own society or community, what good does it do if you just drown it out with cries that "it's not just us!" and "AAAAARRRGH!". If you really cared about your own "community", why would you make "it also happens elsewhere" and "talk to the hand" the core of your argument?

As a person of Italian heritage, if there's one thing I find most grating is Italy's persistent shying away from an honest analysis of the Mafia on the grounds that it "hurts Italy's image" and "it doesn't do Italy any favours" and "not all Italians are in the Mafia".

And you don't need a degree in sociology and criminology to conclude that the biggest beneficiaries of sweeping cultural problems under the carpet are the perpetrators of said problems.

4. The actual issue

Dillow is right to produce the hard figures about sexual offences (for instance the fact that in Lancashire "4.163 per 10,000 white Brits were arrested for a sex crime, compared to 0.44 Pakistanis"). Once again, Straw said it himself that "overwhelmingly the sex offenders' wings of prisons are full of white sex offenders".

However, Straw also referred to the specific issue of gangs grooming teenage girls for sex. And, in that case, out of 17 cases since 1997, 50 out of the 56 men convicted were Pakistani Muslims.

It was Manzoor Moghul, chairman of the Muslim Forum who said that "Offenders are under the misapprehension white girls are easy prey. The way they dress, their culture, makes them easy pickings". And it was Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, a Muslim youth organisation, who said to the BBC that "[t]here are some Muslims who think that as long as these sex gangs aren't targeting their own sisters and daughters the issue doesn't affect them" (see here).

Not regarding girls from different religious or ethnic groups with the same respect granted to their own sisters or mothers is a vile practice. It is not racist to say so.


Madam Miaow said...

A quick response as I have to dash, Claude. I'll copy this reply at mine.

Straw's selection of one group above all others feeds racists. I've already had racist trolls jumping aboard this bandwagon at mine — it provides the perfect excuse to put the boot in to all Asian men.

Straw has immediately racialised a social sickness that manifests in different forms. After all, the vast majority of paedophiles are white. I've never been abused by Asian men, although some of their attitudes are toe-curling. But then so are many attitudes I hear from white guys.

The Pakistani men from the two cases cited weren't fussy about whether it was white girls they abused. Availability and vulnerability seems to have been their criteria as there were ethnic women as well. But Straw invokes the myth of the black/foreign man and white women. This is what screams out no matter how he dresses it up.

I don't think anyone is denying that there are problems in sections of all race groups, including Asian men, but to single out one above the others is to tarnish all males in that group.

Innocent Abroad said...

It's about the fact that "Pakistani heritage" is an oxymoron for "peasant". Peasant societies are deeply unpleasant for women to live in (childbirth is life-threatening and there's no money for contraception) irrespective of the skin colour or religion of the peasants. And for men who espouse peasant values, urban living is scary and self-pity becomes a form of self-esteem.

Of course we should stand fast for our values, but let's acknowledge that when we say things like, "I'm no racist, I'd be more than happy for Tariq Ali or even Tariq Ramadan to babysit my 12-year old daughter" we are being, er, racist.

Emma said...

It baffles me slightly at how this is going over a lot of people's heads.

It is absolutely wrong if somebody tars a whole community with one brush. If Mr. Straw had said "Every Pakistani man does this this or this" that would have been vile and I'd be moaning as well.

But the thing is, he made it very clear that he wasn't talking about all men from that heritage - He said "Pakistani men, let's be clear, are not the only people who commit sexual offences"

Of course there's going to be some racist knobs with pea-sized brains who misread and see that comment as an excuse to spread hatred, but saying that Straw was generalising is wrong, because he made it very clear that he wasn't talking about all Pakistani men, or even the majority of them.

I find it very hard to see how some people have misinterpreted his words.

Emma said...

Innocent Abroad:

"It's about the fact that "Pakistani heritage" is an oxymoron for "peasant""

...Which is an excellent example of my "racists with pea-sized brains" comment.

Stan Moss said...

I disagree, Claude.
Straw knew exactly what he was doing. He gives ammo to the usual contingent of racist oiks. The suspicion that the Oldham byelection may have played a part springs to mind.

trencherbone said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
claude said...

Please do NOT post racist comments as they will be deleted

Tubby Isaacs said...

While I agree with you that it doesn't slight "all Pakistani men" and you are right to stress the largely unreported caveats, I agree with Madam Miaow that he's singled out one particular group on the basis of a small number of court cases. The Liberal Conspiracy article mentions a much bigger group of cases with relatively few Asian men involved.

I mean there's this quote from Straw:

"These young men are in a western society, in any event, they act like any other young men, they're fizzing and popping with testosterone, they want some outlet for that, but Pakistani heritage girls are off-limits and they are expected to marry a Pakistani girl from Pakistan, typically. So they then seek other avenues and they see these young women, white girls who are vulnerable, some of them in care... who they think are easy meat".

That's explaining the crime specifically in Pakistani heritage terms. Child prostitutes exist everywhere. Where's the explanation of why white people do it?

Also invitations to soul search are different with the white majority. Just means "we're all in it together" or something. With a minority, it's saying "you lot are responsible for it".

Anonymous said...

There you go Claude. Why bother wondering about whether Straw is correct or not (at least Chris Dillow makes the attempt), when you can, like Madame and Stan, just say he's giving comfort to racists and close the debate?

Still, never mind. A political blogger is a sort of historian, and I think a quote from the historian AJP Taylor is in order here. In the foreword to his 'Origins of the Second World War' he wrote :

"I have however no sympathy with those in [Britain] who complained that my book had been welcomed, mistakenly or not, by former supporters of Hitler. This seems to me a disgraceful argument to be used against a work of history. A historian must not hesitate even if his books lend aid and comfort to the Queen's enemies (though mine did not), or even to the common enemies of mankind. For my part, I would even record facts which told in favour of the British government, if I found any to record."

claude said...

On this subject, excellent article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in today's Independent. Absolutely spot-on.

"Shouting down Jack Straw, busying ourselves with warnings about feeding the BNP, are displacement activities that will do nothing to stop Asian groomers, who, from childhood have developed distorted ideas about themselves, society, females, vice and virtue."

Here's the link.

Jackart said...

1) I aggree with you, broadly, that Straw couched his words carefully and accurately and that the reaction has been hysterical, and not just from the left, but in (overenthusiastic) agreement.

2) I also agree with stan, that Straw knew EXCATLY what he's doing. Now he no longer needs a muslim block vote, this is in part about sending a dog whistle for Labour's lost WWC voters.

chris said...

OK, let's concede that Pakistani men are disprooprtionately likely to commit grooming offences. Isn't this a selection effect?
Let's say you wnat to shag a teenage girl. Where do you find one? You could do so via family and friends. British men generally do.
However, Pakistani girls are, as Straw said, "off limits"; this could be because they have a stronger social norm than British girls against associating with men, or it could be because the penalties of being caught shagging them are higher.
This means that Pakistani men who want to find teenage girls must use other means - they must meet them on the street and befriend them.
This, though, means they will be guilty of grooming whereas British men, who meet such girls via friends and family will not be.
This is entirely consistent with Pakistani men overall being less inclined than British men overall to commit sex crimes generally.
I'm sorry, but I can't see a problem here (beyond that sex crime exists anyway) - unless you want to argue that the social norm against Pakistani-heritage girls sleeping around should be weaker.

claude said...

why are you so quick in shrugging off a whole issue of deeply-ingrained misogynysm (the same misogynysm that the British Muslims for Secular Democracy are trying to fight tooth and nail)? Isn't reducing the whole thing (including the tragedy experienced each year by 17,000 female victims of "honour crimes" or the 300 who go AWOL for the sake of forced marriages) to a simple matter of "wanting to shag teenagers" a little bit underwhelming?

chris said...

Claude - I agree that lots of Muslims have misogynist attitudes, and I'll grant that honour killings and suchlike are disproportionately committed by Muslims. But these are separate issues from their tendency to commit sex crimes.
I stress that I really don't give a damn either way about Islam. My concern is that political discussion be rooted in reasonable statistical inference. And I don't think Straw did this.

claude said...

I do wonder sometimes...would the same people who accuse Jack Straw of "not rooting political discussion in reasonable statistical inference", also argue that the Catholic church should be spared criticism on the grounds that child abuse also happens elsewhere and not just aroound Catholic church?
Would they also say that that's tantamount to anti-Catholic bias?

chris said...

Claude - there two issues here:
1. The Church helped to cover up child abuse, by moving priests guilty of it from parish to parish, and not informing the police. To the extent it did this, it was guilty, in a way the "Pakistani community" is (presumably) not.
2. It all depends on the stats. Are priests more likely to be child abusers than the general population? If so, then we might reasonably link the Church and abuse. (The nature of the link, though, would be debatable.) However, as Pakistanis are not disproportionately likely to commit sex crimes (except through a selection effect leading them towards a small subset of such crime), there is no such link.