The Telegraph headlines Ed Miliband’s revealing – and surely Freudian – slip on Twitter thus: “Ed Miliband red-faced after ‘Blackbuster’ Twitter gaffe”. It does surprise me, however, in the light of the impact this slip has had today, that they didn’t describe him as “white-faced” instead.
Perhaps that would have been just too literal for people to get their heads round.
Colour is a weird matter in politics – and always has been.
Tom has a nice write-up of the issues behind this depressing distraction, which Diane Abbott apparently develops in other tweets here. But I’m not sure “distraction” is the right word here. Diane Abbott is not stupid. Miliband’s “gaffe” is surely a mistake – yes, I can accept that. But Abbott is being far more deliberate about a thesis I have personal experience of – in my case, in relation to one of my daughter’s teachers.
The story goes something like this: the teacher in question is Asian and the subject of racism came up in one form tutorial. She said to my daughter that whites can be racist but blacks can’t. My daughter pointed out quite logically that anyone can be racist – whether white or black. But the teacher insisted with her original argument that only whites could be racist – and my daughter had no alternative but to kowtow to the hierarchy of teacher-pupil relationships.
Fortunately, she has thinking parents to compare notes with and support her in her quite reasonable analysis, wherever, that is, her analysis is reasonable – as indeed it was here.
So why would a professional like my daughter’s teacher – or, alternatively, Diane Abbott herself – sustain such manifestly illogical positions in the face of quite clearly different realities? Unless, of course, their own personal experience had blinded them, through miserable encounter after miserable encounter, to any statistical appreciation of British race relations.
Perhaps Abbott, as my daughter’s teacher, is operating on the basis of a reality many share despite the number-crunchers out there. For our politics is riven by those who would have us believe their truths despite our own experiences. And those at the top, whatever their political inclinations, would always prefer us to conclude things are getting progressively better – even when they are not.
(Just imagine how bankrupt any political system might get if it was obliged to admit to all and sundry that the future would bring no relative progress or improvement to the vast majority of its participants.)
This, then, would not be a credibility gap on the part of a foolish and wayward loose cannon; neither would it be a case of a weak political leader in the face of deliberate and perverse challenges to his moral authority; nor, even, an example of two massively divided sociocultural groupings living in a country which claimed to have overcome prejudice when this was actually, patently, simply not the truth.
No. If only the above was actually the case. But I fear, instead, that all this is in fact symptomatic of a much wider malaise. Perhaps, in reality, our political classes on all sides have been brushing awful realities under their carefully made-over theses for far too long.
Abbott – like my daughter’s teacher – is clearly mistaken, you say? Clearly from what perspective? From our white, relatively middle-class and relatively privileged points of view?
So how am I to know she is wrong when she says what she says? Does my experience have greater value than hers? Do I – as someone of very little importance – have more of a right to operate on the basis of anecdote than she does?
Must we all resort to a conspiracy of silence in the face of statistics – simply because individual examples we experience from day-to-day are of no value?
Isn’t, in fact, this mindset and way of understanding the world the biggest Achilles heel of almost all modern politicians – especially for those on the left but inevitably, it would seem, in these days of ever-present button-pushing dynamics, also now for most of those on the right?
That is to say, what we see and feel and perceive in our own lives has absolutely no measurable value when consistently and persistently faced down by the omniscient power of the numbers that politicians of all colours use to rule people of all cultures.
Maybe white-faced Red Ed should sack blackbusting Abbott after all. But if he does, he will be acting as all robotised top-down politicians before him. That is to say, he will comfort himself with the historical infographs which generally demonstrate everything is bound to eventually get better; infographs which consequently allow him to conclude that unhappy anecdote is relatively unimportant and, therefore, reach the easy conclusion that those who make one feel uncomfortable are just looking to stir awkward shit … without, of course, naturally and commonly, caring to ask himself how it’s possible to stir such stuff if it didn’t exist in the first place.
So maybe Abbott is as inconsequential as Tom concludes.
And maybe my daughter’s teacher is professionally incompetent.
And maybe all our feelings add up to a massive and subconsciously crowdsourced conspiracy against the measured, able and competent actions of political classes everywhere.
Or maybe not.
One final thought. It should now be technically possible to crowdsource massive quantities of anecdote. In which case, the above disjunction between what people actually experience and what politicians say they ought to be feeling should – one day, not so very far in the future – begin to fade away.
If, that is, the political classes are ready to give up the rather more oppressive tools of their historically controlling trade – and finally, ultimately and generously release voting peoples from that erstwhile colonisation of political impulse. That empire of know-it-all mathematically enshrined truths which has ruled so long over the personal that inevitably contains our ordinary but nevertheless all-too-real existences.
On the other hand, that politicians should care to give up so much power is one mighty “if”.
One I really cannot predict if they are ready to voluntarily cede.