It ain’t easy being blue

Darren Scully's sadness and Ian O'Doherty's indignation share a common ancestry - one rooted in a belief that they are reluctantly, courageously, ready to speak aloud what many people think but won’t say. By Gavan Titley.

If Darren Scully, the recently resigned Fine Gael mayor of Naas, was feeling “sad” on Tuesday, there is every chance his melancholy has taken a turn for the worse as Wednesday progressed. For on Tuesday, Cllr Scully was preemptively “sad”, in case anyone would think him racist for refusing to deal with “Black Africans” because of their “aggressive attitude”. Stressing that these were solely his own views, Cllr Scully did not clarify his attitude to White Africans, but explained: "I have been met with aggressiveness and bad manners," he said. "I have also been met with the race card, (with people saying) 'Oh yeah, you will help white people, but you don't help black people.'”

Helpfully redefining the concept of the “public” and of “public service” along the way, he continued: "So after a while I made a decision that I was just not going to take on representations from black Africans, that I would be very courteous to them and I would pass on their query to other public representatives…Everything I do as a councillor is for the general good… It saddens me that people would call me a racist, because I'm not."

While there is limited merit in the game of pinning the racist tail on the political donkey, it would appear that quite a few people think that Cllr Scully has reason to be saddened. In a press release lacking a single Patrice Lumumba joke, Fine Gael quickly clarified that “The views expressed by Cllr Scully do not reflect the views of Fine Gael, and they are not party policy.” Labour TD for Waterford, Ciara Conway, called for the Mayor to be removed from public office, and her party colleague Aodhán O Ríordáin tweeted that he was reporting him to An Garda Síochána under the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act, 1989. In a move that may or may not send appropriate signals to the markets, the story has gone international, and has reported that Naas Town Council will hold a special meeting this evening to discuss the controversy.

In a superb interview on KFM, Clem Ryan filleted the particularly blatant nature of Scully’s comments. Seemingly having lost the populist crib sheet that reminds those preparing to speak their mind to “talk about culture, not race!” Scully’s consistent reference to “Black Africans” leaves little room to mitigate his grief. As Ryan in effect contended, if you refuse to represent members of the public on the basis of their skin colour, and impute the alleged behaviour of a few as an essential characteristic of the many, then this is a “true definition of racism”. Given this, a strong political reaction is a minimum requirement, and Fine Gael’s thus-far modest promise to investigate unambiguous comments places them on the wrong side of ambiguity (though his reported resignation as Mayor tonight indicates that blatant racism has a clear political price in electoral politics, at least).

Racial populism involves political calculus: what form of support, and in what quarters, is gained by this kind of statement, and in what ratio of value to the condemnation that also follows? Scully is a young and presumably ambitious politician in a party with an unprecedentedly large parliamentary party, and thus limited possibilities for advancement. While the social media reaction casting Naas as a racist backwater simply adds class animus to an already sorrowful mix, the kind of political advantage that Scully sought from this planned intervention requires careful unraveling.

Playing the wrong race card

While this unraveling is conducted, there are a few other dimensions of the story that merit unpicking. Such as this: when RTÉ broadcast episode two of its new series Now It’s Personal with the public service treat “Ian O’Doherty meets Muslims”, and instantly framed Ireland’s “Muslim community” with shots of the attack on the World Trade Centre, the outrage was muted. Yet the logic of inference is the same: all “Black Africans” are aggressive, all Muslims can be indexed to terrorism. Scully’s racism is real, but his strategic mistake was his blatant reference to skin colour. People of colour in Ireland and Europe continue to face blatant racism of this kind within institutions and on the street, and the value of Scully’s intervention is to remind us that this hasn’t gone away, you know.

However, in the realm of public discourse, even the newly-formed British Freedom movement remembered to cut and paste some black models from a Damart catalogue into their vision of the great British public. Scully in effect played the wrong race card. For this reason, his obvious exercise in racial scapegoating should not ultimately be dismissed as a nasty but mercifully rare instance of “backwardness”, but instead taken as a starting point for examining how racism works in political discourse.

Forms of racism, as the sociologist Les Back argues, develop as “scavenger ideologies”; mobile, ranging across issues and discourses in search of justifications and keys to legitimacy, and shaped and reshaped in different contexts and in relation to the population being oppressed. (Take the the apparently consuming need to ban the burka in Cork - in the absence of burka-wearing women in Cork - but just as anti-Semitism has political purchase in countries without Jews, burka debates work in contexts with few or no burka-wearing women.) Such historical mutability should not surprise anybody, but it is precisely this mutable quality that has made racism more difficult to oppose in recent decades. It also underpins the successful tactic of claiming “reverse racism”, or reducing racism to an “accusation” or lamenting that “you can’t say anything these days without being called racist.” Actually you can say quite a lot, you just have to learn the moves, and these moves have been around for a long time.

Free thinkers, ordinary fears, real courage

Darren Scully’s sadness, and Ian O’Doherty’s indignation, share an important cultural DNA. As public speech, their forthright emotions signal a particular speaking position – of someone reluctantly, but courageously, ready to say what many people think but won’t say. Regardless of their privileged access to institutional power, they are representative of an imagined ordinariness, one that has had not only its way of life, but also its language, diluted and frayed by an imposing elite. Scully’s more elaborate statement in an email to Classic Hits 4FM - his interview on that station last night rolled out the circus – is telling:

“…it pains me to see people born and rared in my town unable to get a council house who are well entitled to it but no houses are currently available and there are many africans now housed because the system states that larger families get jumped up the list.
I have found many africans are well versed on their entitlements are currently on most days in the Council building you see a steady stream of them coming in looking for housing or grants or whatever is going. The law badly needs to be changed and it is something I have been raising with the present government and will continue to do so, but as usual in this country the PC brigade will be out in force been vocal and accusing me of been a racist and anyone else who dares raise the subject…”

Being well-versed in your “entitlements” is a standard racial trope; normally regarded as the mark of a responsible citizen, rights here become “entitlements” because of the shaky, contingent legitimacy of those claiming them. Whatever the realities of Scully’s actual engagements, if you are regarded as being intrinsically less legitimate, your insistence on your rights will always be “aggressive”, entitling you to share a stable with “shrill” feminists,  “extreme” LGBT people, and others whose struggles for equality have “gone too far”.

But the key to his speaking position is the equally familiar move whereby an elected politician of the ruling party, a white man in a predominantly white country, becomes a potential victim of political correctness. Using his political platform and privilege to attack people already profoundly marginalised in society in Ireland becomes an act of courage, because PC tut-tuts its way across the land like a preachy Hegelian world spirit, accidentally making power vanish as s/he goes.

The reason that this move is so familiar, and so tiresome, and yet so attractive to reactionaries competing for scarce attention, is that these moves are historically embedded forms of commonsense. What is broadly discussed under the category of the “new racism” from the 1970s onwards involves recognising that racist strategies came to mainly involve claims about (cultural) difference rather than (racial) hierarchy. Any such potted summary as this one is rife with problems, however a bare outline is necessary. In the decades following WW2, with a growing realisation of the scale of the Holocaust; the profound shock delivered to the colonising nations of the West by the scale and efficacy of postcolonial resistance movements; and the gradual defeat of segregation in the southern US and subsequently Apartheid South Africa, pseudo-scientific ideas of “race” lost their legitimacy.

Nevertheless, manifest human differences required explanation, and gradually ideas of “culture” and “ethnicity”, which could examine heritage, commonality, conditioning and difference while repudiating ideas of hierarchy, became increasingly important. However, banishing the word “race” from the political lexicon does not banish racial understandings, and as importantly, structures. If your understanding of culture is so all-encompassing that it involves what Allan Pred calls a “metonymical magic” – where the behaviour of some explains them all – then it propagates racial understandings and logics.

For decades racist strategy has worked in and through the ambivalent historical relationships between “race” and culture, providing ways of speaking “race” through “culture” (it should also be noted that there has never been a neat distinction, or transition, from one idea to the other, otherwise how did the Irish become white?). Making racial arguments with reference to culture, and cultural characteristics, is the grammar that organises the dots at the end of the familiar preamble “I’m not racist, but…” Clem Ryan’s description of the statement as a “true definition of racism” captures the unexpectedly un-coded tenor of Scully’s statement, but what is meant by “true” is perhaps more accurately understood as “less prevalent”.

From the 1970s, the rhetoric of culture, and the entreaty to respect cultural difference, has been appropriated by ideologues and politicians of the Right, but has also entered into more general discourse. Opposition to postcolonial and post-war labour migration in western Europe presented human movement as a zero-sum game, not only in relation to the labour market and social provision (as Scully does in his email), but in terms of ways of life – respect for them is disrespect for us. Thus entirely tepid and often deeply conservative forms of multiculturalism - which were in effect ways of controlling autonomous antiracist movements - were easily depicted as elite impositions; the lifestyle fripperies of the middle class who like a bit of colour and exoticism, but don’t have to live with the unpleasant consequences, and in fact make it taboo to discuss them.

In this shift, racism ceases to exist if you cease to discuss “race”. Instead, you discuss “ordinary fears”, the natural inclination of different groups to stay together, and the simple fact of conflict if differences are unnaturally brought into unhealthy proximity, or set in resource competition. The “people” are not racist, but prejudice merely becomes the natural reaction of people responding to the refusal of “migrants” to adapt and accept “our way of life”. And so forth. The transfer and translation of these shifts is complex, and it is clear that “9/11” and its terroristic and imperialist aftermath have been used to bring cultural hierarchy unashamedly back into mainstream politics. However the echo and trace of the “new racism” is implicit in Scully’s sadness, and O’Doherty’s indignation.

When racism is regarded as having been, by and large, transcended, in its “Black African” mode it becomes associated with pathological individual attitudes, and racist and supremacist movements that present themselves as such. In other words, it is the preserve of nasty, uncouth, extreme characters. Thus, to “accuse” someone of racism is to suggest that they are a nasty character of some kind, and thus becomes a moral accusation, a suggestion of individual lack, of bad ideas and manners. No wonder they feel sad and indignant when so “accused”, and it is why condemnation is quickly pilloried as a “witch hunt”.

Further, this accusation then invites a lengthy dispute as to what constitutes racism, and thus identifies a racist. As a consequence, the experience of those who are racialised and subject to racism vanishes from the scene, and the political nature of racism is obscured. Racism is experienced, and it is practiced, and it must, as Howard Winant argues, be “comprehended in terms of its consequences, not as a matter of intentions or beliefs”. When racism is located as the property of a villain, then opposing it becomes a moral challenge and cathartic drama. Scully’s sadness deepens, and the public is vindicated. But when it is understood politically, the question becomes one of understanding and opposing its consequences, and of developing strategies to deal with its scavenger mutability. Whatever the Mayor’s character, he obeys a political logic, and antiracists must shape a political response.

Now it’s political

This is why, from my perspective, something like Now It’s Personal requires a similar level of critique, particularly if we are to map how racism works in public discourse beyond the crass populism of crass politicians. Writing about a forum on being “young, British and Muslim” in 2004, Gary Younge drew attention to how a commitment to open debate also requires an attention to the power inherent in asking, and having to answer, questions. As he points out:

“Nobody ever asks: ‘When did you first realise you were straight?’ or ‘How do you balance fatherhood and work?’ One day, hopefully, they might. But in the meantime some identities will be subject to relentless examination, while others coast by with eternal presumption. Those who ask the questions of others without interrogating themselves are effectively saying: this is our world, you're just living in it.”

RTÉ would do well to interrogate themselves about how they represent the world and how they think we live in it. Now It’s Personal is sustained by a daisy chain of weak thinking. Shoehorning conflicts stemming from race/gender/class into a reality format is not a plausible substitute for the hard work of exploring and representing society in Ireland. If the Irish Independent chooses to pay Ian O’Doherty for rehearsing the kind of IslamoBogeyMan clichés that can be found for free on an infinite variety of internet discussion threads, there is no onus on the public service broadcaster to set aside editorial veracity and further circulate them. There is nothing “controversial” or “courageous” about singling out Muslims for relentless examination; it has been central to European political culture for over a decade. O’Doherty's folk wisdom, in the programme, that if “you live in our house you play by our rules” is not a bracing rejection of multicultural weakness, but a marriage of the commonsense differentialism of the 1970s with the problematic population du jour.

But therein lies the rub: it is more acceptable, and more amenable to justification via apparently progressive concerns about liberty and equality (women in Ireland must be delighted that fully-achieved indigenous equality allows born-again feminists to fully concentrate on the problem of discrete cultures). And precisely because O’Doherty presents his right-wing full-bloodedness as a working class anomaly sure to unsettle the imagined, multicultural middle classes, it seems like a safe vehicle for a programme designed to appeal to them. After all, if the people are not racist, and the presenter is a man of the people, then the presenter cannot be racist, right? {jathumbnailoff}