Nazi Rhetoric & The Dangerous Power Of The Waning Sun
, April 23rd, 2015 12:14
Battered by Leveson and out of place in a swiftly-changing era of British politics, The Sun is arguably a lesser force than once it was. Yet, argues Joe Kennedy, Katie Hopkins' reprehensible comments on immigration and the complicity of newspaper staff who employ her suggest that as it declines the tabloid is lashing out with increasingly dangerous views
The story of your common-or-garden Everytroll, that species of establishment-appointed wo/man of the nebulously-defined people - your Katie Hopkins, Rod Liddles, your Jeremy Clarksons - is of a series of line-crossings. They say or do something outrageous, liberals point out that they've crossed a line, then they reap the spoils of transgression by presenting the affair as one in which they've dared to bump chests with 'oppressive' 'socialist' 'politically-correct' 'orthodoxy'. They need, in other words, to cross the line in order to spark a discussion about why the line shouldn't be there in the first place; they come, as I've argued before, to look like partisans of anti-establishment chutzpah. This is the result of a series of complex ideological shifts that have occurred since World War Two, but probably – and you may as well start yelling 'Godwin's Law' now - inspired by events in Germany leading up to it, by which the powerful stay powerful by pretending that they, along with their 'people', are in actuality the victims of power.
So far, then, so familiar, so depressing. We might say that Katie Hopkins is but one of a kind. However, her latest…well, what is the word for it? It's not a 'gaffe'. It's not a 'slip of the tongue': the incident in question concerns the written word. And it most certainly can't be classified as a 'mistake' or an 'error'. Hopkins' Sun column on Friday just gone, in which she announced that she believed 'gunships' should be used to prevent migrants crossing the Mediterranean to seek asylum in the European Union, has invited – rightly – opprobrium on a different scale to her previous outbursts. Her 'practical' suggestion, a typically Hopkinsian mash-up of bullying and poppy-kissing military fetishising, was crass, but it wasn't the real point. That was when she wrote 'Make no mistake: these migrants are like cockroaches'. Invoke Godwins Law all you like, but there's only one word for rhetoric like that.
The fact that saying that migrants are 'like cockroaches' has a clear precedent that, even if unbeknown to Hopkins, must have been familiar to someone: Hopkins' day-to-day commissioning editor, the immediate editor of the piece, the newspaper's editor David Dinsmore, or Cambridge-educated Managing Editor Stig Abell. The straightforward comparison of large groups of people to pestilent species: well, that's Nazi, that. QED underlined, no discussion, and someone involved with the publication of the article must have at least twigged the heritage of the rhetoric. The fact that the Society for Black Lawyers' complaint to the police – a complaint which currently hangs in the balance – not only asked Hopkins to be investigated, but Dinsmore as well, should be an adequate reminder that nothing that appears in a newspaper can be accredited to the agency of a lone individual. Articles and features are commissioned: whoever has the power to commission is trusted to act with the blessing of the editor, the managing editor and, ultimately, the owner. After they are submitted, they are edited by at least one person, who must decide not only whether they match a general editorial line but whether or not they break laws. The job of any editor on a national newspaper is not simply – and sometimes, you suspect, not ever – to correct errors of linguistic usage.
The paper seem at present to be refusing to heed calls to sack Hopkins or even to remove her piece from the digital edition. In its own way, this is a tacit admission of collectively responsibility. But what needs to happen here is an examination of the structure of that responsibility. Petitions demanding Hopkins' sacking and even, at a push, demands that she be prosecuted, can easily allow the whole event to be framed as – and here's that word again – an 'error', a terrible contingency of human fallibility which someone, somewhere, can apologise for. Isn't this always what happens, though? Someone expresses contrition for the act, performs public penance for their fuck-up, and it's business as usual.
This time it needs to be different. The Sun needs to be forced not only to accept specious responsibility, but it needs to be shown that, in a very real sense, it owns its own words. That ownership is twofold. First of all, it owns them as actions with a tangible material effect. In this case, the material effect of vehement anti-immigration rhetoric has been made unspeakably, tragically clear, with the death of as many as 900 migrants – a death toll approaching that of the Lusitania, one of the most famous disasters in maritime history, but which will receive precisely none percent of the commemoration – attempting to cross the Mediterranean at the weekend. The cancellation of Mare Nostrum, the joint EU operation to carry out search-and-rescue on migrant routes, owes much to ideas propagated by those like Hopkins. The second sense of 'owning' here is to think about precisely why the establishment, which The Sun, for all of its commonsensical white van bluster, represents, has something to gain from hiring shock troops like Hopkins.
Diktats from the editors-in-chief are beyond interrogation unless you have a moment of cinematic moral clarity to match Richard Peppiatt's dramatic departure from the Star in 2011. At a newspaper like The Sun, those diktats tend to tie very closely to the interests of big – really, really big – business, which is the world's number one string puller but still remembers to keep sweet with older forms of political power. The Sun makes no bones of the fact that it can make or break governments; that it plays, in a way which is barely metaphorical, the role of kingmaker.
However, at the present moment in time, The Sun and its parent company News Corp are running scared. Leveson was a smack in the teeth for the paper which made it less tenable for government to be seen bending to its will. Now, as Oliver Huitson pointed out eloquently in Vice this week, the fragmentation of the two-party, first past the post system in the UK threatens to take away another substantial slice of its influence. These are politically interesting times and are producing a form of desperate extremism which is serving as a pole of attraction for the supposedly democratic media and liberal Conservative Party.
The function of outrageousness in the Comment section is to effect a shifting of the whole territory of politics to the right, meaning that what once looked reactionary can now serve itself up as the 'reasonable' middle ground, the space of the 'realistic'. By giving public succour to voices like Hopkins', it consumes the energies of the left, who must fight battles not only against a grossly unjust economic system but also against undiluted racism and xenophobia. Appeals to the legal and political establishment to reprimand or punish the voices of extremism can achieve only pyrrhic victories because they are appeals precisely to those who ultimately benefit from extremism. In a way, this is comparable to what Naomi Klein discusses in The Shock Doctrine: neoliberalism benefits from crises because it wanders in after them and sets up its own infrastructure with a blank political slate. This, by comparison, is the linguistic and rhetorical shock doctrine, by which supposed 'loose cannons' make deeply provocative statements, cause a screaming match and allow the nominal 'centrists' to come along and 'make peace'.
Of course, the danger with shock therapy – beyond the fact that what it leads to normally is in itself dangerous – is that it can't dependably control the forces on which it relied. There's an endless slew of programmes on television which tell us about how bad the Nazis were in terms of the absolutely despicable things they did. These programmes are meant to serve as a warning that such a cataclysm 'must never happen again'. But the warning is very abstract – the documentaries tend to avoid telling us what we can (and should or shouldn't) do to prevent a repeat of 1933-1945. National Socialism tends to be portrayed as an aberration of humanity, something which came into being almost ex nihilo. The most complex and open explanations tends to come down to the unfair terms of the post-World War One settlement, to an admission that Britain and France were 'harsh'. Other 'warnings' suggests that we should not 'simply stand back and watch', which is music to the ears of interventionists in the Blair – Bush mould.
Yet the real 'warning from history' is that the Nazis also started out as a bunch of cranks operating on the fringes of mainstream politics. Their racial theories and militant anti-communism, however, were extremely useful to a middle class (and to middle-class political parties) who felt threatened by the redistributive promise of socialism. Conservatives subtly prompted the Nazis, believing that it would expand the field of the political 'conversation' and allow the traditional parties a mediating role: it was an attempt to hang onto class power. However, amidst the rising chaos in the aftermath of the Great Depression, voters from the established conservative parties started to listen to the voices of the 'cranks', and voted for them in substantial numbers. What happened next needs little illustration, but we must remember – we must be warned – that a central component of the ideological game-playing which occurred involved the German media opening itself up to brutally anti-semitic, anti-Slav and anti-communist rhetoric.
This is not about sacking Katie Hopkins, or anybody else. It is about the political and economic entities which simultaneously permit and benefit from the increasingly vicious rhetoric of right-wing opinioneering. We need to stop behaving as if this is a battle between lone-wolf transgressors and some abstract notion of decency: we need to start asking why these voices are being given such a platform when there are a number of editorial failsafes which should prevent these so-called 'mistakes'. Sign the petition all you want, but it would appear to be rather a convoluted route making any form of true difference.