As a general rule, political developments in other countries that don’t directly involve the U.S.. have to be a pretty big deal to get coverage. The recent elections in Germany, or the passage of the new Lisbon Treaty in the E.U., passed by as a blip. The flip side is that, when stuff does get covered, I can be pretty sure it’s big news. When the riots in Uganda made papers in the states, I knew that, whatever it was that was happening, it was major. While the bar is not nearly as high for news from Great Britain, the fact that the appearance of Nick Griffin—leader of the U.K.’s hard-right British National Party—on the BBC’s Question Time made the New York Times speaks volumes about what a significant event it was.
By way of background, the BNP is a neo-Nazi, white supremacist party that has, recently, rebranded itself. In the recent European elections, the BNP won two seats in the European parliament largely by tapping into concerns about immigration and the economic displacement it (supposedly) entails. While the xenophobic rhetoric and appeals to jingoism might make the BNP sound like your average Republican congressman or Lou Dobbs, make no mistake: these guys are scary(er). Nick Griffin is, to borrow a favorite (but probably not harsh enough) Britishism, a total wanker: see him denying the holocaust here or appearing alongside KKK leaders here. Obviously, no one from the BNP should be elected to serve as dog-catcher. Nonetheless, the rules of the BBC are such that any party that has ministers in parliament merits an invitation to Question Time, a political talk-show of sorts. Still, when the BBC invited Griffin, a lot of groups were (understandably) quite irate. And, despite thousands of protesters outside, last week Griffin managed to appear and even got to answer a question or two.
I was hoping to watch the program with some real live British people, but since getting a bunch of college students in the U.K. to watch Question Time is roughly as cool as inviting your friends over to listen to NPR, I wound up watching it alone the next morning. The inevitable apathy of twenty-somethings aside, the appearance is still the talk of Britain: I heard the Development staff discussing it over tea, Provost Smethers brought it up over dinner, and Nick Griffin was a major sub-topic of Saturday’s demonstration. I don’t have much to say about the actual show. Griffin’s performance combined truly inane blathering (he claimed that he couldn’t explain his views on the Holocaust because he might be arrested… in France) and insane xenophobia (he called Islam “vicious and wicked”) with some nonetheless appealing rhetoric about “British jobs for British people” and the senselessness of Britain’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In short, everyone watching will see what they want to see: either a slimy bigot being exposed for the monster he is, or a political maverick being unfairly silenced by the left-wing media. You can watch a highlight’s reel here, and decide for yourself.
From my perspective, the “questions” from the audience were more telling than the answers, which were fairly predictable. The most memorable ones were when one gentleman called Griffin “disgusting” and another informed him that he would like to fund-raise to buy him and his BNP supporters a ticket to the (very white) South Pole. Neither really asked a question, and so Griffin didn’t get to respond. Both polemics were met with triumphant applause, but, frankly, I find this kind of approach to “taking down” people with abhorrent beliefs to be very frustrating.
My junior year, the campus Republicans hosted the “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week,” which brought in David Horowitz, an extreme neo-conservative. The auditorium was packed—but mostly with left-wing students, eager to assail Horowitz’s ill-informed and prejudiced views on Palestine, the “oppression” of white straight men in America, and the evils of Islam. When the speaker called for questions, we lined up, and student after student tried either to lecture Horowitz on Israeli history, scream at him that he is a bigot, or ask a vague quasi-question (i.e. “why are you so racist?!?!?!”) In every case, Horowitz “won,” either because suddenly he looked like a victim, because an open question left him a chance to recite one of his generic lines, or because, having the microphone, he always got to have the last word.
It’s possible that the detachment from racial issues I get from being a white male was what let me bite my tongue (both of the gentlemen I referred to in the previous paragraph as delivering tirades were non-white). When it came my turn, I asked Horowitz how I and my fellow white male upper-middle class Princetonians were specifically being oppressed, as he had claimed. He sputtered for a few seconds, and finally offered the example of the Duke Lacrosse team prosecution (yes, really). That was it. A year-and-a-half later, I met the former head of the Muslim Student’s Association, and she still remembered me as the guy who made Horowitz look bad. It wasn’t exactly a stunning victory for truth and justice, but it worked better than the alternatives.
The rants directed at Nick Griffin were probably very cathartic, and maybe that was the purpose. But as a political tactic, they were misguided. Far better would have been to ask him pointed, specific questions. So, Nick, how many Jews do you think died in the Holocaust? How exactly do you plan to deport 10% of Britain’s population? What exactly leads you to believe the KKK is a “non-violent” organization? If your party isn’t racist, how come your constitution explicitly precludes membership for blacks? I can’t help but compare the ambivalently reviewed performance of Nick Griffin to the unambiguous destruction of Sarah Palin by Katie Couric, who did nothing more than politely ask for details. Right wing ideas—ranging from the (much more benign) tragically uniformed beliefs of Palin to the virulence of Griffin—are compelling in the abstract, but break down under scrutiny.
As a somewhat related aside, there is an argument I’ve heard in the last few days that challenging and debating the ideas of groups like the BNP does no good. As someone pointed out to me, the BNP has gained 3,000 members in the last week, confirming that when you give these people a legitimate platform, it helps them. This is true. But I think we have to confront the underlying reasons why groups like BNP are gaining support—namely, economic disenfranchisement and the poverty of ideas on the left to deal with it—rather than hope that by silencing them they will go away. We can only smash the BNP head on.
(And yes, I realize that posting this after my previous post – which was a rant – is a bit hypocritical. Our emotions get the best of all of us sometimes, and I certainly undertand why a black or Asian person would rather just rant at someone, for the same reason that occassionally a vegan would rather smear him or herself in fake blood and yell at people than engage in a real debate.)