If Patriotism Is A Virtue, The Daily Mail Is A Sinner
October 4, 2013
by Martin Odoni
What really galls me when watching/reading the bulk of right-wing opinion is the growing tendency among its thinkers to imagine that any policy it disagrees with can be invalidated by simply slapping a label on it. That label can be ‘socialist’, ‘Marxist’, ‘left wing’, ‘Communist’, ‘Stalinist’ or even ‘liberal’ – although my suspicion with that last one is that people, perhaps unknowingly, are using the US definition of the word, which implies a less centrist position than the British definition. There never seems to be any great motivation to articulate why the label is appropriate or, even supposing it is, why that makes it ipso facto something undesirable. It’s just about the most widely begged-question of our time, with the eternal assumption, that Marxism is bad because its left wing and that being left wing is bad because it’s Marxism, just going unqueried in most of the British media. On the few occasions the question is acknowledged, we can be confident that someone will very swiftly raise the subject of Josef Stalin or Chairman Mao Tse Tung.
This last week has seen the perennial outbound toilet paper of the English Middle Classes, The Daily Mail, attack a prominent left-wing intellectual of the past, ostensibly on the grounds that he ‘hated Britain’, but really on the grounds that his son is now the leader of the Labour Party, and is beginning to win the battle with the Conservative Party for the figurative hearts and minds. Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party Conference last week was quite impressive, and even had a few precious crumbs of genuine substance in it, which is something of a departure from standard political practise. And one or two of those ideas could even be classed as coming out of the textbooks of the left, making them rather brave and daring in an era when almost the entire British media is neoliberal from surface-to-core. One idea that got particular vitriol from the right-wing press was the eminently sensible policy of forcing developers, who hoard large stretches of land but then fail to build on much of it, to sell the land to the Government so that new houses can be built on it. With house-building so modest and infrequent, with the demand for housing so high, and house-prices so insanely inflated accordingly, new house-building programs are clearly just good economics, and if necessary land is sitting idle in large quantities, well yes, let’s use it. Let’s make it get used. Not only would it help address the housing shortage, but it would also be a valuable shot-in-the-arm for an ailing economy that is screaming out for some real stimulus in the building industry.
Almost inevitably, Miliband was immediately accused of planning a ‘Stalinist land-grab’. Now I may be wrong here, but I have never seen any example of Josef Stalin allowing private landowners in the Soviet Union a chance to develop their holdings before he chose to take them away. Nor is there any indication I know of that Stalin was kind enough to pay the landowners the going-rate for their land when he seized it. So to compare Miliband’s paid-seizures-of-land policy to Stalin’s dictatorialism is hyperbolic at best, and sums up the ‘everything and everyone goes in its own box’ mentality that is so prevalent among many conservative commentators. Nationalisation of assets had bad repercussions in the USSR, they want us to think, therefore all nationalisation is bad.
The Mail however went further than this and produced an ‘opinion piece’ that assumed Miliband got the idea from his father, whom it painted as a Marxist monster who hated the United Kingdom. (The reason I put ‘opinion piece’ in inverted commas is that I am highly doubtful that what was in it was an opinion in the accepted sense of the word. An opinion, as I have highlighted before, has to be something the person expressing it genuinely believes. Otherwise it is just a lie, and I am not convinced at all that Geoffrey Levy, the writer of the contentious Daily Mail article, genuinely believed his own profile of Ralph Miliband.)
Ralph Miliband was a Jewish Marxist who, as a teenager, had fled his native Belgium during the Second World War, and fought for Britain in the Royal Navy against Nazi Germany. After the war, when by any logical view of a man who hated his adopted country, he might have returned home to Belgium, Miliband instead chose to stay in Britain and build a family here. He became a very prominent, shrewd, and eloquent proponent of leftist ideology in the UK.
The Daily Mail’s profile of Miliband concluded that he hated the country almost entirely because of a diary entry he had written shortly after he had first set foot on British soil. He was sixteen years old when he had written it, and was still suffering the culture shock of moving to a new land, and the ongoing terror of knowing that his homeland had been conquered by foreign ideologues who wanted to cast all Jews out of Europe, Miliband included. Worse still, his mother and his sister had failed to escape the Nazi occupation and he had no idea whether they were even alive. His diary entry, laced with understandable exasperation at the familiar, ignorant British arrogance he frequently encountered, read, “when you hear the English talk of this war you sometimes almost want them to lose it to show how things are.” This was a confused and traumatised sixteen year-old venting frustration, nothing more, and even then he didn’t say he actually wanted Britain to be conquered, only almost, and that if it happened, at least it might jolt the British upper classes out of their intellectual complacency a bit. And it bore very little resemblance to the views he expressed in post-war adult life.
In short, the quotation used by The Daily Mail was the absolutely vintage example of the ‘quotemine’ i.e. a quotation deliberately taken completely out-of-context to make a person sound like his position was the polar opposite of what it really was.
Inasmuch as it had anything beyond that to say, the rest of the article tried to use his evident dislike of the British ruling class to prove that he disliked Britain as a whole. But of course, that is such a grossly stupid projection of the particular onto the whole that it scarcely needs pointing out. I dislike the city of Glasgow, and Glasgow is in Scotland, so by The Mail’s puerile logic, that must mean I hate all of Scotland. But of course I don’t, I have great affection for the likes of Edinburgh, Stirling, Scone, and Inverary, among other places. I dislike the city of Birmingham, so that must mean I hate all cities that have ever been built, right? A woman doesn’t like her husband’s habit of singing in the bath, therefore she doesn’t like her husband at all? (Well, in my experience that does turn out to be true quite a bit, but…) An EastEnders fan hates the big villain of the moment, be it Dirty Den, Phil Mitchell, Nick Cotton, or a hundred others, therefore she hates EastEnders?
The worst aspect of this attack was the clear and damnable lying. This was not a free expression of opinion, but a deliberate falsification designed to smear the current Labour leader, not through anything about himself but through a man who died nearly two decades ago. But there is also the two-faced hypocrisy. Part of that is that The Mail was one of the right-wing brigade that, six months ago, railed self-righteously against the celebrations that broke out around the country when Margaret Thatcher died. “Where is the respect for the dead?!?” they cried. And after a fashion, they were right. A lot of the condemnation of Thatcher was accurate and it was perfectly correct it was given voice to, especially given the rose-tinted hagiographies that were prevalent in much of the media at that time, but the actual street-parties were pretty disgusting (as again I mentioned before). But at least nobody tried to attack Thatcher through her long-dead father during her career, when he wasn’t there to defend himself. And nobody actually smeared her with blatantly cherry-picked quotations after she had died, which is what The Daily Mail is now doing to Ralph Miliband, in order to attack his son. (It’s not even ‘playing the man and not the ball’. It’s ‘playing a man who was playing in a different game altogether, in a different stadium altogether, and in a different season altogether, and not the ball’.) Where is The Mail’s respect for the dead now? Where was it a few weeks before Thatcher died, when Hugo Chavez met his end?
But also, the hypocrisy takes the form of missing how easily The Mail’s own stupid, generalised logic can be reversed and thrown at The Mail itself. Ralph Miliband hated an aspect of Britain, therefore he hated Britain? Well, even if we are to assume that blind, warts-‘n’-all patriotism is a good characteristic to have, can anybody name me a part of the British media that has more pet-hates in British life than The Daily Mail itself? Almost every day, on its front page and on its website, you will find an opinion piece attacking homosexual rights in the UK, the British working class, Scottish culture, the young in modern Britain, the Welsh accent, the British Welfare State, British women who go to work, the high number of single parent families in the UK, immigrants who remain in the UK for the long haul (and who therefore presumably have some kind of affection for the place – how dare they?!?), the National Health Service, the British Public Sector… oh, I think I’m going to lose count!
There is so much that is British that The Daily Mail appears to dislike and to want to have a go at, that it would probably take far less time to list off the aspects of Britain that it approves of i.e. the Royal Family, Middle England, reckless free market de-regulation, and The Last Night Of The Proms. Hating Britain, with its obsolete class system and its long denial of its Imperialist criminal past, is ipso facto a bad thing, is it? Well The Daily Mail is the worst of the worst then. In fact, I’m not even sure what the poisonous, stuck-in-the-past reactionaries who routinely staff that ‘newspaper’ are even still living in this country for, there’s so little about it that doesn’t trigger the surly furrowing of their brows. (Yes, Peter Hitchens, I definitely include you in that, you pompous ingrate.)
As for labels, Marxist bad, unpatriotic really bad, no one should take them seriously. They are seldom explained, and even when they are, they are usually more of the same stupid projections of the particular onto the whole i.e. Stalin was bad, therefore everything about the left is bad.
And no, I’m not even going to bother assessing the much-circulated (and very true) point about The Daily Mail’s founder being a fond supporter of Adolf Hitler and Oswald Mosley in the 1930’s. It speaks for itself.
Not only was Levy’s ‘opinion piece’ an example of the shameless depths that this over-influential rag is always willing to plumb, it was also stupidity. It made the British right look dishonest, which it usually is, and overshadowed the Conservative Party Conference, which was getting under way even as the row broke out. The result was that so much focus was placed on the argument over Miliband that the Conference itself got only half-eyed attention throughout, when the Tory Party needed to have a good, well-publicised Conference in order to try and win back the initiative that the Labour leader had so clearly seized with his (admittedly only very modest) move to the left the previous week. With The Mail as the openly-secret mouthpiece of the Conservative Party in the British media, this has to be one of the worst bits of political timing all year. Indeed, even some Conservative figures of past and present importance have spoken out against the article. The fact that The Mail stubbornly refuses to apologise for what was not just ‘an-exercise-of-freedom-of-speech’ but a cynical abuse of it demonstrates that, on a level of maturity and responsibility, it is no better than The Sun.
But then it never has been. The Daily Mail has always been the ‘other’ issue of The Sun – the issue for those right-wingers who are too prudish to cope with the sight of topless women on page 3.
EDIT 11-3-2014: Interestingly, The Mail seems to have felt the effects of this ‘own goal’, judging by information released on the quiet this week by the Press Complaints Commission. Please read this by Mike Sivier.