So what should we make of the Ken Livingstone saga? Just so we all know how the conversation went, here it is:
(1) Oliver Finegold: Mr Livingstone, Evening Standard. How did tonight go?
Livingstone: How awful for you. Have you thought of having treatment?
(2) Finegold: How did tonight go?
Livingstone: Have you thought of having treatment?
(3) Finegold: Was it a good party? What does it mean for you?
Livingstone: What did you do before? Were you a German war criminal?
(4) Finegold: No, I’m Jewish, I wasn’t a German war criminal and I’m actually quite offended by that. So, how did tonight go?
Livingstone: Ah right, well you might be [Jewish], but actually you are just like a concentration camp guard, you are just doing it because you are paid to, aren’t you?
(5) Finegold: Great, I have you on record for that. So, how was tonight?
Livingstone: It’s nothing to do you with you because your paper is a load of scumbags and reactionary bigots.
(6) Finegold: I’m a journalist and I’m doing my job. I’m only asking for a comment.
Livingstone: Well, work for a paper that doesn’t have a record of supporting fascism.
Old upper-class Tories like Boris Johnson and Nicholas Soames have defended Livingstone’s right to say this, on the grounds that he’s an oddball. This is backed by the liberal, Simon Jenkins. Against Ken, we have most Labour politicians and figures from the Jewish establishment, such as Lord Janner and the Board of Deputies.
There was some confusion about who he should apologise to, some saying that it should be to Finegold, some to the “Jewish community” as a whole. Livingstone’s crime was cast as having shown himself to be anti-Semitic.
There are various grounds for this. Firstly, he’s said something to a Jewish person, which, says this person, offended him. I think plenty of us have used this argument in the past in schools over what we’ve described as racist language.
Secondly, some say that invoking Nazi war crimes as equivalents to something that a person in Britain today has done, is an example of cheapening the Holocaust. This is sometimes termed as “relativism” — making the Holocaust no worse than lots of other horrific acts.
Dangerous, some say, and leads to Holocaust denial and an implied anti-Semitism. A territory some of us have explored when looking at some right wing historians. If you do this when talking to someone who you know is Jewish, this, some say, is proof that it’s anti-Semitic.
At first glance, whatever Ken was saying would appear to be over the top. It’s an example of making the most extreme comparisons in order to vilify someone. Many of us do this. I’ve called people “fascists” when they were acting in what I thought was an authoritarian way.
We hear people invoking the names of Attila the Hun, Hitler, and Mussolini to do something similar. It’s not brilliant politics, but a lot of us do it.
Let’s look at what Livingstone was actually saying. His first comment is a joke, suggesting that anyone who works for the Standard must be ill. We could argue this was offensive about the mentally ill. (3) Livingstone is also some kind of joke.
He doesn’t really think Finegold’s German, took part in the war, or is a criminal. (4) Finegold is odd. Why or how he could be genuinely offended, beats me, unless he’s offended on behalf of modern Germans fed up with being constantly reminded about the Nazi era.
I sense that Finegold is working a number – “If I say I’m Jewish that will put Livingstone in a right old pickle. No one wants to be accused of anti-Semitism.” Now we come to (4) Livingstone.
Here, I think, most of the commentators have got it wrong, perhaps deliberately. I think that Livingstone is accusing Finegold of being a collaborator, like the Jews who ended up acting as guards in the ghettos and camps. This isn’t the same kind of insult as saying that Finegold is a Nazi. It’s more political and more insulting. It’s saying, why is a Jewish person working for a racist rag?
It’s a legitimate question to ask, but, in the heat of the moment, with a journalist hoping to dig up something that could disadvantage Livingstone because he’s dared attend a party that celebrated a gay coming-out, Livingstone has raised the whole thing in the wrong way.
Perhaps by the time you read this he will have apologised to the “Jewish community as a whole”, though in actual fact, he didn’t insult all Jews.
As a result, Livingstone will find it hard to raise the question that I think was going through his mind, which is that you’d hope someone of a Jewish background wouldn’t work for a newspaper group that vilifies asylum seekers, pumps up immigration scares, and smears anti-racists.