Politically Homeless in an Age of Tribalism

It’s nice to feel like you belong somewhere.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of looking around and thinking, “this is where I should be” — especially in a world that is becoming increasingly disconnected.

This disconnection, brought about by a concoction of political unrest and ramped up technological advances, has driven many into a sort of selective solitude. More and more people are opting to connect with online communities instead of physical ones, and social media provides the perfect platform for this. Whatever your interest, quirk, or kink, you’re likely to find at least a handful of people out there in the digital void who share it with you. Into videos of people eating colossal portions of take-out?  How about tiny microscopic replicas of everyday objects? Or, are anonymous hands playing with multi-coloured slime more your scene? Seemingly, whatever your niche, you’re not alone. Which is nice after all; it’s nice to know we’re not alone.  

Striving for a sense of community isn’t a new or unique concept; humanity has always looked for it. History has shown endless examples of people coming together, with tribes turning to settlements, settlements to nations, and nations to democratic societies.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of looking around and thinking, “this is where I should be”…

Within these groups, religions, cultures and belief systems have been forged, bringing like-minded people together – but also dividing them. Wars have been waged in the name of beliefs; people have been persecuted; and life-long enemies made. Amongst all that though, we have found solace in the sense of community shared beliefs bring with them, comforted by the fact that we can really belong somewhere. But why do we seek this out? Because it feels good, is the short answer. Because it feels good to collectively believe in something. To have a shared faith. A shared purpose.

In 2017, I experienced this feeling first-hand when I got behind Jeremy Corbyn and his first election campaign. I’d always been a socialist, even before knowing what the word meant, and I still am. I’ve seen the effects of austerity and Tory policy first-hand and, like so many others, I know what it feels like to live on the breadline.

Corbyn, and everything about him, excited me. Here was a man who had been actively campaigning for the things I cared about, for his entire lifetime. Opposing Tory cuts and austerity measures, fighting for oppressed workers, the homeless and the vulnerable, and demonstrating against injustices around the world. And he practiced what he preached. The man used public transport, refused to send his children to public school, and never claimed a penny of his expense account. Jeremy Corbyn represented real change to me; he was different from any other politician I’d ever seen, and when he spoke, I felt his words in my veins.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, waves at a crowd of supporters in Reading, on his 2017 election campaign trail.
[Image: Peter Nicholls/Reuters, The Nation]

So, I put my faith in him. When newspapers whipped up story after story in attack of him, I instantly jumped to his defence. So what if he was scruffy? He didn’t support the IRA, he only met members to negotiate peace?! He’s not anti-troop; he’s just anti-conflict!

I spent so long defending the Labour leader and his shadow cabinet that it became habit to dismiss anything and everything anyone produced as evidence against them, usually without even looking at it, and always without considering it. Anything produced by tabloid journalists was entirely ignored without thought, on the basis that those papers weren’t to be trusted anyway (a fact which is, of course, most often true). Anything more legitimate and I would find a way to rationalise or twist it in my head. This was easy; other supporters told me it was all untrue too — older people, people who’d been with the Party for years. I trusted them, and I trusted him too. Nothing was going to stop me when it came to fighting for this person, who I believed in with every fibre of my soul, and I would sit and say this until I was red in the face, surrounded by other supporters, drinking pints in the pub in our own little self-made echo chamber.

But why do we seek this out? Because it feels good, is the short answer. Because it feels good to collectively believe in something.

The issue is, when someone can do no wrong, you start to do funny things when they mess up.

When, shortly after Corbyn’s first election, allegations of antisemitism directed at Party members started cropping up, I prepped my battle station. I argued, I rationalised, I ignored any argument which even put the words “antisemitism” and “Labour” into the same sentence. Anything which even proposed that there could be any relationship between the two and I spiralled into a state of instant denial.

..it becomes habit to dismiss anything and everything anyone produces as evidence against them, usually without even looking at it, and always without considering it.

When I consider this response now, it seems strange. By this point, I’d spent five years in further education. I’d learned to consider evidence fairly and properly and to draw reasonable conclusions based on this. Now, here I was, happy to cast this all to one side. Most of this was naivety; I genuinely believed in this man and his vision and, because of that, it just didn’t make sense that he would in any way condone something I was so firmly opposed to. But I’ll admit that a small fraction was also wilful ignorance. If antisemitism was really rife in the Labour party, then I’d lose everything I was fighting for. I’d lose everything I had been part of.

So I spent two years avoiding eye contact with it. I swiped past headlines, ignored informative articles, and dismissed blatant red flags. When, in March 2018, it was revealed that Jeremy Corbyn had commented on a Facebook post depicting an image of a mural which was being removed because it perpetuated antisemitic tropes, the wall I’d spent so long constructing was momentarily shook for the first time.

“Tomorrow they want to buff my mural” the artist, Mear One, had written as the caption.

I dragged my unwitting eyes to the image in question: six men sitting around a monopoly table, one counting money. The table they played on was balanced on the backs of workers. Behind them a pyramid, with the infamous ‘all-seeing eye’ above it.  

Image of the mural painted by street artist Mear One, shared on Facebook and commented on by Jeremy Corbyn in 2012. Mear One had previously stated that “some of the white Jewish folk in the local community had an issue with [him] portraying their beloved #Rothschild or #Warburg etc as the demons they are” [source]
[Image: Mike Kep/Corbis, Getty Images]

“Why?” Jeremy Corbyn had commented. “Rockerfeller destroyed Diego Viera’s mural because it includes a picture of Lenin”. (Here, he was referring to Diego Riveria’s Man at the Crossroads, which was a fresco commissioned and then later destroyed by Nelson Rockefeller after it was dubbed as “anti-capitalist propaganda” because of its inclusion of Vladimir Lenin). 

I automatically started to try and rationalise. There must be a perfectly innocent explanation for this. Is it really antisemitic, or just a comment on elitism/capitalism/monopoly? Is there any chance he might have misinterpreted it? I mean it’s plausible. Or maybe he just didn’t look at it properly?

Earlier this month, I opened a picture of that mural up again. I didn’t pull my eyes away quite so quickly this time, I just looked:

The six men were all rotund, balding, with exaggerated facial features: all were depicted with oversized, hooked noses. The money-counter had a long, grey beard and oversized, claw-like fingers. Behind them, sat the ‘all-seeing eye’ over a pyramid; an infamous trope in Illuminati-based conspiracy theories, which famously describe a Jewish elite that runs the world’s press, politics, and economy, profiteering off conflicts, terror attacks, and financial crashes it has supposedly engineered.

I dug a little deeper, just a little — it didn’t take much. If the overtly caricatured images and symbols weren’t enough to convince me of the mural’s antisemitism, the context of the piece was. During the decade which preceded WII, the Nazis published propaganda which depicted Jews in scenarios which were not just similar, but in some cases almost identical to the image which had been created by Mear One. Countless Nazi imagery showed Jews sitting on human bodies, and published pamphlets that talked about Jewish oligarchs meeting in secret to strategise their control over the media, government, and business.

Earlier this month, I opened a picture of that mural up again. I didn’t pull my eyes away quite so quickly this time.

This mural wasn’t just a critique of the rich and powerful. Nor was it just a critique of capitalism. There was a reason it was being removed in the first place; this was overt anti-Jewish propaganda. Most hauntingly, this form of propaganda is something the Western world has seen before; it was once used as fuel for the capture and murder of millions of human beings. Why then, had Jeremy Corbyn commented on it? And if he had somehow missed the symbolism and the context, how could he be expected to crack down on even more subtle forms of antisemitism within his own Party?

But I didn’t see this or ask these questions when the mural first hit the headlines. Or rather, I didn’t want to. To me, the mural was just one of many smears, miscommunications, and misunderstandings. As the accusations mounted, and MP after MP was accused of making antisemitic remarks, or being part of antisemitic groups, I became more and more defiant. I threw myself into a sort of self-imposed denial, surrounding myself with people who agreed with me. I argued vehemently with anyone who tried to raise the issue. My lowest point came when one of my oldest and closest friends tried to tell me about how frightened he and his friends and family were as Jews living in the UK.

“Can you still vote for him knowing that I feel that way?” he asked me one day, over coffee and cake in a rainy café. 

“I just think you’ve made a mistake – Jeremy’s not like that” I insisted. “Maybe we’ll just have to keep it as a topic we agree not to talk about.”

This response really epitomised my entire philosophy when it came to antisemitism allegations against Labour: if you don’t look at it, don’t think about it, and don’t talk about it, it isn’t real. The problem is that it is real. It is very real. And while I could turn the other way, British Jews were becoming more and more concerned. Antisemitism was being normalised at a political level, and with this, Jewish-targeted discrimination and hate crime were on the rise.

Silencing opposing arguments and feelings in this way was just one form of the defence-mechanism I used to allow myself to continue to maintain my unwavering faith in Corbyn’s Labour. As well as this, I often found myself leaping to two other modes of defence.

The problem is that it is real. It is very real.

The first was to call the entire issue a “smear campaign”, arguing that the claims were being harnessed by Tories and Labour careerists in an attempt to overthrow Corbyn and his socialist agenda. Now, it is absolutely true that much of the mainstream media has had it in for Corbyn and his cabinet since he was elected as leader. It is also true that antisemitism allegations (along with others) have been hugely weaponised by both non-Labour and Labour MPs, and the issue of antisemitism in politics – like so many others – has come to be used as a ‘political football’.

But a fact which is used (or even inflated) by someone else doesn’t stop being a fact. If I have a BBQ, and my vindictive neighbour tells the landlord I’ve got a bonfire in my back garden, my neighbour is exaggerating and trying to get me into trouble. But I still had a BBQ. Tabloids will be tabloids and Tories will undoubtedly be Tories; they will use anything they can get their hands on against the opposition – but something cannot come from nothing. There’s only so long you can ignore the smoke before you have to acknowledge the burning fire at your feet.

My second go-to tactic was to launch into a wave of ‘whataboutism’. What about racism and xenophobia in the Conservative party? What about Boris Johnson’s comments against Muslim women? What about the fact that Corbyn has been a lifelong advocate of human rights? Only later have I realised how entirely dismissive and illogical this kind of reaction is. Of course there is racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism in the Tory party. Of course those kinds of comments are awful and entirely unacceptable. Of course Jeremy Corbyn has done incredible things to promote racial and cultural equality during his lifetime. But what do these points really have to do with addressing the issue and handling of antisemitism in the Left? One issue doesn’t negate the other, two wrongs don’t cancel eachother out, and positive actions don’t excuse negative ones. If we can’t be critical of every Party and every person, how can we be critical at all?

It seemed that no matter what was put in front of me, I would find a way to either ignore, rationalise, or distract myself from it. It took me years to break out of this mentality. Though I had been able to rationalise Corbyn’s response to Mear One’s mural the first time I had seen it, it created a hairline fracture in my carefully crafted vision of a perfect, untainted leader. Though I spent the next two years continuing to support Labour, the foundations my beliefs were built on had been made vulnerable. The moment everything was finally shattered came after December’s general election, for which I’d campaigned for Labour and been crushed by the result.  

If we can’t be critical of every Party and every person, how can we be critical at all?

One evening, several weeks after, I sat with a group of friends, all fellow ‘Lefties’ and Labour voters. We were all collectively mourning the loss, discussing the reasons we could have done so shockingly. None of us had seen it coming.

I had started to notice patterns cropping up in discussions like this which were unsettling me. The conversations would start by talking about Boris’ wielding of Brexit, his use of soundbites (“get Brexit done”) and would move into a general frustration and concern about the UK’s future under the Conservatives. It would then progress into asking why the so-called ‘red wall’ had turned blue. Someone would inevitably then brand the entirety of Britain’s Northern working-class population as either ‘racist’ or ‘stupid’ and it would usually be rounded up with a conclusion that ‘people will see the mistakes they’ve made’ in the course of the next four years, when austerity measures are ramped up and Johnson failed to deliver on any of his promises.

This dialogue in itself was starting to make me uncomfortable. How could everyone in these towns, who’ve historically voted Labour for generations, be racist? I thought. And why are we wishing that they take the hit and ultimately suffer because they voted against the grain?  Maybe we should be asking why so many people were so strongly opposed to Jeremy Corbyn that they put their faith, for the first time, in a Conservative leader? These alternative questions were always shot down in such discussions, along with any slight criticism of the Labour leader or his election campaign.

By this point I’d been involved in several chats with other supporters, and they’d all ended in pretty similar situations; with me feeling frustrated that I couldn’t question anything without effectively being shouted down. So, I was prepared to accept that this would be the ultimate end of this one. This conversation, however, took a rather unexpected turn. Someone had brought up the topic of Israel and Palestine. We were discussing the ‘smear campaign’ against Corbyn and airing our frustrations about the part the media had played in shaping public views of him.

“Yeah, I’ve actually really started to dislike the Jews since the General Election” one of my friends said suddenly, without blinking. As if it was the most natural thing in the world. I looked around the room. Why wasn’t anyone else as shocked as I was?

Everything I’d believed in had unravelled in seconds in front of my own eyes. There was no way I could deny the existence of antisemitism in the Left anymore; it was right here in front of me.

I challenged: “That’s antisemitic,” I said. “Don’t you mean you hate Israel, and what their government is doing? British Jews have got nothing to do with that. They’re not the same thing.”

To this, I was met with an onslaught of opposing arguments:

“Jewish people in the UK dislike Corbyn anyway on account of his support for Palestine” one began. “The mainstream media has been a part of the ongoing smear campaign against socialism, making Corbyn seem anti-Jewish, when really he’s just critical of Israel.”

“Most of the media is ruled by Jewish people anyway, so of course antisemitism was top of the agenda,” another friend interrupted. “Plus, British Jews are pretty well-off anyway, so it makes sense that they would be anti-socialist.”

From there, I couldn’t stop it. Everything I’d believed in had unravelled in seconds in front of my own eyes. There was no way I could deny or rationalise the existence of antisemitism in the Left anymore; it was right here in front of me.

From there, it was impossible not to see forms of antisemitism throughout Labour – ranging from the conflation of British Jews with the Israeli government, all the way through to Holocaust denial. It was like the end of a club night: the music stops, the lights come on and you see the room and the people in it clearly for the first time. Once I’d seen it, and really looked at it, I couldn’t believe how long I’d been part of a force that denied it was there.  

During that time, Jeremy Corbyn and his allies could do no wrong in my eyes, and the fact that I’d surrounded myself with people who agreed with me had made it even harder to break away from this. I had concocted an environment for myself in which I could fight for the things I cared about most, my views were supported and shared, and anyone or anything that stood in the way of that would be dismissed without consideration.

Surely we must encourage debate, change, and constructive criticism if we are to grow and, crucially, come together to fight oppressive ideologies and policies? 

There is a major problem with censorship – or rather ‘cancelling’ – in the Left at the moment. Even more so than in Right-Wing politics, Labour Party members and MPs are expected to tow a specific line which conforms to a certain way of thinking and which, crucially, supports the leader. Just last month, for example, Labour deputy candidate Dawn Butler tweeted that “any MP who publicly undermines the leader should be suspended” – a concept which is reminiscent of a dictatorship. Asking questions, raising concerns, expressing opinions… these are all normal human reactions to information. Why then is it that anyone critical of anything put out by the inner circle of Labour is immediately cast out? Surely we must encourage debate, change, and constructive criticism if we are to grow and, crucially, come together to fight oppressive ideologies and policies.  

Dawn Butler, MP for Brent and candidate for Deputy Leader bid in Labour leadership elections
[Image: Twitter]

Rather than towing a line, and agreeing with something because it’s the Left argument, or what the Party tells us is right to believe, we must form opinions on an issue-by-issue basis. We can’t cancel people just because they disagree with us. And we can’t ignore plain facts. Once we start to do this, once someone becomes untouchable, and once all criticisms are censored, we have landed ourselves in cult territory.

And realising that I had been part of this mentality for the past five years has been a bit like realising I’ve spent my early 20’s in a cult.   

It was like the end of a club night: the music stops, the lights come on and you see the room and the people in it clearly for the first time.

And now when I watch from outside, as people passionately defend their hero and the Party, with so much genuine faith that they ignore real, tangible evidence without blinking, most of me is relieved that I’m no longer part of it. I’m glad that I know (or accept) more than I did then, and that I am now in a place where I can consider things on an issue-by-issue basis, and form opinions based on evidence in front of me. But a small part of me is envious. A small part of me misses that feeling. That feeling of community made me feel invincible; I had my tribe, and I had a leader I would follow to the ends of the Earth. And while this was ultimately unsustainable, not to mention unhealthy, it was strangely nice at the time.  

Header image: Telegraph

Written by
Luna Williams