« | Home | »

Apology

We have had a number of complaints about a post on the LRB blog on 6 July on the grounds that it was racist. The LRB does not condone racism, nor does the author of the post, R.W. Johnson. We recognise that the post was susceptible of that interpretation and that it was therefore an error of judgment on our part to publish it. We’re sorry. We have since taken the post down.

Comments on “Apology”

  1. cpw says:

    To the Editor,

    With its stress on its own ‘depth and scholarship and good writing’ and its ‘unmatched international reputation’, the LRB has a responsibility to maintain high standards if it is to retain its enviable position of having the ‘largest circulation of any literary magazine in Europe’.

    We find it baffling therefore that you continue to publish work by RW Johnson that, in our opinion, is often stacked with the superficial and the racist. In a particularly egregious recent post on the LRB blog, ‘After the World Cup’, 6 July 2010, Johnson, astonishingly, made a comparison between African migrants and invading baboons. He followed this with another between ‘local black shopkeepers’ and rottweilers. He concluded with what he presumably thinks is a joke about throwing bananas to the baboons.

    In the particular arena of football, some fans do not need to be encouraged to produce racist abuse. Across Europe for many years, black players have been spat at, subjected to racist chants often including references to monkeys or apes, and have been the focus of monkey chanting noises during matches. Neo-Nazi groups have also been known to use football matches as target areas for recruiting new members and promoting their racist practice. (How ironic that when Johnson does decide to write about ‘Football and Fascism’, 11 July 2010, he produces a piece about Italy that reveals the dearth of his knowledge.)

    While South Africa has made great strides, overturning the racist politics of the National Party, it still has a long way to go in combating the racism that thrives among certain communities and individuals. Elsewhere, in the UK for example, this is no time for complacency about attitudes to race. Although British National Party leader, Nick Griffin, may have been humiliated at the recent General Elections, his party now has two MEPs. Let’s not forget that young black men in this country are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than young white men, and they comprise a disproportionate number of the prison population.

    Whilst it might be unfair to pick on a man for his inability to be funny, we believe that it would be wholly wrong to stay silent when he resorts to peddling highly offensive, age-old racist stereotypes that the LRB editorial team deems fit to publish. (Indeed, we note from the comments that at some point the post was edited – and yet, in our opinion, it remained an appalling and racist piece of writing.)

    We were relieved on Monday 19 July when, finally, the post was taken down. However, we remain appalled that it was published in the first place and appalled that it remained up for 13 days. Several of the comments beneath the post pointed out some time ago that the piece was clearly racist and yet the LRB still chose to leave it online. It is not good enough to remove the post – apart from its URL which, we note, ends ‘coming-of-the-baboons’ – and expect this nasty episode to be forgotten. We would like to know why it was published in the first place and we would like to read a public apology.

    It is of deep concern to all of us that the LRB could be so impressed by RW Johnson that his racist and reactionary opinion continues to be published in the magazine and now, in the blog too. And there we all were thinking the LRB was progressive.

    Yours sincerely,

    Diran Adebayo, writer & academic, Lancaster University
    Patience Agbabi, poet
    Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, journalist & writer
    Candace Allen, writer, journalist & broadcaster
    Cristel Amiss, coordinator, Black Women’s Rape Action Project
    Baffour Ankomah, editor, New African
    Nana Ayebia Clarke, publisher, Ayebia
    Pete Ayrton, publisher, Serpent’s Tail
    Sharmilla Beezmohun, deputy editor, Wasafiri
    Benedict Birnberg
    Professor Elleke Boehmer, University of Oxford
    Professor Patrick Bond, University of Kwazulu-Natal
    Victoria Brittain, writer & journalist
    Dr Margaret Busby OBE, publisher & writer
    Teju Cole, writer
    Eleanor Crook, sculptor & academic, University of the Arts
    Fred D’Aguiar, writer
    Dr David Dibosa, academic
    Kodwo Eshun, The Otolith Group
    Gareth Evans, writer, editor, curator
    Katy Evans-Bush, poet
    Bernardine Evaristo MBE, writer
    Nuruddin Farah, writer
    Professor Maureen Freely, writer & academic, University of Warwick
    Kadija George, publisher, Sable LitMag
    Professor Paul Gilroy, London School of Economics
    Professor Peter Hallward, Kingston University London
    M John Harrison, writer
    Stewart Home, writer
    Michael Horovitz OBE, poet, director New Departures/Poetry Olympics
    Professor Aamer Hussein, writer & academic, University of Southampton
    Professor John Hutnyk, Goldsmiths
    Dr Sean Jacobs, The New School
    Selma James, coordinator, Global Women’s Strike
    Gus John, associate professor, Institute of Education, University of London
    Anthony Joseph, poet & novelist
    Kwame Kwei-Armah, playwright & broadcaster
    Candida Lacey, publisher, Myriad Editions
    Alexis Lykiard, writer
    Firoze Manji, editor in chief, Pambazuka News
    Shula Marks, emeritus professor, School of Oriental & African Studies
    Professor Achille Mbembe, University of the Witwatersrand & Duke University
    Dr China Miéville, writer & academic,
    Professor David Morley, University of Warwick
    Professor Susheila Nasta, editor, Wasafiri
    Courttia Newland, writer
    Dr Alastair Niven OBE, principal, Cumberland Lodge
    Dr Zoe Norridge, University of Oxford
    Dr Deirdre Osborne, Goldsmiths
    Lara Pawson, journalist & writer
    Pascale Petit, poet
    Caryl Phillips, writer
    Dr Nina Power, Roehampton University
    Jeremy Poynting, managing editor, Peepal Tree Press
    Gary Pulsifer, publisher, Arcadia Books
    Michael Rosen, poet
    Anjalika Sagar, The Otolith Group
    Richard Seymour, writer & activist
    Dr George Shire, reviews editor, Soundings
    Professor David Simon, Royal Holloway
    Lemn Sissay MBE, writer
    Keith Somerville, Brunel University
    Colin Stoneman, editorial coordinator, Journal of Southern African Studies
    George Szirtes, poet & translator
    Dr Alberto Toscano, Goldsmiths
    Professor Megan Vaughan, University of Cambridge
    Patrick Vernon, chief executive, The Afiya Trust
    Professor Dennis Walder, Open University
    Verna Wilkins, writer & publisher, Tamarind Books
    Dr Patrick Wilmot, writer & journalist
    Adele Winston
    Professor Brian Winston, University of Lincoln
    Dr Leo Zeilig, University of the Witwatersrand

    PLEASE NOTE: Institutions are named for identification purposes only

    • Imperialist says:

      The response to RW Johnson’s blog post of 6 July has confirmed the need to use language precisely. Here goes: this letter is bullshit.

      I disagree with Johnson’s politics and continue to question the editorial decision to publish his work with no contesting voice. But nothing Johnson has written can coherently be interpreted as racist.

      The juxtaposition of baboons and migrant workers was clumsy and very weird, but the point of the post – that the terrorisation of African migrants is at odds with the (middle-class) sentiment of World Cup unity – is a valid and important one.
      Considering the letter is about which opinions and modes of expression are and are not acceptable it is curiously hysterical and self-righteous.

      The letter states that “several of the comments beneath the post pointed out some time ago that the piece was clearly racist and yet the LRB still chose to leave it online.”
      The piece is, clearly, not ‘clearly racist’. If it is racist, it is so according an ambiguous process of association. But while the choice of imagery is unfortunate, it is not intentionally racist.

      It’s surprising that the LRB did not edit the post more thoroughly prior to publication, but the fact that some readers chose to interpret the piece as racist is not sufficient reason to delete it.

      • A.J.P. Crown says:

        I agree with Imperialist.

        Two other points:

        Firstly, it’s really very sick of the people who signed that letter to accuse R.W. Johnson — someone who did more than they ever did to end apartheid in South Africa — of being a racist, of all things.

        Secondly, baboons are live animals, they aren’t just some racist metaphor. They live all over southern Africa. It’s racist to talk about both baboons and migrant workers in the same sentence if you live in Harrogate, where baboons don’t exist. R.W. Johnson lives in South Africa.

      • Daniel Waweru says:

        @Imperialist,

        (1) It wasn’t (just) a juxtaposition; there was an explicit comparison in the bit, following the loving description of baboons, that begins ‘they too’.

        (2) Your defence of the piece appears to rest on just two pieces of evidence: that of mere juxtaposition, as above; and the claim that the post was not intentionally racist. For reasons already supplied, the first bit of evidence you provide is misleading. As for the second, it would be pleasant if you were to share the method which gives you knowledge of others’ intentions. And second, intention matters for deciding whether he’s responsible, not for deciding whether the piece communicates racist sentiment.

        An example of what I mean is the controversy kicked off by David Brown’s Ariel Sharon cartoon. It showed Sharon as a hook-nosed monster, eating Palestinian babies. Brown said he had no anti-Semitic intention in drawing the cartoon. Given the history of the portrayal of Jews, that’s difficult to believe, but let’s suppose it’s true. Would it follow that the cartoon wasn’t anti-Semitic? Since the images he invoked have a meaning prior to, and independent of his intentions, that’s a no. Intent speaks only to his responsibility for using them.

        • Imperialist says:

          I am not suggesting that comparing Africans to baboons and dogs is not offensive. But I do question whether it is legitimate to call the post a “racist piece of writing”.

          I have no special insight into people’s intentions. But the complaint is at least partly, by implication, about Johnson’s supposedly racist intent.
          The letter accuses Johnson of “peddling highly offensive, age-old racist stereotypes”. This is an argument about interpretation, and it’s difficult not to read that statement as a charge of intentional racism. The general tone of the letter supports that reading.

          That is a very serious accusation, particularly when it comes from so many eminent academics. It’s not a fair one.

          (Incidentally, the baboon v rottweiler analogy, if we are to assume an explicit analogy, indicates territorial and social, not racial, distinctions. That reading doesn’t make the imagery acceptable, and it is still open to a racist interpretation, but it indicates a further layer of complexity.)

    • rwhalley says:

      I couldn’t make up my mind whether the now-infamous blog post was racist or not, so I asked my girl friend, who’s black, what she thought. Her take was, if RW Johnson really is “someone who did more than they ever did to end apartheid in South Africa” then he should really have known better. Fair enough.

      However, I’m still not sure if he (and the LRB) deserved to be served with this appallingly sanctimonious and bullying letter. I couldn’t have done a better job of writing a parody of stuck-up, witless, bourgeois-lefty, hand-wringing cant if I’d tried.

      I was pretty interested in the Fascism & Football piece. Can’t say whether it indicated a “dearth of knowledge” as I know next to nothing about football. I understand several Lazio supporters were rather pissed-off. Can anyone who knows (and is less invested in the good name of Lazio) enlighten me as to it’s accuracy?

      • Abraham Esau says:

        rwhalley: Ah, the “my girlfriend is black” argument.

        Oh, and your supposed query about the “Football is Fascism” piece: there is enough to enlighten you in the comments to that post and still you want to know about “its accuracy”

        Serious.

        • rwhalley says:

          I wasn’t trying to make an argument. I thought it was pretty clear I was just adding someone’s opinion to the mix. Ah…, but if you’re really trying hard to look for something…you might really think you’ve found it. I know sometimes a multiplicity of voices, shades of gray and questions of context can make annoyingly complex issues even more so.

          I also thought it was pretty clear that I had no opinion as to the content of the F & F post. Just looking for unbiased information. Thanks Thomas, the link was very informative.

  2. I know that quite a lot of people, like Imperialist, consider that Johnson’s post was not explicitly racist. I am mystified: it makes an explicit comparison between black people and baboons. Even if the link had not been explicitly made, the comparison would have been obvious, as explained clearly in Gary Younge’s report in The Guardian.

    Still, as well as showing that the standards of writing and editing at the LRB are far lower than the fawning celebrations of its 30th anniversary last year elsewhere in the press claimed, these incompatible readings show how wobbly language is. That’s both intriguing and alarming.

  3. ddt says:

    If the voting is on, and it apparently is, I disagree with those who are seeing the racist intentions in this matter. The comparison was clumsy and careless but the main point was the plight of the African migrants and now we have erased that too. Another case of babies & water?

  4. Abraham Esau says:

    You have to love the internets.

    Normally the LRB would only publish the “letters” of Imperialism, AJB Crown and ddt.

    Oh and that fiction about RW Johnson as “… someone who did more than they ever did to end apartheid in South Africa” (by AJB Crown) was probably written by Johnson himself, a claim he repeats so many times that he (Johnson) believes it himself and which Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, that other great freedom fighter, can confirm.

    Imperialist and AJB Crown should also ask Johnson why he was ask to step down from his post as director of the Helen Suzman Foundation.

    Cheers from Calvinia.

    • A.J.P. Crown says:

      You say the LRB has a biased letters’ column and then go on to write one insinuation after another. Even if Johnson had been “asked to step down”, as you put it (that’s completely untrue, from what I’ve read), are you or aren’t you accusing the Foundation’s first Director of being a racist?

      I’m not Johnson, and I didn’t agree with much of his coverage of the World Cup in South Africa (particularly his characterisation of Maradonna as a fat, foul-mouthed, former drug abuser). I doubt that I share many of his opinions, but I’m buggered if I’ll be told who I’m allowed to read in the LRB by the prigs who signed that letter. It’s a particularly revolting idea of theirs that to mention baboons in the same sentence as human Africans is a racist put-down, but just because they don’t agree with me about animal rights doesn’t mean I expect them to be fired from their jobs.

      • Abraham Esau says:

        I told Maradona that you and RW Johnson–who knows nothing about football if his “World Cup blog” is anything to go by–says he (Maradona) is fat. He said to say that in Fuerte Apache.

        • A.J.P. Crown says:

          You know the names of so many foreign places, “Abe”. You must be a travel agent. RW Johnson’s father played football for Liverpool; for some other club he scored 120 goals in one season or something like that. RW Johnson himself had probably played more about football when he was ten-years old than you’ll ever watch. You would know that, if you’d bothered to read the blog pieces you’re so critical of. But again, all by innuendo, we’re supposed to believe it’s you who knows the real story.

      • Daniel Waweru says:

        @AJP Crown

        You say the LRB has a biased letters’ column and then go on to write one insinuation after another. Even if Johnson had been “asked to step down”, as you put it (that’s completely untrue, from what I’ve read), are you or aren’t you accusing the Foundation’s first Director of being a racist?

        The claim, in your other comment, was that his past service against apartheid meant that he couldn’t be a racist. His history is supposed to supply an alibi for his present misbehaviour — that’s why it’s relevant. That past includes a disagreement with the Helen Suzman foundation, following an article in which he seemed to approvingly express crude racial stereotypes. Helen Suzman wrote a piece rejecting the contents of the piece — some of which she described as racial slurs — and dissociating her foundation from it.

        As for associating blacks with baboons — and, indeed, monkeys — there’s a description of some useful recent psychological evidence here. (You’ll find a free online copy of the full paper here.)

        • A.J.P. Crown says:

          Thanks for the links. I’m well aware of the history of associating Africans with baboons, Jews with rats, etc. I don’t believe RW Johnson intended to make a racial slur of that kind — or of any kind (though it would certainly help if we could have access to the blog article again so we could reread it) — my objection is to the 75 letter-writers who write:

          Johnson, astonishingly, made a comparison between African migrants and invading baboons. He followed this with another between ‘local black shopkeepers’ and rottweilers.

          Well, I’m pretty sure he didn’t do that; in which case, they’re talking about animals in just the same way that the Nazis did, namely as metaphors for disease and death. In fact, baboons are just animals that live in Africa. I don’t hate African humans, rotweilers or baboons and I would much prefer that they stopped spreading this stereotype. It’s as bad for the animals as it is for the humans.

          Johnson’s rows with Helen Suzman and with the subsequent director of the Foundation were both well after the end of apartheid in South Africa, they were in 2000-and-something, so they actually aren’t relevant to his behavior during that time. And, obviously, he wouldn’t have been made Director if he had a history of racism.

  5. outofdate says:

    Where do these bien pensants suddenly come from? Did, say, Verna Wilkins, writer ampersand publisher, so avidly follow RW Johnson’s entries about some football event or other on a widely unread blog that it immediately stuck in her craw, despite the fact that she apparently objects to Johnson’s very existence and this was no. 5,326 in an interminable series? Or was it the fiery force of self-righteousness that compelled her and her fellow signatories to comb through it two weeks after the event?

    Readers of course have every right to be appalled, but they have no right to walk through this vale of tears unappalled. Maybe that’s what the editors should have pointed out.

  6. Gregory Dawes says:

    I am sorry to see that the LRB has felt compelled to remove the posting of a blog by R. W. Johnson, reporting from the World Cup in South Africa. I am, as a result of this action, unable to read the original blog in its entirety. But I gather that many readers believed it to have made racist suggestions by juxtaposing a paragraph regarding baboons with another discussing violence in the squatter camps. If this was the intention of its author, it was entirely regrettable, and if it were not, then the fact that it could be read in this way was an unfortunate oversight.

    What concerns me, however, is the reaction of so many readers. They have not merely expressed strong disapproval of this article, but have also demanded its removal from the LRB website. There are, surely, occasions when freedom of expression is properly limited, such as when it could be understood as incitement to violence. As John Stuart Mill wrote, “an opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor … ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer.” But in normal circumstances, one would expect those who think of themselves as liberals to value freedom of expression, even when they feel compelled to condemn the views that are expressed.

    Until 1966, the Roman Catholic Church maintained an index librorum prohibitorum, to protect the faithful from opinions that its leaders considered harmful. Those who called for the removal of Johnson’s blog would presumably condemn this practice. But one wonders whether they are entitled to do so, when they themselves are so quick to demand the censorship of views of which they disapprove.

  7. Niall Anderson says:

    There are two things going on here, the first of which is Johnson’s frankly extraordinary use of language in the original piece. Whatever about shopkeepers being compared to rottweilers (not a common racist trope, to my knowledge), I find it difficult to believe he could have made the comparison between black migrants and baboons and not have known what he was saying, or exposing himself to.

    But the second thing that’s going on is the suggestion that this lapse, error or provocation has somehow exposed Johnson’s wider agenda: a racist and purposefully alarmist take on South Africa since the end of Apartheid. I’m not qualified enough to dispute much of Johnson’s account of the political realities in SA, but to dismiss the totality of what he says on the basis of two paragraphs seems to me an intellectual folly – if not openly vindictive. It really does seem key to me for his critics to deal with his allegation that African migrants are being murdered, or are in danger of being murdered, in the townships. The acknowledgement that South Africa has “a long way to go in combating the racism that thrives among certain communities and individuals” isn’t to my mind acknowledgement enough.

  8. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I do think the LRB ought to make the piece available, so that this argument can be based on what Johnson actually wrote and not on heresay.

  9. outofdate says:

    I’ve been laughing to myself all day at the thought of this quiet backwater of the Interweb suddenly being invaded by the Outrage Army, flashes of sunlight reflecting off their ampersands, to the bafflement of the Natives who’d been peacefully noodling about here, with only Thomas Jones and user:pinhut now and then bristling at something.

    ‘nother Paradise lost; oh well…

  10. Robin Durie says:

    I think the statement by the Editors – “that the post was susceptible of that interpretation and that it was therefore an error of judgment on our part to publish it” – is accurate on both counts. The original post _was_ susceptible of being interpreted as racist; & it _was_ an error of judgment for the LRB on-line editors/moderators to have allowed the post to be published online in this form.

    Therefore, the signatories to the letter of complain have a point.

    These same signatories, however, undermine their point, when they castigate the LRB for publishing material by Johnson because it is “in our opinion, often stacked with the superficial”; & that “It is of deep concern to all of us that the LRB could be so impressed by RW Johnson that his racist and reactionary opinion continues to be published.”

    Whether the signatories are right that Johnson’s work is “superficial”, what grounds do they think this offers them to criticise the LRB for publishing his work? What grounds does their opinion that Johnson is a “reactionary” offer them for justifying their “concern” that the LRB should continue to publish his work?

    To muddy the correct case that the signatories make regarding the susceptibility to racist interpretation of Johnson’s piece with calls for the LRB not to publish Johnson’s work on the basis that it does not satisfy their critical opinions, only serves to undermine the legitimacy of their basic complaint.

  11. imeni says:

    sad to see the issue sink into a frivolous argument about RJW’s “character” (is he a racist? is he a racist to the core? what is he like? did he live in SAfrica? etc) — rather than confronting what RJW actually wrote here.

    First, RJW’s personality and character are absolutely irrelevant. As far as this LRB issue is concerned, I don’t care what he eats for breakfast or where he worked twenty years ago or what he may be like today. If you want to talk about that, go somewhere else. This is about what he wrote.

    Second, RJW’s “baboons” article had clearly identifiable racist language. LRB has now withdrawn the article, but you can read it elsewhere on the internet and see the racist juxtaposition of “baboons and blacks” for yourself. I’m glad the LRB has apologised and I only wish RJW would do the same for his offensive and absolutely unacceptable writing.

    And btw, before any more inane defenses of RJW’s person get posted here, this might help:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Ti-gkJiXc

  12. Locus says:

    Are the signatories to the letter really suggesting that Johnson is saying “African migrants are very like baboons”?

    His comparison seems to be attempting something else, something like “there are two observable situations in which violence is occurring between an earlier population group and a group of recent arrivals, a group driven to move because of material deprivation.”

    You could argue, in some kind of humanist spirit, that it’s reductive or crass to compare the dynamics of human populations to those of animal populations, but it is by no means necessarily racist.

  13. Glen Newey says:

    Is nothing sacred? The time was when political bloggers, like politicians, could sound off with impunity. But no more. In June Shirley Brown, a LibDem black councillor from Bristol, was charged with racially-aggravated harassment for calling an Indian rival politician a “coconut”, after she, a Tory of Indian origin, had proposed cutting £750,000 of public money for education about the city’s slave-trade heritage; the incident predates their parties’ recent betrothal at national level. The Tories’ politically-aggravated harassment of Ms Brown led to her conviction by Bristol magistrates and a withdrawal of the insult.

    Presumably Ms Brown would sympathise with R.W. Johnson’s predicament. I don’t know Mr Johnson, and I haven’t been commissioned by the Review editors to write this piece. The old line, misattributed to Voltaire, about defending to the death others’ right to say things one disagrees with, seems to have been set aside in favour of defending the right to suppress speech one doesn’t like. As Gregory Dawes points out above, the seventy-odd signatories of the protest letter didn’t just assert their right to object to the content of the blog: they called for it to be taken down, as it now has been.

    It is fair to say that the Review, whose staff members seem to have been divided about the merits of the blog, has greeted the episode with an undeniably floating signifier. Rather than publishing the protest missive (a bit pompous, in the manner of round-robin letters), thereby showing its commitment to free speech, and letting the blog stand, the Review refused to publish the letter and then pulled the blog, thus compounding one piece of suppression with another. Judge Brandeis’s dictum – that the remedy for false speech is more speech – needs qualification, but it serves pretty well here.

    In their letter, after all, the signatories provide enough rope to hang themselves. It’s not just that they move smoothly, in the manner of censors down the ages, from expressing a personal dislike of some speech, or raising scares about its dangers, to calling for it to be banned. Nor is it that there is no right not to take offence – that might be so, even though there was a duty not to give it. It is that the objectors rely on an interpretation of what Mr Johnson said. Some fans of the ban have said that the juxtaposition is so obvious that an eight-year-old could join up the dots. However obvious it may seem, it doesn’t prove racist intent on R.W. Johnson’s part.

    I was surprised when I read the 6th July blog, just because it lent itself so obviously to this reading. Precisely for that reason, I thought it was unlikely that that was Mr Johnson’s intention. Maybe that was mistaken. But this just goes to show that, as writers and literary critics have occasionally noticed, authorial intention is an elusive beast. Some may say that remarks like these should be treated on a strict liability basis: since they do, in fact, cause offence, the question of their utterer’s intentions is irrelevant. That is not inconsistent in itself. It is inconsistent only with free speech. It makes the (real or purported) causing of offence a sufficient ground for censorship.

    Needless to say, Johnson’s offending remarks can still easily be tracked down via a Google search, a good illustration of Milton’s remark that to censor thoughts is like shutting the park gate to keep the crows out. Free speech is not in fact indivisible (for some reasons why not, see http://ojs.ubvu.vu.nl/alf/article/viewArticle/109/198). But attempts to stifle it always involve the use of power. Censorship means denying others a voice, or denying certain thoughts or expressions entry to the public sphere. As with any exercise of power, it raises the question of authority: by what warrant does this lot of people try to impose this denial on speakers and their audience? That goes as much for Tories trying to shut Ms Brown up as it does for the posse of signatories on Mr Johnson’s case.

    The obvious point to draw from that is that free speech cannot stand with a veto on it by the soi-disant offended or self-appointed third-party tribunes. Such a veto breaches not just freedom, but political equality. Those seeking it want a preservation order on their own sacred cows while those of others – such as profanity, or blasphemy – remain fair game. After ages in which purveyors of the written word have suffered persecution at the hands of the Vatican’s Index, the Lord Chamberlain, the Gestapo, NKVD – to say nothing of the manifold varieties of censorship still in force – it’s sad to see those who enjoy the freedom their forebears lacked calling to put the taire back into Voltaire.

  14. Alphonse says:

    If the aim is to combat racism, the removal of the controversial piece is unhelpful. Far better to restore it, and the comments objecting to it, including the celebrity intellectuals’ letter, so that readers can learn from the dispute and the offered explications of the text. The LRB has numerous contributors who make racist remarks and engage in racist practises, and the publication is hardly destitute of racist innuendo and occasional overt racist disinformation. The RWJ piece therefore poses no danger of soiling an otherwise pristine racism-free site. Debates like this are always useful when had in the open and without censorship. The LRB has chosen the worst possible course by suppressing the article and the reader commentary it incited. The result of the LRB’s chosen response is already too clear – trivialisation, personalisation, confusion regarding what is at stake, and failure to engage with the by no means unusual discursive act itself. This is a piece seemingly concerned for the fate of vulnerable people the situation of whom it however presents in a stock narrative, and a familiar vocabulary of images, promoting a false and shallow understanding which happens to be of a sort frequently encouraged by mainstream media about the non-white populations of countries which have liberated themselves from white imperial domination. The letter from the 73 intellectuals does not offer a reading of the whole text and a determination of its meaning, but rather focusses on proving that a specific trope is present and objectionable as a basis for the demand that the author be dismissed from employment. The author’s employment is evidently of concern to those 73 readers, or at least those involved in drafting the letter, but as a punitive measure taken against an individual producer of racist discourse can be of no interest to the LRB readership in general most of whom must also produce racist discourse or there would be none from which RWJ could draw. What _is_ certainly of interest to that readership is the way in which the respectable mass media to which the LRB belongs frame the reportage they offer to perpetuate dominant ideology. The demands of this processing of facts into familiar form with implicit familiar explanations drove this particular piece into a very overt deployment of imagery that is typically evoked only indirectly, and the resulting piece and the arguments it sparked could be of considerable heuristic value. Put it all back up and you’ll surely see that your readers are eager to discuss the piece and explore the issue it raises beyond the trivial scope to which the LRB’s decision to suppress has reduced it.

  15. Alphonse says:

    Locus asks: Are the signatories to the letter really suggesting that Johnson is saying “African migrants are very like baboons”?

    Locus, what the signatories of the letter clearly suggest is not that Johnson is “saying” this or that. They point out the rhetorical deployment of a sensational image, which finds a place in a long established tradition, and which infuses the idea the reader is given of the migrants who are the referents of the article with certain affective, emotional content and a whole package of ideology, a thick clump of mythology. The migrants will be pictured a certain way – “recognised” as figures seen before innumerable times – by the reader who is first “shown” the baboons, anthropomorphised, with their “dirty teeth”, their “babies”, and the sociopathic cool with which, like folkloric gang members, they tear a fellow creature “limb from limb” evidently to teach anthropomorphised “local” dogs the lesson not to fk with them.

  16. Chib51 says:

    No sane person could consider the LRB racist. I doubt the authors of this silly letter do, although they say they were appalled, and that later they remained appalled, which is appalling. If RW Johnson is a racist (and I don’t think he is) then let him prove it in his writing. We can then debate it and prove him to be a fool – a rather more productive course of action than merely being appalled. I’m very sad that the LRB has apologised to these people, but unfortunately the clamour would have become unbearable, so it was probably wise to do so. Do they think that those who read the article will put it aside and think “Ah, black people, they are baboons, I hadn’t realised; I think I will go to the street and become a racist”? Thanks to these ‘distinguished authors and academics’ (Guardian, July 21st) the thought will now enter the minds of many more people for the very first time. However, rather than turn them to racism I think the reaction may be “Ah, those distinguished writers and academics, they are fools, I hadn’t realised”.

    • Alphonse says:

      No sane person?

      Another of the LRB’s star contributors tells this story repeatedly in interviews, on the radio and in print:

      [openquote]To provoke people when I’m asked about racism, I like to do my line I love racism, I can’t imagine my life without racism, there there’s no progressive movement now without racism. I’m not crazy…Now comes the preacher part, the real….what do I mean by this is that there is something false about this respectful multiculturalist tolerance…my God, for me political correctness is still inverted racism…let’s cut the crap, let’s say we want to become friends, there has to be a politically incorrect exchange of obscenity. You know, some dirty joke or whatever, whose meaning is “cut the crap we are now real friends”. And I can tell you this from my wonderful experience here, you want a shocking story you will hear it. How did I become here a friend, a true friend, am not advising anybody to do it because it was a risky gesture, but it worked wonderfully with a -with a -with a black, African-American guy. No? How did I become? We were very friendly, already, but not really, but then I risk and told him, it’s a horrible thing I warn you, is it true that you blacks you know have a big penis, no? but that you can even move it so that if you have on your leg above your knee a fly you can Boff! smash it with your penis. The guy embraced me and told me dying of laughter “now you can call me a nigger.” Like when blacks tell you “you can call me a nigger” means they really accept you no? [endquote]

      http://www.radioopensource.org/slavoj-zizek-what-is-the-question/

      This person is not only a regular LRB contributor but publishes the _most absurd and offensive white supremacist revisionism of black history_ in this august publication:

      http://www.lrb.co.uk/2008/11/14/slavoj-zizek/use-your-illusions

      He also relishes the type of image that has occasioned the letter of protest:

      [openquote]
      SZ: The usual multiculturalist answer would have been yes the Marseillaise is French, we should all sing I don’t know some eh –

      CD: -the Internationale

      SZ: …some African song and so on or whatever. I would say unfortunately this is what white multiculturalist liberals like us to do. They don’t like the third world people sing their songs, they want respect the same way you go into a Thai restaurant, an Italian restaurant and so on and so on. Why the Marseillaise was revolutionary there, it didn’t mean, it meant something very precise, at least here we all agree, it didn’t mean “you see even we primitive half-ape blacks our grandparents were still jumping on trees like apes in Africa, but we can now even participate in your –“ — no. It meant we are more Frenchmen than you. [endquote]

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0tV8wHn4hQ

      Notice the cheering.

      Of course racist discourse can be shocking no matter how often one is exposed to it. But at least it must be conceded that there’s really no publication offering a more suitable home for RWJ’s baboon imagery than the London Review of Books

      • Chib51 says:

        That’s right: no sane person. The LRB gives a platform to writers: tell us what you think, let’s hear it. That is healthy. Should people keep their opinions to themselves in case others (no matter how foolish) are outraged and appalled? Forcing people to be quiet will not change their opinions, although it may well strengthen them. If the LRB gives a platform to a person who hates women does that make the LRB misogynist? Of course not. If we surrender to the constantly appalled and offended then we stifle debate. This episode recalls the mobs that attacked the houses of paediatricians a few years back. I’m sure they believed they were protecting children; that they were incontrovertibly in the right.

        But the above assumes that something of a racist nature has occurred. It hasn’t. This fuss is about the deliberate misinterpretation of language in order to feel morally superior, in order to be right – the relentless outrage of the mob. Does your repetition of the word nigger make you a racist? Shall I be appalled and complain about you, demand a retraction and an apology?

        I don’t find any of the Zizek comments you quote racist. He deliberately uses some racist words, but his tone is not prejudiced at all – the words are not the man. Perhaps his intention is to outrage, to shake people up a bit. I hope so. This episode is ridiculous – we are becoming a nation of idiots.

  17. rwhalley says:

    Well. I guess we won’t have to have our poor sensibilities offended for much longer. I read in The Guardian that:

    “the former director of literature at the Arts Council and current principal at Cumberland Lodge, Alastair Niven, said the LRB “should have the bigness to admit it’s made a mistake” and that if it fails to do so the Arts Council should rethink its funding”.

    So, hopefully, this fine collection of the great and the good will try to use their influence to can the whole thing. Maybe in addition to drafting letters they could provide us with a comprehensive list of what we can and cannot read…and provide a convenient box of matches to aid in the disposal of all the offending material.

    Incidentally, I must have read the original infamous post about half a dozen time now (I should have something better to do….but it’s been a slow week round these parts). As all the human protagonists seem to be black anyway (migrants, shopkeepers etc), who exactly is being compared to a baboon? Answer: no-one is being ‘compared’ to a baboon. How can a loose, distant analogy between the behavior of something (displaced by urbanization and development) and someone (also displaced, marginalized, up-against-it) have any pejorative intent. I come away from it feeling I have better idea of what awful things migrants in South Africa have to deal with, and some idea of the complexities of post-Apartheid society there.

    I’ll admit to knowing little about the current state of South Africa and in order to learn more I’ll make sure to read more than one book (by RW Johnson!) on the subject. I also have to admit I don’t recognize very many names on ‘the letter’. But I do own a copy of ‘Cranked Up Really High’ by Stewart Home. In my opinion, one of the best books ever written about Punk Rock. If I didn’t like it so much…I’d chuck it right in the bin!

    • ruthg says:

      I’d like to support the arguments of Locus and Rwhalley. It seems to me that what has been enraging a number of the signatories to the protest letter for many years is R.W.Johnson’s willingness to say negative things about South Africa. Many of them, like other LRB readers, are longstanding anti-apartheid activists unwilling to accept that after the struggle has been won, things can still go badly wrong. It’s important to remember that even political heroes can have feet of clay – the most tragic illustration of this was the failure to criticise the S.A. Government’s handling of the AIDS crisis until hundreds of thousands had been infected. It is not racist to criticise governments, it is not racist to report criminal actions, it is not racist to reflect on how life forms react when resources are scarce or inequitably distributed. It IS racist to think that certain groups of human beings should not in any circumstances be considered responsible for their own actions.

      • Martin says:

        Not quite true. If you live in SA and are white then if you criticise the government you are undoubtedly racist. If you are any race other than white – and especially if you are part of the government – you may pull the racism card. If, however, you are white, there is never a racism card in your pack. These are the rules of the game. Finally, if you are black and criticise the government you are a coconut.

  18. Paul Trewhela says:

    The London Review of Books has carried out a disgraceful act of censorship.

    Earlier this month it removed from its website the 24th in a series of blogspots written to provide background to the football World Cup in South Africa by a long-standing contributor, RW Johnson, Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and former lecturer at the Sorbonne, who lives in Cape Town.

    The LRB’s removal of Johnson’s text was accompanied by its publication of a letter from 73 signatories accusing Johnson of having a “racist and reactionary opinion”, 16 of the signatories being designated as professor. A small number of the signatories are South Africans. Initial authorship of this letter to the LRB appears to have originated there.

    The signatories’ letter gives no citation from Johnson’s offending text, bar three words. Their sole direct reference to his text is that he “makes a comparison between African migrants and invading baboons. He follows this with another between ‘local black shopkeepers’ and rottweilers. He concludes with what he presumably thinks is a joke about throwing bananas to the baboons”.

    The letter ends: “And there we all were thinking the LRB was progressive”.

    In truly progressive fashion, nobody may now read Johnson’s text on the LRB site so that they can make up their minds for themselves, while everyone may read the inflammatory accusation directed against him. The LRB has effectively endorsed this accusation by its act of censorship, together with a public apology for having posted Johnson’s text in the first place. The words “local black shopkeepers” are the sole glimpse from Johnson’s own writing available to the public.

    As far as matters racist and reactionary are concerned, I am not aware of the qualifications of the signatories in the struggle against apartheid rule in South Africa. Let me cite my own.

    In 1963 I worked in underground journalism for the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party and their military organisation, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), in association with Ruth First, who was later assassinated by the regime.

    After Ruth left for London following her release from detention, I edited Freedom Fighter, the underground newssheet of MK, in 1963/64 during the Rivonia Trial, when Nelson Mandela and his colleagues stood under threat of sentence of death. I was then a political prisoner between 1964 and 1967, as was my wife.

    Like First and many others, I could not be published or quoted in South Africa as a banned person, for more than 20 years. The exile journal of which I was editor between 1988 and 1994, Searchlight South Africa – published in London in collaboration with my co-editor, the late Dr Baruch Hirson, who served nine years in Pretoria prison – was banned too.

    The vendetta in the LRB against Johnson, whom I have known as a friend and colleague for 20 years, carries for me more than just a whiff of the apartheid state and its suppression of freedom of thought and expression.

    Any fair-minded reader of Johnson’s text – if one could only locate it – would find at its heart a passionate concern for the massive black diaspora in South Africa .

    Only one month before his offending blog, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that almost a quarter of a million people sought asylum in South Africa last year: nearly as many claims as were lodged in all 27 states of the European Union combined. Zimbabwe was reported to have provided the largest number of new refugees in the world, almost all seeking sanctuary in South Africa.

    Johnson’s censored text cited “rising tension in the squatter camps as the threat mounts of murderous violence against foreign migrants once the World Cup finishes on July 11. These migrants – Zimbabweans, Malawians, Congolese, Angolans, Somalis and others – are often refugees and they too are here essentially searching for food. The Somalis are the most enterprising and set up successful little shops in the townships and squatter camps, but several dozen Somali shopkeepers have already been murdered, clearly at the instigation of local black shopkeepers who don’t appreciate the competition.”

    That was the context to Johnson’s three words, “local black shopkeepers”, all else eclipsed in the signatories’ letter of denunciation of the “racist and reactionary”, who, as the Johannesburg Sunday Times reported (25 July), shares his house in Cape Town with two black Zimbabwean refugees.

    While this letter was being crafted, Jacob Dlamini – author of an acclaimed memoir, Native Nostalgia (Jacana, Johannesburg, 2009), in which he explores his growing up under apartheid in the township Katlehong – published a column in the Johannesburg Business Day (15 July) under the heading: “ANC fiddles while xenophobic sentiment swirls”.

    http://www.businessday.co.za/articles/Content.aspx?id=114775

    His column begins: “The first time I heard about plans to expel foreigners from SA after the World Cup was in December last year. I was conducting research on an African National Congress (ANC) branch in Katlehong at the time, and the person who alerted me to the plans was a branch member. He said residents, including ANC members, were talking openly about a plot to send foreigners packing. The talk was not limited to any section of the community. It involved both young and old, men and women.”

    A further article by Dlamini – published in Business Day a week later on 22 July, when the LRB had already done its work – was on the same subject, with the title: “ANC’s arrogance blinds it to danger of pogroms.”

    http://www.businessday.co.za/articles/Content.aspx?id=115522

    Dlamini was Ruth First Fellow in Journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2009, and is studying for a PhD in history at Yale. He must have been surprised to learn that literary pogromists had found their seat at the LRB.

    Johnson’s heresy, according to the witchfinders-general, was that he had prefaced his report on desperate people coming to South Africa in search of food with an introductory paragraph reflecting on baboons, in mid-winter search of food themselves, which had descended on the area of Cape Town where he and his wife live. Thus the word “too”, in the passage from his text quoted above: human beings, “too”, had entered South Africa “essentially searching for food”.

    And that was enough! Enough to trigger the assault on the reputation of a writer published by Viking/Penguin, Yale University Press, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, OUP and Macmillan, together with the craven capitulation of the LRB.

    Employing the literary techniques of “juxtaposition” and subliminal association, the heresy-hunters also neglected to inform their readers that in his final paragraph Johnson somehow also mentioned baboons in close proximity to…Mick Jagger.

    As Johnson wrote: “Cape Town is awash with visiting celebrities ranging from Angela Merkel to Mick Jagger and Paris Hilton…. It’s not clear who Jagger is supporting now: the local press is full of jokes about how he can’t get no satisfaction. He isn’t the only one. The baboons are getting hungry and I’ve decided to encourage them to the extent of giving them bananas”.

    By the perverted syllogism of the witch-hunters, Johnson should have been accused here of suggesting that Jagger was a baboon (or black).

    By these techniques of juxtaposition and association, one may as well argue:

    Adolph Hitler, the leader of the Nazis, wore a small moustache.

    Charlie Chaplin wore a small moustache.

    Therefore Chaplin was a Nazi.

    Shame on the authors of this letter, shame on its signatories, and shame on the LRB.

    Paul Trewhela

    Author, Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and SWAPO (Jacana, Johannesburg, 2009)

  19. Abraham Esau says:

    I was wondering when Trewhela would publish his obligatory praise poem to deflect any criticism of Johnson’s work.

    BTW, interesting write up of the whole thing here:

    http://bit.ly/bXqZhb

    • Chib51 says:

      Your link did lead to an interesting write up. Indeed, Johnson may be a terrible writer; he may be a fool; he may make mistakes. However, he isn’t guilty of the accusations made by the authors of that letter. The success in censoring Johnson’s blog (can the burning of his books be far behind?) has made it difficult to judge the legitimacy of their claims. Paul Trewhela seems to me to have brought some welcome sanity to proceedings with his account, which is hardly a ‘praise poem’. He is not trying ‘to deflect any criticism of Johnson’s work’; it is far too late for that, but merely adding much needed perspective.

  20. ruthg says:

    I’ve followed Abraham Esau’s link, which is to ‘Africa is a Country’, and am bemused. In the first place, Africa is a continent. I’ve only spent time in South Africa, Guinea, Senegal and Gambia, but they were very different from each other, just as you would expect if you were visiting France, Germany and Italy – you wouldn’t end up saying ‘Europe is a Country’. In the second place, the ‘core conspirators’ [their term] of the site are people who do not live in Africa. I think I’d pay more attention to their views if they did.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.


Advertisement Advertisement