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Mitch Benn: How to tell if you are winning an argument

I’ve just noticed; it’s exactly a year since my first column saw print in this esteemed organ. And what a year it’s been. We are indeed living in the ‘interesting times’ the Chinese used to curse each other with, are we not?

One of the best AND worst things about this gig is the fact that my mentors at New European Towers have given me more or less carte blanche to write about whatever takes my fancy (or, more usually, gets my goat) on any given week.

It’s good because being at liberty to hold forth on whatever topic most weighs upon me has proven to be an extremely helpful ‘release valve’, without which I fear I might have done myself (or someone else) a mischief at some point during these last 12 months.

It’s a problem though in that there’s always a risk I’ll end up going on about the same topic as all the other contributors to the paper, and while I like to think I can put a bit of an original spin on most topics, I suspect I feel much the same about most of the big stories as both you the readers and my fellow columnists. We don’t want either to all remorselessly pile on to the same person, or to become too much of a self-reinforcing echo chamber. There are far too many of those already.

Something which I’ve no doubt will have come up elsewhere in this edition is the Labour Party Conference’s sidelining of the whole Brexit issue, with no major debate being scheduled nor new resolution to be voted upon.

When I asked a party stalwart on Twitter what possible rationale there could be for this, I was told ‘We voted on it last year and that resolution still stands’. Because of course, the situation with regard to Brexit is absolutely identical to the way it was last September. Literally no new information or other relevant factors have emerged in the last year, such as might require, maybe, talking about it again. Another delegate was quoted on Twitter explaining that there would be no new Brexit debate ‘because we might not agree with each other’. One tries, one really tries, not to perceive Stalinist tendencies in New Old Labour but the fact that debates in which there might be DISAGREEMENT are now deemed inappropriate is both telling and disturbing.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Twittersphere, the somewhat hard to make out hashtag #takeaknee (I know, to British eyes it looks like it should be pronounced “Tacky ‘Ackney”) is trending worldwide, especially in the USA.

If you’re unaware of the background to this, it stems from an American football star called Colin Kaepernick’s decision to drop to one knee during pre-match renditions of The Star Spangled Banner (rather than standing to attention) by way of protesting the ongoing epidemic of (principally young male) black Americans being shot dead by police with, by and large, complete judicial impunity.

This has caused condemnation and approval in more or less equal measure, with both black and white athletes and entertainers following Kaepernick’s example, while conservative politicians and pundits seethe and fulminate about ‘insulting the flag’.

Matters came to a head on a few fronts this last week; the great Stevie Wonder emulated Kaepernick’s kneeling protest at a show in New York, prompting the Republican congressman-turned-conservative talk radio host Joe Walsh (not the Eagles guitarist) to denounce him as ‘an ungrateful black multi-millionaire’.

It’s always very telling when white commentators call black celebrities ‘ungrateful’ when they step out of line; it implies that everything they have is something they’ve graciously been granted by white society, rather than anything they’ve worked for and achieved themselves.

Stevie Wonder has triumphed over disability and is perhaps the single most naturally gifted composer the human race has produced since Mozart. Joe Walsh isn’t even the most talented Joe Walsh.

Inevitably, the Great Orange Hope himself had to weigh in on the matter; addressing a rally in Alabama, Donald Trump said of Kaepernick and his fellow kneelers ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now! He’s fired!’, perhaps forgetting he’s not the host of his game show any more (and maybe longing to be again).

In fact, Kaepernick has found himself unemployed this season, in a sport which has happily readmitted players after drug violations and domestic violence convictions.

While the principal effect of Trump’s outburst has been to re-energise the kneeling protests, the usual right-wing suspects have endorsed his comments, opining that acts of protest carried out during the national anthem are by definition disloyal and ‘Un-American’.

Invoking the Founding Fathers is very much the last refuge of the American scoundrel, but I suspect the architects of the US Constitution would have been alarmed by the concept that dissent and protest are in themselves treasonous.

The nation was itself created as an act of dissent and protest, and the freedom to continue protesting and dissenting was enshrined in the very first amendment to that document.

A point I keep returning to in these columns is this: if someone can address your point or answer your question, they will. If they do ANYTHING else, be it attempt to stop you asking the question, call you a bad person for asking it or dismiss your question as stupid or irrelevant, it’s because they CAN’T answer, or at least they know there’s no way of answering it without exposing their own perfidy or foolishness.

Attempting to prevent or stifle discussion and debate, whether to reinforce institutional racism or just to create a calculatedly false image of party unity and avoid having to admit that your leadership is at odds with the membership on the biggest issue of the day… it’s the same cheap trick. We must resist and expose it whenever we see it.

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