Do I read things differently to other people?

A tale of two reports on antisemitism

Back in June, I wrote a piece for the Guardian, commenting on Shami Chakrabarti’s report on antisemitism in the Labour Party. It was an incredibly fraught time. The Brexit vote had happened a week before and the antisemitism controversy in the Labour Party had been rumbling on for months. In the same week the report was published, Jeremy Corbyn’s support in the parliamentary party was collapsing.

My piece was published within a couple of hours of the report being published. It was based on a swift reading of the report and, as such, was not a forensic dissection of its contents. I was, I thought, pretty guarded about what I thought about it: there were some good things but it was likely to be greeted with disappointment in some quarters (and so it proved); it would not end the controversy (and so it proved).

Opinion on the Chakrabarti report swiftly coalesced: Corbyn’s supporters mostly welcomed it, his detractors and much of the Jewish community saw it as thin and non-specific at best, a whitewash at worst.

I didn’t write a piece on the publication of the Home Affairs Committee report on antisemitism. By that stage, it was clear what was going to happen: The reverse of the reception to the Chakrabarti report. So those who welcomed Chakrabarti, decried the Home Affairs report and vice versa.

And what did I think of both reports? Without going into detail, there were things about both that I agreed with, and things that I disagreed with. The Chakrabarti report scored highly for its personal, empathetic tone, but poorly for its lack of detail and thin methodological framework. The Home Affairs committee report scored highly for its rigour, but seemed to hear from a narrower range of voices and its definition of antisemitism left as many questions as it answered.

I suppose that if you put a gun to my head, I’d probably be able to tell you which report was a better one. I suppose that if I took the time to do a detailed analysis of each paragraph on each report I’d probably be able to come up with some kind of aggregate ‘score’ of which one I prefer.

What I am incapable of doing though, is to wholeheartedly embrace or reject either. In fact, throughout this whole lingering antisemitism controversy — and the tale of two reports in particular — it’s become increasingly clear to me that I didn’t read these reports the same way that most other people do.

Actually, I don’t think I read most things the way other people do.

And I’m struggling with whether or not this is a good thing.

What has struck me is how far the various protagonists in the antisemitism controversy (in which I am also a participant, albeit intermittently) seem to have read the two reports in a kind of ‘zero sum’ way. They read them looking for an overall, sum total conclusion. They read them searching to find a reason to accept or reject them. And in the end, that’s what they’ve done.

There’s kind of analogy to the ‘one drop’ versions of racism here: Just as some racists see one drop of non-white blood as polluting the entirety of its descendants, so one drop of disagreement with these reports seems to make any acknowledgement of the things one does agree with impossible. Or at the very least, the things with which one agrees become irrelevant and trivial.

In contrast, I appear to have read the reports like I read most things: I search for things I agree with and things I disagree with, but I don’t aggregate these points of agreement and disagreement into a single judgement. I don’t see these texts as the vehicles for a unitary message that I can agree with or disagree with. I don’t see texts as anything other than a collation of views that I can ever agree or disagree with other than partially.

There’s a lot you can criticise about this way of reading:

· You could say that I’ve drunk the postmodern Kool-Aid and lost site of the essential inner voice of the text.

· You could say that I’m too polyannaish, too nice to face up to a text that I really should reject.

· You could say that I’m too academic and have lost sight of the ways that politics work.

· You could say that if I read ‘Mein Kampf’ I’d probably be willing to praise Hitler’s sentence structure and that I’d praise Mussolini for making the trains run on time.

There’s some truth in all of this — hence my internal struggle over this.

However I don’t think that I just see the good in everyone and every text. It’s not just that I can’t bring myself to get off the fence. While I do have these tendencies, they are counteracted with an equally strong drive: to distrust everyone and everything. I just can’t bring myself to fully embrace any politician, any writer, any movement. I’m sometimes fellow traveller but I always have to keep my distance. I have people I admire, people I love, but I don’t have ‘comrades.’

I am suspicious and credulous in equal measure. I am naïve and cynical. I read looking to be convinced and to be repelled.

This is, of course, the stereotypical fate of a certain type of intellectual: to condemn themselves into irrelevance by never being able to assimilate themselves into a body of thought. I don’t deny that that can sometimes feel a bit heroic. But right now it doesn’t feel anything other than lonely.

Maybe there is something I can offer though. Perhaps in a time of intense political turmoil, someone at least needs to remind people of the possibilities of reading. That is, the possibilities of reading texts in non-reductive and critical ways. To remind people that buried in both antisemitism reports there is potential for reading against themselves, for opening them up rather than closing them down, for reminding ourselves that history and politics does not have to be predictable.

In addition, it’s becoming clear to me that one po-mo old saw is probably true: that the meaning of texts resides in how they are read, not in the texts themselves. As a scholar, I am as interested in the controversy over antisemitism as antisemitism ‘itself.’ And I am as interested in the two antisemitism reports as much for how they have been read, as for what their ‘meaning’ is.

In the end though, I can do no other. This is how I read. This is who I am.