On partisanship, principle and calling out Mehdi Hasan

A stubborn, principled stance is often met with an ad hominem response - but does that not simply demonstrate the inability to be menschen?

Mehdi Hasan has been keen to play the man - can he play the ball?
On 29 May 2012 08:58

A few weeks ago when I wrote a riposte to Hugo Rifkind over his sarcasm-laced deconstruction of Cameron’s conservatism, I received a plethora of both supportive and disdainful text messages, emails, comments and tweets.

Friends queried my decision to hit out at Rifkind’s article, insisting that he was a ‘nice guy’ and that therefore, I should lay off him. I disagreed. Not that he was a nice person, but rather than someone’s demeanour should translate into some kind of ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card regarding their politics or writing. It’s simply not enough.  

In any case, I like to think I played the ball and not the man – an increasingly important distinction in a vicious political and media environment.

One comment left on my article declared that I was a ‘real mensch’ – a Yiddish word that I was, until that moment, unfamiliar with. It means ‘a person of integrity’. I was flattered and have spent the weeks since pondering why in politics and media, more people aren’t declared as menschen in the same way.

This weekend past, I procured Margaret Thatcher’s Path to Power in audiobook form, so that I could enjoy the words narrated by the great lady herself. Almost from the outset, I felt a sense of kinship with the former Prime Minister. She explains in the opening chapters her relationship with her father growing up. She explains that he was a man of principle over party, or rather, principle above all. I suppose this is where my own, what some may call stubbornness, is derived from. An upbringing highly focused on matters of principle rather than pragmatism I’m told, can hinder someone’s ability to ‘accept certain realities’ and not challenge the status quo. But I never let this stop me.

A friend of mine has often remarked, especially since I began writing regular opinion pieces and being outspoken on core political and philosophical issues, that I am immovable, impossible and hardheaded. But are these qualities really so bad that we should downplay them, insisting on compromise regardless of facts or principle? I really don’t think so.

As I write this, I am on a British Airways flight to Israel, and this strikes me as an interesting comparison to make. If the Israeli government were to compromise on principle in the face of repeated rejectionism from the Palestinian Authority and other Arab neighbours, they would swiftly be wiped, as Mahmoud Ahmedinejad seems so keen on, off the map. Existentially, Israel is correct in demanding recognition of their existence from neighbouring states, as a precondition for negotiations.

Therefore, acting on principle in the first instance is not a sign that compromises cannot be made further down the road, as the Israelis have advocated with the agreement for 1967 borders with reciprocal land-swaps. But matters of principle should remain hard to overcome. The British government would do better to adopt this approach in the international arena, as Prime Minister David Cameron gave us a nostalgic taste of regarding the EU veto in December 2011. One might argue that in the same way, Palestinian rejectionism of Israel is ‘a matter of principle’, in which case representatives of the territories should quit playing games or pretending they are actually interested in peace talks.

It is increasingly clear, as can be illustrated through an analysis of Western political and electoral systems, that we are moving away from traditional party systems. As politics and the availability of information are becoming almost exponentially more open to all, Western nations are experiencing what has been deemed the ‘declaration of independents’ or rather, to be more specific, a rise in the number of people who can and will be classified as swing voters, and not just for the two or three major candidates or parties.

The Left in Britain has typically been more successful at holding together their partisan core – this is a reflection of wider leftist traditions of communalism and dare I say, a herd-like mentality. But they are also not beyond this new trend away from the ‘mainstream’.

Much of this movement has to do with the idea of principle over party, as we saw with voters who reject the likes of Ken Livingstone despite his red rosette, or those who are increasingly conscious of UKIP as an alternative party on the right. Despite what I may think of Ron Paul, the rise of the movement surrounding him is symptomatic of a new generation of political principle. It’s the same reason Mitt Romney is struggling to keep his approval ratings up among traditional Republican voters.

I know many people, including Mehdi Hasan and his now former boss Helen Lewis are curious as to why I was so keen to give quotes to FOXNews.com and the Washington Free Beacon regarding his move to the Huffington Post – and why I did it with such fervor and intensity. The answer, as you can by now guess, is principle.

Unlike Hasan and Lewis, who have spent much time this past week deconstructing my activities on Twitter and Wikipedia (really, I would have been remiss not to remove malicious comments from my profile, don’t you think?), I attacked Mehdi on politics and principle – not on a personal level to do with his character, but because I find his statements on non-Muslims to be objectionable as a matter of conscience. I hardly think he feels the same about my Twitter followers or Wikipedia entry.

More and more, the Left have become used to playing the man rather than the ball. But this is not beyond righties, myself included, and for any times I have, out of sheer adrenaline, crossed a red line, I sincerely apologise to those on the receiving end.

But this wasn’t the case with Mehdi. A couple of articles about his past exploits forced what is probably the closest thing to an apology as Mehdi will ever give for calling non-believers ‘animals’ and worse. And there it should rest.

If over the next few weeks, the lefties scorned by my insistence on bringing Mehdi’s comments to light decide to attack me on personal grounds, or matters external to ‘the issues’, you’ll know they truly have a principle deficit, or maybe better put, the inability to be menschen.

Raheem Kassam is the Executive Editor of The Commentator. He tweets at @RaheemJKassam

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