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As London mayor Red Ken Livingstone emerged from a party to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the first open acknowledgement by a serving Member of Parliament (Chris Smith) of his homosexuality, a reporter for Londons only evening newspaper, the Evening Standard, approached. In the past, the paper has treated the left-wing mayor rudely. The following distinctly sub-Johnsonian dialogue took place:
Reporter: Mr. Livingstone, Evening Standard. How did tonight go?
Livingstone: How awful for you. Have you thought of having treatment?
Reporter: How did tonight go?
Livingstone: Have you thought of having treatment?
Reporter: Was it a good party? What does it mean for you?
Livingstone: What did you do before? Were you a German war criminal?
Reporter: No, Im Jewish, I wasnt a German war criminal and Im actually quite offended by that. So, how did tonight go?
Livingstone: Ah right, well you might be [Jewish] but you are just like a concentration camp guard, you are doing it just because you are paid to, arent you?
Reporter: Great, I have you on record for that. So, how was tonight?
Livingstone: Its nothing to do with you because your paper is a load of scumbags and reactionary bigots.
Reporter: Im a journalist and Im doing my job. Im only asking for a comment.
Livingstone: Well, work for a paper that doesnt have a record of supporting fascism. [The Evening Standards owner, Associated Newspapers, was well disposed toward Hitler for a time in the 1930s.]
With great maladroitness, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Britains most important Jewish organization, formally complained about Livingstone, who had refused to apologize for his outburst, to the Adjudication Panel, an entity that the Blair government has set up to hear complaints about various abuses by local government representatives and to punish them if its deems it appropriate. The panel rejected Livingstones claims that the reporter, Oliver Finegold, swore at him first, and suspended the mayor from his government duties for a month. The panel ruled that Livingstone had behaved in a way incompatible with the dignity of his office, and that he should have apologized. The suspension has itself wound up suspended, following a legal challenge by Livingstone.
Unfortunatelybut predictablyLivingstone has used the controversy successfully to present himself as a martyr for democracy, removed from an elected post by an unelected panel (to whose operation, however, he had never objected before). He suggested that the board sought to silence him on the question of Israel, of whose government he has been an unrelenting critic. The charge of anti-Semitism also circled the mayor, though his remarks, while deeply offensive and surpassingly stupid, were not actually anti-Semitic. He did not say, for example, that it would be a good thing to have worked as concentration camp guard. On the other hand, he has openly and even proudly consorted with a Muslim cleric who has called for the killing of Jews.
In the wake of the affair of the Danish cartoons, Muslims have seized upon the episode as an example of double standards. A Muslim correspondent for the Guardian, Britains most influential liberal newspaper, angrily noted that when one Jew felt offense, the offender met with punishment, but when millions of Muslims were offended, the offenders did not. The sheer intellectual sloppiness of his analogy was second only to that of Livingstone himself in the original dialogue. But no one could mistake either the correspondents anger or what literary theorists doubtless would call the subtext of his complaint: that Britain was in the grip of a Jewish cabal.
The real significance of the affair is this: only in a frivolous and debased country could a man as inarticulate, rude, and uncouth as Livingstone be considered fit for public office of any kind, let alone an important public office. The fact that he won election by popular vote only makes matters worsefar worse.