When Fox News rented a quote on ‘creeping sharia’-like issues from terrorism ‘expert’ Steven Emerson he duly provided by saying, amongst other things, that there are
actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in
Brummies, Brits and other onlookers, following the script of the Twitter-storm, kicked out against the inaccuracies in Emerson’s argument with the most visible content coalescing into the Twitter hashtag #FoxNewsFacts.
Whilst I didn’t join in it was nice to see my Twitter streams alive like this as it’s felt like a long time since my particular network had come together in play. You see I’ve felt for a long time that Twitter is different these days (that is: it’s a bit boring these days) but for a few hours last night it could have been 2009 again: Twitter could be fun again. Nobody was selling me anything or live tweeting their way through TV shows I wanted to watch later; everybody was sharing, creating, and pushing back at the folly of an auld enemy.
But then feelings of doubt came to me.
My first read of #FoxNewsFacts was that a large group of Twitter users were collectively satirising Fox & Emerson for their positions. For example when I saw a tweet that recast the BT tower as a minaret I saw the writer imagining Emerson as he tries to read the cityscape by applying Islamic symbolism to all that he surveys. Many jokes and tweets used this sort of inversion: take a Birmingham idea, apply Islamic symbolism — Joke! What started to feel problematic for me is that to construct these jokes one has to reach for a bag of shorthand symbols of Islamic faith (and symbols of Birmingham too, but those are much less sensitive to deal with). As the joke stretches and the meme adapts, as imagery is taken and jokes are “done” the available stock of symbols becomes depleted. To play a hashtag game like this writers must always reach for novelty at every turn. This can lead to purpose becoming lost: the practice becomes a rush to make new jokes about faith and place, the game’s objective becomes winning the Internet, not satirising Fox & Emerson. Furthermore as Internet memes spread, and therefore adapt, new audiences and players come into contact with them and may bring new intentions. Thus you may have players with altogether different sympathies, for whom the target is to ridicule a faith and a city rather than to satirise the inflammatory speech of the right.
Were most people angry that Fox had ignored Birmingham’s multiculturalism or were they in fact angry that their city had been categorised as non-Christian? Were people upset that Emerson had used the city to push his Islamaphobic agenda, or that he’d suggested we weren’t all white? And most of all did that hashtag game eventually fall towards racism itself, to making the symbols of one faith the butt of the joke? Did it provide an alibi for negative stereotyping?
Independent publisher Birmingham Updates scored something of a coup last night by getting Emerson to apologise for his comments. As part of this process Emerson has agreed to make a donation to the Birmingham Children’s Hospital. His apology is an interesting read: he hasn’t recanted his ways, he hasn’t apologised for Islamaphobia; he has read the tweets and apologised for what he thinks we are upset about. And it’s pretty clear to me that he thinks we’re upset at being called Muslims:
I am issuing this apology and correction for having made this comment about the beautiful city of Birmingham.
I’m pleased that Luke at Birmingham Updates got something from the guy, but it’s a shame he wasn’t pushed harder. ITV and BBC news both built a story out of the apology but added no value to it (and didn’t even give a credit to the blogger for his work). Why did those journalists not clarify what Emerson was apologising for? What, at the end of the day, does Emerson think people are upset about?
You see, Steve Emerson, I’m afraid <suis Mohammed>> on this one: I’m cross at you for everything you said. Like the bit where you talk about an Islamic police force in London: I assume you mean the young men of ‘Muslim Patrol’ who went to prison after their vigilantism was spotted and dealt with under the laws of this country? It’s not about you insulting my city, it’s about the dangerous lies you pedal. Your cheque to Birmingham Children’s Hospital cannot be big enough to excuse you while you continue to operate this way (oh, and by the way it better be a really big cheque).
And as for the rest of us. I’m still not really sure what to make of what happened last night but the more I think about it the less comfortable I am. Not in a “this is political correctness gone mad” kind of way. It’s just I can’t help thinking that a lot of people rather enjoyed making the wrong sort of jokes while the cover was in place. Maybe we should all go back in our boxes, maybe we should all just start tweeting press releases again?