The banker-bashing battle of Brick Lane

A graffitied mural on a London street certainly looks anti-Semitic, but the calls to ban it are backward too.

The walls of Brick Lane, east London, often provide the canvas for graffiti, or ‘street art’ as the high-minded prefer to call it. However, one of the latest graffiti murals to appear on Brick Lane - by Los Angeles-based artist Kalen Ockerman, aka Mear One - has generated quite a lot of controversy. This is hardly surprising given its obvious anti-Semitic content.

Although it has now been defaced (someone painted the name of an old Jewish paramilitary organisation – Haganah (‘The Defence’) – over it), and it will soon be replaced by the work of another graffiti writer, this brief episode provides a snapshot of much that is wrong with politics today.

The mural is pretty much standard conspiracy-theory stuff. It depicts a group of bankers with stereotypically Jewish hooked noses, with the Masonic pyramid eye shining above them. This shady clique of bankers is sitting around a monopoly board, under which the oppressed masses sit. You can see the mural here. The message is that a Jewish (sorry, ‘Zionist’) conspiracy of high finance is the equivalent of a boot stamping on the face of the people. (Bad George Orwell references are popular among people with this sort of politics.)

While much of the response to the mural has been condemnatory, it has also been depressingly censorious, too. Tower Hamlets councillor Peter Golds called for the wall to be white-washed immediately and urged the police to pursue the graffiti artist under the laws on incitement to racial hatred. In a similar vein, Lutfur Rahman, the mayor of Tower Hamlets, said: ‘Where freedom of expression runs the risk of inciting racial hatred then it is right that such expression should be curtailed. I have asked my officers to do everything possible to see to it that this mural is removed.’

We see here two of the worst strains in modern politics. On one side, we have the conspiracy theorists, who cannot help but blame people with names that end in ‘-witz’ or ‘-burg’ for the problems of the economy and politics. And on the other, we have those who feel the need to appeal to the long arm of the law to deal with any expression of a view they find offensive or obnoxious. Both trends are highly reactionary.

Once the sole preserve of isolated groups of far-right and neo-Nazi weirdos, conspiracy theories have become increasingly popular as a way of explaining world events and politics over the past couple of decades. Natural disasters, acts of terrorism and economic crises are explained in terms of an omnipotent shady cabal with a secret agenda. In the case of the graffiti on Brick Lane, the world’s social and economic problems are blamed on a small group of Jewish-looking financiers.

That conspiracy theories have taken hold among many so-called radicals is due to the decline of the older frameworks through which many once made sense of the world. Whereas Marxism, socialism, conservatism or liberalism provided prisms through which to interpret events, the decline of these belief systems has left many to turn to simple-minded, catch-all conspiracy theories.

Such thinking, while being clearly fanciful, has a negative impact on how people act politically. Viewing the world as a secret web of conspiracies (although not secret enough to escape the scrutiny of YouTube video makers) renders any meaningful engagement with politics pointless. In the imagined world of all-powerful secret societies pulling the strings of politics, people are no longer conscious political actors capable of shaping society; we are simply pawns to be manipulated.

At the same time, those calling for the graffiti on Brick Lane to be removed are also part of a troubling trend: calls for censorship and the failure to uphold free speech as an absolute. Increasingly, the fear of causing offence trumps commitment to freedom of expression. Homage is always paid to freedom of speech and expression, of course, but it is always accompanied by an inevitable ‘but…’. Commitment to freedom of speech is often more of a ritual than a declaration of actual commitment.

So according to Rahman, ‘racial hatred’ is grounds to curtail freedom of expression. Essentially, this means that freedom of expression is permitted only within parameters – defined by the state – which is no real freedom at all. While the graffiti on Brick Lane is rather offensive and idiotic, the idea that offensiveness ought to be sufficient grounds to remove a public display of a political view is a betrayal of liberal principles.

What we see in this brief episode on Brick Lane are two rather popular but reactionary trends that should be opposed. The idea that the world is run by a small cabal of all-powerful bankers, as depicted in the graffiti mural, is not only a theory with roots in the worst far-right and reactionary political traditions, but it also damages how people view politics and act politically. At the same time, the idea that political expression deemed offensive should be banned and censored represents the abandonment of any commitment to a free and open society.

Tom Bailey is a history undergraduate at University College London and a columnist for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter: @tbaileybailey

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