Perhaps someone could help me out here, but was Fagin, from “Oliver Twist”, a hypnotist as well as a pickpocket? I’ve never read Dickens’s novel, and it is a few years since I last watched “Oliver!”; but I don’t remember anything about hypnotism. There certainly isn’t a song called “Look into my eyes”, I know that for sure.
The reason I am asking, of course, is because of the minor furore that has reared its head following a couple of Labour Party political adverts. The first, depicting Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin as flying pigs, alongside the words “The day the Tory sums add up” was criticised since both Howard and Letwin are Jewish, and of course the pig is not considered kosher. Now, if Jewish people are genuinely offended by this sort of thing, then who am I to argue? Personally, I think it is just a lame idea and that is the end of the matter. Yes pigs might fly when the Tory sums add up, and pigs might fly when one of the parties thinks up a genuinely clever advert. I would like to think, in this day and age, that people don’t go around thinking of Howard and Letwin as Jews anyway; I certainly don’t, and much as I dislike Alistair Campbell (whose ranting email to the BBC was hilarious, and illustrated why I have missed him really) I doubt he does either; I cannot imagine he would deliberately come up with an anti-Semitic poster. As I say, I cannot argue that the idea isn’t offensive as I am not Jewish, but I am pretty sure it is not anti-Semitic; the thought that Labour would purposefully indulge in such a campaign seems ridiculous.
Having just recovered from that, out comes the next idea, showing Michael Howard swinging a watch, and the words “I can spend the same money twice”. Now I would think that this is a not particularly sophisticated allusion suggesting that for you to believe the Tories’ sums you would need to be hypnotised, but it seems I have not looked deep enough into it. Apparently, it is said, this is a reference to the famous hypnotist Fagin; I would say it might as well be a reference to Paul Mckenna or some even less famous act currently playing to empty houses on Blackpool’s North pier. Even stranger, it has also been suggested that this advert may be a reference to Shylock. Who next? Maureen Lipman from those BT adds? Well, I have read “The Merchant of Venice”, although it was a while ago, and I am pretty sure there is nothing about hypnotism in the play.
Anyway, if the advert is meant to show Howard as Shylock, it does make me wonder just how many 16th century Venetians carried pocket watches around with them; presumably more than I thought. If the advert said “he wants to pick a pocket or two”, or “he wants a pound of flesh”, then perhaps the critics would have a point.
I hope that this is mainly just about politics; Labour have come up with some ideas for a negative ad campaign, and the Tories have found a way to try to discredit them. In itself this is fair enough; I have no problem with a bit of negative campaigning (why not show the folly in your opponents policies?) so long as there is some positive campaigning too, and some adverts, like the 1979 “Labour isn’t Working” poster can rightly be considered as classics. Bruce Anderson in The Independent considers that “this election campaign is already one of the dirtiest ever” and the “Tories have a problem. Will they retaliate in kind, or do they try to take the moral high ground?” This suggests he is already trying to claim the moral high ground for the Tories – “they started it” – and so when the Tories inevitably do attack Labour they can claim this in their defence.
But you could say that the Tory negative campaign has already begun; the charge of anti-Semitism against Labour is negative in itself. Anderson even says that one of the Labour tactics is “the repeated use of Michael Howard’s name in Labour election material aimed at Muslims. Michael Howard, Michael Howard: if the name is repeated enough, Labour assumes that Muslims will get the subliminal message. The leader of the Tory party is a J.. – is Michael Howard.” If even mentioning the Tory leader’s name is anti-Semitic, then Labour really are in trouble.
Whatever the reason, whether it is out of genuine offence, or political point scoring, I think that the accusations of anti-Semitism are unhelpful; it is a term full of historical meaning, entwined with evil, through the pogroms, through the holocaust. Genuine anti-Semitism is nasty and ugly, but it is also a terrible charge to make against someone; and if it is going to be bandied about in the way it has been in the past week or so, then I think it that as a term it will become devalued.
PostScript: the latest Labour idea is for Howard and Letwin to be standing holding a blackboard with the sum “2+2=5” written upon it in chalk. Well, I am sorry, but this is simply outrageous. How can 2+2=5 unless there is some interest charged, unless there is some usury afoot. This is a clear reference to Shylock. I don’t know if you know, but both Howard and Letwin are Jews! This is an affront to our intelligence. I demand the adverts withdrawal.