So how SHOULD we talk about immigration?
It has been a damn long week. And it seems as if the particularly offending site has really closed down, and so I am now removing its vile picture from my previous blog,its job done. (If it really was the swamping of the site in Latin poetry that was the final straw, that's a good joke to celebrate). The realist in me knows that this is not a total victory. Websites are chameleons, and it will reappear in another guise, and no doubt targetting me... but that's for another day. And for the time being, I thank the hosts of that site for removing it; we'll see what happens next.
I have had an enormous number of messages in my inbox and tweets etc. I have tried to reply to every email (if I have failed, it is because of inefficiency not neglect, please contact again) but i haven't been able to get back individually to many tweets. I have tried, though, to give lots of good wishes to some of the young daughters who were mentioned on Twitter, re the need for feisty role models .. if 'the Roman lady" (as I am delighted to be known in one household) can in any tiny way -- and lets be honest, it is only tiny -- help the next generation of women (and men) to have a better time, well that is to the good.
And also there's been a hell of a lot of press coverage. In fact I had a good deal of sympathy with a fed up tweeter who said that the worst thing about this whole business was the number of articles by or about M Beard (in truth, none by M Beard on this -- apart from the blog -- but I get the point). Let me say that when this kind of controversy blows up, the first symptom is that you are on the receiving end of a swarm of requests for interviews etc, by email, phone, twitter. Now, I guess it would in theory be possible to ignore some; but once you have picked up the phone, you're actually into an interview even if you dont want to be. And anyway, once you have decided to out you head above the parapet, then ... you might as well try to get as much discussion as possible. (I mean, most people dont read more thsan one or two papers, so they wont actualy notice the ubiquity.)
I actually can't bring myself to read most of the pieces...but at second hand I gather what they say, and count myself very lucky indeed. Even the Mail (thank you, inter alias, Jane Fryer for beng nice and taking trouble) had a positive piece on the trolling... though if I am allowed a tiny moment of carp, I would say that the fact (as reported in the DM and no doubt true) that my hair and clothes seemed a bit dirty on the day of our interview might just have had something to do with the circumstances. Since this stuff broke, truth is that I've averaged about 4 hours sleep a night. And the day I gave the interview to the Mail at Kings Cross station, I'd been up by 6.00 preparing Plato's Crito, teaching the Crito for two hours from 9.00, getting to the station through snowbound Cambridge (and a taxi failing to show), to make it (splattered by snow and salt) to a meeting in London at 1.00 lasting till 4.00, then turning up at Kings Cross to chat to Mail, before getting back home to correct proofs of next book. Not exactly much time to primp! (To put it another way, the more papers want interviews, the less time you'll have to wash your hair!)
But the more important issue has probably got lost here: namely what (partly) prompted the row -- migration.
I dont want to return in any detail to the precise arguments (that's for another time), but it may be useful to raise a few points about the debate in more general terms,at least as it has come into my inbox. It may point the finger at the whole state of this argument, and at even wider democratic issues:
1 )I have received, by email and twitter, a large number of comments on what I said about immigration and Boston on both sides, including numerous Boston residents or ex-residents. They split (probably 60/40) in an extraordinarily stark way: some people argue that I have rightly exposed the myths of migration and prejudice against incomers, the others claim that I have completely failed to see the issues that local residents are facing. Of course I am hugely grateful for the support of the former; but the truth must be that we cannot yet know finally what the truth is. But the striking thing is, I have received almost no comments with suggest any doubt or uncertainty whatsover -- but a total polarity pro- or anti-migration. I can think of no other issue in British political debsate in which, on either side, we are so unambivalent (not even capital punishment divides us so certainly).
2) Amost none of the argument we hear rests on clear, generalisable evidence. That is why I found the Boston local council's report so impressive, because it was trying to do just that. Most of what I have been reading is mere assertion (try Rod Liddle, for example, as invective without argument). But horribly revealing was an e-mail I received from BBC Radio Humberside and Lincolshire.
They wanted me to answer some questions about immigration. Fair enough, but I though that -- given the edginess -- I should ask for the questions in advance (good move, as it turned out that the interviewer Peter Levy was a kind of wannabee John Humphries, without the style -- but that's another story). The second question in their email was:
"Do you not feel that 70,000 migrants in a town like Boston is overwhelming?"
When I got back to them, I said.. surely some mistake here, you cant mean 70,000. After a bit of fumbling, they said it must be a typo for 7,000. I am sure it was a typo, but aint that the way mad myths are spread? (this was an email from BBC Radio Humberside, after all.. how many other typos are out there?).
3) Finally there is the issue of expertise. Some commenters have said "what right have you to speak in this subject, as you are just an ivory tower classicist?". One possible response to that would be that I had done my homework (I dont think that any other panellist had read the Boston council report, but I may be wrong). The bigger issue (back to Plato, this one, or have I been thinking about the Crito too much?) is what we mean by expertise. I have always thought that QT usefully parades different versions of expertise. The politicians mostly come with sheafs of preprepared briefing notes, so they dont put a foot wrong, the others have done their own homework (but normally putting "a foot wrong" doesnt have the big consequences for the other guests that it does for a front bench star who must get the party line right).
But QT (and democracy) focuses or attention on even more important aspects of political knowledge. Who IS an expert on immigration: is it the professional politician, the "expert in parallel", or the immediate eye witness? Or, to put it another way, doesnt democracy need voices other than the professional political class to be heard? If professional politicians wont put their heads above the parapets (which they wont on immigration), doesnt public debate benefit from others doing exactly that?
Anyway, that's me done with internet trolling (apart from one interview on Monday.. ), then I am gping to Brussels for european grants... during which time let home people continue to think these issues, while maybe forgetting about me (and my dirty hair).