LRB apologises for blog ‘susceptible’ to racist interpretation

You may have missed this, but the London Review of Books has been forced into a humiliating climb-down over a blog entry supporting the Mearsheimer and Walt analysis. The post in question implied that the United States’ foreign policy is controlled by a cabal of Jewish organisations who murder little children, and use their control of the media to prevent discussions of their crimes.

Only kidding!

No, the real story is this.

A couple of weeks ago, RW Johnson wrote the following entry:

We are being besieged by baboons again. This happens quite often here on the Constantiaberg mountains (an extension of the Table Mountain range). Baboons are common in the Cape and they are a great deal larger than the vervet monkeys I was used to dealing with in KwaZulu-Natal. They jump onto roofs, overturn dustbins and generally make a nuisance of themselves; since their teeth are very dirty, their bite can be poisonous. They seem to have lots of baby baboons – it’s been a very mild winter and so spring is coming early – and they’re looking for food. The local dogs don’t like them but appear to have learned their lesson from the last baboon visit: then, a large rottweiler attacked the apes, who calmly tore it limb from limb.

Meanwhile in the squatter camps, there is rising tension as the threat mounts of murderous violence against foreign migrants once the World Cup finishes on 11 July. These migrants – Zimbabweans, Malawians, Congolese, Angolans, Somalis and others – are often refugees and they too are here essentially searching for food. The Somalis are the most enterprising and have set up successful little shops in the townships and squatter camps, but several dozen Somali shopkeepers have already been murdered, clearly at the instigation of local black shopkeepers who don’t appreciate the competition. The ANC is embarrassed by it all and has roundly declared that there will be no such violence. The truth is that no one knows. The place worst hit by violence in the last xenophobic riots here was De Doorns and the army moved into that settlement last week, clearly anticipating trouble. The tension is ominous and makes for a rather schizoid atmosphere as the Cup itself mounts towards its climax.

What caught the attention of the commentariat was not the fact that there are xenophobic riots against those who have emigrated to South Africa, but rather the “juxtaposition” of the baboon killed by dogs with the murdered immigrants. Perhaps, had RW Johnson compared these murders to any other sort of animal-on-animal violence (a spider and a fly? a cat and a dog?) he might have avoided controversy. Unfortunately, because racists often compare black people to apes, the metaphor proved problematic.

The LRB editor, Mary Kay Wilmers, received a letter (which you can read here) signed by “seventy-three cultural figures”, including the Socialist Workers’ Party activist, Richard “Lenin” Seymour, Michael Rosen, George Szirtes, and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. The letter concludes:

We are deeply concerned that the LRB could be so impressed by RW Johnson that his racist and reactionary opinion continues to be published in the magazine and now, in the blog too. And there we all were thinking the LRB was progressive.

Wilmers initially refused to remove the post or publish the letter.

However, she has now backed down:

We have had a number of complaints about a post on the LRB blog on 6 July on the grounds that it was racist. The LRB does not condone racism, nor does the author of the post, R.W. Johnson. We recognise that the post was susceptible of that interpretation and that it was therefore an error of judgment on our part to publish it. We’re sorry. We have since taken the post down.

The London Review of Books is subsidised by a £21,000 annual Arts Council grant.