Writers at risk of entering politics

Jasmine Donahaye says recent events will put writers off standing to be politicians.

In Wales there is a very small pool of people who have the interest or the wherewithal to enter politics. To many of us outside the political world, it looks daunting, and though we question the qualifications and quality of everyone who might seek to represent us, not very many of us consider that our own qualifications, qualities and experience might make us viable candidates. We stand back, we watch from the sidelines, we complain and groan and roll our eyes in disbelief at what we judge to be politicians’ stupidity or inconsistency, their insincerity or immorality – but though we might change how we vote, and those of us who are authors might write critically about what we see, we do not decide to challenge that stupidity or immorality or ignorance by standing for election ourselves.

Recently, for the second time, I was informally sounded out about standing as a candidate in the next council election. I laughed it off, but after some urging I began to seriously consider it. That is until the Cambrian News, in a tawdry tabloid journalism move, attempted to smear Mike Parker, Plaid Cymru’s Westminster candidate for Ceredigion.

Mike Parker, like me, is a writer, though a much more prominent and successful one. Like me, like many, writers and non-writers alike, he was angry about the state of government, and the predicament of Wales, but rather than go on complaining, he took the risk of trying to do something different about it. He’s paid a nasty price for his convictions. Fourteen years ago, he wrote an article for Planet about racist attitudes among some English residents of rural mid-Wales, which the Cambrian News, in a patent political move, has utterly misrepresented. Apart from the main focus on the BNP, whose leader had moved to Powys, Parker compared the attitudes of some people who had, by their own admission, ‘fled’ to rural Wales, with  the attitudes of libertarians and ‘gun-toting Final Solution crackpots’ of the American wilderness retreat. I read the article at the time it was published, and found it closely mirrored my own experience in Ceredigion – including the attitudes I encountered of some English people towards the Welsh and to the Welsh language.

The Cambrian News misrepresented Parker, not least by attributing to him – by quotation marks in the headline – an epithet he never used, and by quoting from the 2001 article so selectively and with such serious omissions that it completely skewed what he had originally written. That was picked up by the national media and prominent politicians – as, one might safely infer, was intended. Not reading the original article, they have reinforced the misrepresentation on social media, and in discussion by political commentators in broadcast media and in the press, the misattribution of the epithet of ‘Nazi’ and reference to the ‘Final Solution’ has been reiterated without reference to the context. Had they included what the Cambrian News omitted of the surrounding text, it would have been quite clear that the reference to ‘Final Solution crackpots’ was an unquestionably accurate designation of a certain strand of extreme American libertarianism.

I support Mike Parker as a parliamentary candidate: in my view he is a principled, thoughtful, intelligent and careful (and witty) man. But I also value him as a writer, and I am appalled – though not surprised – by what the Cambrian News has done, and how, one after another, the broadcast, online and print media have failed to correct the basic misrepresentation.

To be misrepresented as a person and a writer is horribly painful: how, for example, to respond to inaccuracies in a review of your work is a perennial problem for anyone who is regularly published. But to have to respond as a political candidate to something you did fourteen years earlier as a writer requires, in many ways, betraying your commitment to your own writing, and that is perhaps the most painful thing of all. You do not have the luxury of talking about nuance or context, or assuming largely who your audience is. You cannot qualify or explain or comment on your own past work – you cannot say unequivocally, once they’ve been quoted out of context or misquoted, that you stand by your words. Nor can you ask the public to read what you wrote instead of relying on what someone else has written about what you wrote.

Last autumn I was similarly appalled by the serious misrepresentation of a writer’s work, repeatedly, which went uncorrected. That book was also misrepresented in ways that were patently political. Calling out the person responsible for that misrepresentation exposed me to something about which, in my naivety, I had known nothing – the shocking bullying power of certain political forces in Wales. The whole experience enraged me. That rage has not diminished since. It was that anger in part that made me consider seriously, like Mike Parker, not relying just on my writing to engage politically, but putting myself forward as a possible candidate.

Not so now. I am certain that there are people from all kinds of backgrounds who, seeing someone slurred in this way, will turn away from the possibility of entering politics. But there are particular concerns for a writer. You take certain risks as a writer. You try to present yourself, your views and the results of your research honestly. Indeed fudging things usually creates poor writing. I have written about things which, in context, I believe make sense, but which, taken out of context and thrown back at me would be a torture. In an election campaign there’s no room for the poetic metaphor (I once published a poem which features a baby in a woodburning stove – it was about post-natal depression); for honest self-examination (in my forthcoming book I examine my own racism); for self-disclosure (domestic violence, sex, desire – the list of topics subject to misinterpretation is quite long). These are creative decisions I would defend, but which, in the world of slur and spin, and 140-character character assassination, I would be unable to account for.

This is why I think that whatever one’s own political sympathies or affiliations, whatever one thinks of Mike Parker’s political affiliations or, indeed, of his writing, he deserves the overt, concerted and loud support of writers, artists, academics, intellectuals, and the literary and publishing organisations and institutions in Wales. We need people like Mike Parker in politics, standing for election across the political spectrum – people who are principled, thoughtful, intelligent and engaged, and who can bring to government a new kind of ethics and experience. But if we are to have them, we need to hold to account and demand correction from those individuals and groups who seek to misrepresent them

Jasmine Donahaye’s latest book is The Greatest Need, a biography of Lily Tobias. Her memoir, Losing Israel, is published in May.

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