The new tribalism of the left

In the jolly rough-and-tumble of column-writing, getting few hard kicks from readers is part of the game, but I am beginning to wonder whether something rather odd has been happening in the scrum since the election.

My columns in the Independent often earn me bit of heckling – usually online, invariably anonymous  –  from readers. Because they vary to a startling degree – one moment I’m accused (rather oddly under the circumstances) of being a “typical Guardian-reading liberal”, the next I’m being invited to “sod off to the Daily Mail where you belong”  –  I tend to think that they reflect the shambolic, multi-coloured nature of my views of the world.

Now, suddenly and alarmingly, I am seem to have become for some readers part of the extreme right.

On Friday, my column referred to the Cuban writers, academics and librarians in Cuba who had been given long jail sentences for dissidence in 2003 and who are now to be released. I asked whether those in the West who have consistently refused to condemn human rights abuses in Cuba on the grounds that worse was being done by America’s friends, would at least admit that the luckless prisoners of conscience were not , in fact, spies for the CIA.

On Tuesday, I considered the fact that only 18 teachers have been barred for incompetence over the last decade and considered the rather odd comment by the chair of Ofsted that having a “shit teacher” in school was useful life lesson for children. I disagreed, and suggested that we needed to value teachers more highly – and expect more of them.

A reader of the Cuba column accused me of being a neo-con, apparently on the grounds that I had used the phrase “fellow-traveller”. Another implied that, like other columnists, I was the running dog of a rich proprietor. A third wrote to me that my “mindless musings illustrate perfectly why Cuba needs the support of well-intentioned fellow humans everywhere”.  None explained their objection to what I had written.

More bizarrely, the column about teachers prompted a funny but really rather bizarre email accusing me of making  “routinely right-wing points”. Was I paid to make people hate more and understand less? the writer asked.

“I imagine a club somewhere in London where angry folks like Littlejohn, Melanie Phillips and you hang out, muttering all the time, like Victor Meldrew on steroids.”

Good stuff – but what the hell is happening here? What was it about my argument for human rights in Cuba or my criticism of shit teachers that was remotely right-wing? And why did not one of these correspondents not feel the need to explain their position rather than ladling out mockery and abuse?

It feels like a return to the mad tribalism of politics. Just as Margaret Thatcher’s engagement in political debate was determined in one brainless sentence – “Is he (or she) one of us?” – so now, in the darker, stupider reaches of liberal opinion, any argument which raises tricky questions can be dismissed with an easy, angry wave of the arm as “right-wing”.

One expects this kind of emotional response, this fear of any kind of discussion or complexity,  on the right. It would be profoundly depressing  –   and politically disastrous  –   if in the aftershock of the election, it is beginning to infect the left.

See also comments about Cuba from Tania Kindersley and Norman Geras.