Here’s something you don’t see from me much any more – a blog post about a current event, unfolding as I type. This is the story: an ‘expert’ on Fox News has described Birmingham as a place “where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in”. He revealed a general ignorance about Islam in the UK and is now the subject of a worldwide joke. Twitter’s ridicule arrived swiftly and is ongoing; the #FoxNewsFacts hashtag is delighting people on both sides of the Atlantic.
It’s unusual to see Birmingham’s name on any news sites, let alone in the trending topics. I grew up here, and I live and work here, and if you’ve met me for even five seconds you probably know that my love for this stupid city is deep and abiding and perhaps jarringly sincere. It does not need me to say that Steven Emerson’s comments were preposterously ill-informed. I also think we should stop laughing at him straight away.
There are two reasons. The first is non-Birmingham-specific: the guy apologised. Moreover, he did so immediately, at length, without reservation, avoiding blaming others, and with a humility that I gauge to be sincere. I imagine opinion varies as to the degree of cynicism underlying this apology, but I suggest that on our side the moral high ground is cheaply won here. We all fare better in a world where people acknowledge honestly and are forgiven generously for their errors.
Such benevolence on our part might even, more than any degree of mockery, encourage Emerson to think twice about some of the other assumptions which his ‘expertise’ has led him into – but staying fixed on the Birmingham issue, I have to say I’m not optimistic. That’s because I’ve had some pretty remarkable conversations about this city with people who’ve never done more than pass through on the train, and I can tell you that in misrepresenting this city based on extremely scant evidence, Emerson is not alone.
This is my second point. Emerson is just an extreme, publicly visible, and current-event-inflected example of something which happens on a day-to-day basis in this country: the maligning of Birmingham. Those enjoying his shame owe it to us to ask themselves if they’ve ever had a laugh at this city’s expense – a laugh based, perhaps, on word of mouth rather than actually, say, visiting. It’s something I’ve become so used to that my main reaction to it these days is not derision or anger but boredom. In a way, Emerson is tonight what Birmingham has been my entire life: an open goal, the butt of an easy joke. There is no honour, no wit, no dignity in a cheap shot at either of them.