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Gary Younge
A nationalist race to the bottom

With its high murder rate and its banana and sugar industries about to be decimated by the globalisation, Jamaica has enough problems for a relatively small island. The last thing it needs is gaffe-prone Hackney MP, Diane Abbott as its unofficial ambassador. Over the few months Ms Abbott has been writing columns in the Jamaica Observer on Sunday. Some of them are interesting or at least not embarrassing. But her general modus operandi seems to be to big up Jamaica by belittling something or somebody else.

On February 12th, following the murder of a black lawyer in Guyana she made the point that Jamaica is not the only country with a crime problem and expressed her shock at the totality of "the political and economic power in the hands of one ethnic group, i e the Indo-Guyanese." "Although statistically Guyana has a smaller problem with violence than Jamaica, it is every bit as serious," she pointed out.

If Guyana is bad, she pointed out on April 9th, you should see Nigeria.

"In certain crucial aspects Nigeria is in an even worse position than little Jamaica, and contemplating the Nigerian situation might cause even the gloomiest Jamaican talk show host to count their blessings."

Not surprisingly this rivalry in a nationalist race to the bottom went down badly with many of her Nigerian constituents.

On Sunday May 7th it was my turn. Ms Abbott took offence at a piece I had written for the Guardian on homophobia in Jamaica. Ms Abbott took issue with everything about the piece apart from what it actually said. "The problem that I have with article is that I cannot recall the Guardian giving similar space and bold headlines to other issues regarding Jamaica and the Caribbean."

Like many I would like to see more news from the Caribbean in the British media outside of the travel pages that gave a sense of the complexity of the region and the challenges it faces. But there are two main problems with Abbott's reasoning. First of all those very criticisms are raised and answered in the piece. Indeed the reason the piece is so long is because it was at pains to put the whole issue in context. Secondly, it does not help Jamaica or any other country if you just keep trying to change the subject every time an awkward subject comes up.

But her arguments in all these respects actually mirrors the defence that white South Africans would make under apartheid and that Israelis make when you raise Palestine. Why are you talking about us when there are all these other things you might be talking about?

Abbott's real problem with the piece is that she doesn't think that homophobia in Jamaica is such a big deal. "I know Jamaica a little and Britain very well and I do not think that the attitudes of ordinary British people and ordinary Jamaicans to gay rights are as vastly different as articles like this suggest," she writes. If she can find an out gay Jamaican living on the island to defend her argument openly and using their real name then I would like to hear it. It's unlikely because, as the piece made clear, out gay Jamaicans in Jamaica are pretty hard to come by. To make statements in favour of gay rights puts them their lives and their livelihoods.

I respect the stance Ms Abbott has taken on a number of issues and her commitment to trying to force Labour to address the interests of its base. I don't hear gays or victims of gun crime in Jamaica saying - thank god we don't live in Nigeria, Guyana in England. Their plight must be always be placed in context. But to belittle it for the sake of defensive nationalism betrays the very principles of universal humanism at the cornerstone of progressive politics.

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