Friends of the Right Color

Amid the furious speculation in recent weeks about what the Iraqi people want, one British newspaper columnist played a trump card by quoting an "Iraqi friend." This is a shortcut to the moral highground: "Others claim to speak for the Iraqis, but I actually have an Iraqi friend and he says X."

In this case the Iraqi friend was pro-war, but that's not really important. What disturbed me was the use of the word friend. I don't doubt the guy is on speaking terms with an Iraqi, but friends? They went to school together? They hang out at work? They meet in the pub and talk about football? What is a friend, anyway?

We are rightly suspicious of anyone who says, "Some of my best friends are black/gay/Inuit." 'What's coming next?' we wonder. Because it's perfectly possible to have black/gay/Inuit friends and still to hold outrageous political views about these groups in general. And it is just as possible to feel political solidarity with groups of people you never encounter in your private life.

I don't have a lot of friends, certainly not enough to represent all the ethnic and social groups I don't hate. I gave this some thought, and realised that my five closest friends are all white, male, heterosexual, Protestant atheist and lower-middle class. (Actually one is a Catholic atheist who pretends to be working class and is possibly gay, but I'm constantly ribbing him about all three deviations.)

Of the five, three are called Stuart. Does this mean I'm prejudiced against people who aren't called Stuart? Come to think of it, there is another Stuart outside the five with whom I get along very well, but whom I've always considered a little odd on the grounds that he believes in God. Is that intolerant of me? I am also quite friendly with a lesbian, but that's only because I secretly wish she wasn't.

Friendship is a messy business, and it would be quite wrong to judge anybody by their friends, for better or for worse. The idea that we should each seek to recreate the full diversity of society among our own friends both trivializes the struggle for political equality and makes a mockery of friendship. Contrary to the saying, we don't choose our friends at all. If my experience is anything to go by, we fall in with them against our better judgement.

So next time somebody wheels out an Iraqi, a Chechnyan dissident or an Amazonian Indian "friend" in support of an argument, give them a slap from me. I'm telling you as a friend.


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