Saturday, 13 October 2018

The Great Orange Pastiche, Donnish Spats, Interspecies Descent, Terror Law and Asset-Stripped Justice

Saturday morning with a new edition of the LRB, a pot of coffee and no dog-walking duties: pure comfort.

My work for the week is complete, my folders organised for a couple of hours’ work on Monday, so that I am ready for teaching on Tuesday. I can forget work for two days. Amanda is meeting a friend to walk Tia, so I have settled in my office chair, logged in to the Naxos muxic library with my Isle of Wight Library card, and have enjoyed an hour and a half of reading.

Click the cover to go to the edition”s web page

As often happens, although nothing leapt out at me from the cover of the current edition of the review, every article I’ve read so far has been engaging. The opener is a review of Bob Woodward’s recent book on the chaos of Trump’s presidency, Fear: Trump in the Whitehouse. It is difficult to know what there is to be said about Trump’s reign of confusion and hatred that has not already become cliché. Even Woodward’s book has been so widely reviewed, trumpeted and quoted in the month since its publication that I feel I have already read it. David Runciman, in reviewing it, picks on the idea of office politics; the bickering of the mundanely selfish, and observes the extent to which the current American administration has demeaned the role of government in the United States.

Sure…all workplaces contain their share of plots and vendettas, backstabbers and arse-lickers, people on the way up and all the ones they’ve trampled on to get there. But actual politics is about more than that: the power it brings extends well beyond the immediate working environment…

Except, he concludes, in the reign of the great orange pastiche, it doesn’t. Trump does not understand the forces he is supposed to participate in and does not care. His only tools of government are extemporised pronouncement, self-acclamation and hiring-and-firing. He has reduced government to something less, but we are all, Runciman included, struggling to find the correct image to explain the mess.

I had a strong sense that Trump reminded me of someone I had seen regularly on TV, but it wasn’t TV’s Donald Trump. Then I got it. The working environment this White House brings to mind is a reality show that displays a deeper level of truth by being entirely unreal. Woodward’s book reads more than anything like a mockumentary, and the person Trump most resembles is David Brent from The Office. He has the grating inadequacy, the knee-jerk nastiness, the comical self-delusion. But he also has something of the pathos.


The letters pages of the LRB are a slow-burn enthusiasm. I used to skip them, feeling that any pleasure they offered was of the voyeuristic, petty sort experienced by venturing below the line on online news websites. However, they are curated by the editors and are, as a result, always relevant to a regular reader of the publication.

That is not to say that a taste for pettiness goes long unrewarded. This issue, there is a further development –  a reply to a reply – in the delightful feud between Rhodri Lewis, author of Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, and Michael Dobson, who wrote an eviscerating review of that book in the LRB of September 13th. The editors of the paper are wise; they let these academic spats blossom for just long enough for both sides to get a few digs in and then draw a veil over them, so I suspect Dobson’s current letter will be the final say. He has used it well. Taste the vinegar:

Lewis closes by observing that ‘on two or perhaps three occasions I have been seated in close proximity to Dobson at the theatre,’ and he is generous enough to speculate that my apparent obliviousness of his presence may have been feigned out of politeness. I am sorry to have to report that my obliviousness was merely genuine. However, now that I have read Lewis’s letter and his book and seen his image on a dust jacket, it will be possible for me to ignore him in future every bit as politely as he could wish.

Or, to put it another way: “That’s you, that is.”

Pleasurable as this is, there are several serious letters in this issue that extend the topics of recent articles without descending into vitriol, erudite as that vitriol is. In particular, I was interested in the letter from Steve Balogh about the article Neanderthals, Denisovans and Modern Humans, by Steven Mithen from 13th September, which reviewed Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the new science of the human past, by David Reich. The original review had made an impact on me because of the force with which it made the case that racial distinctions between humans are scientifically meaningless, and the stress that modern genetic researchers are laying on this argument. Biology has a dark history of -sometimes deliberate; sometimes incidental- racist interpretation. Now, even well-intentioned work such as Reich’s is laid open to examination in moral and social, as well as scientific lights:

Earlier this year, Buzzfeed published an open letter signed by 67 scientists and scholars in the social sciences, law and humanities about Reich’s treatment of race…The signatories recognise ‘the existence of geographically based genetic variations in our species’, but argue that ‘such variation is not consistent with biological definitions of race.’ Their position is not that human populations ‘have no biological attributes in common’, but that ‘the meaning and significance of the groups is produced through social interventions.’

The article left me with a view of a much more varied and sunny history of human and proto-human interraction, in which the boundaries of species definition are less sharp than we might imagine: an analogue to the answers we all wish racial absolutists would learn about racial definitions. However, this, according to Balogh, might be a misinterpretation. I quote his letter in full:

Steven Mithen steps carefully around the issue of the fecundity of the offspring produced by couplings between ancestral hominin species (LRB, 13 September). The initial sequencing of Neanderthal DNA was of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed only from mother to daughter. It proved to be entirely distinct from that of Homo sapiens: there is today no one on earth whose mitochondria comes from a female Neanderthal ancestor. This means that interbreeding produced fertile offspring only through mating between Neanderthal males and Sapiens females. Subsequent analysis of autosomal DNA showed that the Neanderthal Y chromosome went extinct as well. This means that of the hybrids, only the females were fertile.

The implications are clear: relations between the two populations must have been difficult.

Nevertheless, the developments in DNA archeology are rapid and fascinating. It is an area of study with which I want to keep up. We are a long way from truly understanding what it is to be human, and this new technology has a lot to teach us and a potential for misuse of which we need to beware.


It’s all about race, and its underlying impulse, hierarchicalism. All the mess of Trump’s misrule, and the broader darkness of capitalist inequality, come back to the separation of humanity into groups enjoying legitimacy and dominance and others excluded from that illusory social fortress. Two very different articles highlight this. The first is an account by Thomas Laqueur of a tour of Montgomery, Alabama, focussed upon the new Legacy Museum, a project of the Equal Justice Initiative. The second is a short, coldly angry article by Francis FitzGibbon about the destructive effect of austerity-led misrule over the U.K. justice system, of which, more later.

The Legacy Museum catalogues the scale of the horror of slavery, both when it was the basis of the U.S. economy in a legal framework, and in its reinvention as an extralegal economic structure, skirting the boundaries of slavery’s abolition. I recommend clicking on the link in the previous paragraph. On its home page, there is this:

The Story: Slavery Evolved.  To justify the brutal, dehumanizing institution of slavery in America, its advocates created a myth of racial difference. Stereotypes and false characterizations of black people were created to defend their permanent enslavement as “most necessary to the well-being of the negro” – an act of kindness that reinforced white supremacy. The formal abolition of slavery did nothing to overcome the harmful ideas created to defend it, and so slavery did not end: it evolved.

Lynchings served as the enforcement arm of a parallel state in the U.S., and, in a way, they still do, although that parallel state now has one of its most enthusiastic denizens in charge of the greater nation. The sheer scale of the terror is dizzying: 150 deaths in a particular incident (more people than died on Kristellnacht), three a week through the 1890s and one a week or more for decade after decade, and well into the civil rights era. But it is the deliberateness of this sustained failure to concede the wrongness of one racial identity’s power over another that repeatedly shocked me throughout Laqeur’s article:

Lynching – charivari at its most violent, a murderous popular enforcement of majority community values – has nowhere else in the world been employed for as long or as often as in the United States. There are incidences of it in some Central American countries with weak governments; it is now on the rise in India. But it is indigenous here. Before the Civil War whites were the primary victims, especially but not exclusively in the relatively lawless west. After it, close to 75 per cent of lynchings were in the deep South; more than 90 per cent of the victims were black…But the story of African Americans constitutes a special case. No other post-slave society turned to terror lynching to maintain white racial dominance.

And they were horrible murders, as well: the atavistic desire to make the outsider suffer and to revel in his, or her, suffering.

In a 1909 article called ‘Lynching, Our National Crime’, Ida B. Wells identified another, unassimilable strangeness: ‘No other nation, civilised or savage, burns its criminals,’ she writes. ‘Only under that Stars and Stripes is the human holocaust possible.’ Europe had not seen public burnings since the Spanish Inquisition and the burning of heretics after the Reformation. Racial terror was more than instrumental: the hundreds of carnivalesque burnings and hangings were ritually constitutive of the white South, a holocaust in its Old Testament sense. Lynchings were sometimes responses to primitive fears of the sort we usually connect to the early modern European witchcraft trials and medieval pogroms: Charlotte Harris was lynched in Rockingham County, Virginia ‘after a white man’s barn burned down’; three people were lynched because the white family for whom they were working claimed to have been poisoned; seven black people were lynched near Screamer, Alabama for drinking from a white person’s well.

There was always a pretext for the random murder of black people, then as now; often spurious sexual accusations, but, among the many other lies, rejection of a business offer or trying to vote seem to pierce the crazed patina of pseudo-moral outrage of the murderers, just as traffic stops by modern, poorly-trained and heavily armed police forces make us see through the lying generalisations about black American criminality. We should not believe, however, that these pretences were (or are) anything other than rationales for power, because the murderers didn’t (and don’t). They knew (and know) what they were (and are) doing.

The so-called Wilmington Insurrection was, in fact, a coup; whites, furious at the victory of a mixed-race coalition in a local election, started a rampage. At least thirty blacks – the EJI puts the number at sixty – were murdered. ‘North Carolina is a white man’s state and white men will rule it,’ the local paper announced. ‘No other party will ever dare to attempt to establish negro rule here.’

The rape pretext, like all the others, can be linked to slavery: a metonym for the white fear of blacks in revolt. In her 1911 memoirs, Rebecca Latimer Felton, a leading Southern advocate of women’s rights but an inveterate racist, made the link blindingly obvious: ‘Southern fathers and husbands’, she wrote, remembered the fear of slave insurrections during the Civil War, and were ‘desperate as to remedies’. ‘It is the secret of lynching instead of a legal remedy. It was “born in the blood and bred in the bone”, and a resultant of domestic slavery in the Southern states.’

The other aspect of this terror-dominance is the misuse of formal legal structures to embed inequality. While the U.S. has seen a steady decline in overall crime over several generations, the imprisonment of black men has become its own holocaust. Neither is this a new phenomenon.

The museum shows how the Black Codes passed by Southern states after the end of the Civil War to restrict the occupations, movements and wages of former slaves led to the rise of incarceration of blacks for petty crimes, partly as a result of their inability to pay fines for small infractions. It also documents the advent of black convict leasing, when prisoners were hired out to provide labour to private companies. It is not hard to see the present in that past, and some of the continuities are almost parodic. The notorious 19th-century Louisiana State Penitentiary is known as Angola after the sugar plantation on the same site which was worked by slaves before the Civil War; after the war it remained a sugar plantation but was worked instead by black convict labour. Those not needed on the plantation were hired out elsewhere. But unlike expensive privately owned slaves whose lives mattered, leased convicts were disposable. In bad years the death rate among leased prisoners was roughly equivalent to that in the labour camp part of Auschwitz.


The final article I read this morning, and the one that made me put down the LRB and decide to spend another morning blogging, was a Short Cuts piece by Francis FitzGibbon on the deliberate, catastrophic dismantling of public justice funding in the U.K. When I stopped working (as a teacher) in the criminal justice system, in 2013, the prison system was at something of a high point. Much was wrong with it still, of course, and the creeping privatisation bode ill for the future. However, the generation of prison officers whose attitudes had been formed in the anarchy and violence of the 1980s (known within the service as ‘the dinosaurs’) had, by and large, been removed, or been sidelined, to be replaced by educated, professionalised officers of commitment and understanding. Suicide, self-harm, violence towards officers and other prisoners, and even reoffending across all types of crime were as low as they had ever been. While Disney had made an expression of interest in the next round of privatisations, and G4s and Serco were defying their incompetence to hoover up more and more of the funds available to prisons, the New Labour government, for all its varied and manifest failings, had managed to keep a lid on the U.S. style marketisation of prisons in this country, albeit a shaky one.

Today, five years later, we are in a state that is probably as bad as the worst period of the eighties, although, with the collapse of principled journalism, you would hardly know it. Prison unrest and assaults against staff; suicide rates that indicate it is becoming a tolerated norm for prisons to suffer regular self-slayings; staffing levels that make the delivery of even basic safety, let alone meaningful activity serving towards rehabilitation a wistful memory: the horror mounts up, virtually ignored by society at large.

Unusually, though, in this political and social disaster, there is a clear culprit. I have been amazed by the continuing power of a particular Tory Minister: Chris Grayling. He is a base, incompetent ideologue, with his eyes firmly set upon the dismantlement of a working U.K. FitzGibbon, focussing upon the effects his criminal uselessness have had upon the courts system, more than on prisons, has this to say about his tenure as ‘Justice Minister’.

Criminal justice has long been a sandpit for policy-makers, with the political imperative being always to appear ‘tough on crime’. It would be unfair to blame one man for the present state of affairs, but for casual ineptitude no cabinet minister comes close to Chris Grayling, lord chancellor and justice secretary between 2012 and 2015…Prison budgets have been cut by about 30 per cent. Grayling stopped prisoners receiving books. He cut the numbers of prison officers. He hived a large part of the probation service off to private companies, several of which have performed poorly and have had to be saved from going bust by the taxpayer. His legacy is the violence and anarchy that reigns in many prisons today.

I have long loathed Grayling. I find it hard to believe that he was not taking bribes or, at least, working in partnership with organisations in whose interests it is to asset-strip the justice system, on the promise of later favours. Otherwise, why, for fuck’s sake? Why?


Trump, interspecies rape amongst early proto-humans, lynchings, political corruption: all these horrors make it sound as though I have had an uncomfortable and angry morning. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a time when the BBC bases most of its news on the press releases of American corporate lobbying companies and The Guardian is lost in a trap of protecting its writers’ London property interests against all political good sense, reading the London Review of Books gives me a slight reassurance that, on many issues, I am on track, at least in general terms. I am outside the LRB’s social and economic class: the subscription is barely within my means now that my hours at work have been cut, but the recognition that I am not alone in my preoccupations is an important pleasure for me.

 

 

Sunday, 7 October 2018

To Swim In Unfamiliar Waters, And Emerge Enlightened

Being as on-trend as I am doesn’t come easy, and this post is an example of that. Over the last couple of days, I have had an obsessive relationship with a rap album by the actor and rapper Riz Ahmed. For a little while, I thought I had discovered a hidden gem, but it turns out that it is, in fact, two years old and has even been reviewed in Newsweek.

No matter. I love it, and this blog is about things I love. First, though, I need to indulge in a little self-justification.


For many years, I have sought serenity in music, rather than challenge or enlightenment. My escape from the depression and desperation of my twenties and thirties caused a change in my musical tastes. Rock, pop and dance gave way to classical, jazz and (my secret shame) lounge electronica. Ideas are there, at least in the classical and jazz, but they are behind the music, giving rise to it, for the most part; not written into its performance.

Hip-hop and its descendants have had hardly any impact on me. I used, sometimes, to listen to Trevor Nelson on Radio 1 when I was delivering pizzas in the year after I graduated from university, and, I bought Dre Dre’s 2001 in a burst of curiosity after hearing it played by colleagues when I ran a warehouse office, but my feelings about it mirrored the summary on its Wikipedia page: “2001 received generally positive reviews from critics, many of whom praised the music although some found the lyrics objectionable.”

I was a taxi driver in Portsmouth when Dizzee Rascal’s album Boy in Da Corner filled radio with a convincing British rap voice. I was paying off a deep swamp of debts then, though, and living in insecure housing, so buying music was a rare luxury. When I did go to gigs or copy a CD off a mate, it was with a group of students I’d worked with before I got my taxi license, and they favoured the bland brit rock of the time – Snow Patrol, Elbow and Muse – , or the type of American rock that I imagine was what U.S. army tank crews listened to as they shelled villagers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and targeted Arabic journalists: Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Foo Fighters, Green Day, but not Blink 182, whose fifth album, for reasons I cannot now imagine, I broke my self-imposed austerity to buy. Jungle, Dubstep, Drum ‘n’ Bass, Grime; these were for young people living metropolitan lives, and I was no longer young, and was stuck in a provincial city where local radio playlists ruled. Years later, for a year or two, working in the virtual campus in Camp Hill Prison, I was surrounded by young men for whom music was rap, Grime and their subsets, leavened with a little R&B. It was the people who excited me, though: their stories and attitudes, resentments and hopes. The music they championed left me cold, and feeling excluded. I realise the irony of this.

So, I enjoyed the grime I heard on the radio, but I didn’t take it to heart or listen to it in a way that brought it alive to me. Similarly, although I used to occasionally listen to the BBC Radio Asian Network when the taxi I hired had a DAB radio, and was quite a fan of DJ Nihal for a while, I have not really followed the influence of British Asian voices on pop music. I am too old for the anger and lust and demonstrative introversion of pop music now: the season of semen and sin has passed for me, and the pop and rock music that does reach me all sounds so alike, so much a variation on half-a-dozen repetitive themes, that none of it rises above the status of background noise.


Via an interview with him on The Daily Show (for which you’ll need a VPN service unless you’re in the United States) I came across Riz Ahmed’s music, released under the name MC Riz. He and Trevor Noah discussed his first released track, Post 9/11 Blues, which was banned in the U.S.

I searched for him and found he had two albums on Bandcamp. Neither included this track, but I streamed the more recent one and was mesmerised. I paid a fiver, downloaded it, and put it on my little music player, then I took the dog for a walk and listened through the album. I came home, plugged the music player into the kitchen speaker, and played the album through again as I cooked supper. This morning, the first thing I wanted to do was to play it through again.

It’s called Englistan. I’ve embedded it at the top of this page. If you haven’t clicked play, do so now.


n.b.: I’ve transcribed the lyrics in the quotes below as I hear them. I may have made errors.

The album – he calls it a mixtape – is a series of meditations on the pressures of identity. Specifically, he is concerned with the conflict between his Englishness and his identity as the child of Pakistani immigrants.

Since we were small/we’ve been taught a certain way to be is law/It’s deep-seated, like genes are for/”My son, our people came to these shores/with nothing/honour is all we brought/so keep your culture/keep the thought, son”/Last of the Mohicans talk/Since we felt like outsiders/this helped define us/and we made it our choice/but now, I’m just confused/half-Mohican, half-cowboy/Cos life slips/ideas mix/Is it best of both/or two lives I live?

For a white, provincial, middle-aged man like me, for whom mass culture pretends to speak, it is difficult to imagine the specifics of such a situation. Again and again, Riz’s lyrics are revelations.

‘Scuse me moosh/Pardon me/nah, don’t mind me/I’m usually lost/hard to see/…the usual crop of wannabes/all get in the way/hiding me from public view/I’m not included/in any scene as a useful unit/Hybridity gets low YouTube hits…Paki till I drop/UK till I lose it/Never fitting in/Let the beat prove it

However, While that is a central issue, it is only one element in a rich set of themes, and much of the result is broader and more universal than just Asian representation, important and credible as that concern is. The title track, and the first one on the album, sounds, at first listen, as though it mocks Englishness. The chorus says…

God save the Queen/now she ain’t mates with me/but she keeps my paper green/Plus we are neighbours see/On this little island/politeness mixed with violence/This is England

This is not a specific view. Even on the Isle of Wight, his list of grievances about the sheer awfulness and sordidness of the state of England now resonate vividly.

Where the money you make/And the man you are/stand in opposites/so you drink too hard/Where the banks rob you/and the news is half the truth/wrapped up in boobs and arse/Pigs hit kids so/bricks hit windows/and the high street burns/with broken dreams and herb/Only thing you can’t find in Tesco/is that/and a sense of worth/

However, there is affection, and this line gripped me every time I played the song.

Is Britain Great?/Well, hey! Don’t ask me/But it’s where I live/And why my heart beats.

Isn’t that a central conflict in Englishness for all of us: the weary, stupid prejudice of English exceptionalism, constantly being pumped out at us against all evidence? I have felt this; what he says. This stupid myth of British ‘greatness seems to me to be a national leg-iron, smothering the more realistic love that we feel for the idea of a national identity that is at the root of how we are aware of ourselves.

If Englistan had simply stuck to these themes, continuing to explore them, I think I would have found this a fascinating and enlightening album, but on the fourth track, Sunburst, Ahmed changes tack, to a far more personal topic.

I was caught out by this song. I was depressive for two decades, and it has left its shadows, although I rarely think, explicitly, about it now. Nothing that anyone says about depression is new: its mundanity is part of its cruel strength. It is a paper tiger; an ephemeral bully that, when it has you in its grip, feels all-powerful and inescapable.  Ahmed tackles it head-on and comprehensively. Inertia, self-loathing, exhaustion and, centrally, the apparent uselessness of all the trite remedies that only work against despair when you are already through the worst of it, are muttered urgently through clenched teeth in just over four minutes. Through it, though, an R&B refrain repeats and builds the only remedy any of us can offer a depressive: reassurance.

I want you to know now/sunburst will soon come/after rainclouds

Riz duets this chorus with the guest singer, Tawiah between two verses of bleak descriptive rhyming, then there’s a break, and he sings a final verse of brave, common-sense defiance and advice.

First things first/don’t beat yourself up/it makes things worse/It’s not your fault/it’s all just chemical/You’re not a prick/You’re sick/it’s medical…You’ll ride it out and then you’ll laugh/Please believe that this too shall pass

Behind this verse, Tawiah’s voice gradually comes to the fore, repeating the reassurance. I’ve not found it easy to get to grips with R&B voices, but her lovely, emotive, crying voice is used perfectly here.

I was impressed by, and drawn to, Ahmed before I got to this track: I felt close to him after I had heard it.

In the next track, A Few Bob, Tawiah features again. This is the first song to use a narrative structure to carry its theme. Bob, a hapless everyman, is caught in debt and the financial crash. Tawiah sings:

When the house of cards/comes falling down/I’m left holding the joker/Did we come so far/for it all to fall down?/I gave you my dreams and you broke them.

Incidentally, last night Amanda and I went to a screening of a film about the NHS selloff, whose most shocking revelation was the degree to which the dismantlement of the U.K. state has been planned by American corporations and their treasonous British lackeys. This song reflects the fact that young people, who don’t share my lingering delusion in the fundamental decency of the British order, have been perfectly aware of this treason for years.


I didn’t mean this to be a track-by-track review of the album, but each song is compelling in a different way, building on what has come before without repeating. I wanted to talk about the production, which is as much a part of my fascination with Englistan as the vividness of the brilliantly observed lyrics. The electronic music is cold, restless and often disruptive, playing a part in the dramatic structure of the arguments or stories the songs tell. Much of it is in minor keys; the musical theme of the title track is one of the few obviously Asian-influenced segments: a looped phrase of, perhaps, bansuri? My ignorance shames me. I know hardly anything about Indian music, and just as little about how electronic music is produced. I assume it’s all done on Cubase on a Mac.

In other tracks, there are string duets and acoustic guitar trills, echoing, to my ears, Philip Glass or Max Richter minimalist loops. On Sunburst, this is reflected in an atonal opening theme, and the song is punctuated by anxious organ tones and percussive bell strikes until what sound like harp arpeggios lay a suggestion of hope and optimism over the darkness. However, it is on the penultimate track that the modern operatic voice comes to its powerful conclusion.

Benaz is theatre as song. Ahmed’s comic acting chops shine in the final track, I Ain’t Being Racist But…, but in Benaz, it is pure, sincere acting. It is a poem-play about the murder of Banaz Mahmoud, an Iraqi-Kurdish refugee who fell in love with an Iranian Kurdish man and was killed by her father and uncle. The true story has been sensitively and exhaustively documented in a 2012 film, Banaz: A Love Story, which, I warn you, makes hard watching. Ahmed’s rendition of the story is an imagined one, and it is beautiful. He takes her experience and makes it day-to-day; how inescapable young love is, even in the context of a life lived subject to tyranny; especially when the love is the only apparent hope of an escape from that tyranny. It is Romeo and Juliet set in pebble-dashed Greater-London terraces and fluorescent-lit Tesco Metros, with the hope of escape represented by woodland and wet grass. Woven through it is the dance of cello and violin, acoustic guitar and restrained electronic chords that heighten the tension.

It should be a story of unrelieved defeat. That it is not is thanks to a refrain sung by Ayana Witter-Johnson. It seems trite typed below, but, in context, it is gorgeous.

If I knew I’d live in shame/Just to be near you/I would do it all again/I would do it all again.

But even with that redemption, it is impossible to escape that this is the story of a reckless, stupid, ugly and bitterly cruel crime against a gentle, kind and brave young couple. Banaz Mahmoud and her lover, Rahmat Suleimani, are in my prayers, as is her braver-than-brave sister, who now lives her life in hiding.

Part of the discomfort of the film about Banaz is the way in which this family and community tragedy became a political theme and then a racist trope. This is expressed baldly in the final track of Englistan, a satirical monologue without music, in the voice of an archetypal (although unconvincingly literate) white supremacist ranter. It is funny, but it is also a catalogue of despair, especially in the context of all that has come before.


In the Newsweek interview to which I linked at the opening of this post, Riz Ahmed is quoted as saying,

I describe it as a love letter to modern Britain, which is multicultural Britain…A lot of people feel like they’ve been jilted by their country recently, or alienated, or wronged. Their country has cheated on them in some way in the past couple of years…Love letters do sometimes contain complaints.

What he has done, for me, is to describe his and my country in terms stripped of all the comforting bollocks: all the mythopoeic fog that is constructed to preserve a privilege-zone of hierarchical certainty for a subset of English identity. I love my English culture, but I know just enough history to understand that culture is not fixed: we remake it every day, and that is a beautiful thing, if we acknowledge the vitality of our variety as a national group. The idea of a fixed and unchanging England, that has been ‘betrayed’ by change is a lie, and it is a lie that hurts us, belittles us, makes us sordid and stupid.


I am a long way from my areas of authority writing about rap, and about British Asian voices. I have approached this review as a fellow-Briton, in admiration for a work of art that has gripped my imagination and touched many of my concerns. If I have said anything stupid, made any dad-mistakes while writing about an artform about which I have barely any education beyond the research I did for this post, forgive me. I mean only respect for an album that has lit the past few days for me, doing what art should always try to do: opening up the world for me, touching something within me and, ultimately, enlightening me.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Realistic Hope For A Better World

Anything I say about this speech would be inadequate. It is sublime.

Watch it, read it, remember it.

Emily Thornberry MP, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, speaking at Labour Party Conference today, said:

Chair, Conference, it’s a privilege to be opening this debate on behalf of my good friends Nia Griffith and Kate Osamor, their shadow teams, including Liverpool’s own Dan Carden, and my own superb ministerial team: Liz McInnes, Khalid Mahmood, Fabian Hamilton, Helen Goodman, Ray Collins, and my PPS Danielle Rowley.

And it’s wonderful to be back in Liverpool: a city we really thought couldn’t get any more Labour, but where last year, we won 37,000 more votes than in 2015, our biggest ever vote in this city. And next time round, under the inspirational leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, we’ll go one better.

It’s been 35 years since we kicked the last Tory MP out of Liverpool. And next time round, we’ll win Southport as well, and kick the Tories out of Merseyside for good.

———–

Conference, as we all know, this is a year of important anniversaries in the history of the socialist movement – a movement always based on the unstoppable momentum of the masses, the incredible inspiration of courageous individuals and a core belief that injustice done to any of us is injustice done to all of us wherever we are in the world.

And in this year of anniversaries, we start by celebrating 150 years of the TUC: 150 years spent fighting for workers, not just in Britain but all across the globe, and stronger than ever today thanks to the leadership of Frances O’Grady, and thanks to a Labour leadership which now respects the representatives of our workers, rather than treating them with deliberate contempt.

And in this year of anniversaries, Conference, let’s recall it’s 130 years since a thin, humble, bearded socialist – it’s funny how those men can change the world – a Frenchman called Pierre De Geyter sat down and wrote a new melody for some old lyrics, and created the song we know as ‘The Internationale’, which inspired the working class of Europe and shook the ruling class, because it rejected war, rejected exploitation, and urged the human race to unite.

And of course, conference, it’s 100 years since the first women in our country won the right to vote and won the right to stand for Parliament. And don’t let anyone ever say that we were ‘given’ those rights, because the women who came before us weren’t given anything! They fought for those rights, they suffered for those rights, and some died for those rights. And everything we now enjoy was won for us by those brave, brilliant women.

But it’s also 100 years, Conference, since a young woman who never got the right to vote gave birth to her only son: a son who was refused permission to attend her funeral 50 years later because he was in a prison cell on Robben Island. Nosekeni Mandela never got to see her son freed. She never got to see him change his country and inspire the world. But he called her “the centre of his universe” so we owe it to her that he did.

And Conference, we also this year celebrate the anniversaries of some of Labour’s greatest achievements: 70 years since the Attlee Government created the NHS; 50 years since the Wilson Government helped create the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and 20 years, Conference, since Gordon Brown brought in the Tax Credits which the Tories are trying to dismantle; 20 years since Tony Blair secured the Good Friday Agreement which the Tories are trying to jeopardise; and 20 years since a Labour government started the Devolution Revolution which the Tories are trying to ignore as they hurtle towards a false choice between the ‘Chequers Deal’ and ‘No Deal’, either one of which will kill jobs and growth all across our country, and neither one of which we will accept.

————-

But Conference, it is also a year of solemn anniversaries.

100 years since the end of the First World War, when young men from every corner of the human race united across Europe, Africa, The Middle East and Asia, not in the spirit of The Internationale, but – in the words of Keir Hardie – “to fill the horrid graves of war” in the name “of selfish and incompetent statesmen” who had failed to preserve peace.

And it is 70 years too Conference, since the assassination of Gandhi and 50 years since Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy: three men of peace, three men of hope, all shot dead because they believed in an alternative to violence and hatred and war.

And there is a final anniversary we must pause and remember today. Because Conference, it was 80 years ago this very week that the International Brigades were disbanded after their brave struggle against fascism in Spain, and their heroic final stand at The Ebro. And we pay tribute today to those brave men and women, including one of this city’s greatest sons, the legendary Jack Jones, who were prepared to sacrifice their youth, their futures and their lives to try and stop the rise of fascism in Europe.

And we need that same spirit today, Conference, because make no mistake, those dangerous forces are on the rise again in our world on a pace and scale not seen since the days of the International Brigades.

And it is not just the scenes from Charlottesville to Stockholm of masked thugs marching under Neo-Nazi Banners. It is also – far more dangerously – the rise of leaders projecting a form of nationalism not defined by love of one’s country and one’s people, but by hatred towards everyone else; by the erosion of democracy and free speech; and by the demonisation of any minority, any religion, and indeed any media outlet deemed to be ‘the enemy’.

And everywhere we see those governments today, we know they are contributing to the creation of a world which is the opposite of The Internationale’: a world where the human race is more divided, more drowning in hatred than at any time since the 1930s. And a world which is therefore utterly unable to deal with the problems that we all collectively face.

That is why our world leaders shrug their shoulders as the Climate Change crisis reaches the point of no return. That is why governments like ours continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia even when it is proven that those weapons are being used to murder innocent children in Yemen. That is why the war in Syria too remains so intractable and destructive, with the dozen major countries involved not striving to stop it, but playing their own lethal power games with other peoples’ lives.

That is why North Korea can happily continue developing their bomb; Iran can keep Nazanin jailed for a third year; Myanmar and Cameroon can slaughter their own citizens at will; Russia can act with impunity not just in Syria but in Salisbury; and Donald Trump can tear up treaties it took other leaders years to agree.

All because Conference, the world order has been turned into a global free-for-all, and the leadership to fix it is simply not there. But Conference, it’s here in this hall, it’s here on this stage, it’s here in Jeremy Corbyn. And we as the Labour Party in government must strive to lead the world in a different direction.

So with Nia Griffith’s leadership, we will support our forces, maintain 2 per cent spending on defence, invest more in peacekeeping, respect our international treaties, and never hesitate to defend ourselves, our allies, and our citizens abroad. But equally, we will never as a party go back to supporting illegal, aggressive wars of intervention with no plans for the aftermath, and no thought for the consequences, whether in terms of the innocent lives lost or the ungoverned spaces created within which terrorist groups can thrive.

And with Kate Osamor’s leadership, we will also rise to the challenge that Nelson Mandela set this Conference eighteen years ago when he told us that “one of Labour’s major political and moral tasks in the 21st century” was to “become once more the keepers of our brothers and sisters [all around] the world.”

And with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, we must and will lead the world in promoting human rights, in reforming the arms trade, in pursuing an end to conflict, in supporting not demonising refugees, and in turning the promise of a nuclear-free world from an impossible dream to a concrete goal.

And with the leadership of every single one of us, Conference, we must also honour the memory of the International Brigades, and lead the fight against the forces of fascism, of racism, and prejudice, and anti-semitism. Because that is what we have always done both at home and abroad, and that is what we must always do.

————–

We were there in Spain fighting Franco in 1936. We were there in Cable Street that same year fighting alongside the Jewish community to stop the Blackshirts. We were here in Liverpool a year later, when Oswald Mosley tried to speak in this great city and was forced out without saying a word. And we were there in the 1980s – I was there myself – when we marched against the National Front.

And let’s remember Conference, we won all those battles! We beat the Blackshirts, and the NF, and the BNP, and the EDL, and whatever they call themselves today, however they dress up their racial hatred, we are there in the same streets telling the fascists: ‘No Pasaran’.

And when we look back on all those battles, stretching back 80 years, I make a simple point, it hasn’t been thousands of Tories assembling in the streets to fight the forces of fascism. It’s been the men and women in this room. It’s been Jack Jones and Jeremy’s parents. It’s been Jon Lansman and Len McCluskey, Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. So while I make a point of never disagreeing with John on anything, I disagree with him on this: we don’t need a new Anti-Nazi League, because the Anti-Nazi League is in this hall and on this stage.

————

But Conference, let me speak to you from the depths of my heart and my soul and say something I never thought I’d have to say in my lifetime as a Labour member and activist, and it is simply this: that if we want to root out fascism and racism and hatred from our world, and from our country, then we must start, we must start, with rooting it out of our own party.

We all support the Palestinian cause, we are all committed to recognise the Palestinian State, and I stand here with no hesitation when I condemn the Netanyahu government for its racist policies and its criminal actions against the Palestinian people.

But I know as well, and we must all acknowledge, that there are sickening individuals on the fringes of our movement, who use our legitimate support for Palestine as a cloak and a cover for their despicable hatred of Jewish people, and their desire to see Israel destroyed. Those people stand for everything that we have always stood against and they must be kicked out of our party the same way Oswald Mosley was kicked out of Liverpool.

—————

And Conference, there is something more. Because if we truly want to realise the dream of The Internationale to unite the human race, and re-unite our country, then again we must start with uniting our own party, and ending the pointless conflicts which divide our movement, which poison our online debate, and which distract us from fighting the Tories.

Because as Gandhi said: “We but mirror the world so if we could change ourselves, the world would also change.” But if we can’t show the strength to change ourselves to change the way we behave to each other, how can we ever hope to change the country, and aspire to change the world?

But if we can do all that, just think what we’re capable of. Think what history we can create in government. Think what we can achieve that future Labour Conferences will remember as great anniversaries.

————–

And I want to close with a story told by Dolores Gomez about the siege of Madrid in 1936, when every day she and her fellow citizens expected their streets to fall to the fascist forces surrounding the city. And sure enough, one day, they heard a huge army on the march

“Iron clad boots”, she said, “Men marching silent, severe, with rifles on their shoulders and bayonets fixed, making the earth tremble under their feet.” She and others crouched on balconies overlooking the street, rifles cocked and grenades ready to be thrown, just waiting for the order to attack.

But then she said, the army began to sing. “A thrill goes down the spines of the people, `Is this a dream?’ ask the women, sobbing.” But no, it was not. The men marching down the street had begun singing ‘The Internationale’, each in their own language – French, Italian, German, and English – the men of The International Brigades, all singing different words, but all with the same meaning, that when any of us is under attack from the forces of hatred, prejudice and exploitation, we are all under attack and we must unite and fight back together.

And if we can show that same unity today in our party, if we can root out prejudice and end division in our own ranks, then we can heal our divided country, we can unite our fractured world, and we can show that the greatest achievements of our socialist movement lie not in our past, but in our future. That is the kind of government we need for our country and that is the kind of Britain we need for our world.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

A Polemic About Social Media And Political Campaigning

Preamble

A month or so back, a friend of mine who suffers from long-term, severe mental illness was attacked by a group of boys on her estate. They took photographs of that attack and posted them on social media.

They are pretty much immune from prosecution, thanks to the ‘viral’ response to their post. Granted, they are now pariahs in their close-knit community, and their ugly, stupid act will follow them into their adulthood, cropping up whenever they attempt to make any public progress in their lives. If you believe in mob-justice, then justice might be said to have been done. The state, however, because of the illegal publication of their identities on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, is powerless to take action against them. It can only attempt to protect them from the self-aggrandizing vigilantiism to which they have opened themselves by their use of social media and their grotesque immaturity. The legitimate, accountable, democratically-authorised legal system has been short-circuited by a foreign-owned capitalist monopoly that uses the everyday indignities of humanity as grist to its algorithms and regards legal and democratic structures as barriers to wealth creation and the self-actualisation of the cleverest, luckiest and most ammoral elite in history.

I saw my friend last weekend. She is terrified. She is not engaging with the community which piously leapt to her defense after years of treating her as a local embarrassment, and she thinks the police are trying to victimise her: their inability to give her a clear course of legal remedy for her ordeal has confused the issue beyond her ability to engage with it. She is also mesmerised by her Facebook feed, which seems to be confirming her long-standing belief that the world is purposed towards her destruction. Horribly, I think that her fear that the hatred towards the boys will swing back to her may be justified. That is the nature of restless, self-righteous, technologically-enabled groupthink.

The rule of law is a mainstay of democracy. Facebook undermines that rule. It is inherently anti-democratic.

A Short History of Social Media and Political Campaigning

The 2015 Labour Leadership Poll was a triumph for people who sought to manipulate social media in the service of meaningful political change: what Jeremy Corbyn called, “…a thirst for something more communal, more participative.”[1]

By the 2017 general election, however, the political promise of the medium had begun to be diminished by forces other than the well-directed groundswell of public feeling that had empowered the Elect Corbyn for Leader movement. I am not an unquestioning fan of Momentum, but I think that the campaign to elect Corbyn as leader was a model of how to use social media to a positive purpose. What they achieved in ‘15 was to break the ‘echo chamber’ or bubbling effect of Facebook and Twitter’s algorithms, by pulling in unsympathetic friends of sympathisers, and engaging them in debate and exposing them to sincere voices of political hope.[2] By the time of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and by 2017, the social media companies had realised that this was a loophole in their control of users’ media consumption and had adjusted.

Before Facebook became a publicly quoted company, focussed on advertising spend, it had been chasing engagement over content control, powering for growth, and there was a certain freedom of expression allowed to its users. By 2016, it was chasing the control of what its users were seeing to a far greater extent, refining their offering to advertisers and data-purchasers and trying to present a soothing, ‘mimetic’ (ie, reflective, flattering) experience to users which would make viewing Facebook a comfortable and reinforcing experience to which people would return without worry.[3] That is why they bubble you. It’s not a service. It’s a mechanism of control.

Furthermore, the sophistication of the JeremyForLeader campaign, alongside the Occupy movment and the lessons learned from The Arab Spring movements, had caught the attention of other forces, both within the U.K. and outside it. Academic studies translated to media management policies[4] which were adopted by right-wing forces[5] and foreign intelligence services[6] to undermine the impact of organised popular campaigns. Populism swings in many directions.

In short, the glory days are over for democrats who use social media. An open technology -the internet- that was designed to release knowledge, communication and democratic access from the establishment gatekeepers who had directed public debate since at least the 1850s[7], has been co-opted by a new capitalist, plutocratic, neo-liberal elite, to bind its customers into a tower of Babel, in which coherent exchange of ideas is anathema, labelled as TL:DNR.

The Limits of ‘Privacy’ Settings

Know this: a private Facebook group is not private. It is exclusive, in that the labour put into it is restricted to those who choose to sign up to it. This means that it serves as a mechanism of exclusion of those people who, for whatever reason, choose to not participate in social media. However, that ad hominen rant against a comrade to which you succumbed during the Owen Smith leadership challenge is available to the right level of advertiser, if they’re searching for dirt on the Labour Party during an election campaign.

And that situation assumes that you’re wise enough to restrict your rants to a ‘private’ group, and to not share your breathless prose in a moment of vainglory to your main feed. Or that all the members of the group have the best wishes of the party at heart. Or that the administrators have kept up with the constant changes to Facebooks privacy rules, and that the group is still actually set to ‘private’, rather than just ‘closed’. Or that no one is taking screenshots for malicious purposes.

But you know that, really. How else do the rumours of ‘green infiltrators’ get started?

Unless you delete your account -not just a single comment, but your whole account- and forego logging back into it for two weeks after you have deleted it, everything you have ever uploaded, written, sniped or ‘shared’, is sitting in a folder on Facebook’s servers, available to the highest bidder, and linked to you. Have you ever enjoyed watching someone try to backtrack on an opinion they expressed five years ago in a drunken moment? It could be you. Only the safety of the crowd protects you.

The Great Con

There is a rather mischievous argument doing the rounds in internet freedom circles that claims China actually has more politically effective internet access than the free West. I consider that nonsense: Chinese citizens have definitely scored real successes in changing government policy through internet activism, but they’ve been pretty well educated in staying away from economic, central government and foreign affairs topics. However, the state is not the only enemy of freedom, and in the West, it is not even the most powerful.

As John Lanchester puts it:

Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens…Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.[8]

The sight of large chunks of a socialist party beavering away, providing free labour to create content for a few American monopolist corporations fills me with despair. It is as if the Chartists had had their discussions about citizens’ rights in the tearoom of the House of Lords. In the light of what we know about how Facebook played (or, as they claim, were played, during) the last American presidential election, we should understand that they have worked out how to neutralise justice movements’ energy and commitment. They want to keep you happy, yes; that is why there are cat videos, but angry people click as well, and division is incredibly easy to sow, if you know where to lay the seeds, and you own the field.

Know this also: social media, particularly Facebook, is as much a product of manipulative psychological theory as it is a product of technology. Zuckerberg actually pursued a dual degree at Harvard: Computing and Psychology. The mechanisms written into Facebook behavioural algorithms are rooted in the theories of conditioned response which underpin the most nakedly dishonest branches of marketing, propoganda and behavioural control. The desire for a ‘like’ or a notification of any kind on a social media app or browser window, is the same conditioned twitch seeking content-free reward as is used by the designers of gambling machines. It is the behaviour of the rat that has been trained to associate a button with pleasure and will starve to death seeking the signifier of that pleasure, even when the actual reward has been removed from the process.

Von Clausewitz said that armies lose when they try to re-fight the last war. The limited, almost-victory of the 2017 election was successful, as far as it went, not because of social media, but because Labour concentrated on what mattered: having control of its content and being clear about what it stood for. The brief flowering of commercial social media as a medium of democratic liberation is over. We need to create our own fields.

We need a CLP Facebook feed, but it should be treated as a shop window, only being populated with content approved by the CLP, in a professional manner: another method among many to spread our Labour ideals to the public. It should be curated, nurtured and controlled.

We do not need a public kvetching arena, which is what our ‘private’ Facebook group is.

Get off Facebook. Start creating our own discussion groups on secure media that we own: Diaspora is a good first step, but a Rocket chat server would be more instinctive for most users and would be easy to set up, and cheap to run, and we would own it in a way we would not own a Facebook page. It would also be free of the pressure to keep up, to keep chasing the approval of an algorithm. It would remove the competitive fury inherent in social media slavery, and it would allow us to discuss again, instead of constantly arguing.

Bibliography

Nunns, Alex, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power (1st ed), OR Books, New York & London, 2016,

Lanchester, John, You Are The Product, London Review Of Books, Vol 39 No. 16, Aug. 2017.  https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n16/john-lanchester/you-are-the-product

Miller, Patrick R., et al. “Talking Politics on Facebook: Network Centrality and Political Discussion Practices in Social Media.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 2015, pp. 377–391. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24371839.

Schroeder, Ralph, Digital media and the rise of right-wing populism Social Theory after the Internet: Media, Technology, and Globalization UCL Press. (2018) https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt20krxdr.6

Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 2, 2017, pp. 211–235. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44235006

 

Endnotes

  1. Cited in Nunns, Alex, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power, (1st ed) OR Books, New York & London, 2016, p143
  2. Nunns, p251
  3. Lanchester, John, You Are The Product, London Review Of Books, Vol 39 No. 16, Aug. 2017.
  4. Miller, Patrick R., et al. “Talking Politics on Facebook: Network Centrality and Political Discussion Practices in Social Media.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 2015, pp. 377–391. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24371839.
  5. Schroeder, Ralph, Digital media and the rise of right-wing populism Social Theory after the Internet: Media, Technology, and Globalization UCL Press. (2018) https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt20krxdr.6
  6. Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 2, 2017, pp. 211–235. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44235006.
  7. Alcott & Geentzkow
  8. Lanchester,

 

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Reality, Content and the Death of Meaning.

Besides half an episode of the first series of Big Brother, which I switched off in cringing irritation, I have never watched a reality TV programme. Like Nando’s, homeopathy and Chris Ryan books, reality TV seems like an experience which belongs on a list of exceptions to the ‘don’t knock ’till you’ve tried it’ rule.

I just put “try anything once except…” into DuckDuckGo and discovered that it was Sir Thomas Beecham who said he drew the line at incest and folk-dancing. It reminded me how dull I am.

Nevertheless, it is a familiar world. On tired evenings, I like watching The Big Bang Theory on E4, and it is usually sandwiched between extended trailers for the bizarre sexualisation of a tropical beach or Spanish villa, with steroid-queen English boys smirking at siliconed English girls in an atmosphere of mutual loathing, humiliation and hypocritical endearments.

Worse than that incidental exposure to the wretched form is the ‘serious’ criticism that tries to elevate ‘reality’ to a meaningful topic of discussion, rather than the intellectual and moral scab-picking it really is. Oddly juxtaposed with stories about the menopause and FGM, reality TV as a ‘guilty pleasure’ is a stand-by on Woman’s Hour, as predictable as the choice of Book of the Week. Roland Barthes, I suppose, can be used to justify this attention to a form that is so static, so lacking in any sense of revelatory epiphany that even he, I suspect, would have given a Gallic pfft to this stymied vortex of attention-seeking and not-quite-rape. Semiology, seeking to find enlightenment in the dignifying of popular forms, is rendered into a simulacrum of a non-representation by an art that is only artifice: form without even the ambition of meaning.

It is a measure of my trust in the writer John Lanchester that I even started his story in the current issue of the LRB, ‘Love Island’. Such is my disinterest in the topic, that I almost decided to pass over it, even though I am usually delighted to see that he has an article in the Review. His essay on the lasting impact of the great financial crash in an issue a month or so back finally convinced me that we really are living through the death of capitalism. A review last year, You Are The Product, about the confidence trick that is social media, gave me a summary of all the fury I feel towards the corporate monopolisation of the internet and the ruination of this wonderful technology. Over the past couple of years, I have read articles and reviews by him on Brexit, Bitcoin and Nabakov, and they have all been the sort of reading that leaves me feeling empowered by a clearer vision than I can manage on my own.

I really, really recommend Love Island. Buy the edition of the LRB or read it online. It is a short story that has echoes of several science fiction stories that are buried in my collection of old anthologies, never to be rediscovered, but it is beautifully constructed and perfectly paced. He has done what I could never bring myself to do: look at the reality TV form closely and see it through the eyes of the participants: the people for whom the ritual is an elite rite of passage into the gleaming uplands of celebrity and vindication. Not individually stupid, they have buried themselves in stupidity for the sake of validating their devotion to the surface-trapped onanism of our culture. They do it to themselves and they pursue the promise that one, every other year or so, will rise out of the murk to make a career that echoes that of the most wretched of fame’s sub-tribes; the presenter.

There’s a strange further quirk to this story. In the same edition, David Thompson has a (subscriber only) article on binge-watching a drama series about Berlin in the 1930s. His experience has some of the pointlessness of watching an entire series of reality TV, as he highlights the hallucinogenic quality of view-on-demand, multi-layered narrative television drama that, to allow for follow-on series, (excuse me: seasons) never comes to anything but conditional climaxes. However, the particular topic of the series he discusses, the decadence of a doomed culture dancing towards apocalypse, came to have a far more contemporary value, once I had read Lanchester’s story about lost souls, pretending to be happy, pretending to be pursuing love, in a sun-drenched prison, isolated from any redeeming dialectic of meaning.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Another discussion worth saving

Ash Sarkar’s description of communism has got me searching for information on Frantz Fanon and making me feel like a woolly liberal.
I have a feeling my political thought might be developing in the next few months.
This discussion is the polar opposite of the Good Morning Britain view of ‘debate’.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Surprised By Joy

Much as I treasure the memory of the day I married Amanda, I am not a fan of weddings. Neither am I an ardent royalist, so I didn’t mark the fact that yesterday was the day of the royal wedding, despite having a suspicion that it might represent a bit of a milestone in the history of arcane privilege in this country. I am delighted that a woman who proudly acknowledges her African-American heritage is marrying into the upper echelons of the British establishment, but I would still rather see that establishment dismantled. As a spectacle, the British establishment, and the pressure on us as Britons to gawp at and feel part of its showy exclusivity, feels to me like a pressure and a con, and I try to ignore it, as far as possible.

Furthermore, this country is sliding into a deeper trough of exclusion and outright cruelty, in which anyone who does not enjoy marked privilege is threatened by the spectre of real poverty. I heard, over the last few days, of people already discarded by society being harassed and further dispossessed under the cover of the coming big event. I felt I did not want any part of it.

So, yesterday, I worked on my OU course and played with my computers, walked the dog and, in the evening, after making supper, we drove over to Ventnor for a drink with Andy and Amy at a beachside bar, and I think we mentioned the fact that this ‘historic event’ was occurring only in passing, giving more time to the fact that Andy and Amy had been watching Suits on Netflix than to the wedding itself. We are just not that interested.

However, this morning, Amanda urged me to watch the sermon by the Most Revd. Michael Curry. Amanda is not a Christian, but she tolerates my belief and she shares many of the values that I draw from Christianity, chief among them being the central importance of love in human affairs.

On one level, it is hilarious. The idea of Prince Andrew, an arms dealer, sitting with a face like a bemused, deflated lemon, through the Bishop’s plea to “…study war no more” will stay with me. His two daughters, whenever the cameras caught them, seemed to be sniggering through the sermon.

Other members of the great and not-so-good seemed to get it, though. Princess Anne’s daughter, whose name escapes me, was listening with a half-smile on her face, her mouth hanging open, as though the power of the Bishop’s words had reached her, and she was sharing the good news. In the main congregation, when the bishop, who has been strong on LGBT rights within the church, leading to something of a rift between the American Episcopal church and the wider Anglican community, declared, ” Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well … like we are actually family” the camera caught David Beckham smiling and nodding in recognition.

The New Fire

The central conceit of the Bishop’s final remarks was based upon the observation by the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that fire had been the crucial tool in the development of human civilisation and that, like fire, love has the power to drive us on, into a new era of human growth, beyond division, hatred and poverty. It sounded, to my Socialist ears, like a plea for equality and justice; the very ideas that I find whenever I read the Gospel of Matthew and that I believe represent the core of Christ’s teaching.

In a church that was built by militarist conquerors, to a social class whose modern wealth is rooted in the blood money of the slave trade, to a groom in military uniform, and a congregation among whom few had experienced a day of real material need or want, a man of God declared the value of human faith, the imperative of peace and the real, lasting power of love.

If you don’t believe me, just stop and imagine. Think and imagine a world where love is the way.

Imagine our homes and families where love is the way.
Imagine our neighbourhoods and communities where love is the way.
Imagine our governments and nations where love is the way.
Imagine business and commerce where this love is the way.
Imagine this tired old world where love is the way.

When love is the way – unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive.
When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again.
When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever flowing brook.
When love is the way, poverty will become history.
When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.
When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more.
When love is the way, there’s plenty good room – plenty good room – for all of God’s children. Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well … like we are actually family.
When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.

My brothers and sisters, that’s a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family. And let me tell you something, old Solomon was right in the Old Testament: that’s fire.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

An Old Map Of Hell

I’ve only got a single paper copy of my dissertation, and it is fading badly. I typed it originally on a machine that used diskettes for storage and I used a borrowed disk, so that it went back to the computer’s owner when I had finished the work. In those days, I thought of computers as posh typewriters: the output was a physical product, and the data was simply means to producing that object.

I’ve been meaning to type it up into a digital copy, and tidy up some of the spelling and punctuation for some years, and I have finally done it. I’m not entirely sure of the copyright status of dissertations: I have an idea that the university has some claim over it. Anyway, I thought I would post a copy, in case anyone might find it interesting. It’s pretty adolescent, as you’d expect, but I stand by the overall gist.

Alienation in the 1960s in The Novels of J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick

Full page form here.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

The Guardian’s Anti-Labour Agenda

Another election, and another well-orchestrated campaign to drown out political debate behind lies about The Labour Party, using the well-known trope of screaming about prejudice that does not exist. The Guardian has reverted to London property owning type and has basically failed to cover the local election campaign, instead electing to smear Jeremy Corbyn with multiple articles about his being a racist every day.

I’ve written this letter to the paper and cancelled my direct debit.

I’d just got over the anger I felt towards the Guardian over its bias during the General Election, and even set up a direct debit to “support independent journalism”, when another important election came along and the paper reverted to its alt-right, fake news, anti-Labour faerie land.

There is not a newspaper that I can trust in this country. Having to give up on the Guardian feels like a loss, but the harm your alignment with a right-wing smear campaign has done will probably cost my job, my ability to live a decent life when I can no longer work and any sense that I am a welcome member of my national community.

Just to be clear, because you’re avoiding any meaningful reflection on the matter: you are pushing the lie that the Labour Party is defined by ideas and attitudes that are mainstream in the Tory party and are the very definition of fascist beliefs. What are they paying you?

You think you’re getting away with it, all you London property owners who are terrified of a just economy and a democratic movement. You are not.

Liars.

Peter Mason

To my delight, there is a decent, authoritative rebuttal on the letters page. I am posting it here, with no permissions whatsoever, to save having to state the obvious myself.

One of the main concepts in journalism education is that of framing: the highlighting of particular issues, and the avoidance of others, in order to produce a desired interpretation. We have been reminded of the importance of framing when considering the vast amounts of media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged failure to deal with antisemitism inside the Labour party. On Sunday, three national titles led with the story while news bulletins focused on the allegations all last week. Dominant sections of the media have framed the story in such a way as to suggest that antisemitism is a problem mostly to do with Labour and that Corbyn is personally responsible for failing to deal with it. The coverage has relied on a handful of sources such as the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and well-known political opponents of Corbyn himself.

It is not “whataboutery” to suggest that the debate on antisemitism has been framed in such a way as to mystify the real sources of anti-Jewish bigotry and instead to weaponise it against a single political figure just ahead of important elections. We condemn antisemitism wherever it exists. We also condemn journalism that so blatantly lacks context, perspective and a meaningful range of voices in its determination to condemn Jeremy Corbyn.
Prof Des Freedman Goldsmiths, University of London
Justin Schlosberg Birkbeck, University of London
Prof Lynne Segal Birkbeck, University of London
Prof Mica Nava University of East London
Prof Greg Philo Glasgow University
Prof Annabelle Sreberny SOAS, University of London
Prof Jeremy Gilbert University of East London
Prof Joanna Zylinska Goldsmiths, University of London
Prof Bev Skeggs London School of Economics
Prof James Curran Goldsmiths, University of London
Prof Julian Petley Brunel University
Prof Natalie Fenton Goldsmiths, University of London
Prof David Buckingham Loughborough University
Prof Gary Hall Coventry University
Prof Neve Gordon Queen Mary, University of London
Prof Michael Chanan University of Roehampton
Prof John Storey University of Sunderland
Prof Allan Moore University of Surrey
Jo Littler City University
Dina Matar SOAS, University of London
Bart Cammaerts London School of Economics
Tom Mills Aston University
William Merrin Swansea University
Catherine Rottenberg Goldsmiths, University of London
Richard Macdonald Goldsmiths, University of London
Milly Williamson Goldsmiths, University of London
Margaret Gallagher Senior research consultant
Jane Dipple University of Winchester
Peri Bradley Bournemouth University
Dean Lockwood University of Lincoln
Maria Chatzichristodoulou London South Bank University
William Proctor Bournemouth University
John Cunliffe Birkbeck, University of London
Zeta Kolokythopoulu London South Bank University
Becky Gardiner Goldsmiths, University of London
Jill Daniels University of East London
Seth Giddings University of Southampton
Maria Sourbati University of Brighton
Richard Smith Goldsmiths, University of London
Ruth Catlow Co-director, Furtherfield
Jonathan Eato University of York
Theodore Koulouris University of Brighton

Anti-semitism, like any politicized hatred, is anti-democratic, deeply irrational, immoral and anathema to the new left movement that has grown around Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The satanically cynical weoponization of that hatred as a meme with which to derail and shut down democratic debate in this country is a crime as great as the hatred itself.

If you’d like to let The Guardian know that they are not getting away with their toadying to the right-wing’s lies, this the place to do it. Be sure to include your full name, address and phone number. Also, keep your message to 250 words or fewer.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018