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15 September 2014

New Blog

My blog has moved over here so, if you like my ramblings, come visit from time to time.

5 September 2014

"It’s not about nationalism…"

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Presumably because nationalism has such a regressive reputation (to put it mildly) and the Scottish Yes campaign wants to be viewed as the sole repository of progressive thought in the UK at the moment, one line I keep seeing wheeled out is that independence ‘isn’t about nationalism’. We’re asked to ignore the fact that it only became an issue because the nationalist SNP, a party which lest we forget has one single unifying cause, won a majority in Holyrood (with poll after poll putting support for independence at a third or less of the electorate around that period, no-one could possibly argue that it was a necessary response to a swell of demand). We’re asked to ignore that the independence on offer has been framed almost entirely by the SNP, not least with their White Paper which amounts to an SNP manifesto. We’re asked to ignore, of course, the ubiquitous presence of the Saltire and its colours (seen most commonly in the ‘Yes’ twibbon which adorns many social media profiles). Most absurdly, we’re asked not to parse the ‘us and them’ rhetoric which has so characterised this debate - a rhetoric which many Yes supporters seem unwilling or unable to accept as a reality but rather just another example of pro-unionist ‘scaremongering’. The ugly language which has greeted Jim Murphy (a politician I am no fan of) and, more to the point, vocal No supporters at his meetings - cries of ‘traitor’, ‘Apartheid Jim’, ‘quisling’ and even “stop acting English” can be heard in videos - can only seem to be condemned in the most half-hearted manner imaginable. Not only are these condemnations invariably followed by a ‘but’, they were also widely-followed both by assertions that Murphy and the No campaign were making capital from the scenes but also even behind some of the aggressive behaviour themselves (what a great phrase to google).

Speaking anecdotally, of course, I have yet to have a debate with a single pro-independence person which doesn’t result in them pushing nationalist myths. The most common, and one I have already written on, is the notion that the people of Scotland are ‘different’. Their social democatic (or socialist depending on who’s making the argument) impulses are frustrated by conservative voters in England. Scotland did not vote for the Bedroom Tax (we must ignore that England didn’t either). Scotland did not vote for the restructuring of the NHS in rUK (neither did rUK). Scotland doesn’t get the government it votes for (as most people don’t - just as most of the UK did not vote Tory or Liberal Democrat at the last election, most of the Scottish electorate did not vote for the SNP at Holyrood. This is the nature of representative democracy.) The left has made much capital from this myth of difference, advancing ideas that an independent Scotland will be a left-wing beacon for the world. When examined, however, we see that these ‘not nationalist’ arguments rely on mischaracterising, lifting of SNP policy and plain fantasy. This Rainbow Paper released by LGBTI Yes campaigners is a perfect illustration of this. I could write much devoted to this single document but suffice to say it’s full of assertions about the ways in which Scotland will be ‘better’ with absolutely no explanation as to why and how this will happen. Its promise of a ‘more humane immigration’ policy, for example, completely ignores the fact that a majority of the Scottish people want immigration rules made tougher and think immigration has been ‘bad for the British economy’. It’s also interesting that the Paper promises that an independent Scotland would “take a more proactive approach to promoting LGBTI equality and human rights around the world than is currently done by Westminster on our behalf.” This is the rhetoric of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and it’s again notable that Scotland is no more against military intervention than rUK.

What we find overwhelmingly in the Yes campaign, then, are people whose views are more left-wing and progressive than the rest of the general public’s believing that these views would be widely shared if it wasn’t for rUK. If this isn’t a nationalist argument, I’m not sure what is. We’re asked to believe that the magical power of independence will destroy neoliberalism and British nationalism (this is fine to criticise because it’s a ‘nasty’ nationalism rather than a ‘civic’ one, apparently) and usher in a new dawn. How this will happen, no one can say. If it’s seen to rest on common solidarity and fighting together, the argument in favour of independence crumbles because such fights are already happening around the UK.

If you make this point in favour of common struggle across the UK - a common struggle which created the NHS, welfare state, trade unions, the minimum wage, formal LGB (I’m leaving out the T due to the spousal veto) equality and more - you’re liable to be met with the response that solidarity doesn’t depend on borders and we can share in struggles around the world whatever our constitutional arrangement. I find this argument rather disingenuous. While we may feel solidarity with people in Gaza, or Ukraine, or Washington, there is not much we can practically do about it. Our solidarity extends to signing some e-petitions, attending some marches, donating some money, petitioning our government and for a minority of people getting involved in specific organisations devoted to a cause. In the UK, however, cross-border solidarity is fostered by our system of government: we truly rise and fall together. This is another argument nationalists don’t like, so we have endless bluster about the wealth of ‘London’ and ‘Westminster’ contrasted with poverty in Scotland. Yet a report released last week by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation completely undermines this nonsense:

The nations of the UK have seen significant decreases in headline levels of poverty over the past two decades, particularly in the years before the economic downturn. Since 2007, the path of poverty has shifted, from a general picture of falling poverty levels to a more nuanced one. Poverty levels in England have resumed their gradual downward path, while the lowest levels of poverty in the UK, found in Scotland, have levelled off in the last three years. In Wales and Northern Ireland, increases in poverty have been more marked; in the former they appear to have stabilised, in the latter they appear to be falling once again.
There are significant differences between the different nations before and after housing costs. The highest levels of poverty are found in Northern Ireland before housing costs and in Wales after housing costs. Yet the extent of housing cost-induced poverty is most evident in England. The English housing market has typically higher rents and house prices than the other parts of the 
UK and England shows a six percentage point difference in poverty levels before and after housing costs.

The report states that “overall poverty trends have much to do with prevailing national and international economic conditions" and explicitly argues that:

The redistributive functions of government require pooling risk across the largest possible area to insure against the uneven impact of economic shocks. And so for many aspects of the social security system – particularly for cyclical and redistributory benefits – the role of central government remains key.

Who could read this and think that poverty is inflicted on Scotland by Westminster, or that Scotland could only tackle poverty if it was independent? Yet a significant aspect of the nationalist rhetoric around independence is the idiotic idea that Scotland should look after ‘its’ poor because ‘Westminster’ doesn’t care about them.

Certainly, we do live in an age of neoliberalism and austerity - one which extends across the world. If we accept the nationalist argument, this neoliberalism in the UK is either because rUK supports it or because UK politicians are evil sociopaths who abandon all pretence of social democracy when given the chance. A structural analysis of this, however, paints a very different story. This excellent blog compellingly makes the case that the issue is global capitalism, not which Parliament has which powers in Scotland. Given that there are zero indications capitalism will be under threat in an independent Scotland (and the SNP’s pro-business, low-tax policies underline this) it reaches the conclusion that:

At best, the majority of the Scottish people will find little difference under Holyrood than under Westminster and it could be worse if a global crisis erupts again. Scotland as a small economy, dependent on multinationals for investment, still dominated by British banks and the City of London and without control of its own currency or interest rates, could face a much bigger hit than elsewhere in terms of incomes and unemployment.

Wandering into independence based on the idea that Scotland is somehow except from the realities of existing capitalism is, again, a nationalist notion. The fundamental importance of an economic analysis such as Michael Roberts’ is obscured by demagogic banalities such as ‘don’t you think Scotland should control its own destiny?’ and ‘why aren’t we better together now?’ The former line is, in a slightly altered form, the exact argument UKIP makes in favour of leaving the EU - something few Yes campaigners are vocal about because anti-EU sentiment is not viewed as ‘progressive’. Under the logic of nationalism pooling wealth and sovereignty makes perfect sense amongst 28 countries but is inexcusable amongst 4. Also, as Roberts argues, the EU has been a major force in pushing austerity policies upon its members but the lack of any analysis other than the nationalist one means this reality is lost. It’s easy to ask ‘why aren’t we better together?’ when the only point of comparison is a mythic place the likes of which currently cannot be found elsewhere in the world.

Nationalism, then, is absolutely central to the independence case. Indeed, it’s telling that the lines about how it’s ‘not about the SNP’ but rather ‘democracy’ and ‘the will of the people’ are completely abandoned when it comes to taking the argument to No supporters. Most of the arguments against the United Kingdom rely on anti-Tory rhetoric, anti-capitalist arguments and liberal use of phrases like ‘illegal war’ (an illegal war which, lest we forget, the apparently democratically-superior Scottish Parliament supported - but in another supreme turn of ‘not nationalism’, this is excused on the basis that it was the ‘unionist parties’ who voted in favour). I have been repeatedly told that I am ‘partnering with the Tories’ and ‘not on the progressive side’ despite the fact that I have been a socialist all of my adult life and was voting for socialist parties when Scotland was still heavily in the grip of Labour. I’m told I’m a ‘British nationalist’ despite the fact that my instinctive anti-nationalism has led me to critique and march against jingoism on many occasions. Yet the arguments remain difficult to argue against, because you’re arguing against thin air. For independence to make sense it must be a case of us and them and so other progressive forces either must be denied or subject to absolutely tortuous arguments about how the magical power of independence will free them. It comes back, again and again,  to the fantasy of Scottish exceptionalism, no matter how often it’s denied.

20 August 2014

Pop Deserves the ‘Social Justice Warriors’

taylor-swift-shake-it-off-video-3-2014-billboard-650Don’t worry, I’m not really going to write about the racism/appropriation in the new Taylor Swift video. This widely shared post says most of what there is to say (and, importantly, what needed to be said). Instead I want to write briefly another aspect of this mini storm.

Being a Taylor Swift fan (maybe not for much longer considering how things are going) I actually watched her Yahoo live announcement thingy…live. It was painful. Jesus Christ it was painful. Taylor was doing her ‘I’m just a normal gal and we’re all hanging out!’ schtick in front of an audience seemingly made-up of people who had been pumped full of uppers prior to broadcast. Her every utterance was greeted with hysteria. I don’t cope well with over-the-top “I like this more than anyone else ever and I’m going to prove it by screaming the most” displays of fandom (watching the Doctor Who 50th special in the cinema last year was hellish for this very reason). It did not put me in a good place, people. Then she debuted the song and this also did not put me in a good place. It’s a very on-trend Max Martin number which you could easily imagine being released by Little Mix or Cheryl Cole or Cher Lloyd or countless other current pop stars. Sure, it’s efficient enough at what it does but I’m not sure anyone particularly needs it (and if it wasn’t by the already-massively popular Swift, I’m not sure many would particularly pay attention to it). Given the really ratherinteresting and even astonishing places Swift has been taking her music, it’s a crushing disappointment to see her cheerfully announcing that she’s gone ‘pop’ and offering up generic pop hit no. 5694. You were already pop, Taylor, and you were doing it in a way no other major pop artist was. There’s always the possibility that the album will be more interesting but given the apparent presence of Max Martin on most tracks, I’m not optimistic.

Anyway, back to the live thingy. After dancing around to her song and announcing details of her album (inspired by ‘late-80s pop’ apparently – hello Jive Bunny) she premiered the video. As soon as I saw the scenes from which the above cap comes from, my heart sank. I actually thought of this line. Why does this shit keep happening? Well, a big part of it is that most pop listeners just pretend it’s not, as we saw with the really-quite-obviously-racist Lily Allen video. In a pretty classic demonstration of the ‘Bad Feeling’ thesis (yeah, I keep returning to that because it’s so right) people see the problematic thing and, rather than thinking ‘oh dear, this is a bit bad’, try to anticipate and undermine the discussions labelling it as problematic. And so:

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Notice the references to the ‘social justice warriors of the internet’ and ‘blogs’. There are usually liberal references to Tumblr thrown in for good measure. It’s always those people on the internet who pick holes in this stuff, who can’t just enjoy it for what it is. That last tweet is actually from a Guardian writer who ‘writes about film, TV and music’. Yes, someone who writes about culture for a living throws out ‘fucking earnest columns’ as an insult. If such responses are woefully inevitable it’s because, as I’ve written about quite a few times before, pop criticism is in a really fucking terrible place. It’s dominated by the misguided idea that patronisingly faux-positive responses (I covered it with regards to One Direction but clearly Taylor also receives the same treatment) show you really get this stuff and are really open-minded and aren’t a snob and blah blah blah! There will be lots of barely-formed sneering at ‘authenticity’ and anything associated with it, even guitars (notice that Taylor’s cultural power has risen in tandem with her move away from country). Most importantly, everything must be FUN! and IRONIC! and SARCASTIC! and SILLY! and nothing is worth taking too seriously or thinking about too much. The Alex Niven quote I used when previously writing about this is worth wheeling out again:

Unfortunately the mainstream of music journalism right now appears to be dominated by a peculiarly virulent strain of braindead consumer hedonism, by people who simply don’t acknowledge that pop music can be debated about in politico-cultural terms. It would be (sort of) alright if these people were cognisant of their position, but depressingly I fear that they’re just moronic capitalistic yes-people for whom pop music is a leisure pursuit and nothing more. 

That brief paragraph perfectly captures where criticism and, unfortunately, much fandom is right now. It’s been that way for a while but the rise of link-bait is making it even worse. Which sites that profess to love pop music write about it with any insight or depth? They all instead seem terrified of being ‘fucking earnest’ and losing readers who they think mustn’t be challenged in any way. Just whack out another list, keep the press releases flowing and write some shite about what Madonna’s daughter might be doing and they’re sorted.

You’ll notice that the piece I linked to at the start is a personal blog. It’s an absolutely sublime bit of writing but it drives home just how rarely you read anything like that in mainstream journalism. Yet rather than being some poxy angry internet social justice warrior thing that can be easily dismissed, it’s gone viral, been picked up by Vice and Time, and (along with some high-profile Twitter criticism) inspired much critical coverage of the video on sites which would have otherwise have stayed well away from the subject. The do-it-yourself internet has led the way here, just as it did with the Lily Allen video and just as it does with the vast majority of pop criticism. DIY internet is where the best writing on pop is found these days, whether that be the fiercely intelligent analysis found in personal blogs like One Of Those Faces or the beguiling passion found in One Week One Band (overwhelmingly written, it should be noted, by people who blog and/or tweet rather than ‘professional’ writers). These people know that pop matters. They know that it not only deserves and is deserving of serious appraisal but that it requiresit: it shapes culture and it shapes lives. They are ‘fucking earnest’ about it because they fucking care about it. The ones who roll their eyes at the ‘internet’ people who write about pop ‘in politico-cultural terms’ are, ironically, the ones who display their sheer contempt for pop in their ostentatious efforts to look like they respect it. To them, it’s just a silly Taylor Swift song and video that doesn’t mean anything and will be forgotten soon after they’ve made sure to loudly show their appreciation. It’s lazy, it’s cheap and it’s tired. Pop deserves better.

13 August 2014

Monty Python

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My photos of one of the final Monty Python gigs are here.

5 August 2014

Valhalla vs Apocalypse: Enduring #IndyRef Myths

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I wrote a couple of months ago on the myths which pervade the #indyref campaign and I don’t think much has changed on that front. It’s funny – a common theme from commentors on the debate is how mature and civilised it is, yet each ‘side’ delights in pointing out the myriad of ways in which the other is talking bollocks without ever removing the logs from their own eyes. Tonight’s debate between Salmond and Darling will almost certainly see more of this and it’s been fairly fascinating seeing the myths which sustain particular identities laid bare. Both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps have attempted to lay claim to ideas that they are beacons of fairness, tolerance and justice in the world. Writing from a left-wing perspective, it seems fairly accepted amongst peers that it’s at best ridiculous, at worst grotesque for anyone to argue this on behalf of the UK, which is beset by a bleak assortment of social problems and has some of the worst poverty and inequality in the developed world. So if I don’t write much about the myths advanced by Better Together and their ilk it’s because I take it as given that those of a ‘progressive’ ilk don’t buy into them in the first place.

The myths around Scotland, however, not only seem to be burrowed deep into the national subconscious but have found themselves flourishing wildly during this debate. The great unknown offered by independence sees every problem, from thearms trade through to uninspired Scottish architecture, reframed as a ‘Westminster’ or ‘England’ issue which the plucky Scots can solve by voting ‘Yes’. Sure, most people have enough sense not to say it as bluntly as this but the overwhelming narrative is the very familiar one of Scotland being both more progressive, and more oppressed, than its neighbour to the South. The troubling subtexts in this message can’t help but seep through the cracks, whether it be in the suggestion that opponents to independence are suffering from a “deep-seated cultural self-hatred” or in the utterly idiotic notion that voting ‘no’ is giving “Westminster permanent permission to do whatever it likes forever. No questions asked.” The choice is between an independent Scotland full of hope and optimism and general niceness or a UK which is dystopian and apocalyptic. All progressive thought, opinion and action in the rest of the UK is erased.

I was surprised to see this exact framing in the latest issue of London Review of Books, a journal which consistently presents some of the best writing in the UK (and beyond) The piece, called What Sort of Scotland? and written by Neal Ascherson, is behind a paywall but I’ve copied some relevant sections with my commentary:

It does Yes campaigners some credit that they haven’t launched their own ‘Project Fear’ concentrating on what happens if independence is rejected on 18 September. They don’t talk about it, affect not to think about it. But the landscape beyond that day is growing darker.

It does credit that Yes campaigners (of which Ascherson clearly is one, despite bizarrely claiming to only be a Yes ‘voter’) don’t scaremonger…except when they do. It’s ironic that for all the (correct) complaints of Better Together’s ‘negativity’, much of the Yes campaign’s energy comes from its opposition to the current state of a Tory-led UK and its apocalyptic predictions of a ‘darker landscape’. How Lord of the Rings. As I’ve written previously, the UK-wide opposition to this is never going to be found in a campaign against Scottish independence – why would it be? It’s found in the recent strikes, in fights against changes to welfare, in campaigns for a living wage, in mass demos for Gaza. This progressive body of opinion exists across the UK but many independence campaigners pretend that it doesn’t while complaining that ‘unionists’ offer no vision of a better society. It’s disingenuous in the exteme.

The Unionist parties say that they will agree on further devolution of powers to Scotland. But these don’t seem likely to go much beyond a little more discretion on some taxes. There’s talk of calling a national convention on the constitutional future, but this would apparently be led by the Scotland Office – a London ministry – with Scotland’s elected government and Parliament reduced to mere participants among a crowd of British bodies.

This complaint has been voiced with increasing frequency: the UK government might promise more devolution but it doesn’t really mean it! And even if it did, it’s worthy only of derision because it would be led by…the UK government. ‘A London ministry’. The outrage that a parliament made up of the nations of the UK would ‘apparently’ lead on constitutional change, rather than the parliament which only represents Scotland! It’s all chip-on-shoulder nonsense relying on ‘Scotland vs London’ sentiment.

It’s possible that Scotland might decline too, sharply and even irreversibly, in that first No decade. It’s not just that pro-Europe Scotland might well be dragged out of the EU by a Europhobic southern majority.

I’ve long found it ironic that pro-independence voices are almost uniformally uncritical of the EU, a body which by any measure has greater problems regarding legitimacy and democracy than Westminster. Criticism of the EU is, however, largely associated with right-wing opinion and so isn’t helpful to the idea of Scotland as a progressive beacon. Leaving that to one side, the suggestion that Scotland could be forced out of the EU by a ‘southern majority’ is another one which you hear fairly regularly and is commonly accepted. Yet it belies a far more complex reality where a majority in Scotland have consistently adopted a critical approach to the EU. A recent Yougov poll on the EU, meanwhile, found majority support for remaining in the EU across the entire UK. Most interestingly, it found that if people believed UK membership had been renegotiated more favourably, opinion on EU membership was almost uniform with 54-61% opting to stay in.

Or that English hysteria about immigration could block young European incomers to Scotland – a need first recognised when the then first minister Jack McConnell sent recruiters to the bus-parks of Poland in 2004.

A consistent majority in Scotland want less immigration while a very small minority want more. As we saw in my previous blog, 49% in Scotland thought that Scotland would ‘lose its identity if more Muslims came to live’ there, and 45% thought the same about more black and/or Asian people living there. None of this is good, of course, but it demonstrates how smugly complacent it is to believe that immigration ‘hysteria’ (and by extension racism) is an English problem.

It is, above all, the damage London governments might well now inflict on Scottish social policies. After eight years in power, the polls still give the SNP a startling lead: it is currently at 43 per cent. This is mainly because it has carried on the social policies of the Lib-Lab coalitions which preceded it in Edinburgh. These parties barricaded the welfare state – higher education, free social care and the Scottish National Health Service above all – against the tide of privatisation and marketising ‘competition’ which is washing away the British postwar social settlement south of the border. But that barricade would probably crumble in a post-No Britain.

Again, an argument you hear frequently – that even the devolved NHS will crumble if Scotland votes against independence. Putting aside the question of how that would actually happen in practice, this would have us believe that people ‘south of the border’ want to wash away the ‘British postwar social settlement’. There are wide and loud campaigns against the changes to the NHS which have led Labour to pledge a reversal of the Health and Social Care Bill. Then there is the fact that over half (52% in 2013) of people in Scotland complain that unemployment benefits are ‘too high’, which doesn’t exactly suggest it as a welfare state valhalla.

On top of that, the neoliberal Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership may soon force all public health services in the UK – Scottish as well as English – to invite competition from American private firms. This ravenous alien was only able to squirm into the UK spaceship because in 2012 Cameron’s coalition had already legalised an internal private health market in England.

This is the most bizarre complaint, to put it generously. The TTIP is being negotiated by the EU (which, lest we forget, the writer was just fearful of leaving) and the United States. It’s about far more than ‘public health services’ and the idea that it’s somehow the doing of David Cameron is risible beyond belief. While there are several campaigns against TTIP I can’t find any indication that an SNP (or indeed any other party) government in an independent Scotland would oppose it.

The piece advances a heap of unexamined half-truths and distortions about the evils that will be visited upon poor, defenceless Scotland in the event of it remaining in the UK. It’s risible stuff yet sadly typical of the level of debate. To underline how far these myths endure without question I want to look at one other issue: that of Trident. The British Social Attitude survey looked at this and found that “public opinion on the subject of nuclear weapons is nothing like as different on the two sides of the border” as we’re led to believe. The most interesting finding, however, was that in Scotland “slightly more people agree (41 per cent) than disagree (37 per cent) with the proposition that:

If Scotland becomes independent, Britain’s nuclear weapons submarines should continue to be based here”

In England and Wales, however, 63% thought the weapons should leave Scotland if it became independent! This doesn’t fit the common narratives around this issue at all.

It seems odd to me to have a debate around ‘the kind of country Scotland would like to be’, based on noble ideas about furthering democracy and improving people’s lives, which relies so much on myths and a refusal to engage with existing opinion. Indeed, when I’ve raised e.g. the matter of public opinion in Scotland being firmly against more immigration or more unemployment benefits, the response I invariably get is ‘well of course it is, they are brainwashed by the UK media’. Quite how the media in an independent Scotland will be different so as to help these poor brainwashed, self-hating masses, I’m not quite sure. Presumably this media will also report on the secret oil field which the dasterdly Cameron is keeping from the poor oppressed people of Scotland.

It’s all pretty gruesome, desperate stuff. Just to repeat, there’s plenty of that from Better Together and it’s covered in detail elsewhere. I don’t endorse it. Yet if I’ve always been against Scottish independence, my one abiding hope were it to happen has been that it would lead to a more mature Scotland where we don’t feel the need to revel in a sense of victimhood, inventing paranoid conspiracies and blaming the wicked English for our woes (as many in England blame the EU – as I say, we all have our enduring myths). I remain strongly of the opinion that the Scottish form of social democracy lives and dies in the perceived gap between it and England. If and when that gap goes, I would hope that attitudes would change. I’m sad to say that this seems further away than ever.

26 July 2014

'Civilised'

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With the Commonwealth Games starting in Glasgow this week, the usual suspects have been out in force complaining about homophobia in many of the Commonwealth countries. Never one to shy from the limelight, Peter Tatchell actually travelled to Glasgow to call on Alex Salmond and organisers to condemn these nations and even ban them from competing (quite how travelling up to Scotland to tell its First Minister what to do squares with his support for independence, I’m not quite sure.) By far the most prominent example of this trend, on social media at least, was this meme from Stonewall:

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Stonewall went to town with this one, posting it several times and retweeting posts of it by others. Its many retweets means that it will have been seen by many thousands of people and it led to a predictable outpouring of anger and condemnation. Then, in a perfect fuelling of this narrative, the opening ceremony featured that kiss. Or should I say ‘that stunning rebuke’? Take that, savages! Many of those tweeting their outrage regarding homophobia went crazy for this kiss, as if it was single-handedly going to stop bigotry in its tracks. More worryingly, it quickly became proof of our superiority, with comments like this being fairly common:

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‘Civilised’. The use of this word alone should have set alarm bells ringing as to the subtext being pushed beneath this facile outrage.This language and the ideas behind it was absolutely central to colonialism and slavery, with “Africans…thought to be sub-human, uncivilised, and inferior to Europeans in every way.” It’s notable that it’s also used by supporters of Israel. Its deployment against the countries of the Commonwealth, almost entirely made up of countries which were formerly part of the British Empire, is disturbing to say the least. Take that, savages, indeed.

A typical response to this concern from the outraged is ‘oh so we can’t attack homophobia in these countries because they were colonies then?’ The implication is that if you find this racist moralising distateful you must support anti-LGBT laws. This is, of course, utter nonsense. It’s very telling that the outrage is almost entirely aimed at these countries en masse and expressed via organisations such as Stonewall, which explicitly links its own ‘international work’ to the issue in an effort to raise more money. Here we have the White Saviour Industrial Complex which Teju Cole wrote about with regards to Africa blended with homonationalism (note, for example, that there is little outrage about any other human rights issues in these countries, including poverty) There is no consideration that work to change these laws goes on within these countries and there is certainly no appreciation that these must be the way change happens. It cannot and will not be imposed by us. Scott Longwrote a typically good piece on this a few years ago where he noted that LGBT activists from these Commonwealth countries were being shut out by ‘Western’ interests (including Tatchell). As he writes:

The successes achieved at the past two Commonwealth summits came because LGBT advocates from the countries targeted and affected were there, proving they existed and their lives counted.

In his piece Teju Cole directly addresses Americans swept up in the Kony fever, telling them how they can ‘help’:

How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact…If Americans want to care about Africa, maybe they should consider evaluating American foreign policy, which they already play a direct role in through elections, before they impose themselves on Africa itself.

It’s that Biblical parable about removing the log from your own eye before judging, or attempting to ‘help’, others. This is utterly fundamental to this Commonwealth issue. In the minds of the outraged, these countries become demonised others, reduced to nothing more than their laws regarding LGBT people. In condemning them while patting ourselves on the back, the central role played by the United Kingdom (and contrary to what some seem to believe, this absolutely also means Scotland here) in how these countries have developed is completely elided. When there was yet another brief e-petition frenzy over Uganda’s homophobic laws earlier this year, some pointed out that these laws were introduced by colonial powers. This has been pointed out in the past regarding the Commonwealth – this very good piece looks at not only the colonial legacy but the problem of approaching these issues in terms of a ‘LGBTI’ framework in the first place – and researchers state that anti-LGBT laws are “mostly a legacy of British colonialism“. So we are berating these countries for laws which we largely introduced to them!

It’s essential to be aware of and consider our role in this because it blows the racist ideas about the ‘civilised’ and the ‘savages’ wide open. Lest we forget, the British Empire was absolutelybrutal. Britain massacred, tortured, starved, ethnically cleansed and had concentration camps well before the Nazis came along. It’s also completely forgotten that the overwhelmingly poor countries which retain these laws aren’t inherently ‘broken’ – their current status is heavily shaped by colonialism’s history of slavery, cultural oppression and the theft of wealth and resources on an unimaginable scale. Let’s be in no doubt here: the UK’s position as a wealthy nation owes much to its horrofic subjugation of these countries people are now wagging their fingers at.

Colonialism isn’t some distant relic as many seem to think -as late as 1997 the UK was still decolonising (Hong Kong) and its sovereignty over places like Gibralter and the Falklands endures to this day. Yet if British rule isn’t the terror it once was, the legacy of this remains strong (and is precisely one of the main reasons why the UK bears some responsibility for the Israel/Palestine conflict). Many of the ‘tinpot dictators’ we love to hate are there largely because of us. We continue to arm these countries even while expressing mock-outrage at their transgressions, with Campaign Against the Arms Trade documenting that the UK sold arms to 46 of the 52 other Commonwealth countries in the past three years, including the maligned Uganda and Nigeria (asEleanor Harris put it on Twitter, we sold them both arms and attitudes). It’s also argued by some that the modern framework of aid, international development and economic ‘support’ is a form of neocolonialism, wherein the ‘former’ colonial powers retain their paternalism and exercise power in these ostensibly liberated countries.

It should be clear, then, that we are in no position to lecture the rest of the Commonwealth on the matter of how ‘civilised’ they are and we should be wary of indulging in that rhetoric. Yet even taken on its own terms, this behaviour is staggeringly hypocritical. It beggars belief that LGBT laws have become totemic of ‘civilisation’ when the UK is still very much on that journey itself. Homosexual activities were only legalised in Scotland in 1980. Section 28, our very own law banning homosexual ‘propaganda’ in schools, was not fully abolished until 2003 and was aggressively supported by our current Prime Minister, David Cameron. Even the much vaunted ‘marriage equality’ finally obtained this year was only ‘equality’ for some, with the ‘spousal veto’ discriminating against transexual people. Yet transexual rights are a poor relative of ‘gay rights’ here, as seen in Stonewall’s award of ‘Politician of the Year’ to Baroness Stowell and the owner of Pink News tweeting his congratulations to her on her promotion. Stowell was a staunch defender of the veto.

The Scottish Government’s 2011 report on Discrimination and Positive Action, meanwhile, shows that there is a long way to go in the host country of the Commonwealth Games. In it we find that 55% of respondents would be ‘unhappy/very unhappy’ at the prospect of a family member entering a relationship with a ‘cross-dresser’, and 49% would be unhappy if it was a relationship with a transexual. 30% would be unhappy if a family member married someone of the same sex (though the campaign for marriage since then may have eroded this % somewhat). This is without getting into truly terrifying statistics such as 49% agreeing that Scotland would ‘lose its identity if more Muslims came to live’ there, and 45% thinking the same about more black and/or Asian people living there.

Remove the log from your own eye. It’s worth repeating. We are not going to change laws in Commonwealth countries by tweeting a meme and indulging in ramped up racist rhetoric online. We’re not even going to do it by protesting, or writing to our MPs. The only way to progress is to listen to the activists who actually live in these countries and amplify their voices whereever possible. Just as they have responsibility for change within their own countries, we must take the same for change within ours. Our countryis not a benevolent force promoting good throughout the world. We can and should oppose the disgusting arms trade; we can and should oppose our government’s support for dictators and massacres like the one currently taking place in Gaza. But more than that, we must educate ourselves about the injustices which persevere in our own country. The scourges of poverty, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, police brutality, political corruption and more are very much alive in the United Kingdom. Solving them will take a lot more than a staged kiss.

17 July 2014

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

As you probably know, the World Health Organisation is the agency of the United Nations charged with improving international public health. It has its fair share of critics and has been involved in a few controversies (allegations that it greatly exaggerated the ‘swine flu’ epidemic being the most prominent, recent, example) but it can claim quite significant victories too (it led the eradication of smallpox, for example). The Organisation lists its responsibilities as:

…providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends.

That ‘evidence-based policy’ bit is pretty crucial – it’s not just a bunch of UN politicians pushing whatever pet obsession they may have but doctors, scientists, researchers and more looking at what’s happening and how best to address it. Again, I’m sure there are legitimate criticisms to be made here but that’s for another time.

It’s for another time because last week the WHO released their updated guidelines on the treatment, diagnosis and prevention of HIV. This document “brings together all existing guidance relevant to five key populations – men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, people in prisons and other closed settings, sex workers and transgender people – and updates selected guidance and recommendations.” The report itselfstates that this approach was necessary because the previous approach of issuing separate guidelines for these populations “has not adequately addressed issues common to all these key populations nor has it addressed countries’ needs for a coherent approach informed by situational analysis”. It includes a section devoted to explaining the methodology and process, wherein we’re told about the range of expertise and experience which fed into the guidelines “including appropriate geographical, gender and key population representation.” The report then explains how it reviewed and assessed current evidence and how this was fed into the resulting guidelines, which were then assessed by “73 peer reviewers from academia, policy and research.”

So how was this report of over 180 pages, covering the entire world and every group affected by HIV, reported in the press? Like this:

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Pretty much every report of the new guidelines fixated on one, new, guideline concerning pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). As explained in the WHO report, this guideline came from reviews of hundreds of research outputs and looked at the effectiveness of PrEP, the possible side-effects, the feasibility of it as a treatment, the cost-effectiveness and the openness of people to using it (amongst other things). They ended up with the guideline as follows:

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You may have already noticed that this guideline mentions ‘gay men’ absolutely nowhere. ‘Men who have sex with men’ is a term common to the research and treatment of sexually-transmitted infections and one of the main reasons for that, in short, is that it avoids all issues of identification. Gay, bi, queer, trans, straight-who-dabbles, you have no fucking idea, you don’t care – if you identify as male and you have sex with other men, you’re in. So already we can see how shit and how homophobic the reporting of this was – reporters skim a document, see ‘men who have sex with men’ and think ‘GAYS!’ because if a guy touches another guy ‘that way’ he’s gay and that’s all there is to it, right? It’s embarrassing.

The second big thing to notice – the recommendation that PrEP is available as part of a ‘comprehensive HIV prevention package’. This isn’t saying to stop everything else. It’s not saying PrEP should replace condoms. In fact, here’s the FIRST guideline:

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Pretty categorical, right? There are other guidelines, and whole sections of the report, devoted to HIV education, testing and counselling.

This brings us to the big thing to notice in the guideline: the use of ‘choice‘. To read that guideline and take away from it ‘WHO SAYS ALL GAY MEN MUST TAKE PREP’ is not only wrong, it’s wrong to the point of being deliberately distorting and downright dangerous. It’s sensationalising for the sake of a story and fuck the consequences.

Unfortunately, some of us in the gay community are so wedded to playing the victim that, rather than heading off to the report to find out what was going on, we had instant outrage based on these egregiously incorrect reports. Patrick McAleenan in The Telegraph knocked out a piece complaining that the WHO were ‘perpetuating gay stereotypes’. His piece is a litany of complaints which expose his complete ignorance as to what the WHO actually wrote: why don’t they recommend education instead? Why don’t they recommend condoms? Most appallingly, he complains that “The report will encourage straight people to believe that HIV is simply a gay problem”. Well, not really, since it a) hardly mentions the word ‘gay’ and b) devotes scores of pages to key populations other than msm. In fact, there are other guidelines explictly relating to PrEP:

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But it didn’t matter. The outrage was well out of the traps by now:

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As the sensationalist stories make their way around social media and various sites, each day has seen new people jumping on them and complaining about how homophobic the WHO are. Apparently no-one actually bothers to go have a look at the actual guidelines. As a community we kinda have form for not bothering to check stories when there’s a good sense of victimisation to be had.

It’s all so fucking depressing. And what’s most depressing it how inevitable it feels. The WHO report found that “epidemics of HIV in men who have sex with men continue to expand in most countries” and that “in major urban areas HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men is on average 13 times greater than in the general population”. I can see no moral judgement of this fact in the report, and in fact it states:

Discriminatory legislation, stigma (including by health workers) and homophobic violence in many countries pose major barriers to providing HIV services for men who have sex with men and limit their use of what services do exist. Many countries criminalize sex with the same gender (either male–male only or both male–male and female–female). As of December 2011 same-sex practices were criminalized in 38 of 53 countries in Africa (9). In the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 83 countries have laws that make sex between men illegal (10). The range of legal sanctions and the extent to which criminal law is enforced differs among countries.

This sounds pretty sympathetic to me. If anything, it’s the responses which have been screeching ‘BUT NOT ALL GAY MEN ARE UNSAFE/PROMISCUOUS’ that are problematic, as they cannot help but imply that the men who do engage in that behaviour almost deserve their fate. The safe ones, though, the ones who don’t sleep around – those nice guys don’t deserve to be treated like this by the nasty WHO! Zero self-reflection, zero sense of agency and responsibility – just instant, facile outrage and a rush to assert victimhood. It’s ironic to say the least that last year several UK HIV charities, including GMFA and the Terrence Higgins Trust, issued a statement supportive of PrEP “so that more gay men are able to reduce their HIV risk.” Presumably they are vile homophobes tooIt’s embarrassing. It helps no-one. It’s downright dangerous. Grow the fuck up.

8 July 2014

Nostalgia and Futurology

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Modern pop music came to prominence at the same time as the invention and rise of the teenager, a concept (and grouping) with which it has had a long, sweaty symbiosis. While pop may be at least 70 years old, it still carries associations with, and connotations of, youth and modernity. Yet while the dawn of the teenager is inextricably linked to guitar-based rock and roll music, the past 20-odd years has seen the rise of poptimism, which seeks to paint guitar-based ‘rock’ as conservative and backwards against the futuristic-leanings of a self-consciously ‘artificial’ dance-oriented chart pop. I’ve always found this attempted delineation to be weak and messy, a position which I feel has been vindicated the more dominant poptimism has become in the media. Shows like The Big Reunion and acts like One Direction (one of whose biggest hits was widely viewed as being an…homage…to The Who) have shown that conservatism and nostalgia are by no means solely confined to rock music.

The sway of poptimism is such, however, that the latter examples aren’t seen as retrospective. The Big Reunion may explictly involve reforming pop acts who were briefly popular in the 90s but, when placed against the mythical bogeyman of conservative rock, it’s viewed as an open-minded celebration. One Direction may make derivative music but their talent show origins, their youth and their appeal to young girls conspire to present them as exciting and modern. Nostalgia, then, is elided to the point where it becomes meaningless: little more than a tool to bash already-disliked acts with rather than any considered and/or sincere aversion to conservatism. It is enough to be heard as loudly opposed to conservatism, no matter how incoherent this may be upon examination. What matters is perception.

This warping of ‘nostalgia’ from meaning a sentimental yearning for ‘the good old days’ to a largely-empty signifier to be deployed against acceptable targets has permeated music criticism. You can view it in how acts like Prince and David Bowie were warmly welcomed when they stopped messing about (trying new things) and instead delivered albums which played to their archetypal images. Again, this was very clearly playing to nostalgia but in aligning themselves with audience expectations they opened a space for fluid, unforced perceptions. We don’t want to be seen to be conservative but we also don’t like it when acts make things hard for us by not being what we want them to  be; so, when they oblige us in the latter, we tell ourselves that they have ‘returned to form’ rather than ‘allowed us to love our own idea of them again’. It’s noticeable that this rationalisation is very rarely wheeled out for acts who haven’t deviated from who we want them to be – acts who conversely can end up as whipping posts for faux anti-conservatism because there has been no disruption there, nothing for them to return to us from.

The genius of Bowie’s The Next Day, one I still don’t think is widely appreciated, is how it completely understood this state of affairs and made it integral to the album and its campaign. The actual music wasn’t particularly different from Bowie’s previous few albums and I’ve no doubt that had it been released a decade previous, it would have quickly faded from view. Yet there was the ten year disruption and it was this Bowie made use of. It wasn’t just nostalgia presented as modernity – it artfully used the listener’s expectations to make it the first post-nostalgic album.

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This brings me to Futurology, the new Manic Street Preachers album which is providing them with the best reviews they’ve had in almost 20 years. It’s a very good album but I find it curious that most of these reviews have been focusing on the band’s ‘reinvention’, their ability to take the ostentatious trappings of Krautrock, Berlin-era Bowie and early-Simple Minds and craft their own ‘masterpiece‘ from the ruins. I find it curious because despite all the advance word, Futurology isn’t a musical reinvention at all - there’s almost nothing on there that a Manics fan won’t have heard from them before. In fact, from the moment the melodic opening title track riff recalls the band’s commercial peak through the post-punk blast of Sex, Power, Love and Money, the Know Your Enemy-jangle of The Next Jet to Leave Moscow and the energised Lifeblood-sheen of Walk Me To The Bridge, it’s a record which feels steeped in the Manics’ history. The same is true lyrically – the latter song’s clear references to Richey (despite the band’s denials) have already been noted while TNJTLM finds them renouncing their Know Your Enemy jaunt to Cuba (everything must go, indeed!). Let’s Go To War, meanwhile, is presented as the final part of a newly-formulated trilogy and its line ‘don’t forget we love you still’ harks back to both previous instalments (You Love Us/Masses Against the Classes). There are also, as noted in The Quietus review, several nods to particular aspects of working-class Welsh history threaded throughout the album.It’s been noted that Futurology is the sister album of last year’s Rewind The Film. Less noted is the clear contrast in the album titles – the past and the future, or rather an idea of the future. The title track of RTW was an ode to the comfort of nostalgia: “rewind the film once more/turn back the pages of my post/rewind the film once more/I want the world to see it all.” The video for this and that album’s other two singles formed a short film about working-class Wales and the impact of the Miners’ Strike. The mood of Rewind The Film meant that critics easily identified its obsession with the past, with nostalgia. It also had a sense of anxiety for an unknown future which seemed certain to be warped and alien, irrevocably broken from the comforting myths of the past.

The aesthetic and publicity of Futurology seems to have blinded many to the fact that it’s a continuation of these themes – and one which draws far more heavily on the Manics’ musical past. In its way, then, it also understands and plays with this post-nostalgia age. It offers a frictionless return to previous highs, mixing nods to a more aggressive and radical past with a distancing from (and sometimes apologising for) it (this distancing has been crucial to the Manics’ success with a particular kind of critic, who could never have stomached their early belligerence without that gap). It offers nostalgia under the guise of modernity, drawing on the past to present a comforting, easily-digestible image of a future. This is Futurology.

2 July 2014

Coldplay

Photos and videos of Coldplay at the Royal Albert Hall last night are here.

Posted: 10:41 AM

Soft Power, CSR, Pride and Global Sports Events

This podcast from Kit (@KitCaless) and Sam (@AngrySamPoet) is on a series of related subjects close to my heart. It takes Barclays’ sponsorship of London Pride as its launch point (and begins with an excerpt from my blog, which was very weird to listen to) before widening the discussion to include corporate social responsibility programmes (which I previously wrote about here) and the way corporations are increasingly using charity and sponsorship of ‘apolitical’ events to manage their image. Nice to hear these things discussed in a very accessible way and worth a listen if you’re interested in any of this.

On a related note, my previous post covered the pinkwashing use of Pride by both the MET Police and the military. There’s a very good blog from activist Scott Long on this here. It was unsurprising, but still depressing, to see this on Stonewall’s Twitter feed during Pride weekend:

That this was explicitly part of Black Pride makes it even more offensive given the racism both of our foreign policy and of the institution itself. Then there was this:

How lovely. Stonewall will, of course, have absolutely nothing to say about House of Brag, a ‘Queer Social Centre’ which has set up in a disused shop in Brixton. Yesterday activists on Twitter alerted people to the harassment of HoB by the police, who showed up and apparently tried to prevent them from entering the building. HoB have put out a statement about it today:

Hi everyone. So as you may have heard, today we have been subjected to several hours of ridiculous overreaction and unlawful harassment by the police. There are still cops posted in a van outside our building despite assurances earlier that the operation was being called off. We’re planning to write a proper statement about this tomorrow after a few hours kip but for now we’d just like to say THANK YOU to everyone who came down and showed us support, brought us food, and gave us legal advice. And THE SOCIAL CENTRE WILL BE OPEN TOMORROW, probably not at 2pm as planned but definitely in time for an extremely timely squatting laws workshop (lol) at 7pm, followed by dinner and cake and movies. WHATEVER THEY SAY, SQUATTING WILL STAY <3 <3 HoB

There is no better illustration of how LGBT issues don’t exist in a vacuum but are rather interlinked with wider social justice. Pride, and Stonewall, aren’t interested in queers who squat in buildings: they’d rather be seen with the ‘acceptable’ ones who join the army and police force. Best of luck to House of Brag, who are having their own ‘Monstrous Pride’ event on 12th July. Details to come on their website.

Themed by Hunson. Originally by Josh