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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.

27 June 2014

Portraits in Pride

It was with no little irony that, only days after I wrote on Barclays’ use of Pride to pinkwash its image, the bank was accused once again of corruption and fraud. Strangely, Barclays’ Twitter account failed to mention this. They’re probably too busy loving gays:

They’re pink. Do you see what they did there?

This brilliant piece by @spitzenprodukte succinctly captured how (and why) Pride lost its way. Cleverly inverting the usual claim that the event is no longer political, he wrote that:

…’Pride in London’ will continue to support the values of the police and the establishment; the supremacy of property rights, marriage, the oppression and othering of people of colour, and racist attitudes towards foreign cultures. It is wrong to say Pride is now a depoliticised event: it is more politicised than ever. It has been turned over to the service of the dominant ideology, and so is harder to distinguish from the cruelties and injustices of everyday life. We have lost Pride. 

There is perhaps no greater illustration of Pride serving ‘the dominant ideology’ than the presence of arms dealer BAE Systems on the parade (covered by at least one other blogger this week). The Campaign Against the Arms Trade has good material on BAE where you can learn, for example, how it helped the despots in Bahrain crack down on pro-democracy protestors. This ‘crack down’ (a euphemism if ever there was one) led to over 90 deaths and the widespread use of torture. You can also read about BAE’s close ties to the regime in Saudi Arabia - by all accounts one of the most authoritarian and brutal governments in the world. It should be no surprise that LGBT rights in Saudi Arabia are dire, given that human and LGBT rights should be synonymous. As Pride reveals, however, mainstream LGBT politics is lacking any incisive notion of human rights and is easily swayed towards targets which serve the dominant ideology - as evidenced by the sound and fury over Russia compared to the relative silence on Western ‘allies’ such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt (the latter two also being countries where BAE’s bloody prints are to be found).

The response from Pride regarding this (take from Symon Hill’s blog linked above) is extraordinary:

Organisations apply and BAE have an LGBT group. Change can come from within. We will not abandon and disengage with LGBT groups who strive for the right and the freedom to express themselves

'Change can from from within'? What does that even mean?! These people work for an arms dealer. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Pride wasn’t basing that response on any concrete evidence that BAE’s LGBT group have an agenda to make their arms dealer a bit nicer(!) but were rather grasping at straws. They become even more offensive when they speak of not being willing to ‘abandon and disengage’, as if the employees of BAE Systems are oppressed rather than being part of an oppressor. We will not ‘abandon and disengage’ with this arms dealer as they continue to profit from death, torture and destruction - some of them are LGBT! It beggars belief.

Of course, one central staple of the modern LGBT movement in countries like the UK is that most of the real problems are over there. It my be selective in the countries it fixates on, but the finger tends to be pointed firmly away from ourselves. As such there is no real pressure to consider the role of a company like BAE Systems in violating basic human rights. There is certainly no pressure to consider our own foreign policy and the role of our armed forces, who are also marching on the parade. In fact, the Pride site proudly trumpets:

28th June is also Armed Forces Day, and once again we are delighted and honoured to have members of the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force marching in the Parade. 

This can easily be seen as part of the continuing militarisation of our civic life where an oppressively infantile attitude towards ‘OUR BRAVE BOYS’ becomes ever more unavoidable - witness Labour’s absolutely abhorrent plans to make 'abuse' of the armed forces a ‘hate crime’. This serves to shut down critical discussion of our foreign policy and the role of the military in it, as well as examinations of the military itself (e.g. the systemic reports of sexual harassment, assault and rape). Vron Ware’s entire Up In Arms series looking at these issues is essential reading.

Looking at the pressures to blankly cheer aggressve authority leads neatly to the presence of the MET Police on the Pride march. For a certain kind of Pride attendee, the MET will undoubtedly be the friendly face of ‘law and order’ in London - the nice people who come and help when you’ve been burgled, the attractive officer they send to ‘liaise’ with the LGBT community in Soho bars. Yet, somewhat ironically, if Pride were to have more explicitly political (and anti-establishment) aims you can be certain that the MET would not be marching but rather aggressively policing it as part of their efforts to intimidate and delegitimise protest. These efforts, lest we forget, have seen the police brutalise students and even kill innocent (not that it should matter) bystanders.

An awareness that policing is not some apolitical, neutral institution should be central to Pride which, after all, marks the anniversary of the riots against police which are iconically known as ‘Stonewall’. The radicalism of that event, and the fundamentally key role played in it by people of colour, trans people and sex workers, has been erased over time (look no further than the timid conservatism of the charity named after it). It’s highly relevant that the MET Police remains institutionally racist to the core - the view not of some cranky blogger but of its own people. It is only a few months since the inquest verdict on the murder of Mark Duggan revealed the racist faultlines of the UK and shone some light on our racist policing. There is also transphobiacontinuing persecution of sex workers and widespread misogyny. The police’s role as an aggressive enforcer and defender of the state is clear, from its spying through its attacks on squatting to its complete lack of accountability for its brutality. In short, unless you’re a comfortable white cis male with no urge to protest or rock the boat in any way, you have no reason to cheer a police force which is unaccountable and out of control.

These are three of the most egregious examples of Pride’s service to the ‘dominant ideology’ but other Pride participants are like a who’s who in fraud, tax avoidance and other unethical behaviour: Citibank, PWC, Microsoft, Deloitte, Vodafone, BP, RBS, KPMG. The conduct of each could be examined on its own but, as Losing Pride argues, their presence at Pride is testament to its transformation from a radical liberation movement which explicitly linked LGBT rights to wider social justice into one where visibility within injustice is an end in itself. And so:

Once you have reached the bar of being out and proud, any further structural or material concerns are a private matter, and unrelated to your sexual identity or politics.

And you can be certain that this will be the response of many to these concerns: what BAE Systems and co actually do is irrelevant, what matters is that LGBT people can be represented within them. Aside from being anathema to the foundations of Pride, this attitude is both fed by and feeds into the atomisation, individualisation and depoliticising which characterises modern capitalism. Legal ‘equality’ within a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, imperialist system which relies on the immiseration of the majority of humanity is no equality worth marching for. Rather than providing pinkwashing in return for some money, Pride should be a safe space of radical awakening. The links between LGBT liberation and wider social justice should be writ large and we should actively oppose the continued (and hypocritical) use of LGBT bodies and identity by companies which demonstrate time after time after time that their profit comes before human dignity.

19 June 2014

#FreedomTo Say No

If it wasn’t already basic Marketing 101, I could swear that Barclays had a strategy document hidden away somewhere with a title like ‘Pinkwashing: It’s Piss Easy’. I’ve written a few times previously about their involvement with Stonewall, who seem happy to get into bed with any company which bats an eyelash at them even if its commitment is somewhat half-hearted. This week saw Barclays’ use of the LGBT community to bolster its image reach new depths with the launch of an advertising campaign built around its sponsorship of London Pride. Its Spectrum group, dedicated to ‘diversity and inclusion’, has been encouraging the use of #FreedomTo on social media and merrily tweeting images like these:

I find it interesting that any explicit reference to or portrayal of LGBT people on these adverts is muted - in fact, it would be easy enough to entirely miss that this was an LGBT-focused campaign rather than some generic, asinine message. This is particularly noticeable in their risible ‘GAYTMs’:

What are these?! I fail to see how sub-Hallmark sentiments written on some terrible patterns which have escaped from adorning bus seats suggest ‘LGBT Pride’ in any way whatsoever. And yet they’ve inspired adoring responses:

It doesn’t stop there. If looking at insipid messages, terrible graphic design and portrayals of LGBT life which wouldn’t scare the most virulent homophobe don’t make you proud enough you can actually adorn yourself in some marketing:

As space hijackers tweeted, what was once a riot is now a “contactless adventure”! Branding yourself in this way even seems to get you access to a ‘private’ area of Pride in Golden Square, something listed on both the Pride and 'bpay' sites but with no further information provided. Possibly because an area reserved for people who prostrate themselves before a corporate sponsor isn’t exactly in keeping with the radical origins of Pride.

Not that Barclays, or Pride, would know it. The exchange beneath this tweet is illuminating. When someone complains that this branding is ‘not in the spirit of Pride’, Barclays responds that the event couldn’t even happen ‘without the financial support of Corporates”. The Pride account then chips in, saying that “only corporate sponsorship” allows the event to have “a unique meaning for everyone who comes along”. To complete the unholy triumvirate, an employee of Stonewall pops up to insist that “corporate support is vital to pride” and enquire as to how else it would be funded. The message is clear - the ungrateful oink who deigned to question the corporate branding of Pride should shut up. Barclays are doing the queers a favour! The fact that Pride events happened without such sponsorship for many years, and continue to happen today, is presumably irrelevant. The notion that Pride could have an ethical sponsorship policy is ludicrous because…reasons. Even more absurd is the idea that Pride probably doesn’t really need a series of stages (costing in excess of £200,000) featuring a bunch of terrible acts no-one has heard of.

Lest we forget, Pride is held around the anniversary of the Stonewall riots (bang on the day this year, in fact). It rather sticks in the craw that this event, commonly held to be the beginning of the modern radical LGBT liberation movement, is now an excuse for a company as mired in scandal, sleaze and immorality as Barclays to apply an easy gloss to its image. Any doubt that this is the main purpose behind their sponsorship should be put to rest by this odious interview in the Evening Standard, which glosses over “slashing jobs or preserving sky-high pay” to provide a Pride-based platform for the Barclays CEO to trumpet the company’s “ethical dimension” and its ‘diversity’. That’s quite handy just weeks after you’ve announced the sacking of almost 20,000 people. It’s handy when your bank has been the single largest supporter of the arms trade in the UK sector, profiting from the support and sale of arms to not-exactly-LGBT-friendly regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Uganda and supporting the manufacture of drones. It helps in avoiding unfortunate questions about your bank’s seemingly endless scandals, from Libor to money-laundering/sanction-busting to unwarranted bonuses to helping cause and profiting from the hunger and malnutrition of millions. 

Barclays is no friend of the LGBT community. It’s no friend of most of humanity. We owe it no gratitude and we certainly owe no loyalty to Pride in assisting with its pinkwashing. Instead, let’s in a small but meaningful way show them that we value the roots of Pride. We value liberation for everyone and will not allow our dignity to be commodified in the name of an abhorrent bank. The #freedomto say ‘not in our name’ is where real pride lies.

10 June 2014

#IndyRef and the Positive Myths Which Divide Us

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I’ve written here about Scottish independence only once before, largely because it seems more hassle than it’s worth. Opinions run high, to put it mildly. As a Scot who is now based in London I don’t have a vote but, if I did, I’d almost certainly vote ‘no’. This isn’t because I’m a ‘unionist’, a ‘loyalist’, a ‘Tory’ or any of the other absurd slurs which tend to be wheeled out when you state this position. It is rather because I find myself more sympathetic to arguments based on cross-border solidarity and a combined push towards socialism. That’s how I approach the question of independence - as a socialist. I’ve long been a critic of Labour, the kind of person who gets called ‘a Trot’ by the kind of person who participates in NUS, and the sole time I’ve voted Labour in a General Election was in 2010 when it was clear the Tories had a real chance of winning. I would never and have never voted Tory or Liberal Democrat. I say this only to counter the inevitable assumptions that some would make as a result of my stance.

As I wrote in my previous blog on this issue, I think the problems Scotland faces are rooted in a global neoliberal capitalism rather than being the ‘fault’ of Westminster or even England; I concomitantly find the argument that independence = ‘more democracy’ to be rather meaningless in an age where global capital is largely unchallenged and easily overrides national governments. Anyone who’s watched the documentary You’ve Been Trumped will be under no illusion that the SNP are immune to this.

As I’ve also previously said, the debate around independence has been utterly woeful. I don’t need to dwell on how terrible Better Together is because pretty much everyone accepts it at this point. What’s less accepted is how awful the ‘Yes’ campaign is. We’re continually told that ‘Yes’ is positive, inspiring, creative, energetic and a heap of other adjectives which sound like a Shoreditch marketing brain fart on a Monday morning. This has taken hold to the extent that any criticism or questioning of ‘Yes’ or independence is immediately met with howls of derision about ‘negativity’ and ‘scaremongering’. I don’t think it has been widely considered how important the framing of this issue has been, not least in the referendum question itself. Of course a ‘no’ campaign is going to be ‘negative’ - it’s in the name! What matters is whether the negativity has substance. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t - recognising which is which requires critical engagement rather than a facile, silly dismissal on the basis of ‘negativity’.

This dismissal and much of the rhetoric around ‘Yes’ seems strongly linked to the cult of positivity/’positive thinking’. Much has been written on this elsewhere but one fundamental aspect of the phenomenon is its dampening of critical thinking, which is portrayed as ‘negativity’. I can hear the howls already. I’m not for a second saying that the ‘no’ campaign has been an exemplar of critical thinking and I’ll re-iterate that I think it’s been dreadful. I also think, however, that too many of the responses to anti-independence arguments have been led by this guff which would have us believe that ‘Yes’, as a ‘positive’ message, is inherently good. Keep this in mind when reading much of the ‘Yes’ rhetoric and I think it’s impossible not to notice. Closely linked is the ‘Yes’ obsession with the opinion of ‘creatives’, people who are presented to us as fetish objects, a cut above your ‘non-creative’ types. I don’t think it takes much thought to realise how problematic this is but, again, it’s so unquestioned that even this sympethic interview with Alistair Darling presents the lack of ‘writers and artists’ in the ‘No’ campaign as a ‘problem’ for it. ’No’ faces a dual problem here, then: it is not only negative, it also sets itself against this inherently good positivity and creativity and so becomes even more easily positioned as the petty carping of small-minded people.

This brings me to the one aspect of the ‘Yes’ rhetoric which has probably bothered me more than any other, the positioning and contrasting of nationalism and racism in Scotland against that of England. In the acres of text written about UKIP in the run-up to the European elections it was often noted (accurately) that they had less support in Scotland than in England. When they won a seat in Scotland, Alex Salmond said that they were "a party beamed into Scotland courtesy of the BBC". This message was eagerly taken up by many ‘Yes’ supporters despite it being enormously trite and simplistic. In itself it perhaps wouldn’t be worthy of much comment but it fits neatly with a subtle narrative which has presented racism as an English problem, with much tutting at its anti-immigration attitudes despite the fact that they aren’t hugely different from those in Scotland.  A couple of months ago I found myself having a bizarre debate on Twitter with two ‘Yes’ supporters who were adamant that racism was more of a problem in England than in Scotland, citing hate crime statistics and pointing to parties like UKIP and the BNP. Again, there are a lot of fluffy ‘positive’ words about ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusion’ thrown around to subtly highlight the perceived differences.

Make no mistake, having a major party in the UK arguing in favour of more immigration is a big deal and worth praising. It’s not, however, rooted in any particularly marked difference in Scottish attitudes compared to English ones. My own theory, one which informs much of my responses to independence, is that anti-Thatcher attitudes, which bled into anti-Tory attitudes, which in turn bled into anti-Westminster attitudes, have created a buffer for a particular strand of Scottish identity (one which has been on the increase) which defines itself in opposition to a conception of England rooted in a Tory-voting South East. This identity has no time for the notion that much (most?) of England is largely indistinguishable from Scotland in its attitudes to social and political issues; no time for the fact that most of England does not support the Tories and certainly no time for the history of Scotland’s intrinsic involvement and benefit from colonialism and imperialism. Its founding myth is that Scotland is different and it requires England to be right-wing in order to sustain this. I think it’s a quite similar dynamic to anti-EU sentiment in England which similarly finds its expression in nationalism - but the different dynamics at work there make this nationalism more identifiably rooted in national myths and much uglier. It could be argued that it’s a positive force in Scotland in some ways, uniting enough people in its collective myths to create a small but crucial space where it is more progressive in its politics. Yet that’s a precarious position to be in, liable to collapse in on itself if the dynamics change.

I have absolutely no time for anyone who would deny that racism is a problem in Scotland and turning it into a competition or campaigning tool is insidious. The lack of independence was not to blame for the racist abuse which I witnessed my Korean-born friend face almost every single time I spent any time with her in the East End of Glasgow, just as it was not to blame for the casual racism I would hear on a daily basis (usually with regards to corner shops, takeaways etc). It’s possible to argue that independence would destroy the anti-Westminster buffer and cause those who hold onto these myths of Scotland to look at themselves more honestly. If so, it might even be worth it. Yet it seems so ingrained now that I can’t see it changing any time soon and the positive infuence of the myths could be destroyed. After all, the cult of positivity loses its potency when you don’t have the perceived negative force to rally against.

It’s easy to understand why many in Scotland are caught up in the ‘positive’ myth of a better nation - but the ‘Yes’ notion that Scotland is already inherently that nation attempts to destroy UK-wide aspirations towards it. Many throughout the UK want it - I know some myself and I encounter many more. I think this is where many ‘no’ people are to be found. They aren’t British nationalists, royalists or eager supporters of the status quo. Instead they want a better society which doesn’t end just before Carlisle and find the dog-whistle messages that England are the evil Empire to be a distraction - an obstacle, in fact - to this. They think a change in the system of governance in Scotland is not going to deliver this better society. Only work, solidarity and a collective will can do that and that means leaving no-one behind. That sounds utopian, yes - that’s the ‘positivity’ to be found in ‘no’. It’s just not compelling because a long hard slog isn’t particularly ‘positive’, especially when contrasted with the myth of quick and radical change. But myths and a misplaced valorising of positivity displace aspirations, dividing and ultimately weakening us. 

Edit: And if you want to see why I began by saying that it seems more hassle than it’s worth, look no further than this quite ridiculous response where I’m basically history’s greatest monster.

1 June 2014
My photos of Katy Perry&#8217;s Friday night O2 gig are here.

My photos of Katy Perry’s Friday night O2 gig are here.

28 May 2014

The Next Four

image

 “The first five patients were white,” remembered Gottlieb. “The next two were black. The sixth patient was a Haitian man. The 7th patient was a gay African-American man, here in Los Angeles.”

It is accepted now that HIV originated in Africa and first made the leap to humans (from primates) in the 1930s. One of earliest known cases of human infection appears to be a man in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1959. It’s suggested that the DRC was, in the 1970s, the location of the first AIDS epidemic - one that was largely heterosexually-spread. HIV and AIDS then spread throughout the African continent from where, researchers suggest, it travelled to Haiti and then entered the ‘northern’ countries such as the USA. Dr Jacques Pépin has argued (read this link - it’s truly fascinating) that the global spread of HIV owes much to colonial rule in Africa.

The first ‘official’ case of HIV/AIDS in the USA has been retrospectively claimed as Robert Rayford, an African-American teenager from Missouri who died in 1969. It’s also been suggested that Ardouin Antonio, a Haitian man who died in Manhattan in 1959, could have been one of the first cases in the northern hemisphere. By 1981, when Dr Michael Gottlieb and his team identified what would soon come to be known as AIDS, there were already many thousands infected in the USA.

You will notice in the quote at the start that Dr Gottlieb recalls the first five cases he identified were in white men, while the next four consisted of people of colour. HIV/AIDS, of course, primarily affected men who had sex with men in countries like the USA (althought doctors also reported the condition as present in intravenous drug users and their children in 1981.) What’s relevant here is that over 40% of the people reported as having AIDS in the initial period (1981-1987) of what we now know as the AIDS crisis were non-white.

As you may have gathered by the picture at the top, I was caused to think about and revisit this history by the broadcast (in the USA) of The Normal Heart, HBO’s Ryan Murphy-directed adaptation of the Larry Kramer play which was one of the first works to directly address the crisis. There has been a fair bit of advance publicity for this movie, due in large part to the veritable galaxy of stars appearing in it (and of course Murphy’s Glee/American Horror Story successes). I don’t think it’s being overly cynical to say that it has ‘award season’ written all over it, and the critical response has been predictably positive. I thought it was alright: it felt overlong and Murphy’s direction was all over the place but it’s fairly efficient as the polemic it’s clearly intended to be. It was impossible for me not to notice, however, that in the decades since the 1985 play was written much of its scenes have passed into the realm of cliche. You can’t fault Kramer for that, of course, but if you’ve seen any major drama or film about AIDS (almost always set in America) you’ll find much of this film very familiar. 

This in turn, then, led to the observation that these dramas keep telling the same stories: those of white gay men. The gimmick of the recent, much-acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club was that the main character was straight but even that felt the need to throw in Jared Leto as a white Jiminy Cricket-esque transexual sidekick (to ‘represent’ the LGBT community, apparently). During The Normal Heart I started to notice that, amongst the cast of implausibly attractive, uncommonly famous actors there was barely a non-white face to be found and only one significant female character. A black man sometimes pops up in the background of what is supposed to be Gay Men’s Health Crisis but I don’t recall him having any lines, while a woman who is heavily implied to be lesbian shows up to volunteer and then is quickly forgotten.

Kramer was clearly writing from his own perspective here and GMHC was indeed set up by six white men. It’s churlish to complain about that, especially when these men definitely deserve to be remembered. Yet I feel uneasy at the narrative the film pushes, one which fits neatly into that already told in most of the famous AIDS dramas you can think of. It’s a narrative where HIV/AIDS and the activism surrounding it is seen to belong almost entirely to white men (who don’t even have non-white lovers, despite living in cities like New York) in rich countries. It’s also one where the radicalism offered is of a peculiarly blinkered kind.

There’s no better way to explain what I mean by that last comment than to link to the words of Sarah Schulman and Roberto Vazquez-Pacheo. Both former members of the radical group ACT-UP, they provide some valuable context which is almost entirely missing not only from aforementioned AIDS dramas but even most of the documentaries I’ve seen about the period. Schulman writes here about the make-up of the group:

There were all different kinds of people who joined ACT UP. Most of the women were already politically active because they’d been trained in the feminist movement. There were some men who came from the gay liberation movement, who also were radicals and had experience. There were people who came from the left. There were people who had been in the Black Panther party, but they had been in the closet. There was a guy who’d been in the Nicaraguan revolution, he had been in the closet as well. Jeff Gates. He died. 

But the vast majority were gay men who had never been politicized. Some of them were everything from wall street brokers, to party boys, to quiet men living at home… they didn’t know anything about politics.

The clear picture here is that queer politics existed prior to AIDS activism and it intersected with other political movements which fought for liberation and against power. For his part Vazquez-Pacheco speaks not only of the tensions raised by being a man of colour in a group dominated by white people but of class. The ‘professional middle-class’ white guys felt betrayed by the system they had ‘grew up with’ but felt it could be ‘repaired’, having to be educated as to how that system had never served many of the non-white, non-male, non-professional groups affected by HIV/AIDS.

You can see this all over films such as The Normal Heart and Dallas Buyers Club, which present the awakening political conscious of men affected by HIV/AIDs but don’t really go any further than that. It remains a single-issue cause dominated by said men seeking to wrest some concessions from the white men in power. The politics of Dallas Buyers Club is particularly dubious in that it presents a straight white man unleashing the entreprenurial power of capitalism to combat lumbering, inefficent vested interests (healthcare and government) and helping the simpering queers while he’s at it - there is a single scene which acknowledges the radical activism which was taking place at the time. We’re presented with the veneer of radicalism (pretty much the sole reason for Jared Leto’s character existing, aside from providing some tragedy) when the story actually tells us that the system works if you make enough noise for long enough.

There is certainly no consideration of global politics, poverty and power structures. In all of these stories Africa is an irrelevant abstraction and AIDS has descended upon its northern victims like a sudden plague from God. It’s no surprise, then, that while the dramas/documentaries will usually draw attention to global HIV/AIDS figures there will be little to no attempts made to present the wider reality of the situation. Even in the USA, non-white people made up a majority of HIV/AIDS cases by the early 90s and today black/African-Americans make up the vast majority of new diagnoses (to clarify this for one of the comments, it’s taken from here and here, amongst others. I meant majority as a single category compared to other ethnic groups - poorly expressed, I accept). Factors like poverty and access to health care have been clearly linked to HIV rates while Against Equality have documented how (for example) these issues intersect with race in the prison industrial complex. Worldwide, almost 70% of HIV/AIDS cases are found in Africa while North America/Western Europe, which all of the portrayals focus on, accounts for less than 7%.

So what, some people will say - most of these depictions are made in North America/Western Europe and these stories deserve to be told. It’s inevitable that some will take this blog as an attempt to downplay the carnage caused by HIV/AIDS to men who have sex with men in the north. This isn’t intended at all. Rather, I think these depictions matter in framing HIV/AIDS as a currently existing problem and how we approach it. For example, Dallas Buyers Club is premised upon a man illegally buying drugs to treat HIV - a situation which not only is hugely relevant to healthcare access in so-called ‘privileged’ countries but which clearly parallels the issues surrounding big pharma monopolies on drugs in Africa. The Normal Heart, meanwhile, pushes the buttons of a certain audience (HBO is a premium cable channel) and keeps alive the idea of HIV/AIDS as a disease of white gay professional men. It’s not disrespectful those who have died or to those who have fought to acknowledge that the fight isn’t the same. It’s largely not about us any more, even when numbers of us continue to be infected and even when we need to organise and fight against the austerity which cuts HIV/AIDS treatments.

That’s why I think it’s important to present the reality of HIV/AIDS and stop the erasure of non-white men from its story - it’s perhaps the most powerful way to build solidarity with those afflicted elsewhere in the world (and our own countries) and make us begin to realise that their situation is intricately connected with our own. HIV/AIDS is not so much an individual problem which can be solved by a noble man or men obtaining concessions from those in power as it is a systemic one. I think understanding it on that level fundamentally alters our response to it. 

Beginning to question these connections and even how countries like the USA may benefit from them is part of a real modern-day radicalism, not getting dewy-eyed over a rose-tinted period of activism performed by actors who will reap not only awards but the plaudits of a world which continues to see these potrayals as terribly ‘brave’ (in itself a homophobic response).

The main character of The Normal Heart says early on “I hate that we play victim when many of us, most of us, don’t have to.” It’s a complacency which is quickly shattered and becoming a real victim fills him with an incandescent rage. You can never fake such a rage because you can never fake experiencing horrific oppression and nor should we ever try to. We shouldn’t and cannot downplay the fights which need to be fought but these have never been solely about sexuality and we cannot forget that. We cannot forget that our liberation is always to be found linked in feminism, anti-racism, anti-poverty, anti-colonialism. It’s for this reason that it’s so desperately important that the stories of ‘The Next Four’, and all they can be seen to represent who came before and since, are told.

27 May 2014

Lord Browne: Drowning in Shit.

The point at which you despairingly wonder “how much longer are we going to put up with this drivel?” came, went and died a lonely death years ago. Hardly anyone seems to have bat an eyelid at Lord Browne’s latest charm offensive promoting, without a hint of irony, a book about why coming out is ‘good for business’. Browne being, of course, a fellow who took out injunctions to prevent his former partner from speaking to the press to make allegations including misuse of BP funds and tax-dodging. He perjured himself in court regarding the relationship and was criticised by the judge for his “willingness casually to ‘trash’ the reputation of Mr Chevalier (the partner) and to discredit him in the eyes of the court”. Why he sounds just perfect to tell us about how great coming-out is!

He gets away with this nonsense almost entirely unchallenged because he’s played the 'victim' narrative like a pro and this has absolved him of all his sins. He periodically pops up to speak of how homophobic business is and how he was a poor victim of this. His conversion to the moral goodness of living an ‘openly gay life’ is music to the ears of a community and media which still treats LGBT people like cute little puppies to be cooed over and scratched on their bellies.

Lest we forget, this poor unfortunate graduated from the University of Cambridge and became, as Chief Executive of BP, one of the highest-paid people in the world. He was also a Director at that great vampire squid Goldman Sachs, as well as being knighted and made a Lord. Some of the information he attempted to prevent his former partner revealing concerned his regular meetings with senior members of government, including both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. This is not, by any conceivable stretch of the imagination, someone who was an outsider. Yet the idea of the tortured homosexual ‘living a lie’ while enjoying unfettered access to the gilded halls of power rubs those proverbial tummies.

And so it continues. It’s no accident that Browne’s latest promotional round pushes the exact same lines as before. Witness the headline of his interview with The Guardian: “I Thought Being Gay Was Basically Wrong”. The opening is quite ridiculous:

When Lord Browne was in charge of BP, had anyone told him he would one day invite a journalist into his home to discuss his sexuality, he would have said they were insane. Homosexuality was the last thing he expected to talk about in public; after all, he never spoke of it even in private.

He didn’t? But his partner spoke of being present at dinners with the Prime Minister. He spoke of visiting Peter Mandelson’s home and Mandelson’s partner being there. These are hardly generic ‘social events’ as the article breezily puts it. Are we expected to believe that Browne was just dragging this guy around with him without telling any of these people who he was? It defies all reason - but it challenges the narrative and so any pretence of journalism is abandoned. Indeed, while Browne might think that homosexuality ‘was the last thing’ he’d be interviewed about, these days he’s far less likely to be challenged on his professional life. It’s a complete puff-piece which presents him as some kind of gay hero. There are brief mentions of ‘accusations’ that his savage cuts at BP were linked to a string of disasters and deaths including the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Surely this is something Browne should be challenged on every single time he is interviewed? (As a slight aside, it’s interesting to note that one of the journalists who most pursued Browne over BP’s safety record stated that his time as Chief Exec was characterised by ”a corporate court filled with sycophants and…an unhealthy glorification of a boss.”  Again, completely at odds with Browne’s own take on things.)

Similarly his key role in the introduction of tuition fees is completely glossed over - he’s not even asked about it. I don’t care what this privileged guy thinks of being gay. I care that he had, and still has, real power and access to government and is identified as responsible for a series of reprehensible outcomes. Even on the terms of his book it’s very easy to link these issues: tuition fees, student debt in general and the culture of austerity which Browne so buys into are viewed by many on the left as instrumental in the creation of a precariat class of obediant and ‘flexible’ worker. This makes it all the more fascinating (and troubling) that the main thrust of Browne’s argument is ‘openly gay employees are good employees’. This may be so but why is it okay to instrumentalise my sexuality in this way and not other aspects of my being? Browne is essentially arguing that companies should get on board with gay employees cos they’re good for the bottom line. Great. What about employee conditions, including safety? What about jobs themselves?! On top of aforementioned cuts Browne also slashed thousands of jobs at BP. I’m sure some of those people were gay, maybe even openly so at work. Where is the regard for their wellbeing from this poor, tortured soul? 

Browne’s use of homosexuality is not only self-serving, it’s blatant pinkwashing. The real ‘bottom line’ here is that if companies are seen to be ‘nice’ to their gay employees, they can get use this when the shit hits the fan regarding their business activities. Witness the utter absurdity of this man saying that companies should 'send gay employees to Russia' to educate the backwards barbarians. This is a quite literal reduction of ‘gay employees’ to a public relations vanguard for companies which are typically up to their eyeballs in human rights violations. The idea that a company like BP could be viewed in any way as concerned with human rights is laughable, and egregious drivel such as this from Browne acts merely to provide cover for business decisions which have already demonstrated no such concern.

A serious media would put these arguments to Browne. To do so, however, would require them to move beyond their juvenile, patronising take on sexuality and engage in some real critical thinking. So instead we drown in this shit. I want to end with a quote I read yesterday in a typically superlative blog from the activist Scott Long, which is ostensibly about the Brunei hotel boycott but which here succintly skewers the entire media/LGBT rights industry:

In Europe and North America international LGBT rights are big news. There are big constituencies, too, of activists and tweeters who avidly absorb the stories of foreign abuse, and demand Action! Now! And there are more and more domestic LGBT organizations feeding on those audiences, and turning their eyes to foreign affairs, and pressing their governments for Action! Now! Neither the constituencies nor the organizations, though, know that much about the rest of the world, or human rights, or have patience for long-term efforts, or get the complexities of political action across borders. They just want Action! Now!, and the less they have to worry about subaltern voices muddying up the message, the better.The problem is that a lot of the new constituencies are idiots. I don’t mean they can’t tie their shoes or screwed up their SATs. They’re idiots in the root Greek sense, which is a lament rather than an insult:  ἰδιώτης, a too-private person, a consumer of politics rather than a participant in it. incapable of understanding the lives of others except as versions of himself.

Themed by Hunson. Originally by Josh