Politics

Grovelling

One limb hanging off, a misfiring prosthetic,
a grovelling, desperate gargoyle,
pathetic.

A weather vane pointing to history –
let it;
a value that’s tested by trade deals –
forget it.

This 21st Century monologue nation
will run back to past loves
with no condemnation,
will find itself hoarse
with a wavering cadence,
will call drunk at midnight
in wound up temptation.

And all in a wretched attempt to make clear
that we’re fine from the break-up,
the blast threw us clear.

So hazy, we dance with a dangerous beast;
we are ugly,
disgusting,
deluded,
diseased.

Trump and the Problem with History Lessons

It’s 2017, and there’s literally no way to mention Hitler or Nazi Germany online without inciting several rolled eyes and at least a couple of avid proclamations of Godwin’s Law. Somehow, we found ourselves here, where the 20th Century’s worst atrocities lead a double life: a brand-name shorthand for true evil, moonlighting as a hackneyed joke from that other universe known as the Past.

It’s the fault, of course, of all those who coined the term “grammar Nazis,” or who lightly and carelessly compared a minor inconvenience to the Holocaust for a cheap laugh. It’s the fault of overblown comparisons related to local council bureaucracy. And mostly, it’s the fault of the way we teach history, where grand narratives and dramatic, symbolic moments supersede intricacy and qualification.

Apart from a minority (who, I cross my fingers, are subject to more and more punches to the face), we’ll all hopefully agree that World War II, the rise of the Third Reich, and the Holocaust, were unbelievably dark periods in human history that we should endeavour to avoid again at all costs. But while every schoolchild knows about Auschwitz and Anne Frank, what they don’t get taught – and it surely can’t be for the sake of protecting them from trauma – are the political and social conditions that made it possible.

If you were living in Germany during Hitler’s rise, you’d have fought back. You’d have spoken up as he cynically focused his political message towards groups impacted by the Depression, like farmers and the middle class. You’d have stood up and been counted when Hitler suspended many basic rights in the aftermath of the Reichstag fire. When Goebbels took control of large swathes of the mass media and began a campaign to dictate the concept of “truth”, you’d have seen through it and the revolution would have been televised.

Because the 1930s and 1940s were a different world entirely, and back then, people were stupid.

So when Donald Trump issues a media blackout at the EPA, it’s different. This can’t lead to that.

And when Sean Spicer uses his role as White House Press Secretary to distribute a press release with a list of positive coverage of Trump’s first week, it’s different. This can’t lead to that.

And when Trump signs an Executive Order announcing the publication of a weekly list of crimes committed by “aliens”, it’s different. I swear.

This can’t lead to that.

Obviously, I’m not saying that we’re going to end up with concentration camps spread across the USA. That would be insane. Because nobody would use the words “concentration camp” in 2017.

White Workers and the Left’s Privilege Problem

It is, genuinely, difficult to imagine a person less qualified to be President of the United States than Donald Trump. This is not a paragraph or an article about him. The ire directed at him is entirely valid; he is infuriating, disgusting and incompetent. But this is an article about why people – predominantly white working-class people – voted for him. Because they did.

It is not enough to say that they are racist, though on balance they certainly are. If the left wants to reverse the current, worrying trend of right-wing isolationism, it needs to prevent people like Donald Trump from exploiting what lies underneath that racism, and using it as a base for his bigoted breakthrough messaging.

The context in which these voters – white, blue collar, many uneducated – find their grievance has three key facets. Firstly, they have been told, by cynical propagators of the American Dream, that they can achieve whatever they put their mind to in life if they work hard enough. Second, they have seen the ceiling for that power and wealth grow away from them, provoking inspiration and frustration in equal measure. And third, and most crucially, they bear the frustration of this dynamic most sharply because they have been told they are privileged.

They are, of course, privileged. They enjoy cultural and social acceptance, employers hire them, police don’t shoot them on sight, and they are more likely to have routes out of poverty. This is not an argument that the demographic in question is in some way beaten down. The sentiment that the white working man is an oppressed group is born from distinctly racist scapegoat narratives pushed by the beneficiaries of, yes, a “rigged” system.

And yet…

In the context of an American Dreamworld where such a tiny proportion of people climb the ladder out of the middle class grind despite the ever-present promise that it could happen, to hear the word “privilege” is to hear the word “failure”. The failure is the system’s, but the system doesn’t admit it. The trigger for white working and middle class frustration is the fear that, deep down, they’re not capitalising on the privilege they’re told they have. They see other demographic groups gaining ground on them and it scares them to be consumed into a mass of the “others” who haven’t made it and probably never will. And that’s when they start listening to somebody like Donald Trump, who tells them that the failure they silently feel can be fixed.

The fear and sense of failure is actually allayed on a raw, almost devastating level; what Trump’s message does is insinuate that he’ll put the people catching up back in their box. It’s a sleight of hand trick; he (and other right-wing leaders) make the best-off of a chasing pack feel like they’re moving forwards by standing them next to others on a backwards-moving treadmill. It’s never explicitly stated. It’s entangled with real-world rhetoric around jobs and security. But that’s the diversion. The core of the argument is: I will make you feel superior again.

The problem this poses to the left is crucial to winning back these people. Voting is an emotional activity for most of us, and fear is an enormously powerful emotion. Much of Clinton’s vote in this election was driven by fear of Trump. To untangle this emotional connection through carefully-crafted facts is impossible. Progressives need an equal and opposite reaction; they need to eliminate the sense of failure felt so keenly by this demographic. But how?

One way is to integrate communities more effectively. It is easy to think of this as cliché pandering in the direct aftermath of an election, but antagonism and a sense of division will only exacerbate the issue. If white working-class people (predominantly, but by no means exclusively, men) cannot win – and by and large, they can’t – then they won’t stop being angry, and if they can placate that anger temporarily by turning up the speed on the backwards treadmill next to them, they will do it. By merging the two treadmills, growing the pool of communities who feel disenfranchised, and interweaving people so they understand each other, it’s viable to create a broad church of people who punch up rather than down. This is easier said than done, but there are some general lessons to be had.

The second way is to stop talking about privilege. I’m a white guy saying this; I may get some flak for it. But while privilege is an accurate fulcrum for social discussion in 2016, it is an alienating one in the contexts described above and it is killing the left’s chances of winning back that enormous group of voters. I am not usually such a pragmatist, but what happened on November 8th seems so easily pulled from a history book that we need to stand the fuck still and rethink how we talk to 48% of the population. Some voters – the evangelicals, the anarchists and the dinosaurs – are beyond electoral persuasion. Most of them are not.

When privilege is discussed it is often invoked in a dismissive way; I’ve done it myself and so have most of the progressives I know. This toning and rhetoric and the immediate sense of division it causes are perilous for social cohesion. I understand it. I’m not lambasting any marginalised person for reacting with anger or passion or exhaustion when trying to explain how their experiences differ from someone else’s.

But those of us who have the choice, when we have the choice, must start being more inclusive about our anger, because while segments of it belong to people of colour or LGBT folks or non-males, a whole lot more of it belongs to practically fucking everyone.

 

An Open Letter From a Brexit-broken Brit to a Trump-trashed America

Sorry.

It doesn’t cut it, I know. But I know it’s what I wanted to hear waking up on June 24th after Brexit. They’re going to gloat – the racists and the isolationists and the misogynists. And you’re going to have to deal with weeks of “get over it”. So, passionately, from this side of the Atlantic to that side: sorry.

Sorry about the pride you’ve probably lost in your nation. A lot of young people don’t really feel patriotic because we were born and raised in an era where geographical borders never stood as the same barriers that they once did. But the sense of pride you’ve probably felt seeping away from you is a tangible thing to lose; from what we can tell in the UK, it scars and the sense of loss sticks around. It’s an awful feeling.

Sorry about the way the next month or so is going to play out. If it’s anything like it was here, the right will see a resurgence, racists will be emboldened, the economy will shake then stabilise in anticipation of further shocks to come. Sorry about the division that now exists in your country, and sorry that the people who won aren’t going to care much for sewing it back together. It’s going to be a rough few weeks. It’s time to buckle up and get out your coping mechanisms.

You will walk down the street and rightly wonder which 52% of people thought it was a good idea to put this lunatic in the White House. The people who did vote for him will largely be oblivious, ecstatic and insufferable.

Sorry for the long-term damage that it will cause. When all’s said and done, things will settle down, Trump will surround himself with people who actually have some faint clue what they’re doing, and get on, sort of, maybe, with running the country, in between opening hotels and grabbing women by the pussy. And there will be difficult times ahead with abortion, gay rights, immigration, trade and foreign policy. The rest of us get to look forward to those last two alongside you.

Sorry. On so many levels. I wish there were a solution to any of these things, but we didn’t find one, and I’m not sure you will either. It sucks to be that blunt about things. In all likelihood, there will be a President Trump. The next 4-6 weeks will be nigh-on impossible. The agenda will lurch towards the right. It will hurt, both personally and socially. And the only thing to do while it happens is stick together.

Stick together. You’re going to need all the support you can get to remind you that only just over half of the country felt compelled to elect a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women to the highest office in your country. “Only” just over half may sound glib, but in the next few weeks it’s going to feel at times like everyone except you ticked the Trump box. So make sure you surround yourself with enough people who remind you that fear and bigotry may have won this time but won’t always. Make sure you find ways to support other people and be supported by them.

Make sure you find the energy to keep fighting. It’s shattering. In the aftermath of Brexit, I declared myself done with politics, done with the UK, done with swathes of its population. I’m still jaded. I’m still shattered and exhausted by it all. But the one thing that does wear off given time is the tiredness. Give yourself some downtime. Get through the next couple of weeks. And then something will catch your eye and you’ll get angry again. It’ll be a painful process to navigate, but you don’t have an option, because you’re good people. Eventually you’ll clench your fists again, even if right now you only feel like sleeping for weeks.

Ultimately, the world carries on. It’ll look darker, dumber, dimmer, harsher, and more difficult than before. It’ll change the way you look at people and the way you think about “community” and other abstract concepts. It’ll change a lot beyond that. And so I don’t mean to be dismissive when I say that the world will continue to turn and you need to find comfort in the good people you know and love. It’s just the only thing worth learning that British progressives have had going for them in the 5 months since Brexit. I hope it’s enough to cling to while you work this shit out.

Media outlets and politicians have convinced the public that Human Rights are bad.

Seriously. If it were happening in any other named country in the world, we’d be staring, rolling our eyes, and wondering how the population managed to become so easily-led. But it’s not. It’s happening here. And there are swathes of people who care more about the irrational anger they fear when a foreign person can’t be deported than they do about the right to life being enshrined in law without parliamentary levers and pulleys attached to it.

Maybe it’s just that, somehow, they trust our government implicitly. It’s the same segment of the population, doubtless, that will be apologists for the Snooper’s Charter along the lines that nothing to hide means nothing to fear. Bizarrely, they’ll also say they have no faith in politics or politicians – but as soon as they’re elected, they trust death penalty advocate and education privatiser Michael Gove to protect their fundamental rights as citizens.

It’s hard to tell what’s more scary – the impending prospect of a British Bill of Rights which doesn’t apply to soldiers abroad and has a “seriousness threshold”, below which the rights won’t be actionable; or the fact that as a nation we’ve reached a stage where hatred of a handful of foreigners deemed to have played the system can, with the goading of the mainstream press and politicians alike, usurp the rights that were battled for through so much effort and blood. Richard Littlejohn’s hilarious insistence on calling them “Yuman Rights” has convinced his readers that our legally-enshrined freedom is a joke.

Indeed, there’s something perverse and nauseating about the hysterical reaction of the press to the defacing of a war memorial this week, as they celebrate the Conservatives’ plans to decimate the accountability and reliability of our Human Rights. It has to be seen to be believed.

The new Conservative government wants to exclude armed forces abroad from Human Rights laws

The new Conservative government, with Michael Gove as Justice Secretary, plans to exclude British Armed Forces personal overseas from the reach of human rights cases, in order to stop such cases “undermin[ing] their ability to do their job and keep us safe”.

A document published in October 2014 by then-Justice Secretary Chris Grayling lays out the “case for change” and explains that the Conservative plan would also “limit the use of human rights laws to the most serious cases”.

Both of these worryingly-phrased objectives are buried in the final page of the document, and their ambiguity is huge cause for concern to those who fear that the notion of a “Bill of Rights” is a mechanism to dilute existing human rights legislation and make it easier for the state to infringe upon those rights where it wants to.

It appears your Web browser is not configured to display PDF files.
No worries, just click here to download the PDF file.

Scottish independence is about resisting the flow of power away from ordinary people

On its surface, the Scottish independence referendum appears a shining beacon of modern democracy. It is a peacefully conducted campaign for separation, lying in stark contrast to the many ongoing disputes around the globe that have similar stated goals but witness violence in the absence of a democratic process. Whatever angle we take on the use of democracy as a cultural, neocolonialist export, it is a sure-fire privilege that we live in a society where ballot papers are preferred to bloodshed.

There is, however, something insidious in the tone of voice when a politician tells us this same thing. There is always a hint of danger when the rich and powerful assert the fairness of the process that made them rich and powerful. It reaffirms the validity of their place in the upper echelons of society, and whispers: “Be grateful that we still haven’t taken it away!”

Celebrating the democratic purity of this referendum, though, is a more manipulative move than most, because it relies on people’s false assumption that a process is fair if the most obvious and visible components of that process are fair. We are taught to believe that an unjust government either denies its people their right to vote, or rigs the results when they do come in. Democracy by numbers tells us that we are free as long as certain basic criteria are fulfilled. It begs us not to look closer.

The #PatronisingBTLady advert commissioned by the No campaign brazenly held ignorance aloft as a reason to vote no. It put forth the argument that politics is hard and complicated and voting for the status quo was the safer option. It bluntly implied that kids can’t be into politics and that talking about political issues makes a person dull and uninteresting. The plea to stick with the status quo has echoed through the hallways of bought-and-sold newspapers and big businesses with big business interests. The right-wing UK press is packed with claims that the Yes campaign has run on intimidation – willfully ignoring the No campaign’s lazy scaremongering. Do you really want things to change? they seem to ask. Change is scary.

Change is scary for the politicians in Westminster. This referendum was granted to the Scottish people because nobody in the UK Parliament believed it would turn out as close as it has. As soon as it did, the knives came out. When Alex Salmond won the second debate against Alistair Darling, the political classes began rolling out every dirty rhetorical trick in the book, pushing scare story after scare story through a media circus that is half owned, half indoctrinated. The Guardian’s editorial line on the issue said that the Scots should give the union “another chance”. One wonders how many times you have to be let down before you finally decide it’s okay to hit back.

Independence-Map

The distinction between the two campaigns could not be more stark. Where the Yes campaign have run an emotive, ideological and at times naive message, the No campaign has been detached, cynical and ruthless. The last-ditch bribe of “more powers, we promise, you guys, we swear” is derisory in both its lateness and its vagueness. It was the action of a government that treats the public like shit to whatever extent they can while still getting what they, themselves, want. “We’ll listen this time,” they say, while deliberately avoiding the detail that they never ever listen until their own reputations or interests are on the line. The Scottish people are fed up of being lied to and fed up of being treated with this derision. The difference is that they can see a light at the end of the UK’s grim political tunnel.

There have been great arguments on both side of the debate in this referendum campaign, and to me it feels right that it will be a close-run affair when the numbers come in on Friday morning. Not every reason to vote No boils down to being scared, and not every reason to vote Yes boils down to being overcome by emotion. I hope the stories of Scottish families being torn apart by the argument are exaggerated; I hope the country stays as energised as it has been for these last few months.

But mostly, I hope that they prove a point.

Very little affects David Cameron. He has led his government through racist immigration policies and devastating welfare budget cuts, and I’m sure he still sleeps fine at night – perhaps even better than he did when he wasn’t in power. But if Scottish independence becomes a reality, it will be the first legitimate bloody nose that the comfortable, sticky establishment of this country has collectively suffered for a very long time. It might finally warn them that the contempt with which they treat the British public cannot necessarily be disguised with such an arrogant impression of giving a fuck. I hope that Scotland vote Yes so that I get to see the look on David Cameron’s face. And if Scotland vote No, I pray that the passionate spark that has been on show during the referendum campaign lights a fuse that Westminster can’t just ignore until it suits them.