It seems to me that the ‘manif pour tous’  was attempting in a confused and deeply reactionary way to address  this deeper set of questions  concerning the relation between biology and social destiny and the destabilising of both family and community values. A  vacuum has been  created by the absence of a progressive engagement with such issues at the level of popular culture and everyday life;  it has been filled by  institutionalised forms of ‘political correctness’, and  the ideological  hothouse of  identity politics. Against this background, the dream of a simpler world, a world  of make-believe freed from the ambiguities and confusions of contemporary sexual politics, indeed a world liberated from sexuality altogether in the name of more innocent pleasures becomes ever more attractive.

I’m not sure that this piece entirely gels as a coherent whole but it’s an admirable effort nonetheless. The section I’ve quoted above is absolutely spot-on. I don’t wish to repeat myself at length but the shrillness of the ‘gay marriage debate’ certainly hasn’t been monopolised by the homophobes. The issue raises interesting questions, not least about marriage and about the nature of ‘equality’, which have been almost entirely ignored by the ‘progressive’ supporters of the cause. Instead, as the quote succinctly puts it, we’ve had “institutionalised forms of ‘political correctness’, and  the ideological  hothouse of  identity politics”. The automatic (and smugly expressed) assumption that any criticism or opposition = homophobia, something we’re seeing again tonight with the ‘oh now the world will end waaaah!’ crowing online. It’s not exactly been dignified. It seems even less likely tonight that any of these issues will be thought about in any depth – indeed, there’s a Twitterstorm currently brewing over alleged Tory plans to ‘get tough on teenage single mothers’ yet absolutely no-one is drawing any connection between it and the question of ‘marriage equality’. Yet notions of ‘marriage’, particularly the morality behind it and its privileged status in society, are clearly relevant. Indeed, the ‘letting gays get married will mean less single parents’ argument has been wheeled out in favour of ‘equal marriage’. There are implicit judgements there, assumptions about the way a relationship is supposed to work and how a ‘family’ is supposed to be constructed. Once you start thinking about these connections it sheds new light on tweets like this, where we’re supposed to coo at some gays becoming respectable, making their love ‘official’. We’re not supposed to ask questions about why their love wasn’t good enough already or how folk in ‘non-traditional’ relationships which remain beyond the realms of ‘marriage’  fit into all this.

Gay marriage, whatever its merits, is as an issue a big old plaster which we nice liberal folk can slap over ourselves to feel good and superior without having to think about any of the uncomfortable stuff. In recent days we’ve seen the same with the Trayvon Martin verdict, where I’ve seen folk in the UK who only weeks ago were spouting reactionary drivel about the Woolwich attacks, who abandoned all pretence of ‘liberalism’ during the 2010 riots and who rarely have much to say about racism in the UK  wailing loudly about the injustice. Racism in this case is not only on the other side of the world, it’s big and it’s obvious. That’s racism. They’re racist. We’re not racist. Again, there’s no need to think about anything. No need to consider the subtle and insidious ways in which racism manifests itself, no need to consider our own positions, our own privileges, our own attitudes and actions. At the root of both responses lies a conception of ‘equality’ which is woefully trite, naive and shallow. This lack of critical thought, this aversion to seriously looking lest we don’t like what we see, feeds into the vacuum which the author of the above piece mentions. And so we can tweet our support for the further privileging of certain kinds of relationships in society while seconds later complaining with disbelief that a government is yet again taking aim at a stigmatised form of ‘family’. 

Edit – I’m compelled to add this story here as a further illustration of what I’m talking about. The full-on assault on those claiming benefits appeals to many prejudices and ill-founded assumptions but the benefits cap in particular rests on the basis that only those who can ‘afford’ it should a) have children and/or b) live in ‘desirable’ areas. This is exactly the kind of thing people mean when they describe ‘marriage equality’ as equality only for the already privileged, who already have choices and opportunities. Those who don’t due to whatever circumstances find themselves stigmatised and subject to the cruel whims of a baying mob. Look at the bottom of the linked article – it rather incongruously mentions a proposed tax break for married couples. You can safely assume that Osborne is not pitching this to the married couples who will be hit by the benefits cap – no, instead it’s aimed at the wholesome, ‘good’ families who pay their way and don’t rock the boat. They are the chosen ones. Now we gay folk can be the chosen ones too. ‘Equality’.

Living the dream: a letter from Paris | openDemocracy

Positivity and the Olympic ‘Feel-Good Factor’

I love people. An odd statement, I know, and one that some (most?!) who know me would immediately scoff at. I can be very scathing about aspects of people (and aspects of myself.)  Yet this love and this disdain both stem from the same strong belief that each one of us has enormous potential – to think, to act, to create, to empathise, to live lives which always aspire to something that bit greater than what we are. That is why I’m a socialist. I have an unshakeable belief that people are fundamentally ‘good’ – that people want the best not only for themselves, but for each other – and that co-operation is both a way to achieve this and, in itself, the peak expression of human dignity and endeavour. I believe passionately that as a society we should work to maximise the opportunities available to everyone, whatever their background, so that they may understand and begin to realise their potential.

Talk of opportunities and background is, of course, everywhere at the moment. Team GB exceeded all expectations at the Olympics and discussion has turned to how to foster future opportunities for potential Olympians. Yet this seemingly innocuous subject is the terrain for a clash of visions of Britain. On the one hand you have those, like the Prime Minister or the Daily Mail journalist on BBC News this morning, who are fixating on the individual efforts of the athletes involved. The journalist spoke of the hard work and ambition of the athletes, contrasting their efforts with those chasing ‘quick’ success on ‘X Factor’. As I’ve previously noted, this narrative has also been used as a strong contrast to the riots last year, the differing paths of an Olympic athlete and a looter being reduced to rational, individual choices. It’s a clearly neoliberal interpretation, focusing on atomised individuals who achieve almost entirely due to their own determination. It’s easy to understand why those with Conservative leanings would favour this idea.

The second, somewhat quieter vision emphasises the fundamental importance of state spending on sport, the combined efforts of many and the opportunities afforded as a result. A perfect example of this appears in today’s Guardian and it uses this foundation to argue that the post-Olympic glow is the ideal time to make the case for a social democratic Britain.

It’s clear, then, that many will lay claim to the so-called ‘feel-good factor’ generated by the Olympics. Yet once the athletes have packed up and gone home, what exactly is this factor? Reams have already been written about the ‘positive nationalism’ which the Games have allowed; about the British being unembarrassed about pride once more. Much has been made of the success of some non-white athletes – immigrants to the country, even. The Games, we are told, has presented us with the face of a modern, open and happy country. However as the Games closed, a poll presented as proof of this happiness found that a majority of Britons agreed with the statement that “More often than not immigrants … do not bring anything positive, and the likes of the Olympic-winning athletes are an exception”. 68% disagreed that the Olympics would make them ‘more positive or less worried’ about immigration. Fascinatingly, 68% also agreed that “modern Britain is stronger as a country of many cultures”. How this fits with a disdain for immigration is difficult to comprehend but, nonetheless, it shows that questions are raised immediately as you look behind the gloss of the Olympic cheer. Nationalistic pride by definition must exclude people – can it ever truly be ‘positive’? The abundance of articles about the ethnic origins of some Team GB athletes raised many concerns. Aside from the patronising co-opting of someone’s race as a weapon with which to attack ‘racists’, there were implicit  ideas about ‘deserving’ immigrants who achieve gold and, by extension, ‘undeserving’ immigrants – the kind you read about in the Daily Mail, in fact.

Of course, this wasn’t the intention of the vast majority. They simply felt enormous pride that ‘their’ athletes had done well. Yet the refusal to countenance any political connotations, inevitably presented as ‘negative’, seems to me to already be a strong feature of aforementioned ‘feel-good factor’. Affirmations of the power of ‘positive thinking’ have been everywhere, with people determining to ‘stay positive’ and ‘avoid negativity’. The problem with this is that ‘positive thinking’ is almost always apolitical and being apolitical is inherently a reactionary political position. Understanding the power structures of society, understanding the class privilege which led to the over-representation of private schooled athletes in Team GB, understanding the racial privilege which led many to feel they should turn non-white athletes into liberal totems, understanding the competing ideologies at the heart of even simple discussions about supporting athletes – none of these can ever be unremittingly ‘positive’ as they involve confronting a society which is divided and in many ways flawed. They involve bringing Bad Feeling into the warm glow of an apolitical ‘togetherness’. This was perfectly illustrated by last night’s deeply flawed ‘The Riots: In Their Own Words’ documentary on BBC 2. Barely had the ink dried on the slew of newspaper editorials celebrating the ‘new Britain’ before many were taking to social media to once again spit bile at the ‘feral rats’ and ‘animals’ who rioted and looted last year. Of course many did awful, inexcusable things during those days but in what sense is reducing someone to the level of a beast in any way ‘positive’? Wouldn’t the ‘positive’ attitude be to try and put ourselves in their shoes and begin to try and comprehend why they felt they could, should, do these things? To also try and understand that which allows a human being to be killed and the killers to go free, as has happened with Mark Duggan (amongst others)? It is ‘positive’ to ignore this?

Most people who do speak about this do not do so because they want to be agents of doom. They don’t do it because they’re naive do-gooders or because they want to be different. They do so because of their love and respect for people; their belief that the United Kingdom can be a place where the potential of a former looter is understood as much as that of a Royal and where, crucially, it is afforded real and lasting opportunities. Understanding the deep inequalities and injustices which persist in our society may not fit nicely into a ‘feel-good factor’ but, ultimately, the desire for change which stems from that is far more ‘positive’ than a shallow nationalism.

‘We Are All In This Together’

It’s exactly a year ago since London (and much of England) tore itself apart in mass rioting. I wrote about the riots and the response to them in the immediate aftermath. Much (certainly not all) of the reaction to my piece perfectly illustrated the ‘Bad Feeling’ idea – many didn’t want to consider any deeper social problems but instead preferred the ‘feral scum rationally choosing to steal trainers’ narrative. Anyone diverting from this and suggest society-wide problems which contributed to the riots was portrayed as, at best, hopelessly naive and at worst, a cynical apologist.

It’s with very neat timing that the anniversary of the riots falls smack bang in the middle of the Olympics. It’s inevitable, then, that many have drawn contrasts between the riots and the current ‘Olympic spirit’. The millionaires Boris Johnson and Sebastian Coe speak of the riots presenting a London they don’t recognise. Hilariously, Johnson momentarily raises hopes of more serious consideration by speaking of “a deep social problem which requires lots of solutions’. We should know better. This problem is a ‘culture, I’m afraid, of instant gratification’. Coming from someone who has repeatedly and consistently defended his criminal friends in the financial sector and News Corp, that’s quite a bold statement. Nevertheless, it shows perfectly the various ways in which politicians are trying to exploit the Olympics to their own ends. David Cameron aligned himself with the NHS-loving rhetoric surrounding the Opening Ceremony, fully aware that his government’s reforms have opened the door to its erosion. Now the government speaks of a sporting ‘legacy’ which will prevent future riots – yet the government continues to sell school playing fields and has already slashed spending on all sport under the austerity agenda. It is mendacity of the highest order, far more ‘cynical’ than those who point these hypocrisies out.

The contrasting of London this week with the riots is perhaps the most mendacious gesture yet. Yesterday the Equality Trust released a research digest which pinpointed inequality in the UK as the most widespread contributer to the riots, underlying every issue which the government’s own report identified as causes:

The evidence shows that income inequality negatively affects children and parents, personal resilience and hopes and dreams, and that inequality drives consumerism, that inequality increases violent crime and excessive force by police. Given this, it is clear that if we want to prevent future unrest and foster a positive, shared society, we should be aiming for a less unequal society, with high levels of trust and strong communities.

Yet the government refuses to budge from an ideologically-driven agenda which has driven the country into another recession (the worst since WW2), is hitting the poorest in society hardest and is allowing the wealthiest to further intrench their privilege and wealth. Inequality is soaring – as the Oxfam report puts it, “On current trends, by 2035 this inequality will reach levels last seen in the Victorian era”. While youth unemployment reaches epidemic levels and becomes embedded in the system and soaring debt deters the young from university, the government does nothing but make the right noises with regards to the tax avoidance of their rich friends and the continuing abusive self-interest of the financial sector. Meanwhile, Mark Duggan’s death remains shrouded in half-truths and the message goes out loud and clear that we are not equal before the law.

In short, the social problems which led to the riots have gotten worse in the past year and we are witnessing the creation of a ‘lost generation’ where even long-term graduate unemployment is rising enormously. Yet the government speaks of ‘pride’ and ‘achievement’ as it waves the flag and points to the hard work of Olympic athletes, once again pushing the idea that poverty and unemployment are due to individual defects. They no doubt believe that disability is also an individual failing, hence the brutality of Atos and the DWP. It is with a grim irony that Atos is a sponsor of the Paralympics, clearly hoping to bask in the patriotic glow while it profits from its ill-treatment of some of our most vulnerable citizens.

It’s notable that some of the issues which even the government acknowledged as contributing factors towards the riots are highly relevant to the Olympics. Authoritarian policing has been given a smiley face, with police and the military flooding our streets, preemptively arresting ‘dissidents’ and removing ‘undesirables’ from Olympic areas. Meanwhile the relationship between the Games and consumerism hardly needs further explanation – it has largely become the prime raison d’être behind them. The transformation of London for the benefit of corporate sponsors, from the privatisation of public space and the attempts to control our very language to the initial efforts to make London a tax haven, can hardly be seen as unrelated to kids whose future is being stolen stealing from JD Sports.

I have long been suspicious of this year’s flag-waving and predicted that it would reach hysterical levels during the Olympics.  The UK’s (why is it ‘Team GB’ and not ‘Team UK’?!) achievement in the Games has only heightened this. There is, of course, nothing wrong with celebrating athletic achievement but the idea that the success of these individuals is evidence of some wider transformation in our society is risible. Indeed, it’s already been commented on in some quarters that the privately educated are massively over-represented in our medal-winners (a third so far, I believe), just as they are massively over-represented in the upper echelons of our society. If anything our athletes are showing how little our society has changed. Yet the politicians will try and co-opt them, sure as day. David Cameron will continue to give speeches attacking multi-culturalism and governments of all hues will continue repressive immigration and asylum policies while the politicians line up to be seen with the ethnically-diverse athletes. Olympic achievement has this neat effect of nullifying Bad Feeling  – and therein lies the danger. You can be sure that the government (and others) will seek to exploit this long after the Olympics have ended – they will make some gesture towards investment in sports and continue to speak of patriotism. Critics of austerity will be contrasted with those who ‘achieve’. Critics of Atos will be painted as opponents of Paralympic athletes. Critics of government policies which are massively increasing poverty and inequality will be pointed towards Olympic ‘regeneration’ and portrayed as grumbling Trots, out of touch with the national mood. More than ever, those who seek to understand the roots of the riots will be attacked, because (we will be told) people can ‘choose’ to become Olympic athletes rather than smash up their neighbourhood. The theme of the Great British Summer has been and continues to be ‘We are all in this together’. The political implications of this have never been more clear.

Edit: This video is well worth watching.