The EU Referendum, the SNP and Political Fog

Before the election last year I wrote about the problem of ‘politics as comic book’, a ‘twilight’ world of good and bad, right and wrong, conducted by fighting fog because relatively few people had any idea what they were talking about. We’ve long known, for example, that the public remains stubbornly misinformed about issues like welfare and immigration.

In some respects the rise of ‘populism’ in recent years takes advantage of this, offering simple certainties in an age which seems frighteningly precarious and complex: your problems are caused by immigration, by the European Union, by Westminster, by ‘bankers’. This populism has largely been associated with smaller parties, contrasted with the ‘responsible’ and ‘mainstream’ larger parties who had a duty to combat it. This started to change with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn here in the UK and now Bernie Sanders/Donald Trump in the USA: these are politicians who are presented by those who identify as ‘moderate’ and ‘reasonable’ as offering simple, populist responses to complex problems.

Yet it is increasingly unavoidable that this is little more than self-delusion. What these people like to call the ‘centre-ground’ of politics is conducted in that hinterland of unreality where no-one really has any idea what they’re talking about but everyone pretends otherwise. It’s clear, for example, that much of our politics is addressed at the myths around welfare and immigration rather than the reality. This has found strong, grim expression in the discussion around the referendum on the European Union.

It’s obvious that public awareness of the European Union, on the basic level of what it is and what it does, is woeful. In a survey last year less only 27% of respondents in the UK could correctly answer three relatively simple questions on the EU – if people have no idea of the number of members, the chances that they have any understanding of how laws are made or even what the bodies of the EU are aren’t high. Yet, as with (and not separate from) welfare and immigration, strong feelings and perceptions of the EU have come to dominate our political discourse with little regard as to how informed or otherwise they may be.

So it was that we ended up with yesterday’s bizarre spectacle of the Prime Minister trumpeting an improved ‘deal’ for the UK in the EU and asking that people vote to remain in it as a consequence. The two centrepieces of this deal underlined that this was about responding to ignorance rather than any practical concerns: a ‘red card’ veto over ‘unwanted legislation’ and an ’emergency brake’ on ‘migrant benefits’.

The ‘red card’ is clearly aimed at those who believe the much-renowned ‘faceless bureaucrats’ at the EU impose legislation on the EU, “like some distant imperial ruler legislating for its colonial subjects.” Aside from not even beginning to address the lack of education on EU decision-making or, for example, the distinction between the EU and the European Court of Human Rights, the ‘red card’ basically already exists. That’s a lot of noise mad about nothing much at all.

The hoopla over ‘migrant benefits’ gets, I think, a lot closer to the actual ‘concerns’ many have regarding the EU – concerns based on ignorance, xenophobia and just plain racism about ‘uncontrolled immigration’ and migrants ‘coming over here and taking our jobs/benefits’.  Suffice to say, the available information doesn’t support this being a problem at all. The data is sketchy but suggests that:

EU migrants make up only a small proportion of the overall benefits caseload. They accounted for 2.5% of benefits the DWP administered in 2014 – mostly out-of-work benefits – in 2014, and 7% of tax credits, based on the HMRC definition discussed above.

The DWP analysis says EU migrants on “in-work” benefits cost the taxpayer £530m in 2013. That represents a modest 1.6% of the year’s total tax credit bill.

The vast majority of EU migrants living in the UK are in employment, while EU migration has been found to have “no statistically significant effects” on employment for those born in the UK (and in fact contributes billions to the UK economy). I’m also aware from personal experience that many, even on the left, are completely unaware that people living in the EU can’t just come to the UK and start claiming benefits. There are conditions,  and the benefits they can claim are limited. It’s also the case, of course, the people from the UK are resident across the EU and some of them claim benefits.

The scare about EU migrants claiming benefits, then, feeds into the demonisation of welfare and immigration in general. We might not expect David Cameron to address these, given how well the Tories did out of inflaming English nationalism in May 2015. Could we expect the ‘moderate’ wing of Labour to do so? Of course not:

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In claiming this as a ‘substantial win..for Britain’, Chuka Umunna reinforces the harmful myths around the EU and throws migrants under the bus. This comes after Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall spoke of wanting to restrict EU benefits in the Labour leadership election (contrast with Corbyn’s rhetoric). These are intelligent people who presumably identify as ‘progressive’, perhaps even left-wing. I find it hard to believe they aren’t aware that they’re responding to concerns which are largely baseless, and flirting with deeply unpleasant sentiments as they do so. Yet this is what seems to pass for ‘centre-ground’ politics – fighting fog to avoid being seen to challenge ‘ordinary people’, who must be deferred to always (except when they believe in things which punch upwards rather than downwards, such as nationalisation and wealth taxes).

Ignorance about the European Union isn’t, of course, confined to those who view it negatively. The incoherence of the SNP’s position, demanding ‘independence’ and ‘all decisions affecting Scotland, made in Scotland’ while being uncritically pro-EU, remains largely unchallenged. Amongst Scottish nationalists I would assert that much support for the EU comes not from a deep understanding of it (or a belief in countries working together in unions), but rather as a response to anti-EU sentiment being associated with right-wing English nationalism. This may be more benign than anti-EU sentiment but it is no less based in fog.

The SNP, of course, have made exploiting many people’s ignorance about politics into an artform. Whether it be going to war to prevent Westminster from implementing much the same law on fox-hunting as Holyrood did, constantly misrepresenting (read: lying about) EVEL while not even bothering to vote on the Housing and Planning Bill (EVEL’s first use) or presenting economic plans largely idential to Labour’s and framing it as ‘anti-austerity vs Red Tories’, the SNP understand that what is going on in Scottish politics has little foundation in fact and much in nationalist rhetoric. We saw this perfectly illustrated yesterday, when Scottish Labour called the SNP’s bluff on austerity and announced proposals to use the Scottish Rate of Income Tax to invest in public services. The SNP line on the SRIT has been consistent since Swinney’s December budget: that it’s not a ‘progressive’ tax and would hit the poor more than the wealthy. This is plain incorrect when it comes to SRIT as is and it’s even more wrong about Labour’s proposal. Yet the SNP knows that the faithful need lines and so it dutifully pumped them out: by making plans to protect the poorest income tax-payers, it was acknowledging the tax wasn’t progressive (a circular argument if ever there was one); the rebate was unworkable and possibly ‘illegal’; the tax rise was a ‘unionist’ tax to pay for Tory policies.

It was this last claim which most exposed the utterly daft, if deeply sad, state of Scottish politics, unleashing lots of unhinged ranting about ‘unionism’. Scotland doing things differently was apparently a ‘nightmare’ scenario:

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Bearing in mind that public spending in Scotland is consistently higher per capita than in the rest of the UK, asking people to pay a bit more for more spending seems a no-brainer. Especially in a context where the SNP has, for example effectively cut Council Tax with its 8 year freeze, leading to a crisis in local government, while using the funds to ensure free university tuition while cutting student support for the poorest (something the SNP, again, condemned at Westminster, safe in the knowledge few would know they had done much the same). Clearly ‘doing things differently’ in Scotland is fine when it comes to enacting policies people like but when it comes to paying for it, it’s unacceptable. This is because we have the bizarre situation where, for many, the SNP get the credit for everything perceived as better than the status quo in England/Wales, but anything difficult is judged against an imaginary independent Scotland. Scotland is currently ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’ to do things differently because once the country is’independent’ it will be able to do everything better. The SNP has, of course, never actually said how it would pay for doing things differently: its White Paper offered a corporation tax cut, it is cutting air passenger duty and, prior to is general election plans proposing ‘anti-austerity’ plans largely identical to Labour’s ‘austerity-lite’, it proposed more borrowing. The latter is, of course, a valid option but one which again relied on a lack of any realistic consideration (and again was probably inconsistent with EU membership). As Professor Wren-Lewis put it, it was “being in denial about macroeconomic fundamentals because they interfered with…politics.” If the fatuous fog of the EU ‘debate’ is infused with xenophobia and English nationalism, the Scottish variant has much the same effect of impeding informed debate.

Let’s be clear: people will support different political parties, different policies, different ideologies, for many reasons. I don’t mean to fetishise some ‘reality’ which exists in an ideology-free vacuum. There are certainly discussions and debate to be had about the European Union or spending/policies in Scotland. Yet to get to them we have to first acknowledge where we are and face the truth that what’s actually happening – the truth, as far as we can get it, of how much is spent on what, of what laws actually mean, of what governments are actually doing – is a secondary consideration.  It would be tempting to accredit this to an age where ‘opinion’ has become a sacred right with no corresponding responsibility to inform oneself but this isn’t a recent development, as this excerpt from The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists shows:

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If we are to have any hope of a better world we have to be able to debate and to be proved wrong.  Facile assertions that challenging the perceived status quo ‘insults ordinary people’ or ‘talks down Scotland’ or ‘presumes to know better’ are little more than dangerous demagoguery. It is beholden on each of us, as far as we can, to fight the political fog and refuse to flatter that which we know to be untrue. This doesn’t mean shouting about the media attacking Corbyn or protesting outside the BBC – it means attempting to understand where power lies, how it is operated and how it can best be challenged to achieve our goals. The alternative is darkness.

Pride is Political: Jennicet Gutiérrez and UKIP

I said yesterday that had Jennicet Gutiérrez‘s protest at President Obama’s Pride Month address been a work of fiction, it would have been widely viewed as being too on-the-nose in its symbolism. Jennicet, a trans latina woman who turned out to also be an undocumented immigrant, chose the moment Obama started to celebrate his achievements on LGBT civil rights to speak out, asking the President to end deportations of and violence against, LGBTQ immigrants. As the press release from campaign group Not One More Deportation described:

Jennicet Gutiérrez interrupted the President during the White House pride celebration shouting “President Obama, release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention and stop all deportations.” As a transgender woman who is undocumented,  Gutiérrez said she could not celebrate while some 75 transgender detainees were still being exposed to assault and abuse in ICE custody at this very moment.

“The White House gets to make the decision whether it keeps us safe, “explains Gutiérrez  “There is no pride in how LGBTQ and transgender immigrants are treated in this country. If the President wants to celebrate with us, he should release the LGBTQ immigrants locked up in detention centers immediately.”

The response was astonishing: the room, seemingly almost entirely made up of men (the vast majority being white) started shushing her; they then started booing her, one voice shouting “this isn’t for you!” Quite an assertion at an event marking Pride Month, 46 years on from the Stonewall riots where trans women of colour played an integral role in standing up to the authorities which oppressed the LGBTQ community. It begs the question as to how this ‘community’ is now framed that someone (a trans woman of colour, at that) highlighting the injustices which continue to fall upon marginalised LGBTQ people is viewed as an unwelcome interloper. If, as expected, the Supreme Court rules in favour of ‘equal marriage’ today, Jennicet will be quickly forgotten as those who control the narrative rush to celebrate.  As Jennicet’s own statement put it:

As I reflect on what just happened at the White House, I am outraged at the lack of leadership that Obama demonstrated. He had no concern for the way that LGBTQ detainees are suffering. As a transwoman, the misgendering and the physical and sexual abuse – these are serious crimes that we face in detention centres. How can that be ignored? It’s heartbreaking to see the LGBTQ community I am part of turning their back on me, and the LGBTQ people in detention centres: how can they tolerate that kind of abuse?

Jennicet is an inspiration with a bravery far beyond that which I possess and she succeeded in putting LGBTQ deportations on the agenda – her interview on Fox News Latino is essential viewing. Yet with sad inevitability, the lack of solidarity Jennicet speaks of was reflected in much of the wider media, not least here in the UK where the focus has been on Obama’s sassy ‘shutting down’ of a ‘heckler’:

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‘Owned’. ‘Shamed’. ‘Shut down’. Much of the media seems stuck in the mindset that LGBTQ life is one long episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. It’s beyond embarrassing. This identification with the oppressors over the oppressed is, sadly, typical of modern LGBTQ politics as our own horrendous ‘debate’ over UKIP at Pride has made clear. Since I wrote my piece on it 3 weeks ago there has been a steady stream of men lining up to defend UKIP and take exactly the line I described here:
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The pieces written by these men were grim in being almost entirely interchangeable – they typically presented the issue as one of whether UKIP were homophobic or not, completely ignorant to the fact that it was UKIP’s racism and far-right links which had roused the most anger (and indeed fear) as these rare pieces by non-white writers assert. This failure to even begin to contemplate that the LGBTQ community includes people of colour and other vulnerable groups for whom UKIP’s rhetoric and policies are violence led Twitter user @TheBuddhaSmiled to begin the hashtag #SolidarityisForWhiteLGBTQ. This documented how people of colour found themselves ignored, spoken over, patronised (indeed, many of these writers would engage with me while blocking non-white critics). It documented how the modern LGBTQ movement has largely become a quest for ‘equal access’ to white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, with its leaders happy to throw anyone or any group standing in the way of this under the bus. It sometimes revealed itself in darkly comical ways. The ever terrible Patrick Strudwick, who has previously tweeted of his refusal to go to the Notting Hill Carnival due to feeling unwelcome:
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wrote an awful piece defending UKIP’s ‘right’ to be at Pride which didn’t mention racism a single time and then responded to people of colour raising it like this:

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Benjamin Butterworth, meanwhile, wrote a similarly terrible and ignorant piece and then presented himself as a victim of ‘abuse’ rather than engage with the many people raising UKIP’s racism with him:

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which in turn led to this flat-out expression of #SolidarityisForWhiteLGBTQ:

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Rational and calm ‘debate’ vs outrage, abuse, anger – sound familiar?

This debacle has underlined how far UKIP has been normalised by the wider media, with assertions that UKIP weren’t ‘racist’ or ‘extremist’ being common but never further defended:
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This has been a perfect example of those whose voices dominate the LGBTQ movement thinking they are leading a ‘calm’ and ‘rational’ debate while those seeking to highlight the continued side-lining of minority voices and interests are awful, abusive, angry troublemakers. A low-point was reached yesterday, when Jeremy Vine debated the issue on his Radio 2 show and invited three white men to discuss it with him. As it happened, the segment came immediately after a discussion of the desperate plight of the ‘migrants’ (always ‘migrants’, never ‘people’) at Calais which featured Vine merrily chatting away to callers who were using the language of the far-right. I heard three callers in succession and each took broadly the same line, speaking of the UK as the ‘land of milk and honey’,  of ‘forcing the migrants to live in their own countries’, of how the UK ‘couldn’t take any more’. Vine challenged none of this, not even when a Scottish woman living in France asserted that the UK was a ‘soft touch’. It was terrifying listening.

It was in this context that the discussion moved onto UKIP at Pride, with the sole mention of racism by the four white men being an unchallenged assertion by the UKIP representative that the party ‘has no racist policies’. This absurdity meant that Michael Salter, the Chairman of Pride in London who is a Tory former advisor to David Cameron, felt able to claim that the problem wasn’t UKIP but rather those who opposed UKIP. With a hearty lack of self-awareness, Salter claimed that Pride was a celebration of ‘tolerance and diversity’ and said he wished to include UKIP because it was an ‘inclusive event’. Yet poor Pride had been forced into action by a brutish element:

 What we saw during the general election campaign, unfortunately, was people being very aggressive towards UKIP representatives, throwing eggs, and when UKIP applied to be part of the parade there was quite a lot of antagonism expressed on social media and there were lots of new people commenting and making threats, whether it’s sit-ins, throwing things or even things more unpleasant than that towards UKIP representatives

Vine asked, ‘why don’t you ban the thugs who want to bully them?’ with Salter replying ‘if we could find out who they were, certainly!’ He then, incredibly, invoked Pride’s history as ‘a protest movement’ in defence of UKIP being able to march.

Coming the day after Jennicet Gutiérrez’s actions, this was a perfect storm illustrating the contempt in which ‘radical’ and/or ‘minority’ voices are held by those who lead the LGBTQ movement. The victims here weren’t those affected by UKIP’s disgraceful rhetoric and policies but rather UKIP itself! Once again, we have the calm, rational leaders debating while the irrational. angry outsiders threaten and provoke. We should also note Salter’s careful choice of words – he states that the anger erupted when UKIP applied to be on the march – yet the first anyone beyond the Pride board heard of it was when they were already approved. This is important because in one stroke Salter elides the opposition from within Pride in London itself – Jacq Applebee, the board’s BAME representative, resigned in protest at UKIP’s involvement:

“When I joined London LGBT Pride’s Community Advisory Board, I felt overjoyed that I could make a positive difference to such an important event. However, I felt very isolated on the CAB, with my viewpoints often dismissed by an almost all-white group of representatives.”

She says that no-one on the CAB was shown the list of participants before it went public and that she first heard about UKIP’s involvement through what she calls a “chance tweet”. She also says the role of the board has been “totally ignored with such an incendiary case”. 

It has been, in short, a contemptible shambles which has showed that Pride as it currently stands is unfit for purpose (there is an R.I.P. Pride protest planned tomorrow). Together with the bravery of Jennicet Gutiérrez, it has also revealed the fault-lines of the LGBTQ movement, which mirror those of wider white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. It’s clear many neglect the fact that a legion of LGBTQ siblings before us have had to fight loudly, angrily, for the day when a President invites LGBTQ people to the White House or racist parties and amoral corporations seek to use our community to gain respectability. If we truly wish to honour this struggle, we continue it and we leave no-one behind. We remember that Pride is political or it is nothing and we fight against our own movement ignoring and oppressing LGBTQ people. We can still reclaim it.

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 itself states 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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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 too?

It’s embarrassing. It helps no-one. It’s downright dangerous. Grow the fuck up.

18-07-2014 edit:

This morning I saw this in my Twitter feed:

Sure enough, this is in the report:

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It continues:

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Calling for the decriminalisation of drug use, of sex work, of same-sex behaviours and also calling for revision of age of consent laws are pretty big stories: much bigger than the non-story which the media led with. It’s also explicitly opposing homophobia. Unfortunately it would have meant actually bothering to properly look at the report before rushing to knock off a dramatic-sounding story.

The Circle

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Social media becomes an ever more dominant part of our lives and yet so few people seem to seriously contemplate it and how they use it. We see this not only in rampant and rewarded narcissism (as Horning says in the quote above, on social media we can show off and it’s okay) but in instances like the Paris Brown affair. The “totalizing system” is such that I found myself asking a friend last week “if it’s not on Facebook, did it actually happen?” It goes beyond merely sharing photos of our nights out, checking in at a gig or posting our thoughts on the latest episode of ‘Mad Men’ into experiences actually becoming subservient to their expression on social media. They become means by which we can further express our personalities online (and so find them both reflected back at us and affirmed). Not only does it seem that the offline space to develop becomes ever smaller but the desire to do this recedes.

The above quote, taken from here, is one of many efforts I’ve made to reflect on social media and its impact on our lives. I was perhaps too hesitant when I wrote that “few people seem to seriously contemplate it”…in actual fact it seems that such serious contemplation is actively (but almost unconsciously) seen as a bad thing. Katherine St Asaph began her response to this piece by declaring “I shouldn’t even be responding to something that uses the “social media increases narcissism!” study as its kicker”. Such instant dismissal of any notion that social media could have negative impacts is typical of the discussion around it and it’s fitting that it came in a dialogue around One Direction. Like 1D, social media is identified with youth and as such is attributed the qualities of being youthful and exciting; to parse either in a critical manner is to be condescending, snobbish and, worst of all, old. Any person, organisation or brand attempting to reach a ‘younger’ audience will invariably find themselves quickly drowning in hashtags, Vines and Tumblrs. Yet this focus on marketing obscures the fundamental reality that the main product of social media is ourselves – its value relies on monetising relationships which were previously mediated off-line and, further, in inventing new relationships (between ourselves and other people, ourselves and brands, ourselves and pop stars etc). Capitalism’s survival depends on its vampiric ability to encroach onto and transform more and more aspects of our daily lives. Our ‘inner self’ does not escape this – we’ve seen that work has become more and more a question of ‘emotional labour‘ and, conversely, our personalities have been turned into business and profit.

It’s staggering how quickly Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and the like have transformed much of our reality and the flood shows no sign of abating. Google Glass seeks to augment reality and make us cyborg-like beings, permanently wired in and switched on. From our televisions to our online shopping we are more and more willing to share our habits in order to receive personalised services which seek to tell us about media and products which we otherwise wouldn’t have known existed. We all walk around with devices which identify our location at every second of every day. We don’t mind this. We don’t mind this to the degree that when it’s revealed that our ‘national security’ agencies routinely monitor this data along with our calls, e-mails etc it inspires little more than a mass shrug. And certainly we can identify a lot of ‘good’ in this technology – I’m writing this on Tumblr and will post it to my Twitter which I’ll read on my phone, I’m in no position to be superior – but the point is that we’re surrounded by messages telling us about that good. Thinking about the bad is, as noted, kinda beyond the pale.

Which brings us neatly to The Circle, the new novel from Dave Eggers. Eggers is the kind of guy it’s easy to hate: talented, prolific, accomplished, involved in charity work and an archetypal upper middle-class liberal. Fortunately for him, his books are a joy to read, as effortless to get through as gently warm water. In recent months I stormed through the incredible What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng and last year’s A Hologram for the King, a book which manages to make gripping reading from a lot of sitting around in a tent pitched in a Saudi Arabian desert. It was a fortuitous coincidence that Eggers’ latest novel, The Circle, turned out to be due for publication only a few weeks after I finished the latter.

The Circle will widely be described as a satire aimed at Google and the titular tech company does indeed share many similarities with everyone’s favourite ‘Don’t Be Evil’ conglomerate. It also draws on aspects of Facebook, Twitter and Amazon yet the satire of the novel goes far beyond the behaviour of any of these companies or our own relationship with them; instead it concerns the very nature of humanity. That the book is a dystopian vision of the near future (a blend of 1984, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Brave New World) is writ large, so much so that the strokes can seem laughably broad: it seems certain that many readers will be put off by what initially seems like caricature. I myself wasn’t initially sure…yet there is one particular scene, quite early in the novel, which so pitch-perfectly captures the weird, hysterical neediness fostered by social media event invites and their ‘wandering around a minefield in a blindfold’ politics that I found myself grinning widely at its brilliance. From there on in I submitted to the book and found myself hooked, staying up far later than I should to read it and looking forward to my commute just so that I could snatch some more pages.

The audacious capturing of many of the hilarious but equally sinister aspects of social media, and our relationship with modern technology, continues apace. Clicktivism and e-petitions are ruthlessly skewered, as is the embarrassing desire of our politicians to associate themselves with these exciting tech companies. One of the main sparks for the march towards a totalitarian ‘openness’ turns out to be an anti-internet troll campaign and the eagerness to trade-off privacy for ‘safety’ is a recurring theme. The inherent insincerity of relationships conducted almost entirely on social media looms large, as does the diminishing effects of being able (and expected) to pass comment on every person who crosses our screens. The fascistic strand of the unthinking cult of ‘positivity’ leaps from every page. Overarching all of this is the question of human experience and personality – what does it mean to be ‘you’? Are we more or less ourselves when we construct an online identity, share our experiences there and encounter people and things which we never could in ‘real life’? Is there any value in secrecy, in lies, in retreating from the world – and is social media itself this retreat?

The book is far from perfect and its sledgehammer subtlety does initially jar; yet at every point where I found myself beginning to roll my eyes I realised that I knew people who would eagerly pursue the course of action described. Obvious, then, but only in the sense that it describes what already exists and pushes it further to make its point. In fact, it could be said that this forceful signposting reflects the decline of critical thinking which has in part been fostered by social media and ‘positivity’. Spend 10 seconds on the page of any online marketing/media company and try not to feel nauseous at the insipid horror on display – you don’t have a personality but rather a ‘personal brand’ and how this is perceived is what matters. As such, the appearance of being caring, being intelligent, being funny, being human is key. Sign those petitions, post those videos, tear down those X Factor contestants and rack up the likes and retweets. Then you’ll know people care. You’ll know you made a difference. The Circle seems overblown because it has to be – the signifier is replacing the signified and the hellish results of that are laid bare in an all-too-appropriate manner. If you’ve ever found yourself checking your Facebook to see if something you posted five minutes ago has been liked, looked forward to a tv show because of the witty comments you hope to tweet about it or taken photos of an experience because you thought it would play great on your profiles – read this book.

Sexy Domestic Abuser Loves The Gays and Hates Russia!

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I’ve written previously about how “gay magazines still have an unhealthy affection for straight men who say they like gays while posing in their pants, how “we’re now at the stage where any 2013 edition of ‘Marketing 101’ would have to feature an early section called ‘Patronise the gays’”  and how “the collective bogeyman that is homophobia can…prove to be enabling of behaviour few liberal-minded people would tolerate from straight men.” Well, examples of all these things come no greater than the new issue of Gay Times, featuring straight rugby player Stuart Reardon on the cover. The intro to the accompanying feature would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic:

He loves the gays, hates Russia’s treatment of us and works with underprivileged kids. Rugby ace Stuart Reardon is like the Mother Theresa (sic) of Warrington – only with thighs that could crack a coconut under his wimple.

Yes, apparently ‘loving the gays’ and thinking it’s jolly bad for a country to persecute minorities makes you a candidate for sainthood. Rather than, you know, a patronising git in the first instance and just your average person who isn’t a total dick in the second. So far, so insipid and predictable. Where it gets quite incredible is in the fact that this saintly figure has a criminal conviction for assaulting his wife. That picture up there is him leaving court. The details of this conviction are quite something:

Stuart Reardon, 27, pleaded guilty at Bradford Magistrates’ Court to assaulting his estranged wife, Kay, after finding out she was seeing another man, while Leon Pryce, also 27, admitted assaulting her new partner.

The court heard the defendants had both been drinking before going to the flat of Reardon’s new boyfriend, Damon O’Brien, and forcing their way in, leaving the couple “terrified”.

How did they force themselves in? Well:

When neither Mrs Reardon nor Mr O’Brien opened the door to the second-floor flat, Reardon sent a text message to his wife’s new boyfriend claiming their young son was in hospital.

That’s right – when he couldn’t gain access to attack his wife, he lied and said that their son had been taken to hospital. He sounds positively delightful, doesn’t he? But hey, he apparently loves the gays and he’s fit! What are we gays for if not to provide handy PR opportunities for straight sportsmen whose professional careers are over? It has, after all, worked so well for Ben Cohen. It makes you so proud:

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It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for the teams behind these magazines: the print market in general is clearly in decline and ‘gay lifestyle’ publications seem increasingly irrelevant. You have the sense that they’re trapped in the realm of soft porn and undemanding content. Even so, surely there have to be some standards?! This is just tragic.

An added irony – one of the main cover splashes is “Meet the gay men who are fighting eating disorders.” Appearing alongside the heavily-airbrushed photo of a semi-naked model. Indeed, GT is kinda renowned for its airbrushed covers. It is, of course, hardly alone in that but I’d be curious to see if the article acknowledges the potential role that the endlessly manipulated imagery and strident consumerism of such media could play in these illnesses.

Pulp and Privilege

Pulp’s ‘Common People’ memorably skewered class tourism – the idealization of working-class life and poverty by people who never had to face its day-to-day reality. It was a common theme of the Britpop era but certainly hasn’t been confined to those years – you need only look at our current cabinet to see that ‘slumming’ it remains very real, with multi-millionaires assuring us that they’re just ordinary folk. It’s most notable, however, when it comes from those of a left-wing bent for whom wealth and power is implicitly associated with privilege, inequality and oppression. Few people want to be seen as advantaged at birth, as having it relatively easy. We all want to think that we have worked hard for what we have, that every benefit has been earned. 

The ease and comfort with which many can claim to be working-class while clearly not being comes largely from the view that class is a socially-constructed identity rather than being derived from (and embedded within) socio-economic structures (or more fundamentally as Marx would have it, distinguished by relationships to the means of production and labour power). As I have written before, the idea of class as a foundational determinant in society is a deeply unfashionable one. Instead the attitude neatly summarised by Laurie Penny holds sway – “all politics are identity politics” and class is but one identity amongst many others (with the emphasis usually falling upon gender, race and sexuality). I don’t wish to go into that here – though there is a lengthy and compelling demolition of that idea linked to in this post – but instead want to briefly look at how relates to the ‘class tourism’ we are all familiar with.

There has of course been a lot of recent discussion around notions of privilege and ‘privilege-checking’ stemming from various disagreements, debates and arguments largely revolving around the words of writers like Caitlin Moran, Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill. This in turn has led to a wider blow-back against the ideas from other writers. Their criticisms have common threads – privilege-checking is portrayed as ‘shutting down debate’, as the current weapon-of-choice of self-righteous morally pure internet warriors, as an attempt to lend credence to a form of ‘bullying’. Yet any rational look at these claims would surely swiftly find them wanting – it makes absolutely no sense for people with hugely powerful platforms, read by many thousands of people, to claim that they are somehow being ‘silenced’ by people on Twitter (and indeed the swift responses printed in places like The Guardian, New Statesman and The Times render it a laughable claim). Given that the point of a columnist is to push a particular opinion, arouse interest and ultimately generate income, it seems counter-intuitive that a columnist can then decide that they don’t like the debate they have initiated. Yet that is exactly what we’ve been seeing and, with tedious inevitability, there have been efforts to portray the ‘check your privilege crew’ as another kind of ‘troll’ (a phrase which many writers have already attempted to co-opt).

One of the interesting things about this whole issue is that the writers most inflamed by it are ones who spend an inordinate amount of time writing about forms of oppression. Throw a metaphorical dart at the comments section of left-leaning broadsheets and magazines and you’re liable to hit a piece on sexism or homophobia (racism is notably less common – unsurprising given most of the writers are white). You would imagine, then, that they would be hugely sensitive to questions of privilege. What complicates matters, however, is that many of the pieces focus on the ways in which the writers themselves are victims of oppression (albeit usually presented as more widely applicable). Indeed, there are entire journalistic careers, various blogs, Twitter accounts and more dedicated to documenting the various ways in which we are oppressed – but crucially, the focus tends to be on one form of oppression only (misogyny, homophobia etc). Undoubtedly many important issues are covered but it becomes problematic when it is seen to become a self-perpetuating industry where a tunnel vision develops. There is no glory in being seen to be ‘privileged’, no columns to be had and this makes that first-hand oppression that little bit more complicated. It requires the acknowledgement that not everyone affected by sexism or homophobia experiences these things in the same way, for example, or that people can be affected by these things whilst themselves being privileged (or even oppressive) in other ways.

Yet many seem unwilling or unable to hear this. As with class tourism, they are keen to portray privilege as something enjoyed by other people and portray their own relationship solely in terms of how they themselves are (or are seen to be) oppressed. With this mindset it’s easy to see how  ’privilege-checking’ becomes a threat, pointing out as it does that many of these people enjoy huge advantages (including over most of their critics). As I wrote in the piece on ‘trolls’, these writers are part of the Fourth Estate and act as gatekeepers to their positions. They jealously guard their privilege, seeking to control which views, and which debate, is seen as ‘acceptable’ and ‘serious’, hence the endless and constant dismissal of more radical voices without large media platforms.

This is underlined and illuminated by the fact that many of these people are swift to rush to their own, self-serving take on privilege-checking when it suits. I have personal experience of this (e.g. having a dissenting view immediately dismissed on the basis of being a man disagreeing with a female journalist, despite it having zero relevance to the subject) but it’s a subtle and insidious tactic which can easily be met with incredulity. It’s even more difficult to notice when we’re so frequently asked to focus on extreme and indefensible abuse which has nothing to do with disagreement. A perfect example of this is when Suzanne Moore shared this post in an effort to prove that she was being ‘bullied’. Moore’s own intransigence and abuse was erased from the story. Furthermore, most of the featured tweets weren’t to Moore (meaning that she would have to have actively sought them out in order to be ‘bullied’ by them) and several of them were clearly nothing more than strongly-worded venting (which we may find distasteful but is hardly worthy of state intervention). This isn’t at all to deny that some of the abuse was, as I say, indefensible but the post served its purpose well – it immediately portrayed a writer with a massive audience who had been grossly offensive as a ‘victim’. Then follow the pieces calling for something to be done about the the tone of ‘debate’, lumping in strong disagreement with mindless abuse. The platform ensures that thousands of people heed the call, dangerous behaviour becomes synonymous with words we dislike, it becomes ever easier for people to be locked up for writing something, and the cycle trundles on. 

Given their prominent roles in shaping debate and framing the boundaries of acceptability, it should be expected that writers for national publications (and more) are aware of their enormous power. Few would disagree that abuse should be addressed, that patriarchy is very real or that inequalities need our attention. Yet we should be (and need to be) wary of the rush to deny wider privilege and to repeatedly highlight only the ways in which we can be seen to be victims. Identity politics can, deliberately or otherwise, serve power well (recently exemplified in the portrayal of arch-hawk Hillary Clinton as a feminist hero for her ‘performance’ when testifying regarding the Benghazi attacks which saw at least four people dead)  and this is just one of the lessons to take from the growing calls for intersectionality.

Lady Gaga’s weight and ‘victimhood’

Early last year I wrote in response to ‘Born This Way’, musing that Lady Gaga was “celebrating ‘gay as victim’” in the song and exposing a patronising, privileged view of ‘difference’. It’s safe to say that I don’t think much has improved in that regard over the past year. In fact, with time we’ve come to see that Gaga’s entire identity, entire career even, has come to be based on (and defined by) a false victimhood. At every turn she denies her privilege: she is a wealthy, white, famous pop star from a wealthy background (how we forget that she attended the same school as Paris Hilton). Yet she tells us that she was bullied for being different; that she was a starving artist prior to making it big; that she ‘hates money’; that she is bisexual. Now, in response to a silly, fleeting ‘storm’ over her alleged weight gain, she is the helpless victim of a sexist body fascism – one that is particularly cruel as she also suffered from eating disorders.

As this comment states, taken on their own most of Gaga’s claims to victimhood would be things we would not dare to question. Taken as a whole and in the context of her whole ‘I’m a victim just like you’ schtick, they become dubious.

Add to this her astonishing inconsistency and it’s nigh impossible to take her seriously. This comment lists several of the ways in which her hypocrisy has manifested itself. Her condemnation and subsequent support of fur is only the most recent. Here, I want to focus on the body issue and what it says about our media.

Whether Gaga has suffered from an eating disorder or not, it’s a fact that her fanbase (a significant minority of them, at least) has been notoriously vicious to everyone and anyone who is perceived as a threat. Anyone who has criticised Gaga on Twitter will probably have encountered this. Of specific relevance here is the fact that they have repeatedly attacked other pop stars for their appearance and their weight. Adele is the obvious example here, with Gaga’s ‘Little Monsters’ turning on her when it became clear that ‘21’ was going to eclipse Gaga’s masterpiece album in sales (I won’t link to examples as I don’t want to give them any further attention.) Most shockingly, people in Gaga’s own entourage have joined in the attacks. The crucial thing to note here is that Gaga is certainly aware of this. When Boy George was besieged by Gaga fans calling him ‘faggot’ and such, he frequently copied Gaga into the responses. Countless others have tweeted her about the abuse her fanbase dishes out to others. Someone as adept at social media as Gaga could not possibly claim to be oblivious. Yet despite her apparent devotion to the anti-bullying cause and, indeed, her own eating disorder, Gaga has never once spoken up about this. How could she? How can you claim victimhood and flatter the victimhood of your fans if you acknowledge that they can be oppressors too?

Of course, you don’t have to delve into the depths of Twitter to be sceptical of Gaga’s newfound ‘bravery’ re: body issues. For the past few years she has heavily cultivated an image based in high fashion. This has ranged from the dramatic weight loss she displayed in her semi-naked stint in the ‘Born This Way’ video to her freakishly airbrushed appearance on the cover of the exalted ‘September issue’ of Vogue magazine. How did Gaga react to this transformation of her normal body shape into an impossibly thin caricature? She tweeted it to her fans with praise. Then there was her ‘pop stars don’t eat’ tweet, which the same outlets now praising her jumped on as immensely irresponsible.

Really, Gaga has developed a sudden interest in body fascism because she was ‘accused’ of putting on a few pounds. She has taken this and claimed victimhood. Prior to this, it’s impossible to see how she could be presented as anything other than part of the problem.

This doesn’t mean that the attacks on her weight are fine or that she shouldn’t be allowed to respond to them. Yet the media reportage of this has been highly illuminating. Nowhere have I seen an acknowledgement that her ‘stance’ on this issue is complicated to say the least; nowhere have I seen a serious examination of how body fascism is constructed and the part she may have played in this. No, instead the media has immediately resorted to ‘Gaga is a woman and her weight is being attacked by horrid sexists, oh the humanity!’ It has, to put it bluntly, pushed some buttons which the liberal media absolutely love to have pushed. All context, all examination, all critical thought is lost in the rush to present a woman as a poor victim of patriarchal society. That’s the extent of the story and allows the writers to wag their fingers at society and tell everyone how not on it is. Yet aside from the issues surrounding Gaga’s own history there is so much more that could be said. We could look at how celebrity culture fixates on body issues and how it’s overwhelmingly women who buy magazines which highlight fluctuating weights, for example. We could look at why intrusive paparazzi photos of Kate Middleton have caused weeks of outrage and miles of columns while intrusive paparazzi photos of Prince William and Prince Philip (showing their genitalia) came and went with barely a murmer. We could look at how stories fixating on the fluctuating weight of stars like Robbie Williams, Gary Barlow and Michael Buble arouse no furious columns in response. Undoubtedly, all of these issues could be put under the umbrella of patriarchy, yet the disproportionate efforts to always portray women as victims and men as perpetrators rob people (especially women) of their agency entirely.  Gaga’s history, her choices, her statements, are airbrushed from history, at best becoming less a product of her rational mind but instead her helpless responses to patriarchal society. This seems to me to be as patronising and damaging as the ‘sexism’ complained about in the first place.

It increasingly seems that this is where Gaga’s genius lies. She is undoubtedly talented in a traditional sense, yet she also knows exactly how to push the buttons of the media in order that she is always presented as a victim. Whether issues of gender, homophobia, poverty or generic ‘difference’, she manages to insert herself on the side of the victim. As I wrote in my earlier piece, she has a deadening attitude to difference where people become interchangeable in their victimhood and she stands above them. In a sense she (unintentionally) highlights the banal, patronising attitudes many hold towards ‘minority’ groups, not least in the media. This is her real, terrifying genius – the commodification and exploitation of victimhood.