Russia as an Introduction to Homonationalism

The discussions around what’s happening in Russia and Western responses to it are a good entry point to concepts of homonationalism and ‘gay imperialism’. To borrow from this handy primer:

Homonationalism functions in complementary ways to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, which describes how the West produces knowledge and dominates ‘the Orient’ through academic, cultural and discursive processes. Like Orientalism, homonationalism speaks to the ways Western powers (such as the U.S. and Canada) circulate ideas about other cultures (like Arab and Islamic cultures) in order produce the West as culturally, morally, and politically advanced and superior. However, unlike Orientalism, homonationalism speaks particularly to the way gender and sexual rights discourses become central to contemporary forms of Western hegemony.

This speaks to the narratives perpetuated by and consequences of our actions re: Russia which have so concerned me and why, for example, it’s notable that the deployment of LGBT rights in an international context tends to align with the interests of Western powers.We don’t tend to make any links between the lies and propaganda which took us to war in Iraq and the stories which we’re presented with regarding Iran but they are most certainly there.

There are two pieces I’ve read on this recently which are illuminating. The first is this one called “Challenging the liberal fascination with gay, international violence.” All four parts of that ‘Gay Imperialism and Olympic Oppression’ series are worth a read, providing some much needed context and history re: LGBT Russia and the Olympics’ dire history concerning human rights. This one is, however, most appropriate here, noting as it does that “violence and injustice against LGBT individuals” garner far more Western attention than “violence and injustice against people of color (poc) and socioeconomically underprivileged (low sec) communities.” (I should note, here, that I’ll use ‘LGBT’ throughout this but it’s almost entirely the LG which we’re speaking about, with the BT being of little interest even within the UK.) The examples used of the mass evictions, displacements and environmental destruction being committed in the names of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics are good ones but as a British writer I don’t even have to go that far. The evictions, displacements, pre-emptive arrests and general authoritarian policing, privatisation of public space and transfer of wealth which took place before, during and after London 2012 was met with mass indifference. More than that, those attempting to raise these issues were seen as bitter and frequently told to shut up. Yet these issues were very real. Discussion of ‘privilege’ may have become a trite on-line punchline but there are few more potent (if little-acknowledged) examples of the concept than that people living in estates in East London lost their homes, vulnerable people were displaced from the surrounding areas and activists were locked up so that we could get drunk on Summer evenings watching Mo Farah. Yet these issues are seen as somehow more ‘complex’ and open to interpretation than any perceived injustice against LGBT people, which invariably meets with an instant and strident response led by ‘generally white, able bodied, middle/upper class’ men. Poverty in particular barely registers, seen as apart from the essentialist ‘human rights’ possessed by LGBT victims of oppression. This view of human rights is now strongly contested and arguably in decline (see this series of articles from Open Democracy for good discussions on that) yet it’s undoubtedly the view which dominates LGBT politics, from Stonewall and GLAAD downwards. It is because of this, for example, that Stonewall see no issue in aligning itself with hugely problematic companies like Barclays and Stephen Fry has no qualms about heaping praise on David Cameron in his ‘open letter’ re: Sochi. The human rights of, for example, the poor and homeless are seen as completely separate issues – even (wrongly) as ones which do not disproportionately affect many LGBT people.

Then we have issues around race, which brings me to the second piece I’d say was essential reading for anyone interested in this. The problems surrounding overwhelmingly white Western LGBT voices perpetuating simplistic, misinformed or simply plain wrong stories about certain ‘Muslim countries’ (rarely ones which are Western allies – Dubai for example remains a popular holiday destination for many British gay men) and their treatment of LGBT people should be clear enough. What’s perhaps more interesting are the ways in which issues of race and LGBT rights interact within national contexts, tackled in this article on LGBT activists in Africa and immigration policy within the Netherlands. It notes that a campaign to support LGBT rights in Africa “con­structs the fantasy of “Europe” as a bas­tion of free­dom for LGBT people” and “ ends up jux­ta­pos­ing a “homo­phobic Africa” with a “lib­eral Europe.” This is a narrative common to the West and there has been much LGBT support for, for example, calls to link international aid to a country’s record on ‘gay rights’. This not only infantilises and ‘others’ these countries, it erases the human rights abuses endemic within Western nations and in particular demonstrates zero understanding of the violence (both physical/verbal and structural) faced by ethnic minorities here. It’s of particular note that while LGBT voices seek to intervene in other countries or link immigration to attitudes towards LGBT people, there is little interest in the bigotry and violence inherent in our own immigration systems and discussions surrounding them. It was with particular distress that I read about how support for the racist ‘Go Home’ van was on the rise and apparently constitutes over 50% of British adults. Read about this particular issue and it won’t be long before you encounter many voices complaining that the term ‘racism’ is thrown around with abandon and that using rhetoric such as ‘Go Home’ is not racist. In quotidian homonationalist terms, this same attitude can be found in overwhelmingly white gay men insisting that Lady Gaga’s appropriation of (and song about) the Burqa or drag act Queens of Pop’s use of blacking up and other racist tropes are not in fact racist. Indeed, my own piece about the homonationalist message behind Madonna’s speech to GLAAD was much criticised by other gay men and led to me (hilariously) being labelled a ‘hater’ of Madonna for perhaps the first time in my life.

We’ve seen how insidious homonationalism can be on the streets of my home city of London. Beginning with some homophobic stickers and an offensive, inflammatory and ignorant piece from serial liar Johann Hari, a perception of a ‘Muslim problem’ in East London took hold in certain quarters (I discuss many of the problems with that perception in that linked article and in these pieces, so I’m not going to rehash the arguments here.) This led to statements from LGB (given the presence of Bindel, I’ll refrain from using the ‘T’) activists and calls for an East London Pride march through overwhelmingly Muslim areas. This march turned out to have links with the English Defence League but its at best unhelpful, at worst offensive message was clear even before this became known. That so many LGBT people were eager and willing to be used as part of an anti-Muslim movement was (and remains) deeply worrying.

Discussions of homonationalism and of racism within the LGBT community do not tend to be popular, perhaps due to the widespread liberal ‘othering’ of LGBT people themselves as fabulous and facile creatures. The comments here are overwhelmingly mocking and/or negative, while a piece (click to download) which “uses the work of activist Peter Tatchell, founder of Outrage!, as an example of how white gay activists can become complicit with this agenda by painting Islam as inherently homophobic and misogynist, and appointing themselves as the saviours of non-white queers” was met both with a negative response and was quickly censored due to its ‘defamation’. It’s heartening, however, that Judith Butler’s refusal of the ‘Civil Courage Prize’ due to ‘racism and especially anti-Muslim racism’ met with cheers of support. When I wrote previously than ‘doing something’ was not an inherent good and that “reflective engagement with a critical approach to our own position must come first”, this is exactly what I was meaning. Hopefully the interest in Russia and the discussions which it has generated in the LGBT community will lead to more of us learning about and considering homonationalism and thinking about our own roles in it.

LGBT Rights in Russia and our Western Fantasies

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If we truly believe in human rights, then we do not elevate the rights of certain people as totemic of liberalness. It means we must support the human rights of ‘enemies’ in war. It means we support the human rights of rioters and criminals and Daily Mail columnists and homophobes and Muslims. I of course want to support governments that promote human rights but it is a messy business and actions speak infinitely louder than words. We must never allow rhetoric around gay rights to be allowed to obscure other human rights violations or render criticism mute.

The above is from a piece I wrote a couple of years ago about the response to a speech Clinton gave which ‘promoted gay rights around the world’. The overwhelmingly positive reaction (and concomitant presentation of America as a champion of ‘human rights’) neatly illustrated some problematic aspects of ‘LGBT rights’, not least the tendency for them to be viewed as separate from (even superior to)general human rights. At times it can seem like liberal Westerners are like laser-guided drones, zooming around the world in order to pinpoint abuses (perceived or real) against LGBT people (and really we’re overwhelmingly talking about the ‘G’ here.) We get petitions about Uganda, inaccurately attributed photographs about Iran and demands to cut Western aid to ‘anti-gay’ countries and in each case the engagement never progresses beyond the facile. There are no efforts to understand the wider context, few efforts to engage with activists who actually live and operate in the countries in question and certainly no consideration of Western complicity and/or hypocrisy. The simple narrative goes “LGBT rights are being abused somewhere, as Westerners we can do something about it”. And that’s it. You don’t have to ponder this for long for the ‘white saviour’, imperialist and orientalist fantasies to make themselves obvious.

We’ve been seeing this again recently as the noise around Russia’s treatment of its gay citizens grows louder, culminating this week in a New York Times column from Harvey Fierstein and a Buzzfeed ‘article’. Seriously, when you’re sharing Buzzfeed pieces to highlight human rights abuses you should probably have the self-awareness to step back. Now, the situation in Russia is clearly worrying and shouldn’t be ignored. The introduction of such a law on a national level and a law effectively banning LGBT activism have drawn Western attention. However while this marks a deterioration in LGBT rights in Russia, the situation has been troubling for quite some time with various regions of Russia bringing in laws prohibiting ‘homosexual propaganda’ over the past decade.  More than that, the human rights situation in Russia has been dreadful for many years. Even if we only look at the past month or so, we see a law criminalising blasphemy, the murder of journalists, the persecution and imprisonment of political opponents to the regime, the harassment and murder of human rights activists and extradition and torture. Russia has not been a functioning democracy, or respected human rights, since well before Putin came along. Yet it’s the LGBT issues which are seized on and lead to demands to boycott the country and the Winter Olympics. As is almost always the case, these calls for boycotts don’t seem to have arisen after discussions with activists in Russia over how best to proceed but have rather been imposed on high by Westerners, many of whom have clearly never set foot in Russia.

There’s a lot to be untangled here. There’s the question of whether a country which had its own ‘homosexual propaganda’ law until fairly recently really has the moral authority to be lecturing another on its treatment of LGBT people, of course. There’s the small matter that LGBT people are far from equal and far from free of homophobia in most Western countries. Yet as the wonderful Scott Long notes in this great piece, attacks on LGBT people in Western democracies tend to be portrayed as aberrations rather than being evidence of the daily hell faced by all LGBT people. There’s also the detail that the West has played a massive role in establishing and/or supporting regimes with appalling records on LGBT rights. This obviously brings to mind both the legacy of colonialism and the many repressive regimes which have Britain and America’s sticky fingers all over them but there’s also soft power. For example the One Campaign, which Bono credits as saving 9 million lives in Africa, opened the door to American evangelicals whose influence permeates (for example) the homophobic actions of the Ugandan government.

Then there is the tension between LGBT rights and ‘human rights’ which I wrote about in the piece first linked to above. It’s with neat symmetry that the Youth Olympics are to be held in China next year, as the Summer Olympics were held in Beijing in 2008. The wider LGBT community never joined in calls for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics and there are pretty much no calls for a boycott of the Youth ones, yet China is one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. As Russia’s human rights record has only become of interest once it was seen to be targeting gay people, China’s perceived lack of laws targeting the same means their appalling human rights record is of little interest to people like Harvey Fierstein. Indeed, our own Olympics last year brought their fair share of authoritarianism and abuse, from ‘pre-arrests’ and forced evictions to exploitation of migrant workers and the prohibition of political protest. Yet speaking about these as a British person was seen as ‘grumbling’ and ‘negative’.

It’s this inability or flat-out refusal to look at our own human rights records first which most grates. Russia has human rights activists and they lead their fights, sometimes apparently with notable success. We should be so brave. Before being so eager to point out the problematic human rights of countries we perceive as lesser we should take a look at ourselves and our allies. It’s not without irony that Edward Snowden looks likely to be given at least a temporary Russian visa as he flees America’s persecution of whistle-blowers which is most notably represented by Bradley Manning (one of whose heroes is Harvey Milk). It is without irony that we condemn Russia for locking up Pussy Riot for ‘criticising the government’. The massive abuses of our national security agencies exposed by Snowden, both in America and here, have been met with nary a whimper by most people despite their enormous implications for our democracies.  We rightly applaud the bravery of Malala Yousafzai yet are utterly silent about the (at least) hundreds of children murdered by Western (mostly but not solely American) drone strikes. The American government has even assassinated its own citizens and it hasn’t inspired much of an outcry. We turn a blind eye to our government’s support for Israel and its brutal oppression of Palestine.  We shriek about the authoritarianism of Russia while the insanity of Guantanamo continues for yet another year and our own government destroys legal aid and sets up secret courts. Yet Fierstein declares that he has “a lot of faith in Obama”. Where is his concern for the human rights of those affected by his own government? From Trayvon Martin to Gareth Myatt, Jimmy Mubenga to Mark Duggan and beyond, our ‘liberal’ Western societies are riven with abuses. We wouldn’t expect activists in Russia to deal with any of these problems yet have no compunction about wading into their country without even speaking to them first. What these cases show is that ‘human rights’ are not experienced by all in the same way. They are always contested and always must be fought for and this requires that we pay some attention to our own societies first and foremost rather than indulging in liberal fantasies that we’re well-placed to start dotting around the world solving the problems which our governments and NGOs often have had a huge role in to begin with. 

08-08-2013: This blog was getting a lot of hits yesterday which I’ve no doubt was due to Stephen Fry’s ‘open letter’ about Russia going viral. Though undoubtedly well-intentioned it’s pretty much a perfect illustration of some of the issues I wrote about here. It’s almost entirely about him, for a start. He finds no space to quote or even refer to voices from within Russia, despite having visited there last year. He surely can’t be unaware, for example, that LGBT activists in Russia have actually spoken out against a boycott of the Sochi Olympics? If you’re directly contradicting the wishes of activists actually living in the country you profess to speak for, you better have a compelling reason. Fry doesn’t even begin to offer one.

Furthermore, he contrasts Russia with the ‘civilised world’ and ends with an obsequious tribute to David Cameron:

I especially appeal to you, Prime Minister, a man for whom I have the utmost respect. As the leader of a party I have for almost all of my life opposed and instinctively disliked, you showed a determined, passionate and clearly honest commitment to LGBT rights and helped push gay marriage through both houses of our parliament in the teeth of vehement opposition from so many of your own side. For that I will always admire you, whatever other differences may lie between us. In the end I believe you know when a thing is wrong or right. Please act on that instinct now.

“I believe you know when a thing is wrong or right”. Clearly this is not a man affected by the government’s ‘austerity’ programme and his words elide the many struggles occurring in the United Kingdom. Yet even looking beyond the myriad of injustices wrought by this government, we see that only this week Cameron entertained the King of Bahrain, a truly brutal dictatorship. A brutal dictatorship which is sold arms by the United Kingdom. Funnily enough, we also sell arms to Russia. “The civilised world”. The situation in Yemen is similarly sold to us as a battle between “the civilised world” and the barbarians – a narrative which obscures the complex and morally abhorrent truth.

Fry’s words further cement the myth that the people of Russia are voiceless, less-than-human and need saving by the eloquent, ‘civilised’ West. They act as propaganda for Cameron and the West and insult the many activists here who are fighting their own struggles against the government. And all for an action which there seems to be little call for from within Russia, and which the only Russian LGBT activists whose words we can find oppose. Western fantasies, indeed.

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.

Getting Along: Good Feeling vs Bad Feeling

I first came across ‘the politics of Good Feeling’ last year in a discussion around Peter Tatchell’s work. I was pointed towards this piece which, in turn, led me to the original paper by Sara Ahmed.  In short, the papers explored the concept that “happiness has come to be synonymous with the glue that holds the social together” As Sara Ahmed puts it:

Groups cohere around a shared orientation towards some things as being good, treating some things and not others as the cause of delight. When we feel pleasure from objects that are agreed to cause happiness, we are aligned; we are facing the right way. We become alienated – out of line with an affective community – when we do not experience pleasure from proximity to objects that are attributed as being good.

When people are alienated from this shared delight, they experience ‘Bad Feeling’.  Given its necessarily minority status, this can be a bewildering sensation. Individuals experiencing Bad Feeling frequently experience self-doubt and confusion – why do they feel differently? What is wrong with them? The Bad Feeling is attributed to a personal defect. For those who move on from this to sharing their Bad Feeling with others, this is even more pronounced. Stacy Douglas explains:

In this process,“bad feelings” are pathologized as barriers to the achievement of happiness. Happiness, then, is not just a status to be achieved,but is also contingent on a temporal promise that is interrupted or dislodged by “bad feelings.” Ahmed goes on to examine how within this conception, “bad feelings” are attributed to the bodies that disrupt the “good feelings.” 

In short, people blame the dissenting voice for disrupting their happiness. Ahmed uses examples of radical Feminists and black civil rights campaigners who are seen as ‘killjoys’.  A very simple and mundane example which we could all relate to is the purchase of a new item of clothing. We feel a little rush of excitement and can’t wait to wear it, yet if someone comes along and points out that our new clothing was made by children working in sweatshop conditions we see them as passing on their Bad Feeling to us. We don’t consider the issue at hand; we don’t get angry at the manufacturers for their exploitative practices; we don’t question an economic system which actively encourages these practices. Instead we direct our displeasure at whomever dared to bring the practices to our attention. So, in the case of Peter Tatchell, those who saw in his politics strong evidence of Islamophobia and Orientalism were seen as ‘negative’ creators of Bad Feeling and personally attacked. Their criticisms were quickly ignored and the retraction of their article was seen as their own fault. They shouldn’t have disrupted the Good Feeling in the first place.

The politics of Good Feeling can be seen all around us. Last Friday’s Critical Mass event saw 182 cyclists arrested for ‘public order’ offences which effectively amounted to cycling in the wrong place. A very powerful and illuminating account can be found here. Despite the profound implications for civil liberties and democratic freedoms, a common response has been to blame the cyclists, even to the point of deliberately distorting the accounts of what happened. They are purveyors of Bad Feeling attempting to disrupt the Good Feeling engendered by the Olympics and, as such, deserve everything they get. As a result, their treatment at the hands of the police, the fact only 4 of them have actually been charged with anything and the draconian bail conditions excluding people not charged with any crime from entire areas of London have received little attention.

Sadly, blaming protestors for their own ill-treatment is very common today. It was with some irony that I noted the presence of suffragettes in the Opening Ceremony, as today these brave protestors, who utilised property damage in their campaigns, would almost certainly be attacked for their Bad Feeling by many of those who viewed the event.

It is clear that the politics of Good Feeling has a lot to say about the Olympics. Indeed, you can hardly conceive of an event which better characterises a “shared orientation towards some things as being good”. This perception is so strong that the attacks on those who dissent as bringers of Bad Feeling are constant and frequently aggressive. Olympic critics are attached as ‘pathetic’, ‘Scrooges’, ‘whingers’, ‘cynics’ and so on. There is no willingness to engage with any issues raised – after all, why risk contaminating your Good Feeling?

Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not always or merely a case of critics speaking truths and being ignored. During the Olympic Ceremony a combination of copious amounts of alcohol, unease at the bizarrely oppressive atmosphere in London and dismay at the shrieking jingoism on display led me to fill my Facebook with anti-Olympic rants. The next day I was embarrassed. This would, of course, engage with absolutely no-one and, if expecting others to recognise the problematic politics of the Olympics it’s only fair that I am able to recognise the positives. Nonetheless, the politics of Good Feeling vs Bad Feeling has something to say even about my drunken rant. Clearly there were a lot of political strands in and around the Ceremony, both explicit and implicit. Yet despite being deeply ideological statements, anyone telling people to ‘get behind’ the Olympics, to celebrate the monarchy, to be proud of modern Britain, would experience no interrogation of their words. They do not interrupt the Good Feeling. Conversely, pointing out the contradictions in, to use the example above, the celebration of the suffragettes against the treatment of protest in modern Britain, is seen as bringing Bad Feeling and unwelcome.

We can see an example of how insidious this narrative becomes in the recent Cosmo piece of ‘Things You Shouldn’t Do On Twitter’. One of them is Anything Political, justified on the basis that people have differing opinions and it’s easier to ‘not go there’. Don’t be the person who brings Bad Feeling, better to keep quiet. We can see this spread throughout  our society, not least in the ironic detachment which increasingly becomes the standard mode of interaction. Since the great man passed away yesterday, I’ll refer to one of Gore Vidal’s quotes about Americans:

We’re the most captive nation of slaves that ever came along. The moral timidity of the average American is quite noticeable. Everybody’s afraid to be thought in any way different from everyone else.

That last sentence sums up the politics of Good Feeling very well. The urge to belong, to be liked, is enormous and increasingly the easiest way to do this is to avoid at all costs disrupting dominant ideas of that “shared orientation towards some things as being good”. Certainly we may have faux-disagreements over whether we think a current pop song is any good but when it comes to the big things, things like politics – avoid.

We can see the power of this when combined with something like the Overton Window. Disagreements within this narrow spectrum of ideas are seen as acceptable, as civilised discourse. Anyone outwith this spectrum is seen as radical and, inevitably, as a holder of Bad Feeling. We can see a glaring example of this in the issue of tuition fees. Introduced only 14 years ago, those who oppose them entirely and support free Higher Education are seen as, at best, hopelessly naive and, at worse, ‘Trots’. The window has moved and the ‘acceptable’ debate is now between fees and a Graduate Tax.

We are psychologically attracted to people similar to us – it’s in our nature. Yet this pathologising of Bad Feeling means we are increasingly terrified of not being similar, leading to our communication becoming increasingly superficial and disengaged. This fear of difference, this portrayal of ‘radical’ views as character flaws, means we are cut off from opportunities to learn, to grow. It has never been easy for us to control how we are perceived, given the increased use of text and image-based communication, and how we most want to be perceived is as part of the Good Feeling. So-called ‘positive’ statements which do not conceive of a world beyond the surface of things have implications – they have power.  We would all, myself included, be better if we actively and sincerely engaged with views which interfered with our Good Feeling rather than closing ranks, hectoring, ranting and dismissing them as bringing Bad Feeling.

As I wrote in my preceding blog, the start of the Olympics has seen the proliferation of dreadfully insipid puff pieces from writers who seemingly have a very shaky grasp on their own mind. The Observer today leads with yet another one which is unable to separate the event from the athletes and so sees the author dismissing his previous concerns as ‘curmudgeonly’ and ‘cynical’. What I find most hilarious about it is that this transformation is due to the Opening Ceremony, an event which pretty much had the sole purpose of being inspirational about Britain and had a massive budget with which to be so. It was never going to fail. Myself, I enjoyed it well enough but what I found curious was that it largely relied on pre-existing associations for its power. When I thought about it afterwards I realised that I had been far less impressed by what was actually happening on screen than by the machine-gun roll call of British achievements, whether that be our brilliant pop history, JK Rowling or the Industrial Revolution. This thought was bolstered by a friend who informed me that his Greek parents would have been hugely confused by much of it.

The part of the ceremony which did truly move me was the simplest – the procession of the athletes. The utter joy and excitement evident on the faces of the athletes was completely infectious and this more than anything resonated as a celebration of humanity, as the Morning Star put it. Yet as my heart was stirred by this I also felt great sadness at what could have been; at the trampling of this spirit beneath the jackboots of profit and elitism.

I get the sense from most of aforementioned puff pieces that they could have been written at any point over the past year by people who haven’t set foot in London, such is their banal predictability in trotting out the same PR lines. The Observer piece quite oddly suggests that the heavily-choreographed and controlled £27 million opening ceremony showed that London ‘was at ease with itself and its many contradictions’. Coming barely a year after the city tore itself apart, a city which is one of the most unequal in the developed world, that is quite the claim.

It was with huge relief, then, that I found myself at the Counter-Olympics demo in Tower Hamlets yesterday. Relief because I was surrounded by hundreds of people who cared deeply about their city and their country; people who went out of their way to wish the Olympic athletes well but did not let this stifle their critical faculties. Posters everywhere demanded ‘Sport for the 99%, not Profit for the 1%’ – these people were far from the ‘curmudgeonly’ moaners opposed to the entire thing, sports and all, that the media keeps portraying. No, these people had a very positive belief in humanity. They cared about social justice; they cared about public ownership of land; they cared about housing and living costs; they cared about militarisation and the wars which make the UK a target; they cared about poverty, exploitation and abusive labour practices; they cared about austerity and the use of mega-events to push its agenda. Again, I felt moved by the spirit on display – people who had given up their Saturday afternoons to make a stand and attempt to highlight some of the issues around the Olympics which the media is now furiously distancing itself from. The atmosphere was incredible – friendly and fun, with people beeping their car horns in support as they passed. There was an interesting observation to be made for those who keep wheeling out the attendance at the Torch Relay as proof of the UK’s unswerving love for the Games, as hundreds of people came out from their houses, pubs, cars etc to watch the march go past – not necessarily in support, but merely because something big was happening.

The march ended in Wennington Green with speeches from such inspirational organisations as War on Want and Defend the Right to Protest. I was thrilled that John McDonnell, one of the minority of principled Labour MPs remaining, appeared to speak of his solidarity for the cause.

The speaker who has most remained with me, however, was perhaps the most ineloquent – a woman from Critical Mass who had been arrested the evening before for peaceful protest. Clearly she was a last minute addition and was a little startled to be speaking before the crowds, yet she spoke matter-of-factly about the circumstances of her arrest – how she had been targeted for passing a bottle of water to a fellow cyclist who had already been arrested, how the police officer who arrested her claimed to recognise her as ‘one of that Occupy lot’. She then spoke of a visit to Critical Mass, some weeks earlier, of an Olympic cyclist (whose name unfortunately escapes me at the moment) who spoke to the organisation and led the members in a chant of ‘I am not afraid of offending my oppressor’. She led the gathered crowd in this same chant and I shouted it with passionate glee – not only as a message to the gathered authorities, the police who had flooded the streets in a clear demonstration of strength, the army guarding the Bow Quarter missiles – but as a message to those who wish to dismiss concern for London and the country as ‘cynical’ and ‘curmudgeonly’.

It was a beautiful day. As we left the Green and walked through a sunny Victoria Park, the ‘people’s park’ which now finds a large part of itself ticketed for entry, I felt almost euphoric. The human spirit is an incredible, resilient force, capable of great things even in the face of hardship and injustice. This is the real message of the Olympics and it’s a message which the Counter-Olympics demo shouted out loud.

Another Games is Possible

A couple of days ago the liberal sorts on Twitter worked themselves into a lather over this Guardian column about a mother’s reasoning for sending her child to private school. Given the credentials of many leading the charge, the author would have provoked less ire had her reasoning been that she wanted to give her child the greatest possible chance of a writing gig for a British broadsheet, but that’s besides the point. What really seemed to rile people was the way the author presented left-wing principles as some convenient, ill-thought out folly which quickly crumble when faced with ‘reality’. This is a slur as old as the hills – a variation on ‘a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged’ – but the addition of the wellbeing of children and the implication that anyone really looking out for their offspring would go private was predictably toxic. The response was swift and it was brutal.

This piece on the Olympics, however, has provoked no angry response. Yet it is another variation on the same theme. The author half-heartedly tosses off his reasons for hating the games:

The outrageous corporate sponsorship deals, the exclusivist ticketing model, the broken promises of community engagement, the lack of investment in youth sporting provision, the ground to air missiles on tower blocks, Seb Coe’s smug half-smile

before noting that he’s ‘caught the Olympic bug’ due to watching a ‘brilliant documentary’ about an Olympic athlete. His previous complaints are recast as ‘grumbling’, suggesting they were trivial reasons for a negativity which has been washed away by the inspiring tale of athletic achievement. Again, left-wing principles are portrayed as a silly distraction. The most extraordinary sentence in the column is:

For the first time, I thought about the Games in a vein outside of politics. This was about the Olympic dream in all its battered and worn reality.

Well, indeed. ‘Politics’ being concerned with power, principles and relationships, looking at anything ‘in a vein outside’ of this would tend to remove any tendency towards critical thought. I’m sure Guantanamo Bay seems quite nice when thought about ‘in a vein outside of politics’. After all, the US government tells us that it’s about keeping everyone safe – it’s not about politics, it’s about basic safety!

Aside from the author’s shaky hold on his own principles and mind, the big problem with this piece is that it conflates the current Olympics with the ‘Olympic dream’. You can read about the ‘Olympic principles’ here – suffice to say that the current corporate mega-event is far, far removed from any sense of ‘equality’ or ‘respect’. Private concerns override all else, with even the laws of the country being subservient to corporate interests. We have indeed come a long way from the 1896 Olympics, when the first regulation agreed by the IOC enshrined amateurism into the event.

This extraordinary puff piece makes the same error of being unable to separate the organisation of the Olympics from the athletic achievement displayed in them. I have heard no-one being critical of the latter, yet everyone who seems remotely inspired by this achievement seems unable to separate the two and becomes defensive about the entire event. Of course, this idea that critics are attacking athletic achievement perfectly serves those elites who wish to portray dissenting voices as spiteful moaners.

Yet another Olympics is possible. I’m about halfway through this book which is very good at examining how the Olympics strayed so far from its original principles. I did not realise that corporate sponsorship only entered the Games in 1984 when it was held in Reagan’s America – the neoliberalisation of the Games perfectly illustrating the lie that they are ‘apolitical’. The book also examines the truth behind the propaganda usually wheeled out in support of the Olympics – economic regeneration, employment, a sporting legacy, increased tourism, community engagement – each is examined and each is found to be at best wanting, at worst utterly false. Studies looking at previous Olympic Games and previous sporting mega-events have found that, without exception, they lead to the displacement of the poor (and other ‘undesirables’) from the host cities and increased living costs for those who remain. They even found that jobs were displaced from the Olympic areas once the Games left town. We are already seeing these effects in London, to go along with the militirization of our streets, the weakening of our civil liberties (including, astonishingly, efforts to prevent anti-Olympics speeches at a Counter-Olympics protest in Tower Hamlets), the privatisation of public space (at public expense) and a complete betrayal of the promised ‘legacies’ for the host boroughs.

In short, it’s difficult to conceive of how anyone who identifies as ‘left-wing’, certainly anyone who identifies as ‘socialist’, could not oppose these Games. Yet you find these very people loudly cheerleading the event and repeating the lies fed to them by the Government and the IOC without question. Why? Because, as noted above, they cannot separate their excitement for the sporting events from the ‘Olympics themselves. Their principles become embarrassing distractions from ‘getting behind’ their team. I’ve seen an increasing tendency for people to combat criticism of the event by referring to the ‘enthusiasm’ of those turning out to see the torch procession, a great irony given the event’s origins as a propaganda tool for the Nazis. It’s also not without irony that the global torch procession was scrapped after the countless protests against the Chinese last time around. It is propaganda, pure and simple, and ‘politics’ or indeed any kind of critical thought is not welcome. This is carried through into our national media which, sure, prints a scattering of op-ed columns criticising the Games and articles criticising transport arrangements, but on the whole unquestioningly pushes the narrative of a ‘country united’. Of course many are going are going to ‘give in’ and catch the ‘Olympic bug’ when faced with such a barrage; when told repeatedly that their criticisms are ‘grumblings’ and they are witnessing a ‘once in a lifetime event’. Anyone using this ‘enthusiasm’ as a defence for the Games needs to learn about ‘manufactured consent’. The very transformation of London into a ‘state of exception’ itself creates a sense of an extraordinary event, building excitement on the basis of retracting democratic and civil liberties.

As an aside, I walked through Stoke Newington last Saturday while the torch procession passed through the area and the turn-out was truly pitiful. I wasn’t surprised that the evening news didn’t show images of smatterings of people drinking cider outside a chicken shop. I attended a barbeque at a house on the torch procession route and, of the 30 or so people gathered, approximately 5 went out to see it.

What surprised me was how eloquent and informed people were in their anti-Olympic sentiment. In being surprised I suppose I had allowed myself to be partially seduced by the idea that people were just ‘grumbling’ but this convinced me that it’s not the case.

By all means I expect many with anti-Olympic feeling to be inspired by the sporting achievements. I certainly expect them to be inspired by the Opening Ceremony – it is, after all, the entire point of that event. Yet we mustn’t lose sight of the alienating, harmful effects of the current Olympic model and allow ourselves to become cheerleaders for the transfer of wealth and power to private bodies and individuals. Another Games is possible. Believing this is not ‘grumbling’, it is holding onto important principles and beliefs and those ready to swiftly abandon these in order to cheer on athletes are the ones who should be defending themselves.