‘Civilised’

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With the Commonwealth Games starting in Glasgow this week, the usual suspects have been out in force complaining about homophobia in many of the Commonwealth countries. Never one to shy from the limelight, Peter Tatchell actually travelled to Glasgow to call on Alex Salmond and organisers to condemn these nations and even ban them from competing (quite how travelling up to Scotland to tell its First Minister what to do squares with his support for independence, I’m not quite sure.) By far the most prominent example of this trend, on social media at least, was this meme from Stonewall:

10475673_10152519854650399_2571160274686206565_nStonewall went to town with this one, posting it several times and retweeting posts of it by others. Its many retweets means that it will have been seen by many thousands of people and it led to a predictable outpouring of anger and condemnation. Then, in a perfect fuelling of this narrative, the opening ceremony featured that kiss. Or should I say ‘that stunning rebuke’? Take that, savages! Many of those tweeting their outrage regarding homophobia went crazy for this kiss, as if it was single-handedly going to stop bigotry in its tracks. More worryingly, it quickly became proof of our superiority, with comments like this being fairly common:

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‘Civilised’. The use of this word alone should have set alarm bells ringing as to the subtext being pushed beneath this facile outrage.This language and the ideas behind it were absolutely central to colonialism and slavery, with “Africans…thought to be sub-human, uncivilised, and inferior to Europeans in every way.” It’s notable that the same arguments are also used by supporters of Israel. Their deployment against the countries of the Commonwealth, almost entirely made up of countries which were formerly part of the British Empire, is disturbing to say the least. Take that, savages, indeed.

A typical response to this concern from the outraged is ‘oh so we can’t attack homophobia in these countries because they were colonies then?’ The implication is that if you find this racist moralising distateful you must support anti-LGBT laws. This is, of course, utter nonsense. It’s very telling that the outrage is almost entirely aimed at these countries en masse and expressed via organisations such as Stonewall, which explicitly links its own ‘international work’ to the issue in an effort to raise more money. Here we have the White Saviour Industrial Complex which Teju Cole wrote about with regards to Africa blended with homonationalism (note, for example, that there is little outrage about any other human rights issues in these countries, including poverty, or about the LGBT record of ‘civilised’ countries like the USA) There is no consideration that work to change these laws goes on within these countries and there is certainly no appreciation that these must be the way change happens. It cannot and will not be imposed by us. Scott Long wrote a typically good piece on this a few years ago where he noted that LGBT activists from these Commonwealth countries were being shut out by ‘Western’ interests (including Tatchell). As he writes:

The successes achieved at the past two Commonwealth summits came because LGBT advocates from the countries targeted and affected were there, proving they existed and their lives counted.

In his piece Teju Cole directly addresses Americans swept up in the Kony fever, telling them how they can ‘help’:

How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact…If Americans want to care about Africa, maybe they should consider evaluating American foreign policy, which they already play a direct role in through elections, before they impose themselves on Africa itself.

It’s that Biblical parable about removing the log from your own eye before judging, or attempting to ‘help’, others. This is utterly fundamental to this Commonwealth issue. In the minds of the outraged, these countries become demonised others, reduced to nothing more than their laws regarding LGBT people. In condemning them while patting ourselves on the back, the central role played by the United Kingdom (and contrary to what some seem to believe, this absolutely also means Scotland here) in how these countries have developed is completely elided. When there was yet another brief e-petition frenzy over Uganda’s homophobic laws earlier this year, some pointed out that these laws were introduced by colonial powers. This has been pointed out in the past regarding the Commonwealth – this very good piece looks at not only the colonial legacy but the problem of approaching these issues in terms of a ‘LGBTI’ framework in the first place – and researchers state that anti-LGBT laws are “mostly a legacy of British colonialism“. So we are berating these countries for laws which we largely introduced to them!

It’s essential to be aware of and consider our role in this because it blows the racist ideas about the ‘civilised’ and the ‘savages’ wide open. Lest we forget, the British Empire was absolutely brutal. Britain massacred, tortured, starved, ethnically cleansed and had concentration camps well before the Nazis came along. It’s also completely forgotten that the overwhelmingly poor countries which retain these laws aren’t inherently ‘broken’ – their current status is heavily shaped by colonialism’s history of slavery, cultural oppression and the theft of wealth and resources on an unimaginable scale. Let’s be in no doubt here: the UK’s position as a wealthy nation owes much to its horrofic subjugation of these countries people are now wagging their fingers at.

Colonialism isn’t some distant relic as many seem to think -as late as 1997 the UK was still decolonising (Hong Kong) and its sovereignty over places like Gibralter and the Falklands endures to this day. Yet if British rule isn’t the terror it once was, the legacy of this remains strong (and is precisely one of the main reasons why the UK bears some responsibility for the Israel/Palestine conflict). Many of the ‘tinpot dictators’ we love to hate are there largely because of us. We continue to arm these countries even while expressing mock-outrage at their transgressions, with Campaign Against the Arms Trade documenting that the UK sold arms to 46 of the 52 other Commonwealth countries in the past three years, including the maligned Uganda and Nigeria (as Eleanor Harris put it on Twitter, we sold them both arms and attitudes). It’s also argued by some that the modern framework of aid, international development and economic ‘support’ is a form of neocolonialism, wherein the ‘former’ colonial powers retain their paternalism and exercise power in these ostensibly liberated countries.

It should be clear, then, that we are in no position to lecture the rest of the Commonwealth on the matter of how ‘civilised’ they are and we should be wary of indulging in that rhetoric. Yet even taken on its own terms, this behaviour is staggeringly hypocritical. It beggars belief that LGBT laws have become totemic of ‘civilisation’ when the UK is still very much on that journey itself. Homosexual activities were only legalised in Scotland in 1980. Section 28, our very own law banning homosexual ‘propaganda’ in schools, was not fully abolished until 2003 and was aggressively supported by our current Prime Minister, David Cameron. Even the much vaunted ‘marriage equality’ finally obtained this year was only ‘equality’ for some, with the ‘spousal veto’ discriminating against transexual people. Yet transexual rights are a poor relative of ‘gay rights’ here, as seen in Stonewall’s award of ‘Politician of the Year’ to Baroness Stowell and the owner of Pink News tweeting his congratulations to her on her promotion. Stowell was a staunch defender of the veto.

The Scottish Government’s 2011 report on Discrimination and Positive Action, meanwhile, shows that there is a long way to go in the host country of the Commonwealth Games. In it we find that 55% of respondents would be ‘unhappy/very unhappy’ at the prospect of a family member entering a relationship with a ‘cross-dresser’, and 49% would be unhappy if it was a relationship with a transexual. 30% would be unhappy if a family member married someone of the same sex (though the campaign for marriage since then may have eroded this % somewhat). This is without getting into truly terrifying statistics such as 49% agreeing that Scotland would ‘lose its identity if more Muslims came to live’ there, and 45% thinking the same about more black and/or Asian people living there.

Remove the log from your own eye. It’s worth repeating. We are not going to change laws in Commonwealth countries by tweeting a meme and indulging in ramped up racist rhetoric online. We’re not even going to do it by protesting, or writing to our MPs. The only way to progress is to listen to the activists who actually live in these countries and amplify their voices whereever possible. Just as they have responsibility for change within their own countries, we must take the same for change within ours. Our countryis not a benevolent force promoting good throughout the world. We can and should oppose the disgusting arms trade; we can and should oppose our government’s support for dictators and massacres like the one currently taking place in Gaza. But more than that, we must educate ourselves about the injustices which persevere in our own country. The scourges of poverty, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, police brutality, political corruption and more are very much alive in the United Kingdom. Solving them will take a lot more than a staged kiss.

#INDYREF AND THE POSITIVE MYTHS WHICH DIVIDE US

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we really going to have to endure over 2 years of the SNP attempting to paint anyone disagreeing with them on this issue as a Tory and/or “anti-Scottish”? The whole tone of this ‘debate’ has so far been very depressing. In some ways it’s reminding me of the AV debate, where support for AV was seen as the ‘progressive’ option and anyone opposing it on the left was quickly portrayed as an out-of-touch dinosaur who was aiding the Tories. Far too many on the left appear to be afraid to be forthright for their support of the Union for fear of ‘offending’ the Scots. Sod that.

Joan McAlpine quotes herself as saying:

“The Liberals, the Labour party and the Tories are anti-Scottish in coming together to defy the will of the Scottish people and the democratic mandate that they gave us to hold a referendum at a time of our choosing.”

Perhaps someone should point out to Joan that, between them, these parties gained 53% of the vote (and even more in the regions list) and that by ‘coming together’ they could be presented as representing more of the ‘Scottish people’ than her party? This hysterical shrieking whenever any of the parties in favour of the Union express an opinion on the matter and, in particular, on the matter of the referendum, is juvenile. Furthermore, as much as I despise David Cameron, it’s disingenuous to say the least to attempt to argue that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has no right to be involved in this. Between them, the parties in the coalition has 20 MSPs and 12 MPs in Scotland, a reality which doesn’t quite suit the hysterical ‘the Tories are interfering!’ narrative which continually draws attention to the single Tory MP. I’m not in favour of independence – however, I’d rather Scotland voted for that than for ‘devo-max’. Independence and the Union both have a coherency to them which d-m simply does not. It strips away many of the benefits of the Union without proferring enough benefits to be worthwhile. Fundamentally, it doesn’t bestow the major benefit of independence that I can see – namely that Scotland would be unable to blame nasty Westminster for much of its ills. Perhaps the EU would take over that mantle, given the SNP’s antipathy towards the UK government but support for the far less democratic (and unabashedly neoliberal) institutions of the EU.

I like much of what the SNP have done in Scotland. There is a good likelihood that I, like many in Scotland, would vote for them in the Scottish Parliament without supporting independence. However since moving to England Salmond’s ‘blame the English’ rhetoric has become even clearer and even more embarrassing. I’ll live with the result of a referendum, whatever it may be, but the prospect of an infantile shouting match (and of course there are plenty of equivalent voices on the other ‘side’) until then is grim.

I’m not anti-English – but the coalition has hijacked Scotland’s referendum