Is this what we’ve done to ourselves?

Just pick up a copy of the Sun. Is this Britain? Is this what we’ve done to ourselves? How can the people who work on that paper go home and face their families without any sense of shame? I’d be ashamed to the pit of my guts if I were forced to do it, and some of them are, to be fair, forced to do it, because they don’t want to be unemployed. They need to earn. Some of them do things that they are appalled by. I know that, I’ve met some of them. But my God, what a system.

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The quote above is from Dennis Potter’s final interview, an astonishing, moving affair which stands as a transcendent piece of art in its own right. I was instantly reminded of it when I saw the above excerpt from The Sun’s front page.The interview is 20 years old and much about it belongs to another time (can we even envisage such an interview being broadcast in 2014?) Yet a great deal of what Potter says is remarkably prescient and powerful (and it’s almost impossible not to contrast his dignified authority with the facile attention-seeking of Russell Brand today). Potter, of course, came from a working-class background – the son of a miner, no less – and his voice belongs to a long and rich history of working-class intellectualism. We’re not supposed to remember this history. We’re not supposed to remember that to be working-class and intelligent, working-class and articulate, working-class and autodidactic, is no aberration. We’re not supposed to remember this because if we do, we remember the power and possibility which we possess. This just wouldn’t do. So instead we’re encouraged, made even, to shrink our horizons and shackle our imaginations. We’re told that to be ordinary, to be working-class, is to know our place. To defer to authority, stand proudly before the flag and blunt our minds. To believe that more is not only possible but necessary is to have ideas above our station, to be a snob, to sneer. So here’s your free flag to show that they care. They respect your right to be the kind of ordinary person who channels their ire at working-class immigrants rather than billionaire media oligarchs. Raise a glass to being ordinary!

I offer these excerpts from Potter but impore you to put aside an hour to watch the full interview when you can – you won’t regret it:

…I call my cancer—the main one in the pancreas—Rupert, because Murdoch is the one. There is no one person more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press, and the pollution of the British press is an important part of the pollution of British political life, and it’s an important part of the cynicism and misperception of our own realities that is destroying so much of our political discourse.

Q. You do feel the state of decay has deeply set in, don’t you?

I do. With great regret and pity, and a feeling of shame of self. But it’s rescuable, just. It’s up to people to stand up and shout a bit. Not to turn it into cynicism, which I’m afraid is what is happening. Politics is still crucially important. Our choices are vital, and we’ve got to make them and not just say, ‘Oh they’re all the same.’ They are all the same in certain ways, alas—a political animal is such an animal. But lurking somewhere behind their rhetoric and their spittle are important choices that we should make.

Q. Do you think the overall sense of decay that you’ve talked about stems from political decay, or that political decay stems from other powerful symptoms?

Both. They interlace. The press and politics. The commercialization of everything means you’re putting a commercial value upon everything and you turn yourself from a citizen into a consumer, and politics is a commodity to be sold. Look what’s happening to television in general. Look who owns it. The arguments of respectable, liberal commentators about size, economies of scale, and so on, are all nonsense. A programme costs what a programme costs. It can be made by a tiny company. It’s a question of ownership of the means of communications, ‘the mass media’ in J.B. Priestley’s phrase; of political control. How can we have a mature democracy when newspapers and television are beginning to be so interlaced in ownership? Where are our freedoms to be guaranteed? Who is going to guarantee them? Look at the power that Murdoch has. Look at the effects of all these takeovers.The world of television or radio when we came into it, I’m not saying that world wasn’t paternalistic, and I’m not saying it can be preserved as it was, and I’m not saying there mustn’t be change, but that world was based upon a set of assumptions that are now almost derisible,laughable. Like in politics, certain statements become derisible. We’re destroying ourselves by not making those statements.

…Sometimes I get out of bed and I don’t know whether I’m right-wing or left-wing, to be honest, because I feel the pull of both. I feel the pull of tradition, and I love my land, I love England, and when I’m abroad, I genuinely feel homesick. I’ve always loved my country, but not drums and trumpets and billowing Union jacks and busby soldiers and the monarchy and pomp and circumstance, but something about our people that I come from and therefore respond to. And I expect other people to do it of their own backgrounds and nations and cultures, too. But those things are very difficult to put prices on and to quantify in the terminology of Mrs Thatcher and the current government. They use phrases like ‘community care’ when they mean ‘Close that costly thing and put that madman onto the street.’ And then if it’s in front of their noses they’ll do another makeshift measure and claim that things are getting better, or that the per-head spending has gone up. So what? It may have done, but what is actually happening when a young person in many, many a town in this country sees no prospect of a job?Then they will moralize, that’s the worst thing, and say, ‘Oh, crime is everything to do with the criminal.’ What is a life of not expecting to get work? What is a life of only expecting cynicism in political conversation? What is a life that sees no horizon further than the latest nasty video and cable tv and the Murdochs and The Sun?

The Sun, UKIP and Racism

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The Sun’s ‘attack’ on UKIP homophobia was today shared approvingly in some quarters (‘Nice one, Sun’). This is utterly absurd. The Sun should never, ever be applauded for ‘opposing’ homophobia – it has been one of our society’s main proponents of it for a long, long time. As recently as 2010 it ran the poll ‘should gay people be cabinet ministers?’ while in 2012 it called for a referendum on gay marriage  while bemoaning the emphasis placed on it by David Cameron. This, of course, came after decades of utterly vile and aggressive homophobia, the most famous example probably being the 1988 editorial on Brighton labelling it a ‘nasty town of drugs, gays, AIDS and drunks’. It has freely and liberally used homophobic slurs (a fairly recent example being their coverage of Derren Brown’s coming out) and still pushes a firmly heterosexist agenda. Let’s not be in any doubt here – The Sun’s contribution to fuelling homophobia and a climate where queers ‘get beaten to death’ is practically second to none. The only response to it claiming the moral high ground here is to laugh hysterically, dump the rag in the nearest bin and waste no time holding your breath for the day it issues a grovelling apology for all of the misery it has caused.

Usually I would just ignore The Sun’s mendacity – it’s what you expect, after all. This, however, interested me because it ties in exactly with my previous thoughts on The Sun’s treatment of Thomas Hitzlsperger’s coming out. There, I suggested that The Sun was using an apparently liberal attitude towards homosexuality to mask and push its insidious racism, writing that:

It’s a move which is testament to how far the UK has come with regards to homosexuality – what was once hated is now wheeled out as a diversion tactic.

I think this is exactly what we see again here. The Sun’s racism is evident and it continues to write about immigration in the language of ‘floods’ and “tidal waves of immigrants threatning to swamp Britain”. It has been courting UKIP for a while now, with proprietor Rupert Murdoch openly courting Farage. This is hardly a surprise – UKIP’s extreme anti-labour, pro-1% stance tallies perfectly with Murdoch’s interests. You will not, then, find The Sun seriously taking UKIP to task and certainly not for its attempts to stir division via racism. Hence today’s editorial. Here The Sun can be seen to be ‘taking a stand’ in opposing the ‘extremist’ elements of UKIP, effectively positioning their racism (and extreme right-wing policies) as mainstream and ‘reasonable’. Its opposition to homophobia is entirely instrumental here – it can’t remain silent when the media has been dominated by UKIP extremism for much of the past week but it won’t oppose the racist ideology which is absolutely central to its purpose. Once again, its ‘liberal’ take on homosexuality is a diversion tactic. Nice one, Sun.

Helmer provides the convenient ‘extremism’ here, being used to obscure the fundamentally violent bigotry at UKIP’s core. The effect of such positioning, where UKIP’s racism is viewed as ‘reasonable’ and ‘common sense’, can be seen all around us. I wrote in that previous piece that:

We as a country are in denial about race. We are so in denial that we actively shout-down those who dare to suggest that we might have a problem, at best portraying them as bitter and over-sensitive cranks and at worse hurling abuse at them.

This denial is clearly seen in the increasingly frequent pleas that we don’t call UKIP ‘racist’ – here’s one from The Guardian today. These calls come from an understanding that calling someone ‘racist’ is a terrible, terrible thing – perhaps one of the worst of things. People don’t like it. They deny it. They shut you down and go on the attack. Best not, then, to use ‘racist’ as a pejorative. Better to quietly drop it and focus on something else. In its own way this line endorses UKIP’s racism (and racism more generally) just as damagingly as The Sun does, pushing the pervasive idea that few people are actually racist and the people saying so are the ones who should be taking a step back.

It’s interesting that Harris suggests a focus on UKIP’s ‘ridiculousness’ instead, because this betrays a lack of understanding of where many of the attacks come from. A lot of people are happy to call UKIP ‘racist’ precisely because they are seen to be ridiculous. This racism is viewed as glaring, funny and toothless and ostentatiously condemning it is as an easy way to assert your own credentials. I think this is fairly common in discussions of racism, where it is seen to exist as something obvious and external. Racism is the BNP, the killing of Stephen Lawrence (a cause even the Daily Mail could get behind) and now UKIP. It is not an inescapable system of oppression with produces and cements the superiority of white people. So, then, if UKIP voters react badly to being labelled ‘racist’, many of their accusers are ultimately equally as close-minded. This refers in obvious ways to the racism found in all of the main parties in some form (not least their immigration and asylum policies and discussions) but also (and far more importantly) to the racism found in our own everyday lives and within ourselves. If you’re like me, this racism is rarely explosive and rarely easily identified. Rather it’s an unconscious assumption you make about someone or joke you pretend to laugh at or a little voice inside saying ‘do we have to talk about race again?! Aren’t we done with this?!’ Personally, I think it’s simply impossible as a white person to be raised in this society and not have racism deeply-embedded within. Yet on both left and right we have become so enamoured with the idea that a ‘racist’ is a grotesque ogre that we instinctively rush to deny that we could ever be that. We do this to the extent that any person of colour speaking about racism and/or, God forbid, identifying it, is demonised and shut down. And we do it even when an obviously racist rag like The Sun pats our bellies and parades its liberalness in order to further push racism. The only way to even begin to break out of this is to acknowledge that racism isn’t pathologised in ‘bad people’ but rather something which we cannot hope to avoid. Racism does not continue in our society simply because the ogres keep being racist. We are all affected by it and speaking as a white person, I believe we are all warped by it. Only by accepting this uncomfortable reality can we ever begin to move forward.

12 Years A Slave and racism in the UK

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I saw 12 Years A Slave a few months ago at the London Film Festival. I liked it well enough – it’s well-made, features some brilliant performances and proved engrossing. I wasn’t, however, as blown away by it as most of the American critics I’d read had been. I particularly found the claims that it was the ‘most brutal’ Hollywood film ever made to be quite odd: yes, it’s difficult to watch at times but the violence (which is rarely as extreme as much advance word would have it) is countered by a strong sentimentality. It was no surprise then that I found bell hooks’ take on it (“sentimental clap-trap”) to be compelling, if characteristically blunt.

As I left the cinema after seeing it, the sound of weeping echoed around the room. It’s certainly the most tear-inducing film I’ve ever seen in a public setting. What partly drove some of my own thoughts on it was the presence in the audience of some people whose response to the London riots had both angered and upset me. How, I wondered, did the racism portrayed in the film connect in their minds to the racism which played such a massive part in the riots and responses to them? Did it even connect at all?

I was reminded of this earlier this week while reading Hadley Freeman’s take on the film, specifically this observation:

Whenever a movie, documentary or otherwise, is made about a terrible historical atrocity – the Holocaust, genocide, slavery – the easiest approach for the filmmaker is to shock the audience while simultaneously making them feel good about themselves for being so different from those brutes from another era – validating all of their beliefs about the past (bad) and themselves (good.) But 12 Years a Slave is too brutal a film, and McQueen too clear-eyed a filmmaker, to do that.

I was completely bemused by this comment because I think it’s exactly what the film does. The ‘racists’ in the film are almost uniformly sociopaths, barely recognisable as human. The big exception is Benedict Cumberbatch as a ‘humane’ plantation owner – but viewers are pretty much invited to sympathise with him, to view him as a ‘good man’ because he treats his slaves with a modicum of dignity. In this way racism is individualised, portrayed as a consequence of how we act. This is most egregiously underlined with Brad Pitt’s cameo as (SPOILER) a carpenter whose intervention ultimately leads to Solomon Northup’s freedom. This is, of course, loyal to Northup’s autobiography but the decision to cast Pitt in the role, looking and sounding to all intents like some American Jesus Christ, is a major misstep. White viewers inevitably identify with him, we think “that’s what I would have done!”

If the film does indeed intend for us to think about racism as a deeply-embedded structure of inequality, of brutality, of human misery, it is a failure. The brilliance of the novel Alone in Berlin is that it makes us realise that most Nazis were just like us, rather than the caricatured visions of evil that we so readily imagine. To get ahead in Nazi Germany meant at the very least acquiescing to what was happening while being a ‘good’ person and opposing the Nazi regime meant almost certain misery and probably death. How many of us have that moral courage? I think it’s a very difficult and uncomfortable question to answer, if we’re honest with ourselves. 12 Years A Slave avoids this discomfort and I can’t imagine many viewers leaving the film wondering what their behaviour might have been had they been alive at that time, in those circumstances. The racism it depicts is both very obvious and very in the past.

If this offers comfort to me as a white (and liberal) viewer, it offers us nothing in terms of understanding racism as a force today. What seemed clear from the riots and was underlined yesterday by the Mark Duggan verdict (and the responses to it) is that many (most?) people in the UK have absolutely no understanding of racism as an endemic system where it’s not only the police force that is institutionally racist. The popular law tweeter Jack of Kent instantly responded to the verdict by tweeting “Hurrah for a jurisdiction where juries can come to verdicts which are unpopular” before engaging in some twisted point-scoring, portraying himself as the dispassionate and rational observer against a legion of over-emotional nitwits who had rushed to offence. This was about the law, not about race, a line taken by the police even as they lied and smeared after killing yet another black person and getting away with it. If the instinctive rush to defend the police is disturbing, meanwhile, the sense (also seen re: the riots) that many believe ‘thugs’ and ‘street criminals’ are less than human and deserve to be brutalised is downright terrifying. The police and many in the media know this – that’s why they have repeatedly tried to control the narrative and assert that Duggan was a ‘violent gang member’.

We as a country are in denial about race. We are so in denial that we actively shout-down those who dare to suggest that we might have a problem, at best portraying them as bitter and over-sensitive cranks and at worse hurling abuse at them. As a white man with a lot to learn I’ve still had plenty of the former when discussing racism – the latter seems largely reserved for the black commentators, who are perceived as ‘angry’ and ‘difficult’ from the off. Even amongst ‘liberal’ people, responses such as these (re: the last Lily Allen video) seem common:

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“I guess it’s just me who sees a person as a person, not as their skin colour first.” This is how I feel. Racism continues because it’s consistently brought up.” You get that? Racism is your fault, losers! Stop bringing it up! People are just people! It would be hysterical in its stupidity if it wasn’t so damaging and widespread. 

I noted in the Lily blog that I was seeing a lot of white gay men shouting down black women who were asserting that the video was racist. This sprung to mind again yesterday with the announcement by former footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger that he is gay. While this may be a positive move with regards to football, the hysteria it elicited was completely (but inevitably) overblown. So far, so standard, Where things became dumbfounding was when the Sun posted its morning front page online:

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The UK’s biggest newspaper apparently didn’t think the verdict on the police killing which sparked England’s biggest riots in generations, a verdict which had instantly aroused anger and fear of further riots, was front page news. More than that, they went with a front page contrasting the ‘brave’ white gay man with the ‘loser’ black one. The people behind The Sun knew exactly what they were doing here: they understood the racial tensions triggered by the Duggan verdict and they knew what message their front page sent in this context. Knowing that The Sun is a racist rag, we might not be surprised at this. Where things got incredible was when people started congratulating them on this move:

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The Guardian’s James Ball led the charge, joined by Charlie Brooker, Stuart McGurk and many others. It was like they were living in some alternate world where nothing much of note had happened that evening. Perversely, Ball and others then followed up with a chorus of sneers at anyone who thought Hitzlsperger’s coming out wasn’t ‘news’. Of course it was, they insisted – gay people are oppressed! And so by writing some patronising words about a gay man (after decades of poisonous, destructive homophobia) The Sun managed to push its vile racist message, that they don’t care about black people, without criticism. It’s a move which is testament to how far the UK has come with regards to homosexuality – what was once hated is now wheeled out as a diversion tactic. This is no surprise given the neutered self-obsession of the gay movement and its firm embedding within the neoliberal mainstream. Gay liberation and gay politics poses absolutely no threat to the wealthy interests The Sun acts as a front for – interests which are served well by our racist structures. Nonetheless, as night follows day you’ll find a white gay man drawing a comparison between gay people and black people. There are volumes of books that could be written about this facile and offensive comparison, which does a disservice both to the fight against homophobia and to anti-racism. Suffice to say that we’re not in danger of being stopped and searched because we’re gay and we’re certainly not about to be shot dead by the police any time soon.

In applauding The Sun people get to feel good about themselves. The whole Duggan affair offers no such balm and even threatens widely-held images not only of our country but of ourselves. And so it’s easier ignored. 12 Years A Slave might offer a visceral depiction of racism but ultimately it offers the same soothing balm and makes it easy to affirm our self-image as ‘good’ and ‘not racist’ people. As long as we keep buying into this and avoiding the reality of racism, the Mark Duggans of this world will keep paying the price.