Brexit and the Climate

The noted child psychologist and pediatrician Donald Winnicott wrote that the greatest danger to the child’s developing self is that it be faced with demands for precocious adaptation to the environment. The parents must protect the infant at all costs from aspects of reality that are incomprehensible or beyond its grasp, and gradually present the world in manageable doses.

On the 58th day of our daughter’s life, the US President signed an order which cancelled all the previous Government’s regulations regarding Climate Change. On the same day, several members of the British Parliament who had campaigned for the UK to leave the European Union walked out of a select committee meeting because the facts they were being presented with in relation to the consequences of Brexit were ‘too gloomy’.

I see that the top trending topics on social media right now are ‘Messi’, ‘Ken Barlow’ and something called ‘Skeletor and He Man’.

We’re going to have a hell of a job in a number of years convincing her that not all adults are completely fucking stupid.

In his attitude to Islam, Bill Maher is on the same side as Trump

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The US comedian and chatshow host Bill Maher has been on the rant about Islam again, saying that it needs a ‘reformation’. This is a common trope on the right, and Maher’s latest declarations are, as this excellent article details, just the latest in a long history of anti-Muslim statements which place him firmly on the right of the political spectrum in relation to one of the most disturbing developments of the Trump Era.

It’s typical for those caught out making crass and ill-informed generalisations about Muslims to defend themselves by arguing that their quarrel is with religious faith itself. Maher did make a documentary called ‘Religulous’ (2008), which attempts to satirise all the world’s leading religions. His show has often featured the ‘New Atheist’ Sam Harris, whose work has, since the publication of a book in which he tries to use secular beliefs to justify the use of torture, been a rallying point for islamaphobes. Thankfully, partly thanks to being articulately challenged by people like Reza Aslan, Harris recently seems to have had doubts about drinking from the same pond that outright nazis like Pamela Geller piss and bathe in, and he has spoken out forcefully against Trump’s “Muslim Ban”. The internet doesn’t work via reasoned debate, however, but by memes. On social media it rarely takes more than a short scroll down the followers lists of people quoting Harris to find proper full-on racists who also include antisemitism and white supremacy in their repertoire of photoshopped hatred. His assertion (on Maher’s show) that Islam is “the motherlode of bad ideas” has had a vigorous afterlife despite his having since sought to distance himself from his more rabid disciples. Daring to question the wisdom of Harris on Twitter is like removing the pivotal can from the bottom of a pyramid of tinned human shit.

A standard trope among those on Twitter who declare themselves ‘atheists’ is the idea that because Muslims are not a ‘race’ it is legitimate to unleash the most violent impulses against people of that faith. This belief is supported and encouraged by Maher, and may even be derived from him: he said in 2010, expressing sentiments that anyone who has spent any time on social media will recognise as those of the far-right:

“Am I a racist to feel alarmed by that? Because I am. And it’s not because of the race; it’s because of the religion. I don’t have to apologize, do I, for not wanting the Western world to be taken over by Islam in 300 years?”

(From http://flavorwire.com/600169/reminder-bill-maher-is-garbage)

Anti-Muslim prejudice is also fast becoming the Achilles’ heel of self-styled progressives. In  more than one pro-Bernie Sanders Facebook group I have seen the most horrendous far-right material being shared and commented on approvingly. Isis and their affiliates know what they’re doing in trying to eradicate basic liberal principles, and their allies on the far-right clearly appreciate the effort being made.

Harris, of course, is not a theologian. None of the New Atheists are, even their Pontiff Richard Dawkins. Terry Eagleton’s classic takedown of Dawkins in the LRB is sublime:

Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms. For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

While Dawkin’s mischaracterisation of religious faith is seemingly based on a Sunday school understanding, adult faith is infinitely far more profound and complex. I was inititally attracted by the work of Dawkins and Harris, but I quickly lost faith in such a simplistic and deterministic view of human affairs and became curious about other ways of thinking and praying. I can see a great deal of sense in Kierkegaard’s line about the function of prayer being not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays. I also identified with William James’ notion of a ‘will to believe‘ – what is (for example) confidence in ourselves but a form of faith? Several years ago I started attending Quakers meetings. I wanted to develop a commitment to making the world a better place which was not rooted in rage and resentment and to seek communion with others in a spirit of shared compassion and reflection rather than kneejerk condemnation.

I also wanted to have an area of my life which is not conditioned by the ideology of selfishness and social darwinism that Dawkins – with very great eloquence – espouses. I wanted to try (pace James) to develop a conscious faith as opposed to being controlled by assumptions and impulses that I don’t understand or control or often even recognise.

Blind faith and superstition play a huge role in our lives. Our entire way of life is sustained by a set of unquestioned assumptions, whether that be in the supremacy of the market, the integrity of a sports team or the primacy of our nation state. All of the above are affirmed in rituals of consumption, fanship and symbolic allegiance which are entirely irrational and often intimately related to discrimination and violence in the form of the dispossession and/or humiliation of others. We also suffer greatly from a vague and largely unexamined notion that somehow ‘technology’ (in some ways a metonym for the global market) will somehow liberate us from environmental pressures, that staring at our smartphones will redeem us from reality, that this peculiarly narcissistic medium will save us from nature’s revenge.

You also don’t need to be a theologian to see that the popularity of Dawkin’s book at the same time as the West’s attack on Iraq was no concidence. It’s not by chance that an culture of intellectually tearing apart the Koran appeared just as agents of a supposedly more rationally-based societies were systematically destroying one of the oldest civilisations on earth. Dawkin’s work also raises issues of privilege and complacency: the belief that the world is simply the way it should be, that the distribution of wealth and life chances has been ordained according to logic and science and that faith in something greater is therefore ‘unnecessary’. This is a return to late-19th century positivism at its most arrogant. That does not imply that all those taken in by the arguments of Dawkins et al are guilty of racism. However, anyone doubting the link between New Atheism and Trump’s attempts to exclude Muslims from the United States would be well advised to watch this video, gleefully retweeted by Dawkins in 2015. It also suggests that his attitude to feminism is not all that far removed from that of either his many bigoted followers or, for that matter, Islamic fundamentalists.

Interventions like Maher’s make such stuff respectable among an audience that likes to think of itself as progressive. This is not, after all, a theoretical intellectual debate taking place in a vacuum. It primes them to accept further abuse of Muslims by a Government they should in theory have no affinity with and draws them into the sphere and influence of the far-right.

In saying all this I want to be clear that I am aware of the stultifying and repressive nature of religious belief, particularly when organised into hierarchical and bureaucratic institutions allied with terrestrial power structures. Religious beliefs have also been exploited throughout history by Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and everyone else under the sun to pursue psychotic murderous agendas. Anyone wanting to argue that Islam was uniquely prone to violence and destruction would have to point to a continuous history of such violence in Muslim societies over the last 1,400 years. Nor is there anything particularly distinct about Islam’s treatment of women. From Northern Nigeria to Central America and from West Virginia to East Africa, barbaric manifestations of both Christianity and Islam seek to control women’s fertility. The Misogynist-in-Chief himself is an odd kind of Christian, one who apparently doesn’t believe he’s accountable to God for his moral actions. He’s not a good advert for such a belief. The presence in his administration of figures like Mike Pomeo and Betsy DeVos, both of whom actually welcome the ‘Apocalypse’, should be a screaming red alert for liberals. For American progressives to think that such problems (and their political priorities) lie elsewhere right now is bizarre.

Comedians don’t make for good political leaders, any more than primetime ‘billionaires’ do. Michel Houellebeqc was prescient in making the main character in ‘The Possibility of an Island’ a Doug Stanhope-type comic who becomes a cult leader. Charlie Brooker predicted something similar in ‘Black Mirror’. Both could well have been predicting the Italian agitatore-in-capo Beppe Grillo. The world is awash in comedians-turned-political-preachers urging their audiences to question all authority! – except their own authority as narcissistic/megalomaniac white men making the most of their God-given right to be listened to.

Even among comics, there are better role models. Louis CK’s personal campaign against Trump was heartfelt and humble and didn’t entail his putting himself forward as an alternative. His views on religious faith allow for a certain ambivalent respect in relation to others’ beliefs:

“I’m not religious. I don’t know if there’s a God. That’s all I can say, honestly, is “I don’t know.” Some people think that they know that there isn’t. That’s a weird thing to think you can know. “Yeah, there’s no God.” Are you sure? “Yeah, no, there’s no God.” How do you know? “Cause I didn’t see Him.” There’s a vast universe! You can see for about 100 yards — when there’s not a building in the way. How could you possibly… Did you look everywhere? Did you look in the downstairs bathroom? Where did you look so far? “No, I didn’t see Him yet.” I haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave yet; it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I’m just waiting until it comes on cable.”

Then there’s Russell Brand, who, burnt by the failure of his highfalutin political pretensions, is now educating himself on the subject of religion and global politics (and sharing what he learns here). Perhaps Maher should do something similar. Or maybe it’s time for him to be retired before his constant and deliberate flirting with far-right ideas does any more damage.

‘Brexit’ considered existentially, ontologically, epistemologically and phenomenologically

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What, the fuck, is ‘Brexit’? I’m as confused and scared as everyone else about what is about to befall us, so I’ve decided to use the analytical tools of Philosophy to try to find out. This will also help me to revise some stuff I supposedly learnt 25 years ago, back when the notion of Britian choosing to leave the European Union was about as likely as a white supremacist being elected US President or someone who’s completely shit simultaneously having 15 songs in the Top 20. Ho hum.

First of all, existential. This is the easy one. If you google ‘Brexit existential’ you get 346,000 results, mostly casting doubt on the ongoing existence of both the EU and the UK. Just today Guy Verhofstadt was talking about an ‘existential crisis’ in the EU. After ‘Brexit’ has gone through, Britain won’t exist in its current form. You write some total lies on a big red bus, drive it round the country for a couple of days, and before you can say ‘we won without a single bullet being fired‘ you’ve destroyed your supposedly beloved United Kingdom for good. Simple as.

Now, ontological. ‘Ontological’ relates to the entire field or category of Being. It predetermines the existence of all else. The word ‘fulcrum’ springs to mind for some reason. Thus Mark Fisher wrote of neoliberalism imposing a ‘business ontology’, in which the only things recognised as possessing existence (political ideas, cultural phenomena, institutions, people) are those considered to have exchange value. Its ubiquity makes it difficult to perceive, as in that joke about one fish asking another ‘what’s water?’. This may explain why, in his brand-new list of ten pledges, Jeremy Corbyn makes no mention of ‘Brexit’. He’s already taken its existence for granted. Britain’s EU departure will dominate all that now takes place in British life, to the point where it will very soon be impossible to tell which problems are the fault of ‘Brexit’, which are due to permanent austerity and which can be attributed to immigration. Of course, according to the Government and The Sun and The Daily Mail, all existing problems will be due to immigrants (and Muslims). As the sociologist Nathan Combs says in his essay ‘Politics and Ontology after Brexit and Trump‘, oh sorry the link doesn’t work.

Epistemological-ness is do with Knowledge. Apart from Theresa May, no one knows what ‘Brexit’ is. And Theresa May doesn’t know either. It’s of epistemological significance that she doesn’t even believe in what she’s doing. ‘Brexit’ is thus an epistemological unknown, a known unknown unknown containing a number of other unknowns, a fetid fog of unknowing- and unknownness in which the only foghorn is the sound of Nigel ‘fucking’ Farage blaming you-know-whom. Perhaps, however, even at this very late stage, all is not lost: the Kennedy Institute has argued that ‘there is another, broadly epistemological, reason for a second referendum’, but unfortunately that link doesn’t work either.

Phenomenological. Hmm. ‘Brexit’, of course, can’t happen. It is and has always been impossible. So how will this impossible thing be realised? Current reports indicate that it’s being directed by a group of Tory MPs on Whatsapp. How will it be experienced? How will it manifest itself in our daily lives? The academic Steve Fuller reckons that “collateral damage will appear in the form of the riots in working class neighbourhoods which will take place once the non-elites who voted to leave the European Union realize that they were delivered on a plate from one set of elites to another”, but he’s a epistemologicalist so doesn’t belong in this paragraph.

Finally, just for the hell of it, because it’s a word everyone’s been bandying around in academica for the last few years, there’s the affective aspect. This explains why people voted the way they did. It also tells us how this came to happen. Millions of people felt unhappy with their lives and clever strategists played on their hate strings. As Dr Tim Haughton of the University of Birmingham explained, “The reason why the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union can be expressed in three words: ‘Take Back Control’. The Leave side used the alluring slogan repeatedly and relentlessly whereas the Remain side never coined a simple and affective slogan”.

So, that’s it then. A complete, if brief, existential, ontological, epistemological, phenomenological and affective guide to Brexit, with a bit of the old affect thrown in just for good measure. I hope it’s enlightened somebody. If you feel that this whole thing was misconceived, poorly executed and has been a total waste of your fucking time, I know exactly how you feel. I voted Remain.

Do you still think Putin is on the left?

So, you’re a progressive. You wanted Bernie Sanders to win the Presidential election and were disgusted to see how he was cheated out of the nomination. You were delighted to see that the underhand and frankly treacherous machinations of the Democrats backfired. Not that you wanted Trump to win, of course, but what the hell did they expect, and who’s to blame? Instead of promoting a program for change, they pushed the same corrupt, neoliberal, pro-corporate warmongering agenda that stained the Obama years.

In the case of Russia, you’re sick of all the misinformation and scaremongering. It’s not so long ago that the US was persecuting supposed Russian agents and ruining the lives of anyone considered a ‘red’. What’s changed? Pro-Clinton newspapers and TV networks are trying to make up for the terrible mistake they made in choosing a corrupt candidate by undermining a democratically elected Government – not one to your liking, obviously, but the only way to get rid of it is to choose a genuinely popular candidate with a proper radical agenda the next time round.

In any case, who believes what the mainstream media says any more? People can see through their fake news bullshit. There are alternative news sources, ones that let you know what’s really going on behind the scenes of this farce.

Personally you like Russia Today. It has some genuinely brave alternative voices, people like Max Keiser, Abby Martin, Glenn Greeenwald and Ed Schultz. You’ve come across people online – mostly shills for Clinton – who claim that it’s just a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. More russophobic propaganda, you think. Putin is demonised in the MSM but he’s a geopolitical pragmatist, and he also dares to challenge some of the most powerful interests on earth – NATO, the EU and the entire corrupt financial establishment in the form of families like the Rothschilds. That’s why he’s become the latest embodiment of evil. The disinformation in the so-called liberal Western media about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine has been particularly disgraceful.

It’s partly thanks to RT that you’ve been broadening your outlook, following political developments in other countries. The US is not the centre of the world! You thought it was a shame that Geert Wilders didn’t win the Dutch election. His call for the Netherlands to leave the EU and NATO was too dangerous for the political establishment and so he was painted as a racist and the sitting candidate (a right-wing neoliberal) was shoehorned back into power.

With Le Pen, you’re not so sure. You agree that there’s a problem with Islamic terrorism, and it’s one that the EU doesn’t seem to have a response to. But you also remember that she comes from a tradition (in her party and in her family) of fascist ideology, including holocaust denial. Now, you’re no fascist and you’re no antisemite. You oppose what Israel is doing with the settlements and the occupation – you’ve sometimes thought about going there to volunteer in some capacity – but you’ve certainly got nothing against Jewish people. Bernie Sanders himself is Jewish!

You open Facebook and there’s a post from Infowars (you enjoy hearing about what Alex Jones says about Clinton, but you avoid watching the vidoes where he goes on his syphilitic rants about Trump). The post has a photo which shows Vladimir Putin on the right, holding hands with an actual full-on holocaust-denying antisemite aspiring fascist demagogue to the left. Putin is (for him) smiling broadly.

And you? Where are you in this picture? Are you, as you have always assumed, on the left, or have you somehow ended up supporting the far-right?

It’s probably about time you stopped watching RT.

Some thoughts on language, education and class

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I spend my working life around people (students of English for Academic Purposes) who are insecure about their language use. That means I get to think and pontificate about issues of status, ownership and standard versus non-standard forms.

I can identify with the anxieties of my students, and not just as someone who has (in the past) enjoyed learning other languages. I’ve also long been self-conscious about my command over/of English. Like some of my students(,) I’m very sensitive about being corrected, tending to take corrections as a bit of a put-down rather than a chance to learn. The ego-insecurities I experience when expressing myself in other languages are clear manifestations of anxiety about my own status as an English-speaker.

Some of that anxiety is related to having a parent for whom English is a second language, and part is related to class. My background is not exactly humble but I was the first person in my family to go to university. Working in higher education feels like an achievement, but I’m vulnerable to a certain feeling of being out-of-place. Someone who came from a similar background was the critical theorist, academic and blogger Mark Fisher (aka k-punk), who wrote this in 2013 about the response of the ‘left’ to the comedian and actor Russell Brand’s famous interview with Jeremy Paxman about the need for revolution:

I’ve long been an admirer of Brand – one of the few big-name comedians on the current scene to come from a working class background…(His) forensic take-down of Paxman was intensely moving, miraculous; I couldn’t remember the last time a person from a working class background had been given the space to so consummately destroy a class ‘superior’ using intelligence and reason. (However) Brand was quickly judged and-or questioned by at least three ex-private school people on the left…It’s alarming how many ‘leftists’ seemed to fundamentally agree with the drift behind Paxman’s question: ‘What gives this working class person the authority to speak?’ It’s also alarming, actually distressing, that they seem to think that working class people should remain in poverty, obscurity and impotence lest they lose their ‘authenticity’. Someone passed me a post written about Brand on Facebook. The whole tone was horrifyingly high-handed, as if they were a schoolteacher marking a child’s work, or a psychiatrist assessing a patient. There’s also a shocking but revealing aside where the individual casually refers to Brand’s ‘patchy education [and] the often wince-inducing vocab slips characteristic of the auto-didact’ – which, this individual generously says, ‘I have no problem with at all’ – how very good of them! This isn’t some colonial bureaucrat writing about his attempts to teach some ‘natives’ the English language in the nineteenth century, or a Victorian schoolmaster at some private institution describing a scholarship boy, it’s a ‘leftist’ writing a few weeks ago.

Fisher himself wrote movingly about an episode when his own mother confided that she didn’t want to go into a Georgian teashop in a neighbouring town for High Tea because she was worried she would “do the wrong thing”:

We know this too, really, we felt it going on to University, feel it still, my sister and I, she with her anxiety around her middle-class friends whose parents are all teachers and doctors, me with my endless writing of novels I can’t bear to do anything with as it means engaging with them, having to make them like me, listen to their opinions of my work. But for us, half clambered out of our class as we are, we don’t find a Grange tea-room existentially threatening. She said it herself, my mum, and it immediately struck me, the disavowal, “some people get nervous in tea rooms, don’t they?

These are the wounds of class, ever-present, life-long. Knowing that you’re common, not good enough, not one of the decent people.

In the case of Russell Brand, faced with mass and social media sneers at his upstart activism and the ‘sub-undergraduate dross’ of his writings about politics, he retreated. He realised that if he wanted his right to discuss his concerns to be recognised, he would have to reeducate himself. He is now doing a three-year MA in Religion and Global Politics at SOAS, and is sharing his newly-acquired knowledge via a (frankly unmissable) podcast. In the first episode, an interview with the political philosopher Brad Evans on the theme of political violence, he gave what I think is an inspiringly honest account of how he arrived at this point and how it feels to be there:

“Being briefly in the academic world, as I have been, obviously loads of it’s really really exciting but I think a lot of what I hear feels reiterative, like someone says ‘what’s a country? It’s just an agreement in our minds, and I think, I knew that, anyway, those are things I’ve come to myself. But then there are things that are so complex I can’t begin to come to terms with them, and in this field I’m having to learn about political history, critical theory, philosophy, so I’m suddenly having to learn about Foucault, Derrida and all these other names I can’t even say confidently yet. And my original impulse for doing that course was, I got really deeply involved in the political world, and (…) I realised that this was a very complex world and I didn’t have the armoury, the artillery to engage in this battle. And I’ll like our listeners to be able to embark on this journey with me, so what do you think is a good entry point for someone like me who feels disillusioned with politics but doesn’t know quite where to begin on a journey of understanding?”

One theorist who Russell would find very useful in terms of issues of language, politics and class is Pierre Bourdieu. He relates that feeling of being out of one’s depth and beyond one’s station to what he calls ‘habitus’: the attitudes, mannerisms, tastes, moral intuitions and habits that influence our life chances. This behavioural comfort zone is a manifestation of our level of cultural capital. While Brand may have a high level of objectified cultural capital in the form of fame and wealth, his attempts to acquire institutionalised cultural capital (formal educational qualifications) are hindered by accent, which is a manifestation of embodied capital. In particular fields (for example in the academic world) it can be hard for individuals from a working-class background to obtain a “feel for the game” and to feel they should be (as it were) on the pitch.

This seems to me to be related to the experiences of people from ‘foreign’ language backgrounds in higher education. ‘Foreigners’ don’t automatically have a pre-assigned rung on the social ladder, and hence struggle to find an appropriate station even when they have a sufficient mastery of the language. I’ve been thinking about a friend of mine who has an excellent command of the spoken language and who knows things and can do things in it that I certainly couldn’t. I wonder how he views Brand, and how he relates to what Brand says about his own struggle to feel like a valid participant in the academic world. My friend recently dropped out of a university course he’d long dreamed of doing because he felt his English wasn’t up to writing long essays (I encouraged him to continue and offered to help, but to an apparent avail). In fact, I’m writing this to persuade him, others like him and also to remind myself that such feelings are very common and by no means insurmountable.

From outside, manifestations of social class are hard to perceive. English people know when to question someone’s intellectual credentials as soon as we/they hear us/them speak. To people who didn’t grow up here, vocal class markers are much harder to recognise. It may seem to my friend that all ‘English’ or British’ people are equally confident in higher educational settings, that they we all feel valid and accepted.

Perceptions of these issues inevitably differ, depending partly on one’s cultural and social background. Among my (mostly well-heeled) students, I’ve found that some people have a frustratingly monolithic understanding of the relationship between language and social status. The belief persists that the speech of some is simply inadequate. There’s also widespread misunderstanding of the relationship between spoken and written language, with some assuming that the former is a poor attempt to produce the latter. Inevitably, others have explored these issues far more articulately than I ever could.

As for myself, I always feel anxious when someone makes a jibe about someone(’s?) being ‘self-taught’. Everyone is, to some extent. Luckily (after three slightly wasted undergraduate years from which I was lucky to emerge with a 2;1), I eventually had the chance to go back to university and get a Master’s degree, an experience which greatly improved my sense of confidence in what I say and write. Having lived in other countries and struggled with other languages has also helped to bolster my self-assurance, as has teaching the spoken and written language for almost twenty years and spending several years examining others on their usage. In terms of writing, the internet has also helped enormously (what’s a good synonym for self-assurance? what are the three types of cultural capital again?).

Inevitably, for everything I write here, thousands of people are studying or have studied that subject in an academic context and are far better placed to provide evidence-based theories than I am. A lot of what I present here is hearsay and guesswork, but I content myself in the knowledge that this is after all just a blog. I’d like to think of myself as a polymath, but ultimately I’m more of a dilettante, and this is an appropriate format.

The wounds of class run deep, but then, as both Lynsey Hanley and Helen Mort have articulated brilliantly, the sense of discomfort at being stranded between classes, particularly at being a working class person in the more rarified echelons of higher education, can also be uncomfortable. Then there’s the opposite: chippiness and reverse snobbery, and then the reaction to chippiness and reverse snobbery. And so on.

I still lack confidence when sending people what I’ve written with a view to getting it published. To do so you have to be fairly bullish, and being rejected or ignored is always painful. Although some things I write get a very pleasing reaction, I have little way of knowing whether or not what I write is any good in terms of what matters, which is to be accepted as more-or-less an equal by those whose writing I admire. But at the same time, most of them are professional writers and/or academics, and I’m not, so it should, by rights, remain a pipe dream.

There remains one thing I want to make clear, for the sake of my own honesty and integrity. This piece may contain what some will regard as self-pity, and I wouldn’t really have much of an answer to such a charge. I had the chance to go to university, twice, without getting into debt, in my own language. My privileges in terms of education have, in comparison with most people in the world, been immense. I’m not a victim of disadvantage in any sense that means anything on a global scale. I’ve even, despite my manifold anxieties about my credibility as an English speaker and writer, and thanks largely to a mere accident of birth, managed to make a reasonable living as a teacher of my ‘native’ language. But I know that these feelings are not exclusive, and I hope a) that reading this has made clear some connections between class, status, nationality and language that may not have occurred to you before and b) that you find this sentence an appropriate way to end a piece of writing of this nature.

Who can mark themselves safe from the changing climate?

It would be beyond absurd to vaingloriously demand that the alacrity and visceral passion with which people repond to random violent attacks on cities they live in or regularly visit were extended to every single news report involving human suffering. I myself, although I don’t live in London at present, pass through Westminster regularly and I also have dozens of friends and former colleagues who could easily have been amongst those murdered. But.

The near-total indifference on social media to stories like this never ceases to be maddening and dispiriting. Social media has, as so many have eloquently explored of late, a collective mechanism for hiding from that which makes us most uncomfortable and constructing an alternative, simpler reality.

I understand why people mark themselves safe, and am glad to see friends and acquaintances do so. But who can mark themselves safe from the climate? Maybe by avoiding sharing, liking and commenting upon such stories we believe at some level that we are making ourselves immune. What we haven’t seen can’t affect us. It’s not part of our world. And how could we not be immune, given that we don’t regard ourselves as responsible?

As for the number 1 Twitter hashtag (#prayforlondon), if only we could ‘pray’ for the stability of our climate, or at least for the courage to try to preserve that stability. To quote Soren Kierkegaard, “the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays”. If only we would bring ourselves to at least reflect on the facts presented to us by (in this case) reponsible journalists and eminently trustworthy scientists, we might start to understand the connection between the prevalence of infinitely more deadly (if not so telegenic and instantaneous) climate disasters and our own (abdicated and disavowed) responsibility to make lifestyle choices and political commitments which ensured that humanity as a whole could be marked safe.

Terrorism is the evocation of fear for political purposes. My terror is that we are as a species incapable of responding to knowledge of our impending self-annihilation. The political and social consequences of such awareness appear to be too serious and too massive for us to accept. In the words of Philip Larkin, this is a special way of being afraid.

Thus: what is indifference to climate change (mine, yours, all of ours) but another form of terrorism? One which becomes no less frightening or threatening by virtue of our incessant muting and unfollowing of our knowledge of it? The fear just expresses itself in other ways. That, to me, is the main reason we are nowadays so given over to anger at others. It is an expression of frustration at our collective impotence, and as such it is the perfect fuel for fascism.

What’s the alternative? Start by reading this, and then post it all over your social media outlets.

Immediate consequences of the attack in London

​Marine Le Pen, bubbling with ebullience after talking to France 24 in appropiately forthright tones about the French students injured in the attack, has sent a triumphant text to her beloved papa and cracked open some decent champagne she was saving for just such a special occasion, while Nigel Farage, who was about to head home to whoever he’s using as a wife this month, has instead ordered another pint of IPA and starting to feel nicely settled in. Donald Trump is sitting on the Oval Office toilet with his iphone in his other hand, wondering what he can say to the cameras that will make him sound important, as if he really was President of the United States, and also hoping that whatever has happened won’t interfere with his golfing plans. Meanwhile, Theresa May is asking herself if this will mean she gets to go on playing at being Prime Minister for the time being, and also feeling a bit guilty whenever she hears the Houses of Parliament described in the news reports as the ‘home of democracy’, as she knows very well that what she’s planning to do next Wednesday will make (yet another) hollow mockery of such a claim. Throughout the United Kingdom friends and families are starting to receive messages and phone calls from which they will never quite recover, while all over the world middle managers of airline companies which fly in and out of the Middle East are wondering if they’re ever going to get to go home, kiss their kids goodnight and lie down to sleep off their nagging headaches.

That time I worked for a religious sect

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Of all the language schools I’ve worked for over the last 18 years, only one has gone on to help organise a military coup. The school in question (in North London) was part of a global network belonging to Fetullah Gülen, the Muslim sect leader accused of orchestrating the anti-Erdogan coup attempt in in Turkey July 2016.

I started working at the school in late 2007 and stayed for about nine months. At first I thought it was a normal school that just happened to be owned by Turks, but was intrigued when, upon learning who I was working for, several politically-minded Turkish people I met around that time reacted with outright revulsion. I also found out from a former student from Uzbekistan, who had been part of the group while studying in Ankara, that they had some connection with a group of terrorist fascists from the 1970s called the Grey Wolves. Turkish leftists told me that where Gülen’s movement had taken power in more remote areas they had imposed quite a strict version of Islam, and that then Mayor of Istanbul (A Gülen supporter) had recently banned beer-drinking in the street. Given that the job apparently involved potential for travel, I was quick to picture myself running round Chechnya with an AK47. It would make a refreshing change from teaching Korean design students and unemployed Italian graduates the language for sucking up to their bosses on their unpaid internships. In any case, I knew a little bit about the murkiness of Turkish politics (the Deep State, the Susurluk affair, the succession of military interventions to prevent a non-secular government being elected) and (especilaly since I’d never been to Turkey) I thought it would be a good way to learn more.

Nevertheless, rumours aside, the people I worked for all seemed very nice. They were good-natured and courteous and they plied me between classes with strong tea, sujuk, olives and overflowing fruits platters. The students (mostly men in their 40s) were also polite, attentive and motivated. They were also respectful of my role as a teacher, almost excessively so. They taught me a slightly mad Turkish proverb: ‘if you a teach me one thing, I will be your slave forever’.

As for politics, although I was on the lookout for any furtive radical inclinations, I didn’t detect any secret jihadi fervour. Their views seemed occasionally naive but certainly well-meaning. They were very excited about a conference which had just taken place in UCL on their work of their founder, with several leading academics and a number of UK parliamentarians. They talked a great deal about education, quoting Gülen himself on the need to open the minds of the young and to educate women. My boss told me that their organisation had recently been kicked out of Uzbekistan, with all the school closed down at a whim of the regime. We talked about the prospects for meaningful democracy in Central Asia (he had spent several years in Tashkent and I’d recently read Craig Murray’s book), and he said things would change once ‘our people’ were in charge. This set off a muted alarm bell, but he said it in an almost reassuring way, or at least as if he was a loyal employee of a corporation looking to expand its commercial domain.

My students (mostly from the organisation or there under its auspices) taught me a huge amount about 20th Century Turkish history. When it came to the Kurdish question they were sentimental and a little patronising, saying that the Kurds didn’t seem to understand what the Turkish State was trying to achieve, but they never seemed aggressive in their attitudes. At the same time, all of them were very enthusiastic about a  TV crime series called ‘Tek Türkiye’, which seemed to promote a quite brutal model of policing. I did recognise a strain of nationalism but it didn’t strike me as untypical or remotely fanatical.  

Where differences in our worldviews emerged, they were always conciliatory. They were sympathetic to the new Government (Erdogan’s party was then called the APK) and their apparent progressivism seemed to reflect what I was reading in the press about his more enlightened form of Sunni Islam. An article appeared in the Guardian which reported on Erdogan’s relationship with the then Spanish Prime Minister Jos’e Luis Zapatero and the Turkish PM’s mission to create “a 21st century form of Islam, fusing Muslim beliefs and tradition with European and western philosophical methods and principles”.

When it came to the classes, there was a slight clash between my expectations and those of my Academic Director, as his formal approach conflicted with my then teaching ‘style’. This involved my being attentive to whatever came up and exploiting learning affordances, or, if I was hungover, then same thing in far less high-falutin words. He asked me more than once for a complete booklet of the week’s activities in advance, which at that time was a bit like asking me to conduct the course in 13th Century Japanese. Luckily he didn’t insist.

I also taught a group of teachers from Turkey, who were among the smartest and wittiest students I’ve yet had the pleasure to teach. Another memorable student was a 14-year-old from Rotterdam. He had clearly grown up deep within a conservative Turkish immigrant milieu and, horrified at my suggestion that Turkey, like anywhere else,  had a fair share of gay people, argued back that not only did Turkey have no gay people, his adopted homeland (The Netherlands, lest we forget) didn’t have any either.

While few of them did or said anything to shock and offend me, I can’t say I was always as well-behaved. Once, given widespread confusion over the meaning of the word ‘speech’, despite my miming and trying to get them to name any famous speeches that Atatürk had made, I decided to draw upon my, well, drawing skills (which are non-existent but come in handy sometimes for comedy purposes). I drew a picture of someone who looked a bit like Mussolini (I couldn’t remember what the Father of Modern Turkey looked like), stuck a fez on his head (er…), and gave him a speech bubble reading ‘blah, blah, blah’ with a couple of umlauts and cedillas floating around in it. I thought it was an efficient means of communicating my point, and it certainly got their attention. In the mid-morning break students from other classes crowded into the room to admire my artwork. One of them, clearly awestruck at my mastery of desin, remarked with not atypical Turkish gravity, ‘In Turkey…you die’. My elevated position of Respected Knower Of All Things seemed to have stood me in good stead and my life was spared.

The bigoted Dutch/Turkish teenager wasn’t typical of the 2nd-generation immigrants I met. I also taught a pair of 13-year-old German/Turkish brothers who I would happily place in my personal top 10 of funniest-and-most-charming-people-I’ve-ever-taught. Their mother would send me daily meals of ichli kurfter and other treats. The brothers were part of a group mostly made up of 15 or so very sweet kids from Turkmenistan. I suspect that in their three weeks in the UK me and my fellow teachers were the only locals they spoke to, such were they shepherded around. They left me with enough CDs and postcards of their country to suggest they’d brought enough to go round everyone in London.

When those groups weren’t around I was just left with the local staff of the Gülen organisation. Occasionally someone who I’d been teaching for several months would disappear, and upon probing I would learn that he had been relocated overnight to Nigeria or Russia. What they were doing in London apart from gamely fielding my inquiries about Turkish politics and struggling with the present perfect continuous was a bit of a mystery. I knew that there was some sort of fundraising which involved Turkish businesses, but I let myself believe that the invitations they were making to local kebab shops to contribute to the cause weren’t too forceful. They also had some vague relationship to the movement’s (leading national) newspaper ‘Zaman’ (Time).

As it happened, my Uzbek friend had come back into contact with members of the Movement, and, down on his luck, gone to stay in one of their houses for a few weeks. This involved getting up to pray at 5am and having very lengthy debates about which food products from Lidl could be considered Halal, but no apparent talk to the need to violently overthrow the state.

The managers of the school were ambitious. They wanted me to get them up to British Council inspection standard in a few months, but with only the occasional proper class it was a forlorn hope. By the autumn of 2008 it was clear it wasn’t going to happen, at least not for the time being. Even sending people down to Oxford Street to hand out leaflets for free classes wasn’t working. The school closed soon after and the premises were given over to a company promoting educational tourism.

I’ve vaguely followed developments since then. At some point Gülen broke away from Erdogan to the point where he and his group became public enemy number 1. The coup last summer shocked me and others I know who have had contact with them in the past, but it did put me in mind of that comment made by my boss about Uzbekistan. I don’t know if Hizmet (the more recent name for the movement, meaning ‘the Service’) shares Erdogan’s evident leanings towards Isis, or at least his willingness to use them to suit his strategic ends with regard to the Kurds. I suspect not, and the circumstances of the split suggest (without wanting to be either naive or cynical) that some principles were at stake. If those pleasant, courteous and seemingly very sweet people I taught over the course of those few months are also supporters of the most brutal forms of political violence (as the Turkish state alleges), there’s clearly something about life, people and the world which I haven’t understood.

EFL worksheet: Russell Brand’s new podcast

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The British standup comedian and political gobbermouth Russell Brand has gone back to school (well, university) (well, SOAS) to learn more about politics, and he’s sharing his new knowledge in the form of an excellent new podcast in which he (making the most of his celebrity connections) interviews leading figures from areas related to religion and global politics. This lesson uses the first episode, which is an interview with the political philosopher Brad Evans called ‘Can we really stop terror?’. It will work well with upper-int(+)/advanced EFL/ESOL students with an interest in  global issues and also with EAP/IELTS classes.

Worksheet

  1. Preparing to listen

On your phone or tablet, google the following to find out who or what they are and then compare notes with a partner:

Russell Brand                      Ed Miliband             Brad Evans               SOAS

Now see if you can find anything they have in common.

  1. Podcast – gapfill

Try to identify the missing words. Remember that a) you won’t be able to understand every word and b) you don’t need to!

Part 1 (0.50 – 8.43)

  1. I’m doing a three-year __________ in Religion and Global Politics.
  2. His work introduced me to the relationship between governments and _________.
  3. …the sudden lurch to the __________ as demonstrated by Brexit and the rise of Trump.
  4. I realized this was a very complex world and I realized I didn’t have the artillery to engage in this __________.
  5. What do you say to someone like me who feels __________ with politics but doesn’t know quite where to begin?
  6. Our power to change the world is still __________ to these nationalistic models.
  7. We feel __________ because we know change is not going to happen through those kinds of mechanisms.
  8. One of the purposes of an academic is to ask how we can __________ the right types of questions.
  9. What is the historical __________? What makes this moment this moment?
  10. Why is it that we often put the blame on the __________ of the most vulnerable?

Now check your answers with your partner.

Part 2 (8.43 – 17.57)

  1. There is no such thing as Muslim __________ separate from US imperialism.
  2. The term terror has a much broader historical __________.
  3. If you look at the old colonial seafaring powers, they had the __________.
  4. On the one hand you had powers trying to establish __________.
  5. The best way to understand any political regime is to understand the relationships of __________ that it’s engaged in.
  6. Liberalism says it has a __________ over these terms – universality, rights, security, justice – but it doesn’t.
  7. He doesn’t stipulate one precise point about what this shared universal __________ system actually looks like.
  8. The idea that liberalism can transform the world for the better is __________.
  9. People are denied the most fundamental political right, which is the right to __________.
  10. You have these impoverished communities who are taught by the media and people like __________ to fear these people who are deeply vulnerable.

Now check your answers with your partner.

Part 3 (17.57 – 26.07)

  1. Whose story is the __________ story, and how do they get to maintain it?
  2. You get people to __________ the conditions they should find intolerable.
  3. Global capitalism today doesn’t require __________ of the world’s population.
  4. Why doesn’t that idea get __________ more?
  5. People are working in such __________ environments today, they can just turn on the TV and be filtered a message which is comforting to them.
  6. It’s what the late Zygmunt Bauman called ‘__________’.
  7. We live in an age of what I’ve called ‘__________’.
  8. You have to __________ them from trying to achieve the kind of lifestyles that we’ve been selling to them.
  9. The ways in which certain elites are operating is having __________ consequences for people on the planet.
  10. One of the questions we need to ask is ‘where is the __________?’.

Now check your answers with your partner.

  1. Discussion

Now you’re going to have a conversation about what you’ve heard. Think on your own for two minutes about the following question:

How does the conversation relate to a) your life b) your country c) your view of the world?

You can take some notes if you wish. Look up or ask your teacher for any vocabulary you might need.

Now get into a group of three or four and compare your reactions to the podcasts for ten minutes. One person in the group will need to report back to the whole class on what is said so they need to write down any interesting points. Remember that you don’t have to agree with each other – if you have different points of, explore them, but remember that this isn’t Facebook – be respectful!

Homework

Using your phone, either with a classmate or on your own, make a 5-minute podcast in which (similarly to what you just did in class) you talk about your reaction(s) to the podcast. You might want to listen to the rest of the podcast before you start, but you don’t have to.

HEALTH WARNING: You might find the ambivalence of your students upon hearing that 60-70% of the world’s population is surplus to the requirements of global capitalism somewhat dispiriting.

Why I don’t like the word ‘expat’

expat_immigrant_linguisticpulse1The piece I wrote two days ago (‘A warning to all expats in Rome!!!’was mischievous and frivolous but was also intended to make a serious point. It sought to draw attention to the fact that people who call themselves expats are also immigrants, just ones who enjoy – and, crucially, don’t tend to question – certain privileges. It therefore provoked a furious reaction from people whose status as ‘expat’ is one of the most important aspects of their self-identification.

The post was partly motivated by my genuine surprise at how many people here in Rome wear this badge with pride. I guess (and I’m aware that I am generalising enormously) that Rome has something in common with Paris, in that both cities tend to attract the kind of people depicted in later Woody Allen films: urbane, mobile and well-heeled North Americans and middle class ‘Brits’ attracted by the postcard romance of the place but with little actual commitment to or knowledge of the society they’ve chosen to make home. The prevalence of self-declared expats here contrasts with previous places I’ve lived in. In Portugal the only people who were happy to be called expats lived on the Algarve and played golf or lived in Lisbon and were part of rugby clubs. In a Spanish context I immediately think of monolingual retirees on the Costa del Sol. In Mexico I only heard the word in relation to places like Puerto Vallarta and San Miguel de Allende. Most people I’ve known there and elsewhere wouldn’t call themselves expats. It’s not cool to be an expat and I think there are good reasons why this is the case.

I want to make clear that I know and respect some lovely people who may call choose to label themselves expats. I also enjoy the work of the Canadian graphic novelist Guy Delisle, who depicts beautifully the tribulations and contradictions involved in moving to distant countries with his wife every couple of years. It’s also true that those who try too hard to fit in, disavowing entirely their own background, can be deeply annoying.  While I have little problem with individuals who call themselves expats, when it’s manifested in a cluster, the expat mentality starts to look ugly and sound really quite whiny and arrogant. Facebook groups are rarely nice places to hang out, but anyone interested in how unpleasant the expat worldview can get is well-advised to temporarily sign up to one called ‘Expat Moans’. It’s hard to read more than three posts in such a group without getting a distinct whiff of actual racism.

Does that mean I’m calling all those who describe themselves as ‘expats’ racist? No, of course not. But with the help of this Guardian article, I want to enumerate those things about the category ‘expat’ which make me feel uncomfortable. I must also say that a) I’ve been guilty of several of these things in the past and b) that I’m trying to characterise a way of thinking and behaving. This is not written as an attack on a particular group of individuals. I’m also conscious that some of these criticisms are made of immigrants in general; I hope it’s clear that I am not presenting them here in such a way.

These are the features of the ‘expat’ attitude that I find distasteful:

1. A belief that whiteness and westernness makes one exempt from social responsibilities. Some expats engage very little with what’s going on around them in their host society -paying no attention to local and national news, for example.

2. A failure or refusal to recognise one’s privileged position and its historical roots.

3. A disavowal of one’s status as immigrant, to the point of failing to express solidarity with less privileged foreigners. A lot of so-called expats would not be inclined to express solidarity with the plight of immigrants if they had stayed in their own country.

4. A political identification with local elites, including the taking-on-board of class-based and racist prejudices.

5. A failure and/or refusal to integrate and learn the language. This is particularly prevalent among English-speaking expats. It’s both fortuitous (in terms of finding work) and unfortunate (in terms of encouraging our sense of superiority)  that our belief in the centrality of our language is shared by people all over the world.

6. An attitude of being a permanent tourist, continuing to treat the host society as little more than a source of photo opportunities: charming but without substance.

7. Some expats have a tendency to complain about what surrounds them – particularly service and services – but without seeking to understand the social, political and economic context.

8. In a lot of cases, expats live at a distance in economic terms, only frequenting ‘international’ establishments. It is also common for self-declared expats to inhabit a cultural and social bubble in which they only mix with others of their kind. I’m not just talking here about corporate immigrants – the same is definitely true for many who work for international NGOs and the UN. The Green Zone extended far beyond Baghdad.

9. An uncritical attitude towards one’s own country. Expats often think of themselves as enjoying a temporary absence from an unchanging homeland which will always welcome them back.  In the case of both Brexit and Trump, this complacency has been cruelly exposed. The post-1992 tide of open European borders is retreating, and it may well leave some long-standing emigrants in EU countries stranded.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and I’m aware that in relation to any given individual’s set of circumstances some of it may be unfair. For example, having lived in China and spent time in Thailand, I understand that there are some countries in which immersion in the host society is infinitely more demanding in terms of time and effort. The language is much harder to learn and the culture much more difficult to get to grips with, making it so much more difficult to participate in social life unless one has sent a substantial portion of one’s life there. In other countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, expats are servants of the elite, little more than a caste of privileged servants, and as such are more socially dependent on their English-speaking patrons. Increasingly, many countries have a preexisting infrastructure to facilitate the expat lifestyle. Mike Davis’ book ‘Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism’ reports on the iconic example of modern Managua, where a high-speed road network  whizzes elite citizens and visitors between the business district, the gated communities and the airport, leaving poorer parts of the city untouched and deteriorating. The annual Mercer Survey of the world’s ‘most expensive cities’ is a regularly bizarre read, featuring locations such as Luanda and Kinshasa in the top 10. While life for most people in those cities is certainly a struggle, the survey isn’t about them, but the Randian superheroes who (or whose companies) think nothing of spending $100,000 on a prime apartment in the most desirable areas.

Are people from the Philippines expats? Or from Bangladesh? What about Senegal? In a way, given that so many people from those countries work abroad out of necessity, it would be nice to think they were part of the club. However, it’s hard to imagine the average British financial services worker in Dubai regarding her pool cleaner as part of the same social class. In the case of the Italian expat Facebook groups, the members are almost exclusively white Americans and ‘Brits’. There’s little direct racism but a lot of griping about Italy and the Italians, and little solidarity with African or Arab victims of Italian racism. As for the Expat Moans group, it’s a bit like a vision of what Facebook would have been like in the middle of the 19th century. I know that similar dynamics operate in the French and Portuguese-speaking worlds, and similar attitudes are probably expressed among highly-paid Chinese workers in African countries.

I earlier mentioned the historical roots of expat privilege. If we want to (as we must) make an effort to understand where those roots lie, we have to talk about colonialism and imperialism, that ‘corner of a foreign field’ that is to be regarded as part of the metropole. This is our history as westerners. It’s helpful – indeed, as a white Westerner living abroad, essential – to be aware of the critiques of writers such as Camus, Fanon, and Orwell if we want to be aware of our implicit modes of thinking and behaving in relation to the world around us. We are hardwired to regard poorer societies in a condescending and/or hostile way and to expect that the locals defer to our needs, our values and our lifestyles. for centuries we have been taught to believe that we have an automatic right to be spoilt. As I mentioned earlier, the English language in particular encourages this mentality. It’s common now to hear references to ‘international’ food as opposed to national cuisine, and it’s not implausible that this way of thinking extends to people. Those who call themselves expats aspire to belong to a global elite in a world increasingly divided along lines of mobility, between those who can live and work wherever they want and those whose movement is, by dint of class or birth, infinitely more restricted.

Calling oneself an ‘expat’ encourages a certain mentality and way of behaving, a sense of superiority and entitlement which we have to be vigilant of and challenge in ourselves and others. At a time when immigrants are being scapegoated, locked up and deported around the world, from LA to Rome to London, all migrants – regardless of the colour of our passports – have an absolute moral duty to stand up for one another.

(P.s. Anyone still inclined to think that there is no difference between how the words ‘expats’ and immigrants’ are used is well-advised to do a google image search for both terms.)