…as I take part in the Thomas Pynchon podcast.
One of the most bizarre moments of my teaching career was when a whole class of Portuguese students complained to the Director of Studies because they’d paid tens of thousands of escudos for a ‘native’ teacher and had been assigned a Glaswegian. The conversation in which it was explained to them that Scotland is an English-speaking country apparently a little awkward but the cause of much subsequent staffroom mirth. If there’s one thing EFL students love more than talking about their driving tests, it’s complaining about the range of accents that people (uh?) the English-speaking world. Two popular sources of confusion are Indian accents (which sometimes smacks a bit of racism, given that India is partly an English-speaking country, so get used to it) and Scottish wans. It’s useful but sometimes fruitless to point out in response that by no means everyone from Scotland sounds like Rab C. Nesbitt. Although doing so by first explaining who Rab C. Nesbitt is tends to complicate things still further.
I decided to take on the task of challenging the notion that Scottish accents are hard to decipher, and have enlisted the help of Glasgow comedian Limmy, who in 2006 introduced the world to a cast of inimitable characters from that deer green city. I have chosen three clips with three of those characters and prepared some compehension questions which will, with a little guidance from you the teacher, enable your students to see through the mist of culturally-conditioned prejudice and grasp the gist, the details and the subtext of the monologue in question.
N.B. One or two of the videos include(s) the occasional example of raw or vernacular language.
- Who was ‘Sandy’?
- Why did John Paul dial 1471?
- What did he then tell his friend Craig?
- How long did he wait before calling the woman back?
- What did he say to the woman the second time he calls?
- What did the woman do to try to stop him calling her, and why doesn’t it work?
- How long did John Paul then wait before calling her back?
- What happened in the end?
- What was ‘D-Day’?
- What sort of company was BAMN Concepts?
- What did Benjamin send the client?
- What question did Benjamin ask himself?
- Who did he call, and what did he ask them to do?
- What did the people of Glasgow find graffiteed all over their city on Monday morning?
- What made news of the campaign go global?
- What were the consequences for everyone involved?
- What kind of event did Jacqueline decide to go to?
- Why did the organisers take her photo?
- Why did she feel awkward about what she was wearing?
- What happened at 8.30?
- How long would the partners have to talk to each other?
- What did Jacqueline start to explain to her partner?
- How many partners did she dance with altogether?
- Was the night out a success?
“Isn’t that Ninjah?”
My companion laughs. Everyone in Cardiff knows Ninjah, and when I mention him the response is always the same. As soon as I’d said that I’d be spending a couple of months here a friend of who knows the city told me I must look out for him. I listened to his somewhat madcap first album, watched a couple of videos in which he entertained people on of the city’s main thoroughfares by banging percussively on some bins, and started following his escapades on Facebook. And it is him, cycling towards us, half an hour after I arrived. I tell my friend about it and he’s surprised it took me so long to bump onto him.
The area I’m staying in is called Splott. When I got off the coach and told the taxi driver where we were going, his unenthusiastic response told me it held something of interest, and as we were driving along one of is narrow streets or tiny terraced houses I saw a mural proclaiming pride in the area. It’s clearly economically and socially deprived, but not lacking in curiosity or character. Or indeed controversy, starting with its bathetic name. There’s an apocryphal tale that it derives from ‘God’s plot’. In a more contemporary attempt to talk up where he lives, the landlord of my Airbnb place prefers to refer to it as /spləʊ/. In addition to the name, it’s got quite an involved history. Apparently a lot of Irish move there in the late 19th century, taking refuge from the famine. Clashes with the local Presbyterian population ensued. As a legacy of that period, Splott still has quite a collection of churches. They were joined by a number of factories, including a steelworks and brewery and, at one point, a university for disadvantaged youth. Both the steelworks and the brewery shut down in the late 1970s.
Shirley Bassey grew up in Splott and started to make her name there, singing in the local pubs, of which there used to be dozens. Now there are two or three. There is very little passing trade to bolster the dwindling disposable income of the locals. When I set foot into one of them, one of the drinkers mentions Deliverance. The place in question is a amiable, run-down, drinking barn, with a handful of local men getting properly drunk to the jukeboxes and and looking forward to the karaoke on Friday. The patrons are welcoming and happy to talk, sharing tales of long days in insecure jobs.
The effect of two-thirds of a decade of ‘savage cuts’ (thanks Nick) are very visible. Local churches have regular and well-attended food banks. A couple of years ago the cash-strapped council shut down a popular swimming pool, provoking furious protests. Along with the pride, there’s defiance, as seen in the drive-by gestures of the mobility scooter owners in this locally-filmed video (directed, as it happens, by Ninah). It shows off the Magic Roundabout, which marks one end of Splott. The area is hard to walk to and around. When, on my third day, a church collapsed, the ensuing detours made it even more isolated. Still, while the tragedy ruined my sole attempt to get to work by bus, it did make it even easier to talk to people. On my way home from an exploration of the remaining local pubs (which mostly involved conversations about all the pubs which have closed), people asked me for directions, which was quite entertaining.
Splott is probably not dissimilar to a lot of smaller towns in Wales or the north of England. There may even be areas of Sheffield (my hometown) which are comparable. On June 23rd last year, Cardiff voted to remain in the EU, but I can see why Wales as a whole rebelled. Whatever Vince Cable and (oh yes!) Nick Clegg have to say on the matter, you can’t separate the Brexit vote from the increasingly dire conditions in which so many are forced to live. Splott is clearly struggling but by no means the worst. While for some life seems to revolve around the acquisition and consumption of cans of beer, the takeaways are mostly old-school Chinese rather than fried chicken, and although there are some betting shops (which may well help explain the disappearance of the pubs) there isn’t a Ladbrokes and Paddy Power and another Ladbrokes on every corner. That may well change. After all, once the safety net is torn down, people will grab at anything in the attempt to survive.
There’s quite a contrast with the city centre, which seems to have been refurbished to suit the assumed requirements of slumming premier league footballers. On a Sunday afternoon it proved impossible to find somewhere to eat that was neither a sports bar or part of a chain, those gargantuan blinged-up all-you-can-eateries which only justify the extortionate prices if you eat enough for a week. Cardiff Bay is nice to look at and from, but it’s a shame that it has the exact same seven or eight franchised restaurants, thought to attract the right kind of consumers. It’s a pity when other parts of the city have so much character.
The local market, once I track it down, proved to be one of those places which take place in a car park and specialise in cans of vehicle spraypaint and hefty bacon sandwiches. Easy to disparage, perhaps, but it’s what people most need on a Saturday morning, and you can set out your own stall for only £7 a day. It’s a shame the council clearly does nothing to promote it or to maintain the premises. The wrong kind of enterprise, the wrong kind of consumer. It seems I stood out in my overcolourful shirt (passing comment from stallholder: “I didn’t know we were in fucking Bermuda!“), because when I asked someone about other markets around town, after a couple of references to local landmarks which met with blank looks, he uttered the (for me) delightful phrase “You’re not British, are you?”. Regular readers of this blog will understand my joy on being asked this. As it happens, I wouldn’t actually mind being Welsh, although of course I’m not really anything more than a tourist. If you want to know more about Splott, this is an excellent place to look.
In these days of diabolical heat and biblical drought I find refreshment in my memories of late Auguest/early September, when in just five days I walked in its entirety (wow!) a tiny part of (oh…) the Camino de Santiago or St John’s Way in northern Spain. I would have loved to do the whole 800km and end up in Galicia, but I only had a few days left out of my annual break from my largely inane life in London. I also, unbeknownst to me, had a date with destiny in early October, which my soulful sojourn perhaps served to prepare me for. Plus after 150km or so I had a blister so big I could no longer get my walking boot on.
I firmly recommend the Camino to anyone seeking focus and/or fun in their life. You can keep your buddhist meditation retreats, quaker spiritual awakening weekends and hallucinogenic bonding sessions deep in the Guyanese jungle: I found the whole 5-day trip from St Jean Pied de Port through the Pyrenees via Pamplona to Estella an exhilarating pilgrimage. As I greeted and was greeted by everyone I met over those five or so days, buen camino.
Being a two-legged being from a city bordered by an abundance of peaks and valleys, I’d always taken an interest in walking as a pastime, and some of my favourite books involve long solitary journeys on foot: The Snow Leopard, Exterminate all the Brutes, The Wisdom of Donkeys. Although I’d not come across it at the time, subsequently reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust (a history of walking as a leisure pursuit, as an act of rebellion, as a means of exploring the mind as much as the world) reminded me that as a kid I would take myself off on long solitary walks to clear my head and always return home with new obsessions, the result of new paths stamped into my brain, new connections. Walking and thinking have a huge amount in common.
Although I expected to spend a lot of the camino trudging along on my seul. As it happened I wasn’t alone, but part of an adhoc community united by the ritual of perambulting through a series of pleasant settings towards a daily common goal. The act of falling into step and keeping the same diurnal and nocturnal rhythms served to bond us all together as we caught up with and were caught up by feet attached to faces that soon became familiar. In the process, legends about other walkers quickly emerged. One was of a Finn who had apparently walked all the way from Lapland without a word of any other language. It was a moment of great excitement when, having come across him in one of the hostels, I was able to introduce him to some other Finns I’d met, two psychologists from Helsinki, who later told me (in their habitually deadpan manner) that he was kind of pähkinöitä.
There was an austerity to where we all slept, in bunk beds in sometimes rudimentary single-sex dormitories. Getting used to the physicality of others was a salutary experience: the rising and falling Stockhausian chorus of smells, snores and farts. As an erstwhile revolutionary who has never done military service it made me think of the barracks of a very benign and slightly decrepid army. Particularly for those who were walking as a means of escaping the labyrinth of their own daily existence, there did also seem to be an element of very mild self-flagellation.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the walk involved languages. I’d never had the opportunity to follow an intensive language course, and this was a multilingual ambulatory version. I spent the day chatting to Germans, Brazilians, Italians, French speakers and hispanohablantes. It’s easier to talk honestly and, it seems, accurately while walking unhurriedly, a lot less restricting than sitting on a couch or in a classroom. I subsequently incorporated this insight into my teaching, although getting students to swap shoes was never an unbounded success.
Some of the people who I met I might have taken a dislike to in ordinary circumstances. Not all the mild-to-devout Catholics I met were liberation theorists. We instinctively steered clear of topics which might put us off our stride. On the second night, sharing a quiet drink with an Irish musician I’d spent the afternoon walking with, I remarked on just how loud and annoying was the voice of a South African guy whose argument with his mum we could hear in full detail from over 100 metres away. The following day I fell into step and conversation and found him to be full of voluble wit and charisma. Such experiences became an ongoing (and much needed) lesson in not judging other people. (This blog could be taken as evidence that it didn’t stay with me for long.) We soon formed a group consisting of an Austrian woman, an English guy and two Israelis. Their friendliness and charm of the latter was something I decided to take at face value despite the fact that they were both ex-IDF and not ashamed of it. I felt that it should in some ways of a problem, but I was unsure of if and how to make it one. In almost all certainty they had done horrendous things to Palestinians, but I absolutely did not want to become infamous as the guy who stood in the middle of the path shouting abuse at those nice Israeli men. I tried to overcome my own impression of being subjected to hasbara by developing a gentle but sardonic dialogue over the politics of the situation and their part in it. Their sense of irony was bayonet-sharp, and so such attempts to broach the subject of Palestine mostly involved twisted, dark humour. Late one night I embarked on a willfully tortuous late-night analogy involving some sheep in a neighbouring field and incursions by a notional pack of wolves. It was a briefly sobering moment, in that it was hard to see how we could continue to be friends once we’d departed from the path. Aside from their skills at blowing up people’s homes and bullying commuters, their ability to mock the absurdly overblown melodrama of the camino-set movie The Way, which they’d seen and I hadn’t, was peerless.
Away from the constant interference of phones and in a climate conducive to strolling and reflection, I thought about how other people’s weaknesses and culpabilities are so easy to spot, whereas our own tend to occupy a blind spot. I always criticise others for over-depending on their phones, or moan about my students’ refusal to talk about climate change, whereas in fact those things are largely projections of my own anxiety about my own failings. Around that time I was engaged in an intensive phase of the deeply individualistic (and not a little narcissistic) pursuit of internet dating, which involves a constant process of superficial self-examination: how do I present and promote myself to others? The experience of coming into such close proximity with a range of flesh-and-blood humans with whom I ostensibly had little in common was one I found therapeutic. Unlike so much of online life in the attention economy, there was nothing competitive about our interactions, but rather a shared purpose, a communal ethos. Some of that was established by the phatic salutations we exchanged with everyone regardless of who they were or where they’d been. We all shared a destination and a route.
Buen camino. Buen camino. Buen camino. Solnit recommends walking as a form of meditation, and that was its mantra. By contrast, I’d recently read a nonsensical article which argued that writing greetings at the beginning and end of emails was a waste of time and energy. The argument seemed to exemplify a turning away from the social, a retreat into solipsism. The few days I spent walking towards Santiago was an antidote to such introversion. Perhaps if it hadn’t been for that experience, I wouldn’t have recognised in its full potential the moment of serendipity that took place just two three weeks later, on October 5th 2011 to be precise, when I fell into step with a stranger I felt I’d already known for some time. As Solnit says, walking has a lot in common with writing, and as I inscribe myself into the landscape of memory by writing this down, I can see that walk as the passing of a border which separated the person I had been from the person I would become. There’s a miraculous line of footsteps that leads from August 27th 2011, when I first set foot on the Camino de Santiago, via that evening in the Candid Café in Islington three weeks later, to January 30th 2017, which is the day our daughter was born. Buen camino a todos.
The world has been rocked to its core by the revelation that, contrary to all its previous claims, the Trump campaign did indeed have direct contact with individuals it knew to be directly connected to the Russian Government and who offered to provide it with information damaging to Hillary Clinton. The document in question was posted on the Wikileaks Twitter account a mere 25 minutes after Donald Trump Jr had shared it on his own Twitter feed. In a series of further revelations from Wikileaks, it has also been divulged that:
- The Titanic was sunk by an iceberg.
- There is very little actual chicken in KFC chicken products.
- The terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks is called Al Qaeda.
- Julian Assange doesn’t want to be put on trial for rape
- Bonn is no longer the capital of Germany
- Barack Obama was not born in Kenya
- Bears shit in wooded areas
- The Pope is not a protestant
- Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails didn’t actually expose any serious wrongdoing
- While Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are heroes, Julian Assange is a bit of a fucking joke
- Wikileaks aren’t very good at hacking
- Vladimir Putin used to work for the KGB
Polar bears are not actually white.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange appealed to world governments, civil society organisations and media outlets to act immediately on the revelations by helping him get out of the cupboard he’s lived in for several years so he can get to Moscow and recieve some sort of medal without having to pass through Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning on several charges of rape.
Numerous Conservative MPs have rallied round their colleague, Ann Marie Morris, who is reported to have uttered the highly offensive phrase ‘n***** in the woodpile’ in a speech at a public event about Brexit.
The first to rush to her defence was recently reelected Richmond MP Zac Goldsmith, who commented: “It’s quite simply a word I use all the time. We have an open fire in the main living room, and round the back of my mansion there’s a pile of firewood. When it’s cold, I have some of the servants fetch some wood and build a fire. It’s not an offensive term”.
When pressed as to whether he thought it was appropriate for politicians to use the other word in the phrase, commonly referred to as the N-word to avoid offence, Mr Goldsmith was nonplussed.
“I don’t even see why it’s called the N-word”, he responded. “It begins with ‘i’, for a start. It’s merely a prepo…”
At this point our reporter was obliged to clarify. When the nature of the word was explained to Mr Goldsmith, he was silent for almost two minutes. Eventually an aide (subsequently identified as his brother Ben) intervened and whispered something in his ear. Mr Goldsmith looked perplexed. A hushed conversation then took place, during which the MP seemed to grow agitated. He appeared to be seeking some sort of clarification from the aide, but further explanations only seemed to puzzle him even more. Upon moving closer to the conversation, our reporter was able to distinguish words such as ‘darkies’ and ‘coloureds’. After several minutes one of Mr Goldsmith’s butlers politely asked us to depart the premises. He explained that Mr Goldsmith was suddenly indisposed as he had been “working like a n*****” all week” and had to urgently prepare a speech for a Bring Back Slavery event at the Commonwealth Club the following Thursday.
In a subsequent email the MP for Richmond apologised for having cut short his interview. In relation to the question of his colleague’s remarks, he stressed that he saw “nothing racialist about the word ‘the'”, and said he hoped the whole issue would soon disappear, “like a n….. in a blackout”.
When asked for a response to Goldsmith’s own potentially inflammatory use of language, Prime Minister Theresa May said it would not derail her plans to appoint him Secretary of State for Race Relations in The Colonies in the upcoming reshuffle. As for Mrs Morris, she said, the prime minister herself would, in her capacity as leader of the Conservative, Unionist and Obviously Racist Party, soon be making a formal apology on the MP’s behalf to any woodpiles who “may have taken offence” at the use of the term.
I’ve always rejected out of hand the notion that the political spectrum is a horseshoe, that the far-right and far-left are close to one another in various ways. However, what I’ve seen in Facebook groups on both sides of the Atlantic is that the far-right is stealthily digging a tunnel in order to insinuate its ideas into the far-left and beyond.
This mostly takes the form of memes promoting conspiracy theories which target ‘privileged elites’. Superficially persuasive videos blame (most commonly) the Rothschild family (a long-standing anti-semitic canard) and The Vatican for the world’s chaos and corruption. Such videos are distributed by sites which a moment’s investigation reveals to be teeming in pro-Putin/Trump and climate denial material. However, the conspiratorial tone in which they are presented is like catnip to online audiences desperate for easy explanations of troubling but confusing events.
Conspiracy thinking has often been called ‘the poor man’s ideology‘. It’s easier to understand the notion that a secretive group of powerful people controls the world than it is to pick apart the myriad ways in which capitalism preserves itself as a chaotic but impersonal system, in terms of both interacting repressive institutions and also via conservative ideas which circulate at every level – including the ideas that we ourselves hold.
It’s also deeply comforting to think that someone, somewhere is in charge, partly because it lets our own roles in preserving that system off the hook. The problem is always other people’s corruption and venality, none of which can even be addressed directly because They Control Everything. This enables the consumer of conspiracy theories to do nothing but read, watch and share the hidden truth, and to remain in every other way politically passive. Like the ultimate function of a dream, conspiracy theorising works to keep you asleep.
The conspiracist worldview also, ironically, makes those who subscribe to it easy manipulable. Trump’s anti-‘MSM’ tweets are a very clear sign that widespread hostility towards all mass media suits the needs of those who hold formal office. It means what they do and their reasons for doing it face no scrutiny. The fact that he calls all media which questions his power ‘fake’ and instructs his supporters to ignore whatever it says should remind us how essential a free media is to democracy.
What Trump is doing in his blundering way has already been done in a much more sophisticated manner by the Kremlin, with Russia Today. With its line-up of charismatic rebels such as Max Keiser, RT is consistently entertaining. Like all such media, it provides simple but compelling explanations of complex events. Much of its coverage is relatively innocuous, following the same line as other channels. But there is a clear and very clever conspiratorial line in its reporting which dovetails with the content of explicitly right-wing outlets like Infowars and Breitbart, with their pseudo-radical insinuations of a secret Jewish liberal agenda known as the New World Order. That narrative is not coherent, because it doesn’t need to be: it just needs to titillate to the point of being shareable. It is a very short succession of clicks from RT videos showing the ‘truth’ about Russia’s involvement in Syria to ones promoting the idea of a jew-run plot to dominate humanity or denying climate change. It and the videos which (not by coincidence) exist in its orbit are a gateway drug to the far-right.
A key element of media literacy is knowledge of who owns a particular outlet. We need to know who is telling us a given story. Those of us on the Left know to steer clear of Fox News, The Sun, etc. People are also right to be suspicious of the BBC’s coverage of UK politics, given the compromises and connections at the level of personnel. Westminster journalists are often too close to their subjects to have a wider perspective, and they often come to identify with the worldview of those they cover. But the question of whose media we are consuming is even more important on the Internet, because there we are exposed to much more and much more sophisticated means of manipulation.
We need to know which sites to avoid. In particular, those who moderate left-wing forums need to know which sites to automatically block. A good rule of thumb is that if something mentions the Rothschilds or talks about the NWO, it comes from a far-right source and has no place in a left-wing group. However, given the sophistication of attempts to insinuate reactionary ideas into radical circles, we need to be more precise. That’s why this list (helpfully posted by a friend on a pro-Corbyn forum) is so very useful. It consists of a checklist of sites, identifying which are legitimate and which are known to be pushing an insidious agenda. It flags up, for example, the sites yournewswire.com and anonews, both of which I have seen linked to several times in nominally left-wing Facebook groups over the last few days. On each occasion dozens of people who see themselves as progressive have been taken in, liking and sharing material which a moment’s inspection reveals to be far-right propaganda. The Left needs to be much more vigilant about the danger such videos represent. Jeremy Corbyn may represent many things to many people; those who see him as the new David Icke need to be made actively unwelcome in left-wing circles.
Brexit dynamited the edifice of British political life, and as a result some parts of the building are still unsafe to enter. For that reason, Jeremy Corbyn is wise (as Tae Hoon Kim argued) to steer clear of the issue for the time being and to allow the monster that the Tories created to tear them apart.
Does that mean we as a nation should ignore the whole thing, pretend it never happened? While it’s hard to see how John Harris’ laudable call for open and honest dialogue with those who voted to leave can take place within the walls of conventional political debate, there are other fora which enable us to try to understand what circumstances lay behind the explosion. One such forum is art, ‘the lie that tells the truth’, and specifically drama.
We should be grateful to The Guardian for providing us (in the form of ‘Brexit Shorts‘) with nine eloquent if sometimes excoriating explanations of the causes of the vote. They remind us that few of those who voted Leave did so out of myopic xenophobia. Many did so because they were living in a different country to the rest of us. To dismiss them as reactionary dullards is to refuse to acknowledge that the prosperous Britain we felt we lived in, a place where most people enjoy a reasonable standard of living and the prospect of a bright future, was not by any means the universal experience.
Significantly for my own position on all this, I was not in the UK at the time of the vote, but in Thailand, enjoying a very relaxing couple of months while my wife did a course at the university. Previously we’d spent a fabulous year in Mexico City, living in a very pleasant part of town taking full advantage of all the opportunites that our suddenly enhanced economic status afforded us. My working life consisted of flying to other cities, staying in nice hotels, interviewing a handful of local people and then going to nice restaurants. After a while, such experience of unwarranted privilege gets under your skin, begins to seem natural. If you think of the effect of several centuries of automatic entitlement, the arrogance of people like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, who were secure in the knowledge that whatever happened to the UK economy as a result of the vote, their privileges were guaranteed, becomes more understandable. Although I would never have admitted it to myself a year or so ago, my fear about the possible loss of the fruits of my own good fortune partly fuelled my fury at the result.
Watching the videos I was reminded of the days of the London riots of 2011. I had a colleague who, sneering at the young people on the streets, rhetorically demanded to know why they couldn’t just follow his example. When I pointed out that his example consisted of going to a good school in a well-off area followed by a publicly-funded university which he had paid nothing in fees, he responded as though, well, as though I’d challenged his automatic sense of entitlement. More recently, a discussion with Nick Currie aka Momus about the motivations of Brexit voters ended up in Norman Tebbit territory: if there are no opportunities where they are, they should all just move. Although I feel distinctly chippy pointing it out, it’s not quite irrelevant that Momus went to a private school and then a public university on a full grant. It’s not possible to talk about such things as Brexit without reference to class, that great taboo in British life, and that does mean being honest about our own privileges.
The dramas presented in the Brexit Shorts series all, thankfully, take a more considered and searching approach than just dismissing Brexit voters as lacking in ambition, empathy and geographical imagination. It also explains to those who voted for Brexit the grief and fear that the decision engendered in other people whose lives could in no terms be described as privileged. I found watching them both enlightening and therepeutic. Anyone who is even remotely interested in how the Brexit vote happened and what sort of country Britain is as a result should watch them all and encourage their friends and families to do so. If we are to build a progressive movement in the UK against austerity, xenophobia and in favour of equality and urgent action on the climate, it will have to be alliance between those of us who voted to remain and those who voted to leave.
There’s a wave of extreme heat assailing the planet. In several US states its caused road signs to melt, and in some the roads are too. There are forest fires across swathes of a number of European countries: last month over 60 people were burned alive in their vehicles in Portugal. In Italy (where I live) we are experiencing several days of a red heat alert with record-high temperatures, and a drought which has lasted several months with no end in sight.
If we don’t act now to prevent the planet from heating up like this, we will all be (quite literally) toast. And yet world leaders in Hamburg have just agreed to quadruple subsidies to fossil fuel companies. Although politicians like Merkel and Macron understand the climate is changing, they also believe that there’s a lack of political will for tackling the problem, and so and very many more roads will melt and very many more cars will burn ; none of them at the hands of the fabled ‘Black Bloc’.
The other main story on our local news bulletins is about Italy’s attempts to persuade other European countries to share reponsibilities for the refugee crisis by opening up their ports and agreeing to distribute new arrivals around Europe. Even though in the past Merkel have shown some courage and principles in arguing in favour of Europe’s duty to shelter those fleeing war and economic collapse, now there’s a ‘lack of political will’, even though hundreds of desperate people are drowning and risking death to reach our shores, many of them having experienced brutal treatment in Isis-run camps in the Libyan desert. In Italy itself bigoted parties and stirring up hatred against the very notion of a refugee, and the Left, currently in Government, is capitulating to xenophobic sentiment.
The spectacular images of cars burning in Hamburg have been accompanied by very little reporting of the concerns of the (overwhelmingly peaceful) demonstrators. A glance at their banners reveals what their ambitions are: human rights for all, urgent action on the climate and an end to austerity. They are expressing political will.
The great lie of the last forty years is that this is the only possible world. If people and the planet must suffer and die in order that some might profit, then so be it. But it’s demonstrably not true. Last month, against all predictions, people in the UK expressed political will. Jeremy Corbyn’s astonishing transformation of the British political landscape proved that where politicians provide principled leadership, they can persuade whole populations to change their minds, even on unpopular issues such as austerity, climate change and our response to the refugee crisis.
Naomi Klein’s new book ‘No is not enough’ argues that we (all those who share progressive values, including the notions that human life itself has value and that our species should survive) need to do two things: to understand the ways in which shocking events are exploited by those with the means to do so and used against our interests, and to articulate a positive vision of how we want the world to be. Those who are demonstrating in Hamburg are doing exactly that, and Labour’s near-victory in the UK proves conclusively that there is massive popular appetite for such a vision. An instinctively conservative mass media automatically pushes back against such a movement, seeking to discredit it with images of violent destruction outside the heavily-fortified compounds where our future is being decided; we know that what is being prepared will be infinitely more violent and destructive unless we decide to take on the task of determining our own futures. That will demand a massive exertion of political will on the part of all of us.
Who is responsible for all the world’s spiralling problems? A video posted on the ‘AnoNews’ Facebook page claims that two powerful individuals are to blame: Jacob Rothschild and George Soros. Those two leading, er, financers conspire together wih others of their ilk to cause wars, famines, false flag attacks and (I haven’t watched the video in question, so I’m surmising) the mass eating of Christian babies.
The video is going down a sturm online. It was posted in a group I follow called Jeremy Corbyn – True Socialism and is still there right now, despite repeated requests to the moderators to remove it*. But why on earth would you want to do so, say some unaccountably naive individuals? Aren’t we allowed to talk about the control that all-powerful je…sorry, I meant to say ‘zionists’**, exert over our lives?
The Rational Wiki website, a reliable source for information about climate and holocaust deniers and those who carpool with them, points out that invocations of theories involving the Rothschilds “is a good sign you’re in the more conspiratorial and anti-Semitic neighborhood of the Internet”. As for Soros, it points to a couple of instructive examples of sites which reveal the ‘truth’ about his ‘agenda’. They are, as you may have already gathered, explicitly anti-semitic ones, and inevitably they also make a big thing of his, erm, connection to ‘the Rothschilds’.
Does this mean I automatically defend what politically significant billionaires get up to, or that I’m a supporter of the Israeli State’s quasi-genocidal treatment of the Palestinians? Of course not. But it should be absolutely clear to anyone who regards themselves as progressive that when online memes target those particular individuals and not the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch (etc), they are deliberately evoking anti-semitism. The sharing and liking of the Anonymous video confirms that while the campaign to smear Corbyn himself as anti-semitic was utterly dishonest and quite disgraceful***, among his supporters there are people who are not in the least bit inoculated against insidious anti-Jewish sentiment.
Certain kinds of populist political discourse serve the interests of the far-right, and such language and the ways of thinking that it encodes are prevalent on the Left nowadays. The University of Sheffield politics blog (written by department academics rather than lizards) recently argued that one of the main weaknesses of the pro-Corbyn movement is a tendency to think in terms of conspiracies rather than capitalism, to talk about secretive and malevolent elites rather than the workings of an impersonal and chaotic system which produces inequality, exploitation and injustice. This bad habit – based partly on a desire for a comforting narrative that pretends that someone, somewhere is in control – leaves the Left wide open to far-right manipulation. There is a fetid, bubbling swamp which now covers a great deal of territory thought of as ‘radical’ (including Infowars, various sites claiming to be ‘Anonymous’ and (increasingly) Wikileaks), and the gases it belches out stink of antisemitism and other far-right tropes. The Left has to learn to steer as far away from it as possible if it is not to be tainted by the same toxic associations, or, even worse, sucked in altogether.
*Whenever I’ve seen similar material in other such groups it has been removed with alacrity.
**Various people tried to defend the video in these terms. In fact, the only people who describe Soros as a zionist are anti-semites. Don’t believe me? Google the words Soros zionist. Fanatical defenders of Israel hate him, partly because he (laudably) funds Palestinian and Israeli human rights organisations. Here’s an article from the Jerusalem Post on the matter, and here’s one from a pro-Israel US Jewish newspaper. As for the living members of the Rothschild family, if you care to do a quick internet search you’ll see that their relationship with Israel is by no means straightforward. Ergo, when anyone uses the term zionist to describe either man, they mean jew. Btw, if you still have doubts about the whole premise of this piece, viz you think the video may be harmless, simply google Soros Rothschild and have a look at what sorts of site appear. If you’re still not sure which side you should line up to bat for (cricket metaphor!), here’s a quick quiz.
***Anyone tempted to picture me as a lizard would do well to reread that sentence.
P.s. The argument that any amount of anti-semitism is acceptable because: Israel is unerringly close to that made by the far-right a couple of weeks ago in relation to the attack in Finsbury Park. The victims do and did not bring it on themselves.
P.p.s.: The original title of this piece (‘There *is* anti-semitism on the far-left’) was chosen in a bad mood and didn’t reflect the content. The new title is an adaptation of a famous phrase from the German politician August Bebel.
P.p.p.s. As a means of apologising for all the footnotes and p.s.s, here is a cartoon: