I’ve thought of a great way of dealing with the “alt-right”. It’s called “shush-pat”.

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Jacques Lacan said of the student revolutionaries of 1968 they were looking for a new father. By contrast, the so-called alt-right appear to be seeking someone to breastfeed them. In this excellent lengthy article about hanging around with fanboys of that pro-pedophile sociopathic freak Milo, Laurie Penny writes:

I enjoy most respectful conversation, and these boys are scrupulously polite to me. They were polite to me a month earlier when I slept on their tour bus — right until a door closed between me and them, and they immediately started talking loudly, to each other, about the crass and anatomically implausible things they wanted to do to me. Intellectually, they must have known that I could hear them, but these kids grew up on the Internet, the world’s locker room, where if you can’t see a woman, she doesn’t really exist. The one grown man on the bus started yelling at them to go the hell to sleep — “there’s a girl back there!”—and they yelled back that they’d let me sleep if I let them “suck my titties.” It’s no surprise to hear that they’re still yearning for the teat, but these babies had best be careful where they go slobbering for the milk of human kindness. I’m just about dried up.

Now it turns out she was spot on: milk is indeed a Thing among alt-righters. Nazis have been using it as an emblem, because it’s ‘pure’ and, er, Asian people don’t drink much of it. They have apparently been pouring it over each other in celebration of its and their ‘whiteness’. This taste for moomoojuice seems to have inspired this remarkable work of art. Where Hitler called for Lebensraum, his latest disciples are after milky-wilky.

It eloquently demonstrates the infantile nature of the whole project. They want someone to mother them. Perhaps Le Pen fits the bill, or maybe Trump himself, given the famously female cadences and rhythms of his speech. It also explains why they have a thing about cartoons. Their undeveloped brains and nascent eyesight are unable to deal with anything more cognitively demanding, hence their emotional attachment to a white supremacist equivalent of Peppa Pig and Teletubbies (one which happens to be green, but still). There’s also something distinctly ‘Lord of the Flies’ about their inhouse media outlet, Breitbart. And as Laurie Penny points out they, like punks, have no actual understanding of what Nazism is, they’re just trying to annoy adults by any means necessary.

As it happens I am currently undergoing a crash course in dealing with infant hysteria. I am developing my skills in calming down my six-week-old daughter and sending her to sleep. Her screaming has been honed by evolution to be as distressing as can be, as she alone has no means of dealing with hunger, tiredness or discomfort. Her screeching, like that of the überbrats of the new far-right, has no actual meaning beyond that.

Luckily there’s a solution (beside feeding her, naturally): shush-pat. This technique, invented by the currently ubiquitous childcare guru Tracy Hogg, consists of tapping her firmly on the back while saying ‘shush’. It’s simple and it works. With (sometimes immense) repetition it soothes and comforts her. Eventually her eyes close and her breathing slows. She’s totally relaxed which means we can be too (actually we lie awake for hours worrying that she might explode into fury at any moment, but you get the point).

How would this work with the alt-right? It’s hard to say. I personally have no inclination whatsoever to cuddle Steve Bannon, and although Trump himself appears desperately in need of a breastfeed I’m not about to lift him out of his cot and hand him to my wife. In any case the most outspoken Trump supporters (of whom the angry young men of the alt-right are a self-styled postmodern Hitler Youth) only exist online, where they trade in a currency of memes, mostly originating on 4chan (“the internet’s hate speech hit factory”). Most can only communicate in bright, colourful images with slogans written in big letters. Shush-pat could be an effective antidote to their unsolicited and unwarranted venom and denial, whether they happen at that particular moment to be be sticking up for rape or torture or murder or pedophilia. These are, after all, not rational adults. They are no more open to reasoned arguments and the sober presentation of factual evidence than a hungry newborn baby is. They are, in fact, not post-factual but pre-conceptual. They are screaming for attention and consolation and they need to be told, patiently but firmly, to shut up. I offer the above hastily-assembled collage as a contribution to the cause.

Great activity for getting to know who you’re teaching

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It’s easy to forget, but your students are never just students. They are parents, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, third cousins twice-removed, guitar players, Japanese speakers, chess players, travel bloggers and many other things besides, many of them entirely surprising*. How many times have you, towards the end of a course, found out something really interesting about one of your students and thought, I wish I’d known that sooner? I once, on the last day of an (ahem) challenging low-level ESOL course, found out that one of my students had played football for the Iraqi national team 40 years earlier and that another had eleven (count ’em) children. Silly me for not making the effort to find out such things sooner.

In order to trust you to teach them they need to know who you are and who their classmates are. This is a fun activity which helps with that process. You can do it at the start of your course or at any point afterwards and it works well with pretty much any level post-beginner.

  1. Write up on the board/screen your own version of the following (n.b. don’t just copy mine):
  2. I am a teacher, an examiner, a dad, a brother, a son, an uncle, English, half-German, a husband, an immigrant, a second-generation immigrant, a Northerner, a Sheffielder, an East Londoner, an avid reader, a music-lover, a Momus fan, a Thomas Pynchon obsessive, a blogger, a cyclist, a non-driver, an English speaker, a Philosophy graduate, a Portuguese speaker, a Spanish speaker, an Italian speaker, a language learner, a former DJ, a former part-time comedian, a former part-time actor, a former activist…
  3. Encourage your students to ask you: “so you’re a …”. Then tell them a couple of entertaining details. Do this for five minutes or so, dealing with vocabulary as it comes up.
  4. For lower levels point out the difference between where you’ve used an adjective (with no article) and where you’ve used a noun (with an article), and also the meaning of ‘former’.
  5. Get them to make their own lists. Monitor to help out if they’re stuck. Make sure they each have a decent list of things (at least eight or nine).
  6. Put them in pairs and get them to swap lists and take it in turns to ask. They don’t need to take notes. Make sure they’re asking follow-up questions (‘when?’, ‘why?’).
  7. Rotate the pairs once or twice depending on how many students you have.
  8. The third time they swap pairs, get them to film each other on their phones.
  9. At the end of the lesson, get each of them to report what the most surprising thing they found out was.
  10. Extension: If you and they like, make (or get one of them to make) a short film compiling the most interesting snippets of the interviews. This might sound challenging but there will probably be someone in the class with the technical know-how.
  11. Extra extension: You could easily incorporate a listening comprehension activity using this.

Dekiagari!

* Some of them might even be racists, but you’ll have to hope they don’t proudly announce that in the course of the activity.

Why I absolutely love Prefab Sprout

Any music-loving parent hopes that their kids will inherit their musical taste, so I’m delighted to report that my daughter has developed a appreciation for Prefab Sprout which echoes my own. Inevitably a few of the jazz-influenced chord changes on ‘Swoon’ (1984) threw her a bit on a first listen, some of the more obtuse lyrics on ‘Jordan: The Comeback’ (1990) are a bit over her head and she found the sentiments of ‘The Sound of Crying’ (1992) a bit saccharine, but then to be fair she is only five weeks old.

She’s already more of a fan than some of the people on the Prefab Sprout online forum. Last week an associate of  the Sprouts’ frontman Paddy McAloon uploaded a video to Youtube in which, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar,  Paddy sings a moving lament which celebrates the most inclusive and welcoming aspects of US society at a time when its worst instincts are to the fore. Some fans in the ‘Sproutnet Community‘ were quick to dismiss its platitudinous appeals to the spirit of ‘liberal humanism’ (urgh! humans!!!). It seems strange that someone could spend 25 years following the Prefabs, putting up with Paddy writing albums called things like ‘Let’s Change the World With Music’ (2009) in the forlorn hope that he’ll some day release one called ‘Isn’t it about time we sent some gunships to deal with those so-called refugees for once and for all’, but this is, after all, the internet and no one nowadays wants to be accused of being a ‘snowflake’.

My daughter also responded in an unusual way to a song clearly designed to bring a tear to the eye: she stopped crying. For four minutes she listened in what I take to be wonder but may have just been a temporary absence of gastric discomfort. She has also reacted very well to being gently swayed round the living room to some of the more lilting moments on ‘Steve McQueen’, and even managed to get through a good 12 minutes of ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’ without bawling her eyes out for even more milky-wilky.

As for myself, I’ve been a fan of Prefab Sprout since 1988, when I was 17, at a time in my life when I was trying to come to terms with my inner snowflake. I bought all four albums in one day, probably in response to a review by some absolute genius in Melody Maker. Their unabashed erudition mixed with shameless appeals to the heartstrings twanged a very resonant minor chord in my sensitive teenage soul. That, in fact, is the theme of one of the songs on ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’ (1988) (‘Enchanted’). It was apparently inspired by the feeling that nothing again strikes you with the same force as it does when you were 17.

Although Paddy himself is not as fresh-faced as he appeared in their commercial heyday, there remains something entirely free of cynicism in the view of the world expressed in his songs. It is heartfelt, earnest and enormously sweet without any aftertaste of bitterness. From ‘Swoon’  to ‘Crimson/Red’ (2013) by way of the unembarrassable AOR of ‘The Gunman and Other Stories’ (2001), there is a wide-eyedness to his work which is, for people like me who recognise him as a full-on no-holds-barred actual songwriting genius, relentlessly endearing and comforting. He is a magnificent lyricist and can do things with a succession of key changes that very few bar Steven Sondheim and George Gershwin have done before him.

There are so many great Prefab Sprout songs that I’m not going to list them. If you do appreciate or don’t know their music you will enjoy the playlist that follows this piece. Sadly Spotify doesn’t feature one of Paddy’s very greatest moments, so I urge you to click here and take twenty one minutes out of your wonderful/impossible life to listen to it. It comes from an extraordinary album (‘I Trawl the Megahertz’, 2003) which was famously killed stonedead by the Guardian’s heartless decision not to review it*, but which in a far better world would have become the new national anthem of the human race. The rest is a personal selection of some of the most moving and inspiring songs ever, ever written. I hope you enjoy it as much as my daughter does. Well, seems to.

* Serious Sprout fans are still holding out for a Chilcott-style inquiry into this sorry episode.

Kate Tempest, Sleaford Mods, Modern Toss, Brexit and the 2011 riots

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It used to take me about 45 minutes to listen to an album; nowadays it takes me at least a week. I find it hard to summon the patience and attention necessary to engage with new music. This would have been unimaginable when I was 15 and obsessed with music. Then the thought of some sort of supermarket sweep in a record shop would have been beyond my wildest dreams. But since the initial smash-and-grab of filesharing in the early part of the last decade it’s become clear to me that music so easily obtained is also easily discarded, and much harder to develop that deep connection with it that came from having invested the proceeds of my paper round. Nowadays even when someone sends me or shares something it often feels like a chore to have to listen to it, and I know the same is true when I share songs with others.

Of course, I could, as most do, walking around listening to music. Creating your own soundtrack to overlay reality often feels like a cinematic experience, one which remakes the world with you at its centre, dramatising time and space with you cast as the hero, or at least the protagonist. As Will Self explores in this Guardian piece, it does so at the cost of setting you apart from your immediate physical and social environment, providing:

…a soundtrack that our walker can choreograph all the traffic to, human and vehicular, her deft, darting eyes seamlessly stitching order out of the chaos so that everything around her skips to her divinely ordained beat.

Also, until very recently I had an ongoing ear problem which made listening to headphones an irritatingly imbalanced experience. Add to this the presence of a new baby who needs to sleep but isn’t always aware of the fact, and my music intake has been severely reduced.

In all this media saturation, with pretty much all recorded music and film available at a twitch of the thumb,  it’s inevitable to have blind spots. I’ve always enjoyed those moments when I realise there’s something or someone – a writer, group or director – whose work I’ve been aware of but never focussed on. It often takes concerted effort on behalf of someone else to make me really listen to something. When a friend told me last summer she was excited about going to see Kate Tempest in concert, it failed to register. I vaguely thought she was some sort of folk singer in the same breed as Mumford & Sons. It was only when another friend emailed last week insisting that I watch a BBC performance of her album ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ that I forced myself to actively pay attention, and even then it took me a week of interruptions to get through the whole thing.

Over the ten linked tracks Tempest unfolds the story of seven young neighbours on a London street, perfect strangers to one another, each lying awake before dawn worrying about their lives as, unbeknownst to them, a huge storm approaches. She articulates fears that reflect mine and doesn’t shy away from themes that (should) make people uncomfortable: climate change, immigration and racism. She does so in a way which is not hopeful but is certainly compassionate to the plight of her characters. Her tone is impassioned but also thoughtful, and her eye is acutely attentive to those details of our private and shared landscapes which are often overlooked or hidden away. She chooses an appropriate scale for the gravity of her themes, moving swiftly but deftly between the cosmological and the mundane, from images of the wounded planet to the everyday drudgery of worrying about the demands of the working day.

I’ve seen comparisons to the Streets concept album ‘A Grand Don’t Come for Free’, in terms of the scale of the project and the urban themes. There are more recent reference points but I’m only loosely aware of. In a typically vituperative tweet the Sleaford Mods dismiss her as derivative of artists like Jamie T and Lady Sov. I think it’s a shame they don’t engage more with her work as they have a lot in common. I’ve long enjoyed their work but have only heard odd songs. Luckily the release of their new album has coincided with both my discovery of Kate Tempest and the (disgusting) resolution of my hearing difficulty to make a useful comparison possible.

Both artists seek explicitly to accurately represent working class concerns in 2017. Visually the Mods are a punk Pet Shop Boys mixed with the insouciance of the Gallagher brothers. Musically they appear rudimentary in their dependence on beats, basslines and samples, but they make very inventive and compelling use of that limited palette. The ostensive sparseness of their sound puts me in mind of post-punk – a lot of their tracks recapture the sound of 1980, while others make more direct reference to hiphop. As with Tempest, Wu Tang Clan are a direct inspiration.

Like Die Antwoord (another group which I like but rarely actually listen to), they initially seemed to be a novelty act with a limited number of tricks but whose serious intent has become more apparent. Nevertheless there is a strong component of comedy to what they do. There are echoes not only of avin-a-larf late punk bands like Sham 69 but also of K*nt and the Gang and even (when we get to the chants of ‘you fat bastard) the Macc Lads. Jason Williamson shares some of Tempest’s poetic acuity, with many of their songs picking up on aspects of contemporary British life which it is genuinely surprising and refreshing to hear articulated in song – references to chain pubs, welfare cuts, closed-down shops, stoned trips to the corner shop and military fitness abound. Until recently, the tone has been consistent. It’s one of sneering undercut by anger and sadness. Their default mode is to rant and condemn. On the recent album a more plaintive and oblique mood has crept in, but it remains a very blokish vision, harsh and unforgiving. For all their progressive credentials, it sounds to me very much like the rage and hurt which John Harris identified in this must-see talk as key to the Brexit vote*.

Then there’s the humour, in all its joyous abusiveness. When I first heard ‘Jobseeker’ I thought it sounded like Modern Toss on record. Others have made the same connection. Several characters created by the Brighton cartoonists are present in Sleaford Mods tracks. They are the musical version of the disaffected-to-the-point-of-obnoxiousness figures represented in the Work, Customer Service, Drive By Abuser, Mr Tourette and Alan cartoons. Both Sleaford Mods and Modern Toss present a Britain in which a precondition of almost any job is that you have to regard and treat other humans as resources, and thirty years of neoliberal managerial doctrine in every area of our lives has encouraged us to view each other primarily as means to an end. What results is (in everyday life) deeply unpleasant and (on paper or record) hilarious insouciance, a principled refusal to treat other people and the social roles they embody with due respect.

This is partly due, then, to the alienating effect of bureaucratising language, as identified by Mark Fisher in ‘Capitalist Realism’. It is an expression of what he calls ‘reflexive impotence’, especially prevalent among those who have been educated in a system which emphasises very narrowly-defined notions of success, promoting individual ‘entrepreneurship’ at every turn and dismissing the notion that society has any responsibilities towards its members. It is also related to the spirit that Momus identified in his classic rant about a visit back to the UK, a place where ubiquitous marketing promotes addiction and competition as central metaphors for understanding and responding to reality and treating others:

We stop at a filling station on the Shoreditch High Street to buy some food. A homeless man is sitting at the entrance. ‘Spare some change, please? Spare some change?’ A black man gets out of a BMW and comes over to reform him. ‘Look at yourself, mate, you’ve got to stop using the stuff. Go to a gym, man, do a workout, get out of this state you’re in, it’s a fucking shame on you, man!’ He’s a winner, the junkie’s a loser. Go to a gym, start a business, buy a BMW, join the winners. It’s dog eat dog.

This imperative to think about life as a competition is also present in the lives of Tempest’s characters, but in her case she cares for them and is considerate of their vulnerabilities, unpleasant as the individuals may appear on the surface. This is partly a question of empathy. For all the acuteness of their observations Sleaford Mods don’t have that. Instead they rail against individual manifestations of all they despise. Their songs are mostly directed against particular targets – with scabrous wit and undercut by despair, but without the generous insights integral to Tempest’s work.

Both artists address and articulate the bleakness of a society which promotes consumerism as a means of aspiration, the alienation inherent in a worldview and way of life which regard branded sneakers and two-for-one offers on cans of Strongbow as worth living and dying for. For me, a constant implicit presence in the recent work of both is the riots of 2011, which I believe have a curious and underexplored relationship to the Brexit vote. Zygmunt Bauman attributed them to the phenomenon of ‘frustrated consumers’: mainly young people who had grown up inculcated in the belief that one’s worth and identity is realised through the acquisition of prestigious material goods, but denied the means of acquiring any means of doing so legitimately and blamed for their failure, one which society – in the form of the education system and the media – absolves itself of all responsibility**. John Harris’ talk makes clear how that pattern operated on a larger scale, and with more widespread and long-lasting effects, in relation to Brexit.

Although contrary to what the Guardian review of ‘English Tapas’ says, it is not the first ‘post-Brexit’ album (that honour goes to Momus), the work of both Kate Tempest and that of Sleafords Mods provides a very good guide to what JG Ballard called the ‘unacknowledged present’ of the UK today, to those subjacent pressures, manifest in all of our lives to a hideously unequal degree, that are prone to break through in unexpected and unpleasant ways. While the Sleaford Mods’ vision is conditioned mostly by bitterness and despair, Kate Tempest’s is tempered by compassion and a spirit of goodwill towards our vulnerabilities.

 

* This post marks the 312th time I have linked to that talk.

** Ditto for the Bauman article.

Maybe that Louis CK had a point

I come into work about 25 minutes early with my classes already prepared: I’m going to write an essay on the big screen while the students watch, and then they’re going to write similarly-themed essays on their own computers. Yesterday’s lessons with these two groups were frustrating as I was trying to play them bits of ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ by Kate Tempest but the IT system kept playing up. In the staffroom most pcs are busy. The only one that isn’t takes ages to load – ten to twelve seconds. While I’m waiting I use my phone. I email myself a memo for an article I’ve started writing about music. When the pc is finally ready I open Google Chrome, but then I’m interrupted by a dialogue box, which asks me if I want to restart the computer now or wait one, two or three hours. My patience is already worn thin by the 30 or seconds the whole process has taken so far. I set it to restart in four hours’ time. Someone else can deal with it. I’ve got things to do that can’t wait. Once my email has opened I check my email to myself has arrived and then click on Google Drive so I can paste the contents of the email into a new document. Opening Google Drive always takes an eternity (sometimes up to five seconds) so I look around and greet a couple of newly-arrived colleagues. Most of the other staff are busy on their pcs or phones. When I look back at the screen the Google doc is ready, so I do what I need to do, open another new blank doc and type this. I check the spelling, close it and log off so that I can go up to class early and log onto the classroom pc in time for the lesson.

10 lessons from one month of successful parenting

An old joke has it that if you’re thinking of having a baby, first get a plant. If you can keep it alive for a month, try a cat. If after a month it hasn’t run away and you haven’t starved it to death, then think about a human partner. If after a month…etc.

Well, although I’ve always been crap at remembering to water plants and the only cat I’ve ever had did actually run away, me and my wife have now survived a whole month of having full adult responsibility for a proper human baby, which is a minor milestone worth celebrating. The last 32 days have, to be sure, contained some of the most difficult moments of our lives. After two nights I am happy to admit that I was actually going insane and wanted to take her back to the hospital until we could work out this whole screaming-sleeping equation. At 5am, after five hours of various white noise apps, cooing, shushing, pushing the pram back and forth like a deranged polar bear in a zoo, reasoning, googling ‘STOP NEWBORN CRYING’ (a secular form of prayer, one about as practically helpful and easy to interpret as the foreboding silence of God), we spent forty minutes trying to disengage the top bit of the pram so we could return her to the Maternity Department at Città di Roma and get them to stop her making all that noise

It’s also, of course, been a joyous experience. The baby is hilarious, an endless source of uproarious entertainment. One of my favourite tricks to play on her (one she’s sadly now got wise to) is to pretend my nose is a nipple. When she’s having a tantrum she looks like Phil Collins doing a drum solo while suffering the after-effects of some dodgy fondue. And the faces she pulls while waking up suggest she may have a bright future in Gilbert & Sullivan revivals.

Nevertheless, here are ten lessons I’ve learned over the last 32 days and (it seems like) 640 nights:

  1. While swaddling may have worked for Moses, it does nothing for our child. Luckily she doesn’t seem to suffer from the dreaded Startle Reflex (which apparently causes most unswaddled babies to wake up pretty much every hour on the dot), which means I haven’t actually gone through with my late-night threat to take the so-called Miracle Swaddling Blanket back to the shop, wrap the person who sold it to me up in it and set them on fire.
  2. On the other hand, as promised by the current pandit of getting-them-to-go-to-bloody-sleep Tracy Hogg, shush-pat works. You have to do it for at least twenty minutes and it helps if you do so in a dark room because otherwise she keeps her eyes wide open to take in how amazing everything is. Reducing stimulation is also a good way for me to calm down. One exhausted 4am looking into her eyes I had the paranoid (but not irrational) sensation of looking at myself, and a feeling that our souls were locked into a battle of eternal wakefulness.
  3. It’s not clear whether it’s an urban myth, but I’m happy to go along with the internet fairy tale that Dutch babies sleep more. It reflects a no-nonsenseness that I associate with that hedonistically austere people, and which I admire in preference to silly speculation about what hour Madame might like to be served breakfast. A newborn baby doesn’t have habits or tastes. Without wanting to sound like Dr. Moreau, she’s a blank slate on which we can inscribe our own preferred behaviours. As to her current level of intelligence, I’ve not been able to find out much. I’ve read in several places that a two-year-old baby apparently has the same cognitive sophistication as an adult chimpanzee. With regard to newborns, researchers tend to be coyer. Maybe a lot of them have newborn kids and it’s just too depressing to report that their mental prowess lies somewhere between that of a large peanut and a small hamster. At least we can take comfort in the idea that even if our child never learns to read and write, she could still aspire to high political office, as long as she has a sex change and dyes her skin bright orange, that is.
  4. If there’s one insight I’ve gained is that if your baby is eating and sleeping, you have no reason to panic. For the first few days we, like all new parents, worried that she wasn’t feeding properly, but then we found out how very much weight she’d gained and were Very Pleased With Ourselves, although I have to confess that I then ended up googling ‘infant gigantism’, just in case.
  5. Her existence is a secret from her, one she’s not even close to getting. Donald Winnicott famously wrote that there’s ‘no such thing as a baby’. She’s just a cuddly jumble of impulses with no consciousness of how they fit together. ‘She’ is our invention in more than a physical sense, and will be for some time to come.
  6. Her screeching is as distressing as it can possibly be, having been refined over a period of 100,000 years. It was terrifying at first, then we realised it’s just her equivalent of ‘have we got any nuts’, ‘when was the last time we ordered a pizza’ or ‘I’m absolutely mortified to have to tell you this, but I’ve afraid I’ve soiled myself. Again’.
  7. I was worried about our neighbours, given that the people downstairs once asked us to stop using the floor on Saturday mornings. As it happens, no one has knocked on a door asking us to shut up our screaming child. It’s unlikely that anyone ever has done such a thing. It would demand an almost alt-right level of social autism.
  8. It’s very hard not to impute human thoughts to her spontaneous facial expressions, particularly to what appears to be the curious mix of embarrassment and defiance that appears when she fills her nappy four seconds after it’s been changed. Also, when she closes her eyes when I’m doing shush-pat, it’s difficult not to suspect that she’s merely pretending to be asleep. Her face at such times sometimes looks a bit patronising, like sure, dad, you’ve made me go to sleep, like well done yeah.
  9. I used to suffer from anxiety about things that didn’t matter. For example: for about six years in my early 20s I worried that I was going bald. It was the only thing I thought about between the ages of 21 and 27. I would judge everyone I met on how bald they were compared to how old they might be as against how bald and thus old I thought they might think I was. So the information I was getting in the run-up to the birth made the whole prospect quite daunting. Everybody tells you that you’re about to step through a portal into a world of pure mortal terror. From the moment the pregnancy was confirmed, I paranoically assumed I would drop and break her at some point, or accidentally snap off one of her limbs while nappy-changing. Then there was the concern that my experience of parenting might be like that of the hapless father in James Joyce’s story ‘A Little Cloud’, beset by panic and angst at his failure to calm a screaming child. As it turns out, my attacks of anxiety (so far…) have been pretty much restricted to the occasional 3am tantrum (mine rather than hers). It turns out that both she and I and her hero of a mum are more physically and emotionally robust than any of us feared. The baby herself is an actual embodiment of Schopenhauer’s Will, the life force that animates all matter. She knows how to survive – we’re just here to serve her capricious needs.
  10. Just in case anyone takes the last bit as a worrying sign that I may have been spending the last month sternly reading volumes of 19th century philosophy while a newborn baby screams herself inside out in the background*, I’m happy to reassure them that I actually read about Schopenhauer in a book called ‘Louis CK and Philosophy’, which was considerably less mentally taxing. While previous generations of parents have relied on Hogg, Winnicott, Dr. Spock or Captain Kirk for their insights into how-to-parent, I find his comedy to be an endless source of comfort and wisdom. I’m sure it will come in handy in the years to come, especially when, as it inevitable, she starts to ask us difficult questions.

However, the single-most important thing I’ve come to realise through this whole experience, though, the insight that has more than any other enlightened me with regard not just to infant life, but also in terms of all that we see, think and feel as human beings, is that…oh wait, I’ve got to go. The baby’s just started crying.

 

* Just for the record, I wrote most of this at ‘work’.

I’m proud to be an immigrant

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As I leave the metro station near my work on Tuesday afternoon I see a sticker from a fascist organisation reading ‘Italy for the Italians’.

At work, while waiting for the students to turn up, I read an article via Facebook that says that Theresa May is going to take away the right of EU nationals to settle in the UK ‘within days’.

I’m an immigrant and I’ve been one for most of my adult life. I’ve lived in six countries other than my own. I chose to move to each of those countries of my own free will and no one attempted to stop me. I’m also a second-generation immigrant, because my father was born in Germany but left in 1950 with his mother, who had met a British soldier and emigrated to Guernsey. My father recalls his journey to the UK as an interminable process, with different visas required for each country he passed through. He later went on to work in countless countries, mostly in Africa and the Caribbean, before eventually settling in Sheffield.

My wife isn’t an immigrant now, but she has been one for a total of 13 years. Our brand-new daughter is in a more ambiguous situation, in that she was born to one Italian parent and one foreign one (me). Actually, thanks to a little bit of foresight, my wife now has British passport by virtue of having lived in London for six years. She had to do an absurd quiz with questions about horseracing, cricket and the Commonwealth, and then she had to swear allegiance to the Queen. I helped her prepare for the test but I didn’t know the answers to most of the questions, and I would have objected to having to paying allegiance to someone just because they occasionally put on a supposedly magic hat.

I’ve always felt welcome in every country I’ve lived in. I’ve never been the object of hostility. On my very first night in Dublin (where I lived for six years) someone in a kebab shop remarked on my foreignness with what sounded at the time like aggression, but on reflection they were almost certainly taking the piss.

In terms of my immigration status I’ve also been extremely lucky. I’ve never had to worry about keeping a low profile or lie awake worrying about possible deportation. I’ve never even had to do a visa run, and my status has never depended on my language skills.

Moving back to the UK in 2006 after thirteen years abroad felt a little like moving to a foreign country. For the first few months in London I kept automatically referring to ‘other foreigners’. It felt natural to spend my time with others who’d lived or came from abroad.

When I went to live in China the paperwork was immense, but it was all available in English. Last year I got annoyed when the Thai embassy insisted on a particular form of bank statement which our narco-sponsoring bank didn’t want to provide. There was a way around it, one which didn’t inconvenience us unduly.

I wanted for a long time to migrate to Brazil, but I basically never had the courage to live and work undercover in a country where foreign teachers are very rarely granted visas. I’d hate to build a life somewhere and see it destroyed overnight. That’s what happened to one of my sisters when she went to work in the USA. She popped over to Mexico for the weekend and wasn’t let back in. Her experience of deportation was extremely distressing.

All the Italian people we’ve spoken to over the last month have been very congratulatory about our daughter. Nobody’s told us the country is ‘full’ or told her to get back where she came from. Nobody would ever tell an actual individual that to their face unless they were actually insane in several important ways; such notions are political abstractions. The fact that our flesh-and-blood child will use up space and resources has never been mentioned.

The stories we’re hearing now from the UK and the US are staggering and heartbreaking. They result from decisions made by people who have no understanding of the risks and sacrifices that human lives entail. Or maybe they do, but they shut their eyes to the implications of what they’re doing. Perhaps I in my examining job have blithely made decisions about people’s language skills which have meant they had to go back to someone else’s idea of where they belong.

I’ve got friends and former students who’ve spent years of their lives dreaming of studying in the UK only to find that large parts of the ‘education’ system are no more than a scam to rip off gullible foreigners. In much the same way, no one travels thousands of miles in the back of a truck to sell selfie sticks outside the Colosseum or roses outside the cinema. Immigrants are useful for other things than political scapegoating.

I’m an immigrant, but an immensely privileged one. In my case, leaving my country was in many ways the obvious and easiest choice. It’s largely by virtue of an accident of birth that I’ve been able to get status and find work. I didn’t get a job in Portugal in 1999 because I was an experienced teacher, but because I have the right accent and passport.  I’ve also benefitted from a favourable historical situation as far as living in Europe is concerned. In most cases, it takes courage and initiative to move to another country.

As it happens, my country’s wealth came in large part from invading other territories and forcing people to migrate. One factor propelling the whole Brexit nonsense is a denial of that history, a resentment at the notion that Britain should and could learn from its past, and a forlorn hope that it can somehow relive the experience. Italy, a country whose cultural richness derives in large part from the ebb and flow of different civilisations, had its own vainglorious attempt at imperial expansion, but fortunately reviving that particular epoch is the dream of a persistent group of loudmouthed oddballs at its political fringes, rather than the historic mission of the most reactionary elements of its political elite.

I’ve tried all my life not to be ashamed I’m where I’m from, to overcome my sense of discomfort at my origins. For me, my unconscious personal project of distancing myself from my roots and trying to be from somewhere else is symptomatic, I now recognise, of a generalised cultural disavowal – there are few things as typically English as pretending not to be. It has also been conditioned by my family background. I have also always enjoyed a certain relief at not possessing any sort of claim to pureblood status or any mooted connection to the ‘soil’. I’m proud to be an immigrant son of an immigrant parent, and it would be absolutely wrong for me for me to do anything other than express my full solidarity with my fellow immigrants all over the world, especially those whose experiences have been less charmed than my own. Of course, that solidarity has to be more than verbal – I need to get involved in specific initiatives to help those less fortunate than myself. Voicing solidarity is easy – it needs to be expressed in actions to have any actual meaning. I believe that in terms of resisting Brexit and Trump, or combatting exclusionary EU policies elsewhere in Europe, helping and supporting (relative) newcomers to our countries is one of the most useful and important things any of us can do.

(This piece was written with suggestions from Andrea, Federica, Federico and Patty.)

Lesson plan: Getting your students to solve the world’s problems

society-economy-environment

A lot of exams (like IELTS) quite reasonably expect candidates to be able to talk about social, environmental and economic issues. I’ve noticed over the years that some lack the basic conceptual tools. This lesson is designed to classify global problems and discuss possible solutions. It works well with B2+ classes.

  1. Match the definition with the keyword

Keywords

  1. Society
  2. The Environment
  3. The Economy

Definitions

  1. The area in which something exists or lives
  2. The system of production and distribution and consumption
  3. An extended group of people with a specific cultural and economic organization
  1. Problems

Are the following problems social, economic or environmental? (some of them fit into more than one category). Decide for yourself and then compare with a partner.

  • Unemployment
  • Climate Change
  • Violence against women
  • Racism
  • Poverty
  • Corruption
  • Inequality
  • Poor healthcare services
  • Deforestation
  • Financial collapse
  • Underemployment
  • Obesity
  • Malnutrition
  • Homelessness
  • Alcoholism
  • Illiteracy 
  1. Solutions

What possible solutions are there to each of the above problems? Can you think of any more? Discuss in small groups. Feel free to disagree!

  • Awareness-raising
  • Regulation
  • New legislation
  • Education
  • Redistribution of wealth through taxation
  • Investment
  • Subsidies
  • Aid
  • Leave it to the market
  • Revolution

Evaluating solutions

Look at the list of words for describing solutions, and look up any you don’t know in a dictionary. 

utopian      practical/impractical      equitable      viable/unviable      sufficient/insufficient      popular/unpopular      expensive      radical

4. Writing

Plan and write a paragraph (150 words) headed ‘The world’s biggest problems and what should be done about them’.

5. Reading and Speaking

Stick your paragraph up on the wall. Walk round and read what others have written. If you disagree, find the writer and tell them!

6. Homework

Bearing in mind the conversations you’ve just had, rewrite and expand your paragraph and then email it to your teacher for feedback.

What’s behind the rise of the global far-right? Climate denial.

immagineI’ve argued repeatedly here that if you want to understand the rise of the global far-right movement you have to put climate denial at the centre of the picture. The chief protagonist in the conspiracy in the decades-long campaign to forestall action on global warming in order to protect corporate profits is Exxon Mobil. They knew in 1978 that the activities of companies like theirs would raise global temperatures by 2-3%, so they funded and coordinated campaigns designed to spread doubt, employing tactics and experts from the tobacco industry to do so and setting up“institutes” devoted to outright climate denial.

(This is not guesswork or conspiracy theorising. It’s verified and verifiable fact. If you have any doubts whatsoever about what I’m saying please do your own research, obviously steering clear of climate denial sites funded by Exxon Mobil, which as it happens is a very large proportion of them. Use reputable news sources instead – here is a useful map of them.)

So what’s the connection with the global far-right? I’ve argued that repressed fears about the future have been finding expression as rage directed at targets identified by far-right politicians, all of whom have – not by coincidence – climate denial as a central part of their programmes. However, there are also links at institutional and individual levels. Last month I wrote:

Anyone curious about Trump’s connections to Russia and what interests lie behind them does not need to go trawling through Wikileaks documents or hope that some hitherto unseen videotape comes to light. The fact that Putin has regularly been seen in the company of the man who Trump appointed his Secretary of State is troubling in itself.

….but it turns out I didn’t know the half of it. Democracy Now drew my attention to a recent article by the author and climate scientist Joe Romm, in which he wrote:

While Trump may not be able to destroy global climate action and the landmark 2015 Paris climate deal all by himself — as he pledged to do during the campaign — he probably could do that with help from Russia and the trillion-dollar oil industry.

So much is explained by Trump’s Secretary of State choice. Media reports now say it will be Rex Tillerson, CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil, which had made a $500 billion oil deal with Putin that got blocked by sanctions.

Stalling the biggest oil deal ever did not just “put Exxon at risk,” as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2014. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow explained last week this deal was so big it was “expected to change the historical trajectory of Russia.”

(Again, if you have any doubts, please read the links. The original report is from the Wall Street Journal. Is ithe WSJ a left-wing fake news outlet pushing a left-wing agenda? No, it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch, who is, as it happens, a climate denier. The article obviously slipped under his radar.)

I wrote in November 2015 that “it is simply impossible to imagine anything companies like Exxon and Shell would not do in order to protect their future incomes.” On the evening of Trump’s inauguration I argued that the Trump administration represents a coup by the climate denial industry and its backers in Big Oil. I was right.

In 2014 Naomi Klein wrote in ‘This Changes Everthing’ that we can no longer afford the illusion that small, gradual changes will be enough to save our stable climate. The antics of companies like Exxon Mobil have ensured that the only hope we now have is in mass social movements which seek to seize the power of those corporations and their political servants. Counter-revolutions happen not just in response to successful insurrections, but also to failed ones, to the threat of a political challenge. This reactionary wave, which has so far brought us Brexit and Trump and is quite possibly about to install a Holocaust denier as President of France, is a response to our failure to build those social movements. The immortally wise words of Sven Lindqvist (written in relation to genocide) encapsulate perfectly where we stand in terms of our responsibilies to our climate:

You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.

The conclusion I draw is: we have to make Climate Change an absolutely central theme in the struggle to defeat the global far-right movement.

Milo, Miller and Marine Le Pen: Pedophiles, Nazis, and genocidal Islamophobes

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No thinking and feeling human being can do other than take great satisfaction from the downfall of the white supremacist activist/’libertarian’ ‘provocateur’ (aka racist troll) Milo Yiannopoulos, who was exposed this week as an advocate for pedophilia. This icon of the “alt-right” movement clearly thought we as a  civilisation had reached the point where all forms of abuse of the vulnerable by the powerful could be openly celebrated, but it turns out he was wrong. From now on all coverage of the alt-right should include an explicit reference to its chief figurehead’s support for the rape of children.

The speed with which the far-right fake news outlet Breitbart dumped their star turn shows that they are more vulnerable to media exposure has been assumed. It’s unfortunate that no such outrage has accompanied the news that White House spokestroll Steven Miller is also an outright white supremacist. Progressive elements in the mainstream press should counter any tendency to normalise such affiliation by seeking not just to expose him but actively seek to oust him and others like him.

The global far-right movement knows how to stretch the boundaries and to insinuate their values into mainstream and even ‘progressive’ opinion. Yesterday  I saw this in practice. At some point over the last few months I must have liked or signed up to a US-based Facebook group called ‘Real Progressives’. It seemed mostly made up of Bernie ‘supporters’ who had been naive and/or arrogant enough not to heed their hero’s warnings at the most crucial time, and thus helped Trump into power.  Still, with the election out of the way and all radical forces united in opposition to the new ‘President’, I would have assumed that we had essential values in common.

That turns out not to have been the case. On Tuesday someone who, judging from their profile, was clearly a pretty serious racist posted a meme showing the French fascist leader and Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen calling for children wearing headscarves to be expelled from France. The immediate response from members of the group was not just approval, but a collective outburst of genocidal racism. There were even people calling for Muslims to be sterilised. My remonstrations (and those of a few others) had little effect. We pointed out she’s on the same side as Putin and Trump, and that she proudly associates with holocaust deniers, but they weren’t interested. She’d thrown a bone and they went for it without hesitation.

The far-right knows how to position itself and how to frame its messages. These ideological mengeles know where to insert the needle to get their poison directly into the veins of people who, although they go on believing themselves radical and progressive, are now primed to accept the fascist agenda. These were people in this group of ‘socialists’ and ‘Greens’ openly calling for, if not the rape, the physical abuse of children on the basis of their religion.

Perhaps if Milo Yiannopoulos had specified in his rant that only Muslim children were fair game for sexual abuse, his message would have found a more receptive audience. I hope not, but what I’ve seen in pro-‘Bernie’ and Jill circles makes me suspect that it would have gone down well with at least some of their self-declared supporters. All of us on the Left need to be extremely vigilant and very vocal with regard to any anti-Muslim racism appearing in our midst. That is the Trojan horse being used by the smarter elements of the far-right to insinuate their insidious messages into supposedly ‘progressive’ milieus.