Art, otters and media racism

Part of the work of Lubaina Himid, the artist who won the Turner Prize 2017, consists of drawing attention to the ways in which the juxtaposition of texts and images in The Guardian newspaper can reveal implicit racist associations. Her work is infinitely more powerful for dealing with the liberal press rather than the undisguised bigotry of the tabloids. Some of the connections she uncovers are barely visible to the naked eye, and it is only through forensic (self?-) examination that one sees what she sees. Just as institutional racism may be of profound statistical significance but hard to register on an everyday level, it is only through the unforgiving lens of art that more subtle truths emerge. The heightened sensibilities that result from study of her work help us see better. Freud taught us to pay special attention to ‘accidents’ and ‘coincidences’, as they may reveal unconscious thinking. That unconscious can, to borrow from Jung, be a collective one.

What to say, then, of the following juxtaposition from a recent edition of (guess what?) The Guardian?

img-20181221-wa0005The (presumably ‘accidental’) coincidence of the two articles seems to embody two sets of hidden assumptions: one, that certain (or possibly all) species of sea mammals are able to use social media, to understand written human language even of a highly vernacular variety, to experience emotions including shame and outrage, to comprehend that human society regards body weight as a cause for humiliation, to grasp the insult implicit in the misappropriation of a non-standard and low-status language variety to speakers of that variety, and to appreciate the significance of apologies delivered by faceless institutions; and two, that the lives of foreigners don’t matter very much.

Lesson plan: “You are a refugee”

Wherever you happen to teach there’s a chance that your class includes refugees and/or racists. The point of this lesson is to increase the level of understanding of the plight of the former and encourage the latter to be less so. Linguistically the lesson lends itself to concentrated practice of various conditional forms. In terms of vocabulary, the ‘text’ is quite lexically dense so I wouldn’t attempt it with anything lower than B2. As you will see, discovery and development of relevant vocabulary is written into the task as it will be repeated various times.

To set it up you will need access to a pc, ideally with an IWB/projector; it also requires that students make use of their own phones.


1. As students to write down the name of anyone they know who had to leave their home for a prolonged period, maybe because of war, political instability or a climate catastrophe. If they don’t know anyone personally ask them to think of any famous people who fall into that category, or even any films they’ve seen which depict such a situation. Ss discuss in small groups.

2. Share ideas, obviously sensitively if anyone in the class has had such an experience. In the process elicit, board and clarify key vocabulary: refugee, seek refuge, protection, asylum; escape, flee, run away.

3. Tell ss they’re going to imagine that they’re refugees. Ask them to guess which country they might be escaping from. Tell them they’re going to face a series of dilemmas and see if they’re successful at reaching safety. Point out that the scenario is based on the real experiences of millions of people.

4. Show them this page from  the BBC website and recapitulate the scenario. Point out the vocabulary that has already come up and highlight the words ‘traffickers’ and ‘deportation’. Clarify any misunderstandings.

5. Tell then you’re first going to do the task all together. Decide on the balance of the class if ‘you’ are male or female.

6. Show them the first dilemma: Egypt or Turkey. In pairs, students discuss for about two minutes, then vote as a whole class.

7. Take them through the dilemmas, clarifying vocabulary as you go. If you like, you could highlight the 1st/2nd conditional forms on the board.

8. See how ‘you’ end up. Gather reflections on the success/failure of their route.

9. In the same pairs, ss repeat the task on their phones. Monitor in case they need help with language.

10. After a couple of attempts, gather reflections on their experiences.

Homework: Students repeat their task at home and write the story of what happened in the past simple, first person, adding details as they go to make it more real.

Extension task: in a following lesson you could the videos on the same page to practise talking about unreal scenarios using 3rd and mixed conditionals, eg. ‘If they had paid the smuggler…’, ‘If he hadn’t decided to go to Libya’, etc.

هذا هو!

This is why Trump calling Syrian refugees ‘dangerous’ is stupid and wrong


You wake up and check Twitter, and see that the word #earthquake is trending, along with the name of some Japanese-sounding town you’ve vaguely heard of. You check the news on Google and see that it’s a big one – 8.2 on the Richter Scale (does it go that high?!), and it turns out that the epicentre was only a few kilometres away from the town. Hundreds of buildings have collapsed, including many that were supposed to be earthquake-proof. Tens of thousands of people have been trapped and hundreds of thousands made instantly homeless, and according to Reuter’s there’s a storm on the way. You wonder why storms so often follow earthquakes, and try to remember if your brother-in-law’s family have gone to China or Japan on vacation. Maybe you should call him to check they’re ok. But it’s 7.30am. What time is it in China? Japan? You keep reading and watching. The Government has swung into action, sending helicopters to assess the extent of the damage and digging and sonar equipment to rescue any trapped survivors. Neighbouring countries have offered to send help. On each link you click on the death toll gets higher. How dismal. Maybe you should donate. Money or blood. Red Cross. Money can be sent quickly. But blood? How do they…

You look on Twitter for a link to the Red Cross. To the left of the screen you can see that the earthquake is no longer the top trending item. It’s #Trump, and then #sendthemback. Your heart sinks. At a time like this? What’s he… you take a deep breath and click on the hashtag. There’s the story, from CNN. The President has tweeted about the Japanese earthquake. You’re surprised he’s managed to spell it correctly. He’s announced that the US will immediately be closing its borders to Japanese citizens, and will be ‘assembling’ those already in the US with a view to immediate deportation. He calls them ‘infected’, and says that Japan is ‘the world’s most dangerous country’. You rest your head on the keyboard and pray to whatever God might exist for the strength to get through another day.

‘Trump is going to snap’: a rejoinder

The post I wrote two days ago in the first hour after waking up has proven to be hugely popular and so is generating a lot of responses. Thank you to everyone who has liked, shared and commented so far. I’m endeavouring to reply to all the comments on the site but it’s beginning to get a bit out of hand. I want to be sure in myself that I haven’t misled anyone with what I wrote. In particular I’d hate to be responsible for any sense of complacency. Here are some nagging reservations I have about what I wrote, plus some stuff I missed out.

  1. A lot of people are saying that Pence is worse: more rational, more stable, but with an equally psychotic agenda. Some of the things he stands for and has implemented in relation to women’s rights would make the Taliban nudge each other and raise an eyebrow. He would (try to) be the President from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. I can see this point but also think that while he may not be strictly speaking mentally ill as Trump appears to be, he does at least have some respect for the USA as an institution, while Trump doesn’t. I think it does show that the resistance movement has to be against not just the figurehead but the whole women-hating climate-lying agenda.
  2. It’s not inevitable that Trump will break down; there is an element of wishful thinking in what I wrote. However, the events on Sunday at the CIA suggest to me that he’s unable to cope without a cheering or baying crowd. He got that at his rallies and he gets it on Twitter but being President doesn’t work like that. I suspect that whatever happens we will see a lot less of him in public. His Government is (already, after four days) adopting a bunker mentality. They’re banking on using social media as their chief means of communication with their supporters. So much for the internet making the world a more democratic place.
  3. The men who are telling Trump what to do seem to be frontloading his Presidency with a wishlist of items (abortion, climate, restrictions on the press) which any ‘normal’ Republican President would be much more careful about. They’re also allowing him to play with his new toy by humouring him over things like his wall. They don’t care about the consequences for his mental stability if there is a popular revolt on any of these issues – they’re using him as a buffer.
  4. The most dangerous aspect of Trump’s Presidency is his censorship of all mention by the Federal Government of Climate Change. As I feared, he’s following the example of the Florida Governor Rick Scott. I pray that it backfires. It represents the singlemost authoritarian measure yet taken by any government as part of the corporate conspiracy to let the planet burn. Mussolini himself said that fascism is when corporate power and the State become inseparable. Climate denial was always going to have to lead to fascism at some point because it pits the interests of corporations against those of human beings.
  5. Anyone who was at all ambivalent on the question of the climate now needs to see and reflect on the similarity between a government banning citizens from talking about politics and prohibiting them from talking about the weather. In response we have to overcome the social taboo on talking about Climate Change. Every time we change the subject we are cooperating with Trump and Pence’s agenda.
  6. I live in Italy, so in relation to Trump I’m basically limited to ranting online. If you live in the US and you want to push Trump over the edge into total mental incapacity while helping destroy the openly psychotic agenda of this Republican Party, please join together with others offline to protest what it’s trying to do on climate, refugees and women’s rights. Facebook and Twitter are good for organising protests, but they are not in themselves forms of protest.
  7. There’s a lot of significance in the fact that upon leaving office former Presidents open their own libraries. Even George Bush did so. If you go there you will doubtlessly find a section dedicated to biographies of his predecessors. Trump, on the other hand, has never read a biography of a former President. He’s never read any books about former child stars either. He’s just doesn’t read books, period. He probably hasn’t even read the pieces of paper those five scumbags have been getting him to sign this week. There’s a genuine possibility that his reading age is no higher than that of an 8th grader. What this means for his present role is that he doesn’t have any idea what a President is or what he’s supposed to do. He has no reference points. He’s got a vague idea that he’s in a powerful position in relation to something called the United States, but he wouldn’t be able to draw its borders on a map. The reason he’s not enjoying the job is that he’s basically a kid. He thought it was a game, or a best a game show. He does not have the knowledge or the level of intellectual and emotional maturity to grasp such a complex series of interrelated concepts and tasks. Explaining a notion like ‘conflict of interest’ to him must be like trying to get a dog to understand the principles of the Slow Food Movement. No wonder he can’t get the White House staff to stop leaking stories about how nuts he is. This stuff is just so f*cking funny. And the most important thing about it is, is that the “alt-right” idiots think he’s some sort of Godhead, a Randian Supermensch. They actually think he’s smart. Which would be almost inconceivably hilarious if it weren’t for the damnable fact that this coalition of misanthrope trolls, frat boys sociopaths and outright Hitler-worshippers is now in the perfect position to wipe our species off the face of the earth for good /end of rant.


I apologise if you leave a comment and I don’t get round to responding – my wife is due to give birth any day. Feel free to email me via the Contact page.

“You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world. That is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.” (Franz Kafka)

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” (Antonio Gramsci)