Trump, race, and the way forward.

I have tried to strike a mostly positive note about things following Donald Trump’s election as President. After all, given the tone with which he ran most of his campaign, it would be easier now to be a little despondent. Yesterday morning, though, I had my first real rush of sadness. A Jewish friend of mine told me that his parents, who had lived their entire lives in Ohio, had decided to leave the USA, so disturbed were they by the mood that Trump’s rhetoric had created.

It is with their concerns in mind that I am wary of arguments that those worried about Trump’s comments on race are merely blowing the problem out of all proportion. In the last couple of days, I have twice been sent an essay which argues that Democrats are “crying wolf” when it comes to the issue of Donald Trump and racism. The essay, over the course of eight thousand words, aims to make the exhaustive case that Trump is not particularly racist within the context of American politics – not the most reassuring of stances, but an interesting stance all the same, given one of Hillary Clinton’s past pronouncements and her husband’s policies on crime.

The striking thing about this essay is how well it has been received, despite the glaring omissions throughout. I agree with the essay’s general premise – that a culture of fear is not helpful – and it raises several interesting points. Yet these points are overshadowed, in my view, by the author’s failure to take account of much of the material before him. How, for example, can he mention the “alt-right” with no mention of Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard B Spencer, Mike Cernovich, Breitbart or Gamergate? How can he discuss Trump’s racism, or lack of it, without mentioning Trump’s engagement of Steve Bannon, or Trump’s retweeting of white supremacist Twitter accounts, which those accounts took as an endorsement? How can he write an article thousands of words in length about Trump’s alleged racism with no analysis of his calls for the execution of the innocent Central Park Five, or no mention of Trump’s discriminatory rental policies?  How can he claim that “Trump is going to be approximately as racist as every other American president” when Barack Obama, who has repeatedly tried to address some of America’s deepest racial wounds, is still in office? It’s very easy to make a case that Trump is not especially racist – which is not comforting at all, mind you – if you fail to address widely-available chunks of the opposing argument.  I am not so naive or so intellectually dishonest to argue that the outcome of the US election was solely due to race: of course there were several other reasons why Trump prevailed, the most pressing of them economic. At the same time, I think it is a mistake to “take [Trump] at [his] word that you are determined to be the President of every American” when he has just run a campaign characterised in large part by scapegoating and scaremongering. I understand the desire to seek a productive way forward, but that desire should not make us evade the damage to political discourse that Trump has already done.

Since I am aiming to be positive, I will share links to two excellent articles; one of them provides a useful diagnosis of why the US election went the way it did, and the other outlines practical steps that can be taken to address Trump’s presidency. Both, I think, are vital reads, and will hopefully be of great use in the months and years to come.

Fury towards Glenn Beck, and thanks.

Before I can be gracious, I must express my fury.

I am aware that this is my second blog of this nature in two days, but maybe this is a place where I need to park my rage for now. It appears that Glenn Beck, the radio host and American media personality, is absolutely horrified at the rise of the “alt-right” (or, as I prefer to call them, the Racist Right), and is making a series of media appearances to condemn their flagrant racism. Beck should not be remotely surprised by their ascent, given that he has devoted years of his career to promoting the very same bigotry whose wave the alt-right is currently riding.

And I am angry, even as Beck continues to make his way in a positive direction, and continues to renounce his past. I am still furious. Because now Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States, and he looks likely to appoint a white supremacist as his chief strategist. And for years, black people were dismissed as overly sensitive when they criticised Beck, as they watched him laying the foundations for Trump’s election. They were told to stop whining, their worries were dismissed as mere political correctness. Meanwhile, with every bigoted broadcast, Beck gently pushed Trump closer to the White House door. And here we are, and now Beck is sorry.

Perhaps, at some level, it was all just a game for Beck; perhaps he was just chasing ratings, pumping his prejudice into the air as part of the racist arms race that is so much of American shock-jock radio. Maybe he just didn’t see the damage that his rants were doing to black people and to other minorities. In any case, shame on him.

And I needed to say that, first. Because what I will now say is this: thank goodness Beck is doing what he is doing. Because he is taking the conversation about racism to the place where it must consistently go: to the dinner-tables of white America. He was far too late to help to prevent Trump’s election, but maybe in the years to come he can extinguish a small amount of the fires that he so recklessly started. What he is currently doing takes no no little bravery, and once my rage subsides I will commend him properly for that. And if there is anything to be learned from Beck’s career arc, it is this: please listen more carefully, and in timely fashion, to black people who are painstakingly noting the rise of racism. We assure you that we aren’t doing this for fun.

Trump, Black Lives Matter, and transforming the terms of debate.

A very worrying thing is taking place, right before our eyes. I have just read a post from the columnist Tim Montgomerie, in which he approvingly quotes an article by Andrew Sullivan, one of the most prominent conservative thinkers in America. In the post, Mr. Montgomerie approvingly quotes the following section of text:

Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well. A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to “check his privilege” by students at Ivy League colleges. Even if you agree that the privilege exists, it’s hard not to empathize with the object of this disdain. These working-class communities, already alienated, hear — how can they not? — the glib and easy dismissals of “white straight men” as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in Hoffer’s words, “disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.”

And so they wait, and they steam, and they lash out. This was part of the emotional force of the tea party: not just the advancement of racial minorities, gays, and women but the simultaneous demonization of the white working-class world, its culture and way of life. Obama never intended this, but he became a symbol to many of this cultural marginalization. The Black Lives Matter left stoked the fires still further; so did the gay left, for whom the word magnanimity seems unknown, even in the wake of stunning successes. And as the tea party swept through Washington in 2010, as its representatives repeatedly held the government budget hostage, threatened the very credit of the U.S., and refused to hold hearings on a Supreme Court nominee, the American political and media Establishment mostly chose to interpret such behavior as something other than unprecedented. But Trump saw what others didn’t, just as Hoffer noted: “The frustrated individual and the true believer make better prognosticators than those who have reason to want the preservation of the status quo.” (My emphasis in bold.)

It’s a long piece of text, but the section that I would like to talk about briefly is that piece in bold. It’s only one line, but it’s very revealing, I think. Black Lives Matter is an ongoing protest movement to address the wrongful death of black people at police hands; it is an attempt to encourage greater scrutiny of a problem that is now getting some attention but not nearly enough resolution. Sullivan doesn’t adequately scrutinise why the desire of some black people for justice should have been so upsetting to the apparently monolithic white working class. After all, what skin was it off their collective nose? What was it to do with them? How exactly is a wish for better treatment by the police any kind of affront to “the white working-class world, its culture and way of life”? In Sullivan’s article he is not sympathetic to Trump’s bigotry: he rejects it throughout. However, in failing to critique some of the apparently racially-motivated elements of Trump’s support, he helps to cast aspersions on the Black Lives Matter movement. He implies that the problem with the Black Lives Matter movement is that it somehow pushed white working class people too far too soon, and Trump’s election was a logical result.

Elsewhere in the article, Mr. Sullivan refers to Black Lives Matter as part of “the kind of identity politics that unwittingly empowers [Trump]”. (My emphasis.) Yet Black Lives Matter is not “identity politics”, in this newly-negative sense: it is not asking for special treatment for a particular marginalised group, it is asking for equal treatment under the law. It is asking why Freddie Gray can have his spine severed in the back of a police van and every officer involved can walk free; it is asking why Sandra Bland can be pulled over for failing to execute a turn signal and end up dead in a jail cell. It is about asking why Eric Garner had to die for selling cigarettes. If that long, painful advocacy is to be reduced to the now-pejorative phrase “identity politics”, then we are in a troubling place indeed.

Mr. Sullivan notes that “Neo-fascist movements do not advance gradually by persuasion; they first transform the terms of the debate”. Yet in framing Black Lives Matter as a movement that has served primarily to provoke white ire, and not as one which is looking for justice in cases where it is being denied, Mr. Sullivan actually helps to transform those terms of debate. It is the same transformation which has led to the characterisation of those who are concerned about equal rights for marginalised groups as “elitist”That is a dangerous shift, and it must be resisted at every turn.

What’s the point of art, at times like these?

What’s the point of art, at times like these? In truth, I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that there is a value in hope, and there always will be. And so I made a conscious choice at the start of this year to make art which had hope at its core – that is to say, if I had any creative ideas which had an underlying message of pessimism, then I didn’t pursue them. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of apocalyptic art now and then – Radiohead’s “Idioteque” has always felt like the kind of dance tune you would hear at the end of the world – and I think that there is tremendous worth in music that is the soundtrack to despair. It allows us to feel that others understand our helplessness. For my part, I also feel the need to create work that has a positive outlook – that, if I am honest, has happy endings. Because I think that for many millions of people going about their lives, being happy has always been a radical act; and if I can create anything which enables that act, then I’m going to go for it.

Below are the lyrics for a song I wrote on the afternoon before the US election, “Higher Course”. I have had a strong sense since around late February that Donald Trump would win the presidency, and have like many others drawn parallels between his rhetoric and that of far-right leaders in modern Europe and further back in history. I think it bears repeating, especially now, that there is nothing inevitable about the ascent of these demagogues; that the margins by which they are being elected are still very narrow; and that, within those narrowest margins, there is still room for a message of hope.

“Higher Course”

The old ideas return,

We’re on the verge,

The brutes become more brave –

These injured souls,

Their eyes are Berlin-winter-cold,

and frozen;

They’ve sold us fear,

and here the price we’ve paid is dear –

But then we pause,

since of course we’ve seen their like before:

They’re nothing new,

The early nineteen-thirties ushered through;

They close their doors,

But we’re answering their storms with warmth –

They stalk the lowest roads,

We take the higher course.

On Donald Trump, “the naysayer”, and deep-space travel.

So Donald Trump has been elected as the President of the United States; and so I would like to say two things. The first is about the naysayer, and the second is about deep-space travel.

A few days ago, I was talking to a friend of mine about a distressing recent incident, where I was racially harassed (and perhaps assaulted) in the street. I mentioned my discomfort at what had happened, and offered the opinion that choosing where to live as a black person, in many parts of the world, was often a matter of choosing the place that was “the least shit” (not the most poetic of phrases, I will admit). I didn’t think this was a very controversial statement – after all, whenever a friend recommends that I visit a particular city, my first question is frequently “what’s the racism like there?” (This, I assure you, a question borne of painful and personal experience.) I was very surprised, then, to hear my friend tell me that he had “lost all respect” for me. His reasoning was that I should not be scared away from a city by its racism, but that I should stay and confront it. I was upset by his reaction, for which he subsequently apologised, and we parted on friendly terms; he is a very good person, after all. Why, though, had he reacted like that?

We actually discussed this, and we got to the bottom of it; which was important, I think. There are some people, like my friend, who have a very positive outlook on the city around them (in this case, Berlin). Their emotional attachment to the city is so powerful – for them, it is a place that gives them unparalleled freedom – that any presentation of its more unpleasant sides immediately meets with a negative reaction. It is a little like telling someone that beneath their beautiful pedicures lies a fungal infection. And this is the insidious thing about racism – it is so ugly that its mere presence unsettles people; good people, who would be horrified if they saw a Nazi trying to intimidate you on the train. But these good people need to do more, otherwise they become “the naysayer”: the person for whom the existence of racism is so uncomfortable that they would rather turn away from it, in the hope that by covering their eyes it will no longer be there.

What can these good people do? Well, that’s where we come to the second thing I would like to say. There are two places in this Universe, both equally remote, to which I will never be able to travel: one of those is deep space, and the other is a conversation about racism at an all-white family dinner table. As a black person, I won’t be in the room when white people discuss how they feel about ethnic minorities, but I really think – given the emerging demographic details of Trump’s victory – that the all-white family meal is the most important conversation in America. It’s at this dinner table where fears and misconceptions about non-white people will be aired, and it is here that those who are unafraid of us must speak up, and not turn away; it is here that they should try to respond with the same degree of indignation, that my friend replied to me. I don’t think for one moment that this conversation will ever be an easy one: in some cases, those people will be outnumbered at the dinner table by people they dearly love, and who have always shown them great kindness. Nevertheless, it is the kind of conversation that is essential, in its own way as revolutionary as any street protest; and, if we look at the current polls, it is not happening nearly enough.

As for me? I am not here merely to point fingers at others. I will continue to write as I always have, and to speak as boldly and precisely about these issues as I can. I will try to listen, and where I can reassure those who are only afraid, rather than triumphant in their bigotry – because I am not arrogant enough to think that I can affect that latter group. And, most of all, I will try my very best not to despair; since while I may be despondent now and then, prolonged misery is a luxury that I cannot afford. On I go, then; away from fear, and hopefully towards more effective work.

Rest in peace Carlos Alberto, a true gentleman.

Here is a quick word for Carlos Alberto, the captain of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning side, who passed a few hours ago. He was a true gentleman, and I am very fortunate to have one first-hand story among doubtless many to prove it.

In 2014, I travelled to his house on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro with a brilliant team from the BBC World Service, Jim Frank and Fernanda Nidecker, to interview Mr. Alberto for “The Burden of Beauty”, a documentary that we were making about the upcoming World Cup. Mr. Alberto could not have been a more welcoming host. He spoke with notable warmth about Brazil’s players, most notably Neymar and Oscar, the latter of whom he likened favourably (off the record, since he did not want to put any more pressure on the Chelsea midfielder during the tournament) to Gerson. He pointed fondly to a picture above his mantelpiece where he was embracing Bobby Moore after their classic clash at that World Cup. “He was my friend”, he said, with a moving nostalgia.

After about an hour in Mr. Alberto’s company, during which he described in thrilling detail his famous goal in the final against Italy, we had to head back into town. However, it was rush hour by then, and taxis in Rio were at a premium. The traffic was horrific, and the waiting time for a cab was probably close to an hour. Without hesitation, Mr. Alberto asked us to get into the back of his car, and the World Cup-winning captain joined the miles-long snake of vehicles in the hope of finding us a ride back into town. After fifteen minutes or so, he caught sight of a stray, unoccupied taxi, and flagged it down. The taxi driver, double-taking at the sight of this Brazilian football great, duly pulled over and let us in, and the last we saw of Mr. Alberto was the back of his head and the back of his hand as he waved us graciously away. It was harder to imagine a gesture more humble from a man who had fulfilled the dreams of millions; and it explained why today, and for endless years to come, he will be held in the very highest esteem. Carlos Alberto; an exceptional footballer, and by untold accounts, an even better human being.

On turning thirty-seven.

I am now 37. Thirty-seven! My God, how did this happen? My mother, already widowed, had four children by now. Four! All I’m worrying about is three deadlines. She was much more efficient with her time than I am. How do you manage five lives including your own – how do you feed that many mouths and minds? I rarely have the discipline to sit down for three meals a day. At times like this I marvel at the miraculous sacrifice of parenthood. Meanwhile, three years from my fortieth birthday, I’m still wandering from cafe to cafe, trying to make each piece of work better than the last. This really is the most bizarre of lives, and I still wonder how I ended up here.

I’ve been thinking a lot about ageing recently, much more than I would care to admit. Age is a funny thing – it rumbles along unnoticed for the longest while, and there it suddenly is, hammering at your front door. Age is an attention-seeking child; the more you try to ignore it, the more it manifests itself. This summer, I went down to the local basketball court, to work out for some pre-season training; I used to be able to dunk the ball comfortably, but now I could barely touch the rim. Wait, what? When did that happen? When did I fall out of the sky?!

But then I was reminded how it works – that youth is never really yours, it’s just on loan. And, if I’m honest, I would have noticed my loss of leap much earlier, if I hadn’t stopped caring so much about sport – one of the healthier developments of the last few years. I mean, sport is great and all, but an obsessive interest with people chasing each other around the place is ultimately unhealthy. (See also: Internet dating.)

I think the last truly anxious birthday I had was probably my twenty-seventh or twenty-eighth. That’s when I was about three years out from leaving my job as a lawyer, and was wondering whether I had made the right gamble. Since then I just haven’t had so much energy to worry about such stuff. What I have realised, over time, is that I want to do two things with my life, in this order: (1) make work that resonates with people as deeply as possible, and (2) be grateful for the spectacular piece of luck that saw me born in a Western European democracy with free healthcare in the late Seventies. Number (2) is really, really important, because I’m from a group of people known as the Acholi, from Northern Uganda; and at one point in the 1990s, they were confined to refugee camps where a thousand people were dying every week. They had one of the highest child mortality rates in the world at one point; I know this because my mum, apart from raising us, used to go to those camps and provide free healthcare every summer for years on end.

Yes; my mum’s done a lot. I think more and more about that as time goes on, in between contemplating my next poem or slice of cake. I’ve been given a lot, really – more than anyone could ever ask. Sure, I’ve taken many of my opportunities, but I’m ten minutes’ bus ride away from a Syrian refugee centre, where several of the residents will be mourning friends and relatives who never stood a chance.

I am finally learning to forgive myself for not being superhuman. My mum is superhuman, and so I thought it was only my duty to emulate her. I am finally learning to enjoy life, and not to feel too guilty at the life of freedom that I have been given – because, quite frankly, nobody likes a whinger.

I’ll most likely be ranting about something else in the next few days, but at times like this I really do try to reflect, and to be positive. I’m not really a religious sort, and so I think that this is pretty much all there is. And when I think about it, this is good, really. I live in a lovely flat with three windows casting natural light onto my writing desk, on a street corner just busy enough that the traffic is music. The pound is currently doing horrifying things against the euro, but life is still affordable enough; and my family and friends (touching wood, always touching wood) are mostly doing well, making it through. Thirty-seven is definitely one of life’s kinder milestones. I think it may be time for some cake.

A short note about being shy.

I have a running joke with my friends that I am painfully shy. It normally involves me saying how uncomfortable I feel speaking in front of large crowds or talking to complete strangers, and it normally ends with them groaning in disbelief and reaching for my throat in mock despair. For them, the thought of me lacking confidence in any social setting is laughable. Here’s the funny thing, though; there was a time when I was that shy.

 

I thought of this recently when I heard from a close friend, a superb artist who was doubting the quality of her work. It reminded me of just how hard-won my own self-belief has been. As some of you may know, I am a keen musician; what some of you might not know is that I used to hate my speaking voice so much that merely listening to it used to bring me to tears. (Though that might still be the case for many of you, I eventually got over it.) The only way to overcome my horror at how I sounded was to listen to one of my songs on repeat until all of the self-disgust had left my system. I had to do this, I reasoned, because if I wanted to be a successful artist – be that as a public speaker, or anything else – then I simply couldn’t afford to be shy. It just wasn’t an option.

 

Looking back, I think that having grown up as a black person in mostly-white environments has really helped me. If you’re black and almost everyone else in your class and school is white, then you can’t blend into the background – you’re naturally just going to be more visible in a crowd. And so, given that you will more easily catch the eye, you learn to adapt. If you’re going to be conspicuous, you may as well be confident with it.

 

I suppose I’m only writing this to point out that self-confidence doesn’t come as naturally as people might think that it does, whether that be belief in your art or in yourself. Perhaps, when joking about being shy, I am not just mocking this ego that I have successfully grown; maybe I’m also thumbing my nose at the past, where my insecurities inhibited me from doing so much of what I wanted. And maybe, one day, that past will be so far behind me that I won’t even need to refer to it anymore, even in jest.

Racism and misogyny never take a day off. On Leslie Jones, and my friend.

Racism and misogyny never take a day off. A good friend of mine recently decided to treat herself to a holiday, and so she went to a beautiful and supposedly liberal city in a Western European country. She was the only black person in her group of friends, and racism and misogyny conspired to taint her visit. While her white friends took in the sights and enjoyed their time off, she found herself incessantly subjected to all manner of indignities – everything from snide glances, to vocal expressions of contempt. Her experience was so unpleasant that, on one particular day, she said that she pretended she was ill, just so that she could stay inside and not have to face it. I can’t lie – the thought of my proud, brilliant friend forced indoors by such a torrent of prejudice is heartbreaking.

Some people will tell you to rise above racism and misogyny, but in many cities – most cities? – that’s the same as telling someone to walk barefoot on crushed glass and not get cut. Some people will tell you ignore the racists and the misogynists, but that’s not much of a comfort if you’re a black woman trying to building a career in Hollywood and you get daily hatred just for being visible. Leslie Jones and my friend are the same. They are just black women making lives for themselves, and maybe even enjoying themselves as they go. My friend just wanted a nice break, and racism ruined it. Leslie Jones just wanted to put out a feel-good movie, and racism forced her away from the Internet, where she should have been celebrating with appreciative fans.

I have regularly written that I hate writing about racism, and that has never been more true. I write about it from a sense of duty. I hate writing about it because it reminds me that it exists. I hate writing about it because every time I do write about it someone tries to comfort me by telling me that it’s not as bad as it was in the old days and that things are improving. That is probably about as comforting as being told that the acid someone splashed in your face could have been even stronger. The people who tell me that are the people who can go on holidays to those Western European cities and remain blissfully oblivious to the racial hatred so firmly embedded there. They are the same kind of people who will listen to my friend first with incredulity, then sympathy, and then barely-masked irritation when she tells them what she experienced just for having the nerve to be a black woman in public. Because their primary concern is not to make my friend feel better, but to make themselves feel better that the world in which they walk freely is not capable of being so monstrous as this suddenly troublesome black woman is making out. Because, for them, racism and misogyny are as simple to deal with as watching an atrocity on the evening news; they merely have to change a channel, and they no longer see them. But for my friend, and for Leslie Jones, the grim truth is that even when you do stop thinking about racism and misogyny, they don’t stop thinking about you.

Simone Biles, and trying too hard.

Art is a funny thing. Creating your best work is often a tortuous process; yet, at the same time, you need to be relaxed, at least to a degree. It’s such a contradiction. I think that athletes – who, in a sense, are artists too – understand this well. It’s the balance between furiously applying a craft you’ve studied for years, and at the same time letting go. If I look back at the better work that I have made, there has always been one thing in common – a period when, however brief, the writing seemed to tumble out, as if it were already there.

It’s possible, as a writer, to want success too much. That often manifests itself in contorted plots, or overly-descriptive prose. I guess the sporting equivalent is the over-hit putt or pass, the relay baton that you drop because your hand’s too rigid. The most successful writing I have ever done, in my view, was that where the work felt almost underwritten; where I had stripped back everything to the point where it felt almost banal. If I have one rule as a writer, it’s this: keep it simple, but never basic. There’s a cliche about how you need to be desperate in order to make it as an artist, but I don’t think that’s wholly true. I definitely think you need a yearning of some kind, but all of the best artists manage to find their greatest poise, their deepest calm, in the midst of that desperation; that’s why Simone Biles, the world watching her for any hint of a slip, still plants her feet with perfect firmness, and grins her way into history.