Archive for Politics

On James Blunt, Chris Bryant and inequality in the arts.

Argh. I shouldn’t be writing this as I actually have another article half-drafted sitting nearby, but I feel I need to do so. Here goes.

Chris Bryant, Labour’s shadow culture minister, made some important comments about the lack of diversity in the arts.  He recently stated that:

“I am delighted that Eddie Redmayne won [a Golden Globe for best actor], but we can’t just have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk,” he said.

Where are the Albert Finneys and the Glenda Jacksons? They came through a meritocratic system. But it wasn’t just that. It was also that the writers were writing stuff for them. So is the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, doing that kind of gritty drama, which reflects [the country] more? We can’t just have Downton programming ad infinitum and think that just because we’ve got some people in the servants’ hall, somehow or other we’ve done our duty by gritty drama.” (My italics.)

James Blunt, feeling that Bryant was trying to say that his success was unearned, gave a punchy rejoinder in the Guardian, in which he referred to Bryant as “a classist gimp”.  I read Blunt’s letter, and instinctively applauded him for his rebuttal.  But then I took a step back.

Bryant was essentially right. There is a severe problem with diversity in the arts, and the media, right across the board. It’s so obvious that you don’t even need statistics to see it.  And it’s getting worse, now that the cost of living in many large cities plus, for example, the falling revenues in the music industry – means that it is much, much harder to make it. Those who do make it will typically have somewhere to crash during those lean years, and those who do are disproportionately well-off.

So why, then, did I applaud Blunt? Well, here’s where we need to separate the personal from the political. Bryant clearly triggered something in Blunt. Blunt has spent many years being the only boy from a visibly posh background in most rooms he has entered, and being called out for it clearly still stings him now. Blunt sounds like he was something of an outlier at boarding school, and so now to be seen as representative of that world, as the mere beneficiary of a ready and complacent nepotism, is infuriating.

I think I first applauded Blunt because I partly understood, as someone who also attended boarding school, where he was coming from.  No-one likes being told that they don’t deserve whatever position they have reached, particularly when they have worked hard to get there. But Bryant wasn’t trying to be offensive. He didn’t mean that.  And, though it was difficult for Blunt to step back from his rage, it’s something that he could usefully do.

Because the playing field in the arts isn’t level. It just isn’t, and if James Blunt had really wanted to, if he really needed to call goodnight on his dream, then all of those other careers that he mentioned in his open letter were still open to him. And that is the one thing that people with boarding-school educations very often have: the ability to do something completely different with their lives. Very often, for those who do not have degrees or networks that they can tap into when seeking jobs, the artistic dream is all they have. There is no safety net, and if we don’t fund the arts we are consigning them to a pretty bitter future. In fact, screw the future – that is the present we are sitting in, right now.

Yes, it hurt James Blunt when he was called too posh to make it in the music industry, just as it hurts me to be called an Uncle Tom because I am a black person who went to boarding school, even though I sometimes got the shit kicked out of me for being black while I was there. It hurts when you are lazily branded as the metaphor for a social class where you often felt like the odd one out, particularly when that class is scorned.

But you know what’s far worse?  The fact that there is a generation of outstanding artists out there who, due to their lack of opportunity, will not achieve their potential if our funding bodies do not help them as best they can. That was Bryant’s point, and it was vital, and I hope that it is not lost in the ensuing to-and-fro between him and Blunt.

 

Free speech is expensive.  It’s time to pay for it

Like many people in Europe this week, I was numbed by the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris and the subsequent murder of Jews, and then horrified at the latest rounds of bloodletting by Boko Haram in Nigeria.  The atrocities committed by both sets of extremists were, in a sense, acts of storytelling. They were attempts to tell the story of the supremacy of their ideology, and they were tales written in fear and blood.  Much has been expressed this week about the value of free speech, of having the courage to pose critiques of potentially lethal enemies: and I have begun to reflect again on just how expensive free speech actually is.

Most obviously, free speech can cost lives.  Journalists have had a particularly dangerous few years, with 1109 killed worldwide since 1992.  Many of them work under extraordinary pressure, and against extraordinary odds.  They are dying due to their desire to make vital revelations, so that fresh horrors by Al-Qaeda, ISIS and so on remain forever unscripted.  Less starkly, free speech costs money.  Even in those societies whose citizens are allowed to say largely whatever they like, the largest media platforms go most consistently to those who have the deepest pockets.  Press barons with a fleet of newspapers can pontificate either via their outlets’ headlines or on social media, secure in the fact that they have by far the biggest audience.  It is all very well having free speech, but it’s not so useful when you are talking without amplification and the other person has a megaphone. (Especially when, it must be said, they are such consistent engines of misinformation as Fox News.)

What, then, can be done?  Perhaps it is time for us to begin treating investigative journalism, one of our surest means of speaking truth to power, as seriously as we would any charitable cause.  The good health of this field, I think, is essential to a thriving civil society.  I was startled to receive an email at the start of this year from Mother Jones, an excellent nonprofit news organisation based in the USA, asking urgently for donations. That an outlet of their calibre, home to several scoops and with almost 500,000 followers on Twitter, should be struggling so much financially was something that worried me greatly.  It made me worry about all the stories that are going untold, due to a lack of networks and resources, in places like West Papua and the Central African Republic, where the world’s pens and cameras do not find it fashionable to linger too long.

If there is to be any positive legacy from the last week’s atrocities in Nigeria and France, I would like it to include a surge in funding towards journalists covering those areas of the world where free speech is under the greatest threat.  Where should this money come from?  Well, members of the public can help.  I actually think that much more could be done by those companies who pride themselves on providing a wider social benefit: companies, for example, working in the fields of clean energy.  I also believe that private donors have a role to play.  In my more idealistic moments, which are frequent, I imagine a group of a few dozen people – those, say, who’ve tech fortunes, and those who’ve inherited wealth – pooling their resources, and putting together an endowment of a couple of hundred million pounds.  That endowment would then be carefully managed, and then a group of journalists would be paid their salaries out of the interest earned on that endowment. Journalists could also be given fixed-term grants to work on a single story in depth.

Of course, there are already organisations with a similar kind of structure, and so it makes most immediate sense to seek them out, and see whether they need further financial assistance.  The ones I have found most useful, in my last couple of years of internet use, have been the aforementioned Mother Jones, Global Voices, Writers of Colour, Open Democracy, and Democracy Now. I hope that one day at least one of their names might be as readily on most people’s lips as, say, that of a large aid organisation.  Whilst I acknowledge the boundless optimism of this wish, I should only add that this is precisely what dreams are for.

 

 

Boris the Killer Clown elected as London mayor

London is bracing itself for an uncertain future after a killer clown was elected as its new mayor.  The floppy-haired circus creature, known only on the ballot paper as Boris, won with a Twitter campaign composed entirely of emojis. During the victory parade, the clown celebrated its win by reaching out to a jubilant supporter and tearing both his arms off.

“I’m going to make London’s citizens laugh again if it kills them”, howled the clown, as its terrified fans ran screaming from the streets. One of them, professional lad John Ellis, was almost too distraught to speak to the press, but relented once they offered him a retweet. “That guy the clown slaughtered was my friend”, sobbed John, pausing his tears to snap a selfie next to the bloody, lifeless form. “We elected Boris for the banter, but we never knew he’d do this to Leon.” In the depths of his grief, the student looked up to see a Romanian street cleaner ambling past. “LOL a scapegoat!”, he yelled, grabbing a nearby pitchfork. “Got to go.”

The killer clown then inflamed tensions by stating that it pitied those countries who had not experienced British colonial rule, a remark which resulted in the spontaneous combustion from self-loathing of his black and Asian staff.  When confronted about its latest praise of wholesale exploitation, it responded with a swift succession of fart sounds, and then tore out the reporter’s throat.

“Beware the Black Sainthood”: my speech at Edinburgh University’s Student Union.

On Monday 13 October 2014, I gave a speech at Edinburgh University’s Student Union, “Beware the Black Sainthood”. The speech examined how the legacies of great black figures throughout history are often sanitised, and how black history is often marginalised if not destroyed altogether. The transcript of my speech is below.

——————

The title of this evening’s talk is “Beware the Black Sainthood”. I should probably start, then, with an explanation of what the “Black Sainthood” is; and, during the course of that explanation, it will quickly become clear why we should be afraid of it.

The “Black Sainthood” is a status given to a revolutionary black leader after his or her death. This status is typically bestowed by those who vigorously opposed him or her in life; and its intention, conscious or otherwise, is to soften the edges of their legacy, to stop them living in our minds as a symbol of resistance.

If any of you in the audience tonight wish to qualify as a Black Saint, you must have the following four characteristics.

Firstly, you must be a black leader committed to the racial equality of his or her people.
Secondly, you must have lived a public life of astonishing dignity and restraint in the face of horrifying provocation.
Thirdly, you must have a group of troublesomely radical allies from whom, after your death, all connections can be conveniently severed by historians*.
Fourthly, you must make at least one major speech or declaration which allows your life’s philosophy to be nebulously defined after your death as “peace and love for all mankind”.

If we go through those characteristics one by one, we can see that the most illustrious recent member of the Black Sainthood is Nelson Mandela. Committed to racial equality? Check. A life of astonishing dignity and restraint? Check. Troublesomely radical allies? Let’s see: Mandela had Cuba, and the Communist Party. Check. And finally, peace and love? Check.

Following Mandela’s death, he was celebrated by many of those who had either been apologists for apartheid, if not actively enabled it. Their tributes were characterised by one common element: they chose to remember Mandela merely as the elder, possibly cuddly statesman, the supposedly anger-free great-grandfather, and not also as the young trial lawyer of fearsome resolve. What also passed largely without comment was why Cuba was given such a prominent place at Mandela’s memorial ceremony, with Raul Castro, the brother of Fidel, giving an address. For many years, Cuba was a staunch ally to Mandela in fighting apartheid, even supplying training and troops. Indeed, Mandela visited this country shortly after his release from prison in 1991, and told Fidel Castro that “the Cuban people have a special place in the hearts of the peoples of Africa.”

The benefits of such a selective remembrance are clear. They allow those who perpetuated perverse systems of injustice to scuttle away from the scene of the crime. They allow them to make a clean break with the past, to treat the Black Saint’s legacy as some form of holy water which washes away all of their responsibility for the wrongs which he or she had to overcome. They allow them to say, for example, that apartheid was just what people practised back then, as if there were not significant numbers of citizens – and countries – who were horrified by it at the time.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone who elevated Nelson Mandela to the Black Sainthood did so deliberately. He led a remarkable life, and was an inspiration to millions; the temptation to regard him as more than merely human is immense. Yet to do so actually diminishes his power. Because every time that anyone working towards social progress states that Mandela’s deeds were beyond emulation, they are simultaneously telling themselves that “oh, well, I could never do that”. And that, I think, is contrary to the true spirit of activism. As activists, all you are ever really doing is chipping away at whatever wall of oppression you face. You never know if it will be you who makes the breakthrough, and if you do, you will owe everything to those who came before you. Activists, whether or not they end up their names in lights or on street corners, are nothing more than ordinary people responding to extraordinary challenges. That, if anything, makes Mandela’s achievements even more praiseworthy – that he was just a man, like anyone else.

The danger is that we are so dazzled by the glory of the Black Sainthood that we ignore those who contributed to their success. We forget the names of those who were in jail alongside Mandela. We forget those who came before them, like Steve Biko. This, of course, is a mistake, because those who helped to devise these strategies often have the most compelling stories to tell. In fact, whenever we look at a Black Saint – someone who is hoisted up on history’s pedestal – we should always ask ourselves: who were their contemporaries? Who were their friends, their mentors? By doing this, we can better understand the complex narratives that existed at the time.

For example, many people know that Rosa Parks was not merely some disgruntled black woman who got spontaneously fed up with the back of the bus. What Parks did that day was the result of a carefully-plotted protest. What most people don’t know, though, is the name of Claudette Colvin, who did exactly what Parks did almost a year earlier. In 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Colvin refused to concede her seat to a white person, and was arrested for her trouble. Colvin, who was only 15 at the time, then went on to become one of four plaintiffs to challenge Alabama’s bus segregation laws; in Broader vs Gale, a case which they won. Yet Parks, and not Colvin, was chosen as the face of the civil rights movement, and Colvin herself has no doubts as to why that was.

“They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable”, she told Margot Adler, in a 2009 interview with National Public Radio. What’s more, she noted that Parks’ physical appearance was more socially acceptable at that time. “Her skin texture”, said Colvin, “was the kind that people associate with the middle class. She fit that profile.” Colvin, along with being teenaged and dark-skinned, was also a single mum; she was therefore not deemed wholesome enough to be a figurehead for progress, even though she was probably more representative of the protesters at the time. As the author David Garrow has noted, “the reality of the movement was often young people and often more than 50 per cent women”.

Colvin’s story is so important because, when we glance at the Civil Rights movement, we mostly see heterosexual black men at the helm. If we look no further than Black Saints like Dr. Martin Luther King, we therefore end up with a misleading picture of history. Our refusal to recognise the central place of many women and gay men in that movement has implications for how we regard those groups today.

Again, for example: as several people know – but still more do not – Dr. King’s mentor was a man called Bayard Rustin, whose role in the movement was largely downplayed because he was openly gay. It was Rustin, after all, who taught Dr. King and his peers the techniques of non-violent resistance that would go on to be so effective. Yet the names of Rustin and Colvin do not ring through the ages like those of King and Parks. Their unashamed homosexuality or their youth or their teenage pregnancies were an inconvenient truth, and in some minds they still are.

The Black Sainthood exists because too many people like their history to have a happy ending. But, of course, history does not end. To quote a character from the film Magnolia – a quote I use far too often – ‘We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us”. The structures that fortified apartheid did not all crumble the day that Mandela left jail. Indeed, given the economic inequality that persists in modern South Africa, some would insist that many of those structures are still firmly in place, and that Mandela accepted them too readily. I say this not to attack Mandela’s legacy, but merely to state that his work was not yet finished, that his life did not remove these entrenched injustices; something which he himself might have been one of the first to accept.

You might think that I am being unnecessarily reductive in my analysis – that no-one is using Mandela’s death to skim over the past. But if we look around, we see that historical revisionism of this nature has been taking place for years.

To quote a recent example, there’s this Guardian article from 18 April 2012, titled “Britain destroyed records of colonial crimes”:

“Thousands of documents detailing some of the most shameful acts and crimes committed during the final years of the British empire were systematically destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments, an official review has concluded.

Those papers that survived the purge were flown discreetly to Britain where they were hidden for 50 years in a secret Foreign Office archive, beyond the reach of historians and members of the public, and in breach of legal obligations for them to be transferred into the public domain.”
….

“Clear instructions were issued that no Africans were to be involved: only an individual who was “a servant of the Kenya government who is a British subject of European descent” could participate in the purge.”

“Some idea of the scale of the operation and the amount of documents that were erased from history can be gleaned from a handful of instruction documents that survived the purge. In certain circumstances, colonial officials in Kenya were informed, ‘it is permissible, as an alternative to destruction by fire, for documents to be packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast’.”

But back to more recent times. Barack Obama’s election was greeted with joy by many, who perhaps hoped that America was on its way to becoming a post-racial society – whatever that means. A few months later, President Obama found himself a somewhat unwitting candidate for the Black Sainthood, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Obama, who stated that he was “surprised” and “humbled” by the award, was nominated for it just a few weeks after taking office. The Nobel committee gave him the prize, in its own words, “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples”. Those “extraordinary efforts”, by the time of the awards ceremony in October 2009, consisted of little more than a few encouraging speeches on how to tackle climate change, nuclear proliferation and reaching out to the Muslim world. Given President Obama’s subsequent expansion of the drone programme and continued supply of arms to the Egyptian government, the Nobel committee may feel that this prize was somewhat premature. That is, of course, assuming that they didn’t award him the prize – as I still suspect – for the feel-good factor that he gave the world to see an African-American sitting in the Oval Office.

Of all the reasons why people would choose to promote Black Sainthood, perhaps the most insidious is white guilt. By “white guilt”, I mean the sense that many white people have that they may have been decisively complicit in maintaining a system of racial supremacy. When figures such as Dr. King, Mandela and Obama emerge, they are seen by many black people as symbols of liberation, but by many white people as impossibly clean-cut symbols of redemption. It is remarkable how kum-bay-yah the story of Dr. King has become; the lesson of his life supposedly being that you can have all the equal rights that you want, so long as you ask warmly and nicely. Yet Dr. King was much more than that. The sanitisation of his image has been so profound, even among black people themselves, that we must reassert his achievements. This has been done most effectively, in my view, by an article written in 2011, by Hamden Rice. This article is so good, in fact, that I will quote from it at length.

“Dr. King’s main impact was not to make white people nicer or fairer. That’s why some of us who are African Americans get a bit possessive about his legacy. Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, despite what our civil religion tells us, is not color blind.”

Rice then goes on to describe a conversation with his father, in which he criticises Dr. King for not being radical enough – a perception which, I am sad to admit, I once shared. His father responded, ‘with a sort of cold fury”, that “Dr. King ended the terror of living in the South.”

As Rice notes, the Deep South was not merely a place of segregation, where black and white people merely used different drinking fountains. The real problem was that “white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually black men, and lynched them. You know all about lynching. But you may forget or do not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment. This is the climate of fear that Dr. King ended.”

Dr. King and his peers taught black people to take beatings – they actually gave classes on how to brace themselves so it would be less painful – how to maintain their composure in jail, and generally to absorb the greatest assaults on their person and psyche that white people of the time could inflict upon them. And this is a part of his legend that is not so often taught, and that, I think, is that it emphasises too starkly the brutality of white supremacy at the time. Far better to focus upon the Dr. King whose message was one of compassion, collective healing and dreams, than of the one whose work held up a mirror to the horrors of his age.

How to prevent this from happening? How can we stop people and institutions from sweeping their darkest misdeeds under History’s carpet? Well, the only answer is: by maintaining constant, passionate vigilance. By reminding ourselves of the names of those whose struggle for racial equality and black self-determination has never made them eligible for Black Sainthood; people like Thomas Sankara, Chris Hani, Angela Davis. By remembering, whilst we talk of Black History Month, that a great deal of Black History has either been carefully curated or destroyed altogether. We should be wary of those who try to ascribe happy endings to history; who spend longer praising the abolitionists of slavery than they do in deconstructing why slavery was allowed to persist as long as it did (and, indeed, still does today). We should beware the Black Sainthood, and its attempt to Disneyfy the past. Instead, we should treat these great black historical figures with the nuance they deserve, learning from both their strengths and their flaws; because there, and there alone, is where true progress lies.

——–

*The correct word here would have been “revisionists”; indeed, it has been historians who have been most committed to nuance over this issue.  Many thanks to Simon M Stevens, History PhD candidate at Columbia University, for alerting me on this issue.

After the Shaw Shooting, a new hit US TV series, “The Anger Games”

Media industry experts are ecstatic at the news that a brilliant reality TV show is set to go ahead. Following a pilot programme that broke all records, The Anger Games is due to hit small screens across the US from January 2015. “This show is revolutionary”, gushed an executive, speaking on condition of anonymity. “When we heard the concept, we were like just, wow, this is incredible.”

John Bowman, the show’s creator, is “blown away” by the reaction. “I hoped we were onto something, but when we saw the numbers of people tuning in, me and the crew were – I mean, just tears of happiness,” he says, shaking his head. Bowman believes that the simple yet addictive format of The Anger Games is key to its success. “Every 28 hours, we choose a black community in the US at random, and then we get them to nominate a tribute – normally an unarmed black teenager”, he explains. “The tribute is shot dead by an unnamed policeman, and then we send the cameras in. That’s when it gets really exciting.”

As soon as the black teen dies, viewers across America are encouraged to place bets on how soon it will take black people to start crying, swearing, cursing, acting undignified in the face of yet another intolerable injustice, or just generally losing their shit. There is also a sweepstake for anyone who correctly guesses the minute that a Negro first burns an American flag. “John is a genius”, says Jenny Vale, the show’s co-creator. “He realised that there’s nothing more entertaining in America than black rage.” Bets can currently be placed using the red button on their remote controls, though there are rumours of a deal with a major smartphone company.  “An Anger Games app!” says Vale.

“We’re very excited about Season 1,” says Bowman, “we’ve got all kinds of ideas. We’re even going to allow one lucky viewer to join the police in the community, where they will be given one police uniform, a mask and a free can of tear gas. We really want our audience to get hands on.” He shakes his head. “I’m telling you, wow. I knew people would like the idea, but this – man, this really humbles you.”

Inspired by Israel-Palestine, 1948: The Sailor and The Farmer.

Having read about Israel and Palestine a great deal of late, I thought I would post this piece, “The Sailor and The Farmer”.  If of interest, please share.

———–

The sailor, stunned, started to shake;
By Fate’s grace, he had just escaped
From a scene of matchless horror
Since he had acted upon a
Hunch and forced some friends to board
His vessel, whilst some who’d ignored
Warnings that they were in danger
Were condemned to taste death’s flavour,
Gas and ash, in sombre chamber…

They’d all been rounded into herds,
The sailor’s friends, and then one-third
Of them had disappeared within
That tomb – but two-thirds came with him…
Previously, they’d lived happily
With people they now had to flee;
That’s why the sailor was struck dumb
That those that they’d once lived among
Could turn on them: but he had dreamt
Of such a day; yes, it was meant
To end like this – or start like this;
That, heartlessly, they’d be dismissed
And, as survivors, set adrift
To find another, safer part
Of Earth. And so, this sailor’s ark
Set sail. The waters were rocky
The crew’s members murmured softly
In a circle, heads bowed, hoping
They’d find homes across the ocean…
Yet this vessel’s journey was hard;
Their flesh was burned by sun, they starved
Halfway to death, and they implored
Their Lord that he’d reward their faith –
The sailor, praying for this grace
Looked out across the shoreless sea
And pleaded: “Please, there ought to be
Some land where we can rest our souls –
Our soles…” The sailor’s forlorn thought
Was that he’d never known a port
Where he’d been welcome: throughout time
There’d been suspicion of his kind –
The script, timeless, had never changed:
They’d come ashore, and they’d remain
There for a while, put down some roots;
They’d swap their sailor’s clothes for suits
Of good, land-bound professionals,
Then some would have exceptional
Careers, leading to jealous hosts
Who’d chase them from their lands, their coasts;
Or worse. The sailor knew of friends
Whose entire bloodlines had been cleansed,
Whose family trees had the sap
Ripped from their veins; he’d seen all that,
The sailor. Coping with this nomad’s
Life was often difficult,
Yet easier than getting caught,
Stranded on dry land at the hands
Of angry clans…yet as he made
His slow progress across the waves
He vowed, both wary and weary:
“My people’s eyes will be tear-free
One day; I will turn the servant
To the served; yes, I’m determined
That the next place where my anchor’s
Shade cascades, will see us anxious
No more; there will be an ending
To the terror we’ve been feeling…”
Then, as if the wind was heeding
Him, it gave wings to his craft,
Which harnessed the storm; came at last
To harbour on a continent
Most of whose folk were competent
At working all day in the fields…
As they landed, a plan revealed
Itself to this smart sailor, who
Barked some sharp orders to his crew.
The first order was “Burn the boat”:
The sailor intended – not hoped –
To stay here, and would not be swayed
By fear; he would cower in shade
No more. The sailor ordered, secondly –
As result of the heavenly
Instructions he’d received in dreams –
That all vacant homes should be seized:
See, there were plenty of empty
Homes, since they were owned by farmers –
All of whom – kids, mothers, fathers –
Toiled between the dawn and dusk
In deep soil that adorned Earth’s crust.
Thirdly, he told them all to strip.
When some refused, the sailor ripped
Their garments from them, shredded them;
Told them they had ahead of them
A future where they wouldn’t need
Sea-gypsies’ clothes. A chilly breeze
Then struck them, left them shivering;
Although they were still listening
To what their leader had to say
They weren’t keen on this naked state;
They felt exposed, humiliated.

“Finally”, ordered the sailor,
“You must all assume behaviour
Of people who are entitled
To live here; this is your tribal
Stomping crowd from here on in.”
They thought that they weren’t hearing him
Correctly; some of them had doubts;
They were guests; was it right to pounce
Upon houses of those who’d left
For work, to leave them dispossessed?
Though, in breasts, they felt uncertain
They felt, in same place, a surge of
Pride – they’d claimed the upper hand,
They’d made their mark upon these sands…

The farmers trod their routes home.
Keen to enjoy fruits of their stoves,
They drove their toothless mules down roads
Towards their towns, streets far from smooth
Beaten anew by horses’ hooves;
The adults, in their sweaty droves
The children in scuffed, dusty clothes,
Shuffled to their front doors, and stopped
In shock: since their front doors were locked.

To start with, each of the fathers
Thought that this was just a harmless
Prank. They never locked their doors.
They laughed. There was even applause:
Then, of course, they slowly took note
Of fact that this was not a joke.

“Open up!” they cried in despair.

“I will not. I live in this lair
Now,” the sailor said. “Who are you?”
Asked the farmers. “We’ve not harmed you.
Why have you chased us from our homes?”

The sailor’s people, in abodes
That they’d chosen, felt pangs of shame;
But they were anxious to remain
Inside, because if they now moved
Then they would be seen in the nude:
So they blocked all entrances,
Imposed on themselves sentences
Of long confinement. Now and then,
For food, they’d sneak out, grab a hen
And run back in before the stones
Were thrown by angry farmers whose
Returns to homes were overdue.

The sailor grew older, and died:
But storm he’d caused did not subside;
Some of his descendants, restless,
Charged out as if with a deathwish,
Went to live among the farmers
Naked, but clad in the armour
Of faith that was absolute:
Some sailors, though they at the root
Of themselves knew they’d crossed a line
Pretended all was fine, and slept
Uneasily, whilst farmers stepped
Slyly past their guards by night
So that, in vengeance, they might strike;
Most farmers camped out in the fields,
Becoming deaf to all appeals
For peace by sailors, and increased
In rage with each passing decade
Until once-succulent olives
Of that land’s trees tasted horrid,
Watered as they had been by the
Sour tears of those inside the
Farmers’ homes, those trapped outside…
Even now, you’ll hear the outcry
Of both tribes: cries of the sailors,
Who for years were homeless, aimless,
Who are now landlords, with tenants
Of extraordinary menace;
And you’ll hear cries of the farmers,
Wandering through their vast pastures,
Scared they’ll find no place to rest:
Feelings the sailors once knew best.

Dani Alves, Donald Sterling, and UKIP: the black reaction is on trial.

Dani Alves is an example of what you might call “the black reaction on trial”. There has been more focus upon his response than the behaviour of his abusers.

Dani Alves’ protest is suddenly less pure as, like Rosa Parks and the Black Power athletes, he planned it. The black reaction is on trial.

Donald Sterling is spectacularly racist. The loudest question is what the black Clippers will do. The black reaction is on trial.  

Nigel Farage’s minions refer to Africa as Bongo Bongo Land and we are expected to debate politely with them. The black reaction is on trial.

“Dear blacks, your reaction is on trial.  Our response to your injustice is conditional upon the dignity with which you choose to accept it.”

The racist smacks the black person in the face and the world judges how elegantly they absorb the blow. The black reaction is on trial.

 

“Love Against Homophobia”: for Russia, Uganda and the USA.

Given the spate of anti-gay laws either mooted or passed in Russia, Uganda and the USA, I thought I would repost this poem of mine, “Love Against Homophobia”; please share it with anyone who you think might appreciate it.

“Love Against Homophobia”

To some people

My love is somewhat alien;
When he comes up, they start subject-changing, and
In some states he’s seen as some contagion –
In those zones, he stays subterranean;
Some love my love; they run parades for him:
Liberal citizens lead the way for him:
Same time as some countries embracing him,
Whole faiths and nations seem ashamed of him:
They’ve tried banning him,
God-damning him,
Toe-tagging him,
Prayed that he stayed in the cabinet,
But my love kicked in the panelling, ran for it –
He’s my love! Can’t be trapping him in labyrinths! –
Maverick, my love is; he thwarts challenges;
The cleverest geneticists can’t fathom him,
Priests can’t defeat him with venomous rhetoric;
They’d better quit; my love’s too competitive:
He’s still here, despite the Taliban, the Vatican,
And rap, ragga in their anger and arrogance,
Who call on my love with lit matches and paraffin –
Despite the fistfights and midnight batterings –
My love’s still here and fiercely battling,
Because my love comes through anything;

My love comes through anything.

 

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Putin, Sochi, FIFA and appeasement.

I am seeing several comments, on Twitter and elsewhere, about appeasement. The argument is that Vladimir Putin is proceeding unchecked because the West has shown no recent military desire to rein in the excesses of other autocrats. Here’s the obvious but understated thing about appeasement: it’s neither merely nor necessarily about refusing to confront someone on the battlefield. Appeasement is incremental.  It’s about all those times that dictators are allowed to publish their public images long before conflict is even on the cards. Appeasement is the glossy centre-spread in the lifestyle magazine for the despot whose regime is ankle-deep in blood. Appeasement is making no effort to bar said despot and his or her entourage from any of their favourite haunts in your capital city. Appeasement is failing to freeze even those of their assets which you can readily identify. It’s ducking the issue and imposing sanctions on their nation’s people even as they are free to roam the world with all the opulence their hearts desire.

Appeasement is allowing Putin to go ahead with the Sochi Winter Games, an event which made an apparent mockery of several of the principles of Olympism. In that context, appeasement will also constitute inaction around the 2018 World Cup in Russia, allowing Putin another opportunity to project his imperial prestige around the world. These sporting events, in the current political context, look like little more than grotesque marquees. FIFA and the International Olympic Committee both make claims in their founding documents and on their official websites to celebrate the best of humanity; but, by giving Putin two of the globe’s biggest showcases, they may unfortunately seem complicit in celebrating its worst.

Uganda, the gays, and President Museveni’s two types of hate.

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has just approved a bill which allows those convicted of homosexuality to be imprisoned for life. Commenting on the new law, he stated that “No study has shown you can be homosexual by nature. That’s why I have agreed to sign the bill…Outsiders cannot dictate to us. This is our country. I advise friends from the west not to make this an issue, because if they make it an issue the more they will lose. If the west does not want to work with us because of homosexuals, then we have enough space to ourselves here.”

There is no question that Museveni, at the very least, hates gay people and holds them in the lowest and most violent possible contempt, and so there is no need or reason to appeal to any last vestiges of his compassion. If anything, it is probably sensible to anticipate an escalation of his anti-gay rhetoric, given that the next presidential election is in 2016. It would not be too cynical to see this new law as the opening gambit in his campaign.

Why does Museveni hate gay people? Well, it’s hard to know for sure. They may well fill him with revulsion. But there are plenty of people under his rule whom he probably finds similarly revolting, yet whom he has not found it politically useful to isolate and vilify. For example, he is not particularly fond of the Acholi, the tribal group to which I belong and which his party has described as no more than “biological substances”, to be eradicated like germs. Following Museveni’s rise to power in 1986, he orchestrated a persecution of the Acholi so comprehensive in its cruelty that he destroyed a generation. His soldiers hounded one and a half million people into camps in the North. They embarked upon orgies of rape and torture, spreading HIV/AIDS as they went, and skilfully allowed Joseph Kony to take the rap.  Their work was so thorough, so methodical, that, to quote from an Acholi Times article of June 2011, “Northern Uganda is the worst place on Earth to be a child today…According to Oxfam, the rate of violent death in northern Uganda is three times worse than Iraq’s.” The article, “Genocide in Uganda: The African Nightmare Christopher Hitchens Missed”, is excellent and can be read in full here.

What does all this mean? And how has this suffering been so effectively concealed from the world’s media? Well, for that we can thank President Museveni’s masterful control of public relations; for, rest assured, whatever most people are thinking about him right now is precisely what he wants them to. Back in the Eighties, when he had come to power and was seeking Western legitimacy and countless millions of investment, it served him well to present himself as the progressive face of East Africa, a man the West could do business with.  Now he has taken a careful look at his country’s accounts, and no doubt his own, and realised that he no longer needs the colonial shilling of which he was once so conspicuously fond. Now he is styling himself as the brave liberator, the African Che freeing his continent from the gays. And, as he does so, he can congratulate himself on almost thirty years in power during which his despotism and vast accumulation of wealth attracted remarkably little negative comment. He is settling now into the role of the jovial old dictator, most strikingly depicted by The Economist in their October 2013 profile of “the Gentleman Farmer”. As this newspaper then wrote,

“Comparisons between Mr Museveni and Idi Amin, the Ugandan “president for life” who butchered tens of thousands of his people in the 1970s, have become more common. Mr Museveni is a lot less brutal but shares the same love of power.”

The assessment that President has been “a lot less brutal” is, with reference to his treatment of Acholi, an increasingly generous one. He is unquestionably far more efficient in the disposal of his enemies than Amin, who died in exile in Saudi Arabia, ever was. Most major Western government who are horrified at Museveni’s latest manifestation of his hatred cannot say that they or their predecessors did not see it coming: for, after all, he has terrifying form in this respect. From President Museveni’s contrasting approach to gay people and to the Acholis, we can conclude that he has two types of hate.  If he merely despises you, he will tell the world; but, if he thinks you’re truly dangerous, he won’t tell a soul.