Archive for Society

“The Art Of Being Other”: my lecture at the University of Zurich, 4 October 2017.

PART ONE:
THE OTHER AND WHY WE NEED IT

I don’t think I am saying anything controversial when I say that, in the Western world, we are currently living in the Age of The Other. For the last few hundred years, the modern world has been very largely shaped by white heterosexual men, and we are now in a period where that order appears to be changing. The Other – that is to say, anyone who is not white or heterosexual – is feared to be taking over. It is absolutely true that the recent election results in the Western world can be explained by a popular revolt against the ruling elite. But that is only a partial explanation, and I think that the entire explanation is much more unsettling, if not sinister.

When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, there was a rush by many commentators to explain his victory as due to the “economic anxiety” of his voters. The initial data seemed to support this view, with twice as many white working-class voters voting for Trump as for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Yet a deeper analysis of the numbers showed something different. A study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic Magazine found that, and I quote, “financially troubled voters in the white working class were more likely to prefer Clinton over Trump. Besides partisan affiliation, it was cultural anxiety—feeling like a stranger in America, supporting the deportation of immigrants, and hesitating about educational investment—that best predicted support for Trump.”

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/05/white-working-class-trump-cultural-anxiety/525771/

We saw a similar pattern in the UK, when the country voted to leave the European Union; an event known as the Brexit referendum. Brexit was explained, just as Trump had been, as a working class-revolt against the elite. I thought that this was strange, given that only a year before the working-class had been given a chance, at the general election, to vote that same elite out of power – and they had re-elected them. Something was amiss. My suspicions were confirmed by a piece of research published earlier this year by the London School of Economics, or LSE. To quote that research,

“Keen to distance themselves from charges of xenophobia, Vote Leave worked hard to dispel the notion that their cause was powered by generalised anti-immigration sentiment. Where immigration was mentioned, the issue, it was claimed, was not numbers but control and fairness. Why should unskilled East Europeans get in ahead of qualified South Asians?…Yet academic research raises questions over this interpretation. First of all, immigration was key. Second, and more surprising, is concern over non-European immigration. The problem of unrestricted low-skill European immigration was repeatedly flagged during the campaign, so many assume people voted Leave because they were primarily exercised by the issue of East European immigration. This turns out not to be the case. What’s striking – and no one is talking about – is that British voters prefer EU to non-EU migrants…This pattern of preferring immigrants from inside the EU to those from outside holds across all social groups in our data.

UK voters, including Leavers, care more about reducing non-EU than EU migration

What’s most interesting to me about this research from the LSE is one particular sentence: when they say that “what’s striking – and no one is talking about – is that British voters prefer EU to non-EU migrants”. When the researchers say “no-one”, they have clearly not been listening to years of warnings from non-white and non-EU migrants about the degree of xenophobic sentiment in the UK. These findings are remarkable because, even though they were received by many as some grand revelation, they were – to me at least – not at all surprising.

And then we turn to Germany, where I have been living for the last three years. Here we see that the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party has claimed over 13% of the vote in the general election. Here we saw the same pattern. In the media, a great deal of emphasis was placed on the fact that the AfD appealed to voters who were victims of the country’s economic inequality. Yet this analysis again ignored the research. I quote, from an article in the German newspaper Deutsche Welle:

“a study by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW), published in April, nearly 34 percent of AfD sympathizers belonged to the top fifth of the population, while fewer than 10 percent are worried about their own personal economic situation. This was backed up by a TNS Infratest survey released in March, that found that 79 percent of AfD supporters described their personal economic situation as “good” or “very good.”

http://www.dw.com/en/are-afd-voters-the-same-as-trump-voters/a-36345438

We could go on, and on – to examine the rise of the far-right in the Dutch elections, the French elections, the Austrian ones. But I think the pattern is clear. Not only is xenophobia a common factor in each of these election results, it is also one which comes as a shock to many voters.

I want to talk about this shock. It is often based upon what is known as “white privilege” – that is to say, when white people are unaware of racism or don’t have to be, because it doesn’t affect them directly. There are times when I feel like calling it “white innocence”. It constantly amazes me that a country can have such a shocked reaction when the xenophobia of a large part of its population is revealed.

This is because of white innocence. Not all white innocence is deliberate. Some people simply don’t know how bad racism can be, because they don’t see it as part of their daily lives. But there’s the other kind of white innocence, the wilful ignorance of what is happening, and that is thoroughly, utterly dangerous.

How does this innocence manifest itself? It’s to be found in all those people who choose to look away from injustice. Those people who avoid the awkward conversation about racism at the family dinner table, who don’t speak up when the hear anti-Semitic jokes in the dressing-room or on the golf course. It is to be found in the cowardice of the people who cringe when they hear open bigotry among their friends or relatives, but remain silent. It was James Baldwin who best expressed this state of affairs. In “Notes from a Native Son”, he wrote that:

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”

Monster is a strong word. And rightly so. I also think that it is accurate. I think that there is a certain amount of denial that we all need in order to maintain life as it is. I think that most of us have the need to believe that, fundamentally, we are good people. There are some senses in which I am probably a monster. As a meat-eater who until a few years ago ate fast food fairly regularly, I have been complicit in the deaths of many thousands of animals. Increasingly, I find it hard to justify my consumption of meat on moral grounds.

It is difficult to call ourselves monsters. We are good people. We love our friends and our partners and our parents. We are good children, not monsters. It is this same cognitive dissonance that lies behind the results of a poll conducted in the US. That poll was carried out by Ipsos between late August and early September, for Thomson Reuters and the University of Virginia Center for Politics. It took place a few weeks after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, during which a counter-protester was killed by a white supremacist. The poll found that, and I quote, “while there is relatively little national endorsement of neo-Nazis and white supremacists “there are troubling levels of support for certain racially-charged ideas and attitudes frequently expressed by extremist groups.”

Furthermore, the poll noted that:

“While only 8 percent of respondents said they supported white nationalism as a group or movement, a far larger percentage said they supported viewpoints widely held by white supremacist groups: 31 percent of Americans polled strongly or somewhat agreed that “America must protect and preserve its White European heritage,” and 39 percent agreed that “white people are currently under attack in this country.”
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/reuters-poll-white-supremacist-views_us_59bc155fe4b02da0e141b3c8

What has happened here? Well, I think that white innocence is at work. There is an understanding that to be seen as a racist or a white supremacist is a Bad Thing. But there are also widespread and deeply-held fears of non-white people. These are not, as is often argued, views that are held subconsciously. Earlier this year Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a US-based data scientist, examined a series of Google searches in order to see if he could detect previously undiscovered levels of racism. He found that, and I quote at length, “In my work with Google search data, the single most telling fact I have found regarding hate on the internet is the popularity of the word “nigger”…Searches for “nigger jokes” are 17 times more common than searches for “kike jokes”, “gook jokes”, “spic jokes”, “chink jokes”, and “fag jokes” combined. When are these searches most common? Whenever African Americans are in the news.
The frightening ubiquity of this racial slur throws into doubt some current understandings of racism. Any theory of racism has to explain a big puzzle in America. On the one hand, the overwhelming majority of black Americans think they suffer from prejudice – and they have ample evidence of discrimination in police stops, job interviews, and jury decisions. On the other hand, very few white Americans will admit to being racist. The dominant explanation among political scientists recently has been that this is due, in large part, to widespread implicit prejudice. White Americans may mean well, this theory goes, but they have a subconscious bias, which influences their treatment of black Americans….There is, though, an alternative explanation for the discrimination that African Americans feel and whites deny: hidden explicit racism.”

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jul/09/everybody-lies-how-google-reveals-darkest-secrets-seth-stephens-davidowitz
It is James Baldwin, again, who I think is most important here. In an interview in 1963, he said that:

“What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger,” he said. “I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it… If I’m not a nigger and you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-i-am-not-your-negro-raoul-peck-feature-20170119-story.html

Why do some white people need the nigger, or the other? Why do they need to lash out against those different from themselves? I think that some white people need it because, in a time of such uncertainty – of surging social and economic inequality – they need to point to someone, to a group of people, and tell themselves: “well, life may be terrible, but at least I am better than them.”

In the three months following the Brexit referendum, charities reported that crimes against LGBT people had risen by 147% compared with the same period in the previous year. The victims of these attacks reported that they had been abused by people saying “now we can get these people out of the country and you’re going to be next”.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-lgbt-hate-crime-rise-galop-home-affairs-youre-next-a7419111.html

This may be uncomfortable for some, but I feel that a significant part of the Brexit, Trump and AfD sentiment is based upon a visceral, almost primal desire for some form of purging – to return to a time when things were clear and clean and straightforward. To some extent, these voters need The Other, because to hate them is a reassuringly firm feeling in turbulent times. It’s here that I would like to introduce the best analysis of economic anxiety that I have read anywhere. It came from Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in a magnificent essay for GQ Magazine, entitled “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof”. One of Ghansah’s interviewees, an elementary school teacher in South Carolina, said that:

“Trump showed us this, that we underestimated how vulnerable and precarious self-esteem is for white, working-class people in this society. They not only see the white elites, but then they see…black people, coming from behind, eclipsing them. And, they say, ‘What are these people doing up there? What has happened to me?’”

PART TWO:
BEING THE OTHER

If you are Other in some parts of the Western world, then you need to work out not only how thrive but to endure. That may sound like a dramatic statement, but all the same I think it has some weight. I say this only because a good friend, a black woman, has recently moved from Berlin to Stockholm, since she believes she is less likely to suffer racial violence there. Around this time last year, she was pushed off her bike by an elderly white German woman as she cycled past. Several other friends, in the lead-up to the US election, reported a rise in levels of racist aggression in the street. One was sitting on a train when a passenger sneered at her and then showed her his Nazi tattoos. Another was beaten up by his taxi driver. I detailed these incidents and other yet more grave ones in an article for the New York Times in February 2017, entitled “Fake News Meets German Racism”. The piece was met in some quarters with fury, as some people asked why I was trying to make Germany feel guilty for its welcoming nature.

Now, I am not saying for one second that the Western world cannot be a dangerous place if you are white and male. I am saying that, if you are a woman, or gay, or transgender, or non-white, then those dangers – then those risks of emotional and physical danger increase sharply, often exponentially.

Of course, women know this very well. As a dark-skinned black man who identifies as queer or bisexual, I know it too. In Berlin, the problem has become more intense in the last few months. I believe that Angela Merkel’s decision to provide a million Syrians with refuge from the war is one of the bravest and most praiseworthy political decisions of the modern age.

I say this not only because of the horrific fate which Chancellor Merkel helped many Syrians to avoid, but also because of the significant logistical challenges of helping the Syrians in their new home. Merkel has paid a political price for accepting these challenges, facing not only fierce criticism from her rivals but also losing a significant share of her vote in the general election.

http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/integrating-refugees-in-germany-an-update-a-1147053.html

It has not been easy for Merkel. In early 2016, in Cologne, an event occurred which a fellow journalist described as “a game changer”. At New Year, hundreds of men “of north African appearance” perpetrated the sexual assault of dozens of women. Though the perpetrators were overwhelmingly German-born, it was the Syrians who received the bulk of the backlash, with Merkel’s refugee policy being blamed for these attacks.

https://www.newstatesman.com/world/europe/2016/01/how-deal-new-years-eve-sexual-assaults-cologne-and-hamburg

It would later emerge that the Cologne attacks had a profound effect on the psyche of the German public. The Amadeu Antonio Foundation, Germany’s leading NGO in the fight against far-right extremism, published a paper on how Cologne had led to the reawakening of the old trope of the foreign sexual predator.

There were no positives to be drawn from the AfD’s capture of 13% of the vote in the German elections. There were only the smallest consolations. I heard some non-white friends say that at least people would now believe them when they said that there was a problem with racism in Germany.

I can only say, from my own experience, how exhausting racism is. I would like here to read you a post that I wrote in July this year; it is a little long, but I think it explains how racism feels as well as anything I have written. It is called:

“Racism breaks my heart.”

Racism breaks my heart. I am writing this directly after reading the official confirmation that Adama Traore, a young black Frenchman, died of asphyxiation after being detained by police. I am writing this right now because the feeling is raw, and I need to express what this is like – this helplessness. Racism doesn’t always break my heart. Sometimes it is just an inconvenience – like 4am last Sunday morning, when listening to music on my home from a great night out with my friends, and my journey was interrupted by a tourist who leaned into my path and asked me for drugs. I can shrug these moments off. Yet they accumulate until I can’t ignore them, and then a tide of sorrow rolls through me, so deep and wide that I succumb to it.

Two nights ago a friend of mine stepped off a train in Berlin and three white Germans serenaded her with a chorus of “nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger”. Yesterday I saw a video of a 48-year old Nigerian man who was dragged off a train in Munich by two inspectors – though he had paid for his ticket, he had not presented his ID – and, howling, had his face pressed to the concrete. The journalist who posted the footage, for her trouble, received a hailstorm of threatening phone calls from the far-right. Today, I read the news about Adama Traore.

Racism breaks my heart. There are days you look in the mirror and wonder how you can negate it. If you can dress more smartly in certain settings – if you can avoid certain areas. But then you realise that you can’t. To the racist, a monkey in a nice set of clothes is still a monkey. There are days you wish there was an app on your phone that allowed you to travel through the world on stealth mode.

Racism humbles you. You can be as successful as you like but there are still those – so many of those – who will not see you as fully human. It’s a strange world. Some would advise me to concentrate only on those who are enlightened, who are not prejudiced – but I am not convinced that the majority of people in our world are like this. From London to Rio to Bratislava to Cape Town and elsewhere, I have seen too much severe social and economic inequality of which racism was the root. We daily tell ourselves that most people are good, but I am not even sure what that means anymore. What use is being good, what use is being the decent silent majority, if deaths like those of Adama Traore don’t cause that majority to roar? What use is outrage at injustice if it is never spoken?

I’m aware that when I write about racism, many people may tune out. To those people, I would like to say this: I wish I could tune out too. I wish I could hang my dark skin on a line somewhere, and carry on with one less problem like the rest of you. Because life’s hard enough already, isn’t it? Life’s hard enough trying to hold down that job, and trying to keep your partner happy after all those years, and mending those ailing ties with your family. Life’s hard enough without walking the streets of different cities, fearing that you may be too big, dark and dangerous for people’s comfort.

Of course this isn’t how I approach every day. It’s just that there are some days when you find your soul heavy with grief at the death of a sibling in prejudice you never met – last week her name was Bianca Roberson, this week his name is Adama Traore – and, on those days, your eyes brim with tears as you type, because in that moment being black is an almost unbearable burden. Days, I am sad to say, like today.

Racism breaks my heart. #JusticePourAdama

PART THREE:
HOW TO MAKE “THE ART OF THE OTHER”

How, as someone who is Other, should I make my art? That might sound like a silly question. You might just think: “it’s easy. Just get out a piece of paper, or pull up a blank screen on your laptop, and start writing.” But I do not think it is as easy as that. I believe that the way the Other – anyone who is not white or heterosexual – is portrayed in popular culture shapes the way the Other is treated in our world. If we artists continue to produce work filled with stereotypes, then we encourage the world to judge queer people and so on according to those stereotypes. And you only need to look at Nazi-era propaganda to see how that ends up.

Perhaps you think I am being dramatic, but the problem is a severe one. Compare the media’s treatment of Mike Brown, who died at the hands of a police officer, with its treatment of Stephen Paddock, who has just murdered upwards of 50 people in Las Vegas. The first details to emerge about Paddock’s life was that he was a quiet man who loved country music. The first details to emerge about Brown’s life was that he had a fondness for marijuana. The instinct of Western media, for so many profound historical reasons, is so often to humanise white murderers and to demonise non-white murder victims. When making new work, I feel a particular responsibility to confront that dynamic. We do not create art in a vacuum.

Look, too, at the representation of people of colour in fiction. I quote an article from Marykate Jasper, writing in February 2017:

“The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which has been tracking the number of books published by and about people of color since 1994, announced their numbers for 2016 on Wednesday. For children’s books published last year, approximately 22% were about people of color, and 12% were written or illustrated by people of color. Currently, people of color constitute 38% of the U.S. population.”

Only 22% of Children’s Book Characters Were People of Color in 2016

At a time when non-white people are being reduced to stereotypes in the political arena, I believe that representation matters more than ever. I feel an obligation to write non-white characters who, if not necessarily heroes, are nuanced, well-rounded – in other words, fully human.

There can be a danger in this. I believe Junot Diaz has written about the pressure that non-white writers feel to be the voice of their community. You have to be careful not to be some kind of self-righteous mouthpiece – well, you can be that if you want to be, but it rarely makes for good art. Then you have the warning from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie of “the danger of a single story” – of writing a tale that people then take to be representative of an entire community.

As much as you can, you must avoid the “Other Gaze”. That is to say: you may want your work to resonate widely, and in doing so you may try to make it as accessible as possible. The danger in doing so, though, is that in order to reach a wider audience you reproduce familiar and even comforting tropes.

How do you avoid all this? You can never guarantee how readers will receive your work – in some ways, that’s part of the fun of being a writer. But you can help yourself by being self-aware. Here’s one example.

A few years ago, I began writing a version of Romeo and Juliet, based in a fictional African nation that I had created. The romance was to take place between two black men – one of whom was a freedom fighter suspected of bombing the town centre, the other one of whom was a detective investigating the case. It was, I thought, something that could be a moving love story – it would bring in themes of homophobia, of tribal conflict, of forbidden love.

But I didn’t write it, and I’m glad I didn’t. Because, at the time, I was a queer black man who didn’t believe that love between two black men could ever end well – that our society was so violent towards us that any romance was doomed to fail. And, without realising it, I had begun to reproduce that narrative. I didn’t write the novel because I believe that it’s time for gay black men in fiction to have happy endings. That’s why I applaud the director Barry Jenkins for making Moonlight.

That was several years ago, but I am still not immune from the danger of viewing black people only by the oppression that they suffer. Last year I began writing a novel, entitled “Make Us Human”. The title – ironically enough – referred to the one-dimensional way in which the media portrays black people. The novel was about how a black boy is killed by a neo-Nazi, and how the investigation into his death tears the family apart. The black boy, Michael, was a model student and an excellent footballer, yet in death he is made out to be a drug-using troublemaker.

The start of a novel on race and immigration that I was too angry to finish.

I didn’t finish this novel, and I am glad I didn’t. Because, in the end, it was still framing the story of the black family primarily in terms of its suffering. A few months ago, I published the first seven thousand words of the novel online, and the response was incredible – several friends asked if I could finish writing the book. But I declined. Black people, I thought, are so much more than our pain.

So, I have told you of two novels I have not finished. What is the use of being an artist if I don’t actually finish any work? Well, here is the good news. At the start of this year, I visited the German town of Wurzburg, where I spent a weekend retreat at a place called the Institute for Philosophical Progress. There, I was able to set out the philosophy behind the work that I intended to make this year. I came to the following conclusions.

We are in a time where forces of repression are in the ascendancy. In America, we see a President whose daily ignorance and bigotry is often overwhelming. We are seeing the victimisation of the Other from Myanmar to Egypt to Holland to Iraq. I can therefore do one of two things. I can either write work that reacts to the mood of the times; or I can urge and create a positive vision of the future.

Given that I am of African heritage, and that my work features African protagonists, I think that this makes me an Afrofuturist.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/your-far-out-guide-to-afrofuturism-and-black-magic_us_5711403fe4b0060ccda34a37

In short, I want to spend the rest of my life writing stories where people who look like me help to contribute to a better world for us all. My work will be inclusive. It will encourage people who are not The Other to empathise with refugees, with immigrants, with non-white people, with queer people.

Last year I wrote what you might call an Afrofuturist novel. It is called “The Trauma Thief”. It is a sci-fi thriller set in London in the near future, with a fourteen-year old black girl as its main character.

It’s taken a while for me to realise this, but most of my favourite artists are Afrofuturists. There’s Outkast, with just two of their seminal albums – ATLiens, and Aquemini. There’s Janelle Monae. My favourite song of all time is Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” – the extended version, of course. It’s closely followed by “Expansions”, by Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes, whose lyrics – though they may seem embarrassingly simple – are as rousing as any I have heard:

“Expand your mind
To understand
We all must live
In peace together
Extend your hand
To help the plan
Of love through all
Mankind on Earth”

The modern version of Lonnie Liston Smith’s classic track is probably Kendrick Lamar’s “Fuck Your Ethnicity”, from his Section 80 mixtape. I quote:

“Now I don’t give a fuck if you
Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, goddamn it
That don’t mean shit to me
Fuck your ethnicity.”

In this song, Kendrick advances a radical, beautiful vision of the Other, one which I share. One where the Other uses their vantage point from the edge of society to bring everyone in society together.

I am not proud to say that in my teens I had homophobic views. I am proud to say that, when I realised that I was bisexual in my twenties, I learned empathy for so many other marginalised groups. I realised, to quote the poet Stacey Ann Chinn, that “all oppression is connected”.

This, I think, is my unique opportunity as a member of the Other living in Western Europe. I have, to some extent, faced discrimination from the existing social order, but not enough to stop me doing the work that I need to do. I am in an extremely privileged position, and I acknowledge that. I have a platform where I can help to make life easier for people in more hostile environments.

I am also lucky, in a very particular sense. When society casts you to its fringes, it gives you a perspective from which you can critique it. It is very hard to observe the grand vehicle that is our society when you are speeding along in its front seat. It’s much easier to watch it from the pavement as, often thoughtlessly, it rushes onwards.

I have made this pledge with my work – that my art, as the Other, may at times be scathing, but ultimately it will be optimistic. It will try, as far as I can, to follow the vision of the African feminist Jessica Horn, who set out a political philosophy as inspiring as any I have heard. She said, in an interview with AfricanFeminism.com:

“I claim feminism as a political home, and feminist as a political identity because I believe the feminist proposition that the root of injustice in our world and in the lives of women in particular lies in patriarchal power and its friends racism, classism, homophobia, ableism…and that in order to transform the world we have to challenge patriarchal power. Whenever you challenge unjust power there will be backlash. But I believe in the possibility of justice for all, and for full choice, full happiness, full opportunity and lives free of violence in these gendered bodies we live in. I believe freedom is possible. Anything you believe in is worth fighting for.”

Horn continues:

“ My feminist utopia begins in our bodies, as our first and last home, as the only thing that is ever really ours-as the space that life is made real. My utopia is a world where we all live free, healthy, pleasurable, agented lives in our own bodies. It requires political, economic, social and cultural systems that enable embodied freedom for all. Oh and there must be art too. Lots of it.”

This is a joyful vision, one which Horn has described as “revolutionary love”. It is an ideal of which I may fall short, but I will try, as far as I can. I will try.

My review of Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.”.

When assessing “DAMN.”, Kendrick Lamar’s new album, I think that the late, great Guru said it best. Back in 1998, on the chorus of ‘Moment of Truth’, he observed that:

 

“They say it’s lonely at the top in whatever you do

You always gotta watch motherfuckers around you

Nobody’s invincible, no plan is foolproof

We all must meet our moment of truth”

 

On Lamar’s latest effort, he finds himself sitting upon hip-hop’s mountaintop, only to find that though the view might be pleasant the seat is distinctly uncomfortable. When he released the LP’s leadoff single, “HUMBLE.”, the impression most listeners may have had was that he was telling his fellow MCs to know their place; however, upon several listens to “DAMN.”, it is clear that he was reserving the firmest admonitions for himself. This is a furiously introspective record, largely devoid of the immediate radio hits that Lamar has liberally sprinkled throughout his previous outings. That is, of course, a conscious choice; here, Lamar is sitting somewhere with his head just above the clouds, carefully composing his memoirs and occasionally allowing us to listen over his shoulder.

 

Of recent releases, this album is closest in mood to Frank Ocean’s “Blonde”; like Ocean, Lamar has opted for complex song structures with two or three phases, such as the rousing U2-featuring “XXX”. On that tune, Bono provides a surprisingly fitting accompaniment, one which makes you wonder how good a full track and not a mere fragment might have sounded.  Like “Blonde”, too, “DAMN.” has a range of gorgeous soundscapes.  At the beginning of  ‘ELEMENT’, there’s the moodiness of early Wu Tang. “DNA” shapeshifts into a trap-edged dancefloor monster. ‘PRIDE.’ has the type of chords you’d have expected to find on Tame Impala’s “Innerspeaker”, whilst both ‘LUST’ and ‘YAH’ have similarly psychedelic elements. These beats lend themselves particularly well to the album’s reflective content, which is preoccupied with the biblical sins – mostly to be found in the album’s tracklisting that Lamar is grappling with. These concepts – vanity, humility, loyalty – recur throughout the LP’s 55 minutes.

 

Early on, firmly establishing “DAMN.”’s religious theme, Lamar refers to himself as an “Israelite”; the implication being that African-Americans are in their country’s (racial?) wilderness, casting about for freedom and maybe redemption. This is slightly contentious ground, since it seemed to suggest that black people, in order to elevate themselves, must first set aside their arrogance; as it says in James 4:10, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.” On first listen, this was an unfortunate echo of the respectability politics to be found in “The Blacker The Berry”, but we eventually see that Lamar is talking about his own uniquely inspiring journey. He has apparently become so surrounded by jealousy and sycophancy that he has fallen back on the support of his close friends and family, and on “FEEL,” arguably the LP’s standout track, he lists a bewildering array of problems and adversaries that his fame has attracted:

 

I feel like I’m boxin’ demons

Monsters, false prophets schemin’

Sponsors, industry promises

Niggas, bitches, honkies, crackers, Compton,

Church, religion, token blacks, and bondage

Lawsuit visits, subpoena served in concert

 

This roll call is in addition to his feud with Fox News, one of the only opponents he calls out by name; and it is notable that Lamar is so successful that now he no longer battles mere rappers, but entire institutions within the US media. Yet while Lamar speaks of his yearning to be better, he is at times still too firmly wedded to some old and unsettling habits. Writing for Buzzfeed, the journalist Tomi Obaro noted Lamar’s succinct analysis of misogyny in hip-hop:

 

“You scream at the person that’s closest to you….coming towards the woman next to you, or the women around. Like, ‘We can’t wife you, you’re just a thot.’ It’s from lack of opportunity.”

 

Given this profound self-awareness, it is a little disappointing to see Lamar lapse into lyrics such as “See, in a perfect world…I’ll choose work over bitches” – particularly since so many of his other lines encourage the empowerment of black women. Having said that, even the mostly enlightened Andre 3000, as he notes on Solo (Reprise), still has some way to go.

 

Of course, Lamar’s technique is spectacular on this record. His musical experimentation is as thrilling and sustained as, say, Pharoah Sanders on Olé; he does things with the artform that few could even think of attempting, let alone pulling off successfully. His flows on the aforementioned ‘XXX’ are so good that he even sounds gleeful halfway through, so easy does it appear. Though no other MCs appear on this record, emphasising the sense that he is a rapper in a class of his own, he again shows that he is a skilled collaborator, dovetailing beautifully with Rihanna on ‘Loyalty’. The sheer scale of his talent, and the degree to which he has already honed it, can frequently leave you in awe. Nowhere is this better in evidence than on “FEAR.”, where we are reminded movingly of just how far Lamar is come in just a few years – through the trauma of extreme violence both at home and upon his doorstep, after which the battlegrounds of rap must have been a funfair by comparison. (Indeed, on “DUCKWORTH.”, the album’s closer, we are informed that Lamar – but for an extraordinary quirk of fate – would not even be alive today.)

 

It is, I think, highly arguable that that this record does not represent as great a leap forward as did “Good kid, mAAd city” and “To Pimp A Butterfly”.  To draw an analogy with Radiohead, if these albums were Lamar’s “OK Computer” and “Kid A”, then perhaps “DAMN.” is his “Hail To The Thief” – not his very best record, but still hugely accomplished. If this criticism seems unfair, then it is also a sign that Lamar’s primary competition is no longer with his peers – it is with history.  So much has he excelled that, at this point, each of his new releases should be judged against, say, Outkast’s “Aquemini”, and Lauryn Hill’s “Miseducation”. With this record, he remains at the summit of his art – but, crucially, there is a sense that there may yet be other musical peaks for him to climb.

On Milo Yiannopoulos, and the difficulty of activism.

I was trying not to write anything about Milo Yiannopoulos this morning, because I have a great deal to do, but I think that his case deserves more analysis than my initial series of tweets. For those of you who do not know, Yiannopoulos is a writer and public speaker who has risen to prominence for championing the far-right, or the “alt-right”, as that fleet of particularly vicious online trolls has tried to rebrand itself. During the presidential campaign, his articles mocking those with progressive values made him hugely popular; during that campaign, he was also banned from Twitter following years of using its platform to orchestrate the harassment of anyone he didn’t like.

 

There is little more to say about such toxic behaviour. The only interesting thing about Yiannopoulos’ career is the degree to which he has so far been indulged. He is currently facing his most sustained backlash to date; no sooner had he been confirmed as a speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, than tape emerged of him  apparently endorsing sexual intercourse and relationships between adults and under-age children. Many people, liberal and conservative alike, are calling for CPAC to remove Yiannopoulos’ invitation. Yet the key question is why Yiannopoulos’s career was allowed to get this far, and the answer is two-fold: first, because not enough people cared about his reprehensible behaviour until it began to affect them personally, and secondly, because too many people loved him merely because he hated liberals.

 

I wonder whether part of the current revulsion at Yiannopoulos is due to the fact that, as a gay man apparently approving of sex with underage children, he has reawakened in some minds the barely-hidden conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia. Yiannopoulos often used his sexuality as a shield; he could be as homophobic as he liked, falling back on the defence that he could not be prejudiced since he himself was a gay man. Ironically enough, he may find that – in the bitterest of ironies – his unique brand of identity politics may be used against him.  

 

This is one of the reasons why I take little pleasure in the setback that he is experiencing today. Because let us be clear: Yiannopoulos has served his purpose, and he has already done irreversible damage. He was as instrumental as the Pepe the Frog meme in giving far-right sentiment just enough cuteness for its advocates to be comfortable with it. Yiannopoulos championed the alt-right as a provocative movement that mocked the excesses of political correctness; with his garish attire and cruel tongue, he scandalised the Left. Bigots have long sought charismatic figures who can seduce them. That is one reason why Nick Griffin failed, and why Nigel Farage succeeded; it was not so much the content of the message that repelled people, but the packaging.

 

That is what Yiannopoulos has been, for so many of his followers now scrambling over each other for the exit: he has been the acceptable face of hatred. He allowed them to mock gay people by setting up a series of speaking engagements called “The Dangerous Faggot Tour”. He threw LGBT people to the lions, but somewhere along the way he forgot that he was still in the den. Judging by his latest and impassioned Facebook post, he knows that for many he is now beyond the pale; and that, finally, this is a storm that he cannot ignore.

 

I would not like to say too much more about Yiannopoulos, because he has already taken up too much of everyone’s time. I would only like to remind people how difficult it is to fight for social progress, because people like the above have supporters who frequently put activists in fear of physical harm and even of their lives. Last night I had dinner with an activist who has been targeted for months because her work, critical of the far-right, has been posted on neo-Nazi websites. She has seen threats to her friends and her family, all because people like Yiannopoulos organise the intimidation of brave people like her. I cannot describe how proud I am to know her, and how disgusted I am at those who sit behind their keyboards and toss out complacent tweets about how those with progressive values merely need to suck up their hurt feelings. People like my friend are taking very real risks in order to expose extremism, and people like Yiannopoulos willingly enable acid to be thrown in their direction. I applaud the former for confronting the latter, and they inspire me to go about my own efforts with ever greater vigour.

A short note on Germany’s refusal to ban the neo-Nazi NPD party.

Today, Germany’s highest court has ruled that the neo-Nazi NPD party should not be banned, on the basis that it does not represent a threat to democracy in the country. The Amadeu Antonio Stiftung, one of Germany’s leading foundations in the fight against far-right extremism, welcomes this decision, and I agree with them for the reasons they provide. The Amadeu Antonio Stiftung, in a press release, make clear that the NPD is no longer politically dangerous, but that the hatred they espouse has diffused elsewhere, most notably into the AfD party – which in Berlin alone has captured 14% of the vote.

Dr. Matthias Quent, of the Institut für Demokratie und Zivilgesellschaft, has bemoaned what he regards as a year-long waste of time in bringing this case to its close – time and resources which would have been much better spent addressing the damage that the far-right is doing in several other areas.

The NPD has been succeeded by nimbler organisations, whose effects are being seen daily – and which are co-ordinating their efforts with notable diligence. It’s revealing, I think, how there has been this concerted move to stamp out its weak flame – it suggests an attempt to show that Something Is Being Done, without actually addressing the root causes of the current problem. In that sense, a banning of the NPD would have been analogous to the planned execution of Dylann Roof – an act of catharsis, whereby a society can partially avert its eyes from a growing threat. This ban would have represented a validation of those who are in denial; and for that reason, above many others, this ruling is to be applauded.

“Optimism is your greatest weapon”: a talk for the Institute for Philosophical Progress.

On 14 January 2017, I was very kindly invited by the Institute for Philosophical Progress in Würzburg, Germany, to give a talk about how we might make music in response to the current political climate. The text of my talk, “Optimism is your greatest weapon”, is below; I hope that you find it of interest. If so, please share; and thank you for reading.

—–

 

It is the job of musicians and other artists to create, but there are times when this task seems more difficult than others.  Times like now, for example.  I find that the world is in such a troubling place that making music can sometimes feel like a futile act. I am a journalist, and so a part of my job is to keep aware of whatever is happening in the news — this also means that my music has a political dimension. And there are often times when I am not sure what sort of art I should make in response. Every morning, the headlines hit you with the fury of a January snowstorm. You read that refugees are freezing to death on their way through Europe, and that in Germany last year there were 900 attacks on refugees and their shelters. You read that Syria is suffering even more than you thought possible, that the Pentagon has just successfully tested an army of drones, and that each year for the last few years has been the hottest one yet. And that’s before you read that several species are going extinct every month, and that America’s next president seems likely to start a new round of international tension by using Twitter.  Put simply, I think that we are in a mess, and heading for a larger one. The only thing that I can control is how I react. In the style of a referendum, I have given myself two choices: I can either be immobilised by despair, or I can create more and better work than ever before. I have chosen the latter. The only question I must now answer is how.

 

The first thing I have done is to decide upon a philosophy behind my music. When, at the end of this year, I listen back to all the lyrics that I have written, I want them to have a common theme. I always try to have some kind of thread running through my music – I think that’s because, at heart, I will always be a storyteller. I did this with my last release, an EP called “The Nomadic” – you can find a stream of it on the Okayafrica website, it was produced by Greg Surmacz. The four-track EP dealt with the subject of migration, and was written at a time when I was caught between four cities. I had just returned from Rio, where I had been covering the World Cup as a journalist for the BBC; I was living in London, and planning to move to Berlin; and I was recording the music at Greg’s house in Leeds. It was a time of so much change for me – it was my own period of flux, which the world is experiencing now. In that moment, I felt the need to do two things – to capture the moment, and to have a positive attitude about my circumstances.

It was during this period that I came up with my favourite, and probably my best, lyric to date: “optimism is your greatest weapon”. The only thing that we can hope to influence at any point are the seconds which still lie before us. As long as we have the future, we have hope. It is with this philosophy that I am making all of my music this year.

 

It’s hard to describe what kind of music I make. I don’t make beats, and I don’t rap; I very occasionally sing, but most of the time I talk over electronic music. I guess the closest artists, in terms of what I do, are people like Tricky, Roots Manuva, Scroobius Pip and The Streets. This means that I have to work with a very particular type of producer – someone who listens to every type of music, and who makes tunes that are a little unconventional. I love plenty of bass in my music – maybe that’s because I spent many years as a Londoner – and so whoever I work with has to love that too. Looking for the right collaborator is hard, but exciting – it’s almost like dating before the days of Tinder.

 

These days, it is thankfully easier for me to find people to work with. A few months ago, I had a piece of very good news – I was offered a publishing deal by Bosworth Music, a publishing house based in Berlin, who have signed a series of excellent producers. After ten years of putting out my own music, I am now working on four new projects, which I hope to share with you soon enough. Each of the artists I am collaborating with are very different, but the one thing I will try to do with each of them is to make sure that each song is a journey – beginning at a place of negativity, and ending on a path towards happiness.

 

For a long time as an artist, I was afraid of writing happy endings. I found them cheesy. The world was a big serious place and so I thought that it needed big serious work in response. The problem with that, though, is that people already know how frightening life can be. More often than not, they need hope. This, I think, explains why gospel music has re-emerged as such an explicit influence of hip-hop in the USA. I can safely say that my own writing has changed over the years. I no longer write songs of doom, describing the growing threat of climate change. Instead, I try to craft songs which have broad appeal, which are accessible and upbeat.

 

To give an example of what I mean, we can look at possibly the best piece of music I have written so far, a tune called “Ring The Bells”. It’s from that EP I mentioned, The Nomadic, and it’s the last song I wrote for that project. The reason I think these lyrics are effective is that I didn’t overthink them – I wrote them pretty much as a single draft, during a two-hour train journey to my producer’s studio. The best thing about working to a deadline, as I was in this case, is that it forces you to be direct in your language, to use only the images which are the most vivid in your mind. I also find that it stops me from being too forceful with a particular political message. I’m so busy trying to get the thing finished that I don’t have time to elaborate. In fact, writing lyrics is a little like my mother would cook for us when I was young. She would come home from work and cook a meal with whatever she found in the fridge, throwing everything together with a mix of experience, creativity and urgency. And she got it right, every time.

 

So I guess what I’m saying is that “Ring The Bells” is the closest I have ever got to cooking like my mother. I drew upon all the ingredients that were lying around in my life at the time. My fear as I sat at the train platform, preparing for my new life in Berlin – but also my growing anticipation at the new adventure. The sound of the bell in the thirty-second beat I’d been sent, which was so subtle and insistent that it had to be the song’s chorus. My memories of my trip to the World Cup in Brazil, and of the film Interstellar, whose trailers were some of the most inspiring art I had seen in years. As I put pen to paper, I began to realise something important about songwriting – that most of the songs that had moved me most, like Radiohead’s “Idioteque”, didn’t point their figures at me. Instead, they painted scenarios – they showed, they didn’t tell. And so when I wrote that simple chorus, “Ring The Bells”, I made sure that it was the most gentle of commands. Very few people will respond well if a complete stranger scolds them, telling them to shape up and fix their life. They tend to prefer it if that person seems to care about them, to want to go on that journey with them. And that’s the music I want to make now – music which accompanies people. Those tunes you listen to at the weekend when you’re travelling to see your partner in another city. That track that seeks you out when you’re feeling isolated. I want to make music that feels like that tiny light on the hillside when you’re driving up through the darkness.

 

I don’t normally publish lyrics from songs that aren’t yet recorded, but it feels right to do so. Late last year, I noticed that several of my female friends were going through some particularly hard times – they are the kindest, gentlest people, who the world always seems to hit the hardest. And so I wrote a track called “Glaciers”, to describe how they still somehow manage to find a way forward. They are my heroes, and so this song is for them. This is the opening verse:

 

The greyest skies and coldest seas

Remember the sun, eventually:

She will find her way upright

Though life has her on bended knee

Is this how it’s meant to be? –

Ever so, the cycle goes;

This world serves her a defeat,

She counterattacks, then repeat:

Indomitable thief,

She seizes happiness and flees;

She knows well that life is brief

So woe can kindly take a seat

It proceeds evermore,

Each time the ice before her thaws,

And so the glacier retreats,

Her will, her heart, provides the heat.

 

This is how each of my songs will be this year – an attempt to join the listener in whichever bleak place they may be, and hopefully to leave them feeling warmer by the end. I will keep the work coming, and I hope that it resonates with you.

My manifesto for 2017.

I’m not going to lie; I am frightened. It’s 3:35am and I’m writing this because I can’t sleep – because, right now, it feels as though I shouldn’t sleep. There’s too much to do, too much to think about.

This isn’t an ordinary year, or an ordinary time. If I look at the grand scheme of things, then everything is divided, harshly partisan; politically, socially. But if I try to retreat to more peaceful environments, I still struggle to find respite. There is tension everywhere. This Christmas, back in the town where I grew up, there was no escaping the disquiet. Half of those I spoke to among family and friends had voted Leave. One was vocal in their support of Trump. Hillary Clinton, I learned, was a Satanist, she endorsed Lucifer.

The EU never liked us, it only ever looked out for itself. We were leaving now, and that was the end of it. A family friend, who had voted Leave, spoke of concern at the racism that she had seen spike directly after the referendum.

I won’t lie, I was frustrated. Of course I was. For years I had been criticising the problems in the UK which had brought us to this place – the job losses, the costs of living, the unfairness of many aspects of our economic system. The people and the companies who didn’t pay their fair share into our economy, which would have resulted in better services for all. All of these things had contributed to the current disaffection in Britain. There were also the unavoidable cultural changes. I have always been pretty relaxed about racial and cultural diversity, but there are others who feel that there has been too much of it, too soon.

Why don’t you go into politics, asked my friends who had voted Leave. You talk more sense than most of those people up there. Oh please, I don’t, I said. And I won’t. I’m probably one of the last people that Leave voters need to hear from right now. I’m a beneficiary of the EU, I’m to all intents and purposes a metropolitan elitist. The last thing Leave voters want to is to be lectured to by someone who’s done very well out of the system, who has spent much of the last few years being scathing about the unfair coverage of immigrants.

I shouldn’t care as much about all this as I do, it’s not healthy. But I still somehow do: I guess that the heart wants what it wants. And maybe I also care because this isn’t an ordinary time, and to look away feels like defeat. To ignore what is happening around us feels like complicity. Of course, after we all had a good rant about the referendum, everything settled down again; because we are family and friends, and though some voted Leave and some voted Remain we still love and care for each other. And we are all trying to plot a positive course forward, somehow.

I was in Lisbon a few weeks before Christmas, and saw two middle-aged Americans, a man and woman, having an argument. I thought they were a married couple, but it turns out that one had voted Clinton and the other one had voted Trump. They were coming to the end of the tram journey, and were looking for directions; they’d obviously bonded over their shared aimlessness, and had promptly fallen out. I found myself almost refereeing their dispute. The Clinton voter was incredulous that anyone could have voted for Trump. He insisted that Michelle Obama should run in 2020. I suggested that maybe the US wouldn’t be keen on another dose of dynastic politics. He shook his head. The Trump voter was very nervous – she seemed afraid that I would think she was stupid. She was absolutely terrified of being judged, and she couldn’t bring herself to say that she had chosen him at first. So I said, well, people clearly wanted a change from the old order. She was much more relaxed after that. Look, I said, I know Trump is a break from the norm, I just don’t think he’s going to take things down a better path. She seemed relieved that I hadn’t called her crazy. They made their way off on another tram, and I caught a bus down the hill.

I have seen and experienced so many things in the last year – anger, contempt, even violence. I have expressed fury and incredulity at political positions contrary to my own. Some of that I regret, most of that I don’t. The neo-Nazis, in particular, can do one. But this year, I am going to get much better at sifting. This year, I am going to get much better at spending my time on areas where I feel that I can have a more useful impact. Yes; here is what I am going to do.

First, I am going to spend much less time writing blog-posts in response to articles that seem designed only to provoke. I have a limited amount of time to address that kind of disingenuous nonsense. Instead, I am going to spend that time thinking of new projects, and creating the most positive, forward-thinking art that I can. I am going to make more music, write more poetry, more stories. Instead of conserving my creativity for one or two key projects, I will try to do everything. I am deliberately going to spread myself thin. My aim is to end this year exhausted.

I am going to wear the expression “bleeding-heart liberal” as a badge of honour. Looking around at the world, there aren’t nearly enough bleeding hearts out there. Compassion is an asset. What a society we have where sensitivity is so roundly mocked. Sensitivity is strength.

Of course, I will continue to read widely, and continue to work with people of different political viewpoints who genuinely want to see a kinder, better world. I actually enjoy that, because every time I do so it feels like progress. I will be much better at directing my energy towards the fights I truly need to fight. I will tweet less and think more. And I will be braver, whenever the opportunity presents itself. I will speak up when I am afraid – particularly when I am afraid. I will have those hard and necessary conversations with myself. I will ask out that girl I like.

This all feels small, in the grand scheme of things. But I am beginning to think that these small acts of courage matter. I look at how small the margins were in the US election and in the Brexit vote – and I also look at the shortfalls in empathy that led to such division, both at the polling booth and under my own roof. I am not going to act as if 2016 never happened, but I am still going to consign it firmly to the rear-view mirror. This year, I am going to walk firmly in the direction of my fear, wherever and whenever I can. With a deep, tired breath – my God, it is 5:06am! – here I go.

 

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.

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.