History, Peace, and Beauty: On Barcelona’s Ramblas

Of all the massacres perpetrated in Europe in the name of Islamic State, yesterday’s slaughter in the Ramblas has a particular personal resonance for me. I spent nine years in Barcelona, living near the Ramblas for part of that time. Even when I moved further away from downtown Barcelona, hardly a week went by in which I didn’t pass through it. This is because the Ramblas has a special place in the life of the Catalan capital. It’s where you go to meet people, at the Café Zurich at the top of the Ramblas, or by the entrance to the Plaza Catalunya station, or by any other point up and down this fabulous thoroughfare.

It’s where you go to shop at the marvellous La Boqueria indoor market, or look at the fruit and vegetable stands laid out with meticulous precision in dazzling displays of colour. More than anything else, it’s a place you go to stroll. Lorca famously described the Ramblas as a street that was so beautiful that you didn’t want it to end, and he wasn’t wrong. Despite the over-priced cafés, the dense thicket of tourists, the traffic running up and down alongside the pedestrian thoroughfare, the Ramblas remains a space of peace and beauty.

On Sundays it was a pleasure to join the families walking up and down the rows of plane trees, past the flower-sellers, bird stalls, and newspaper stands, to check out the dancers, the ridiculously elaborate living statues, musicians, the skinny little guy who used to perform astounding tricks with a football, the silver-painted Columbus I once interviewed for a radio feature.

Sometimes you might let yourself drift dreamily all the way down from the Plaza Catalunya to the Drassanes medieval shipyards; past the rebuilt Liceo opera house; the Miró mosaic where the murderer eventually crashed his van yesterday; past the Poliarama cinematograph where George Orwell spent three days reading detective novels in June 1937 while anarchists and Assault Guard soldiers shot it out in the Café Moka down below; past the seedy side-streets of the Barrio Chino, where Jean Genet had once picked up knife-fighting lovers in sleazy bars; past the former stamping ground of so many characters from Juan Marsé’s Barcelona novels; past doorways that still bore the marks of the high heels of prostitutes waiting for ships to arrive at the harbour.

My piece for Ceasefire Magazine.  You can read the rest here.

Solidarity With Gina Miller

There was a time, not that long ago in fact, when ‘liberals’ and ‘leftists’ were blamed for the rise of Brexit and Donald Trump.   We – the ‘latte-drinking metropolitan elite’ had been too arrogant, the argument ran.    We hadn’t listened to ‘ordinary people’.  We’d become complacent and detached from the ‘concerns’ people had about ‘immigration’.   We’d become so ‘politically-correct gone mad’ that ordinary folk couldn’t say the things they wanted to say and had a right to say.  As one acquaintance told me this year – not without a certain hint of gleeful triumph – ‘ you thought you’d won!’

In one sense, these arguments were correct.  Those of us who grew up in the 70s did believe that the UK had made significant progress from the days when Tories could campaign with the slogan ‘ If you want a n****r for a neighbour: Vote Labour.’  We thought we were part of a society where overt expressions of racism were no longer acceptable, that accepted and even celebrated diversity.  It wasn’t that we thought we’d ‘won’, or that the UK had become ‘post-racist.’   The struggle against racism, xenophobia and intolerance is never definitively ‘won’ – it’s something that has to be waged by each generation, that requires constant vigilance regarding the complex ways in which racism changes its language and its targets and forms new tributaries.

So complacency was not in order here.  Especially over the last few decades, when ‘Muslims’ have become the new generic alien intruders and existential enemies to the far right and increasingly in mainstream conservative discourse; when words like asylum seeker, migrant and economic migrant have become tabloid codewords containing a range of undeclared and often covertly-racialised negative meanings; when ‘concerns’ about immigration suddenly made it ok to describe the entry of Bulgarians and Romanians as a potential ‘invasion’ by criminals and benefit scroungers.

But now, thanks to David Cameron, Nigel Farage, Aaron Banks, Boris Johnson and all the others who inflicted this grotesque act of self-harm on the nation, the box of monsters has been opened and we’ve found out that the progress we thought we’d made was really rather paper-thin.  Hyper-nationalism and xenophobia has infected the body politic like a virus.  It expresses itself in the streets, in social media, in below-the-line comments in newspapers, in the endless pandering of politicians terrified of losing votes and anxious to sweep up others, in the complete disregard for the millions of EU citizens whose lives have now been placed on hold while an unscrupulous and incompetent government seeks to turn them to its own advantage, in the disgraceful ‘leftist’ arguments that describe migrant workers as ‘scabs’ and commodities.

It’s comforting to tell ourselves that all this is due to a ‘few bad apples’ – an excuse that appeals both to the conservative Leavers and also to leftists who think the referendum result was a rebellion against the elite, or neoliberalism, or something.   But  it is difficult to ignore the fact that the referendum has empowered and legitimised the worst elements in UK society: the angry white men who think it’s ok to rip hijabs off Muslim women; who shout ‘ I voted for you to leave’ at people they’ve never met who simply look or sound different from them; who tell EU nationals ‘ my people have been here a thousand years, you’ve only been here for 10 minutes’; who break windows and scrawl graffiti on the houses of ‘foreigners.’

At the extreme end of this spectrum are  the sweaty keyboard fascists who threaten anyone who opposes ‘their’ Brexit or disagrees with their insanely overblown hatred of the EU, with rape and death.  Such sentiments often overlap with misogyny, because if there is one thing these ‘patriots’ absolutely can’t stand, it’s a woman who has the temerity to say things they don’t like or even to speak in public at all.

Lily Allen, Diane Abbott and Mary Beard have all been targeted by these knuckledragging trolls, and there are few people they hate more than the Guyanese-born Gina Miller.  At a time when politicians on all sides were so pathetically cowed by the ‘will of the people’ that they were prepared to allow Theresa May to drive through the hardest of Brexits without parliamentary scrutiny, Miller initiated  – and won – a court case against the British government to ensure that MPs would actually be able to vote on the outcome.

Throughout this process, Miller insisted on the simple principle – which had until Brexit been taken as an axiomatic component of British democracy – that parliament should have a say in a crucial decision of such unprecedented national importance.  For that she was mocked by the tabloids as the ‘millionaire Remainer’; condescended to by the ghastly Kwasi Kwarteng; subjected to a vicious hit-piece in the Daily Mail which described her as a fake and a self-publicist.

Naturally she has also been threatened with sexual violence and death, because for too many people in this country,  it is unacceptable that an ‘uppity’ woman of colour should stand in the way of ‘the will of the people’ and remind them that the country’s democratic institutions are supposed to act as a check on executive power.   After all, as the racist aristocrat Rhodri Phillips put it, while offering £5,000 to anyone who would run Miller over,  ‘If this is what we should expect from immigrants, send them back to their stinking jungles.’

So Miller has been threatened with gangrape, and lynching, and many other fantasies pulled from the most rancid sewers of white racism.  She has been told that she should be beheaded and burned at the stake.  And now she has been threatened with acid attacks, to the point when she and her family don’t dare go out onto the street, and she is  considering leaving the country.

That is  Miller’s reward for upholding the UK’s democratic institutions, and for showing more courage than the entire political class between them: she and her family must now choose whether to live under 24 hour security in a state of terror or leave the country. Too many people have been silent about this, perhaps because they don’t want to be associated with someone depicted by the Daily Mail as ‘the poster girl of Remain’.

That needs to change, and now.  Politicians and commentators need to speak out loudly and clearly in support of Miller and in loud condemnation of the racists and fascists who have tormented her.  Social media companies need to become more proactive in shutting them down.  We need to do this for Miller’s sake and also for our own.  No one should be subjected to such abuse, and the vileness directed at Miller is only the sharp end of a dangerous trend that poses a direct threat to UK society as a whole.  As Miller wrote last month:

Over the last year, as the hatred flooded into my inbox, I’ve watched as perpetrators have discovered a new boldness. They no longer hide under anonymity but openly sign their name. They no longer linger alone in their rooms, or at the end of some bar in a pub; social media amplify their vile voices and create echo chambers that reinforce their views.

This is happening because we have allowed it to happen.  It will take a great deal of effort to put these monsters back in the box, but  it’s an effort we have to make.  Today Leave.EU tweeted the following GIF celebrating the fact that Miller may be forced to leave the country because of the threats directed against her:

That is their response, and no one familiar with Arron Banks’s organisation will be remotely surprised by it.  If we are going to prevent the UK from sliding into the same swamp we need a different response.   Last month Miller asked ‘the decent people of Britain to come together in opposition to the hatred poisoning our country’.

That’s an invitation we will refuse to our shame – and also at our own peril.

 

The Madness of King Donald

Even by the wild standards of what may well be the most deranged individual ever to inhabit the White House, the man who calls himself Donald Trump has had a prolific and remarkable week.  Just to recapitulate.  In the space of five working days Trump has:

a) publicly humiliated the admittedly creepy attorney general he himself appointed

b) suggested that immigrants are criminals who cut up the bodies of beautiful young women

c) turned a Boy Scout Jamboree into an anti- Obama hatefest

d) given the police permission to smash arrestees’ heads against the wall even though many police chiefs have stated that they don’t want this ‘right’

e) tried and failed to take medical care away from millions of  Americans

f) threatened Congressmen who didn’t do what he wanted

g) fired his chief of staff because his chief of staff didn’t ‘return fire’ after one of the most blisteringly foul-mouthed rants that any press secretary has ever made

h) kept said press secretary in post instead of firing him – as any president with even the faintest glimmer of decency and political nous would have done

i) banned transgender people from the armed forces even though his own generals don’t want this

No one can say that Trump isn’t productive, even if what he produces is chaos, confusion and mayhem. But what one can also say is that this must the worst anti-establishment rebellion ever.   After all, this is a man who came to Washington to ‘drain the swamp’, and who positively reeks of the swamp itself, a man whose stupidity, narcissism,  incompetence and downright malice are so spectacularly grotesque and egregious that it is difficult to believe he is actually a real character and not some fictional monster from Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Preacher.

After all, if you were going to make some kind of sci fi fantasy film about Satan getting himself elected to the presidency of the United States, you could do a lot worse than pick Donald Trump for the role.   Watching this insanity unfold would be entertaining, in a blackly comical kind of way, were it not so dispiriting and so dangerous.

First of all, one cannot contemplate Donald Trump without being constantly reminded that this was the man who millions of Americans used their democratic right and voted for, supposedly in order to give ‘the establishment’ a bloody nose.

That is difficult enough to swallow.  But then there is the very real possibility that an administration in crash and burn, that is painfully headed for historical ignominy on an epic scale, might just do something really, really bad – far worse than the lunacy that we have seen so far – in order to silence its critics and prevent the inevitable meltdown from occurring, or at least ensure that we all meltdown with him.

That’s right folks, I’m talking about a war, because if there is any one thing that can pull a failing president out of the fire and give him credibility, or even a political halo, it’s a war, the bigger the better.  You know the kind.  The one you have to fight because national security is at stake.  The one you fight because if we don’t get them they will get us. The one where you can’t stand idly by.

Who could that war be fought against?  As Trump might say, whatever.  It could be North Korea, because apparently the Trump mafia have decided ‘the time for talk is over’.   It could be Iran, of course.  After all so many people have been itching to whack Iran for years, and if Trump did it, who would care?  It could even be Russia, despite (because of?) the ongoing Russia investigation.   And why not throw China in for good measure, because as Trump keeps saying, they haven’t done everything they can to stop North Korea.

Wait! I hear you sceptics say.  Would Trump be prepared to start a war that might destroy much of South as well as North Korea, and possibly drag in China as well? Would he, perhaps with his Saudi buddies,really  start a major war with Iran and possibly Syria that would set the Middle East on fire, just to protect his presidency and his reputation?   Come on!

Well that is exactly what I’m saying.  After all, do you really believe that Trump’s son-in-law sold the Saudis $110 billion worth of weaponry just to bomb Yemen into a state of near-famine?  Consider that the only time Trump has been popular since taking office was when he fired a brace of missiles at Syria.  That’s all it took to make him ‘presidential’, according to  CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.   Yep, it really is that simple.

And consider this also.  For all Trump’s lunatic freakshow, he has yet to inflict the levels of mayhem and destruction that his far more sensible and ‘presidential’ predecessors left behind them in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and many other places.  George W. Bush turned a crime against humanity – the 9/11 attacks – into an excuse for endless war against an array of targets that had nothing to do with the attacks.  I

His administration was stacked with political schemers who were far more ‘sensible’ and intelligent than Trump’s insane clown posse.  They were ruthless, cunning and utterly amoral, and had absolutely no hesitation about manipulating intelligence in order to justify the wars they had always wanted and pave the way for the ‘new American century.’

They lied openly and blatantly, and they were aided and abetted by the very sensibly British Tony ‘ I did the right thing’ Blair.  Between them they unleashed a swathe of violence of which the ‘liberation/destruction of Mosul is just the latest chapter.

All of us are paying the price for their decisions, and many many people have paid that price in blood.   Yet oddly, none of those responsible have ever paid a serious price for it.  On the contrary, some of them have become respected elder statesmen – in certain circles at least.  Their crimes and mistakes are largely forgotten or glossed over. They write memoirs, cut sagebrush on their ranches, get jobs with the World Bank, pontificate about Brexit.

No one really cares about what they did, at least no one who matters.   No one spurns them.  No one holds them to account.   True, their reputations have been tarnished, but a bad reputation needs people to identity and recognize the disgrace in the first place and then to remember it afterwards.  Fortunately for them, we have too many politicians and too many journalists who are experts at forgetting, who are all too willing to put aside a few bothersome facts like the destabilisation of the Middle East and the destruction of entire countries in exchange for some sage advice on our contemporary predicament.

So no one should discount the possibility that this could happen even to the orange-haired freak howling, bawling and spewing demented tweets at the White House. Because as freakish as he is, he is the product of systemic failure and systemic impunity that goes beyond the vagaries of personality.  It’s a system in which you can inflict limitless ‘creative destruction’ on the rest of the world, start wars in which tens of thousands of your own countrymen and women are killed and maimed, and a few years later Bono will pop on your ranch for a selfie.

In such a system, even an administration that has gone completely off the rails can still find its way to greatness or at least to some kind of rehabiliation, still find a way to ensure loyalty, compliance and even approval. All it takes is a blaze of cruise missiles at dawn, the steely glint of fighter planes on the runway, the appearance of yet another evil enemy who we have no choice but to fight before it’s too late.

We discount that possibility at our peril, and we should watch the madness of Donald Trump very closely, and be prepared to do anything we can to prevent him from dragging us down into the swamp that he crawled out from.

Wayne’s World

Whatever the economic imperatives behind imperialism, every empire invariably generates a rhetoric of superiority, which supposedly entitles and even obliges certain countries or societies to acquire territory, dominate and conquer others or impose their system of government through direct or indirect means.   Such superiority might be cultural, religious, racial, or systemic, but it often translates into a sense of ‘mission’ or ‘destiny’ which presents empire as some kind of altruistic project.

Some empires are cured of such delusions slowly and painfully.  For Spain, the process of imperial disintegration and collapse began in the seventeenth century and culminated in the Spanish-American war at the end of the nineteenth.   Other empires have experienced a more sudden and traumatic collision with reality. The thousand-year Reich and Japan’s empire of the sun underwent a process of imperial expansion that lasted roughly fifteen years, and which ended with the destruction of both Germany and Japan and the humiliation of occupation.

Partly as a result of such devastation, both countries have to some extent come to terms with their respective imperial pasts and have learned to be suspicious of the narratives of superiority that once sustained them.  Here in the UK things have turned out rather differently. Britain’s protracted ‘retreat from empire’ has never entirely cured the British ruling classes – and a significant section of the public – of the belief that the UK has some kind of special destiny that is different from other nations.

Suggest, as Danish Finance Minister Kristian Jensen did in June, that  ‘there are small nations and there are countries that have not yet realized they are small nations’ and that we might belong to both categories, and you will get the British Ambassador to Denmark Dominic Schroeder angrily denying that Great Britain is ‘ a diminished or diminishing power.’   Suggest that we might do better economically as members of the European Union than we would by leaving it, and you will hear a great deal of lofty pontificating about how we were once ‘ a great trading nation’ and could become one again.

Few of those who make such arguments will talk about how Britain became a ‘great trading nation’ in the first place.   You won’t hear many references to gunboats and the British navy, the East India Company’s wars, famines in Bengal, the collapse of the Bengal textile industry, the Opium Wars, the Irish famine, Mau Mau concentration camps, to mention but a few of the darker episodes from our imperial past.   If such things are remembered at all, they are likely to be remembered as aberrations in the acquisition of our ‘accidental empire.’

Even Orwell, the great imperial critic, once noted that the British empire was ‘ a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it.’  Well yes, compared with the Nazis and Japan’s ‘Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Scheme’ we don’t look that bad, but really such comparisons aren’t something to go around feeling superior about, and they certainly shouldn’t induce us to hanker after what we have lost.

This curious and dangerous combination of imperial nostalgia and imperial amnesia that continues to define and distort our politics.   I’ve been reminded of this combination many times in my lifetime, but never more so than during the last twelve months.   Brexit is absolutely marinated by this remembered past – together with a sour streak of English hyper-nationalism.   It isn’t that we want an empire again, it’s just that we want to be as ‘great’ as we thought we were when we had one.

That’s why we can’t stand foreigners telling us what to do, even if we voluntarily agreed to join an organisation in which we also tell them what we want to do.   It’s why we describe the EU as a ‘dictatorship’ and talk of starving ourselves to be free of it so that once again we can become the great trading nation we were always destined to be.

After all, as  a woman on Question Time recently reminded viewers,  ‘ For thousands of years, Britain has ruled in a wonderful way.  We’ve been a light to the world.’  And this week, in an incredible interview ‘Wayne from Chelmsford’ told LBC presenter James O’Brien that he still supported Brexit despite mounting evidence that it may be an economic disaster, not only because he didn’t believe it would be, but because we used to ‘own 3 thirds [sic]of the world’.

How did we get to ‘own’ these ‘3 thirds’?   Wayne probably doesn’t know, and he clearly doesn’t care.   Asked whether leaving the EU might make it difficult for Brits to go to France, he replies that ‘ I don’t want to go to France’.   He doesn’t want to go to Greece either, because ‘ I’ve heard you can’t go to certain beaches because they’ve got full of tents with migrants on them.’

There are a lot of things to be depressed about it this alarming interview: the unapologetic xenophobia; the deep hatred of migrants; the ignorance and complete indifference to facts, arguments or evidence.  But once again Wayne’s view of our imperial past expresses a nostalgia and romanticism that is at the core of Brexit.  Before you reach into the standard Brexiters’ book of clichés and accuse me of snobbery or looking down at the working classes, I should point out that this view is not restricted to ignorant bigots from Chelmsford.  On the contrary, our newspapers and our ruling classes are absolutely steeped in it, as Theresa May’s ‘global Britain’ speeches and the Eton-educated buffoon Boris Johnson consistently prove.

In short, we are witnessing a textbook example of what can happen when a country succumbs not only to its worst prejudices, but also to its most foolish and most inflated delusions.   The former will be hard enough to crack, but in the end, there may only one thing that cure the country of the latter, and that is the very painful encounter with reality that John Harris suggested in the Guardian today, in a piece which attributed Brexit to ‘ an ingrained English exceptionalism, partly traceable to geography but equally bound up with a puffed-up interpretation of our national past, which has bubbled away in our politics and culture for decades.’

As Harris observed:

‘The likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have used it for their own ideological ends; in the kind of post-industrial places long ignored by Westminster politicians it turned out to be the one bit of pride and identity many people had left. It runs deep: even if the economy takes a vertiginous plunge, it will take a lot longer than two years to shift it.’

Harris also argues that

‘The only way such delusions will fade is if they are finally tested in the real world and found wanting, whereupon this country may at last be ready to humbly engage with modernity. And in that sense, to paraphrase a faded politician, Brexit probably has to mean Brexit. That may result in a long spell of relative penury, and an atmosphere of recrimination and resentment. By the time everything is resolved a lot of us will either be very old or dead. But that may be the price we have to pay to belatedly put all our imperial baggage in the glass case where it belongs, and to edge our way back into the European family, if they will have us.’

There are a lot of ifs in this scenario, and none of it is much to celebrate or look forward to.  I hope these bleak possibilities don’t materialize, because a lot of people will suffer if they do, and national political and economic traumas do not always produce a positive – let alone a redemptive – outcome.

I still hope that the country will come to its senses, and that there can some kind of revisiting of the referendum result, either through an election or a second referendum on a final deal.  I hope that we can find our way to a better future that is not based on the selective reinvention of our imperial past.  Perhaps then we might conclude that our collective interests could be best served by remaining in the – flawed – organisation that we voluntarily chose to remain and that we are foolishly choosing to leave.  

And perhaps we might finally learn to stop looking down at the rest of the world, and come to terms with the fact that we were not as great or as special as we thought we were,  and accept that empires do not repeat themselves, and finally say good riddance to the one we had.