2016: The Year of Living Fearfully

There was a time – it seems many years ago now – when governments in the Western world told their populations that things were getting better, and that they were helping them to get better.   In those days voters by and large believed them, and made their political choices from amongst a cluster of political parties who they were familiar with and who mostly sounded and looked the same.

Voters may not have liked or trusted politicians individually but they recognized the parameters they were operating in.  They knew that they were right-of-centre or left-of-centre or somewhere in between. Anything further out than that and the majority of voters would usually say no.

For some time now these assumptions have been crumbling in different countries and at different speeds.  It’s difficult to put a particular date on when this disintegration started.  Some might trace it to the 2008/09 financial crisis and the grotesque fraud known as ‘austerity’ which followed.

But you could go further back, to the rampant ‘end of history’ arrogance that provided accompanied the shift towards globalisation at the end of the Cold War; when a capitalism that believed itself to be victorious and unchallenged believed that it could do anything it wanted; when even liberal governments adopted conservative nostrums and regarded the whole notion of an enabling state as a historical anachronism.

Or perhaps we could see the origins of our current predicament in the Reagan/Thatcher years, when the exaltation of ‘the market’ and the glorification of wealth came to trump (pardon the pun) any other social considerations.

Whatever the timetable,  2016 will go down in history as a watershed year when the old political establishment that had largely accepted this consensus was rejected by an  unprecedented electoral insurgency that was dominated by the right and extreme right. This was the year in which millions of people in the UK voted for perhaps the greatest  assembly of snake oil salesmen in the history of British politics, largely on the basis of post-imperial fantasies and pipe-dreams.

Given the positions taken by Tony Blair and George Bush over Iraq – to name but two examples – we can all take the notion of ‘post-truth politics’ with more than a pinch of salt.   Lying didn’t begin in 2016, after all.  But what is alarming about 2016 was the fact that politicians could lie through their teeth, and people would often know or sense that they were lying, and they would still vote for them if only because they weren’t the liars they were used to.

This was a year when emotion and magical thinking triumphed over rationality, common sense and even material self-interest; when millionaires and billionaires presented themselves as the voice of the common people and anti-establishment rebels; when millions of people voted for giant walls, imaginary jobs, ‘control’ and other things that were difficult if not impossible to achieve, and which the ‘rebels’ who were offering them never really intended to achieve.

It was also a year in which you could be a racist, sexist, misogynist braggart and people were still prepared to make you president of the United States; when voters in the UK opted to leave the European Union largely because of ‘concerns’ about immigration that were steeped in misinformation, and xenophobic and racist assumptions that Leave politicians cynically manipulated and played on.

All this should be deeply alarming to anyone on the left/liberal spectrum who doesn’t believe that these developments were some kind anti-establishment rebellion or a revolt against neoliberalism.  Revolts they may have been, but electoral insurgencies against the ‘establishment’ don’t necessarily benefit the left and may in fact contribute to its destruction – or at the very least, its irrelevance.

Many factors contributed to making 2016 such a weirdly morbid and demoralising political year, but its consequences are now glaringly clear to anyone who wants to look: that the Western world is now in the throes of a reactionary nativist/hyper-nationalist ‘counter-revolution’ with a distinctly rank odour of white privilege and white supremacism wafting into the mainstream from its fringes.

To point this out doesn’t mean that all the voters who voted for the grotesque political monster that is Donald Trump were racists, bigots or white supremacists, but millions of voters were prepared to ignore the racist and bigoted sentiments that Trump mobilised so brazenly,  because they didn’t care about them or because other things mattered to them more.

The same in the UK.  It’s rather pointless – and tedious – to have to refute the Leave argument that ‘not everyone who voted for Brexit is racist or a xenophobe.’ Obviously not, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that the Leave vote would have triumphed without the barrage of dog whistle messages about immigration that accompanied the campaign.

These alarming and disturbing tendencies are not likely to abate anytime soon, and further shocks may follow in the coming year, so it is incumbent upon us to face up to them and not take refuge in ‘the revolution is just around the corner’ or ‘first the liberals then us’ utopianism – or is it just opportunism?

One of the main reasons why the right triumphed in 2016 is because it was able to mobilise fears and anxieties that the old political order has not bothered to address or has not known how to address.   For some years now fear has become the dominant political emotion of the 21st century, which politicians of various persuasions have sought to mobilise.   The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has coined the term ‘liquid fear’ to describe the anxieties that he believes underpin the current ‘crisis of humanity’ in the Western world.

For Bauman, the crisis is driven by a ‘tangible feeling of anxiety that has only vague contours but is still acutely present everywhere.’  These fears are manifold.  Fear of terrorism – often translated into fear of Muslims or simply fear of ‘the Other’.   Fear of immigrants and refugees. Fear of war, violence and political instability.  Fear of open borders.

Today, as Adam Curtis has often pointed out, politicians have largely abandoned the notion of a better future, and like to present themselves as managers of risk, preventing the bad from becoming even worse and promising to  ‘keep you safe’ even when their decisions are clearly not making anyone safe.

On the contrary we live in an age of persistent and constant insecurity, which our rulers often seem determined to encourage.  Whether we are beneficiaries or victims of globalisation, we all inhabit an economic system that is inherently unstable, chaotic and prone to shocks and tremors such as the 2008 crisis, that can capsize the futures of millions of people in an instant.

Having largely abandoned the notion of an enabling state, governments and political and financial institutions from the IMF to the EU have adopted and accepted policies that appear to be intent on reducing more and more people to a state of permanent insecurity and precariousness.  Since 2008 austerity has pushed more and more people – except the rich and powerful – towards a common precipice where they are told that they will have to work longer, for less, or try and find some tenuous foothold in an economy based on ‘flexibility’ while the struts and safety nets that still pay lip service to the common good are systematically pared back and dismantled.

In these circumstances, no one should be surprised that millions of people have rejected what they see as the politicians who have presided over these developments – or at least been unable to prevent them.

The tragedy is that they have chosen politicians who are unlikely to bring them anything better and are more likely to make things even worse.  There are many things that will have to happen to turn back the nativist tide, but one of them must surely be to reduce the fear and insecurity that has led so many people to turn to the pseudo-solutions offered by this dangerous new generation of chancers, demagogues and charlatans.

This shouldn’t mean emollient talk of ‘hope’ – let alone fantasy revolutions and utopias. Utopia is not a solution to the dystopian present that is now unfolding before our eyes. To my mind the left needs to think outside the usual channels if it is not to vanish into irrelevance.   We need practical and viable polices and solutions; a new notion of the common good; broader coalitions, alliances and discussions that do not simply involve the left talking to itself.

This doesn’t mean aping the right.  You don’t have to fight reaction by becoming reactionary yourselves.  You don’t right racism and anti-immigrant scapegoating by pandering to it.

Nationally, and internationally, the crises and problems that confront us in the 21st century require collective solutions, not walls and even harder borders – whether mental or physical.

Trump, Farage, Johnson and so many of the ‘populists’ who have made 2016 such a grim year are offering a kind of certainty and security.  They won’t succeed, even on their own terms, because they are liars, frauds and demagogues, and because their ‘solutions’ are unrealisable.

But already they have made the world a nastier and more evil place.  ‘Their world is crumbling, ours is being built, ‘ crowed the Front National in celebration of Trump’s victory in November.

That is one possibility, and you would have to be naive and cynical to discount it.   To prevent this outcome, it must surely be our task in 2017 to combat the forces they have helped unleash,  and reduce the toxic political emotions that are leading us towards a disaster that we may not recover from.

 

 

The resistible rise of Katie Hopkins

Ok, I know I shouldn’t write about Katie Hopkins.  I am aware that she is a self-seeking toxic sociopath who feeds on toxicity and says hateful things in order to get people to talk about her.   Her motives for doing this are so painfully transparent they hardly bear scrutiny: she wants to become rich and famous and have a lot of people looking at her and reacting to her.

That’s  a common dream nowadays, and indeed the only dream that some people have.   Admittedly she has chosen a route that would shame anyone with even the most elementary standards of morality and decency.  Her motives for doing this are best left for a psychiatrist to analyse, but the significance of Katie Hopkins goes way beyond the ultimately pathetic figure of Hopkins herself.

Because when a columnist can publish an article in a major newspaper, using the language of Nazism and the Rwandan genocide to describe the men, women and children who are drowning in the Mediterranean, then we have to take a wider look at the forces that have made this possible.

Yesterday Laurens Jolles,  the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR) in Italy, attributed the failure of European governments to respond to the ongoing crisis in the Mediterranean on the ‘irresponsible rhetoric’ of a European-wide political dialogue on immigration, which had left Europe’s polticians fearful of losing elections.   ‘The level of this dialogue compared to 20 years ago is just incredible,’ Jolles declared. ‘It wouldn’t have been possible in the past, the racist rhetoric, the rhetoric of intolerance. In the 60s, 70s and the 80s, we would never have accepted this.’

Hopkins is not a politician but her ‘thoughts’ on the migration crisis are the most extreme manifestation of this transformation in any mainstream British publication.  Just to recap: She described the migrants crossing the Mediterranean as ‘cockroaches’ and ‘feral humans’, who recommended that Europe should fire on them with gunboats, declared ‘Some of our towns are festering sores, plagued by swarms of migrants and asylum seekers, shelling out benefits like Monopoly money.’

This kind of talk is not original.  Northern League politicians in Italy routinely use such language.  Back in 2013 Italian senator Roberto Kayelongi compared Italy’s first black minister Cecile Kyengi to an orangutan.  Here in the UK such language was until recently more generally restricted to the darker corners of the Internet or far-right pamphlets. Back in 1997 Nick Hudson, the editor of the Dover Herald published a series of articles on the arrival of Roma asylum seekers in the UK which he claimed had left Dover ‘ with the backdraft of a nation’s human sewage with no cash to wash it down the drain.’

The Dover Herald was a minor provincial newspaper.  The Sun is not, and the fact that Hopkins can now publish the same kind of racist vitriol in its pages is an indication of what is now considered acceptable after eighteen years of incessant vilification of migrants and asylum seekers.

The racism-that-does-not-speak-its-name has clearly opened the door to the point when it is increasingly willing to openly declare itself.  In the last few years a pseudo-debate, generated mostly from the right,  about free speech and the supposed intellectual manacles of ‘political correctness’ has begun to legitimize cruelty, prejudice and hatespeech against many different groups of people, to the point when the ‘right to be offend’ has become a licence to hurt and wound and express contempt for anyone.

That what freedom and democracy are all about, innit?  Or so these 21st century Voltaires would have us believe.  Because after all, words are just words right?  And unlike sticks and stones, they have no consequences.  So just as we should giggle when Jeremy Clarkson has a go at the ‘slopes’, so we ought to chuckle and shake our heads when ‘Katie’ describes Palestinians as ‘rodents’ or insinuates that Asian men are all paedophiles.

Like, come on, get over yourself and grow a thick skin, you stuffy fun-hating liberals.

The Internet has enhanced these new ‘freedoms’ that we now enjoy.  Idiot trolls can now sit at their spittle-flecked keyboards and threaten a woman with rape because she campaigns for a picture of Jane Austen on a pound note.  Only words.  In the last week Sue Perkins of the Great British Bakeoff has left twitter after receiving a series of death threats because it was rumoured that she was going to take Clarkson’s job.  One tweet looked forward to seeing her burned alive.

Aww Sue, wussamatter, can’t take a joke?  And now Jack Monroe, single mother and low-budget chef, who is gay, has also left twitter complaining of ‘suffocating hatred and vitriol’ from trolls like this:

[stextbox id=”alert”]Your sick form of Lesbianism and militant queerism is destroying this country. Get out and give us Britain back! #VoteUKIP.”[/stextbox]

Hey come on Jack.  It’s only words.

This is the world of Internet trolldom that Katie Hopkins came from, and which provided her with the springboard that began with attacks on vulnerable celebrities, fat people and food bank users, and which she is now using as a platform for racist hatemongering and genocial fantasising.  The dank and poisonous swamp that is the Sun is of course a natural habitat for a troll-journalist, but Hopkins’ transition from Queen of the Trolls to newspaper columnist and radio presenter is not just due to Rupert Murdoch’s perennial ability to drag British cultural life into the dirt.

Too many media outlets who should have known better gave her the publicity she craved in order to generate a few more hits on their website or increase their ratings. The Huffington Post bears particular responsibility for this.  Over the last few years it has assidiously reported every tweet that ‘Katie’ ever made with a post-modern smirk, accompanied by ‘whoops I did it again’ headlines like ‘You’ll never guess what Katie’s said now’ or ‘ Katie’s latest controversial tweet.’

The fact that the Huffpost and so many others pandered to Hopkins’ agenda and provided an outlet for her prejudices, didn’t mean that the Huffpost agreed or disagreed with them.  It was just wanted to titillate its readers.  No doubt the Guardian will soon follow up with a Decca Aitkenhead profile describing her as a contrarian controversialist and perhaps some kind of national treasure.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that Hopkins now describes herself as a ‘journalist’ as well as ‘businesswoman.’   Or that there is now a twitter meme called ‘Je Suis Katie’, which says things like this:

[stextbox id=”alert”]No matter what, I always stand up for what I believe in. I will always fight the good fight & stand strong'[/stextbox]

And

[stextbox id=”alert”]I no longer give a damn what people think of me, If you aren’t offended by anything you are UNSTOPPABLE![/stextbox]

In the kingdom of Trolldom, a woman who stands up for what she ‘believes in’ by describing migrants as ‘feral humans’ and Palestinians as ‘rodents’ is a natural queen, and it is not surprising to hear her subjects paying homage to her.   But she should never have left those toxic realms.   And the fact that she is now able to pour forth a constant stream of dim hatred from a major newspaper and an LBC radio show is a depressing reminder that a significant section of the British media – and the public as well – has no more of a moral compass than Hopkins herself.

 

Jimmy Mubenga: A Shameful Verdict

Yesterday a jury delivered one of the most astounding verdicts that the British justice system has produced in many years, when it found three former G4S guards not guilty of the manslaughter by gross negligence of  Jimmy Mubenga, the Angolan deportee who was asphyxiated while being forcibly held down in his seat during a deportation flight in 2010.

Mubenga should never have been on that plane at all.   He was the father of five children and he had been living in the UK for seventeen years since coming to the UK to seek asylum in 1994.    He had just served a sentence for ABH – his first offense – after a pub brawl.   That should have been the end of it.  But not in the UK, because Mubenga was a ‘foreign national offender’, who British governments love to deport in order to show the British public that they are tough on immigration by ratcheting up deportation statistics.

So Mubenga was put on a British Airways flight to Luanda.   While on the plane he became ‘distressed’ after a mobile phone conversation with his wife.   The G4S guards then handcuffed his hands behind his back and held him doubled over in his seat with his seat belt on and his head between his knees for more than half an hour, in a position that G4S guards charmingly call  ‘carpet karaoke‘ till he died of a heart attack.

Numerous passengers and cabin crew afterwards described how Mubenga cried out repeatedly that he couldn’t breathe for more than ten minutes,  but the guards did not respond or release him until he went limp.

Last year an inquest found the three guards guilty of unlawfully killing Mubenga through the use of unreasonable force, but the Old Bailey jury was not made aware of that verdict on the grounds that it would be prejudicial to the accused.   For the same reason, the jury was not informed of dozens of racists tweets and messages found on the mobile phones of  two of the guards, which included what the QC at last year’s inquest had described as ‘very racially offensive material.’

Some might conclude that such evidence could cast light on why three white guards were able to calmly sit down on a passenger plane and coolly suffocate a black man to death, but the judge accepted the defense’s arguement that  because the guard’s tweets were also misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Liverpudlian, then people in the jury who might be belong to these categories would be prejudiced against the defendants.

Even without these narrowed parameters, the jury still had enough evidence to reach a guilty verdict.   Yet they chose to ignore the testimonies from passengers and cabin crew regarding Mubenga’s vocal protests, and believed the guards’ improbable and frankly ludicrous assertion that they had not held him down and that Mubenga had forced himself into the doubled-over position.

How could someone have forced himself into that position and then remained in it to the point where he could make himself die?   What were the guards doing during all this – reading airline magazines or looking at the duty free?   How was it that passengers and crew heard Mubenga shouting that he couldn’t breathe yet the three guards claim that they couldn’t?

Yesterday the three guards greeted the verdict with tears, and appeared looking grim-faced and sorrowful next to their solicitor, who insisted his clients ‘ bitterly regret the death of Mr Mubenga, but have always said they were trying to do a very difficult job in difficult circumstances to the best of their ability.’

And G4S, a company with a long history of violent and racist treatment of migrant deportees has declared ‘The death of Mr Mubenga was a tragic incident and our thoughts and condolences remain with his family and friends.’

Others will conclude that it was not a ‘tragic incident’ but a crime, and these these three men  are not the ones who should be crying.   As an African asylum seeker, a ‘migrant’ and a ‘foreign criminal’, however, Mubenga was a disposable and second-class person to many different people and institutions; to the British public and the government and the Home Office; to the powerful and all but unaccountable corporation that deported him; to the guards who brought about his terrible death.

In delivering this shameful and disgraceful travesty of a verdict , the judge, jury and the CPS have also demonstrated that certain categories of people simply don’t matter as much as others, and  once again contrived to produce a situation in which a black man dies at the hands of white men, and no one is held responsible for it.

 

 

British Racism: Out of the Mouths of Babes

You need a lot of patience to be an ambassador from an Eastern European country to Britain these days – the kind of patience a police negotiator might need to talk down a drunken husband holed up with a shotgun or perhaps a potential suicide about to jump off a balcony.

Every other day, it seems, you are called upon to justify the presence of your fellow citizens in our green and pleasant land, and point out that most of them don’t actually want to come here, and that the majority of those that do work and pay taxes, in accordance with the same rules that enable Britons to work anywhere in the continent.

Given that many Britons don’t even know much about your country, but assume a great deal about it,  you have to go back to basics, and frame your arguments at a very primitive level.   With a sigh you might have to spell it out, for example, that your people are not vampires, criminals and parasites intent on ‘grabbing benefits’.

As a member of the diplomatic profession, you have to control your exasperation.  You might ask ever so politely, as the Polish ambassador Witold Sobków did yesterday,  if our Prime Minister would stop ‘stigmatizing’ your countrymen and suggest instead that

‘When we discuss immigration, let us not talk about numbers and nationalities; let us concentrate on solving the problems together, on assimilation and integration, on preventing uneasiness in neighbourhoods where there is a significant increase in population, on showing the benefits for the UK.’

But all the time, you must suspect that such appeals are falling on deaf ears; that your arguments are aimed at politicians and tabloid editors who are coolly and deliberately pandering to xenophobic and racist prejudice for their own political purposes or because they are simply too cowardly to do anything to challenge it; that you are dealing with a public that is becoming increasingly impervious to rational argument when it comes to immigration.

Having spent some time here, you will have noticed that the British public ‘concerns’ about immigration have risen to hysterical pitch during the last twelve months.   You may have noticed a new survey suggesting that three quarters.of the British public want to cut immigration.

And now a new report by the charity Childline suggests that these ‘concerns’ are percolating down into the nation’s schools.  The report noted a 69 percent rise in the number of children contacting the organization for counseling about racist bullying last year compared with the previous year.

Many of them were young Muslims who were labelled  by their classmates as ‘terrorists’ and bombers.’  Others were new arrivals whose accents or limited English earned them the abusive nickname ‘freshies.’  Now where on earth would our children have got such ideas from?   According to James Kingett of the charity Show Racism the Red Card (SRTRC):

Often children are picking up language at home and from parents and taking that to be fact.   The rhetoric at the moment around immigration is incredibly pervasive. The prominence of the immigration debate may have had a knock-on effect, filtering down in classrooms.’

Indeed it might.   Because it may be that children are merely repeating what their parents say at home.   But it may also be that they have simply picked up on the messages that are so often implicit in Great British Immigration Debate.

And the politicians who have done so much to legitimize the most rancid and toxic prejudices while pretending to address the public’s ‘concerns’ cannot be entirely surprised if the nation’s children are beginning to express these concerns in their own way.