Waking up to a slightly different Britain, there are worrying signs on a shifting horizon. The electorate’s decision to ‘leave’ reflects something quite interesting, and in my opinion, worrying. The decision to leave has been marked by campaigns of dis and over-information about an issue which, dare I categorise this way, everyday people didn’t realise was an issue until the fabrication of anti-European sentiment was in full motion. The campaign was littered, characterised by a sea of vagueness, generalities, as expressions such as ‘Brussels political elite’ (out of the mouths of non-Brussels elites of course), ‘take back…’, ‘control’, ‘our borders’, ‘immigrants’, ‘over-run’, and ‘sovereign’ dampened the contemporary air with their vacuous poison.
The decision to ‘leave’ in most situations in human emotional, psychological, cultural life is the beginning of one journey not simply and wholly defined by the ending of another. It is usually also defined, potentially by the generation of new possibilities that propel human development, however clumsy that movement forwards might be. And yet through the so-called ‘Referendum debate’, what we have witnessed is the façade of democratic principles and power, belying sophisticated machineries of deception and anti-democratic realities. The great democratic decision to leave has been fuelled by political and economic elite whose vested interests are situated in places far beyond the direct control of ‘Brussels’ / face-less entity (delete as appropriate). Those parts of the electorate who voted to leave the EU who are not part of those groups whose lives are characterised by financial, social and cultural stability. They have been seduced by this notion of ‘leaving’, without processing the requisite social, cultural and emotional baggage that ‘leaving’ requires. Leaving a situation signifies an end, and marks the death or potential demise of something – a situation which cannot be resolved or given the parameters of change in any given situation at the time, cannot result in a compromise. Most adult developmental life is marked by our ability to work at issues, process changes within ourselves, re-define what we were and are to become. Why can’t this apply to leaving the EU one might ask? Surely now that the UK population has voted to leave, it can simply do all these things to re-make its non-European identity? The answer is that in addition to these qualities, there is one more that is really quite crucial to a civil society defined by democracy, pluralism, and equality: working with other, sentient human beings.
Barack Obama during his election and re-election campaigns remarked that we need to ‘recognise ourselves in others’. I won’t reference sociology or political science or psychology to affirm this. There’s no need. The recognition of self in others defies those intellectual and anti-intellectual movements that profess insular, singular and unitary notions of selfhood. This fundamental social quality relies on our ability to remain in the moment, stay with a problem and work out how we re-define any preconceived limits of cooperation. The notion of leaving, as exemplified here in this campaign and now in this mass decision is, of course on the face of it, democracy in action. But this is far too simplistic. Time and again the news media over the past 6 months has foraged around in the complicated arena of lay voices around the country, asking people what they thought, and why. Time and again the responses were, if you cast your eyes back to the top of this page, a series of mantras and chants that functioned as a form of dissatisfaction-catharsis: ‘bring back control’, ‘control our borders’, ‘get out and get our sovereignty back’, etc. It seemed to work in a symbiotic relation to the vile and poisonous toxins that emanated from some of the more far-leaning Leave campaigners. The more their campaigns used toxicity against immigration, the more the public’s anger became fuelled, the more the campaign lurched towards a reductionist and xenophobic position. Importantly however, this symbiosis mobilised what I have termed elsewhere, as a Politics of Reasonable Prejudice. Hating, disliking, violating, ignoring human rights, racism all gained forms of validation. ‘Suddenly’ it was ok to hate foreigners, because there’s an official campaign that hates foreigners.
The structures and content of people’s arguments rarely extended beyond these stereotypical populist manifestations of political marginalisation. We’ve seen this again and again in the UK and around Europe so we don’t need to rehearse the history here. But here’s where it also becomes fascinating. These categories of validated dissent became a chant, almost a mantra in the sense of the ancient religious rites invoked in rituals, performed either regularly or at special occasions where a ‘cleansing’ of evil spirits was required, or simply in regular worship. Watch the news media footage. Read the newspapers. Talk to people. Mantras and chants, religiously adhered to for some sense of certainty, some anchorage in a turbulent sea. They are spoken, re-spoken, shouted, printed, until there is nothing left in popular consciousness but the mantras. Growing up the 1970s, the everyday politics of race and racism fundamentally relied on these mantras of hate.
I do not make any necessary connection between religion, religious rituals per se and xenophobia, since politics and power usually pervert the genuine aims of all collective solidarity movements like religion. But the ancient religious mantras embedded within all organised religions do not exist in vacuums. They are metonymically situated to evoke histories, glorious pasts, purities, and most of all to define the limits and parameters of legitimate self-hood. The words, mantras, chants, slogans – the label is not significant – become directly fixated to represent packages of sentiment, feeling, dissatisfaction, anger, hate and this becomes the new self-hood. It works very simply actually. You can witness this in religious rituals the world over. Embodied actions take place at particular sites – macro structural like a church or temple, or micro, like a shrine within a particular home, or cognitively like a prayer that is chanted whilst mobile – sometimes a combination. The words need to be said, spoken repeatedly, and with genuine belief behind them, but the belief doesn’t necessarily come first. The words come first, and after a period of time, the package of ideas that the words relate to might start to connect with personal experiences in life – usually negative ones. This can mobilise belief. Once belief and faith are generated, the words simply perform all of the metonymic machinery automatically. That’s why the phrase ‘control our borders’ is so powerfully loaded, problematic and damaging. It is thrown around as a reason to ‘leave’, and yet the machinery and baggage behind it is rendered invisible. Thoughtful democratic decision making.
And so here we are, as David Cameron resigns as Prime Minister, no longer able to carry the weight of the choice he and his government initiated for the British public, the ‘leavers’ rejoice in…leaving. I return to my earlier point, leaving requires the submission to redefine one’s identity, and to reflect thoughtfully on what this means. I wonder how many of the 17 million people genuinely were the kind of people who saw no compromise, no thinking through, no working with others, no sense of united futures and no global, humanitarian project that could be better together? I wonder how many of these people, if quizzed about the issues that appeared to be at the forefront of the decision making, actually know the details of these issues? I don’t mean how many are political scientists, economists, or cultural theorists. I mean know the issues beyond the mantra? Beyond the chant?
The enduring, sad and problematic legacies of colonial and imperial power stalk the corridors of these sentiments. Call it Postcolonial Melancholy (Gilroy 2004), or the ‘twitchings’ of the amputated limb of colonial sovereignty’ (Rushdie 1991), in every empty repetition of anti-migration, economic-national-border defined sovereignty fueled chant, sits a thousand years of problematic processing of the ‘other’. Some might point the finger of blame firmly at the everyday, non-elite voting classes for being xenophobic, racist and anti-European, this is not to be ignored. But the wider, bigger machinery of political representation and the resultant massive economic neglect endured by most of the electorate in Britain are completely tied together. In ‘Requiem for an American Dream’, Noam Chomsky makes sense of the plight of American democracy by referring to a set of principles mobilised by political and economic elite to further this destruction of civil society. In this he points out very clearly and systematically that the economic and political plutocracy that has developed over the last 40 years has fundamentally damaged not just the US, but the world we live in. I can’t help but feel that we have all been let down, in a way which parallels the US.
The UK’s position in the EU was always a complicated picture, and one which was far removed from everyday voters. The illusion is that by voting ‘leave’, some of the electorate may believe they are now engaged with a series of important political, civil, economic, and social processes, and they might well be. Perhaps if people chant ‘leave’ enough times, or celebrate the great British ‘leave-off’ in pubs and restaurants (more rituals) for long enough, they will be convinced ‘their’ country will be ‘theirs’ again. And perhaps their belief will be enough to return to the mundanity of everyday life. But the machine is moving. Economic, social and political changes will probably be on the way, and the option to carve out a British identity necessarily, and positively melded to others around the world has been cast as a wasted opportunity.
We cannot ignore the ways in which the complexity of political participation, and the deceptive machinery that has been whirring away for many decades has attempted to reduce, in the most insidious, anti-democratic way imaginable, all our lives to a politics of reasonable prejudice.
Here is a response I wrote to an article by the journalist Barbara Ellen,
Whilst I fully commend Barabara Ellen’s damning of current trends towards body fascism and the wholly inappropriate media fueled stigmatisation of mothers who have recently given birth, I am also rather bemused by the strange curiosity she has over why India should take this cultural route. Ellen uses great Indian cinematic icons such as Zeenat Aman and others to make her point that this transformation of Indian societal attitudes to bodies is both sudden and surprising, and outside the limits of what this country should be aspiring to. This seems to be locating India – the largest industrial democracy in the world and one which is by most accounts is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, in a golden age of Bollywood cinema, somehow fixed in time and through its links to religion, mysticism and exotic philosophy able to resist the charms of that other great goddess: Hollywood.
It also places India in a rather, if I may say, patronized position. To argue that it is shocking and disappointing that Indian mores have taken this unsavory route is infantilising the nation and its people. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever that India, and indeed any nation on earth should not fall under the spell of the great capitalist, modernity mediated American spell: body fascism. One only needs to take a look at the transformation of cinema in India over the last 30 years for evidence of this trend – entire films are based on the exposure of the great holy trinity of body capitalism: young, fit, white (or at least as close to white that one can get). And although punctuated by some remnants of traditional themes – honor, marriage, love, in/justice, etc there is very little indeed to separate a Hollywood blockbuster from a Bollywood blockbuster.
India shouldn’t be singled out in this analysis though, it is simply doing what a former colony in post colonial society would do when infected by the industrialization complex of dissatisfaction – they want a ‘piece of the action’. And if the action is unhealthy, bitter, and leads to an unrivaled level of inequality in society, then unfortunately celebrity Indian mums who manage to somehow resist the vacuous trend and remain independent of media mongering are always going to be collateral damage. The more important questions lie in the unseen impact of these global forces, for while Aishwarya Rai-Bachan is a highly visible target at the moment, she has at her disposal wealth beyond the dreams of most of India’s poor – who always have been and remain today completely in awe of these capitalist generated gods of the silver screen, whilst enduring incredible hardships. I’m afraid we have to face the fact that film making which refuses to fetishise bodies and instead make real stories about real people, is losing this battle. And that can be applied to any industrialized nation on earth, not just India.
I often find that so much of modern day parenting is about managing the guilt of imperfect, impossible, and out-of-reach, liberal, privileged Western, media constructions of what it means to be a ‘good parent’. And yet in between these angst ridden moments (fortunately few for me, given my belligerent and firmly held belief belief – always expressed in the exaggerated Lancashire accent that emerges when there is cause for concern – that no bugger can tell me how to parent…), those temporal gems that can only be described as sheer labour of love, are as enduring and full of impact as they probably always have been. I’m referring to those moments when the simple acts, those ones that cost nothing (how often have we heard this phrase? it’s easy for middle class people to refer to these ‘free’ moments, as if every parent, regardless of status, education, money, privilege, heritage and material wealth was able to mobilise ‘quality’ time with their children…) yield nigh infinite satisfaction.
Simply sitting with my child and playing alongside them, not necessarily talking, or guiding, or instructing, but simply being with them in that moment, has always been something quite magical, in an almost Disney-like sense (more of this in a minute). It speaks volumes to the child who notices, is aware of every bodily gesture, movement, twitch, and can detect restlessness, impatience, pseudo-play, and any other form of adult-generated falsity, that you and they are together, in a moment of activity and engagement that often requires no words, rules, instructions, or guidelines. These moments afford me an opportunity to learn about myself, and my relationship to the world, as well my relationship to my child. It demands of me that I focus on the relationship not as that which is to be performed, adorned, utilised, implemented, or instrumentalised. It demands the relationship be of a simple truth (oh yes, post-structural and constructionist versions of all-but-the-sink be damned, here there is a truth), and that is the truth of this relation-in-moment. Children are perceptive, as we all know (and as countless child-centred horror films keep reminding us…), they have a way of detecting sincerity, and true engagement, though can often be distracted by loud funny noises, colours and shapes).
Given this magical quality to the relation-in-moment then, reading to my children was and is always the point at which imagination, creativity, intellect, morals and values all converge in a process that is often seen as fundamental in shaping young minds and lives. So often we hear that yet another research study has proven that above all, reading to children, may well set the most pivotal conditions for intellectual development in early years. And when this process is so evidently powerful, what about WHAT we read to them?
Princesses, dressed in flowing dresses, princes, dressed in muscle enhancing costumes, blond hair, blue eyes, and the one constant, defining, over-arching, all encompassing-yet-invisible dynamic of all: whiteness. It is not just the presence of whiteness in children’s stories that mark the issue – it is the combination of all the above plus the differential and hierarchical representation of all that is non-white in the stories. Try as we might, and by ‘eck, we’ll keep trying (there’s that accent again), the white-Disneyisation of humanity seeps into the relation-in-moment as an aspiration: ‘Can I be like Princess Elsa Daddy?’ ‘Can I have blond hair Daddy?’, ‘When I grow up I want to be a princess like …’ – and this despite the respectable efforts of team Keval (who lets face it are not alien to radical and critical thought…)
So, de-colonising the mind (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decolonising_the_Mind and especially the brilliant workshops at http://www.decolonizingthemind.org/) is not an abstract conceptual, linguistic process, or limited to an impossible structural revolution where the constraints of neo-colonial power are dismantled…it is an emotional journey. For me it started a long time ago when I noticed that my so-called ‘heroes’ in works of fiction neither looked nor sounded like me, and represented, ultimately, the oppression and injustice meted out to entire sub-continents. What’s this go to do with reading my children bed time stories? Absolutely everything.
All around them, non-verbal messages, adverts, utterances, moments of being noticed or ignored, forms of acceptable dress, heroes, heroines, role models, all dominant narratives that silence notions of being, of self, of truth, and work constantly to erode layers of cultural, linguistic, psychological identity, and replace them with…well, take a look at children’s stories, adverts, TV, toys, and films. Its pretty clear what kinds of identity are being reinforced for all children…but for some children, for some people, the impact is far more substantial than others.
The challenge is in providing substance to the alternative narratives, images, pictures, stories, messages, utterances, codes, cultural facets (I call them alternative because they are in that moment of an alterity yet to be moulded into a feasible and equal possibility). This needs to be done sufficiently so the child can engage with the notion of difference that does not demand hierarchical value. It is possible – it happens all the time in large, cosmopolitan, mixed urban cities. The key is to be able to somehow recreate that syncrecy of lived multiculture within ones home, and importantly within the psyche (for one’s self and ones’ children).
There is a weight that bears down, and which must be resisted, and that weight is made up of the history of colonial and imperial power. It is here with us in every second of our lives, and in the very fabric of our lived, social and cultural lives. Raising children within the folds of such a fabric is complex, difficult, contingent, and momentary. It is also joyous, because it generates the possibilities of creativity and thinking through dialogue and discussion. It is revealing, because when children are given the opportunity to talk about difference – in body shape, skin colour, size, accent, language, dis/ability, age, sexuality, religion, it is in these moments of engagement that de-colonising the young mind starts. And when this happens, their sheer, utter ability to transcend raciality gives one the hope that actually, its all possible in this lifetime. Helping to build coherent, stable, psycho-social identities that may just withstand some of the many and multi-faceted impacts of modern, racialised, global capitalism is a labour of love.
Do we get it right all the time? Dont be daft. Parenting is 50% trying to avoid handing your children the psychological baggage you have been carrying round, and 50% feeling guilty for failing miserably to do that. But going through (and still on) my own intellectual, bio-graphical, academic and personal journey has taught me a thing or two about this arena, this process, and that it is a journey I might just, as a parent help my children with. Maybe. Its also sometimes just great fun to play with Lego and read silly stories. Lets no forget that.
From the brilliant Verso Publishers website: http://www.versobooks.com/books/533-a-seventh-man
In 1972, John Berger won the Booker Prize for Fiction for his novel G. He shared half of the proceeds with the Black Panthers, “the black movement with the socialist and revolutionary perspective that I find myself most in agreement with in this country”. The other half funded A Seventh Man, his study of migrant workers in Europe.
Making a direct link between Booker McConnell’s involvement in colonial exploitation of the Caribbean and the modern poverty of the region, Berger declared his intention, “as a revolutionary writer, to share this prize with people in and from the Caribbean, people who are involved in a struggle to resist such exploitation and, eventually, to expropriate companies like Booker.”
Given the current pre-occupation with ‘migrants in motion’, and all the related constructions of risk that discourses are utilising (terror, economic and cultural drain, problems in ‘over-crowding’, more terror), it seems wise to remember that this world we occupy is, has been, and continues to be built on migrant labour. The very victims of global politics and economic decisions (usually underpinned by agendas related to the long term financial and political ‘stabilisation’ of Eastern folk), are on the move, eventually becoming ‘migrant’ labour in whichever country they settle, for however short or long a period. To strip their experiences of humanity, and reduce them to numbers, ‘movement’ statistics indicated by diagrams with arrows ‘coming in’ and arrows ‘going out’ is reducing the full capacity of the human spirit. Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil in relation to the holocaust and in particular the trial oin Jerusalem of Adolph Eichmann (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil) and as the world watches millions of people risking lives, moving, falling, crying and dying – just to seek safety, the world is at risk of perpetuating a type of banality.
Berger’s book (and other work) perhaps reconstructs that breakage for us – the disruption in ethical-biographical continuity (a play on words borrowed from Bury and Glaser and Strauss’s medical sociology terms). Putting it bluntly, there’s been a breakage in how we connect with populations undergoing suffering – it is neither new nor surprising. In fact, as Sociologists have constantly told us, we are living in an era of unprecedented rate of social change, and so we have in the middle of deep social, emotional, psychological and personal turmoil, become rather immune to those issues that don’t directly impact us. However, our connection with suffering populations is not extinct or impossible – it is selective. We select, choose, opt to connect with lives similar to ours, not because ‘thats human nature’ – that would be playing into the cold, sociologically limp hands of cultural essentialists who argue hey, “we prefer our own kind…” (see my article at “New Diversities”). No, we choose these selective modes of connection because of a two way, dialectic: it requires less emotional energy to connect with suffering experienced by people who are similar to us in a variety of ways, and the discursive formations around which these representations are produced make them more salient, are hurled at us in specific ways.
When I read the sentence “Europe is literally the creation of the third world” (Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth”), I don’t simply see the vital resistance and empowered self governing machinery being articulated in the identification of first world riches generated (literally) on the backs of slaves; I read the on-going generation of capital, suffering, and constant repetition of bonded lives, generation after generation, and the many blind eyes whose averted gaze perpetuate the misery. Migrant labour is still creating the lives of people the world over who enjoy the pleasures of safety, stability, and the luxury of being.
Breaking news from a small town in Lancashire, Lancstown. A 45 year old Asian man felt compelled to turn his daughter into the police, after fearing she had been radicalised by anti-democratic, jihadist and anti-western influences. “I just heard what she was saying, and saw how she was acting, and just got really suspicious. It’s the only way, it’s the British way. I mean, you can’t trust anybody…it was really difficult, but after hearing all this stuff on the news, and David Cameron, and Theresa May, about British values, and being good Muslims, I just thought, well, it’s the right thing to do.” The man’s daughter was held at a specialist anti-terror intelligence unit where she will be questioned for an undetermined length of time, in an undisclosed location, by any undetermined number of special operatives. When asked what specifically raised his suspicion, the 45 year old father said “well, I got back from work, and asked her how her day had been and she just kept saying ISIS, ISIS, ISIS. I asked her what she meant, and she just said ‘ISIS’. Well, that was it for me”. We were invited into the home to speak to the other family members. The girl in question also has two older siblings, a brother and sister, who are distraught at the sudden arrest of the youngest member of this close knit family. On speaking to them, they were understandably upset and puzzled as they tried to make sense of it all in discussions and conversations with each other. The suspected terrorist’s older sister posed a question and asked her brother if he thought this was just unacceptable.
His response was “Aye, sis. Aye.” The case continues as the 3 year old is questioned about her potential connections to terror cells.