Notes ahead of the TUC march, Saturday October 20th

Sadly I can’t be in London on Saturday to take part in the TUC march. Here are some basic points of practical advice for the day and a few brief thoughts about what will immediately follow.

Firstly, I’m not the only one who can’t be there: whether because of disability, cost, work commitments, caring commitments, or personal reasons to avoid such an event, many people who would like to be there won’t be. These are exactly the issues that should be at the heart of our fight, and those who are absent should be remembered as part of that fight as much as those who are present.

The day might turn out like last year’s TUC march on March 26th, which was long and hectic, full of the unexpected, or it might be like last year’s NCAFC march on November 9th, which was a slow and orderly walk through central London with an overbearing police escort. Be prepared for either; take drink, take food, take sensible footwear, etc. If you can switch to a cheap handset, that can be damaged, lost or confiscated without causing too much distress, do so. If you can switch to a clean SIM that doesn’t have all your information on it, so much the better.

Take the phone number of GBC Legal Support: 07946 541 511. Write this on your skin so that it can’t be lost or taken away from you. This is important not only if you yourself have legal difficulties but also if you witness anyone else being stopped, harassed, searched, beaten, arrested etc (if you do witness this sort of thing, try to film or photograph it and get hold of shoulder numbers of the officers involved). Having the number on your arm does not mean that you are looking for trouble; it’s just a sensible and necessary precaution. The mass arrest at Fortnum and Mason’s last year demonstrates how even the most benign of protesters can find themselves arrested, and the defendants campaign that was organised to look after them shows how important legal support groups like GBC are. It is also wise to have the number of a solicitor and possibly an emergency contact.

Liberty will be providing legal observers on the day. It is important to know that Liberty’s legal observers will pass on information about protesters to the police. It is therefore wise to keep some distance from them. Similarly, bear in mind that all coppers on the day will be gathering information. This is one of the prime agendas of the friendly Liaison Officers who try to strike up conversations. Act as you feel best, but I advise that chatting to cops, especially on protest days like this, is not wise.

It is advisable to wear a mask, or at least be prepared to cover your face. The police’s Forward Intelligence Team will be out recording all day and will be trying to gather as much information as they can about people who attend protests. This is footage and information that they will keep and will have control over, and they will use it for their purposes. Under section 60AA of the Public Order Act an officer can ask you to remove a facial covering, but until that point it is perfectly legal. Additionally, obscuring the FIT’s view of other protesters with banners and placards is a noble and righteous thing to do

GBC have more information about protests, arrests and legal support on their website, and will be distributing ‘bust cards’ with quick summaries of your rights on the day.

I would like as many people as possible to go to the Boycott Workfare action, which will be meeting at 2:30 at Oxford Circus. Workfare is one of the biggest threats to employment rights and the well-being of working class people in this country and it is not being adequately addressed by either the TUC or Labour Party. The only way to beat it is through grassroots mobilisation, so make this big. Your alternative is walking to Hyde Park and listening to some speeches.

This might be an important issue: Despite all being out on the same march, people will come with strikingly different agendas and ideologies. In the face of the law, the media and the reactionary backlash that attends any major protest, we need to rekindle the sense of sincere solidarity that sustained us through the intense period of protests in the Winter of 2010/2011. People are marching because they’re angry, because the lives that they were promised haven’t materialised, because they’re finding it harder and harder to cope. That anger will be visible in many different forms. Following the protest, the police, the government, the TUC and the media will all construct their own version of events; their interests are not the same as ours, their agenda is not our agenda. Life is getting increasingly difficult, the actions of the government and the capitalist class are having increasingly devastating effects on us and, though we all know marching won’t change things, coming together and sticking together is the only real hope we have. Each day it becomes truer and truer that all we have left is each other. I have no idea how the day will turn out, but whatever happens, keep each other safe.

Scolds, Lies and Innocence

This post draws heavily from Lynda E. Boose’s excellent article Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman’s Unruly Member. It is highly recommended.


In brief, the ‘scold’s bridle‘ was a torture device used in a kind of para-legal disciplining ritual to physically silence and publicly shame women who had fallen afoul of social norms and been declared a ‘scold’.
A 1675 legal summary:

A Scold in a legal sense is a troublesome and angry woman, who by her brawling and wrangling amongst her Neighbours doth break the publick Peace, and beget, cherish and increase publick Discord.

Lynda E. Boose speculates that “a ‘scold’ was, in essence, any woman who verbally resisted or flouted authority publicly and stubbornly enough to challenge the underlying dictum of male rule”.

In addition to it’s obvious importance for the history of patriarchal violence, the idea of the ‘scold’ (or ‘shrew’) is an important one in the history of public order policing; a vaguely defined categorization which leaves the (exclusively male) constabulary plenty of scope to apply it to any situation at their own discretion for the sake protecting the abstract notion of public order. This role is demonstrated in many sources, including the homily Agaynst strife and contention (1547), in which Hugh Latimer declares that ‘contention’ (speaking out of turn, being argumentative or disruptive, etc) is “…much hurtfull to the society of a common wealth, [and] in all well ordered cities, these common brawlers and scoulders be punished with a notable kinde of paine…”

There is only one known written account by a woman who was subjected to the scold’s bridle; by Dorothy Waugh, who had been verbally abusive to the Mayor of Carlisle:

…whereby they tare my Clothes to put on their bridle as they called it, which was a stone weight of Iron by the relation of their own Generation, & three barrs of Iron to come over my face, and a peece of it was put in my mouth, which was so unreasonable big a thing for that place as cannot be well related, which was locked to my head, and so I stood their time with my hands bound behind me with the stone weight of Iron upon my head and the bitt in my mouth to keep me from speaking; And the Mayor said he would make me an Example. … Afterwards it was taken off and they kept me in prison for a little season, and after a while the Mayor came up againe and caused it to be put on againe, and sent me out of the Citty with it on, and gave me very vile and unsavoury words, which were not fit to proceed out of any mans mouth, and charged the Officer to whip me out of the Towne, from Constable to Constable to send me, till I came to my owne home, when as they had not anything to lay to my Charge.

The emphasis is mine, and variations on that phrase are repeated throughout the rest of her statement: the male authority figures conducting this quasi-legal abuse were not able to lay a legitimate charge against her. The punishment was not for transgression of a specific, codified law, but of a socially understood (and viciously policed) public order which prevented women from speaking disrespectfully to men.

Dorothy Waugh’s statement was published in a Quaker tract, The Lambs Defence against Lyes (1656), which was “set forth for no other end, but to clear the innocent from the back-biters, and to undeceive the simple”.

*      *      *

That was all a long time ago. And yet… it resonates uncomfortably with the current political terrain. In 2012 volume one of a new journal of materialist feminism was published in the United States. The journal is called LIES:

Everything we say will be used against us. Every claim on or lament against society that we write will be received in the same way as accounts of rape – as lies. We don’t care anymore. As soon as we stop resisting the charge we can turn around and face the others that have not accused us, those we should have been talking to the whole time. We name this journal after the shame we no longer feel and commemorate all these outcast comrades: the witches, crones, hysterics, spinsters, she-wolves, oracles, and misfits – our fellow travellers.

This list of ‘outcast comrades’ implicitly includes the ‘scolds’ and ‘shrews’ who were so brutally silenced in former centuries. What is important about this introduction is that it can be read as a repudiation of texts like The Lambs Defence against Lyes and the (still dominant) logic that produces them. It represents a serious attempt not merely to evade the violences of our socialisation but to disrupt and destroy the value systems and rhetorics that (re)produce them. The Lambs Defence against Lyes is an apologia. LIES is not.

This idea is best of expressed in one of LIES‘ most powerful essays, Jackie Wang’s Against Innocence: Race, Gender and the Politics of Safety (page 145). The intersection of race and gender is explicitly relevant: even as use of the scold’s bridle against the unruly wives it had been developed for declined in Britain, it was taken up and applied to slaves (regardless of gender) in America, collapsing any artificial notion of a divide between histories of torture & silencing that we may have.

The main thrust of Against Innocence is a rejection of common arguments against racist or misogynist violence which focus on specific instances of that violence where the victim is non-threatening, non-criminal etc. Wang cites the way that Troy Davis‘s innocence, rather than his basic right to live, dominated campaigns for him to be spared the death penalty as an example of this, along with discussing the notion of ‘victim blaming’ in cases of sexual assault (it is a theme I clumsily touched on some time ago with regards to those who would allow abortion only in cases of impregnation by rape, constructing an image of innocent victim as the only deserving recipient of sympathy, support, etc).

Wang writes:

Ultimately, our appeals to innocence demarcate who is killable and rapable, even if we are trying to strategically use such appeals to protest violence committed against one of our comrades.

This is something to consider as the police construct an image of Mark Duggan as a dangerous criminal, as though that would somehow justify his killing and invalidate all the accusations of police racism that were brought into sharp focus by the 2011 riots. Just as it is unappealing to many engaged in mainstream discourse to openly defend someone who is not innocent, it is a tempting form of argument to highlight that innocence when it is present. Wang comprehensively demonstrates how emphasising the innocence of victims (and only talking about victims who can be presented as innocent) reinforces the systems of violence that produce victims in the first place.

With the benefit of several century’s hindsight, we can see that Dorothy Waugh’s insistence that no charge could be laid against her is irrelevant; even if she had been guilty of scolding or shrewishness there was no justification for the abuse she experienced. That law, such as it was, was merely a mechanism for the disciplining and control of female bodies with the ultimate view of maintaining (an inherently oppressive) public order. We should not shy away from reaching the same conclusions when faced with the policing of Black, female, trans* and otherwise abused bodies today. There are violences being committed, and they are justified by construing their victims as not innocent.

Wang writes:

The insistence on innocence results in a refusal to hear those labeled guilty or defined by the State as “criminals”. When we rely on appeals to innocence, we foreclose a form of resistance that is outside the limits of law, and instead ally ourselves with the State.

Constructing this resistance is urgent. We must listen to those who tell us lies; lies not because what is said is untrue, but because those who say it are dismissed as liars before they open their mouths. We should hear lyes, and with them we should break the publick Peace, and beget, cherish and increase publick Discord.

Shakespeare 2012

cultural political globe protest

THE CULTURAL IS POLITICAL

 

The Globe to Globe season has seen each of Shakespeare’s plays performed by companies from around the world in their own languages, and has allowed for some genuinely interesting theatrical events. The programming avoided the self-congratulatory pretense of global unity and all nations coming together in the name of theatre that one might have expected from such an event (especially one so closely bound up with the Olympics), and instead met its political context head on. We saw Cymbeline, a play about sovereignty, nationhood and independence, played by a company from the newly formed nation of South Sudan. Timon of Athens, a stark look at wealth and debt in ancient Greece was staged by a German company. Contemporary political tensions were brought to the fore in a Greek Pericles and an Italian Julius Caesar, by the inclusion on the bill of the Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear and, perhaps most notably, by an Israeli production of The Merchant of Venice. This last performance became the site of protest by pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrators, as is critically documented and discussed in this excellent review by Peter Kirwan.

The ‘airport-style security’ Kirwan encountered was not unique to performances of The Merchant of Venice, though; people were ‘randomly’ searched and had bags confiscated for most of the season. This may have been in anticipation of nationalist protest or terrorism, but it is more likely that security staff were on the lookout for anything similar to the Reclaim Shakespeare Company, who in recent months have playfully disrupted RSC performances in Stratford Upon Avon. These protests have been targeted against the sponsors BP, and, like Liberate Tate and other groups before it, do well to frustrate attempts by major energy companies to redeem their tarnished brands by associating them with the arts.

Perhaps the obvious conclusion to all this is that Shakespeare is currently political in a way that was not previously the case; that the plays, as Kirwan concludes with The Merchant of Venice, have a contemporary relevance and can shed light on current situations, existing still as a vital and essential political voice in modern times. This is to some extent true: many of the questions Shakespeare concerned himself with remain unresolved and performance of the plays continues to provide space to critically consider them. More urgent than this, though, is the ongoing existence of Shakespeare as a cultural artifact and the way it is used as a totem for various forms of heritage. The biggest audience Shakespeare’s verse will receive this Summer will not come from theatre productions, and not even from the upcoming BBC films, but when Mark Rylance recites from The Tempest as part of Danny Boyle’s Olympic games opening ceremony.

Early reports of this show describe a mishmash of icons of Britishness. The inclusion of live animals will harken back to a romanticised and mythologised notion of some shared past of pre-industrial arable subsistence while model clouds dispensing artificial rain will demonstrate our famous self deprecating humour by affectionately invoking the sodden ‘British Summer’. In what may be an attempt at subverting traditional images of British national identity, or at least at including some modern ones, the show will feature two mosh pits: one representing Glastonbury festival (?), the other the last night of the Proms (?!?), which will, it is hoped, ‘do battle’ (?!?!?!). The barrel will be finally scraped with such establishment staples as James Bond, Sir Paul McCartney and, of course, Shakespeare.

Used without permission.

For The Bard this is nothing new; the plays and poems of Shakespeare, the idea of ‘Shakespeare’ itself as a cultural commodity, have played one of the greatest roles in the continuing reproduction of British (or more commonly English) national identity. Possibly the most frequently cited individual example of this is that ‘rousing call to arms during World War II’[1], the 1944 film of Henry V, a play ‘regarded by the British government as ideal patriotic wartime propaganda’, which Laurence Olivier was released from military service to direct and star in (albeit with the text ‘discreetly trimmed to fit the war effort’)[2]. The role of Shakespeare in the discourse of conservatism is not limited to specific performances of his plays. It is curious that so many people believe that ‘our national poet’ was born on April 23rd, St. George’s day, when no certain proof of this exists. During the expansion of the British Empire, Shakespeare came to be an emblem not just of English patriotism but of civilisation itself, to be exported to where it was seen as needed. Laurence Wright’s examination of Shakespeare in South Africa dwells on this reality:

The presence of Shakespeare in South africa is a fact of colonial history. He was imposed on the country, along with many other facets of large-scale globalizing society, as an integral part of the deeply one-sided colonial exchange: ownership of the land, gems, minerals and other raw materials for christianity, ‘civilization’ and western education. … He became an important part of South africa’s colonial education and culture, as was the case throughout the British Empire.

Writing in 1840, the essayist Thomas Carlyle grounds his gushing idolatry of Shakespeare in On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History by regarding him as a ‘real, marketable, tangibly useful possession’ of the British Empire:

England, before long, this Island of ours, will hold but a small fraction of the English: in America, in New Holland, east and west to the very Antipodes, there will be a Saxondom covering great spaces of the Globe. And now, what is it that can keep all these together into virtually one Nation, so that they do not fall out and fight, but live at peace, in brotherlike intercourse, helping one another? … Here, I say, is an English King, whom no time or chance, Parliament or combination of Parliaments, can dethrone! This King Shakspeare, does not he shine, in crowned sovereignty, over us all, as the noblest, gentlest, yet strongest of rallying-signs; indestructible; really more valuable in that point of view than any other means or appliance whatsoever? We can fancy him as radiant aloft over all the Nations of Englishmen, a thousand years hence. From Paramatta, from New York, wheresoever, under what sort of Parish-Constable soever, English men and women are, they will say to one another: “Yes, this Shakspeare is ours; we produced him, we speak and think by him; we are of one blood and kind with him.”

For Harry, England and St. George!

Returning to the Olympics opening ceremony, Shakespeare is being used as part of a much broader program of conservative ideology, where the preservation and expansion of privilege is obfuscated by the deployment of notions of heritage, tradition and shared history. In a very literal sense the capitalist class system is reproduced, and so too are the mythologies and ideological propaganda that justify it. There is a myth around the Olympics, just as there was around the Jubilee and the Royal Wedding, that it represents a great moment of national unity in which everyone pulls together and collectively enjoys the event. Danny Boyle talks of how ‘the volunteers most beautifully express this Olympic ideal. They give up their time for free. Some of them have got a lot of spare time because they haven’t got jobs, some of them haven’t got much. But they give up their time, and try to present something that is the best of all of us.’ Boyle’s comments demonstrate a total obliviousness to the contentious political context of unpaid labour at the moment, in light of the controversial work program, which has been exacerbated by the scandal of Jubilee stewards working unpaid on the promise of paid work at the Olympics. Instead the event is presented to us as though it were a somehow apolitical celebration of all that is great about Britain; a celebration of a national identity which transcends the political arena, transcends trifling concerns about wages and budget and austerity, and instead strives for something much greater. At the centre of this are Shakespeare’s words:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

How best do we respond to this use of Shakespeare for conservative ends? First, we can approach it on its own terms. The passage Boyle intends to use comes from Act III, Scene ii of The Tempest and is spoken by the monstrous slave Caliban. It ends with the chilling resolution that ‘when I waked / I cried to dream again’, which neatly contextualises it within the play’s ongoing consideration of reality and illusion. The island’s magic is at once wonderful and dangerous, all pervasive and transient – it quite deliberately reflects the theatre it was written for, in which things are in a constant state of simultaneously existing and not existing. The Tempest is also a play about power and dominance, specifically about slavery and colonialism. It is a play which presents many problems, but retreats from them further and further into its own ultimately meaningless theatricality. In a dark way it is an apt choice; The Tempest shows us, just as events of great performative spectacle do, the power to control, subjugate and disenfranchise that lies in the creation of illusion and the total investment in the unreal. The ‘Britishness’ and the ‘Olympic ideal’ that Danny Boyle seeks to capture are no more meaningful than the ‘noises, sounds and sweet airs’ that his ceremony quotes from: an unreal theatrical representation of something that is itself unreal. In the play, unlike the political world we live in, this tension is resolved and the deception is laid bare before the audience; the magic gives way to a gesture of honesty. How wonderful it would be for Danny Boyle, Sebastian Coe, Boris Johnson and the rest of the professional perpetrators of the Olympic myth to disavow themselves of their manipulation and illusion and beg of us our forgiveness as Prospero does, acknowledging the utter immateriality of what they have presented.

In her excellent book on this subject, Performing Nostalgia, Susan Bennett refers to ‘the invocation of lines (or basterdized versions) from [Shakespeare’s] plays that are plundered for their capacity to mean in particular ways’[3]. Similarly, Margot Heinemann talks of taking lines ‘wholly out of dramatic context, disregarding entirely the conflicts of values and action that surround them in the plays’. Many of us are familiar with Shakespeare’s description of England as

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise;
This fortress, built by nature for herself,
Against infection, and the hand of war;
This happy breed of men, this little world;
This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Less commonly quoted are the closing lines of that speech:

England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watr’y Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots, and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

Richard II, Act II scene i

Though his writing exists as a repository of useful quotations from which one can pluck a witty or passionate aphorism to support any argument, Shakespeare seldom said what those who quote him want. He did not offer the uncritical praise of England or of tradition and heritage that politicians, pundits and advertisers attempt to use him for, but ultimately this doesn’t matter. Shakespeare’s existence as a cultural force is far more than the collected words of his plays and poems. Bennett recognises that ‘Shakespeare, simply put, has a normative value … His availability to be enlisted in the regressive discourses of the New Right is without question’[4] What we have learned is that simply reassessing the dramatic meaning of Shakespeare’s words and arguing our own interpretation does little to combat the conservative appropriation of them. Heinemann quotes Nigel Lawson, Chancellor the Exchequer under Thatcher, as claiming that ‘Shakespeare was a Tory, without any doubt’, and she observes that ‘To hear Shakespeare cited directly in the context of cutting the health service and reducing taxation on the well-to-do is unnerving … We see more clearly what the struggle over the meaning of Shakespeare is really about’. There should be no confusion about the stakes; to be able to draft in Shakespeare as supporting one’s agenda is to claim significant weight and prestige, to appropriate the power of the English establishment and the authority of ‘our’ national poet. Heinemann argues the rousing insistence that we must ‘not hand Shakespeare over as a reactionary writer to be used or misused by the defenders of capitalism in decay’, and she is absolutely correct. We should not surrender Shakespeare to the right, and should not disregard the political content of his plays and poems, but to try to present (as she suggests) a 400 year old playwright as a progressive voice is dubious at best, and risks reinforcing the very conservatism that we wish to invalidate. The challenge that faces us is to find ways to resist the use of Shakespeare as a tool of conservative ideology; to resist the exploitation of Shakespeare in the continued reproduction of regressive ideals of culture and tradition which do nothing but preserve the privileges and divisions of the past.

* * *

[1] Carolyn Jess-Cooke Shakespeare on Film (Great Britain: Wallflower Press, 2007) p. 78.

[2] Steven Jay Sneider (ed.) 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (Britain: Cassell Illustrated, 2007) p. 202.

[3] Susan Bennett Performing Nostalgia (Britain: Routledge, 1996) p.35-36.

[4] Ibid. p. 37.

What is the worst film I’ve seen this week?

This post contains spoilers for Prometheus, ill Manors and how much I hate Toby Young.

This has been a good week for stumbling out of cinema screenings, sighing deeply, and calculating how many episodes of The Sopranos I could have just watched. Friends of mine, because they are weak willed and easily succomb to hype, and because my company is so valuable to them, took me to see Ridley Scott’s new Alien prequel Prometheus and Ben ‘Plan B’ Drew’s two hour Tory party broadcast ill Manors. Let me be quite upfront in saying that they are both very bad films which you do not need to see. If your friends are as eager to buy you cinema tickets as mine are, insist on seeing something else. Endured on consecutive nights, though, I couldn’t help but wonder which is worse.

Prometheus poses fundamental questions about life and existence, such as ‘Is it really worth living when art has become this uninspired?’. Alien does not have the most nuanced or ambiguous subtext: images of maternity, gestation, birth and rape are strewn throughout the film, prompting us to consider the truly traumatic nature of sexual reproduction. It’s not a particularly feminist film, but it does do something to challenge male complacency around these processes and its thematic narrative is compellingly handled. Prometheus’s themes are bizarrely episodic as it struggles to extrapolate backwards from Alien to consider what must proceed conception. Early in the film we are shown a variety of cave paintings from ancient cultures which had no connection to one another but all show the same star constellation; not a map, but an invitation, the ambitious scientists breathily proclaim. That’s about as much as this notion of ancestors and cultural heritage is elaborated, but off the characters set for the stars. Later there are chunks of the film which deal with creationism, evolution, pregnancy (in which some of the better ideas of Alien are recycled, badly) and the over-reaching ambition of science (as the title perhaps made inevitable). Notions of faith are considered throughout, by which I mean every twenty minutes or so one of the characters says she still believes in God. No sooner are any of these ideas firmly foregrounded and demanding our attention than they are abandoned, unresolved, leaving no overriding indication of what this film was really meant to be.

There’s a lot more that could be said about Proetheus: the actors do a great job with a terrible script, the music is cliched and instantly forgettable, the introduction of the various kinds of aliens is clumsy and will probably only impress people obsessed with franchise continuity and the production design lacks charm. What’s really disappointing though is how unambitious the whole thing is, and how lacking in urgency. Going in I was sceptical that a prequel was necessary or could offer much but suspected that it might be an excellent film. I was not necessarily looking for another film in the vain of Alien and Aliens (though that would have been nice); if this had been radically different, a romantic-comedy, a work of gritty social realism, a silent movie, a children’s cartoon, anything, anything that demonstrated a spark of ingenuity, a fresh take on the subject matter and an intention to think critically and offer something new, I would have been satisfied even if it had been awful. As it is, it’s a fairly generic sci-fi flick that offers nothing of any substance. There were a lot of unrelatable characters doing implausible things for a period of time while some vague philosophy was kicked around with no resolution, then I left the cinema. I enjoyed it even less that Stavvers did, and she felt the need to rewrite the whole story. Scott gives the impression of having turned up, assumed that Prometheus would be excellent, and put no effort into making that so. Ben ‘Plan B’ Drew seems guilty of the same lazy arrogance.

In its opening narration ill Manors unironically describes itself as ‘harrowing’ and it was at this point that my heart began to sink. It is a film devoid of depth, humanity and wit which simply stacks up unpleasant experiences for its duration in an attempt to be taken seriously. It’s overbearing earnestness becomes faintly embarrassing to watch and it is juvenile in the extreme in its handling of of its subject matter.

ill Manors is an overtly, painfully, unwatchably misogynist film. Women are pushed into increasingly horrific situations for no real reason other than to define the male characters by how they react to them. It does pass the Bechdel Test, when a heroin addicted prostitute asks a battered single mother if she’s an illegal immigrant, but it’s not a moment to be proud of. Any hope that it might just be the characters who hate women, and not the filmmakers, rapidly evaporate when the po-faced raps kick in and explains to us the awful fate of the bitches and hoes on the street.

What’s really noticeable is what’s missing from the film. In this hip-hop oriented film about gang culture there is not even the vaguest discussion of race (beyond a laughable National Front skinhead sieg heiling for all he’s worth early on). This might be because the cultures and communities being depicted here are so thoroughly integrated that race is not an issue or it might be because Plan B is a white guy making a fortune off of them; I guess we’ll never know. Similarly, no mention of class or even wealth inequality ever comes up. Everyone who commits crime for money does it through greed, a desire to be cool or to feed their crack habit (or, for the prostitute, because she was sexually abused as a child). The government, the economy, the whole political class go unmentioned except for one reference to “David Cameron’s Britain” in the rapped narration. The film is bizarrely uncritical of the police (perhaps because race and racism aren’t addressed) which, especially in the wake of the 2011 riots and with the increased police presence in recent months, seems a gross omission. Certainly, any film which wants to discuss the lives of criminals would benefit from considering this antagonism. The police do come in at the end as all the really bad characters who didn’t get their comeuppance from their lives of crime are, one way or another, arrested. This sense of karmic justice is the film’s worst feature, contributing to pernicious moralising and presenting us with a sense of determinism which is nothing but propagandistic.

I will now delineate the entire narrative of one of the characters: A timid boy of about 15 tries to buy weed from a local drug dealer for the first time and is instantly inducted into gang life where, in one day, he beats up a former friend, helps torture a hostage, is forced to murder someone and accidentally kills another. The next day he’s shot dead out of vengeance. Another character: A girl of about 15 foolishly goes to an older man’s house and smokes crack for the first time. Moments later a stranger walks in and shoots her dead. KIDS: SAY NO TO DRUGS.

At the end of the film, all the characters we were supposed to feel sorry for escape their awful circumstances by turning up (literally) on the doorstep of a social worker who takes them in and offers them care, and that’s that. All the bad people end up dead or in custody. I absolutely agree with Toby Young’s analysis, that “the central message of the film is actually a very conservative one”, that “Ben Drew is probably a Tory and doesn’t know it” and that the logical conclusion of the film’s events is that “the best way to address broken Britain is to support the police and the criminal justice system”. I hated it for all these reasons, almost as much as I hate Toby Young.

So, to the question I am left with: of these two very disappointing and yet very different films, which is worse? Prometheus is a film of nothingness. All its attempts at high minded philosophy fall flat and and leave the action empty. ill Manors on the other hand attempts social critique and to deal with genuinely pressing issues which have no clear resolution. That is so staggeringly fails to offer any progressive insight is potentially dangerous, as it propagates some thoroughly noxious views, but it does at the very least force an audience to consider something important. So, would we prefer that self indulgent film makers with nothing of value to say deal with very real problems and run the risk of presenting really bad conclusions or instead with abstract nonsense where they can’t create anything too hateful but also do nothing to provoke discussion? Or should I just start watching better films?

Some people are gay. Get over it!

So, there are some adverts on the sides of buses, and there were going to be some responses but Boris Johnson has stopped them, and then there was some reaction. There are a few salient things to learn from this.

Firstly, we can always count on politicians to exploit some controversy to make themselves look good, especially less than a month before and election (when did Boris last speak out, let alone act, over homophobic, transphobic etc adverts?). Secondly, the level of understanding around queer identities demonstrated by the mainstream media and their bloggers is woefully inadequate. Thirdly, we have learned that there is no point being moderate in an attempt to avoid being divisive.

I sincerely cannot think of a slogan that is more benign and inoffensive to sum up the current state of gay acceptance than ‘Some people are gay. Get over it!’. Perhaps ‘Some people are queer’, so as not to ignore people who are not part of the heterosexual hegemony but do not identify as ‘gay’ (this issue is an essential criticism of much of Stonewall’s politics). One could argue that the exhortation to ‘Get over it!’ is somewhat confrontational (if, that is, one had a particularly sheltered impression of political confrontation) but really it just provides a basic solution to the issue of homophobia; no change of attitudes, no education, no pressure not to be homophobic – simply to get over the fact that some people are gay. On some level, while a poster campaign lends prominence to the debate, the actual message seeks to take the fundamental questions of homophobia and queer identities off the table. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing; a simple, concise message which provides a practical political solution of social tolerance and making homosexuality an unremarkable personality trait has some value; rather than saying ‘your attitudes to homosexuality are wrong’ the campaign suggests the more pragmatic ‘homosexuality need not be an issue’ (leaving aside debates over who the target audience is).

In spite of this seemingly deliberately inoffensive simplicity, when the (inevitable) homophobic response appeared there were those who acted as though Stonewall had invited it by picking the wrong message. This, too, was inevitable. There will always be those who, purporting to be sympathetic to the struggle of oppressed groups, will criticise them for being too aggressive in their methods and rhetoric. What we can usefully learn from this obnoxious response is that there is little point in trying to be moderate, inoffensive and concessionary. There is always an urge when presenting political campaigns against bigotry to be appear nice and relatable and non-aggressive. People are often timid about seeming too militant, for fear of ‘losing the PR war’. This needs to be seriously questioned. I have no interest in meeting bigots half way. If reactionary conservatives and condescending liberals are going to condemn a campaign approach no matter how many steps one takes to mitigate any offense caused, campaigners need stop being so accommodating.

I quote Graham Linehan’s tweet at the top of this article not because I agree with it but because it demonstrates a fundamental aspect of this kind of political dispute. Stonewall’s pro-acceptance posters are treated as part of a broader dialogue and, because the involvement of the homophobes has made it all rather unsavoury, it is one that many people would simply like to go away. Things would be much simpler, it is implied, if Stonewall hadn’t been so provocative with their adverts; the homophobes would never have responded and the whole thing could have been avoided. I’m not suggesting that Linehan is homophobic or seriously wants pro-acceptance bus adverts to be banned (and I beg you not to get in touch with me about this), but that this illustrates a common response; the idea that victims of persecution should try to avoid inviting further abuse. Needless to say, this is the wrong approach. These adverts did little more than assert, visibly and prominently, the existence of gay people. If this invites criticism for being divisive, if this invites criticism for provoking a homophobic backlash, then it has been demonstrated to us (again) that there is no point pursuing this capitulatory liberal agenda of inoffensive moderacy. Be bold, radical, militant, aggressive. If assertiveness offends, be offensive.

The NHS, Protest and Guilt

A few very obvious points on the NHS:

The Health and Social Care Bill is going to pass and over the coming years it will have a catestrophic effect on the quality and provision of healthcare in the country. Even if Labour are elected in 2015 and Andy Burnham makes good on his promise to undo the legislation, the damage will already have been done and the wheels of privatisation (which were, yes, set grinding under the previous Labour government) will be spinning too fast to stop. The NHS is a political anomaly and I don’t believe it could exist again. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
The bill is going to pass. The bill was always going to pass. The government has a three line whip, which supersedes public pressure. The bill is going to pass because by this stage its failure to do so would be a defeat the Coalition could not recover from. The bill is going to pass because its proposed reforms are already being put into place and there’s no going back. No amount of writing to MPs and Peers, no amount of signatures on a petition, no amount of candle light vigils, no amount of protests and rallies are going to change this.

This has been obvious for some time (though the more terrifying details and confirmation of our more pesimistic fears have been coming thick and fast in recent weeks). So, where was the left? There has been a lot of talk about how ashamed we should all be for our failure to stop this bill. ‘How will we look our children in the eyes and tell them that we failed?’ etc. There has been a lot of talk of people ‘doing everything they can’ (which in practise usually means writings to Peers and signing a petition). Out of this have come an entirely undeserved sense of sanctimony from some, and an equally undeserved sense of guilt from others.

Some people’s frustration over this political inevitability has manifested itself in a poorly disguised contempt for the public for allowing this to happen. ‘If you’re not prepared to fight for it, you don’t deserve free healthcare’ the hateful mantra runs. This is bullshit. To lay the blame for this toxic legislation at the feet of those who have tried to oppose it, or those who didn’t know it was happening at all, is dull and obnoxious. The government (in collusion with private health firms) wrote this bill, they are forcing it through, they are to blame. Many people I know are afriad of what the future holds which, frankly, is sensible, but too many of us are compounding that stress with guilt for failure to act. All of the forms of protest we have available to us to stop a piece of legislation being passed can be boiled down to simply asking the people with the power to act in as we want them. If they choose not to listen (as they have done, consistently), we have no further way to compell them.

Part of the desire to blame ineffective campaigners rather than an uncaring government may stem from a refusal to accept powerlessness within our Parliamentary system. It’s preferable to think that we just dropped the ball this time around than that we never stand a chance of winning, perhaps. The truth is, the government doesn’t need our approval to get things done. If you don’t like the government’s NHS reforms, don’t vote for them again at the next election. That’s it; that’s your democratic power; that’s the recourse that’s open to you if you work within the system. It’s in three years time. How many staff and patients will have had their lives changed in that time?

If this farcical travesty of a legislative process can be good for anything, let it be that we can no longer have any delusions about our power within a representative democracy. Stop blaming ourselves; we never stood a chance. This was their battleground, they set the terms and they always win. If we really want to fight them, we need to think, dream and act much bigger.

Can Men Be Feminists?

Can men be feminists?

[This is a question which rolls around from time to time and, loathe though I am to contribute to the decades of speculation on the issue, I hope a blog outlining my thoughts may excuse me from having to do so as frequently in future.]

First and foremost, I regard the question as one of semantics. No one is sensibly arguing that men cannot challenge sexism, attempt to understand feminist gender politics and so forth; indeed, it’s rather expected that they should. The question is how we refer to men who do so.

The reason that the word ‘feminist’ may be inappropriate is that, according to some, a feminist understanding of the world must be informed by explicitely female experience. A man, because his experience of patriarchal society is necessarily different from that of women, is incapable of reaching such an understanding. Various alternate phrases, like ‘supportive of feminism’ and ‘feminist ally’ exist to fill the gap (which I personally think sound uncommitted and somewhat patronising, though your mileage may vary).

It is arguably true that only those who have been on the receiving end of misogynist oppression can fully understand it, but is the ability to understand misogyny in this way the only definition of feminism? Is feminism not simply a body of ideas and schools of thought like any other, and ‘feminist’ simply a name for its adherents?

Considered another way: Feminist arguments made by women are often dismissed as being subjective (according to the prejudices proscribed by patriarchy; generally because the woman is emotional, hormonal, irrational or stupid). Of course, good feminist arguments stand objectively, regardless of who is making them, and (though they may be reached through uniquely female experience) can be comprehended, accepted and put forward by anyone. Yes, a man’s capacity to contribute to feminist discourse will at times be necessarily different to that of women (and often of less usefulness), and yes men should not crowd women out of feminist discourse, but an awareness of and attempts to challenge one’s own privilege is surely something we should expect from any feminist, regardless of gender.

The degree of commonality in female experience is itself debatable, especially when sexist oppression intersects with other forms (racial, homophobic, transphobic, ablist and class being the most obvious). It seems flippant and evasive to respond to any issue of gender politics by disputing the inherent essentialism, but it is never the less worth considering that any attitude which relies on a ubiquitous female experience is likely to fall foul of other, more nuanced, feminist thought. Our gender should not define our intellectual or political identity.

A significant contributing problem, which demands more consideration than I’m going to give it here, is a habit of reducing all things to uncomplicated labels which we can then chose to apply to ourselves or not. Therefore, several centuries of probing, ever developing, frequently contradictory critical thought are reduced to a binary of political identity: one is or is not a feminist. Similarly, concern over whether or not one is a Marxist, an anarchist, a post structuralist etc are often unhelpful. These are schools of thought from which one may take what is useful and consider it without redefining one’s own political identity. These ideologies, rather than describing who we are, enable us to describe what we are thinking.

I argue, often, from a feminist perspective. Feminist ideas inform my interpretation of my experiences, which informs my thinking, and that thinking informs my actions. I consider myself a feminist.

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