On Being Told to Fuck Off

I’ve been told to fuck off lots of times, but two stick out particularly:

1. I was around 12 years old, just out of an Irish Catholic primary school which, though diverse, treated all its students as though they were white and Irish Catholic. Walking down the high street, I heard a muffled, angry voice. A middle-aged man, hunched over and clearly homeless, was telling me to Fuck off back home. In that disorientating moment, I saw myself (probably for the first time) as others must have seen me, shorn of any identifying feature other than my foreignness. I looked him in the eyes for a second, said nothing and quickly walked on.

2. In 2014, I was visiting a friend in Paris who took me on a night walk down to Canal St-Martin and along the river, bristling with people sitting in riverside bars (most new-looking) or playing boules and chatting on benches. Things quietened down as we approached a darker, tree-lined area where two guys were sat by themselves, not drinking, not talking, just staring at the river. One saw me: You speak English? FUCK OFF. He stood up, puffing out his chest. You understand that? FUCK OFF. My friend and I looked ahead, pretended we hadn’t heard anything, walked on.

The guy in Paris was (I think) West African which, aside from the violence of what he said, troubled me afterwards. Why was he so angry at me? Was it something to do with my looking Chinese or my speaking English? Had I just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, the random target of his arbitrary spleen?

In some ways it would be more comforting to think of it as random. But there was clearly more to it. He would’ve heard us speaking before he saw us – maybe he wanted to show us that he understood English. We were tourists; we acted as if we owned the place. Perhaps, in that moment, in a low-lit corner of gentrified Paris, he wanted fight back, to show us what it felt like to be treated as alien and unwanted.

The first fuck off was more obviously racially motivated than the second, though the second might easily have been a reaction to prior racial abuse. Either way, I think a similar impulse lay behind each; the way they stared at me, the way they wanted to make me feel. Each fuck off now reminds me of – and reinforces – the other.

I also can’t help but look back on those two men as, in their different ways, helpless. One was homeless, the other probably a recent immigrant. I was free to walk the streets as I pleased; they had nowhere else they could be. To them I wasn’t a person but a symbol of everything that had gone wrong – was wrong – in their lives. I was passing through and about to leave a place they were stuck in.

Didn’t it make sense for them to hate me? I had a freedom so basic I didn’t even notice it. I had the freedom that comes from not being helpless.


Obviously people hate others – and express that hatred – in all sorts of different ways and for all sorts of reasons. I know that racism doesn’t just result from helplessness, and, in fact, those in positions of power, with the kind of wealth and education that should allow them to see through – if not conquer – their prejudice, can often be the worst offenders.

I know that racism also happens at an unconscious level every day, its roots lying deep in the three-hundred-year project of European colonial expansion and exploitation. In Franz Fanon’s famous words, bred into generation after generation is the same creed: “you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.” How can we even begin to disentangle whiteness and blackness from the painful grip of colonialism? Not least when a majority of the country still believes that the Empire was a “good thing” and that we need to be making Britain Great again.

According to post-referendum polls, 80% of those who voted Leave were angry at multiculturalism and immigration. Does that make those 80% racist? How do we explain the fact that a third of Asians voted for Leave – including some of my parents’ first-generation immigrant friends? Can this be put down to the machinations of “false consciousness” (a desire for certain immigrants to mark themselves out as good, to win acceptance among their white peers), or should we simply take their claims that immigration and multiculturalism weren’t working for them at face-value?


I can’t speak for those who fear and hate immigrants, or explain why that might be the case. All I can do is think about my own response and consider what people who hate racism should be thinking and doing right now. Based on conversations I’ve had over the last few days, I’ve noticed two broad explanations emerge as to why a majority of the country voted to leave the EU:

(a) Look at the economic factors, the geographical spread of Leave-Remain voters. Those with fewer formal qualifications, a lower median annual income and a lower social grade were more likely to vote Leave. Leave should be seen as a vote against the politics of austerity, as a middle-finger aimed at an out-of-touch Westminster elite.

(b) Look at why people have said they wanted to leave: the belief that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK, that we need to regain control over immigration and borders. This reflects broad cultural differences which outweigh economic considerations. We need to take Leave voters at their word, racist and small-minded as it may be.

Option (a) is plausible-seeming but too neat. If Leave voters were really protesting against the combined ravages of neoliberalism, austerity and globalisation, why didn’t they turn up in these numbers in either of the last two general elections? As for option (b), I think it is important to listen to voters’ actually-stated opinions – and it’s interesting the extent to which these sometimes cut across conventional socio-economic boundaries – but this is of limited help in understanding where these attitudes come from (unless you happen to think that racism is just some sort of inherited trait). And there’s a more fundamental issue at stake. Both responses work with a false binary: the idea that social attitudes and socio-economic factors can ever be treated as entirely separate.


This piece, published by the Fabian Society in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, is a good example of that kind of flawed thinking. Its author, Tim Kaufmann, argues that it’s wrong to see Leave voters as the “left behind”, asserting that “culture and personality, not material circumstances, separate Leave and Remain voters”. We should think, he says, more in terms of a national split between authoritarianism (a desire for a “more stable, ordered world”) and libertarianism (an openness to change). As evidence, he presents a graph showing a correlation between those who think “sex criminals ought to be publicly whipped” and those who are more anti-EU.

Later, however, he also claims that his argument “doesn’t mean age, education, class and gender don’t count” but that they “largely matter because they affect people’s level of authoritarianism.” It’s telling that he doesn’t start with this assertion, but weasels it in as a late caveat. Why build your argument on the premise that Leave voters are NOT the “left behind” only to admit later that authoritarian feeling does actually increase in proportion to your social and economic exclusion – in other words, in proportion to how far “left behind” you are?

The content of what Kaufmann’s arguing isn’t what’s at fault (I agree with him that it would be wrong to see all who voted Leave as the “left behind”). The problem is that he presents it in such a way as to suggest we can divide cultural (authoritarian vs. libertarian feeling) from economic factors. We can’t, and we shouldn’t. Implicit in his phrasing is also a latent desire for moral clarity, for there to be a clear group – not divided by class or education (he doesn’t want to start a class war!) but by values. Values like implied-abhorrent beliefs in the EU as bad and public floggings as good. But the evidence doesn’t support it. Instead, it points to a more obvious – and less click-baity – argument: the more helpless you feel socially, the more precarious your situation, the more likely you are to crave stability.


Just before delivering his line about the inextricability of wealth and whiteness, Fanon comments on the way in which colonialism turns “cause into effect”. What he’s saying is that in colonial and post-colonial societies, wealth and power (or the lack thereof) don’t simply arise from racial difference; they’re inscribed into it. In such a way, cause and effect begin to lose all meaning. And in this cause-less, effect-less world, any hope of change – even before that hope flickers into life – is extinguished.

Some people think it’s offensive even to suggest that racism has its causes or contexts, believing this might justify abuse or absolve blame. But the opposite is true. To say something has no cause is another way of saying it can never end. As someone who’s experienced racism – albeit in minor ways – I’d rather not go down that road.

I can hate the two men who told me to fuck off while also trying to understand why they said it. In the coming weeks, maybe I’ll get told to fuck off a whole lot more. Maybe sometimes I’ll say fuck off back. Maybe I’ll call them ignorant and small-minded. But the discourse – and repertoire – of abuse is pretty limited. And, anyway, I’d rather think that in theory there might be some way out of this, something more. Understanding may not be the same as doing but, as far as I’m concerned, it is a form of action – and a necessary one. It requires effort. And that effort is about the only thing that distinguishes cause from effect, or that makes us briefly more than a bunch of people shouting fuck off at each other.

How to Avoid a Class War

How will I remember 24 June?

Someone I know on facebook posted a short video interview with a young Asian woman who was having second thoughts about her Leave vote. Above it he’d written: “Just look at this fat cunt”. The day before, this same guy described “rural England” as full of “tattoo’d culture-less inbreds” – the kind of people he didn’t feel represented his country.

Today, my girlfriend showed me the facebook post of a guy she went to school with (his profile picture: white shirt, suit, hair slicked to one side, cradling a wine glass) who had voted to Remain. For too long, he wrote, we’ve “cupped their illiterate balls while we sucked their racist dicks”. He wanted a “working class cull”.

Are these the contours of a new class war?

I voted Remain but it won’t help – not now, not ever – to characterise those who didn’t as abhorrent, as inbred, as dicks and cunts.

Hatred feeds off a sense of isolation. More often than not it’s an expression of uncertainty, of helplessness, and denouncing it – expressing disgust at it – doesn’t achieve very much (why does it come about? where? when?). Going further, responding to (perceived) abuse with more abuse – with worse insults – only makes things worse.

Using language that suggests an unbridgeable divide between 48% and 52% of this country (or of the 33.6 million people who voted in the referendum) runs the risk of inciting the kind of race hatred – the sense of isolationism – which those who voted Remain (myself included) wanted to avoid at all costs.

As Paul Mason argues, this wasn’t just a vote to leave the EU; it was also (or was seen by many as) a vote against the politics of austerity, against policies which have hurt those weakest in society again and again, to the point where they felt they had nothing to lose.

Mason rightly says that though “a minority of the white working class are racists and xenophobes… [views hardly limited to the working class] anyone who thinks half the British population fits that description is dead wrong. Tens of thousands of black and Asian people will have voted for Brexit, and similar numbers of politically educated, left-leaning workers too. Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield and Coventry — multi-ethnic university cities — they too went for Leave.”

The language of race has smeared itself across this referendum, but it would be a terrible mistake not to see beyond the hateful rhetoric. Underneath are class-based fissures which, running the length and breadth of this country – cutting across age, gender and race – have been threatening to re-open for years.

But all’s not lost.

Mason has laid out a ground-plan for the coming months: an election needs to be called quickly; Labour need to make an informal electoral pact with the SNP, Plaid and Greens in order to secure a withdrawal from the EU that would still retain its progressive laws on consumer rights, environmental protection and workers rights. This means coming together now – the Labour Party and the left – to re-connect with those low-paid manual workers who voted out.

If we are to avoid a class war, the defeatism, accusations and abusive language have to stop.

In Scotland, as Mason points out, the urban salariat (who in England voted overwhelmingly to Remain) and the working class are united around left cultural nationalism. This suggests at least one way forward for post-Brexit unity – but it will be one that involves thinking hard about, even embracing, a new over-arching (national) narrative. What story do we want to tell about ourselves? How are we going to imagine ourselves as an English community outside of the EU?

To many on the left, the concept of English nationalism is irrevocably tainted by early-20th century militarism, the imperial project, ethnic romanticism, skinhead culture. And part of defining our own left cultural nationalism will have to involve clearing away the dead wood of those older, residual nationalisms.

But, however difficult, the need should be obvious. As the historian Anthony Barnett makes clear, an imbalance exists: “Thanks to devolution there is an Arts Council England, English Heritage and NHS England. But there is not a single major English civic organisation or think tank I know of, that seeks to represent English opinion, framing itself within the necessary national consciousness. England has no voice, no civic institutions, no parliament or even assembly.”

Hence why the rhetoric of taking control gained such a wide foothold in the last few months: it reflected a sense of powerlessness, a desire to speak without the means to frame it.

What’s so tragic is that, not being a member of the single currency, we were one of the least constrained nations in the EU. It was the genius of the Leave campaign to have harnessed the helplessness of much of the English working class, their sense of thwarted national expression, and channel it towards anti-EU anger.

But now the EU-monster has been slain, what if the Labour Party pledged to create English civic institutions, an English constitution to protect the rights of workers, a more redistributive economic plan with more local democratic participation? Those voters who Peter Mandelson said would always vote Labour “because they’ve got nowhere else to go” are currently in the lap of UKIP. Labour, as they haven’t done in the past 20 years, will have to woo them again to succeed.

So go ahead and hate the media for their sensationalist (racist) coverage of the referendum, hate David Cameron for his spineless political short-termism and (definitely) hate Nigel Farage. But don’t reject 52% of this country out of hand; don’t drive them deeper into the political abyss. Reject the terms of the class war being foisted on us.

As a #ProudChildOfAnImmigrant, I don’t want to – and can’t – believe I live in a country of inherent bigots or “tattoo’d culture-less inbreds”. I don’t want to look back on 24 June and remember those expletive-laden, racist facebook posts and see them as heralding a more racist, culturally divisive era. I want to look back and see this as the point at which it became necessary to reach out across the country, across traditional party-political divides, across different age-groups and backgrounds.

Or else, what’s the alternative?

4% Neanderthal, 6% Denisovan

In the historian Yuval Noah Harari’s best-selling Sapiens, he talks about race twice.

The first time occurs early in the book, when he’s discussing how sapiens came to be the last-surviving members of the Homo genus. The Replacement Theory (otherwise known as the “Out of Africa” Hypothesis) was for a long time dominant. It argued that as groups of Homo sapiens left Africa 70,000 years ago, moving into parts of modern-day Europe and Asia, they simply “replaced” Neanderthals, Denisovans and other early humans through some—as yet not entirely understood—combination of greater adaptability, intelligence and luck.

Then in 2010 came what Harari calls “political dynamite”. The results of a four-year project to map Neanderthal DNA were published and they revealed that the genetic information of a large number of Europeans was 1-4% Neanderthal. Why was this so explosive? It seemed to support another competing (and controversial) thesis as to the rise of sapiens: the Interbreeding Theory.

This contends that we didn’t all troop out of Africa at the same time or in multiple waves, but evolved separately and at different times. Crucially, it also claims that rather than replacing other early humans we mated with them. Further support to the Interbreeding Theory came when the Denisovan DNA preserved in a fossilized finger was mapped and showed that the DNA of modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians was 6% Denisovan.

The reason this is all of more than specialist interest—and has become so politically charged—is that it leaves open the possibility of biological differences between us. As Harari puts it, the Replacement Theory suggested that “all living humans have roughly the same genetic baggage, and racial distinctions among them are negligible.” Do these new studies imply that those distinctions aren’t negligible, that race might really exist?

Harari doesn’t go so far as saying this. In fact, after the big Neanderthal reveal he rows back, arguing that sapiens and other early human species would have been so different as to make fertile intercourse “very rare”. And, lest we read to much into a fossilized finger, he adds this caveat: “Biological reality is not black and white. There are important grey areas.” It’s dangerous, in other words, to try and say definitively what biology tells us.


Later in Sapiens, Harari talks about race for the second time.

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Now he mocks those white supremacists who give “pseudoscientific lectures concerning the biological differences between the races”. Race, like caste, is a “fiction” whose purpose is control, providing a narrative to prop up a given hierarchy and rendering threats to authority not just unsettling but unnatural.

There’s no biological (or logical) reason why certain groups—and whole populations—of Homo sapiens should feel justified in, and relish, the oppression of others. All we can do, Harari says, is to think less in terms of organic systems than in “events, circumstances, and power relations”. That is to say, get comfortable with the grey areas.

This is Harari talking with his historian’s hat on: the point of delving into the past is to uncover the power relations that influence how we still think today; the reasons that people infer personal characteristics from phenotypic traits (skin tone, hair type, eye colour) have less to do with genetic than social relations.

Not only is this argument noticeably at odds with Harari’s first mention of race, but his tone has shifted as well. In the first discussion, the context was biological; now it’s cultural and historical. Whereas previously he could entertain the possibility of race, he now rejects it out of hand. Why?

Though I’m sure Harari would hate the idea, I think there’s something he can’t resist in the language of 6% Denisovan, 4% Neanderthal. It chimes with that same part of our shared auditory imagination which has spent the past two hundred years alternately defining, reviling and fantasising about race.


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In 1895, when the great writer, orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass passed away, The New York Times wondered if “it might not be altogether unreasonable to ask whether, with more white blood, he would not have been an even better and greater man than he was.” Douglass, the son of a slave and slave owner, sometimes referred to himself as mulatto (from the Spanish for mule), a term used as far back as the sixteenth century to describe those of mixed heritage—usually with a white and a black parent. For Douglass, this was a source of personal turmoil; for the New York Times it was a missed opportunity. Just imagine what a fully 100% white Douglass could have achieved! In the racial lexicon of the day they might have gone further and wished he had at least been a Hexadecaroon (one sixth black), an Octoroon (one eighth) or even a Quintroon (child of an Octoroon and a European, so one-sixteenth African).

These epithets do more than passively describe: they foster the illusion of pure whiteness set against a gradient of impure black. They also dispel the idea, passed down from the Greeks, that your character determines your fate; instead, it’s race that determines your character.

In the twentieth century, the focus on blood was replaced by a mix of evolutionary biology, physical anthropology and genetics. Despite greater cross-disciplinary research and evidence, the end result was much the same: a renewal of old ideas about the separateness and hierarchy of the races.

In 1962, Carleton Coon’s controversial Origin of the Races put forward the case for polygenism (associated with the Inbreeding Theory) in explicitly racial terms, arguing that Homo sapiens had evolved from Homo erectus “not once but five times”, so giving rise to five different races (or “subspecies”): Caucasoid, Congoid, Capoid, Mongoloid and Australoid. He argued that Caucasoid Europeans developed 200,000 years before the Congoid Africans and so, technically speaking, were more evolved. This was well received by segregationists like Carleton Putnam (for some reason a lot of racists are called Carleton), who didn’t need a great deal of convincing as to the superiority of the “white race”.

Despite the criticisms of Franz Boas and other cultural anthropologists—for whom the study of “race” was too vague and politicised to be of any use—people still talk like this. They talk like this not only when they say that white people are “hard-working” and black people “lazy”, but when they argue that “black people are more athletic” or Asians “good at science”. These statements reinforce a belief in the essential character of different races; they raise battlements and efface individuals.

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The fact is that human genetic variation—the genetic difference between you and me, a complete stranger—is tiny. As Craig Venter, instrumental in sequencing the human genome in the 2000s, says: “there is no way to tell one ethnicity from another in the five Celera genomes.” This doesn’t mean to say that we’re all alike, but there are unlikely to be “inborn traits” that will tell you what someone is like before you meet them, before you talk to them.

The language of genetics—like the old language of blood—claims neutrality. But to avow race in genetic terms, however harmless it may seem, risks several things: the flattening of the historical experience of race (what it means to be “black” or “yellow” changes—is different now to how it was 50, 100 or 500 years ago); the denial of race as a political force and signifier of status; and, ultimately, the denial of the individual.

Obvious as it should be, you aren’t the expression of racially defined “inborn traits”. You aren’t your genes.


In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates says unequivocally that “race is the child of racism, not the father.” I think the psychic re-ordering this entails—the challenge—is going to take some time to sink in. Coates wants us to see race not as a static category but an active process arising from the desire for clarity, for order. This desire precedes and determines how we read race, the language we use to talk about it thus being inescapably racist.

Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, one of the first and most prominent population geneticists, has argued that though there are distinct genetic clusters ranging across different geographical regions, which provide a complex window into thousands of years of migration and interbreeding, we shouldn’t confuse these broad, overlapping populations with different races. Race is something separate and greyer and should be kept as part of a whole other more historico-cultural conversation.


But the other week, I got into an argument about Neanderthal genes with a friend. She’d read Harari’s book and its mention of those studies into Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA had convinced her that race might actually exist. Despite my protestations—I mentioned Coates, I mentioned Cavalli-Sforza’s distinction between genetically clustered populations and “race” as a cultural construct—she couldn’t help but see meaningful genetic differences as evidence of race.

It’s perfectly understandable to flinch at the idea of race being constructed. Race might be a “fiction”, but that doesn’t change how it’s experienced, and it won’t stop it from being deployed, in time-honoured fashion, to justify immiseration, incarceration and conquest. If race doesn’t exist, it only seems to make the senseless violence perpetrated in its name a whole lot more senseless.

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Marginalised groups cling to the integrity of racial distinctions out of the fear that comes from having been threatened and oppressed, bought and sold. They cling to their identity in the hope of protection and preservation. In Indonesia, where half of my family is from, the Chinese population, since at least 1740, has been at various times vilified, isolated and attacked. Their shops have been seized, homes set alight and children mutilated. Yet they’ve always cleaved against the grain, resisting the pressure to blandly integrate. In the late 1960s, Suharto, having recently come to power in a military coup, forced Chinese Indonesians to adopt Indonesian-sounding names or lose possession of their businesses. Many did change their names but, since his fall, have switched back. The assertion of “racial” identity can provide a living record of those who died for it.

I think a similar feeling lay behind my friend’s reading of Harari—her wholehearted embrace of his speculations about Neanderthal DNA, the way she discounted his later line about race being a “fiction”. Her racial identity, though she wouldn’t have admitted to it, was something she wanted to believe in. I can sympathise with that. But the fight for your identity doesn’t need the buttress of biology.

In a sense, our argument could be put down to semantics, word-choice. But the words we use shape our attitudes. I don’t think by dropping the word “race” Chinese women in Indonesia or black kids in Baltimore will be any safer, but I can hope that by avoiding race terminology—and the gradient of purity it implies—we might all be a little bit more open and less afraid of each other. Whatever new discoveries are made in population genetics over the coming years it shouldn’t mean a regression to the old language of race.

We should be alive to the “circumstances and power relations” which condition the way we live—just look at the vast over-representation of black men in British prisons. Talk of “genetic characteristics” as a euphemism for race only sidetracks such conversations, leading us back down a blind and bloody alley.

Social groups have their own ways of doing things, are different. But at the same time we shouldn’t lose a sense that, seen from a certain perspective—what Schopenhauer calls “the eye of a being of incomparably longer life”, or maybe just that of the Genome Project—there is a shifting singleness that underwrites all animate life.

On Identity Politics

Society doesn’t have a voice, but people do. And when a system designed to represent a society ends up excluding large swathes of it, people organise. In the late-1960s, “identity politics” arose in response to the failure of existing political structures to represent the needs of ethnic minorities, women, the disabled and the LGBT community.

Since then, among some, identity politics has become a byword for putting the interests of a particular group over those of the wider community. What’s implied is that political decisions shouldn’t be based on accommodating the needs of vying groups, but should be taken from an impartial, objective vantage point—the so-called “view from nowhere.” Power should operate invisibly.

There’s a corollary in literature. Some people believe that the best writing—the best poetry, novels and criticism—should assume a “view from nowhere,” free of the constraints of identity, of background. The rise of identity politics is seen as having compromised the purer aesthetic criteria by which we once judged art, muddying the waters with moral and political concerns.

Take the case of Peter Riley. In a long career spent sucking at the teat of modernism, he’s studiously sought to avoid using personal pronouns in his poetry—especially the dreaded first-person!—and, in his criticism, berated writers for not trying hard enough to escape their personalities.

In a recent review of Vahni Capildeo’s collection Measures of Expatriation, he makes identity politics a shorthand for everything he aesthetically (and, no doubt, politically) sets himself against:

In practice “identity politics” seems to mean that any possibilities a poem might have of contacting existential realities is disallowed; the poem must arise directly from personal experience (standard practice in modern poetry anyway) and stay there. But its admissibility depends not on experience itself, but on participation in a group and thereby involved in cultural conflict… The self in the poem is entirely defined (identified) by sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity etc. etc. He/she acts, speaks and breathes as that member. The only voice is the authentic voice of the author or reporter of factual detail.

I’d feel some sympathy for Riley if he paid any attention to the marketing and reception of texts by non-white authors—which very often does make a fetish of alterity, so keeping even successful authors on the margins—but he targets poets themselves. And his argument is so simple-minded it feels almost degrading—worse, boring—to respond to. But, being symptomatic of wider mis-thinking, it demands a response.

The phrase “existential realities” should have anyone’s bullshit alarm going “dilly ding, dilly dong.” Apparently, a poem dictated by the unspoken (but, we can only assume, universally agreed-on) rules of identity politics, rejects “existential realities” in favour of “personal experience”. This is what’s called a dichotomy: a favourite rhetorical device of the disingenuous. Most are false and, in this case—one of the terms being made-up and vague and the other an unspecific caricature of “modern poetry”—of absolutely no use.

Before you try and get your head around it, anyway, Riley immediately contradicts himself. Though the identity politics-poem is based on personal experience its “admissibility depends not on experience itself, but on participation in a group”. It both is and isn’t based on experience then? So if you’re a part of the “group,” then, you could get away with writing a collage poem about the excavation of Sutton Hoo and it would still be personal and, indeed, admissible—though Riley doesn’t say where…

(It’s easy to take the rantings of an old white men like Riley on good faith—to assume that because they toss out phrases like “existential realities” they know what they’re talking about—when, really, we should be asking what this guy’s been smoking.)

In the second half of the paragraph, Riley says that the “self in the poem is entirely defined (identified) by sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity etc. etc.” As one who scorns the first-person and writes from the (invisible, incontestable) perspective of nowhere, he can’t stand the fact that some people choose to write from positions that might be called queer, feminist or mixed-race.

That dismissive “etc. etc.” speaks volumes. “[S]exual orientation, gender, ethnicity” represent three co-ordinates in the endlessly intersecting matrix of identity. But Riley can’t admit the self to be as complicated as all that, for that would suggest even a “gay” or a “black” writer might still be capable of adopting—or performing—several perspectives at once.

This is characteristic, as Edward Said points out, of imperial thinking. At the end of Culture and Imperialism, Said says, “No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind.” But Riley can’t leave them behind. And he contemptuously restricts identity to “one thing” when he claims that the self which forms part of a (non-white, non-cishetero) group “acts, speaks and breathes as that member.”

If he were to read—actually readthe kind of poetry he attacks (which he cites no examples of), he’d see how many poets, by delving into actual “personal experience,” don’t just assert their membership of a group but complicate the boundaries between a whole variety of different, sometimes conflicting groups. They reject invisibility, but not so as to become authentic “reporter[s] of factual detail”. Their aim is to attain—and often create for the first time—a more complex (existential) reality.

It should go without saying that no artist wants to be known solely as a member of a particular ethnic group or for having a certain skin tone or disability. And obviously no one would want to think that any success they achieve—very much against the odds—might be put down to that (especially given such group-membership isn’t chosen).

When Kei Miller won the Forward Prize for Poetry in 2014, every newspaper report foregrounded his identity. Either he was a “Jamaican poet” or just a “Jamaican”. The assumption in such reports was that Miller had won for extra-literary reasons, because of his race. Riley makes the same insinuations more explicitly when he says that recent “big prize-winning results” have ignored “aesthetic criteria”. The alterity of the non-white artist is made both cause and effect of any success achieved. Success is pre-emptively debased.

Kayo Chingonyi writes of the “double bind” writers of colour are in: “either they imitate the—predominantly white—canonical writers of the literary establishment, doing a violence to a part of themselves, or they write into or through their heritage and encourage a critical reading that privileges their identity.” Hounded by sneering journalists and dim-witted critics, the third way—as impersonally scouted by Riley—comes to seem the only option: become invisible.

As a teenager, I remember reading Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and being obsessed, in particular, with Stephen Dedalus’s speech to Lynch about aesthetics. In it, he describes the progress of literature as following three main stages: first, there’s the lyrical—the “simplest verbal vesture of an instant of emotion”—then there’s the epical, where the narrative is “no longer purely personal,” and finally the dramatic, at which point the artist fills every character “with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life.” The higher the art, the more impersonal the artist:

The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails. 

This, I imagine, is how Riley likes to think of himself: “refined out of existence”. But, ultimately, Stephen’s words are those of a young man barely out of adolescence, and laced with parody. The effeminate image of God “paring his fingernails,” for example, recalls a schoolmate of Stephen’s called Boyle who earns the nickname “Lady Boyle” because he’s always paring his nails. It also puts the onus on the artist-God’s indifference rather than invisibility (if you were truly invisible you wouldn’t need to pare your nails).

As it begins to rain, Lynch undercuts Stephen by suggesting that in Ireland, this “Godforsaken island,” it makes sense for the artist to want to retire “within or behind his handiwork”. Even the desire to impersonalise oneself is framed by a specific local context. As Raymond Williams says, after describing the period during which William Blake lived as one of “hunger, suffering, conflict, dislocation”: this stuff wasn’t “background… it was, rather, the mould in which general experience was cast.” There is no such thing as pure background. Even the desire to escape from one’s experience has to be put in context.

Stephen wants to “fly by the nets of nationality, language, religion” but that won’t change his background, the fact his experience has been cast in an English-speaking, Irish Catholic mould (does “fly by” mean he’s flying past or with the help of those nets?).  Like his namesake, he knows that a straightforward bid for freedom risks disaster, is hubristic even. The only way out is through. He discovers his identity as a writer by delving further into his nationality and language and religion, by struggling with those things. Which means not being cowed by those who seek to class him as “one thing,” or who would dismiss any such discussion outright as identity politics.

The Real Problem with Calvin Trillin’s ‘Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?’

Trillin’s verse doesn’t give us enough reason to think its parodic heart is any more honorable than its bigoted tongue.

Or so says Katy Waldman in the latest salvo against Calvin Trillin’s ‘Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?‘. But is it really a feature of effective satire that you know it’s the work of an honourable heart?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s racist – as Timothy Yu’s piece in the New Republic definitively shows – and Trillin’s heart may well be rotten to the core, but I was hoping Waldman was finally going to shred it for another reason: for being not just a work of bad but of obviously misplaced satire.

I don’t know about Brooklyn, but hipster food trends in London, as far as I’m aware, don’t really revolve around different provincial Chinese cuisines (though I’d love to find a Fukien or Uighur place!). They’re more about taking a particular dish, removing it from its geo-culinary context and whacking some sweet potato fries on the side.

Hence the “bao” place which just opened up around the corner from us in Peckham that serves deep-fried bao s’mores and, on weekends, “Bao Benedicts” replete with ethically-sourced bacon, wilted spinach and hollandaise sauce (it also does a pulled chicken bun called “Bao Diddley”…).

If Trillin had, as he maintains, actually wanted to lampoon the “food-obsessed bourgeoisie” this might have been a better – or at least more recognisable – place to start: the appropriation/decontextualisation of non-western “street food”; the garnishing of the recognisable with the superficial condiment of the Other.

As it is, it just seems like Trillin has a weirdly crotchety dislike of diasporic groups setting up restaurants that don’t reflect his own (peculiarly westernised) view of what Chinese food should look like, i.e. chow mein.

Satire doesn’t have to be honourable – far from it. But it should have a recognisable target, a point. When I first read Trillin’s poem in The New Yorker, nestled appropriately in the middle of a long piece about the Stateside boom in mezcal (a Mexican spirit made by distilling agave plants), I wasn’t so much offended as bored. What struck me most was its badness. Its pointlessness. And that should be held as the first – perhaps most damning – mark against it.

Democracy as Sacred Cow

According to the Chinese philosopher Mencius, in the fourth century BC, “those who are ruled produce food; those who rule are fed. That this is right is universally recognised everywhere under Heaven.” As rain fell from the sky and rivers flowed seawards, so even the most advanced of civilizations adhered to this ancient distinction between rulers and producers.

Athens, however, bucked the trend. In the early fifth century BC, after centuries of rule by clans or tyrants, a forward-thinking aristocrat called Cleisthenes decided to mix things up and hand power over to the demos, the people. “Athens,” said Pericles, “would no longer seek to imitate others but set itself as a model to be imitated.”

This was made possible not just because of the radical vision of its leaders but because of its booming slave economy—in mining, agriculture and craft industries—which meant, as Perry Anderson puts it, that “the free citizen now stood out in full relief.” To say that ancient Athens was democratic, then, is something other than saying it was egalitarian.

David Graeber suggests that societies usually develop along egalitarian or oligarchic lines, either developing a form of consensus in which no one feels their voice is neglected or a coercive apparatus that can suppress the popular will. But ancient Athens is a different case: a majoritarian democracy that gave the appearance of consensus while also maintaining a coercive apparatus that could undermine it.

In Book 6 of his Politics, Aristotle addresses this issue. Remarking that the constitution of any city-state will always depend on which arm of its military is the strongest, he points out that if a city has a particularly big cavalry then an oligarchy will likely develop because only the richest citizens can afford to keep horses. Only where the light infantry or navy predominates can the hoi polloi hope to get their hands on power.

A democracy thus requires that its citizenry be locked and loaded, a so-called “populace in arms”. Influence is directly proportional to brawn. This explains the etymology of democracy, kratos meaning the “force”—rather than more benign “rule” (archos)—of the people. In the US, this spirit prevails in the widespread resistance to the control or restriction of firearms, which are regarded as both a constitutional right—Thomas Jefferson said “no freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms”—and a key check on government power.

Aristotle thought this set-up was pretty volatile. I mean, who wants to live in a society where just “everyone has licence to do as he pleases”? Look, to a lesser degree, what happens in the US. He regarded democracy as no more than the “least bad deviation” from timocracy. Though timocracy might be unfamiliar-sounding nowadays the concept shouldn’t be: it refers to the rule of the property-owning class.

For most of its life, democracy has struggled with a bad rep. For most of its life, it hasn’t even had a rep. After the fall of the Western half of the Roman Empire, an earlier tradition resurfaced made up of a loose conglomeration of free cities, village communes, guilds and confraternities, sometimes bound together in the form of federations. Folkmoots and things are famous Anglo-Saxon and Germanic examples of these free communities, which, though they may have certain affinities with democratic states—elected chieftains, powerful assemblies—would never have been thought of as such.

Not until a 1500 translation of Alain Chartier’s Livre d’esperance (1429) did democracy appear in English for the first time, where it was lumped with oligarchy and timocracy (again) as just another system “without order”. As late as 1792, with France in disarray, the diarist Hester Thrale referred to it in not dissimilar terms as “Anarchical Democracy”, something only the French could deem plausible. Winston Churchill was just as sceptical when, in a 1947 debate in the House of Commons, he misquoted Aristotle: “I’ve heard it said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Churchill’s line is rolled out endlessly to put a witty stop to any serious conversation about systemic change, about the faults of democracy or capitalism. It’s a rhetorical gambit that should be seen as part of a wider tendency: that of socio-political elites to dismiss uncomfortable ideas as, in Noam Chomsky’s words, “incompatible with the realities of a complex society”. At least Aristotle was able to discuss alternatives. What Churchill is implying is that democracy is not just the best of a bad bunch but that solutions or alternatives aren’t even worth looking into because, well, it’s complicated.

But as Chomsky points out time and again, any cursory glance back through history shows the need, at every stage, “to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified by the need for security or economic development, but that now contribute to—rather than alleviate—material and cultural deficit.” Just look at the history of democracy itself! It might now be seen as providing security and room for economic development, but not so long ago these things were seen as directly threatened by its rise. Many of the same people arguing for it today would have been shouting it down—or privately ridiculing it—not so long ago.

The Myth of Complexity is all-pervasive. In economics, Adam Smith thought we weren’t so different from the first tribes who bartered arrowheads and tanned hides. For him, we differed only in complexity. As our towns and cities grew, the need arose for a universal currency like gold or jade that could form the basis of a commodities exchange with distant, potentially hostile communities. Smith suggested that, even as modern societies developed, they retained a belief in commercial money as a unit of exchange.

The problem is, as numerous anthropological studies have shown, no evidence exists of these so-called “barter societies”. They were a convenient figment of the economistic imagination designed to make the emergence of a credit (or fiat) economy appear inevitable. A more pertinent similarity exists between pre-modern societies and our own, however: numerous early records show the constant exchange of goods and services without expectation that these accounts would ever quite tally. A skewed version of this set-up exists nowadays in the finance sector. Banks and governments are in debt—massively so—but it’s assumed that consumers are the ones who should carry the burden in the shape of mortgage repayments and high interest rates on credit cards. Why? It’s complicated.

What justifies the current status quo is always the complexity of our system. In return, the “security” of our deposits are supposedly assured and we’re given access to—if not the opportunity to own—an array of sparkling goods and services. But the ideology of exchange also serves to heighten and reinforce hierarchical relationships, the seeming complexity of market capitalism allowing for a new (or not-so-new) breed of elites to extract wealth and cheap labour from the poor. Complexity becomes a means of justifying income inequality, institutional racism and other friendly forms of subjugation.

Democracy isn’t some kind of scared cow that should be protected and idealised out of all existence. Not only is it historically contingent but one of its key features (and failings) has always been its susceptibility to those with the most money or a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force (in recent times this has been the State, but there’s no reason why private companies couldn’t step in).

Only in the West, in the wake of the American and French revolutions, did democracy’s image start to change. But it still wasn’t until the 1970s that the number of “democratic states” worldwide doubled to around sixty. Pitted against a clear Soviet enemy, it became more effective than ever at importing itself (the CIA playing their part). In doing so, what used to be one radical idea among others became the only game in town. If you criticised it you were a communist—what we might now call a terrorist-sympathiser—or just too stupid to appreciate the complexities of the global political and economic system.

Don’t get me wrong, I love all the different kinds of ice cream they now stock at Tesco Express, and voting in elections every couple of years or so is kind of fun—like being given a free ticket for a joyless, winnerless lottery. But when democracy gets invoked by politicians as that which “makes us great” a shudder goes down my spine. Who exactly is it meant to be so great for? Is that meant to be an argument against doing anything to make it better?

Marx once made a distinction—I know it’s late in this post to be bringing him in—between the citoyen (the abstract/political person) and der wahre Mensch (the real person). The modern political state had created lots of socially conscious citoyen who, at dinner parties, would passionately debate topical issues and proclaim their love of justice, liberty and equality. But Marx asked, “for whom?” For whom were these ideals really working? Was it the factory workers doing 16-hour shifts, the poor men and women locked in debtors’ prisons, or just the chortling citoyens themselves? When push came to shove, did they value the freedom of the worker as much as they did the owner?

As inequality grew, people did nothing about it because the abstract ideals of democracy had created a new breed of abstract citizen; a citizen who could keep guilt at bay via the magic charm of democracy. As much is true today: as inequality grows, we stop ourselves from becoming the people we should be—the real people—by treating democracy as a sacred cow.

Playing the Race Card

This is the backstory. Or one version of it. It’s contested, of course, but as good a place to start as any. It takes us back to the West Midlands town of Smethwick, 1964.

1964 was an election year. The Profumo Scandal having forced Harold MacMillan to resign the year before and his replacement, the aristocratic Alec Douglas-Home, being divisive at best, Labour expected to win. And win they did. But in the industrial heart of the West Midlands, where high-flying Patrick Gordon Walker had been MP for almost 20 years, a young Tory called Peter Griffiths upset the odds.

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Griffiths celebrates

How? On the news, it was put down to a “white backlash”. Immigration to Smethwick had risen since the war, but it was the closure of factories and shortage in council housing that had really made the difference. Griffiths, though, centred his campaign almost entirely on stoking the fears of white working-class residents about their new neighbours.

His unofficial, infamous slogan was “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” Despite not openly endorsing this line, he had no problem repeating it, refusing to distance himself from it on the basis that, in time-honoured political fashion, it simply reflected the views of “real people”. He sowed the winds of racial hatred and reaped the whirlwind. In other words, as most political commentators would later put it, he played the race card.


Smethwick is often seen as an embarrassing anomaly. It doesn’t fit with the idea most British people have of themselves as essentially open-minded, eccentric, diverse. This latter view is best encapsulated in the almost-universally loved opening ceremony to the London Olympics in 2012.

I remember watching it with friends in Brixton, not too far from Windrush Square. One part stuck out especially. The ceremony was deep into the section celebrating the Industrial Revolution when a parade of gawky, moustachioed guys came on dressed as Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, followed by a group of glum-looking black men carrying a fabric-model of the Empire Windrush, the ship that had carried the first Caribbean immigrants to the UK in 1948.

At the time, I wondered if this bizarre juxtaposition was meant to allude to the more unspeakable parts of Britain’s history, puncturing the otherwise triumphant tone. But then the camera cut to a close-up of Kenneth Branagh stroking his sideburns, leading a procession of top-hatted Victorian men in a strange dance of devotion to an industrial blast furnace.

Hazel Irvine, commentating, called it a “seething tableau”. On twitter, Conservative MP Aidan Burley dismissed it as “leftie multicultural crap”. In a sense, both were right. Danny Boyle’s vision of multicultural Britain was a seething load of crap, which made sure to include the Windrush and steel drums but to leave out the centuries of enslavement and exploitation that had driven so many poor families to leave the Commonwealth and start over again in the UK in the first place.

Where was Smethwick? Why wasn’t there a “seething tableau” of old men complaining about their “dirty” new “West Indian” neighbours? Why wasn’t Mr Bean throwing a brick through the window of an immigrant-owned shop as Hazel Irvine commented that during this period the local Tory council had set about buying vacant homes to let to whites only?

Of course, there was no chance that Britain was going to use the Olympics opening ceremony to acknowledge its role in the Massacre of Amritsar or the Mau Mau Uprising. But what got to me most was the stubborn, underlying sense of moral superiority.

Just this year, a YouGov poll reported that 43 per cent of British people think the Empire was a good thing and 44 per cent are still proud of Britain’s colonial history. Even apparently benign spectacles like these only feed into a fantasy vision of Britain’s colonial past. They allow – even encourage – us to turn a blind eye to ongoing racism. They make Smethwick the exception, not the rule.


Which brings me to this year’s London mayoral election. The two current frontrunners are Zac Goldsmith, a suave, blue-eyed millionaire, and Sadiq Khan, a first-generation son of immigrants.

You’d hope that attitudes to race would have moved on. But last month, the Goldsmith campaign put out a controversial leaflet describing Khan as “radical and divisive”. They didn’t say “If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour”, but the Khan campaign saw it for it was and hit back, calling it an example of “dog-whistle” politics at its worst – that is, an attempt to appeal covertly to the most prejudicial fears of the electorate. Goldsmith responded by huffily saying: “I don’t think there is anything more divisive than playing the race card”.

You might have noticed an interesting change. Whereas Griffiths was criticised by other MPs for exploiting racial tensions within a fragile community, today it’s Khan who’s being attacked for calling someone else racist and, implicitly, for using race to his advantage. Whereas it used to be the racist that played the race card, it’s now the person of race.

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Who’s playing the race card?

Consider this: could Zac Goldsmith have played the race card? In his sense of openly referring to race as a way to gain favour with the electorate, obviously not. Race, as this demonstrates, is neither objective nor observable; it’s about power.

What Goldsmith has a problem with is Khan foregrounding his specifically marginalised status as a British-born Pakistani man in order to show up Goldsmith’s relative privilege, being the scion of an affluent, white banking family. In saying that Khan has played the race card, Goldsmith is really taking offence at being exposed for his own lack of race.

London in 2016 is a different place to Smethwick in 1964, but neither politicians nor the mainstream media are any less hostile to immigrants. According to a British Social Attitudes survey in 2013, almost a third of Britons self-identify as “very” or “a little” prejudiced against other races. Of those, 92% think immigration needs to be curbed, while even the 72% who don’t regard themselves as a teeny weeny bit racist think immigration is out of control.

So though you might have heard Goldsmith pay regular lip service to a banal Olympics-style vision of multicultural London, it’s unsurprising that he’d accuse his opponent of “playing the race card”.

The race card claim, in its new invidious form, appears to be descriptive: I’m just saying it like I see it. By this rhetorical sleight of hand, Khan is thus made into someone who has willingly played the card of his own race. The subject is transformed into the object. And whether he likes it or not, his race is now at the forefront of people’s minds. If Khan takes exception to being racialised, Goldsmith can simply respond that he is playing the race card.

But this is the crucial point: the race card is not something the non-white person can choose to play. It is what is done to you. It’s a way of branding the non-white other with the hot iron of race. As in Griffiths’ time, its clear aim is to turn people against each other, to play on the fear that what is different will also be dirty and dangerous. The language of “race” may sound harmlessly descriptive, but it conceals the same dark rhetoric as ever.

David Cameron’s Jibe-Talking Rhetoric

Like other political correspondents, I work in the hermetically sealed Westminster bubble, but whenever I’m let out to cover a byelection and talk to real people, I tend to come back horrified by how anti-immigrant some of them are.

This was Andrew Sparrow, a political correspondent at the Guardian, giving his take on David Cameron’s “bunch of migrants” jibe.

As a side-note, I think it’s interesting that David Cameron’s line is being reported everywhere as a jibe. The OED defines a jibe as “sneering speech”. In 1874, for example – who can forget it? – Prime Minister Disraeli referred to fellow Tory and Secretary of State for India, Lord Salisbury, as a “great master of gibes, and flouts, and jeers”. It’s masculine, political and jocular – the language of the old boys’ network. Oh Cameron, you bounder, stop it with all the flouts and jibes! It’s also the kind of journalist-speak that skims happily over the surface of things while ignoring – because it would be much harder to address – the difference between language that’s off-handedly cynical and actually offensive. I hate the word jibe.

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How ‘real people’ read the news

I also hate Andrew Sparrow’s clichéd dichotomy between a “hermetically sealed Westminster bubble” (where, regardless of party, people are polite, liberal and well-meaning) and the REAL world (where REAL people only believe what they see smeared in chip grease in yesterday’s Daily Mail). These real people don’t question their received views because they don’t have the time or intelligence to namby-pamby around with questions. They love the Queen, the Union Jack, the armed forces and think that people who wear funny shirts are probably hiding a a stick of dynamite underneath.

The more this dichotomy is repeated, the more it’s reinforced. Westminster may be self-involved, but its inhabitants share a base-level of decency and decorum. In the real world, on the other hand, hate and prejudice only conceal further depths of unthought-through hate and prejudice.

You might be thinking How can you possibly know what “real people” think? You blog about Andrew Sparrow and look up words in the OED – in fact, you sound like a bigger ponce than that Sparrow bloke. True as that may be, I think I know at least one real person. In fact, I check in with him most weeks. You could say he gives me my weekly dose of reality, my reality check. He’s called my dad.

When I mentioned the “bunch of migrants” thing to him yesterday, he didn’t bat an eyelid. What’s the issue? I mentioned the asylum seekers forced to wear wristbands in Cardiff and he said that if it meant they could get a free meal then so what. When I pushed him harder on the general seriousness of the refugee crisis he scoffed at me: Why are they all trying to get to Britain anyway? Why are they all men? Why doesn’t Saudi Arabia or some other Muslim country take them in? 

There are various rational responses to these questions (according to the UNHCR, for example, 86% of refugees are being hosted by developing countries) but that’s not really what’s at stake here. What’s at stake is the soul of “real people” everywhere.

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A Real Person

Whereas politics was once aspirational – concerned with championing the interests of broad-based social groups – it now makes a virtue of its disengagement. In a hollowed-out service economy with high unemployment and inequality, social groupings are fragile. The most effective kind of spin is negative.

My dad doesn’t really care about politics. He’s never been a member of a party and doesn’t feel that strongly about them. Like most people, he’s thoughtful and decent but mainly worries about the security of his family. If he actually met a Syrian refugee, I’d like to think he’d empathise more.

But politics and the media has conspired to return us to a culture which, as it did 140 years ago, revolves around “gibes, and flouts, and jeers”. Politics stays in one bubble and “real people” in another.

Those in power can skirt awkward questions about unpaid corporate taxes by saying they’re standing up for real people, as Cameron did yesterday. Instead of faulting his logic, a false debate ensues about whether or not this is what “real people” think. Is it just because I work in a hermetically sealed Westminster bubble? Journalists love nothing better than to speculate on their own obsolescence. And this plays into the hands of politicians who, no longer preoccupied by the idea of public consent, can go on implementing policies that make themselves and their donors richer.

The kinds of stories we should focus on – that don’t fit the narrative of a bigoted Middle England – receive little-to-no coverage. In the Medway, for instance, a white working-class area where UKIP’s Mark Reckless was once MP, local people are “committed to building a culture of hospitality and welcome, especially for refugees seeking sanctuary from war and persecution.” It’s just one of over fifty such Cities of Sanctuary across the country.

This hasn’t received nearly as much coverage as Cameron’s jibe because it doesn’t sell papers. And politicians don’t talk about projects like this because they can achieve more by being hostile and divisive. The right-wing media laps it up (a politician who “says what we’re all thinking”!) and it sends the Guardian into a tailspin of navel-gazing self-doubt.

What “real people” really think is impossible to say. But politicians shouldn’t be allowed to say offensive things because of the concern that “real people” might sometimes, in some places, agree with them. My dad’s views don’t justify Cameron’s policies. They only reflect a partial media and suggest how much further we need to go to show the links between politics and reality.

Stumbling on Racism

One of the main reasons for starting this blog was to comment on examples of misguided racial thinking in politics, journalism, poems, books, films, conversation—anywhere, really. The point? I’m not a fan of just calling people out for the sake of it, but if it can serve a higher purpose—getting people to think more imaginatively about their identity, their assumptions, their uses of language—then maybe it’s ok. The first post was about the Hilary Benn; this second one is about an article in the Observer.

In the Observer’s 2015 Poetry Books of the Year, Kate Kellaway says that finding a “poem that works” is like “stumbling upon a pearl”. On one level, I know she’s just deploying a tired cliché: it’s difficult finding good poems and, when you do, it feels kind of miraculous. But I can’t help finding it bizarre.

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The pearly queen herself, Elizabeth I, fingers dangling ominously over the Americas.

Pearl diving, for most of its history, has been a hazardous activity. So much so that, after conquering large swathes of modern-day Venezuela, the Spanish refused to get their feet wet, instead forcing slaves to dive depths of over a hundred feet, in sharky waters, to gather them. As the pearls started flowing back to Europe, they became synonymous with wealth and power in the 16th century (see right).

So how do you just stumble upon a pearl? Well, it means not stopping to think how it got there, let alone reflecting on the (probably) enslaved peoples who risked death to prise it from the seabed. It means shutting your eyes to centuries of colonial violence and subjugation. I guess what I’m trying to say is: it means writing like Kate Kellaway.

Is that unfair? It’s a throwaway line from a piece of classically breezy, end-of-year journalism, no doubt composed in the time it takes to polish off a cappuccino. Her last piece was an interview with Simon Callow, and it wasn’t for the International Journal of Postcolonial Studies.

So yes, I’m probably being unfair. But it immediately reminded me of the extent to which white writers are afforded the freedom to shut their eyes to history, and to write—and have published—whatever they want.


Kellaway next goes through some of her favourite collections of the year, singling out Australian poet Les Murray’s “wry, subtle, matchless voice” (yawn) and the work of Andrew McMillan, whose “homoerotic… febrile, tender” poems refuse “to be ignored” (for those not in the know, the OED defines “febrile” as an adjective ‘that, being basically meaningless, was invented for the use of poetry reviewers’).

I don’t want to sound too negative. Kellaway’s description of Sean Borodale (his latest collection a profound meditation on stewing apples and making damson ice-cream) is both pithy and definitive: “He is a marvellous poet,” she says, “a man who knows his artichokes”.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a favourite of many this year, gets three excruciating sentences. Despite the fact that (take note) “polemical poems seldom work”, Rankine’s “eloquent militancy about racism is arresting”. Minority groups with the temerity to hold dissenting views—or just opinions—have long been dismissed as militant, so this sounds awfully patronising. I also hate the jangling military metaphor placed alongside a policing one (“arresting”) which, again, seems to reinforce the impression that this piece was less conceived and written than excreted, in one vowel movement, onto the page.


The two sentences of lavish praise for Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade are what stay with me, though. This is what Kellaway says, in full:

And Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade—a volume that slipped through my net—has oriental poise, reach and artistic precision. A poet to watch in 2016.

What’s wrong with that? you might ask. So she says “oriental”, which is a bit like something your granddad might say, but it’s clearly meant well. She’s complimenting her!

At this point, I should say something about racism—not least what it is. You might think this is somehow obvious or beyond asking. I disagree. Racism is often discussed in terms of how it operates—hate speech, violence, cultural appropriation—with the aim of various campaigns (like UEFA’s “No to Racism” campaign) being to get people not to say or do racist things. There’s nothing wrong with this (and much that’s good) but the assumption, as with telling a child not to stick their fingers in shit, is that explaining the reasons why will only take too long or prove unpersuasive. It’s a lot easier just to say Don’t do it!

The problem is, a person can avoid saying or doing “racist” things without coming any closer to understanding—or believing in—the point of it. Hence a community that appears peaceful and tolerant one day can descend into violent conflict the next. This occurs with painful frequency in Indonesia, where my mum is from; in a country spanning almost 14,000 islands, with around 360 ethnic groups speaking over 700 languages, the unity suggested by shared nationhood is often nominal. Everyone pays lip service to the shared principles of Pancasila (emphasising the “just and civilized humanity” of all Indonesians) but when times get tough heads are liable to roll.

Rather than just telling people not to be racist, then, it might be better to say that oppression and discrimination imply (perhaps rely on) a generally accepted idea of what race is. This doesn’t exist. “Blacks”, “Asians” and “Orientals” aren’t delineated, homogenous groups. Racism happens when people refuse to acknowledge this, when they ignore the intersecting matrix of language, religion and tradition in favour of an abstract belief in ethnic clarity. Our response, the only one, has to be a wholesale change in attitudes: a move to see race as something constructed, on a person-by-person basis, out of endlessly variable stuff (that’s right, not skin tone or skull size or how good you are at chemistry but vague, non-specific stuff).


To get back to Kellaway: what galls me about her line on Howe isn’t just her choice of words, but that she even thought of them. What if a sub-editor had picked up on her dicey use of “oriental” and taken it out? No matter. Those three remaining adjectives—“poise, reach and… precision”—would have still been there, settling like a fine silk robe around the invisible contours of her prejudice.

In case it’s not obvious, Howe is of partly East Asian descent—this is obvious, of course, because no white (male) writer would ever be referred to as having “oriental poise”. A white writer is free to shut their eyes to history; a non-white writer has to always be seen as its product.

In Loop of Jade, Howe writes about the journey she made from England to China in her mid-twenties. Being for the most part raised and educated in Britain, her knowledge of China—and of Mandarin—was, at first, fragmentary and intimate (likewise, the only bits of Indonesian I know are those phrases my mum would say while tucking me in or waking me up). Her perspective was less “oriental” than occidental, you could say, like that of anyone brought up within a Western cultural framework throwing themselves into an altogether non-Western one. But the poems dissolve such simple binaries; they’re about what it feels like to be in two—or several—places at once, trying to create an identity out of multiple, conflicting heritages. They escape, in other words, the nylon mesh of Kellaway’s cliché net.

In the last poem in the collection, ‘Yangtze’, Howe describes—or imagines describing—the submerged world created by the building of the Three Gorges Dam: underwater cities; a “ghost forest” with “water for sky”. I don’t think the fact I’m also mixed race gives me a special insight into this poem, or any other. The metaphor is blatant: it’s a floating city, unmoored, full of roots that won’t take hold. And the empty houses, she asks, “what is it/ they fill with?” Not memories or possessions anymore, certainly not pearls, but more of nothing. Howe’s book won’t end with a character looking into the sunset and saying, with sudden resolve, “I think everything’s going to be just fine.” No amount of “poise” can reconcile East and West, the warring parts of the self. As she says in the same poem, “journeying is hard”, but when we accept a lack of obvious resolution we’re forced to exist in uncertainties, to become truer versions of ourselves. Howe thus comes to see herself as both English and Chinese, or as both separately, or as a whole new thing: herself.

Lazy journalism like Kellaway’s doesn’t simply pander to orientalist stereotypes but narrows the scope of what it means to be a person. Just as our “molecules are shuttled to and fro,” says Stephen Dedalus, “so does the artist weave and unweave his image.” Those besotted with ethnic clarity would rather people’s images stay put, or, if absolutely necessary, they’d reserve this kind of shape-shifting for white artists alone. It’s for them to stumble upon and later dispense pearls of wisdom. But Howe’s work won’t be fixed; it concerns the hard, universal work of weaving and unweaving the self. It raises the kinds of questions about identity everyone should ask.

A Great Speech

I watched Hilary Benn’s speech about 10 minutes after he’d finished talking; the Commons hadn’t yet voted to extend air strikes to Syria but it was already being talked of as “one of the truly great speeches made in this House of Commons”. Philip Hammond said so, and everybody agreed.

Loading it up on parliamentlive.tv, then, my expectations were high. In the few instances I’d seen Benn speak before he’d struck me as schoolmasterly and uninspiring. But this must have been special—even while it was still going on Zac Goldsmith had tweeted that it was a “truly magnificent speech”.

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B-B-B-Benny and the (RAF Fighter) Jets

Eyes glued to one half of my screen—the other half taken up with the Guardian MBM, where news of the results was about to filter through—I saw Benn take to the despatch box. In his Harry Potter glasses and his usual I’m-disappointed-in-you teacherly manner, he scolded Cameron for branding those who opposed the motion “terrorist-sympathisers”. Corbyn was an “an honest, a principled, a decent and a good man”. (Read: not strategic, hard-headed or practical.)

He gave a roll call of MPs whose speeches he’d enjoyed; rather than naming names he referred to their constituencies, to the honourable members from Derby South, Normanton and Chichester and Wells, among others. At this point, I begun to feel a strange rumbling in my stomach (what, later, I would diagnose as nausea). His rolling elongation of the vowels in “Tonbridge and Malling” suggested this wasn’t going to any normal speech—it was going to be A Great Speech.

This was confirmed by Benn’s next move. After a day of arguments trying to do justice to the complex moral and politico-strategic issues involved in combating Daesh/ISIS, Benn had decided he’d had enough: “The question which confronts us in a very, very complex conflict is at its heart very simple.” The simple heart, obscured by so much debate, was this: Daesh/ISIS are evil (more than just a “cruel yoke” at least) and therefore we have a “moral and a practical duty” to wage war against them. Simple.

Of course, Benn knew this wasn’t exactly what MPs had been arguing about (where were the defenders of Daesh or those arguing for our moral/practical duty to support terrorism?). The debate had been about whether further air strikes would be, in this instance, justified and/or effective—two ideas which, at their heart, are very, very complex. Since this was going to be A Great Speech, however, Benn decided to brush all detail aside: the conditions “set out in the emergency resolution passed at the Labour party conference in September” had been met, he said. (Those conditions are here; decide for yourself whether they’ve been met.)

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Benn it like Beckham

To be fair to him, Benn did try to back up this point with references to Article 51 of the UN Charter (the right of countries to engage in self-defence against armed attack—but, in the case of wading into a civil war, does this provide clear backing?) and the Vienna peace talks. But he didn’t dwell on either of these. He wanted moral certainty and historical scope.

So next, since nobody else had seen fit to spell it out, Benn returned to the theme of Daesh being evil. Really evil. They threw four gay men off the fifth storey of a building in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor, for example; they beheaded an 82 year-old professor and slaughtered a group of elderly Yazidi women. Again, Benn’s aim wasn’t to link these evil deeds to the case for air strikes per se. He therefore wasn’t interested in allaying MP Hannah Bardell’s concerns that air strikes might pose a greater threat to the LGBT community; he wasn’t interested in responding to Billy Bragg’s point, made the day before, that if the British government were so concerned about violence against women why did they say nothing about the recent beheadings of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. The point was, Daesh are evil and evil must be fought against. Simple.

By this point, in real-time, the Speaker of the House had called to “clear the lobbies” and division bells were ringing; a vote was imminent. Benn was talking emotively about the terrorist attacks in Paris (“they could have been our children”) and saying, without evidence—unless he meant this in the most undeniably literal sense—that air strikes “do make a difference”. On the subject of civilian casualties—a key factor in the radicalisation of many jihadis—Benn sought, in as few words as possible, to dismiss qualms on the basis of intent: whereas Daesh seek to murder and maim, the West merely accrues collateral damage. The fact that, from the perspective of a grieving relative, the two amount to the same thing, hardly seemed to matter.

There was some attempt to address the mythical “70,000”-strong army of “moderates” waiting for our help to topple Daesh, but concerns about who these soldiers were and what would happen in the event of their success, were dismissed outright, this time on account of urgency. For Benn, air strikes didn’t have to rule anything else out: the British government could still cut off Daesh’s support lines, offer humanitarian aid to those in need and shelter refugees; when the time came, it would also, of course, help to rebuild Syria. If anything, Benn implied, air strikes would help facilitate—rather than set back—all manner of good things (this is part of a separate narrative whereby the use of bombers and UAVs (Unarmed Aerial Vehicles, or drones) have been rehabilitated as forms of humane warfare—not because they kill fewer people than ground forces (the opposite is true) but because they pose less of a risk to their own troops).

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Chicken Teriyaki Benn-to Box

This was all boring detail Benn needed to get through so that he could come to his real tub-thumping, jerkily gesticulating, listen-here-you-no-good-terrorists moment. This was it, I could sense—the moment.

Having established the moral certainty of his case, Benn now put it in its historical context: Labour were an internationalist party. In the 1930s, socialists and trade unionists had fought against General Franco; the whole House, indeed, had stood together against Hitler and Mussolini. He didn’t mention, of course, that the annihilation of Guernica, ordered by Franco, was one of the first air strikes on a densely populated urban area, and that, as Michael Chessum has pointed out, the International Brigades were fighting against the rise of a dictator, whereas in the case of these strikes, they will consolidate the position of another, Bashar al-Assad. In stressing one part of Labour’s history, Benn de-emphasised another: its pacifist roots. Commentators often cite the short-lived tenure of George Lansbury, but Labour’s founder, Keir Hardie, was just as strong a pacifist; in his last years, he tried to organise—yes, internationally—a general strike in opposition to the First World War.

The important point, said Benn, is that Daesh—like Franco, like Hitler, like Mussolini—were fascists. With the relish of an ageing preacher having hit upon a theme, he spread out his arms and drove home the “brutality” and “contempt” of those who turn against the light: “what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated”. This was Labour’s chance—the whole House’s chance—to do credit to their best traditions, to oppose evil, to stand up and be counted. To bomb Raqqa.

As with the Oscars, where the films that do best usually celebrate the history of films and filmmaking in some way (like Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard or, more recently, The Artist), in the House of Commons, what’s required of A Great Speech is that it in some way celebrate the House of Commons itself. By characterising Daesh as fascists—implying a kind of coherent threat on the level of Nazi Germany or fascist Italy—Benn was giving MPs the chance to act out, however briefly, their fantasy vision of democratic politics as a sphere which, rising above mundane strategising and peacenik concerns (boring, complicated civilian casualties), was defined by its inherent moral superiority. Benn made everyone in the Commons feel once again like actors, in every sense, on a grand historical stage. They applauded, as they never normally do, because they were applauding themselves.

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“Hilary”, from the Latin hilarius meaning “cheerful”; “Benn” from the Hebrew בֶּן־אוֹנִי meaning “son of sorrow”

At least this was the only way I could understand the rapturous response Benn’s speech received, and continued to receive. Those political commentators who spend far more time than I do on parliamentlive.tv must also have been waiting for this: the opportunity to bathe in the reflected glow of a politics that seemed to matter. The day after, an editorial in the Guardian compared Benn’s “oratory” to Corbyn’s “laboured” (no pun intended) attempt to forestall the air strikes. Martin Kettle called it transformative, “electrifying”. Forget the detail; everyone wanted A Great Speech, and so it was.

In the other half of my screen, as Benn stopped talking and Philip Hammond, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, stepped up to call it one of the “truly great speeches”, I saw that 397 MPs had backed the motion in favour of extending air strikes. The government had won by a majority of 174 and, minutes later, from an RAF base in Cyprus, British jets were taking to the skies.

I checked on Facebook, then on Twitter. Friends of mine were expressing their immediate revulsion at Benn’s speech—“his dad must be rolling in his grave” was a common refrain—jarring with the response among so many politicians and political journalists. Andrew Sparrow, summing up, called it “extraordinary”, suggesting that the “chatter” around Benn as an alternative leader to the party would only grow. The honourable Stella Creasy tweeted that Hilary Benn’s speech had persuaded her that “fascism must be defeated”.

As you can probably tell, I wasn’t a fan of the speech. Why would I have been? It was another middle-aged white man waving the imperialist swagger-stick of us vs. them rhetoric. Perhaps it sounded better in person. Or perhaps the weird gap between opinion in and around Westminster and among the public reflects a wider rift between those two worlds—evidence of what Peter Mair called democracy’s “hollowing out”. Whatever the case, Britain is a faded power; for all the jihadis or (mostly) civilians that will be killed in Syria over the next few years, the 2nd December debate will be remembered in terms of insular party politics, as another convulsion in the life of post-New Labour Labour. I hope it won’t mark the decline of “laboured” Corbyn. I’d rather a “laboured”, “honest” politician than a triangulating, self-righteous, war-mongering one. Perhaps this speech, so acclaimed now, will disappear in the next news cycle, being remembered decades from now, if at all, for the strangeness of its jarring, violent certainty.