At the time of writing 31 people have believed to have drowned in the English Channel this last week. 27 bodies were found with 4 people missing or drowned, and there were only 2 survivors. Although many responses have called this incident a tragedy, sadly too many others have made light of it, seemingly revelling in the ‘stupidity’ of those who choose to cross the Channel. Where does this animosity come from? It is not my intention to take responsibility away from individuals who have anti-refugee beliefs, but I do think it is worth arguing that the hatred and suspicion of people crossing the channel is a top-down affair. The government and media have done a stellar job in convincing the British public that asylum seekers and refugees are scroungers, they are dangerous, they are ungrateful, and above all else they are inauthentic.
An analysis of 2,000 newspaper articles from 15 UK papers in 2017 (The Times, Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The i, Daily Mirror, Financial Times, The Sun, Metro, DailyExpress, The Sunday Times, London Evening Standard, The Sunday Telegraph, The Observer, and Daily Star) highlights the extreme prejudice shown towards refugees. They are frequently associated with illegality and terrorism, despite the fact that most refugees gain asylum status and between 2014-2017 only 5% of terrorist attacks in Europe and North America were committed by refugees. There is also a distinct lack of these peoples’ voices within the stories centred around them. Whilst 80% of newspaper coverage included quotes from politicians and officials, only 20% included direct quotations from refugees themselves. This discourse around refugees is clearly tainted and leads to a wider influence of misinformation, where refugees become increasingly seen as dangerous.
So why do refugees come here? And where do they come from? Typically for small boat crossings, how those coming from the channel get here, 90% of them come from just 10 countries: Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Vietnam, Kuwait, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Yemen. All of these countries face degrees of human rights crises or economic devastation or political corruption. The government would have us believe that these are ‘economic migrants’ which is meant to imply their journey has an ulterior motive and that they are not in genuine need of help. Of course, most of these refugees are fleeing actual persecution. But perhaps it should also be stated if any qualify as economic migrants, it is not in the same sense that a European migrant might. These people are rarely coming here just to get a better job or more money, it’s because their home country is so impoverished even if they are not directly being attacked by anyone the ability to feed their families or get proper medical help is too difficult a task. The government suggests that we are too generous and that there are ‘pull factors’ which bring refugees here, but they have yet to provide evidence for this claim, perhaps shockingly because there isn’t any.
Commenters have derided the people who died in the Channel for having left ‘safe’ France, but this is a misnomer. Naturally, France is not a war zone but the implication it is safe blots out the actual experiences and treatment of refugees in the country. In 2015, at the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis, the situation in France was not good for the refugees. There is a lack of housing units designated for refugees, meaning they are often left homeless waiting for their asylum claim to be processed. This situation has only worsened. Hussain, a young man from Afghanistan, told the New Humanitarian of his experience in Paris: “When I arrived, I had to sleep on the streets for a long time. It was so complicated. I was always sick.” With the neglect of refugees in France, it is not surprising that some would try to cross the Channel to the UK. They have already travelled far, what is one more step in their journey?
Even if refugees survive the journey to UK shores, they are scrutinised as being treated too softly by our government. The truth is something much more Kafkaesque and dehumanising. For regular procedures, where people are not fast-tracked, there is no time limit for the Home Office to make a decision and attempts to impose a standard time length has been resisted. This means many applicants are left waiting in a legal void, as asylum seekers (not legally recognised yet) they have no right to work. They are usually put in accommodation centres before being moved to permanent housing awaiting their claim process. Many papers love to spew bile for refugees being put up in fancy hotels but often or not they are in the accommodation centres unless they are full, in which case any nearby alternatives are found: hotels, military barracks, etc. And these hotels are temporary situations subject to the asylum seeker’s final legal status. Asylum seekers are eventually moved throughout the UK to wherever there is cheap enough accommodation, the conditions are usually dirty and overcrowded, hardly the pinnacle of luxury. As a Libyan refugee, Mansoor said: ‘there seems to be so much delay and confusion in the system. They told us at the airport that we will have a decision on our asylum claim within six months, but four months have passed and we still didn’t even have an interview. We were also told we would get our asylum ID cards five days after the screening at the airport, but we got them three months later. Everything is delayed and the housing was also delayed.’
Despite the fact refugees rarely have a good grasp of the UK’s welfare system, people like to insist they’ve come here to rip off the taxpayer. But this simply isn’t true. If a refugee is granted asylum status, their free accommodation is revoked, given to somebody else further down the chain than themselves. They have to find somewhere to live and pay rent or seek assistance from the government, although they are treated with the same dispassionate eye as any other person applying for benefits and the like. There is little to no evidence that refugees are a threat or that their desperation to get to the UK is misguided or cynical. They are a scapegoat for right-wingers to veer away from the real issues within the country. In the end, nobody is happy – the public continue to be undermined by their own government whilst being pointed in the direction of people seeking help from abroad.
What is the Long March, you may ask? Well, according to Marc Sidwell, it’s the infiltration and control of…all cultural and political institutions…by the Left…built upon theories expounded by Antonio Gramsci and Rudi Dutschke. Well, it certainly sounds intimidating, but what does this mean in practice?
Isn’t it spooky how all universities have a left-leaning bias? Sidwell does use a statistic here, that 85% of university lecturers are left-wing, but does that mean all of academia and all the kids going to uni are being indoctrinated? In one paper, Herman G. van de Werfhorst, finds that whilst there is a general left-wing majority within the humanities this is not the case for social sciences. Werfhorst concludes: ‘[i]f universities were exclusionary organizations where diversity of opinions is undesired and conservative scholars are excluded, one would expect this would have resulted in a high level of homogeneity of opinions. The fact that that seems not to be very clearly the case is reassuring for the contemporary debates on ideological diversity in higher education.’ Although certain intellectuals may be more left-leaning than the rest of society, there is little to no evidence on the impact this has on their teaching or what their students believe.
Uh, well that being said, what about the kids? Sidwell seems to think the high youth support for Labour could be due to universities, he cites John Gray as arguing that universities teach anti-Western values. Whilst this is certainly an interesting theory, I wonder whether living through two decades of neoliberalism could have radicalised these students instead. The tripling of university fees under the Coalition government might have had something to do with discontent towards the Tories. Not only this, but the general impact of austerity policies has done little in the way of wonders for young people, be it job opportunities or access to support for mental health. Living through uneasy times such as these could easily turn any individual towards even the mildest form of social democracy.
Sidwell quickly moves on to what he views as a disappointing lack of conservatism…in the Conservative Party. Apparently, their drive to make sex education more wide-spread and compulsory just doesn’t cut mustard. Sidwell draws comparisons between this policy effort and the beliefs of several Marxists who advocated for compulsory sex education. I for one, am shocked, shocked I say, that György Lukács rose from his grave and drifted across the Channel to educate our children about sex! This seems like a fairly inane point. Sex education is incredibly important and anyone who attempts to undermine the careful implementation of it as a programme should be ridiculed. As Marta Reis et. al. note, sex education leads to less sexual risks, less sexually transmitted diseases, and less unwanted pregnancies and abortions. Surely all these benefits would be of great interest to conservatives, the standard-bearers of the pro-life cause?
Enough about that! If people have proficient and positive knowledge about sex, they might have the wherewithal to spurn unwanted sexual advances. For example, in Sidwell’s case, why doesn’t anyone want to fuck Tories? This is surely a Marxist plot, and not the result of people freely choosing who they do and don’t want to sleep with. There is little to no evidence of dating apps using algorithms to prohibit conservatives from finding love, but if you put ‘Horny Thatcherite’ in your bio, there’s a large chance people aren’t going to send you nudes. Truly, the real bigotry isn’t racial violence by the police, the harassment and dehumanisation of trans people, the brutal treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, but the fact that Tories can’t get any if they vocalise their abhorrent ideology.
You can tell Sidwell is a very Serious Writer Man with his evocation of the ‘Blob,’ an amorphous concept that he uses to highlight any and all political correctness within institutions, because of course the best way to unravel a very complicated and multi-layered concept such as ‘political correctness’ is to give it a dumb monster movie label and hope that passes for a forceful argument. Did you know that the Blob (not the one trademarked by Paramount Pictures but close enough) is also everything to do with critical theory? And that this Blob accounts for feminism and anti-racism in academia? Boy, I sure wish Sidwell did a better job of tracing the intellectual and theoretical genealogy of a lot of the garbage he’s spouting. The problem with this analogy is that Sidwell uses it fairly intermittently. It’s hard to tell if the Blob is what infiltrated Liverpool City Council in the 80s or whether this was Cultural Marxism (more on that later) or something else.
At any rate, no progressive cause is legitimate because it could potentially have scary ties to *socialism*. The Militants that partly formed the Liverpool council certainly were controversial, but to say they were a ‘disaster in office, burning through the council budget,’ is a misnomer. They prioritised people over the budget and thought that Thatcher and central government had stolen millions, so they sought to take it back. Their urban regeneration provided new jobs, building new homes, sports centres, and nurseries, all vital for a thriving British society. Soon the Militants were ousted by Neil Kinnock, but Liverpool stayed Labour thereafter. Well, if urban regeneration doesn’t shiver your timbers (or something idk) how about the peace movement? Not only is peace disgusting and icky but it was all entirely funded by the Soviets! At least according to Sidwell, a very trustworthy and lettered man! Never mind the fact that British intelligence services have long considered the impact of the Soviets negligible on the peace movement, M15 has probably been infiltrated by degenerate Trotsky-Anarcho-Lib-Maoists.
Not only are the security and intelligence services bought and paid for members of the Коммунистическая партия Советского Союза, but New Labour as well. Their managerial class and target-driven policies derived from the Thatcher era is akin to Stalinism. Interestingly, Mark Fisher made a much more convincing case for neoliberal targets being akin to Market Stalinism and the goal of financialising everything possible. Instead of the more objectively traceable link of privatisation and targets with a profit-motive, Sidwell thinks the real aim of all this managerialism is an equality of social outcomes. There is something within Sidwell’s writing that correctly points to the wrongness of Blatcherism but he’s not sophisticated enough to really appraise the legacy of Thatcher through Major to Blair and Brown.
The real sadness of Sidwell’s writing comes across when he starts to criticise the Arts Council. Sidwell argues that the Arts Council is funding art to a political end (no-one tell him all art is political) and supposedly ‘despite championing ‘ambition and quality’, the plan explicitly rejects the tradition of valuing high art.’ Now, here’s the thing. I don’t know for certain whether Sidwell actually read the Arts Council’s public statement because he only cites a Telegraph journalist and not the Arts Council itself. However, I can attest to having read the ongoing and future goals of the Council and can only argue that they seem genuinely admirable and touching. Sidwell seems angry that the Council wants to make sure art is diverse and accessible to the entire country. The statement draws inspiration from what can only be described as a form of mass performance art piece, titled ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here.’ On July 1st 2016, 1,600 people across the UK appeared in military uniforms to mark the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, where total causalities and deaths reached one million. These volunteers occupied everyday places like train stations and shopping centres, they were silent to the members of the public around them, but if approached they would hand a card over with the details of the soldier they represented. Public reaction to this artwork was immensely positive, and notably, not only was it performed by volunteers, but it was publicly funded. Surely, if this is the kind of publicly accessible as well as publicly funded art the Council has in mind, what objection could Sidwell have? Unless of course, Sidwell’s objections to the Council’s future plans are arbitrarily and childishly centred around fear of the words ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusion.’
The jab at the Arts Council is but one of several examples Sidwell makes to show how ‘political elites’ have invaded the cultural beaches of Great Britain (or something else equally stupid sounding). Another example of culture war casualty, at least to Sidwell, is the Starbucks Mermaid Cookie which gave 50p of each sale to the Mermaids Charity. I’m not sure exactly what it is Sidwell wants to say here because he doesn’t elaborate as to why this is bad. I mean, there are plenty of good reasons to criticise Starbucks; they avoid paying taxes, they use cut-throat business practices to undermine competitors, and their coffee tastes pretty bad. But no, showing minor support for a very important charity invested in the wellbeing of transgender youth is taking things too far. This is where Sidwell draws the line. Next, you’ll say we have to respect trans people, as well as giving them vital services for their wellbeing. The nerve!
Sidwell states that ‘Britain’s post-Blairite political class – the final product of the left’s long march into our institutions – has failed. It has been rejected decisively at the ballot box.’ Here is the thing about that…I don’t think any serious analysis would suggest the reason Labour lost at the last election is because of the institutional leftist boogeyman but a myriad of complicated factors surrounding Brexit as well as issues like the Anti-Semitism Crisis which were dominant in the media at the time of the election. Take for example, the infamous Red Wall, the Northern constituencies which traditionally voted Labour but turned Conservative. It was not a repulsion towards Corbyn but a desire to see Brexit finished which compelled many voters to swing Conservative. There is no stand-out culture war in the Red Wall area, the values there typically align with the rest of the country in terms of immigration, free speech, transgender rights, and teaching about Britain’s colonial history.
If Britain is fed up with all this wokeness and political correctness, then what will it take to see it gone? Sidwell turns to the edgy bad-boys of the right, be they Laurence Fox, Andrew Doyle, James Lindsay or Helen Pluckrose. Who else has the fortitude to take on the amorphous and largely imaginary politically correct machine than an uneducated actor from Harrow, a Twitter comedian who relies on 2015 humour, or two academics who submitted articles to pay-to-publish journals to try and make some sort of point about postmodernism? Sidwell also points to online groups like the Daily Wire (he smartly omits mentioning Ben Shapiro by name because that would be incredibly embarrassing) as well as grifters like Dave Rubin, who nobody, right or left, seems to take seriously.
Sidwell concludes that the Conservatives ‘as cultural exiles’ are in an ideal position to fight back against the ‘elite consensus,’ I suppose despite the fact the Conservatives are elite in every serious meaning of the term. This is the tragedy or comedy of conservatives like Sidwell, they are the winning side, situating themselves within the most efficient political machine on the planet, but ultimately their cultural values will become undermined through progressive struggle. Racism will continue to be countered, transphobia will be challenged, and class struggle will be waged. Sidwell will have to content himself, like the rest of the poor-hating twits at the New Culture Forum, with the production of flimsy publications like the one I have just spent the afternoon reading through. The work here is a scattered mess of ideas that lack nuance, relying on the old framework of ‘Cultural Marxism,’ the far-right conspiracy theory which lunatics like Anders Breivik evoked in his manifesto before subsequently murdering over seventy people, most of whom were democratic socialist youths. As Joan Bruane writes ‘[p]roponents of this theory, whether they quietly write books or livestream themselves conducting mass shootings, are perpetuating untruths that make the world more dangerous and less humane.’
In 1992 Scottish group Nightcrawlers released ‘Push the Feeling On’, an acid jazz track which one member, John Reid, commented was dated even for the time. DJ Marc Kinchen remixed the track and almost totally transformed the song. The only surface level recognisability of the original track is the repeating line ‘their lives again […] their li […] to pull us’ and the occasional and eponymous ‘push the feeling.’ The remix became very popular and dwarfed the original track, eventually ending up as the official version on the Nightcrawlers’ album; it soon became a staple of 90s house and dance music.
In 2009 American rapper Pitbull sampled Kinchen’s remix in his song ‘Hotel Room Service.’ What started as acid jazz then house became a sort of hip-hop-oriented pop with repetitive and catchy lyrics:
Forget about your boyfriend
And meet me at the hotel room
You can bring your girlfriends
And meet me at the hotel room
Forget about your boyfriend
And meet me at the hotel room
You can bring your girlfriends
And meet me at the hotel room.
One could imagine this section repeating infinitely.
In 2021 ‘Friday’ was released by English DJ Riton and Nightcrawlers. This track sampled Kinchen’s remix once again, seemingly evoking dreams of the ability to party after the coronavirus pandemic has subsided. The song begins by sampling internet personalities Mufasa and Hypeman whose line ‘It’s Friday then…There’s Saturday, Sunday what?’ becomes the central repetition. As the song goes on the sensation of trying to conjure the weekend, of being able to go out and safely party feels…mismatched. The song feels backward-looking despite trying to create hope for the future. Where is the sense of newness in this track that relies heavily on the musical pull of a nearly thirty-year old track? Perhaps the almost ‘stuck’ sense of the track is best exemplified in the lyric ‘Every Friday, Saturday, Sunday / Endless Weekend on a Wave.’ This desire of infinity or infinite desire feels impotent, as if it nearly reaches some form of conclusion around the drudgery of the week that makes the weekend so significant socially. The roster of drugs might have changed a little since the 90s but the music here feels stuck in a loop, wishing only to revert to the sedate period before the pandemic where social relations felt less vulgarly exposed.
Another line that unconsciously compounds the sense of stagnation is:
I thought the hands of time would change me
And I’d be over this by now, yeah
It’s been too long since we got crazy
I’m lowkey spinnin’ out.
In a sense, the experience of static existence here correlates with the general thesis of hauntology, that although technological and material relations may develop and change over time, our psycho-social and cultural experiences have slowed if not ground to a halt. Whilst the world is trying to bounce back economically from the pandemic, and certain modes of labour relations like working from home might become further engrained, collapsing previous boundaries of place, pop culture has yet to fully realise or reckon with this.
Having recently read Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, I have been contemplating many aspects of the book, from its reading of Hegel by way of Kojève, the concept of thymos as motivation in human behaviour, to the Nietzschean logic of humanity whereby all humans are recognised as equal (something Nietzsche views as somewhat of an existential horror). A small passage near the very end of the book particularly caught my attention.
In the final section of his work, Fukuyama contends that liberal democracy, in its almost plastic state of absorbing shocks, brings about a flatline ideal of which with every citizen capable of being equally recognised, individuals sink into a state of ennui. Here, he turns to the events of Paris in May 1968. He describes the students as ‘for the most part pampered offspring of one of the freest and most prosperous societies on earth.’ Certainly, the state of the French economy in 1968 was better than nearly every other country, but perhaps an aspect Fukuyama leaves out of this observation is that as noted by himself (and Marx), a bourgeoisie/middle class was necessary to the upheaval of society and social relations. 1968 France was better prepared in terms of the political engagement of its peoples and overall prosperity for a transition to post-capitalism than say 1917 Russia, a continent too vast in scale and severely materially and industrially underdeveloped.
The interesting change since both 1968 and the publication of Fukuyama’s book, is that the situation has altered in certain ways and stayed fixed in others. For one, student and general protests are still popular and ongoing within France. But with the advent of neoliberalism, social safety nets have become undermined, and unemployment is significantly higher (particularly for poorer youth) today than in 1968. In an interview with the Guardian, two generations of striking students, a father and son, discuss the 1968 and contemporary protests. The father, Gérard, spoke of 68’s atmosphere as being ‘“constantly thinking of what we called dreams, and what could be called utopia … Everyone was convinced that something massive was happening.”’ Whereas the son, Antoine, concludes ‘“there is something inaccessible about the notion of a dream. Today is about profound convictions, how it’s possible to live in a nightmare, but to think about how we can and should be doing things differently.”’ Effectively, the 1968 generation had a relative amount of prosperity, albeit an ongoing confrontation with university administration and violent police forces, but also the ability to conceive at least in the abstract, transformative political projects to rise above capitalism and consumerism. The contemporary generation struggles against the prevailing ideology of the likes of Fukuyama, for instead of a project so powerful it breaks through the plasticity of capitalism and liberal democracy, this generation has to settle for the struggle for the mere temporary negation of neoliberal policies.
Whilst catching up on the seventeenth season of Gogglebox the other evening I began to feel more and more like what I was viewing was a form of manufactured consent. Every episode opens with the narrator’s placid ‘in the week [of headline news] we enjoyed lots of great telly.’ Although at times the various households disagree with or mock what they are watching, overall, they enjoy on our (the audience’s) behalf the viewing. The show is perfect for the emotionally-drained, those who have worked all day at one form of job only to come home to other forms of labour. The toll of work, of household upkeep, emails, and direct messages, leads one to watch Gogglebox not with the expectation of enjoyment exactly, but the ability to sit passively and allow others on your behalf to enjoy for you. Whether or not you enjoy the programming highlighted is inconsequential. You watch for the reactions. I’d wager about once per episode there is usually one program that would be worth watching outside of this show. For the most part it highlights television’s depressed landscape of insincere reality shows, the plastered-on Saturday night grins of Ant and Dec, and endless news cycles. Even in the case of Ant and Dec, which in at least one episode solicited jibing comments, constitutes ‘great telly’, whether or not it is actually ‘good.’ It still evokes reaction. The desert of television on display, where rare oases can be found, is always saved by the enjoyment and judgement of the viewers being viewed. There is a winning formula to the show (its seventeenth iteration speaks volumes) but it also feels like a call for something new. The market of reaction that produces and trades in Gogglebox is even more so visible on YouTube where react videos for a period of several years reigned supreme in accruing numbers. Reactions, although perhaps at times veering close to critique, always remain safely in the box of pre-existing consumer comfort. Gogglebox feels like a network effectively summarising its content as ‘this is what we’ve got. You’re welcome, we’re not doing more’, but at least they offer to relieve you of the need to desire direct consumption of its media.
During the height of the BLM protests last summer, there was a focus on listening to black voices, the likes of Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks, Franz Fanon, Angela Davis, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and so on. But some people countered this, querying why people didn’t listen to or read black conservatives such as Candace Owens (which…y’know…c’mon). But one name came up a few times and I’ve seen it cited in a few different corners of the internet. Thomas Sowell. Having looked through two of his books, The Thomas Sowell Reader and Controversial Essays, I have found some inane and at times startling comments. Here I will be dissecting some arguments put forward in Controversial Essays as I found both the title and the enclosed essays more striking.
In ‘Minimum Journalism’, Sowell complains about a piece published by the Wall Street Journal on minimum wage workers. The Journal’s focus on middle-aged women irks Sowell as ‘just over half the people earning the minimum wage are from 16 to 24 years of age. Just over half of the minimum wage earners are working part-time.’ He considers this focus on middle-aged women as being ‘clever propaganda’, arguing the politically correct line is that people can’t afford to raise families on these wages. Although Sowell provides more perspective to this conversation on minimum wage, I think we can go a step further. As a study by the Public Policy Institute says, two thirds of minimum wage workers are neither spouses nor single parents within the family unit, although that is not to say that their income contribution is not necessary to the family wellbeing. The importance of the minimum wage worker cannot be undersold, when looking at the remaining one third of workers who are spouses or parents, they are said to bring home more than half of the family’s earnings. The study concludes that although not all minimum wage workers are poor, only one in four are, 60% of wage earners in poor families would benefit from a dollar increase in the minimum wage. This study and Sowell’s article are contemporaneous, coming from 2001. But there is still more to discuss. Sowell argues most of the younger workers ‘have better sense than to have children that they cannot feed and house.’ What has changed in the coming years? A study in 2013 highlights that only 30% of fast food workers are teenagers, 30% are aged 20-24, and the last 40% are 25 and older. As the study puts it ‘many teenagers do work in fastfood, but the majority of fast-food workers are not teenagers.’ 70% of fast-food workers fall in the range of the $7.25 federal minimum wage and the $10.10 wage proposed in legislation. Turning back to the question of families, 26.6% of workers aged 16-19 have a child whilst 36.4% of those aged 20 and over had a child. There is also a question of societal stigma. I suggest that the job role associated with minimum wage work particularly fast-food is one that dehumanises the worker in tandem with their low pay. Essentially, society knows these workers are poorly paid and more often or not require the income, and has no problem treating them badly. Furthermore, Sowell contends that minimum wage laws ‘increase unemployment among the least skilled, least experienced, and minority workers.’ A Vox article from 2019 makes the point that Democrat-run cities and states that have increased the minimum wage above the federal minimum ($7.25) have not seen a drop in unemployment. In a meta-analysis of 37 studies on minimum wages from 2001-2016, the authors found that the effect on employment levels was minimal. Their reasoning for this is that over the last 15 years, teenagers have become less important to the functioning of the labour market but simultaneously in the last 25 years the service industry has become increasingly important to the labour market. Overall, it shouldn’t be discounted that in 2001 and in the following years, minimum wage workers have various family situations, and a minimum wage increase would be beneficial for those on low pay.
Next, Sowell delves into academic performance and race in ‘Losing the Race.’ Here, he refers solely to the book ‘Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America’ by John McWhorter to contend that overall, the gap in academic performance between black and white youth comes from a cultural context rather than one of systemic racism. Unfortunately, I cannot get hold of a copy of this book but given it is the only source Sowell discusses in this piece I hope he wouldn’t mind if I use multiple other sources more readily available. Sowell says of McWhorter ‘of the things he wants done is putting an end to excuses and to the whole victimhood mentality which spawns excuses.’ This is an interesting claim, and one that seems to disregard the very real information about race and education. McWhorter’s justification for the claim that black youth are culturally lazy is that Asian-American students outperform them even coming from similar economic backgrounds. First, I would contextualise this with an Economic Policy Institute study that states that ‘black and Hispanic students—even if they are not poor—are much more likely than white or Asian students to be in high-poverty schools.’ Additionally, attending a high-poverty school for any student regardless of race had a negative effect on reading and mathematic achievements, with the biggest negative influence being for Asian students, even if they are working hard, they are not achieving as well as Asian students in low-poverty schools. Although supposedly McWhorter recognises the historical background of ‘slavery, discrimination and poverty’, he discards these factors when looking at black youth from middle class backgrounds who still fail in school. Again, even if these youth are not poor, they end up attending underfunded schools which would account for their poor academic performance. It is also incredibly noteworthy that outside of high school, systemic racism prevents black people from getting equal wages or opportunities as white people even at the same education level. In the Urban Institute’s report ‘Examining the Racial and Gender Wealth Gap in America’, they clearly show that when looking at full-time, full-year workers aged 25 to 64, that even those black people who have high school diplomas or college degrees are both underpaid and have higher unemployment levels than their white cohorts. Interestingly, white people with no high school diplomas on average have better wages than black people who have finished high school. I wonder how Sowell or McWhorter would explain this discrepancy? Additionally, the discriminatory hiring practices of the past and present have particularly hurt black women as they suffer both from racial and gender prejudice. At every education level, black women are paid lower than white men, black men, and white women. Overall, I find the contention that culture somehow is the primary reason black people underachieve isn’t convincing when we look at the data.
In ‘Reparations for Slavery?’, Sowell ridicules the notion of reparations as well as any notion of America apologising for slavery. I will argue that these two concepts should be treated singularly, that in a sense reparation would be the correct response to slavery and its continuing impact on America as well as an apology to the people who it has hurt. Sowell argues ‘during the era of slavery, most white people owned no slaves. Are their descendants supposed to pay for the descendants of those who did?’ He is correct here that most white people didn’t own slaves, but the problem is, they and their ancestors have benefitted from systemic racism against black people. The Homestead Act starting in 1868 granted acres of free land to mostly white families whilst leaving black people in the lurch. As Keri Leigh Merritt puts it in an article, ‘to receive 160 acres of government land, claimants had to complete a three-part process: first, file an application. Second, improve the land for five years. Third, file for the deed of ownership.’ Freshly emancipated slaves struggled with the bureaucracy of obtaining land from the government and had little to no money for necessary travel or the filing fees. As well as this much of the land was unfarmable, meaning even if black people could obtain it, they would struggle to work it for the mandatory five years. Across the several decades of the various land acts, over 1.6 million native and immigrant white families were granted land. By comparison, the number of black claimants who were granted land was about six thousand. Merritt concludes ‘the number of adult descendants of the original Homestead Act recipients living in the year 2000 was estimated to be around 46 million people, about a quarter of the US adult population. If that many white Americans can trace their legacy of wealth and property ownership to a single entitlement programme, then the perpetuation of black poverty must also be linked to national policy.’ Policy after policy in the last 200 years reveals discrimination against black people. Sowell deploys an interesting tactic by asking whether ‘does anyone seriously suggest that blacks in America today would be better off if they were in Africa? If not, then what is the compensation for?’ But of course, by 1914 90% of Africa was colonised. Spain, Italy, France, Britain, Germany, Portugal, and Belgium effectively dominated an entire continent and bled it dry of resources for their own benefit. If slavery and colonisation had not occurred, who is to say what today’s Africa might look like? Sowell tries to discount slavery in America as of course it has occurred all over the world throughout history. The problem here is that America from its foundation, has been linked to slavery and continues to feel the effect of its impact in the laws following its abolition.
Sowell argues in ‘Blacks and Bootstraps’ that most ‘blacks did lift themselves out of poverty by their own bootstraps—before their political rescuers arrived on the scene with civil rights legislation in the 1960s or affirmative action policies in the 1970s.’ Sowell cites the statistic that in 1940 87% of black families lived below the poverty line but this fell to 47% by 1960 without ‘any major federal legislation on civil rights and before the rise and expansion of the welfare state under the Great Society programs of President Lyndon Johnson.’ So, the argument here is that black people progressed economically without major government programmes or assistance. It’s hard to tell what Sowell suggests allowed black people in this particular period of 1940-60 to escape poverty. As Sowell pointed out, 87% of black families were below the poverty line in 1940, but it shouldn’t be discounted that New Deal programmes like the Works Progress Administration helped employ many black people. About 425,000 black people worked under the WPA, a higher percentage than in the overall labour force. The jobs under the WPA allowed black workers better wages and access to more skilled roles than were previously available to them. Of course, it should also be noted that racism still undermined New Deal policy; federal housing programmes benefited many white Americans but strengthened segregation of the black population, often leaving them in unsafe living conditions. The discriminatory housing policies no doubt held black families back but efforts like the WPA helped normalise desegregated workforces and offered better working conditions. But again, poverty didn’t really decline until the period between 1940 and 1960. So, did the free market automatically lift everyone out of poverty in this period? Not exactly. Before and during World War Two, the government managed to convince 85 million Americans (the population was 132 million in 1940) to buy bonds worth over $180 million. Once the war was over and people were able to cash in on these bonds, they had more purchasing power and consumption increased. Not only this but growth during the war was down to government spending which increased the GDP whilst consumption was kept fairly level. As the Institute for Economics & Peace states though, America was already experiencing post-Depression growth prior to the war, and the increased spending and growth during the war acted as a bubble, one which reverted to pre-war baseline growth. It might also be worth noting that federal programmes during the war allowed many black people the chance to train in specific trade skills at historically black colleges and universities. The National WWII Museum highlights this new focus on education: ‘sixty-five black colleges participated in federal programs such as the Engineering, Science, and Management War Training (ESMWT) program. Twelve of those institutions had direct contracts with the federal government and offered a total of 74 courses in physics, mathematics, management, engineering, and chemistry.’ These colleges and universities were a mix of public and private institutions and reflects the larger overall cause of reduction in black poverty, it was not some mythic overcoming of systemically ingrained racism but a mixture of private enterprise and extensive public spending.
In ‘Global Hot Air’, Sowell gets testy about a National Academy of Sciences report that isn’t specifically written by scientists and somehow this means global warming isn’t occurring. Sowell builds on his scepticism by pointing to the ‘global cooling’ and ‘new ice age’ hysteria of the 1970s which clearly didn’t come to pass and therefore global warming has been debunked as the same hysteria. In an American Meteorological Society paper, the authors highlight that much of the concern around global cooling was manufactured by media figures misreading scientific literature selectively. The paper notes that as far back as 1957 there were scientists working in Hawaii and Antarctica jointly concluding that their data meant ‘that atmospheric carbon dioxide was rising as a result of fossil fuel burning.’ Much of the scientific literature of the 1970s trended towards believing in global warming over cooling. This point of hysteria about cooling therefore doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Sowell then refers to two scientists, S. Fred Singer and Richard Lindzen who are extremely sceptical of climate change. Both men have worked for and on behalf of right wing think tanks like the Cato Institute and the Heartland Institute, which have received funding from the oil and gas company ExxonMobil. S. Fred Singer once made the claim on his website ‘Science and Environmental Policy Project’ that ‘555 of all the 625 glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich have been growing since 1980’, a claim reproduced in New Scientist Magazine by sceptic David Bellamy. When George Monbiot checked with the World Glacial Monitoring Service, they stated that this claim originating from Singer was ‘“complete bullshit.”’ Monbiot continues, ‘he had cited data that was simply false, he had failed to provide references, he had completely misunderstood the scientific context and neglected current scientific literature. The latest studies show unequivocally that most of the world’s glaciers are retreating.’ Singer hardly seems convincing. On the other hand, you have Lindzer. In a blog for the Cato Institute, Lindzer wrote ‘climate alarm belongs to a class of issues characterized by a claim for which there is no evidence, that nonetheless appeals strongly to one of more interests of prejudices. Once the issue is adopted, evidence becomes irrelevant. Instead, the believer sees what he believes.’ If you were to change the word ‘alarm’ to ‘denialism’ it works significantly better. Grifters like Singer and Lindzer always operate on either cherry-picked evidence or in Singer’s case, they make it up. Sowell does try to make the case the NAS report doesn’t wholly explain ‘that the timing of temperature increases does not coincide with the timing of increases in greenhouse gasses.’ This may cause some doubt but in a paper to Environmental Research Letters, Ricke and Caldeira write that using carbon-cycle and physical-climate model intercomparisons, they estimate that there is a delay between emissions and maximum warming of about a decade. Emissions are not immediate in their effect. Overall, Sowell relies on two very biased individuals which are heavily undermined by the overwhelming consensus amongst scientists that not only is climate change and global warming a problem, but it is also one we are causing. Perhaps of interest to Sowell, is that as NASA points out, 10 of the warmest years in the 141-year record occurred since 2005.
In ‘Gay Marriage’, Sowell makes some familiar arguments and some I haven’t heard in relation to gay marriage, maybe I’m just so lucky. First, he starts off by complaining that ‘homosexuals were on their strongest ground when they argued that what happens between consenting adults is nobody else’s business. Now they want to make it everybody’s business by requiring others to acquiesce in their unions and treat them as they would other unions, both in law and in social practice.’ Now, to be fair, I think gay people wanted their marriage to be everybody’s business in the same way that straight people make marriage everyone else’s business already. Sowell argues that straight couples can reproduce which is of course important, but ‘this consideration obviously does not apply to homosexual unions’ is downright wrong. In data provided by the Williams Institute, between 2014 and 2016 16.2% of all gay couples were raising children, with higher rates of childrearing amongst married gay couples. Not only this but 68% of gay couples were raising biological children through means like surrogacy and in vitro fertilization. Although the majority of gay couples were raising biological children, they were still more likely (21.4%) to adopt than straight couples (3%) or foster (2.9% to 0.4%). Sowell argues that as men and women are biologically different, the issue of responsibility for the child is different and the couple must be made jointly responsible by law. In one paper Manning, Fettro, and Lamidi find that children living in gay households fare just as well as children in straight households accounting for factors like: ‘academic performance, cognitive development, social development, psychological health, early sexual activity, and substance abuse.’ So gay couples marrying and raising children is as equally good for society as when straight people do it. Sowell also contends that marriage between straight couples is beneficial in terms of divorce settlements for potentially disadvantaged women, as if gay people do not face any disadvantages in society that could be alleviated by legal marriage status. Sowell says, ‘when they are simply “consenting adults,” they can consent on whatever terms they choose to work out between themselves. It is nobody else’s business and should not be the law’s business.’ Unfortunately, whether Sowell likes it or not, it is already the law’s business. As highlighted in a Vox article, if gay couples can marry, they can file taxes jointly, and in cases where only one person is working this can lower taxes. If a husband or wife dies, the surviving spouse can inherit the estate without being subject to estate or gift tax. Married couples can procure family rates for health insurance plans. On the matter of ‘nobody else’s business’ as Sowell puts it, if a gay couple are married the government cannot force them to disclose information privately discussed during a marriage and couples may also have visiting rights to places like prisons and hospitals where access is restricted to only immediate family. Sowell concludes ‘the issue of gay marriage is just one of many examples of the victim’s ploy, which says: “I am a victim. Therefore, if you do not give in to my demands and let me walk over you like a doormat, it shows that you are a hate-filled, evil person.”’ I think Sowell is being overly sensitive here, as I am unaware of how equal marriage rights implies gay people walking all over straight people. As the literature shows, there are a great many benefits to allowing gay people to marry. No matter how hard he tries to intellectualise it, Sowell comes off as a crotchety old man who doesn’t understand the struggles of gay people. Also, as of 2015 gay marriage has been legalised in America nationwide, and the sky did not in fact fall on the country nor did the traditional unity of man and woman wholly collapse.
This sample of Sowell’s large work doesn’t cover every topic, but I thought it provided enough of an exploration of fairly diverse topics. Overall, I find it odd Sowell has the acclaim and audience that he does. His ideas around race in particular seem regressive to me and are utilised by people wishing to undermine movements like BLM or others looking for racial justice. I am not saying all of Sowell’s ideas about economics must be inherently wrong or flawed, but when looking at his approach to topics of social justice, he seems to so often miss the mark and then appear smug about doing so.
There is an Orwellian doublethink when it comes to British history, particularly the history of its empire. At once we are invited to be proud of our many achievements, to bask in our island’s individualistic endeavour for greatness, so long as we do not in fact think about history. When we are told to be proud of our history, we are not actually meant to engage in it, we are not meant to think of it in fact but instead picture it, through the gaze of vague disinterest and fumbling nationalism. I say fumbling nationalism because I find so often patriotic appeals to Britain’s greatness to be all too flimsy. Colonialism seems to be the colossal C-word from which public conscience simultaneously cringes from its invocation before then proceeding to mount a defence in its name. In the wake of the BBC Proms controversy over the National Anthem, Boris Johnson stated: ‘I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness.’ To be honest, I am still not sure when exactly we started feeling appropriately embarrassed at our history of slavery and colonialism. As a nation we have rarely if ever formally or materially apologised for colonialism, the one major instance in the last few decades is when Kenyan victims of torture successfully took the government to court and received £19.9 million in compensation. This was on all accounts a begrudging ‘apology’ and compensation from the British government whereby the Foreign Office tried its best to prevent any compensation claims. William Hague, foreign secretary at the time, said ‘we do not believe that this settlement establishes a precedent in relation to any other former British colonial administration.’ Clearly, this compensation was meant to be an exception. There is a sense of manufactured outrage surrounding the attempt to discuss colonial history. When the National Trust produced a report called ‘Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery’ (title isn’t snappy I know), conservatives went wild. Ben Bradley MP for Mansfield along with 27 other Tory MPs wrote a letter protesting the Trust’s report. Bradley even appeared on the BBC to try and defend the view that the Trust was engaging in revisionism and was anti-British. The issue here being that history is by no means a fixed entity, the more we uncover, the more we view the past and present (and future) differently. In the letter to the Trust, the signatories write ‘history must neither be sanitised nor rewritten to suit snowflake preoccupations.’ It should be apparent to anyone that accurately tracing the historical significance of sites of British heritage to the colonial past around them is anything but sanitising. The hilarity of this letter highlights the danger of those who want history to be a mere touchstone, a floating signifier of Britain’s greatness; Churchill and his aura must be forever beyond reproach, to even consider his family home of Chartwell in relation to his imperial preoccupations is blasphemy. Perhaps these same people think when we tourists visit Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in Poland, we shouldn’t pay any mind to Nazism or the Holocaust. This abstraction of history as only ever a point of reference for patriotism reaches new heights of hysteria on the topic of statues. This last summer, during the BLM protests in Britain, the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol was torn down and thrown into the harbour in protest. The removal of the statue by protesters should not come as much of a surprise. Beginning in 2018, the Bristol City Council planned to produce a new plaque for the statue to replace the original which read: ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city’. There is no mention to Colston’s exact source of his wealth. The second plaque was intended to amend this in frank terms, detailing his involvement in the slave trade and the number of Africans trafficked, as well as using his status as a Tory MP to defend the right to trade slaves. A Tory councillor objected to this proposal and a historian representing Merchant Venturers tried to revise the proposal into cleaner terms. They tried to change wording like ‘trafficked’ to ‘transported’ and removed mention of Colston’s selective philanthropy grounded in religious kinship. Although this revised proposal was ultimately vetoed by the Mayor Marvin Rees, the attempt to sanitise British history is all too evident. But even when Colston’s statue, a commemoration of a man responsible for the trading of some 80,000+ plus Africans was thrown into the harbour, the attempt to save his reputation and that of Britain was still underway by some foot soldiers in the cringeworthy culture war. Enter Save Our Statues, a not-for-profit organisation that has tasked itself with protecting the nation’s statues and monuments from those who want to see them removed. The organisation pledges to ‘deploy all legal, educational and political domains available in order to save our beloved national history and culture from intentional destruction, distortion and deterioration.’ It is interesting here that statues are considered national history and culture in their own right, rather than commemorations of said national history. From abstracted history, these statue simps (as Joel Golby calls them) use physical monuments as receptables for this abstraction. The organisation began as a Twitter campaign headed by property developer Robert Poll who argues ‘judging historical figures by our modern laws and morals is a futile exercise.’ Whilst it is not straightforward to hold past societies or figures to present day standards, Poll’s argument here is inherently flawed in presupposing that nobody contemporaneous with people like Edward Colston thought that slavery was wrong. Samuel Gorton, an early settler of North America and a republican, was a fierce critic of economic slavery and stated in 1651: ‘there is a common course practiced amongst English men to buy negers to that end they may have them for service or slaves forever; for the preventing of such practices among us, let it be ordered, that no black mankind or white being forced by covenant bond, or otherwise, to serve any man or his assigns longer than ten years.’ The institutions of slavery and the anti-slavery movements were contemporaries and to suggest we cannot hold slavers accountable due to historical circumstance is either ignorant on the part of people like Poll or purposefully obfuscating historical fact and our ability to think critically about our past. Peter Whittle, ex-UKIP deputy leader, acts as the chairman of the organisation and in a moment of what I can only assume is extreme detachment from reality states ‘never was a campaign more important than this.’ Personally, Peter, I’m not so sure about that one. I’m all for a bit of hyperbole but given this whole campaign began in reaction to Black Lives Matter protests there might in fact be more important issues at hand. What organisations and individuals like these mean for social justice is an obfuscation of real concrete issues and instead a focus on outrage and fetishizing British history. I think the real smoking gun of discourse around British history can be seen in Steven Yaxley-Lennon (alias Tommy Robinson)’s rant about Colston’s statue where he says ‘who gives a shit what it’s about and what the man’s done? It’s part of British history.’ In essence, any statue is worth saving no matter the context of who is being commemorated. Britain has a difficult and troubling past when it comes to our empire and colonialism. I am not sure whether I am a patriot or not, I certainly don’t feel proud for being born here. I didn’t exactly have a choice in the matter. I am grateful being born in Britain for having a degree of material comfort other countries do not possess as strongly. I am grateful I can write this freely (unless I end up with a bullet in the back of my head tomorrow in which case joke’s on me). But I am interested in my socioeconomic standing in relation to other countries as well as people in Britain. In Britain ethnic minorities have unemployment rates of 12.9% where White people only have 6.3%. Black people with degrees on average earn 23.1% less than White workers. The homicide rate stands at 30.5 per million for Black people, 14.1 for Asian people, and 8.9 for White people. 35.7% of ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty compared to 17.2% of White people. I cannot be proud of Britain’s history because it is so large, so far-reaching, and so abstract. I am proud however, of those who throughout its history, have stood up against inequality and against powerful establishments. As can be seen in the statistics I have listed here, work still needs to be done. This must occur through economic investment, proper and affordable housing, democratising workplaces, and criminal justice reform. What good are the monuments to a dead empire if its surviving ancestors are still facing the challenges of racism and capitalism in its death?
I’ve spent a small amount of time on the conservative side of YouTube and have encountered interviews with Douglas Murray where he speaks on various topics but the one that stands out to me is his views on transgender issues. Murray comes off in some of the interviews as smarmy and makes some generally uninteresting if not unfounded statements around trans people that I wanted to explore further. These ideas he espouses stem from his 2019 book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity. It would therefore be unfair to take the snippets of comments he makes in interviews as the full articulation of his opinions, so I will instead be discussing the portion of his book which talks about trans people. Not to spoil this piece but overall, I find it fairly dissatisfying. If there’s one thing I find when I’m reading conservative voices, it’s that I’m jointly scared and excited that somehow my mind will be fundamentally changed by what I’m reading. This did not happen here. I think Murray put some time into this book (at least the chapter concerning trans people I’ve read), but it is woefully lacking in an engagement with the scientific and social literature on trans people, instead relying on individual case studies and anecdotes which at times raise appropriate concerns but overall muddy the wider picture of trans issues. My critique of this chapter is systematically and linearly picking through the text, so I apologise for the potential length of this piece.
Murray begins with the case of Nathan Verhelst, a trans man from Belgium who was dissatisfied with his gender-affirming surgery and elected to die from Euthanasia four years later. Verhelst’s experience is undoubtedly sad for many reasons, he was treated poorly as a child by his parents, his surgical transition left him unhappy with his body, he chose to die over the possibility of detransitioning. What we have here is a very complicated case. Verhelst transitioned as an adult but surgery did not help how he felt. Could more have been done for him? It might have been possible to resume a life as a woman, there are those who regret transitioning and do revert back to their birth gender. For now I don’t want to talk too much about detransitioning as it will come up later but what I will say is it feels like Murray is treating Verhelst as the rule rather than the exception when it comes to the lived experiences of trans people.
As a small point, when discussing the seemingly sudden arrival of trans people in the zeitgeist, Murray does refer back through history to various examples of gender-fluid and trans persons in the work of Ovid, the Indian Hijras, the Thai Kathoey, and the Samoan fa’afafine. It’s definitely important when discussing topics as wide ranging and deep as trans issues to look at the examples throughout history that give a place of recognition and cultural dignity to trans people. I like the effort made here, although later when Murray discusses non-binary people, we will see how these inclusions will bite him in the ass.
Murray places a certain value of legitimacy on intersex people in comparison to trans people, owing to the inherently biological basis of intersex people’s identities as such. Murray states: ‘intersex people exist and should not be held responsible for a situation over which they have absolutely no control. A considerable amount of sympathy and understanding can be felt for anybody who is born intersex. What else should people feel about fellow human beings who have found themselves born with a set of cards which are – to say the least – sub-optimal? If anything in the world is undoubtedly a hardware issue then it is this.’ Murray laments the lack of attention paid to intersex people, inferring that trans people cast a large shadow over them. To make a slightly dumb sounding point, the acronym of LGBT is extended to LGBTQIA+, which includes intersex people. Intersex people are acknowledged in the queer community and trans people and intersex people fight in each other’s corners. This is not to say that intersex people and the LGBTQIA+ community do not have issues. Mauro Cabal, co-director of Global Action for Trans Equality (GATE), spoke about the actions trans people can take to help intersex people in a statement on Intersex Awareness Day 2016. Here, Cabal highlighted the problem of trans people conflating trans and intersex as categories. Whilst navigating the troubling medical patholigisation of intersex people, Cabal speaks of the coalition between trans and intersex people in this endeavour. I will quote him at length: ‘Recognizing and respecting intersectionalities differences while working on common goals is not only a good way of building emancipatory alliances: it’s the only way. When I started doing activism two decades ago I didn’t have the right words –for me, for my body, for my identity or for my sexuality. I just wanted to stop the hell I was going through. In the last 20 years I have seen many incredible changes produced by truly amazing activists from different movements. However, stories like mine –and many, many other stories of stigma and discrimination, ‘normalizing’ mutilation, rape, pain and silence- keep repeating, in different hospitals in my own country and, most likely, in your country too. We –you, me, all of us- deserve to see the first generation of intersex people fully enjoying their human rights. Let’s work together to make that happen in our lifetime.’ On top of this open discussion of coalition building between trans and intersex people, there is the 2013 Malta Declaration from 30(!) organisations where intersex activists wrote demands for the community at large. One of these demands was ‘to ensure that sex or gender classifications are amendable through a simple administrative procedure at the request of the individuals concerned. All adults and capable minors should be able to choose between female (F), male (M), non-binary or multiple options. In the future, as with race or religion, sex or gender should not be a category on birth certificates or identification documents for anybody.’ So it seems like there is definitely evidence to suggest intersex people are visible within society and can work alongside trans people to meet their goals and support one another.
The next topic that caught my eye was Murray’s inclusion of autogynephilia. He presents it uncritically and seems to make apologies for the outrage it causes as a theory: ‘One of the most striking trends as the trans debate has picked up in recent years is that autogynephilia has come to be severely out of favour.’ He frames the understandable objections of trans people to the idea they are purely sexualised abnormalities as being unreasonable. Although Murray focuses mainly on Michael Bailey’s work within autogynephilia, it would make sense to consider Ray Blanchard’s originating research and why neither of these people should be taken seriously. Blanchard’s fundamental proposal that trans people exist due to a sexual drive e.g., a trans woman wearing a dress to get off, is unfounded and I could spend a lot of time dismantling the theory but there is one aspect in Julia Serano’s critique that got my attention. Blanchard did not control for cis people during his research. He apparently didn’t consider that cis people, particularly cis women, may feel a sense of arousal or sexual thrill from wearing certain clothing that they might find affirming i.e., fancy lingerie or heels. Data from C. Moser showed 65% of cis women surveyed agreed to prompts suggesting arousal from self-contemplation. Serano argues ‘it seems both illogical and needlessly stigmatising to single out trans women as supposedly being ‘autogynephiles’ for having similar erotic experiences (unless, of course, the label is primarily intended to pathologise trans women’s sexualities even when they are female-typical).’ Murray does not spend any time looking at data or studies which undeniably refute autogynephilia but instead clutches his pearls at the protests and hostility towards figures like Bailey who continue to push this reductive and illogical theory. ‘All this happened simply because Bailey had performed detailed research to get to the root of a crucial question and come back with an answer that had just become unpopular. Because for the best part of this century so far the idea that trans is in any way about sexual enjoyment has become an outrage and sexualizing slur.’ Bailey’s research and subsequent findings aren’t just unpopular, they’re incorrect. Murray neglects to consider why it is trans people want to avoid being heavily sexualised outside of the immediate undignified implication. Research from the 2015 U.S Transgender Survey suggests about half of trans people are sexually assaulted. The sexualisation of transgender people is an effort to dehumanise them, keeping them at an objectified distance whilst reaping the satisfaction of sexualising them.
This next section might be my personal favourite. Murray describes the time Ben Shapiro went on a TV panel and was explicitly transphobic not only to Caitlyn Jenner (who wasn’t present) but also another panellist. The human embarrassment that is Ben Shapiro argued everyone was delusional for respecting Jenner’s identity. Despite being reprimanded, Shapiro continued to refer to Jenner using her old pronouns and claimed ‘How he feels on the inside is irrelevant to the question of his biological self.’ He bases this on the argument that all of Jenner’s body was still male. Unsurprisingly Shapiro does not understand the difference between sex and gender, a distinction many scientists and medical professionals have emphasised across studies. The interesting point is even if we consider Jenner’s body or ‘biological self’ to be wholly male, pronouns are a product of linguistics and social construction, they are not innate or objective. When Zoey Tur made the point that chromosomes didn’t necessarily convey someone was either male or female, Shapiro pushed back and referred to her as ‘Sir.’ Once again Murray clutches pearls at the idea that transgender people might get angry when they are mistreated or dehumanised. Tur threatened to put Shapiro in an ambulance if he misgendered her again. This whole episode is treated as something deeply concerning rather than an embarrassing display of bigotry by Shapiro.
A small side note again, Murray’s general writing when referring to trans people seems pretty gross and misinformed. I say this because in sentences like ‘Rather than ‘unlocking’ the intersections of oppression, as the intersectionalists had claimed, trans simultaneously throws their own movement’s aims into the starkest possible relief and produces a veritable pile-up of logical contradictions’, the use of trans as a monolithic entity reads as clumsy and awkward, like someone who hasn’t spent time with trans people or studied trans issues.
Murray talks about the conflict between certain feminist figures and trans people on the grounds of what constitutes a woman. He cites Julie Bindel as concluding an article with a ‘flourish’: ‘‘I don’t have a problem with men disposing of their genitals, but it does not make them women, in the same way that shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s does not make you a man.’’ Ultimately, it’s hard to care what Bindel thinks, she has no scientific basis for this belief. After condemnation of a transphobic comment made by Suzanne Moore, Julie Burchill launched a vicious attack against trans people using terms like ‘‘dicks in chicks’ clothing’ and ‘a bunch of bedwetters in bad wigs.’’ Murray notes that Burchill’s career had suffered from this article, implying that this was potentially wrong. How dare someone suffer the consequences of their actions, I say. Then cometh Germaine Greer. ‘Perhaps the most famous modern feminist of all’, Murray declares. As Murray notes Greer essentially devotes one chapter in a single book to transgender people, unfortunately it’s a series of unfounded and gross opinions. Greer loses the potential favour she once possessed and is denied public talks in some instances. Murray says students at one university ‘didn’t want to hear from the most significant feminist of the late twentieth century.’ I can’t really recall the last time outside of transgender-related controversies that Greer was relevant to contemporary feminism. I’m not disputing at one time she probably had something to say but that time has long since passed. Murray seems to think it’s a sort of betrayal of previous feminist activism to dispose of Greer, but she was by no means the sole figure of the movement. There are many activists preceding and contemporary to Greer that would find her views reductive and useless. Here, I think of Judith Butler, Shulamith Firestone, Simone de Beauvoir, Leslie Feinberg, Sylvia Rivera, and Marsha P. Johnson. Posie Parker (Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull) makes an appearance when she spent £700 hiring a billboard to display the dictionary definition of a woman. Apparently, she was concerned about the word becoming appropriated to mean anything, of course words do tend to change over time and therefore different definitions and requirements come along. Keen-Minshull spends most of her time campaigning against trans people and doesn’t seem to spend any money on fixing women’s, even just cis women’s, issues. She uses the same tired and disproven ideas around trans people being dangerous or predatory to cis women that every transphobe is inclined to use.
Here I want to make another point about the discussion of TERFs or Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists in conflict with trans people. Murray states ‘perhaps the most obvious point of non-overlap with the trans movement is that in many ways trans does not challenge social constructs about gender, but reinforces them.’ Is this true though? Youtuber Blaire White is used as an example of a trans woman with ‘the body type of a sort of teenage male fantasy pin-up woman: all prominent breasts, flicking hair and pouting lips.’ The opposite end of this is activist Jane Fae who knitted during a panel at the University of Manchester. Surely two examples of two diverse representations of transwomen does not a good argument make. Trans people, whether they identify as male or female or non-binary present themselves in all manner of ways. There are trans women with shaved heads, there are trans men with man buns, there are non-binary people with beards and with clean faces. This seems like a pretty flimsy point to raise. People choose to present themselves how they feel best affirms them, it is not stereotyping if there is a broad range of gender expressions on display. Also, surely it is the pinnacle of feminism that a woman or a man or a non-binary person may choose to present themselves how they like. If people want to wear sun dresses and bake cakes why not? If people want to cultivate beards and wear spiky leather jackets good for them. I don’t see the fall of Western Civilisation coming (at least not from the self-determination of every individual in their gender expression).
Next, Murray covers the general representation of trans people in the media and goes onto linking this with trans children. I think the concern Murray raises here is the possibility of detransitioning or regret. He finds it disconcerting that Dr Olson-Kennedy has at times prescribed hormones for children as young as 12. Murray calls Olson-Kennedy ‘dogmatic’ in her beliefs surrounding medical treatment for trans people, which is an interesting characterisation of somebody following the scientific outcomes which overwhelmingly state that those who transition whether with surgery or hormones or both feel no regret. He chides her for her off-hand comments about those who get chest surgery, her argument being ‘‘If you want breasts at a later point in your life you can go and get them.’’ His indignation at this seems fairly irrational: ‘Really? Where? How? Are people like blocks of Lego onto which new pieces can be stuck, taken off and replaced again at will?’ Perhaps a small amount of Googling would have told Murray that people who receive mastectomies can in fact have breast implants, as is evidenced by women who have mastectomies owing to breast cancer. Again, here Murray looks to the exception of those who regret surgery as being the rule. These people who detransition deserve an equal amount of treatment and care as trans people do, but they are in the absolute minority and it would be disingenuous to see their experience as some sort of wider problem within trans discourse. As if to compound Murray’s illiteracy or inability to see the facts, Olson-Kennedy’s study (which he cites), is where I take the overwhelmingly positive outcome of transitioning from.
Towards the end of this chapter, Murray says ‘The demand that everyone should agree to use new gender pronouns and get used to people of the opposite sex being in the same bathrooms is at the relatively frivolous end of the spectrum of demands.’ This is incorrect for many reasons. Using a person’s right pronouns is an obvious step in the right direction considering the major reason for trans people’s potential suicidality is being rejected by society. It is not unreasonable to become accustomed to trans people using the same spaces as cis people. One study shows when framed neutrally, 69% of respondents were supportive of transgender access to their preferred bathrooms. When transgender people were framed as a danger to women or children, the support dropped to 50%. Of course, the important point to note here is that there is no evidence to suggest that trans people pose any significant threat to cis people, if anything they are more likely at risk of attack or assault. It is usually framed as cis women being the victims of trans women yet according to one study cis women actually perceive trans women as less dangerous than cis men do. Not only this, but cis men are more likely to blame trans victims of assault and consider the assault of trans people less severe. Here we see a public perception of trans people (mostly from cis men) which does not correlate with the actual lived experiences of trans people. There is nothing frivolous here about using the right pronouns or allowing trans people into the same spaces as cis people.
The final point I will highlight is a very small section on non-binary and gender fluid people which I think is where Murray shoots himself in the foot. For some reason Murray claims that non-binary and gender fluid people as ‘concepts’ have been invented from the atmosphere of trans discourse where cis people are not allowed to speak or object. Here, he is essentially arguing non-binary and gender fluid people exist because cis people can’t criticise trans people without being publicly shamed for it. Murray literally began this chapter with a history of non-binary and genderfluid people from varying cultures throughout history! Does he not remember when he wrote this? Non-binary and genderfluid people aren’t new, Douglas, you acknowledged this!!! He claims that the BBC video (you can find on YouTube) called Things Not to Say to a Non-Binary Person is just attention-seeking on the trans people’s part, but it’s a film that’s meant to raise awareness about a misunderstood demographic. That’s why they’re being filmed! The mind boggles.
Murray concludes ‘The problem at present is not the disparity, but the certainty – the spurious certainty with which an unbelievably unclear issue is presented as though it was the clearest and best understood thing imaginable.’ As has been the case throughout the chapter, here when Murray argues that certainty on trans issues is spurious, he is suggesting that the vast majority of scientific literature which supports trans adults and youth is invalid on…some grounds? Of course, there is more research to be done and is being conducted all the time, but so far the scientists and medical professionals who are proponents of trans rights do so with full knowledge of the ongoing literature. Maybe next time Murray should cite some.
What is a poem? Is it heightened language? When is a poem not a poem? When it is prose? What if poetry and prose can be one? Does verse still have merit in ultramodernity? Does poetry have merit? Is beauty attainable? Is beauty taken to be the inherent goal of poetry? Can something be beautiful and anti-beautiful? Is poetry refined streams of consciousness?
What is the voice in poetry? Is it plural? Does a poem stand on its own? Or does it co-operate and form a wider collection of text? Is it useful to question poetry? Is a poem for me or for you?
Does a poem have to constitute cohesive language? Can it possess narrative? Is this a short story on fast forward? Does a poem have characters? Or setting?
Is a poem airing one’s dirty laundry? Is it airing someone else’s? Should poetry be therapy or a diary or neither? Does one write poetry to uplift or undermine the art?
Can a poem contain positive substance? Does anger come across in poetry? Should an overall emotion be clear? Does poetry ask anything or does it answer something?
If a poem incorporates sound does it become music? Doesn’t poetry inherently incorporate sound? Would a series of pictures qualify as poetry? When is somebody a poet?
Who is the poet and who is the voice? If you have to imagine, would a cat or a dog be more likely to read poetry? What about write it? When is the best time to write? In the morning? At noon? After supper? In the dead of night?
Does poetry come out fresh on the page as concise and refined text or does it start life as a probing mass? Is poetry better when it is shorter or longer?
Can a poem convey the season without mentioning it by name? What does it mean to be timeless? Or is everything only of its time? Is poetry of the bourgeoisie or is it in the contemporary moment classless?
Is a poem over at the final line or does its indentation in our minds prolong its life? Which words belong to whom? Is it okay to borrow? Do you discern this from stealing?
If a poem can be a declaration of love or an attempt at seduction can it also act as an apology? Can a poem inspire revolution? Is it better suited to stuff the neck of a petrol bomb? When is erotic poetry effective?
Is it better to adhere to known form or to attempt utter newness? Is new possible after modernity? Should you write drunk and edit sober or never start drinking and never stop writing? Can writing produce pleasure akin to alcohol?
Is a poem more like a Moscow Mule or a pint of bitter? Does ekphrasis illuminate the original piece of art? Can one commodify the poem? Does commercial poetry exist? Is this agreeable or objectionable?
Is it rewarding to see a relative or a stranger cry reading your poetry? Do you show your poetry or keep it your dirty little secret? Does it matter if a poem is conceived on paper, phone, or computer?
What is the relationship between poetry and philosophy if any at all? If one wanted to write poetry should one also write in conjunction a novel? If a novelist writes poetry would it undermine the poet? If one is a novelist and a poet is one a writer?
Is poetry an exercise in thought? Is it necessary to play with language? Is it possible to un-play with language? Should poetry possess moral character? How much poetry should a poet read?
How do you justify the imagery deployed in poetry? Does inconsistency work? Is purposefully confounding the reader clever or annoying or elitist? Is there an end to poetry? Would it be with a bang or with a whimper? If poetry meets its end has humanity gone the same way?
I don’t think anyone would contest that 2020 has been a strange and exhausting experience so far. The thing that has suffused our recent, collective history and our daily experiences has of course been Coronavirus. We are all sick of it, so to speak. The science on Coronavirus is in parts sketchy, we are still getting to grips with the disease and how to combat it. There have been human trials ongoing throughout the summer and talk of a possible vaccine by the end of the year, although this seems to be viewed with scepticism. At the time of writing, there have been over 40 million cases of Coronavirus worldwide with over 1 million deaths. In the UK, there has been nearly 800,000 cases and over 40,000 deaths. In America, there has been over 8.5 million cases and over 227,000 deaths. With these numbers it’s hard to dispute the gravity of the situation except…some people appear to be doing just that, including the President of the United States. How reassuring.
A certain word has been thrown around social media in relation to Coronavirus: Plandemic. It is an incredulity by the population with our leaders and with the media that by way of conspiracy theory they have concluded the pandemic is a means of societal control à la 1984. I think the root of this distrust of authority comes from a place of genuine neglect on the part of the people in positions of power. That is not to say that outrageous conspiracy theories can solely be blamed on the people at the top, scientific education and critical thinking are two disciplines that need to be better instilled amongst populations. I am not advocating for thought-control or strict party lines, only that we should focus ever more on discerning and refuting fake news.
The origin of the term Plandemic, as far as I can see, is with the documentary, ‘Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind COVID-19.’ The video was taken down from Youtube and Facebook but had already accrued millions of views. Judy Mikovits, a discredited doctor, is the central voice of the documentary and proceeds to make numerous false claims such as the virus being manipulated in a laboratory, that hydroxychloroquine is effective against the virus family, and that wearing a mask ‘activates’ your own virus. Mikovits isn’t merely some scientifically incorrect eccentric, she’s an opportunist who works for dubious medical companies and organisations that prey on desperate and sick people. Leonid Schneider, writing at For Better Science, extensively documents her career and highlights the many job roles she has had including but not limited to Genyous Biomed International which peddled Traditional Chinese Medicine as cancer cures by rebranding them ‘with more clinical-sounding titles to increase their credibility.’
Perhaps Mikovits is an exception, who else would take her or any of these claims seriously? In March, Donald Trump touted hydroxychloroquine (a malaria drug) as a possible treatment for Coronavirus despite there being negligible evidence that the drug was effective. The danger of this careless statement resulted in panic buying of the drug meaning people who required it as a form of regular medication were finding it more difficult to obtain, as noted by Mendel, Bernatsky, Thorne, et al. for the British Medical Journal. Not only this but one man in America died from consuming a parasite treatment intended for fish because it contained chloroquine phosphate. Clearly the discourse surrounding Coronavirus and potential treatments can be dangerous. If this needs further testimony, Trump reported to be taking doses of hydroxychloroquine to ward off the virus before then contracting it at the beginning of October. The White House’s flouting of safety guidelines at public events and downplaying the severity of the virus made for a potent combination which undoubtedly led to Trump taking ill.
A concern I want to raise is the presence of the QAnon conspiracy, a product of Trump’s rise to power, that seems to have married into Coronavirus denialism. If postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism as Frederic Jameson claims, then with QAnon comes the most postmodern type of belief system. The followers believe shadowy satanic paedophiles control society and that Trump is going to bring them all down in ‘the Storm’, an event quintessential to any good doomsday cult. The anonymous Q, propagator of the namesake conspiracy, leaves breadcrumbs of information for followers to pore over and interpret, essentially allowing any conclusion desirable to be made.
It makes sense that this outlandish conspiracy does merge with Coronavirus denialism, as I said before there seems to be a distrust of governments regarding the coronavirus response, at least from my perspective of the American and British landscapes. The merge begins when QAnon followers and adjacent conspiracy theorists claim that the virus and all the government action is a way of covering up the ongoing elite paedophile ring. The problem here is that not only is the virus very much real and very serious, but there is no elite paedophile ring, at least not one that controls all of society as we know it. There are undoubtedly paedophiles in the top echelons of society, Jimmy Saville’s fetid presence still lingers in the public conscience, and Jeffrey Epstein’s suspicious death and extensive network is fresh on everyone’s minds. Child abuse and assault are violent issues that must be combatted at all levels of society, that it occurs at the top is not especially significant except that sometimes the rich get away with it. If I could cast any doubt on the QAnon conspiracy, it would be that child sexual abuse is often committed by individuals known to the victims, only 7% of the time are the perpetrators strangers. I also find it interesting that the people who want to bring the elite paedophile ring to justice rely on Trump to do this task. Trump has been accused by at least 26 women of sexual misconduct, not only this but he had close ties with Jeffrey Epstein and had a lawsuit brought against him for the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1994. The lawsuit was dropped after the victim had received numerous threats in the same manner of many of Trump’s other accusers. This is the man who will pull back the curtain and expose the paedophiles in the Democratic Party and Hollywood. I wait with bated breath.
There has been a long diversion here and for that I’m sorry. I have made visible a small fragment of the varying discourses and claims that interlink and undermine the safety of ourselves and society. Governments need to be challenged and there does need to open debate about policies and abuses of power. However, the charlatans behind Plandemic, Trump, QAnon, none of these groups or figures are the way to go about it. I’ve seen QAnon spread to the UK and it is a scary thing to behold. Ultimately these ideas play on people’s fears and doubts, much in the way that Judy Mikovits and her colleagues profit from rebranded Traditional Chinese Medicine.
In a discussion (argument) on Facebook, a man criticised my cautionary stance by mentioning some 12,000 scientists and doctors who warned against using masks or going into lockdown. The closest thing Google could throw up was the Great Barrington Declaration, and what a great declaration it is. The Declaration calls for herd immunity as a way of combatting the virus, although there are two interesting points to this document as noted by Nafeez Ahmed. Firstly, the vetting process for signing the Declaration seems next to non-existent so anyone can claim to be a medical professional. Secondly, the funding for the meeting that sparked the Declaration was from the American Institute for Economic Research, a beneficiary of none other than billionaire Charles Koch, the man behind much of America’s climate denial discourse. I am sure he and all the libertarian think tanks he props up with oil money has the population’s best interests at heart when he wants people to get back to work. But that’s just rude. Surely nobody in Britain acted dangerously in order to pursue financial and political gain during a pandemic?
The Coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, China, late last year. By the end of January, the World Health Organisation had declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, a declaration usually considered a last resort and one that states have a legal duty to respond to under the International Health Regulations. Sadly, Johnson neglected to attend five consecutive Cobra meetings in January and February but did find time to host a Chinese New Year reception at Downing Street. Maybe it’s cynical to assume this was a trade-related move and not a celebration of culture. In a speech at Greenwich on British trade deals, Johnson outlined that Britain must be the Superman-like figure of trade contrasting those who have ‘a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage’ in the face of the virus.
The UK went into lockdown at the end of March and some people question whether the country should have shut down sooner. I think a clear symptom of the government’s incompetence in the face of the virus is the inability of them to settle on what day lockdown started: was it the 16th March? the 23rd March? Matt Hancock and his colleagues had differing opinions it seemed. Regardless of when exactly it started there is a general sense that Johnson was staving off the lockdown for as long as possible for economic purposes. The case that lockdown measures were lifted early for economic growth is easier to see as much of the rhetoric around it was business-charged. Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme did in the short-term aid businesses across the country although during this period of eased restrictions Coronavirus cases were on the rise again. Multiple factors come into this naturally but the nationwide de-escalation of lockdown and the growing confidence in returning to a sense of normality cannot be discounted.
My focus on the economic factors around Coronavirus is because there is a true antagonism in society that isn’t between us regular people and elite paedophile rings. It’s those who have and those who have not. A report from UBS highlights that billionaire wealth soared between April and July, a time in which many people were struggling either to hold onto work or find new work, and even having to dig into their savings to get by. Coronavirus denialism and QAnon conspiracy theories are useful strategies for the wealthy elite, they engineer the population to get back to working and to consuming, and they drive clefts into the possibilities of solidarity amongst all of us who might wish to make the ongoing crisis better. The people who believe in stuff like QAnon come from a place of sincere concern and presently if they wish to ‘save our children’, they could start nowhere more perfect than with the Tories having just voted down on providing free school meals for children over holidays. The free meals would benefit 1.4 million children across the UK, the government can prioritise getting people to eat in restaurants again but when it comes to the wellbeing of children where there may be no immediate financial gain, they are not concerned. At the time of writing, Coronavirus cases are still on an upward trend, the end is by no means in sight. At least the conspiracy theorists seem to come from a place of care, the government doesn’t give a shit.