Categories
Politics

Swimming Lessons for Statues: British History as Abstraction

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?

Further Reading:

Boris Johnson on BBC Proms and British history:
https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/boris-johnson-uk-embarassed-history-proms-row-a4532761.html
UK Compensating Kenyan Torture Victims:
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/06/uk-compensate-kenya-mau-mau-torture#:~:text=Britain%20is%20to%20pay%20out,%2C%20William%20Hague%2C%20has%20said.&text=%22We%20understand%20the%20pain%20and,events%20of%20emergency%20in%20Kenya
Ben Bradley on National Trust:
https://www.indy100.com/news/tory-mp-slavery-ben-bradley-national-trust-9724954
National Trust Report:
https://nt.global.ssl.fastly.net/documents/colionialism-and-historic-slavery-report.pdf
Edward Colston Statue and Bristol Council:
https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/second-colston-statue-plaque-not-2682813
Save Our Statues Website:
https://saveourstatues.org.uk/our-cause/#issue
‘A bat signal has gone out to Britain’s proud patriots: Save Our Statues’:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/10/britain-statues-edward-colston-bristol-slaver
Abolition and Republicanism over the Transatlantic Long Term, 1640-1800:
https://journals.openedition.org/lrf/1690
Equality and Human Rights Commission Statistics on Race:
https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/race-report-statistics

Categories
Politics

Plandemic: Covid, Conspiracy, and Child Abuse

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.

I

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.

II

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?

III

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.

Further Reading:

Nafeez Ahmed, Climate Science Denial Network Behind Great Barrington Declaration, Byline Times. Available at: https://bylinetimes.com/2020/10/09/climate-science-denial-network-behind-great-barrington-declaration/

Pippa Allen-Kinross, When did lockdown begin in the UK?, Full Fact. Available at: https://fullfact.org/health/coronavirus-lockdown-hancock-claim/

Nisreen A. Alwen, Rochelle Ann Burgess, Simon Ashworth, et al., Scientific consensus on the COVID-19 pandemic: we need to act now, The Lancet. Available at: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)32153-X/fulltext

Rory Carroll, Woman accusing Trump of raping her at 13 cancels her plan to go public, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/02/donald-trump-rape-lawsuit-13-year-old-cancels-public-event

Stephanie Cockroft and Rebecca Speare-Cole, Trafalgar Square anti-lockdown protest shut down by police after thousands of maskless demonstrators ignore social distancing, Evening Standard. Available at: https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/trafalgar-square-antilockdown-protest-thousands-a4556931.html

Erika Edwards and Vaughn Hillyard, Man dies after taking chloroquine in an attempt to prevent coronavirus, NBC News. Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/man-dies-after-ingesting-chloroquine-attempt-prevent-coronavirus-n1167166

Daniel Funke, Fact-checking ‘Plandemic’: A documentary full of false conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, Politifact. Available at: https://www.politifact.com/article/2020/may/08/fact-checking-plandemic-documentary-full-false-con/

Oliver Gadney, Aline Haerri, Annegret Meier, et al., Riding the storm: Market turbulence accelerates diverging fortunes, UBS. Available at: https://www.ubs.com/content/dam/static/noindex/wealth-management/ubs-billionaires-report-2020-spread.pdf

Sara Hiom, How coronavirus is impacting cancer services in the UK, Cancer Research UK. Available at: https://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2020/04/21/how-coronavirus-is-impacting-cancer-services-in-the-uk/

Boris Johnson, Boris Johnson: Britain must become the Superman of global free trade, The Spectator. Available at: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/boris-johnson-britain-must-become-the-superman-of-global-free-trade

Brendan Joel Kelly and Hatewatch Staff, QAnon Conspiracy Increasingly Popular with Antigovernment Extremists, Southern Poverty Law Center. Available at: https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2019/04/23/qanon-conspiracy-increasingly-popular-antigovernment-extremists

Arielle Mendel, Sasha Bernatsky, J. Carter Thorne, et al., Hydroxychloroquine shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic, British Medical Journal. Available at: https://ard.bmj.com/content/early/2020/05/20/annrheumdis-2020-217835.full

Maria Nicola, Zaid Alsafi, Catrin Sohrabi, et al., The socio-economic implications of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19): A review, US National Institute of Health. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7162753/

Toby Phillips, Eat Out to Help Out: crowded restaurants may have driven UK coronavirus spike – new findings, The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/eat-out-to-help-out-crowded-restaurants-may-have-driven-uk-coronavirus-spike-new-findings-145945

RAINN, Children and Teens: Statistics, Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Available at: https://www.rainn.org/statistics/children-and-teens

Eliza Relman, The 26 women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/women-accused-trump-sexual-misconduct-list-2017-12?r=US&IR=T

Leonid Schneider, Judy Mikovits’ Plandemic COVID-portunism, For Better Science. Available at: https://forbetterscience.com/2020/06/24/judy-mikovits-plandemic-covid-portunism/

Will Sommer, What Is QAnon? The Craziest Theory of the Trump Era, Explained, Daily Beast. Available at: https://www.thedailybeast.com/what-is-qanon-the-craziest-theory-of-the-trump-era-explained

Peter Walker, Boris Johnson missed five coronavirus Cobra meetings, Michael Gove says, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/19/michael-gove-fails-to-deny-pm-missed-five-coronavirus-cobra-meetings

Ollie Williams, Post-Coronavirus The Rich Will Get Richer From Rising Inequality, Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/oliverwilliams1/2020/06/24/post-coronavirus-the-rich-will-get-richer-from-rising-inequality/#680f5aa4774a

Zoey Williams, How out of touch are the Tories? The free school meals row tells you everything you need to know, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/oct/23/how-out-of-touch-are-the-tories-the-free-school-meals-row-tells-you-everything-you-need-to-know