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

(A)politics: A Cheap Negation

Introduction

Politics is controversial, and tiring, and dull, and sometimes horrific, and on rare occasions it offers a little reassurance. Politics is also important – it dictates almost the totality of our existence, to pretend otherwise is either ignorant or disingenuous. To neglect politics is to obfuscate the allocation and dictation of resources and relations which we live our lives by. To be politically indifferent is to stand back and allow the disenfranchised to be further discriminated against and policed in misery. To be weary of politics and to choose to drown it out is to be either extremely privileged or unfortunately foolish.

No Society, Not Ever

Margaret Thatcher once said in a 1987 issue of Women’s Own that there is no such thing as society. Perhaps you agree with this sentiment, perhaps you do not. I think the most charitable interpretation that can be made from this claim is that individual responsibility exists. Certainly, we are all individuals, and all possess varying degrees of autonomy; we all make decisions, though the caveat is that we make these decisions in specific circumstances. A belief that we are all purely individuals, that politically enforced patterns of behaviour do not, cannot exist, is a major aspect of what I deem to be the (A)political ideology.

            I am from a white lower middle-class family in a majority white county of a majority white country. My experiences may differ to various minorities, whether they were born here or migrated from another country. As individuals however, we all must make decisions when it comes to employment, though our choices in employment may differ. My education has been stable, my family’s finances are secure, and I am less likely to be hampered by state apparatuses like the police. I did nothing personally to arrive into this position, I was merely born into it (a phrasing that will return in a more regretful sense). I recognise the privileges that afford me on average more socioeconomic safety than people of minority backgrounds.

            (A)politics in following Thatcher, would not recognise the varying material circumstances that dictate my position in society juxtaposed with that of someone who may be subject to racism. Professor Tricia Rose, Director of Brown University’s Centre for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, delivered a lecture on structural racism, discussing its obfuscation by colour-blindness. Colour-blindness is a magnificent tool of the enlightened (A)political, it marks them at once as appearing rationally indiscriminate whilst usefully (for themselves) stripping each individual of their socio-racial matrix and ignoring wider patterns of behaviour and events within society. If you blot out most of the evidence of there being a problem, how can there be one?

Get Your Politics Out of My Escapist Media

Reality, as each of us individually perceive it, is an ideological construction whereby we explain individual actions and events through certain belief systems which allow us to process them. For the (A)political, their reality is one in which the Other is political yet they themselves remain thoroughly not political. The (A)political believes themselves to be above politics, they see themselves as the models of the world, and so if anything, foreign or (say) Other were to come into the foreground it would create disharmony. They believe culture and politics to be very distant spheres and they seethe at the idea that political agents are tainting culture with their ideologies and agendas.

            The (A)political generally exists within the status quo (a placement they might argue against), and as such all that generally makes up the status quo is non-political, whilst any departure from it is obviously political. For the (A)political, if they see a white man and woman sharing a kiss in a film, they will see this as just a kiss, but when it is an interracial or same-sex or queer couple, it is an upsetting and subversive political act. Of course you can argue that the latter representations are political, the reason one might deem the Other’s presence as being political is precisely because they are politicised, their existences are controlled and enforced in ways the (A)political has not experienced or perhaps if they have experienced similar control they do not grasp it as political as such. But we must also see that of course there is something political about white heterosexuals kissing, it is a representation of certain people and not others (Others).

            The big problem for the (A)political is nearly all cultural texts are inscribed with politics, either implicitly or explicitly, so what exactly is there for them to enjoy? They just want to relax, they will watch something political but will be blind to its politics, ingesting them without further thought.

You Noticing My Politics is Boring in Our Tolerant, Lovely Country

In January, actor Laurence Fox (for some reason) appeared on Question Time and got into a heated exchange with an audience member about racism. She made the claim that the treatment of Meghan Markle by the press was racist, to which he responded that Britain is the ‘most tolerant, lovely country in Europe.’ If we consider how the press discussed Meghan Markle when she and Prince Harry were first publicly dating, words like ‘exotic’ and ‘blood’ were bandied about by the right-wing press. If Markle is Othered in such frank terms of ‘exoticness’ when she has done nothing more controversial than enter a relationship with Prince Harry, then what might we say the same right-wing, pro-monarchy press will be like when the pair are stepping back from royal duties?

I cannot claim Fox is purely (A)political nor would I want to, but in this one fixed moment of broadcast television he exemplifies the (A)political par excellence. He claims Britain is the ‘most tolerant, lovely country in Europe’, but that doesn’t seem like a particularly weighty achievement. We still have institutional racism here in Britain, Black and Muslim minorities are twice as likely to be unemployed as white people and are significantly more subject to police stops. Minorities are still subject to harassment and violence that is racially-motivated. Britain being the most tolerant country in Europe does not end the argument that there is still work to be done when it comes to racial justice.

Fox sees problems of racism not in any institutional form but only as individual issues, if a minority is attacked in this country it is not part of a wider issue for Fox. He is the perpetrator of Tricia Rose’s colour-blindness, if a minority lacks the same opportunities as those around them, it cannot be part of a pattern, it’s just some inexplicable state of being. Fox says we need to combat racism when we see it, but what he means by this is when one very explicit racist does something very obviously racist we slap them on the wrists without investigating further the root causes of the racism. Racism is just an individual failing for Fox. The audience member he was arguing with pointed out Fox is a ‘white, privileged male’ and he responded in turn that he ‘can’t help what I am, I was born like this, it was an immutable characteristic.’ The (A)political here is the inability to see one’s own identity as being on par with that of others. Of course, Fox cannot help being born white, nor more than I can or anyone else. What he can do however is consider how his whiteness makes him subject to different experiences to that of non-whites. The cries of racism bore Fox. I will charitably say that dealing with issues such as racism are tiring, they are not comfortable things when you have to maybe re-consider your world view and actively make changes to try and benefit society around you and yourself. Calling out racism, however, should not bore you. The presence of racism should incite outrage and a willingness to view events more widely than what is presented directly in front of us. Until the (A)political can grasp the larger structural issues at play around and within them, they will continually be confused as to why all these individual incidents keep occurring and why very few of their more diverse friends are calling anymore.

Conclusion

(A)politics is not a true negation of politics, rather just a distorted, often incoherent version of it. The adage that ignorance is bliss has some truth to it when it comes to engaging with politics, it can be harrowing and disillusioning to be involved in contemporary politics at any level above that of (A)politics. We have to transcend this lackadaisical attitude to issues such as institutional racism if we hope to build a better world on the basis of a wealth of academic consensus that point to our numerous and present failings.

In the long term it is beneficial to the (A)political to recognise the need to become truly political so that they can perceive for themselves their own alienation within the political system. What I mean by this is that to be (A)political is to be alienated but unable to precisely trace this alienation. Nothing sounds worse than being trapped and unable to properly utilise language which accounts for one’s own state of being in a coherent manner to those around you. We are all individuals with thoughts and feelings, but if we do not learn to analyse and critique the systems that we uphold and are governed by, we will continue to discriminate against vulnerable classes of our society and face the consequences whenever they bubble upward. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘a riot is the language of the unheard.’ Listening and understanding is in the world’s best interest.  

Further Reading:

Abbie Bray, ‘Question Time flooded with 250 complaints after Laurence Fox’s controversial race row about Meghan Markle.’ Available at: https://metro.co.uk/2020/01/24/question-time-flooded-250-complaints-laurence-foxs-controversial-race-row-meghan-markle-12114511/

Anthony Heath and Lindsay Richards, ‘How racist is Britain today? What the evidence tells us.’ Available at: https://theconversation.com/how-racist-is-britain-today-what-the-evidence-tells-us-141657

Jules Holroyd, ‘Implicit racial bias and the anatomy of institutional racism.’ Available at: https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/publications/cjm/article/implicit-racial-bias-and-anatomy-institutional-racism

David Lammy, ‘The Lammy Report: An independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the Criminal Justice System.’ Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/643001/lammy-review-final-report.pdf

Tricia Rose, ‘How Structural Racism Works: Tricia Rose.’ Accessible at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KT1vsOJctMk

Gary Younge, ‘Waking up to the realities of racism in the UK.’ Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/b51d534f-5515-4717-a1e3-866f39955d8f