The Referendum Wasn’t Real

This is my 100th post and I’d planned the title to be “what’s the point of this blog?” and given the UK’s decision to leave the EU I think my comments on that might answer the question anyway. But, first things first, the Referendum wasn’t real, what’s that all about? OK. It was real, devastatingly so. It is already having vast emotional, social and economic ramifications. As Britain ‘goes it alone’ the pound has plummeted in value, the economy is wobbling and a shift to the right in mainstream politics is underway with the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove vying for power. Extremist right-wing parties like Ukip and their European counterparts are claiming this as a victory for xenophobia and hate. We’ve even recently witnessed one act of right-wing terrorism claim a life, that of Jo Cox. Uncertainty is rising as hope takes a blow to the chest. Yet, for all this, how can I claim the Referendum wasn’t real?

Because from the outset it was a farce. Firstly, democracy was boiled down to a single multiple choice question with only two answers, In or Out, that few people had actually wanted to be put to the public. This doesn’t respect the multi-faceted and multi-partied nature of our democracy it just promotes further divide and hostility as friends and families suddenly found themselves forced to pick a side. And asides for a select few bureaucrats in Brussels and maybe one or two British politicians no one, absolutely no one (myself very much included) could vote with a sufficient degree of knowledge – there are documents of tens of thousands of pages outlying all the treaties and clauses amassed over the decades Britain has been part of the EU and I certainly haven’t read them all. It’s funny that people were suddenly and arbitrarily forced to get knowledgeable and passionate about something they had not seemed to care that much about before.

Meanwhile, people who’ve lived in this country and contributed to its economy for longer than I’ve been alive weren’t allowed to vote. Teenagers weren’t allowed to vote even though they have more future to lose than the rest of us voters. Both campaigns used tactics of fear, hate and misinformation (aka lies) to cajole and manipulate. We’ve already seen Nigel Farage swiftly distance himself from the Leave pledge of £350 million to the NHS (but did we really think neoliberal parties would do an about turn on their views of the welfare state?). There were campaign posters that bore too much resemblance to ones used by Nazis and the media played on xenophobia, fear and outdated nationalistic sentiments to make people think that voting in the referendum was the equivalent to taking some sort of significant stand (it wasn’t, it just makes it easier for the rich to get richer whilst deepening austerity and rolling back the welfare state). Somehow the woes of neoliberal, consumer capitalism (see the rest of this blog for criticisms on that) were landed on the heads of some of the most powerless, namely refugees and immigrants, and a bunch of pro-establishment, old-Eatonians managed to dupe large chunks of the country into thinking voting Leave would lead us into a wonderful British revolution rather than entrenching inequality and recession. That being said, lots of utopic left wingers were somehow led to believe Brexit would yield a land of milk, honey and socialism (my fingers are still crossed). And let’s not forget why this referendum even happened in the first place: because David Cameron wanted to be Prime Minister and he needed the support of his more right-wing back benchers to get it, so he promised them a referendum to appease them rather than having the courage to say ‘no’ (he put it on our heads instead). That’s not democracy, that’s cynical party politics at the public’s expense.

So, yes, the referendum is real and it has happened and this is a rallying call for anyone of whatever political persuasion and however they voted in the referendum to choose peace and oppose the rise of extremism and the violence that goes with it. But, no, the origins of this referendum were neither hopeful nor fair nor democratic. So whatever people say, this was not a victory for the British and the public have not spoken because there was only 1% in it. Like austerity, the referendum is a story wrapped around an agenda. Many desperately believe in it, many just cynically use it to get more power, many misguidedly want it to become true in ways it never will but it is not ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’ it is just one story among many. Unfortunately, it is a very powerful story and its repercussions will prove fatal for many. But Britain has survived two world wars and I think we can survive this too. Now here’s Lady Gaga because why not 😉

Tiny Violins For White People

Countless tiny violins are playing for offended white people all over the world. First, there was Charlotte Rampling saying that “it is racist to whites” to suggest that decades of institutionalised racism have yet again resulted in no people of colour being nominated for Oscars. Then there was Michael Caine reminding us that it took him “years to get an Oscar, years” so it’s only right that people of colour should “be patient” and wait their turn. And, finally, there are the many white people outraged that Beyoncé should use her latest music video to highlight the racism and abuse that black people continue to face in today’s society. I’m getting a bit bored of trying to encourage fellow white people to see things differently (cue my own tiny violin) but here goes.

Charlotte Rampling: As a female actor who rose to fame during the sixties she no doubt encountered an awful lot of sexism. An industry that is still predicated on the objectification and demeaning of women was surely worse back then. So kudos to Rampling for pushing through. However, even if my speculations are right and she did face discrimination this is no excuse to ignore the struggles of others as she willfully ignores the prejudice facing people of colour. “One can never really know, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final [Oscars] list,” said Rampling whilst discussing the boycott of the current Academy Awards. If the consequences of ignorance weren’t so grave this would be laughable – to actually think the Academy Awards are based on an objective judgement of acting talent carried out by unbiased judges behind closed doors is ridiculous. No, the predominantly white people who form the panel are just as likely to suffer from the prejudices and bigotry that run through all sectors of society resulting in biased behaviour. Sorry Rampling, you may be a good actor but you’re not that good and actors of colour aren’t that bad either.

Fortunately, Rampling issued a statement in which she clarified her position. Whilst not explicitly apologising she did say she regrets what she said. “I simply meant to say that in an ideal world every performance will be given equal opportunities for consideration.” Yes, but come on Rampling, we don’t live in an ideal society and crass comments about how talentless actors of colour are for which you don’t apologise form part of what doesn’t make it ideal.

Michael Caine: When it comes to winning awards, to suggest that people of colour need to “be patient” and hold tight until the Academy deigns them worthy is a right slap in the face. Caine is an individual actor of arguable talent whilst people of colour represent an absolutely vast talent pool. For Caine, as a privileged white male who will never have had to experience the sort of racism that people of colour have faced and do face in the film industry, to compare his situation with that of people of colour is ludicrous. Why doesn’t he hand over his awards to some of the many overlooked and discriminated against yet hugely talented actors of colour? Come on Caine, it’s time to step up by stepping down.

Formation by Beyoncé: Centuries of slavery and oppression meant black people were treated abysmally in the States and all over the world. Whilst slavery might have been abolished in the US its legacies of violence, prejudice and ignorance live on. It’s time white people acknowledged this history and recognised that we still benefit from huge amounts of white privilege (what’s white privilege? Check out this cartoon). Questioning this privilege means redistributing it in such a way that we can all be empowered – so it works out better for all of us, yes, even white people. Sure, it’s going to be tough for us whites to accept that an awful lot of violence has been and is still perpetrated in our name, often by us, but this will never be as tough as actually experiencing that violence. I could go on but Beyoncé’s latest video speaks for itself.

You Can’t Stop The Beat Of Equality

Fascists painting swastikas in blood on the sides of buses during an anti-refugee march in Dover. Rich Oxford University alumni threatening to write Oriel College out of their wills if the college removes a statue of the racist Cecil Rhodes. Mega-corporations getting away with avoiding paying billions of pounds worth of tax during a time of austerity and increasing inequality. Sometimes, maybe always, it seems like the world is going to pot and that the bad guys really will win. And whilst I don’t think equality and justice are guarantors but are contracts in need of endless renewal, in the same way the social fabric is a patchwork in need of constant darning, I do know that despite all the hatred out there it is so much easier being nice. Plus, nice people get a better soundtrack.

Bigotry is hard work. As the Red Queen boasts to Alice that she can believe six impossible things before breakfast so too must bigots juggle all sorts of contradictions and paradoxes in order to justify their narrow-mindedness. For example, one of the fascists who marched in Dover yesterday has to believe that certain groups of people are inferior whilst demanding that they themselves, and the people they care about, are superior. It tends to be one rule for them and one rule for me (and my family). A fascist also has to believe that our economic problems can be blamed on migrants and refugees, meaning they get to scapegoat the vulnerable whilst not bothering to question the economic and political realities that keeps a constant stream of wealth and power flowing to the elite minority at the expense of the majority (a majority that they are part of!). On the other hand, it’s much easier for a nice person who realises that nothing makes anyone inherently better or worse than anyone else and so doesn’t need to expend lots of energy discriminating against certain groups. They can also google around the issues of inequality rather than just accept what the newspapers tell them. At the end of the day (and at the start of it) love is a much more sustainable energy source than hate.

And nice people get a much better soundtrack. Take You Can’t Stop The Beat that ends the ace musical Hairspray (big spoilers by the way, equality wins). All the characters, even the baddies, shake their booty to a song that relishes the striving for so many forms of equality – between people of different races, skin colours and body shapes. “You can try to stop the paradise we’re dreaming of,” they sing, and of course (as Taylor Swift also told us) haterz gonna hate, because that’s what haters do. But “you can’t stop today as it comes speeding down the track,” sings Queen Latifah, “Child, yesterday is history and it’s never coming back.” And she’s right, today is zooming straight at us like a highspeed train and we get to choose whether it’s a train that runs people over or if it’s some awesome party train to which all are invited (rehabilitated fascists included). Because when it comes down to it hate and love are choices, and as difficult as we might find it to choose the latter, there’s still time to learn (trust me, it’ll be fun). And so concludes my blog about being nice – perhaps just an excuse to post this awesome song which does what this blog does anyway but too a far catchier tune (Spanish subtitles included).

Quentin Letts And The Right To Bigotry

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” said Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an English writer of the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a nice summary of the principle of freedom of speech – i.e. we’re all free to say what we like and anything that curbs that freedom is a form of censorship and an abuse of our rights.

Well, I disapprove of what Quentin Letts had to say about the latest series of The Great British Bake Off, and whilst I’m probably not going to risk my life so he can repeat it I do wish to explain exactly why I disapprove in the hope that he’ll be less likely to say it again. To clarify, I am most certainly not advocating censorship, far from it, I think it better that the views of Letts are aired precisely so we can challenge them and in doing so maybe even inspire him to be a little less of a bigot.

He begins by describing the different contestants that have been chosen for the sixth series of Bake Off. He notes that one of them is Muslim and wears a headscarf, one is a house husband, another is a female vegan bodybuilder from Lithuania, one of the men has tattoos and wears a hat, one of them is Afro-Caribbean, there’s one on a gap year, at least one of the contestants lives in the north of England, there’s a British-Asian male and another man originally from the Philippines.

This might sound like an exciting and interesting group of people who we can look forward to getting to know as the series progresses but not for Letts. What he takes umbrage with is the very diversity that the contestants represent. He considers this part of a grand political conspiracy as perpetrated by the BBC, in his own (far too easily parodied) words: “a leaning to modernity, to fashion, to ‘the alternative’, the ‘different’, sometimes for reasons of group-think, sometimes out of a desire to jack up the ratings in the manner of a commercial TV station. It is in keeping with the creed of egalitarianism. It is deeply unconservative.” No doubt it’s political correctness gone mad, something he writes about in his book Bog Standard Britain as crushing “the individualism from our nation of once indignant eccentrics.”

Of course, Letts’ version of individualism (and conservatism) is of a particular hue: namely white. He makes it pretty clear that in his world it’s not Muslims or Lithuanians that bake but homosexual men or older, white, middle-aged women (“mum-next-doorish” types as he describes). As a white, middle class male Letts has the privilege of being one of the most represented groups in mainstream culture (and history in general), so it’s no surprise that he gets a bit uppity when suddenly there are fewer people like him appearing on his favourite television shows. He wants to see more “humdrum, plain-as-white-flour, Middle-English bumblers” (nice to see him appealing to the casual bigotry of equally insecure Middle-Englanders, that infamous squeezed middle beset upon by socialist loons, crafty immigrants and vicious feminists). His privilege is being undermined and whilst this is a good thing because it represents power being more equally distributed and an increase in equality all Letts wants to do is get angry. He expresses his anger (and deep set insecurity) by cracking racist, sexist, homophobic and Islamophobic jokes in his article, no doubt scoffing into his favourite suitably middle class and white supremacist breakfast cereal as he does so. For all his life Letts will have found positive discrimination working in his favour but because it’s so ingrained and commonplace he never will have questioned it, let alone give it a second thought. But now’s it not working in his favour he’s going to kick up a fuss.

“I just wish I didn’t feel, as I looked at the contestants yesterday, that I was being preached at – that the BBC’s social engineers were up to their transparently political tricks again.” Some unintentional comedy gold from Letts here who has just spent a whole article preaching bigotry and narrow-mindedness at us. He accuses the Beeb of having a political agenda whilst clearly forgetting that white, heteronormative, androcentric patriarchy fired at us on a daily basis is itself just drenched in politics. But it doesn’t suit Letts to acknowledge this so instead he’ll deride the “sinister” politics of the BBC, one that favours equality, diversity and representation – you know, those really sinister values. He’s scared these values depart so far from the mainstream “that they often fail to represent adequately that very mainstream” – but Letts doesn’t really care about these people, his article has shown such a lack of compassion that it’s hard to think he cares about anyone, no, he cares about himself and wants more men just like him on TV (he wont’ be happy until Mary Berry’s been replaced by Jeremy Clarkson and Sue Perkins has been ousted for someone overtly heterosexual, such as Katie Hopkins).

So no I don’t approve of what Letts has to say and whilst I won’t risk my life in defence of him saying it I still won’t call for its censorship. His argument is as floppy as a failed souffle and has the soggiest of soggy bottoms. Whilst the BBC’s sinister world of equality and diversity is just brimming with creamy Victoria sponges and rolling Swiss Rolls. He’ll figure it out one day – that a more equal and fair society works out better for everyone, even people like him, but in the meantime we’ll just have to tolerate the bitter aftertaste of his bigotry.

Quentin Letts with spaghetti (interestingly not a baked good)
Quentin Letts with spaghetti (interestingly not a baked good)