Friday, May 20, 2016

I Hear There's a Lot Of Terrorism

I've been swithering for days over whether to write about this, which is usually a sign that I'm about to annoy somebody or to make a damn fool of myself, or both.  Since I have a few minutes free though...

Anyway, I was thinking this week about my student days.  When I was there in the mid-to-late nineties, the university I went to had the highest proportion of Northern Irish undergraduates on mainland Britain, so pretty much everyone's classes and social circles would feature a relatively large number of people with sharp accents from the various counties, usually mercilessly mocking each other.

Which may seem like an odd point to raise, but I think it might be mildly useful in making sense of the circumstances around the Royall inquiry into anti-semitism at the Labour Club at Oxford, for people who like me who haven't been students for a very long time.  The inquiry has now concluded with a rough verdict of - no institutional racism, but several issues that need to be urgently addressed.

So what are the similarities?  Well, on any given night out, I'd say that there was a reasonable chance that any Northern Irish friend would bump into somebody who would drop something pretty crass or daft or just plain offensive about Northern Ireland into the conversation.  Northern Ireland may now be better known for Game of Thrones and the European Championships, but bombings and shootings were still big news back then, especially after one of our fellow students was killed in the Omagh bombing in 1998.

Mostly, this was of the Oh, you're from Bangor?  I hear there's a lot of terrorism in Northern Ireland variety - basically well-meaning chatter from people who have grown up on BBC News broadcasts and crap Hollywood action movies, and are just saying the first thing that comes into their heads.

Other people probably just had some thoughts on the topic that they wanted to bounce off someone who could tell them how right they were, and I get the impression that some folk found Northern Ireland a bit dangerous and exotic.   I think others maybe just really liked U2 and didn't have a very good grasp of geography.

Most of the Northern Irish folk I knew had a story to tell about the daftest things that people had said to them - my mate Gavin, for example, once had a guy relate a story about how his soldier uncle had nearly been blown up in Belfast by "the UCLA", which is news that would've shocked the administrators at the University of California.  The same guy later backed up and announced that actually, the terrorist organisation in question was "the ULA", i.e. the one that Sean Bean belongs to in the movie Patriot Games.  Either way, quite a surprising amount of Scottish people had friends and relatives who had nearly been blown up, at one time or another.

On the other hand, there were quite a lot of people around with some very daft ideas, and more than a few with some outright unpleasant ones.  This was Scotland after all, and even twenty years ago people were less reticent about unexpectedly raising touchy sectarian issues than they are now.  As you can imagine, there were plenty of zoomers knocking about with extremely wacky ideas about Ireland, Britain and the paramilitaries, and I can remember more than one occasion where some guy from Glasgow or Ayrshire decided that a random Wednesday night out was the perfect time to get into a deep discussion about e.g. who blew up which pub in which county in nineteen-diddly-five.  And this could get quite heated, if the drinks had been flowing, or if some idiot started up with the old traditional tunes.

Most of the people I knew used to basically dick this stuff off as an annoyance by silly folk, employing the level of biting sarcasm that you'd expect.  For the most part, this stuff really was daft and even occasionally aggravating, but perfectly survivable.

Apply this to the kind of issues that Lady Royall is talking about however, and I can see why people would be far less inclined to treat this type of behaviour with equanimity.  There are major differences between the situation I'm talking about, and the one that she investigated, not least

- Most Northern Irish people are distinguishable as Northern Irish because of their accents, whereas most Jewish people aren't.  If I was Jewish and people kept striking up conversations with me about the Palestinians out of the blue, I'd probably start to wonder what people were saying about me when I wasn't around.

- Northern Ireland is a country, whereas Judaism is a religion.  I doubt whether any of the people I knew had any direct experience of terrorism beyond being huckled out of the swimming baths after a phoned-in bomb threat, but they were at least from the same geographical location as the issue being discussed.

If folk regularly showed great enthusiasm for talking to me about the same godawful conflict on the other side of the planet, one that had nothing to do with me...  Well, that's the kind of thing that would get my goat in pretty short order and I doubt I'd be inclined to be polite about it either.  

(Note here: It's certainly true that the current Israeli government is one of the world's most egregious conflators of religion and nationality, but that's no excuse at all for not showing discernment yourself).

- And, annoying as all of these enthusiasts could be to the average Northern Irish student, there was at least a variety of political theorist to speak to.  Whenever some joker opened his cakehole to talk about The Troubles, there was at least a little mystery as to the content of his chat. 

On Israel/Palestine, I imagine that the patter is a bit more predictable.  British universities are full of young, weakly leftish people and demographically speaking, it's likely that any of them who have political views about Israel as a country are going to have quite negative ones*.  Additionally, for all that talk about Northern Ireland may have been hotter and nastier in 1996 than it is now, the average student then probably got their information from the Beeb or the newspaper, rather than from the type of poisonous nonsense that proliferates online these days.

Hell, I'd only been bickering about wars on the internet for a short while before I learned to heave a sigh of exasperation whenever somebody decided to arbitrarily crowbar Hamas or the Israeli Defence Force into a conversation, and that's with "faceless people communicating with strangers using text", rather than face-to-face chats at the Student Union about very touchy political and personal issues. 

Anyway, I could go on.  My point here is that I can see precisely why some Jewish students might find British universities less than congenial places, and I'm talking here about apolitical types who are just trying to get through an average day like the rest of us, rather than people who arrive there with an axe or two to grind, or who find themselves sharpening a couple after a few months.

In the end-up, I'm not at all surprised to find that Lady Royall found issues to be addressed, and I'd be even less surprised if they extend further than the Oxford Labour Club**.  A lot of this is just people being people but I suspect that a lot of it is people being insensitive or unpleasant arseholes, and occasionally a good bit worse.

As for what to do about this, well, I have few ideas about how we go about improving this situation.  The Northern Ireland one kind of sorted itself out after a mere few hundred years of war, recrimination and negotiation, and it certainly doesn't look much like any amount of inquiries are likely to help in the short term.

(Generally speaking, I'd close this type of Oh-Why-Can't-We-All-Get-Along post by recommending greater accuracy and mutual understanding.  Given that I've just wilfully smashed together two wildly different conflicts in entirely different contexts in very different eras however, that's probably a bit of a hypocritical request to be making today).

*I don't think there's much need to get into why this is here, but I'd guess that Dan's view on the matter is closer to reality than most other commentary I've seen has got.

**Although this really has been an odd issue, this Oxford story - one that apparently tells us a great deal about the Labour Party but one that, surprisingly, tells us very little about Oxford itself or the type of person that studies there.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Something Stirring

Right everyone, I need to tell you a bit about And The Land Lay Still, a 2010 novel by James Robertson.  I need to tell you about it because it's one of the best books I've read in years, but also because it's jam-packed full of in-depth political thought, and those politics are absolutely mental from start to finish.

Twenty pages into it, I asked if it was just decades of men complaining in pubs before joining the Yes campaign, and it is.  But it's so much more than that.

It's a state-of-the-nation book, covering over fifty years of life, laughter, sadness, love and loss in Scotland, from the end of the war through the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and onwards.  Theoretically it's about the decline of Scottish industry and the intentional immiseration of entire towns, and its depiction of fictional mining communities in Fife chimes almost exactly with my experience of their real-life equivalents [1].  What it's really about is the rise of Scottish nationalism, told with astounding sweep and grandeur: it's emotional, epic, incredibly ambitious.

If you want a literary analysis of the book, there's plenty of it about.  This is an intentionally political book though, so I'm going to talk about the politics, because they are utterly deranged in the most entertaining way imaginable.

The book is split into sections, each introducing new characters.  Twenty pages after meeting each one, we're given their thoughts on home rule, independence and the SNP.  Whether for or against, each one is full of angst and confusion about the constitution.  Is Scotland a proud nation, they cry endlessly, or merely a diddy backwater?  They doubt, they brood and they question us - what are we doing, where are we going, and what do we want to be - at punishing length.  I've lived here for thirty-eight years and can confirm that this type of thing is very much a minority pursuit, but in And The Land Lay Still, it is everywhere and within everyone.

There are three types of proto-nationalist in the book.  The first is the enthusiast, long since sold on the need for home rule.  These characters are forever feeling something stirring within them as time and events awaken long-repressed desire for independence and a better nation.  When they listen to folk music, they find that the songs were already in their hearts [2]; when they learn Gaelic, they discover that the words had been within them all along, just yearning to be set free.  Patriotic longing is always exploding out of them like a chestburster in the movie Alien, or they have sudden gut-feelings impelling them to urgent action, like a two-flush dump.

One character, a traumatised ex-soldier, is so horrified by our rampant consumerism that he leaves home one day and spends the rest of his life wandering the fields and streams of Scotland, connecting with the land and handing out stones to children.  The tone of these chapters is much like a Kate Bush video, but with Kate mooning and swooning and hurling herself around to Runrig, rather than Wuthering Heights.

The second type is the reluctant holdout, decently but wrongly putting his faith in socialism and solidarity [3].  These men ponder Scotland's plight like the rest but misplace their hopes with Labour blowhards and bickering union bosses, and are worked into the grave for their pains.  Think - like Boxer the horse in Animal Farm but with Thatcherism rather than the glue factory.

These characters are the heart of the book: miners and factory workers.  Deep down they know that the SNP are right about everything, but their traditions and allegiences prevent them from acknowledging it.  Their role is to despair of their heroes, while being gently prodded and ticked off by their friends and family members for not getting with the Nationalist programme.  At one point a Pakistani family move into town and within two pages, the father of the family is gently chiding a shame-faced character for not demanding freedom for Scotland [4].  It is mad as fuck.

The third type of protagonist is where the book really comes alive, though - the villains, a Tory MP, an MI5 spy and other assorted bastard Quislings and apparatchiks of the hated British deep state.  Even these characters spend an eternity bemoaning The Scottish Question, but from the opposite direction, striving to prevent home rule and hating themselves for doing so.

Both the spy and the MP loathe themselves for their anti-Scottish treachery, which is the result of early infection with the virus of Britishness.  The spy is recruited by MI5, an organisation that mainly exists to disdain and despise Scotland and the Scots, and is used to undermine the Nationalist cause by making them look like nutters.  The MP suffers from a crippling hidden shoe-fetish, a perversion that - I kid you not - may or may not be the result of a childhood meeting with Thatcher herself.

And we really need to talk about the English here because, with the exception of one fruity nurse, the English in this book are irredeemably horrible braying bureaucrats, rampaging snobs, treacherous snakes, effete bell-ends and Thatcherite Loadsamoneys.  Their sole activities in life are extorting money out of decent, hardworking people; disrespecting Scotland and thinking up ways to fuck Scotland over.

I'll do a bit of violence to Robertson's dialogue here with an impersonation of his style, for effect:

SIR SIMON TWIDDLINGE-MOUSTACHE, MI5 BOSS:  MacTraitor!  Why are you wasting your time with real, important espionage work?  Don't you know we have to fit up a lot of Scottish Nationalists and convict them of terrorism, in order to discredit their drive for devolution?

BOABY MACTRAITOR, QUISLING BASTARD MI5 AGENT:  Sorry, master.  How may I serve the British establishment's insane hatred of my countrymen?

TWIDDLINGE-MOUSTACHE:  Get on a train to Glasgow.  We need to maybe-murder or maybe-not-murder a Scottish MP, for reasons that are hinted at but are left opaque, because openly stating them would make the author look like a maniac!

MACTRAITOR:  But why should we murder or not murder a Scottish MP, master?

TWIDDLINGE MOUSTACHE:  Because we need to crush Scotland's desire for freedom, so that we can steal all of their oil and spend all of their money on hookers and cocaine, MacTraitor!  And because that's exactly the kind of thing that the corrupt, venal swines of the British state would do!

MACTRAITOR:  (Drinks self to death because of his self-loathing)

And so on.  In a twist, it turns out that the Twiddlinge-Moustache character is Scottish himself, but was raised out in the hinterland of the Empire, which explains why he hates and wishes to destroy his own nation.

Britishness and Englishness in particular in this book infect and undermine Scotland and the Scots - they are insidious, sneaky, all-seeing and all-powerful.  London is a venal, corrupt Babylon filled with cackling capitalists, creeping perverts and the dirty prostitutes who serve them.  This is some crazy shit, right here, and it goes on like this for about a hundred and fifty pages.

I've been reading all this with rising astonishment and really, I couldn't wait to share it with you.  In terms of broadening your understanding of how others think, it's been like Rowdy Roddy Piper putting on the sunglasses in They Live and suddenly seeing all the aliens walking amongst us.  It's a cracking book, but utterly deranged - like if War & Peace had the Rostovs stop every few pages to eulogise the glory and dignity of Protestantism and to denounce the baleful influence of Rome.


[1]  The caveats I'd add here are that in Robertson-land, working class people don't much e.g. vote Tory, buy the Sun or rage against immigration and political correctness, and their communities are mainly welcoming of outsiders and difference.  I grew up in a small ex-mining village and now live with the daughter of five generations of miners, and I can tell you that this doesn't reflect my experience.  It's a small objection, however.

[2]   I felt this way about Enter The Wu Tang, but I doubt that this portends an ingrained affinity for New York.

[3]  And when I say "His", I mean it.  Women are mainly secondary or supporting characters here, offering guidance and support but rarely impelling the action.  Maundering about the fate of the nation is man's work apparently, as they do all the political heavy-lifting.  For a book about a movement filled with strong women, this book is a sausage-fest.

[4]  Because a man who has been forced to flee a country that was bloodily born in partition would definitely be attracted to the idea of his adopted country separating from its cousins, innit.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

There's plenty being said about the verdict in the Hillsborough inquest today but for me, most of the questions about it tend to come back to those cages, to the metal fencing that penned in the Liverpool supporters and fans of other clubs, in those days.

How could a crush at a football game have been so deadly?  Because the people there were jammed into cages to watch their team play, and couldn't escape onto the pitch.

How was it possible for any kind of cover-up to take place, when the whole terrible thing had been captured on film?  Why would the Sun print outrageous slanders against the victims of the disaster?  Why were there so many people willing to believe those lies, and why are there still so many even today?

Because the people who died were the type of people that could be put into cages, without any real or material objections from anyone who could've put a stop to it.

The cages tell us a lot about the regard in which football supporters were held by the people responsible for their construction.  And not only in big flashpoint games or high-risk matches between rivals, but every game, week-in, week-out.  Ordinary men, women and children, the old and the young.  People just like you or me, any one of us who has ever been to a football game.

The truth of Hillsborough, not least the absolute contempt for the public at the highest level of society that led directly to it, has been public knowledge since I was a kid.   So why has it taken twenty seven years for some kind of justice to be done?  Why did the victims' relatives have to fight tooth-and-nail for the result that they got today?

And I'd say, just look at the cages.  That picture paints a thousand words.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

The Imaginary Bacon Rolls Of Terror

Brendan O'Neill isn't happy with the liberals and multiculturalists this week, or any other week, for that matter.

He's concerned about that Charlie Hebdo think-piece, the one about how the Muslims are oppressing everyone by wandering around wearing headscarves and so on.  Specifically, he's worried that  

"...chilling of discussion around Islam encourages a climate of mutual apprehension and tension in European communities, where non-Muslims are implicitly told to keep their concerns to themselves while Muslims increasingly come to live in a kind of protective bubble of non-criticism or just non-discussion".

And I mean, he has a point here.  It's certainly true that you can attract plenty of hysterical abuse, simply for speaking reasonably on various Islam-themed topics.  I'll add that the same is true of sport journalists who get on the wrong side of football fans; critics who e.g. give superhero movies bad reviews and women who have the temerity to say things while being female.

Still, Brendan's describing an existing phenomenon here*, and the Hebdo case is very unusual in that it's one of very few involving the threat of actual violence, rather than just some twatty comments on social media.

It's worth noting though that the Hebdo piece didn't piss people off because it was telling us uncomfortable truths.  It mainly annoyed people because it's yet another example of folk intentionally acting like stroppy, belligerent dicks, while theatrically complaining about how they're not allowed to act like stroppy, belligerent dicks.  Basically much like The Spectator, but French.

And of course, folk have every right to act like stroppy, belligerent dicks if they so please, much as other people have every right to respond by calling them racists, or whatever.

Is it racist, to kick off on a mad ramble about how pissed off you are that the Muslims won't even let you buy a bacon roll in an imaginary bakery?  Is it bigoted, to make illogical claims conflating headscarves and nailbombs?

Well maybe it is and maybe it isn't, and the distinction doesn't really matter much to me.  The iron rule remains the same either way - you don't have to be racist to be an arsehole.

That being the case, the Hebdo piece looks to me like that very modern form of opinion journalism - the deliberately antagonising cry-wank.

All I did was deliberately go out of my way to annoy people, and now they're all annoyed because they are so very thin-skinned and unreasonable.  Oh, woe!

And none of this is happening in a vaccuum.  The French generally are a bit more... robust than we are, on such issues.  Their public figures certainly aren't afraid to say precisely what they think.  French intellectuals routinely announce that Everything Is Fucked because white people are too nice to the ethnics, and it's always seemed to me that there's a strong undercurrent in French thought that foreigners can never be French, mostly because of their wacky religious beliefs.

And let's remember that there is currently a cultural and political movement that is rocking like a hurricane in France, and that it isn't self-censorship or bashfulness in the face of fruity foreign fatwas.  It's the fucking National Front.

While the hacks wail in terror about snotty Tweets, the actual real far-right is booming.  Let's not insult Brendan, or any of the other howlers and chucklers, by assuming that they aren't aware of precisely the type of politics that is driving headscarf bans or pork-only school lunches.

I think that ultimately, what we're looking at here is deep confusion** about the difference between

- Secularism
- Intentionally being as dickish as possible, and
- Media types going out of their way to annoy people and then complaining about tyranny when people get annoyed.

Secularism itself involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.

I'll leave it up to you to decide whether e.g. boiling with resentment about the unavailability of imaginary ham sandwiches is an example of secularism, or just of people being as dickish as possible.  

What I will say is that this confusion isn't at all cost-free.  It's precisely this kind of nonsense that's brought us such unedifying occurrences as:

British soldiers kicking down doors in Helmand in order to liberate Afghan women from their husbands, fathers and brothers; 

The French government freeing women from oppression by threatening them with arrest if they wear the wrong outfits, and French authorities giving schoolkids the choice between eating pork or fucking off, and

The British government trying to help oppressed Muslim women by deporting the ones that don't speak English.

If there's some kind of intellectual battle going on here, I suspect that it's between people who are trying not to be dicks about everything, and people who are determined to be as dickish as possible, all the time.

It's not always easy to tell which is which, because there's a hell of a lot of overlap between the two sides and because both deploy similar levels of apocalyptic boo-hoo, but it can be done.


*As it happens, I often agree with Brendan on most free speech issues.  I think it is problematic that many political and media types are afraid to speak their minds openly because they think they'll be branded racists.  As I've argued in the past of characters including Nick Griffin, Nigel Farage and David Starkey, the best thing for everyone is to encourage cranks to be as frank as possible, and to let the public decide whether they're arseholes or not.  I'm very confident about the public's judgement on that, at least. 

**A deep confusion that is being intentionally sown by hacks including Brendan O'Neill, by the way.

An Evil Genius

Let's say that you were an evil genius along the lines of The Joker in The Dark Knight*, bent upon creating the most chaotic, hostile world imaginable, as quickly as possible.

How would you go about engendering the maximum amount of mutual distrust, discord and suspicion amongst your fellow human beings?  Would you e.g. hijack boats full of citizens and prisoners, and force them to choose which of them would be destroyed with high explosives?

Probably not.  A better way would be to maximise everybody's exposure to the sections of society that most hate and fear them, people whom they would never usually encounter.

To do that, you'd need a mechanism that exacerbates existing faults in society - a way of pitting people against their immediate religious, political or cultural foes.  Ideally, you'd want to ensure that this occurs in an intimate and familiar setting where people feel most safe.  Somewhere like, maybe, their own homes, just to really make them feel threatened and uncomfortable.

What you'd want, would be to bring vulnerable or just mildly thin-skinned people into contact with all manner of highly aggressive idiots.  You'd want earnest feminists arguing with the most bitter misogynists; ardent secularists being brought into the orbit of religious zealots; devout Muslims discovering that there are legions of people who utterly despise them and their religion; to find ways of bringing even the most atheistic of Jews into the immediate proximity of rabid Holocaust-deniers.

What you'd want really, is just a way of making sure that insecure and irritable people - by which I mean, normal, everyday people - are roundly and thoroughly abused by others who deliberately seek them out to offend and upset them.

And, most important of all, this has to happen in an environment where nothing, nothing at all, could ever possibly be resolved, and where the arguments can only ever get angrier, nastier and more fraught with bitterness and mutual recrimination, rather than less. 

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Twitter.  If you want to bring the haters together with the hated, accept no substitutes.

Some academic should run an experiment on the prevalence of social media and perceptions of personal and communal persecution, before and after.  I think the results would be stark.  Truly, it is one of the few venues I can think of where the prey willingly and enthusiastically line up to be introduced to the predators.

Whatever your opinions are, on any damn issue, Twitter in particular has some idiot somewhere on Earth, just desperate to call you a Commie or a nigger or a faggot, or whatever derogatory racial/religious/political/sexual etc. slur it is that you'll find most offensive, just for conveying them.  Simply log in, express yourself, and there's a good chance that they'll turn up eventually.

Now, I recognise that most people who use social media don't have to deal with this type of this stuff, most of the time.  I'm guessing that my brother's Twitter account, for instance, is mostly comprised of footballers and comedians, and that he doesn't get much abuse for posting the occasional photo of his dinner or an opinion on a film.

Nonetheless, for lots of people like me - mainly, mouthy twats who want an audience to sound off at about their super-controversial views on lots of micro-political issues of minority interest - it's a much more hostile environment**. 

And yet, still.  You can't open a paper without finding out all about the sudden upsurge of bigotry against... well, whoever anyone hates, anywhere, as evidenced by some sad berks with Twitter accounts.  Of which there are millions of examples worldwide. 

For the most part, this signifies nothing, beyond the fact that vindictive people all over the planet who would otherwise have had to have satisfied themselves with merely being horrible to their neighbours, now have a swish application that allows them to be vindictive to strangers on the other side of the planet.  And it's sure not restricted to Twitter.

But let's remember - the biggest internet squabble of the last few years wasn't about, oh, the rise of ISIS or the genocide of the Armenians.  It was about video game reviews written by girls, and it got really, really nasty.  Nowadays, people get death-threats for saying that they don't like superhero films or particular computer games.

I think people mistake all of this emboldened cuntishness, where what was once unspeakable is now said openly, for an upsurge in prejudice.  It probably isn't - it is, after all, only twenty years since a good chunk of the Scottish populace went bug-fuck mental at the idea that a teacher could tell a pupil that it is, theoretically, okay to be gay.

The major difference is that every dipshit, almost everywhere in the world, can now speak where they can be heard.  It'd probably be a good idea for us to work out how to deal with that, sooner rather than later.


 *But less shit than The Dark Knight.

**I'm fine with this myself - I am, by and large, as much of a complete dick on social media as I am in real life, and so I expect to get a certain amount of dickishness in return.  I appreciate however that others aren't trying to be dicks like I am, and try to moderate my behaviour.  Occasionally, at least.

I'm also not letting Facebook off the hook here.  I've seen shit on there that would turn your hair white, and from family members rather than acquaintances.  Twitter just gets more scrutiny, because there are more politicians, celebrities and journalists who use that platform regularly.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Euston Ten-Year Anniversary Open Thread

From what I can gather, Nick's eulogy for Euston is a proper knee-slapper, full of the usual wails and screams but at a particularly piercing pitch and tone.

Tragically however, it's paywalled for me, and I'd rather have my wisdom teeth replaced and then pulled all over again than pay the Spectator for the privilege of perusing it.  So I'll just have to wait until it appears somewhere else.

Going by past experience, I'm betting that it's mainly some mixture of  

The wars that we demanded have left half the planet in flames and have - incredibly - elevated our bitter political foes to power, and this is definitely somebody else's fault, and  

Our political project was an abject failure, but that had nothing at all to do with the godawful behaviour of the people who promoted it. 

Still, I know some of you have read it and that you, like me, have many fond memories of the era.  For those of you who want to pick over the rubble or to discuss any notable departures from universal values, consider this an open thread. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

We're No' Like Thame

Some thoughts on Scottish patriotism and nationalism here, starting with a seemingly irrelevant digression into football.

Back in the seventies, Scottish football supporters were viewed in much the same light as football fans everywhere else in the UK were - basically, as scum thugs in need of merciless baton-charges.  That's why Scottish football stadiums got fences and cages, just the same as the ones south of the border did.

But a funny thing happened to supporters of the national team as the eighties progressed.  Gradually, Scotland fans came to view themselves as a bunch of cheerfully drunken reprobates, almost as ambassadors for the nation, spreading merry tartan larks wherever they went.  They began to police themselves for bad behaviour, shouting down any supporters who might be inclined to fight other fans or throw things.

To put it mildly, this was an unexpected turn of events.  I'd put it down to a single cause - the appalling behaviour of some English football fans, whose violent rioting was so consistently extreme that it got the entire nation, rather than just a few clubs, banned from European competitions.

In reaction, Scottish fans seem to have decided en masse that We're no' like thame.  Thus, for the last thirty years, the Tartan Army has mostly spent its time responding to our constant failures with good humour and fraternal bevvy-sessions with rival fans, priding itself on its good-natured banter.

And, you now, it's all good.  The aggressive friendliness and mugging up to the cameras can be a bit toe-curling at times, but it creates a far more pleasant atmosphere at and around games.  If you have to be known for something, far better that it's for thirstiness and ingratiating patter, than hurling bottles and fighting with coppers.

Nonetheless, a glance at our domestic league will tell you that our garrulous bonhomie is largely an act, an assumed role.  Despite the cheery chumminess of the national team's fans, we can be just as riotous and violent as supporters south of the border.

Further, the statistics on violent crime* in Scotland make for depressing reading, showing that we're the most savage and stab-happy nation in the First World.  Adults quickly forget this, but when you're a guy aged between about fourteen and twenty one, just walking down a high street in an unfamiliar town can be a seriously risky enterprise.  People in Scotland would view e.g. the Americans as heavily armed, violently-inclined and trigger-happy, but the kind of constant, needless post-pub group batterings that are commonplace in Scotland astound tourists from across the Atlantic.

And still, when we invoke our national self-image, it's far closer to the Tartan Army's view of ourselves as endlessly friendly banter-merchants, than it is to the reality of an average Friday night in Kirkcaldy.  And this remains true, even though many of us see that reality up-close and personal on a regular basis.

Now, I'd say that all of this is fairly unremarkable, and that people in nations all over the world see themselves in a similar light.  No doubt, there's a geezer in Moscow right now chibbing a stranger through the lung, then getting teary-eyed over the wit and candour of an imagined Russian national character.  And yet, Scotland games are testament to the fact that ideas really can make us better people, at least for ninety minutes.  If that seems trite, I suspect that a visit to one of Russia's World Cup qualifiers might bear the proposition out.

And you should bear all this in mind, when observing the current upsurge in Scottish nationalist sentiment.  My guess is that a large part of it is the result of looking south of the Border at the comical bastardry of the Tories and UKIP, and declaring - We're no' like thame.

But of course, we are like them.  Popular opinion may be a bit less vicious towards migrants and benefits claimants and the European Union, and it may currently be ridiculous to imagine any serious Scottish equivalent of the English Defence League sprouting up here.  Still, this is a matter of degrees rather than a singular, special difference in our national character.

And yet, the current political landscape in Scotland is largely sculpted from this one idea - that there's a unique and precisely Scottish cameraderie that, presumably, stops exactly north of Berwick Upon Tweed.

Let's just say that I find this belief difficult to credit.  We may be less prone to boo-hoo about foreigners than our English cousins, but that's mainly because much of our boo-hoo is directed at our English cousins.  We are more open to socialist views than people in other parts of the UK but even so, there's a damn a good reason why our current government makes lots of noise about its left-wing credentials, while noticeably never doing anything that so much as smells like redistribution.

This notional Scotland, these stories that we tell ourselves about our collective amiability as a stark dividing line between ourselves and others, have now moved from a fun fantasy for football supporters to something approaching a national myth, and who knows?  Perhaps if we all believe it hard enough, it'll make us a better people and a better country, much as the Tartan Army's conviction in its own essential good-spirits have made watching Scotland games more pleasant - or at least less dangerous - for everyone.

A passing acquaintance with reality, however, suggests that we'll remain the same flawed and impulsive people that we've always been, much like everybody else is, and that no amount of self-congratulation or back-slapping is likely to effect any material change in that situation.

*Note that those two reports about Scotland as the developed world's most violent country are ten years apart, which suggests a level of consistency, if nothing else.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Thou Shalt Not

Let's return to the Rhodes statue debacle, which has now ended with a decisive victory for the forces of major financial donorship.

To recap quickly: A small group of students at an Oxford college felt that the on-campus presence of a statue dedicated to Cecil Rhodes, one of the British Empire's more rapacious exploiters and infamous thieves, is anachronistic at best and actively offensive at worst.  They demanded that the college remove the offending sculpture, mainly for symbolic reasons.

A terrific rammy then ensued, in which the national press hurled a series of astonishing insults and accusations at these students.  The row finally ended when the college's big money donors threatened to withdraw their funding if the statue was removed.  And so now, the statue will stay. 

I've left it a few days before responding to these events, to allow for reaction to this hilarious decision to play out.  Having done so, I think we can draw a few lessons here:

Threats are fine, provided they're financial 

It's amusing to note the contrast in the treatment that the people involved in this row have received.  

 In the pages of the UK's quality press, the students were repeatedly accused of dictatorial attempts to throttle free enquiry and open debate, and were denounced over and over for trying to delete or sanitise history.  The hacks joined with noted academics and former statesmen in issuing fiery accusations at a few students for iconoclasm and intellectual thuggery, even going so far as to angrily compare the students' actions to ISIS's destruction of antiquities.

And yet, when the issue was resolved by a couple of very wealthy geezers issuing actual blackmail, the very same people were either silent, or openly celebratory.

The lesson here is this - When a plurality of punditry and former politicians agree that some trifling squabble represents an unacceptable threat to our most treasured abstract concepts, they're usually pulling a fast one.

It's difficult to tell from the muted reaction, but I think we can now conclude that many of the students' detractors may have been arguing in bad faith.

After all, it is possible to argue that a request to remove a statue constitutes an outrageous attempt to throttle debate, while also believing in the rectitude of actually throttling the debate with financial threats.

It's just not possible to do both, without also being an outrageous bullshit-merchant of the first water.

Let's note here that it was the students that were repeatedly accused of being "hysterical"; of "throwing tantrums" and so on, and yet it was their opponents who e.g. deployed the ISIS comparisons.  It was the students who were accused of "throttling debate", but it was the donors who issued the threats that won the day.

For me but not for thee 

In the United States, they've been pulling down Confederate banners and statues for months, as they damn well should do and should've done decades ago.

In Ukraine, the removal and defacement of Soviet iconography is routine.  Statues and flags have been torn down all across the Middle East for years, and all of these terrible acts of iconoclasm have happened to the sound of loud celebration in the UK press.

And yet somehow, when the action is moved closer to home, far milder forms of the same behaviour are treated as an unacceptable national outrage.  The mere suggestion that Cecil Rhodes might meet the same fate as, say, Confederate officer Nathan Bedford-Forrest - a roughly comparable historical figure, IMHO - is met with screeches and wails of terror. 

No doubt you can imagine how the UK press would've responded to similar controversies involving likenesses of Che Guevara in South America, or Kemal Ataturk in Ankara.  I suspect that a press-room whip-round for pick-axes might not be out of the question.

But one may not sully the Great British imperialists of yore.  It's worth noting that, had the Americans reacted to anti-Confederacy objections as our own academics and scribbling classes have done with the empire, most of those Stars-'n'-Bars would still be flying today.

You mess with Oxford at your peril

A fairly obvious one, this - I think we can all agree that a row along similar lines wouldn't have attracted a fraction of the vituperation, if it had instead broken out at e.g. the University of Dundee.

One of the many comical and undeclared undercurrents of all the recent campus controversies is that of old boys getting riled by the suspicion that they might not be entirely welcome at their former stomping grounds.  And indeed they might not be, and I'm sure that you're all just as concerned about that prospect as I am.

Thou shalt not fuck with the Empire 

And here, I think, we reach the fundamental issue.  This was a debate about the Empire - about the industrial-scale theft and wanton cruelty that is part of any imperial project, be it British, Roman or Soviet.  The students, not unfairly, regarded the likeness of one of the imperial era's more prominent plunderers as an affront, not simply because of his racism, but because of his conduct.

The response from our pundits, academics and former politicians was very telling, I think.  Almost all  chose to interpret this instead as a debate about racism and political correctness, and issued exculpatory statements about Rhodes' philanthropy, and how Rhodes was no more racist than his contemporaries.  The Times - incredibly - allowed one of its columnists* to claim that Rhodes wasn't that racist, since he believed that Africans could be trained to become civilised.

And this has always been the standard British response to any complaints about the undisputed savagery of our former Empire - to emphasise the good manners and good breeding of our empire-building forebears, as a partial excuse to ignore their profound lack of good character or even good behaviour.

The hysterics and amateur dramatics that this row has inspired suggest to me that it's touched a raw nerve.  I get the feeling that Rhodes is the wobbly brick at the bottom of the wall.  If we question him, then that surely calls into question all of the participants and beneficiaries of empire.

And let's be clear: if we do that, then we'd have to question most of the people and institutions that make up our great national self-image - family members of famous and wealthy people, historical figures, great schools and universities, businesses, maybe even kings and queens.

That's why almost every opinion piece on the Rhodes row has contained some variation upon the following question - If we're going to disown Rhodes, then wouldn't we have to look again at e.g. Queen Victoria, or even Winston Churchill, with a critical eye?

The ludicrous nature of this entire incident - with its near-deranged tone, its almost entirely one-sided insults and its hilarious, slapstick outcome - strongly suggests that, well, maybe we should.


*Nigel Biggar, Message to students: Rhodes was no racist, The Times, 22 December 2015