Friday, 13 October 2017

Words matter.

“Ethnic cleansing” is not only one of the more disgusting phrases ever coined.  It’s dangerous.

I first heard the term in the early 1990s, in relation to the war that broke up what was Yugoslavia into several smaller states, and it always bothered me.  It’s shocking (but not surprising) how widely used it is, to refer to specific events, as well as being an accepted generic term for what would more properly be called Genocide.  If we understood and acknowledged the significance of language.
The First Casualty Of War Is The Truth, goes the cliché.  Actually, the first casualty is usually language.  If we fuck around with language enough, there is no possibility of truth – hence the “post-truth” nonsense we are currently experiencing.  “Post truth” is a novel term for bullshit, and another egregious example of linguistic butchery.  (It suggests that we live in a world where objective Truth is simply impossible, which is no more or less plausible than it would have been twenty, a hundred or a thousand years ago.  We don’t need to invent words to describe dishonesty.  We’ve got loads.  We’ve also got adequate words to describe the current US administration, if only we would use them.)
There is absolutely no reason to accept the utterly reprehensible term “ethnic cleansing”.  Killing and/or exiling large amounts of people in a concerted attempt to rid a geographical area – or, indeed, the planet as a whole – of an ethnic group is called Genocide.  “Ethnic cleansing” is a euphemism for genocide (or attempted genocide, if you’d prefer to be more generous to people who try genocide and fail at it), and the only reason to use it is to signify a belief that a particular geographic area would be “cleaner” without the targeted ethnic group.  So, the only reason to describe genocide as “ethnic cleansing” is if you are in favour of genocide. In that way, it’s a useful term.  An appropriate response to someone (for example, a newscaster) using the term “ethnic cleansing” might be “Are you in favour of genocide?  Would Bosnia be “cleaner” without Muslims?  Would Turkey be “cleaner” without Armenians?  If the answer is “no”, then the term “ethnic cleansing” is inappropriate and should not be used by those who do not support Genocide.  If the people, and their presence, is not dirty, then removing them is not cleansing.”
This matters.  This is a very good example of just how much language, and even individual words really matter.  If it’s a separate category, not as bad as Genocide, then “ethnic cleansing” is useful only for downplaying what is a matter of life and death.  Like when a newspaper columnist calls people “cockroaches”.  The connotation of the term is clear – even for those who don’t know that the Rwandan Genocide was preceded by a propaganda campaign which used the term frequently to describe a targeted ethnic group.  Even without that historical context, it’s clear what someone means by describing groups of people as “cockroaches”: these are beings that should be stamped on, so they don’t bother us, so they don’t breed.  So they don’t live in the shadows of our comfortable houses, bothering us merely by their presence.
If language isn’t important, how come English is the Official Language in 53 countries that are not England?  Is it a sponsorship thing, like The Official Muesli of World Cup 2018?  Like the commonwealth?  Commonwealth is another interesting term.  It suggests that wealth is common, which is a nice aspiration.  Although in the case of the British Commonwealth, it means “bow to the queen and give us all your money and accept our Orwellian language and be grateful about it”.  So it’s actually a piece of cynical sophistry/delusional grandeur.  And this matters as well, because it is good indicator that the United Kingdom has not reckoned with the end of its empire or the crimes committed by it, and in its name.
 “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” 
If we have no words for these things, we can’t even discuss them let alone agree on a way forward.  Fortunately, however, language is not static, and is a living thing, constantly evolving.  Which sounds like a contradiction of the above.  But it’s not.  Because I can accept that language is constantly changing, while still commenting disapprovingly on specific changes.  It’s called being an adult, isn’t it?  And I’ve been trying it out for at least two of the years since I became a legal adult.
These kids, they say bad when they mean good!  Like every generation of kids from anywhere ever.  How dare they.  They react against their parents – much like their parents before them, ironically.  And the circle is complete. 
By the time bad means bad again, maybe we’ll have acquired the courage to call things what they are.  And/or change language in a way that actually benefits people, instead of inventing new words to make it seem more acceptable or normal to lie, or advocate mass killing.
Genocide is genocide.  It is not cleaning. 

Friday, 6 October 2017

Film Review, Accidental courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America

"How can you hate me when you don't even know me?"
Daryl Davis
Daryl Davis is a black American musician who has spent much of the last twenty years or so talking with and befriending members of the KKK.  Once they get to know him, they mostly like him.  And that’s what this film is (ostensibly) about.
Naturally, of course, it’s also about the wider issues at play: how to deal with racism (and particularly those with extreme racist views), the state of race politics in America and the wider world, the resurgence (and normalisation) of racism and extreme right-wing political groups….
But to me, the film is Malcolm X vs Martin Luther King.
Martin X vs Malcolm Luther King.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the civil rights leader and non-violent civil disobedience exponent, could justifiably say to President Lyndon Johnson: “Deal with me or you will have to deal with Malcolm X.”, knowing this to be a scary prospect for white ‘liberals’, let alone white ‘conservatives’.
Malcolm X scared the shit out of white America.  And made people really angry.  But Martin Luther King may have been more of a threat, politically.  As well as making people really angry.
After the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the civil rights movement had the federal government onside.  That era seems like the logical conclusion of the US civil war; the southern states had to continue with segregation in defiance of federal law.  “It’s a states’ rights issue” was now revealed as a fig leaf for “I want states to have the right to legally discriminate against their black populations.”
Martin Luther King’s approach was to show white America the injustice perpetrated in their name, to challenge them to choose a side: are you with us, your fellow Americas, or with the racist cops who openly defy federal law to enforce segregation with violence.
Malcolm X, as part of the Nation of Islam, advocated for total separation of the races.  Which is almost exactly what the KKK wanted.  So, to make a laboured point, the extremes on either side have more in common that they think.
As evidenced in the film when a ‘Grand wizard’ of the KKK tells a crowd he has more respect for Daryl Davis, a black man, than for all the white people who won’t listen to him tell them about race war…
Daryl Davis takes the Dr King approach.
Daryl Davis is so familiar with the KKK’s traditions, terms and rituals that he knows better than some members what their position is.  He’s in deep (to the knowledge, not the actual KKK).  He’s got a collection of robes given to him by former members who have left the Klan and gifted him the robes, seemingly as a gesture of thanks and friendship – an acknowledgement that he has changed their mind.
The Malcolm X approach is represented in the film by Black Lives Matter activists in Baltimore, who contend that Daryl Davis’s collection of Klan robes has not helped black people.  The exchange is heated, and is like a micropolitical version of the macro arguments that have never gone away but drift in and out of popular consciousness (ie, TV and mainstream politics).  There is anger and accusation on both sides, and it’s not hard to see why revolutionaries fall out with each other in the face of a powerful common enemy.
I remember hearing someone on TV talking about Muhammad Ali, who said, in plaintive fashion, something like “How can anyone listen to Muhammad Ali, or watch him box, and conclude that black people are not human, or not capable?”  At first, I thought that sounded fair enough, but the more I thought about it, the more it angered me.  Would it be ok to view a section of society as subhuman if they didn’t have this popular representative?  Why do black people need a charismatic ambassador to go on TV just convince others of their humanity?  Centuries after the end of chattel slavery, how is there still a debate about that?  Who really believes black people are not human?  Who really believed it in 1964?  And do we have to remind ourselves that Ali, like King, was reviled for his political decisions in the 1960s?
And this brings us to the crux of the argument: it’s not that masses of white people consciously believe and will argue that black people are less than human; it’s that the system based partly on that assumption they were not was never completely overthrown.  To use a more recent example, it’s not that white Americans believe in their own racial superiority en masse – it’s that enough of them decided it was ok to elect an openly racist demagogue threatening racial strife to the highest office in the land.  It’s that white people marching American streets chanting Nazi slogans is not much of a threat, but a mixed-race President is apparently an intolerable threat; hence a political career launched on the total negation of Barack Obama – not just his policies, his identity.  (As discussed in thisexcellent article by Ta-Nihisi Coates.)
Once we accept the basic equality of humans, we have to work towards making it a reality in the world where humans live, rather than some kind of abstracted ideal.  And a lot of people just don’t want the trouble of doing that work.
“Now is not the time” – people would often say that to Martin Luther King and everyone in the civil rights movement.  It is as hollow and repressive as “now is not the time to think about gun control” in the days following a mass shooting.  Or the “protest on your own time, not at a sporting event” arguments against Colin Kaepernick and others in the NFL.
“We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Dr Martin Luther King Jr
“It's just like when you've got some coffee that's too black, which means it's too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream; you make it weak. If you pour too much cream in, you won't even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it'll put you to sleep. This is what they did with the march on Washington. They joined it. They didn't integrate it; they infiltrated it. They joined it, became a part of it, took it over. And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. They ceased to be angry. They ceased to be hot. They ceased to be uncompromising. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all.”
Malcolm X
The march he’s talking about there is the one where Dr King delivered the famous “I have a dream” speech.  Malcolm X was controversial – like you have to be, if you want to shake things up.  (If it doesn’t upset anyone, it’s not a protest – or, at least, not an effective one.) 
King’s approach was to go to the federal government, with great numbers of people behind him, to demand that it live up to its promises, and compel southern states to do the same.  Malcolm X, as part of the Nation of Islam, declared that black people could never be free in America – since the freedom of black people was never part of the American Dream, and the American Dream was built on the exploitation of black slaves – and could only get freedom and self-determination through separation.  It was partly a tactical difference: either show injustice by standing up to it and non-violently enduring it, or defend yourself from oppression and assert your rights by any means necessary.  Either talk to your enemies, or fight them. 
As an outsider looking in, with all the detachment and tendency to abstract thinking that brings, my conclusion is that there is, and must be, room for both approaches.  As Malcolm X seemed to conclude toward the end of his life, after leaving the Nation of Islam – and as Dr King always believed, evidenced in all the writing and speeches to which Presidents and sanctimonious commentators never refer, where he opposed the war in Vietnam, when he opposed capitalism and declared poverty the greatest problem in America…the two men got closer in their thinking towards the end of their lives. 
Both were a major threat to the status quo.  Both were assassinated.
The film does a good job of showing both sides of the argument whilst telling one person’s remarkable story.
The film concludes with a rumination on the election of Donald Trump – a person who is neither serious nor funny, neither honest enough to be even more overtly racist nor intelligent enough to sound less racist.  Thankfully for everyone, most people in America are not so stupid and weak.  Unfortunately for everyone, one of the worst of them is President – and white supremacy is in the ascendency, since enough white people decided to vote for it, however much they might claim not to be racist.
The last President, Barack Obama (fortunately for everyone, an adult), seemed to believe in the innate goodness of Americans – and, like Daryl Davis, that talking is better than not talking.  How much that benefitted him (or anyone else) is an open question.
“Not all Trump voters are racist but all racists voted for Trump.”
Daryl Davis
The idea of talking to people who hate you is brave.  The idea that it’s also helpful, in and of itself, and can be successful, outside those individual conversations…is…contentious?  I like to think it’s worth it, in and of itself, that little things make a difference – that everything we do makes a difference, as unpredictable as the outcomes may be.  But I don’t know if I’d be brave enough to try it if I were a black person in America.
These questions are not new, but the stakes seem to be getting higher.  If there were more people like Daryl Davis, and fewer like the current President, the world would be a much better place to live. 
Is that conclusive enough?

Friday, 29 September 2017

Conversations Overheard in Pubs: Americall, take a knee and shove it (Or, Sporting Poltics Vol. XLV)

CLIVE:  [Nodding towards a TV playing a news item about the NFL] What’s make o’ that, then?
DEAN:  Wassat?
C:  They American footb’llers, kneelin in the anthem?
D:  Why, they tired?  Game a’n’t even strted yet, ‘av’m?
C:  No, mate, it’s a protest.  They started it a while back, one of ‘em got right in trouble, then Trump says somat about it an’ now they’re all at it, look.
D:  Why they even playin the anthem, is it the final or somat?
C:  Dunno, they just doos that, Americans, dunnum?  Not just it the final, mind – every bleddy game.
D:  Still, ‘f’they don’t like it, they can move somewhere else, innum
C:  Yeah, but that en’t no good, is it?  You could say that about anyone – if you don’t like the weather ‘ere, move to Spain, or whatever.  ‘S your country, you can live ‘ere an’ make it better innum.
D:  Yeah, or live ‘ere an’ moan about it, same as everyone else!
C:  Exactly!  Steve’a’ know, mind – Steve – mate, whassall this all about then [waving a thumb at the TV]?
STEVE:  Alright chaps, ow bist?  Woah, the 49ers quarterback done it last year an ‘e ended up getting sacked.  If you’ll ‘scuse the pun, eh!
D:  What pun?
S:  Never mind.
C:  Yeah, but why though?  Why did ‘e do it, mind, not why did ‘e get sacked.
S:  Well, ‘e’s protestin’.
D:  What about?
S:  In general, America’s problem wiv treatin black people so bad, ‘n’ the endemic racism that’s outlived the end of slavery by a hundred in fifty years.  An’ specifitly, the Police shootin’ young lads in the street in all that.  Police brutality, innum. 
C:  Oh ah.
D:  Yeah, but why the footb’llers?
S:  Well, why not?  They’re famous, people’s watchin’ ‘em, they got a platform.  ‘Sup to they what they wanna do wiv it.

D:  Yeah, but why they kneelin’?

S:  Dunno, really – just not standin’ with the rest, makin’ a point innum.

D:  Point bein’, it’s mixin’ politics ‘n’ sport again, right – like all that with the poppiz on the football shirts in the England ‘n’ Scotland game.  They can’t be makin’ political statements it the football, nobody goes there for that, ‘n’ oo cares whay they thinks?  I likes Rovers, but I cou’n’t give a monkiz what Dean Gaffney thinks of Brexit.
C:  Rory Gaffney, mind
D:  Oh ah, Rory Gaffney.  Oo did I say?
C:  Dean Gaffney. 
D:  Oo’s ‘e?
C:  No ideal mate!
S:  The other thing is right, the 49ers feller, ‘e done it an’ only a few of ‘is mates joined in, that was last year.  Now, Trump’s ‘avin’ a pop about it, sayin the team owners should sack ‘em, ‘n’ they all come out ‘n’ do it.
C:  Well, fair play to um.
D:  Right, yeah, fair play, they’re sayin “don’t tell us what to do” – now it’s a sportin’ issue, innit!  ‘Cos they got the President givin’ ‘em grief in tellin’ ‘em ‘ow to run their teams.  When ‘e wuz talkin about Mexicans this ‘n’ Muslims that, they didn’t say nuffin, ‘cos it’s not their business.  They runs their team, right?  When ‘e starts talkin’ about “the team owners should do this ‘n’ that”, they stands up in says “No mate.”  ‘N’ they get a load of players to join in wiv ‘em to prove the point.  So, it is sport an’ it is political, see?  They’re sayin’, “we’re rich, you can’t order us around”.  They ain’t talkin’ about injustice, like the first bloke wuz, they’re just saying “No. Fuck off.”
C:  The players, mind, they just plays football though, or the American version, whassit gotta do wiv they?
S:  Well…whassit it gotta do with anyone then?  It’s like they fellers back in the sixdiz, with the old Black Power thing innum – they done the salute in the anthem when they won the medals it the Olympics, dinnum?
D:  That’s it, in sixty-eight.  An’ all the Americans wuz goin mental.  All the Vietnam war stuff, they wuz against the draft – fair play to um, I reckon!  I wun’t’a’ gone fightin’ in bloody Vietnam, oo’d watta do that?
S:  ‘Member Muhammad Ali?  “I en’t got no quarrel wiv the Viet Cong!”
C:  Oh ah, Muhammad Alley, ‘e wuz The Greatest.
S:  See, everyone liked ‘im, but some people ‘ated ‘in in America – absolutely ‘ated ‘im.  Thing is, mind, it is a racist country, you gotta see that.  When Obama wuz President, some people went mental and now there’s a batlash – it’s people who couldn’t ‘andle ‘avin a black President, so it swings back the other way an’ now you got a racist President.
C:  Well, I dunno, I don’t know if ‘e is a racist ‘is self, even if some of ‘em are.
S:  ‘E bleddy is, Clive, straight up.  Knows one when I sees one.  ‘E’s got elected off all the racism ‘e wuz talkin’, so ‘e’s either racist or stupid or a liar or all of ‘em.  Tell you what in all – they ‘ad a black President, ‘n’ ‘e proved the point, dinn’ ‘e?  If you’re black in America you gotta be et-septional to get anywhere.  You know, like Chris Rock said, if you’re a average black student you can’t even be manager of a Burger King, meanwhile a white average student is the President.  Well, now it’s like, if you’re black, to be president, you gotta be highly educated, smoove, a good speaker, very gentle with white people’s feelin’s, all that.  Meanwhile, to be a white President you gotta be rich.  And also bein a total gobshite racist nause en’t no problem.  ‘S’ a joke, reely. 
D:  Stupid, I’ll give you, whatever else ‘e may be.
S:  Yeah, we can all agree on that one.
D:  I tells you what, we take the piss out the Americans, Steve, but if we en’t careful, we’a end ut just like ‘em, mind.
S:  Yeah, I reckon you got a point there, Deano.
C:  Your round, Deano – and we’ll all agree on that one in all!
D:  Alright then, same again?  Steve, you ‘avin’ one?
S:  [Waving his empty glass] Too right.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Gig Review: What’s-his-name, Crofter’s Rights, 6/9/17

First off, DJ has got me the ticket, I don’t recognise the name of the fella playing, but he says it’s fine, I’ve got a ticket for you, it’s at The Crofters, see you there, yeah?
Alright, why not. 
In the end up, he’s getting into town at tea-time, so I meet him for a cheeky pint, E girl joins us and we go for noodles.  The noodles are very good.
So, the gig is at The Crofter’s Rights – The Artist Formerly Known As The Croft.  I am old, so I get to point out to DJ that I was in here on my 17th birthday, nearly 20 years ago, when it was The Bristol Brewhouse – long before it even became known as The Croft….and then, when it was The Croft, I played there.  A lot.  Including 3 of the 5 “Last Night”s of The Croft. 
The support band tonight is called Young Husbands.  So, are they a Young Fathers tribute, or what?   Or are they really annoyed at the comparison, having chosen the name before any of them had even heard of Young Fathers – and sticking with it in the hope that they would be the more famous Young Somethings, or that the other Young Somethings would be a mere flash in the pan…we’ll never know, since we’re enjoying these noodles through their set. 
We get into the place and get a pint from one of the many non-branded taps with the name of the drink written in chalk above it, like they change them every day or two, even though almost all of them are the same as the last time I was in here, several months ago.
Anyway, the gig starts: the fella, the band dude, looks like John Power and sounds like Cate Le Bon (but I’m only saying that because I remember Cast – and, to a much lesser extent, The La’s – and I know that this fella was in Cate Le Bon’s band; and, in fact, it’s the only thing I do know about him.  A Normal Review would give the facts without revealing the thinking behind them.  That’s how it works, you’ve all read reviews before.  They would do that because the Reviewer would have read a press release and would recount it to you, The Reader.  The Reviewer would do so as a preparation, and because they know that You, The Reader, want Facts….).
I also realise, 30 seconds in to the first song, that Cate Le Bon has the same initials as me (if the “Le” constitutes an initial part of the name).  I note this, but it’s not really worth commenting on, which is why a Normal Review wouldn’t mention it.  (But they would regurgitate a press release, even if they used it as a counterpoint to argue against, wouldn’t they?  I’ve never even heard of this guy, before DJ says, “Hey, we haven’t been out for a while, let’s go to this thing” and then I go.  And that’s one of the many ways in which I am Better Than Them.)
The chap, the band singer, speaks to his bandmates in Welsh – but, of course, speaks to Us, The Audience, in English.  He’s from an hour’s drive down the road, but he speaks a foreign language.  I think that’s right cool, and DJ agrees politely.
“It’s taken eight years to (nearly) get the band I want” he says – the frontman bloke, that is.  Then he introduces them by name, and one of them is called Griff and it’s his birthday.  The main bloke, the singing one, he says something like “I would never ruin a gig by leading everyone in singing Happy Birthday to him, but if the audience did it spontaneously, I wouldn’t mind, really.”
(A real review would take massive liberties and paraphrase in the most general way, but pretend they weren’t, as if they were actually reporting, verbatim, what the man said.  They never do that. They can’t, not really.  They wouldn’t, would they, even if they could.  It’s just not The Done Thing.  That’s how it works, you’ve all read reviews before.  But that’s just a wee bit of behind-the-scenes knowledge for you, The Unassuming Reader.  That’s what I do – for those of you that aren’t one of the twelve regular readers, and have somehow stubbed your toe on this by accident.  (Extensive market research suggests there are at least one or two of you each week.)  You’re welcome.  (You may also wish to notice my (perverse) fetish for parentheses.  (Really overused, aren’t they?  (No.  They’re not.  (So there.))
The Audience responds, a bit reluctantly, and sings a muted version of the classic.  It’s tentative, but he seems to appreciate it, and the singing gadge gives it: “Thanks, that means a lot to him – but you’ve ruined the gig now.”
I like the singing man, he reminds me of me.  Which is handy, because I was starting to forget.
Then he “goes for his keys too early” by “getting all excited”, thanking The Audience with four songs to go. 
It’s a good metaphor, and suits the low-key tenor of the occasion. This is top gig banter, self-effacing and witty, but understated. 
There are three people talking loudly at the back of the room – The Singer glances at them a couple of times.  It’s pretty distracting, I imagine.  Everyone else is into it, it’s just a couple of knobheads spoiling it for everyone – now I know what all my teachers felt like.  (I still hate them though.  (I’m still cool.))
Why do people do that?  Are the rest of us a mirage?  Just background noise for their conversation, that they couldn’t possibly have in another time or place…?  Ah, they’re just people relaxing, enjoying themselves.  But why buy a ticket for a relatively obscure indie band in a relatively small room to chat through it?
The last song is, unexpectedly, a sort of 80s-style synth-pop effort, where the bassist plays guitar (inaudibly, and without conviction), and the drummer uses percussion, more on a point of principle than for the sound of it.  Then they all go off, one by one and the singer stays there on his own and picks up his Strat again to finish with a solo number which is probably my favourite of the set.
And then it finishes.  And everyone spills out into the bar.  There will be no encore.  I head out and I’m home by five past ten.
Oh, right, yeah, the band.  What were the band called?  No, it wasn’t a band, as such, it was just the singer, it was just his name, even though he did have a whole band. 
What was the fella’s name…?