Reactionaries Renamed

Reactionaries Renamed

A long, long time ago, when I was an adolescent, and later a young man, there was a terrible swear word we could use in political discussion. When someone did not see the obvious, blinding clarity of “the party line” on any issue then we were free and quick to call them “reactionary“. Much like the use of ‘fascist’, ‘nazi’ or ‘racist’ today the simple use of this adjective was extremely powerful. Calling someone a ‘reactionary’ instantly revealed that you were in the right (having recognized a reactionary, like a witch, when you saw one) and completely obviated any need for further discussion as this single, powerful, word settled fully any debate. I can remember spotting reactionaries. It was remarkably easy; if somebody was older, more experienced, and unable to immediately fall in line with my current Marxist philosophy they were almost certainly a ‘reactionary’. It is amazing how many debates I won by this simple rhetorical device. It is therefore with some embarrassment that I have found that I, with some justification, could warrant the ‘reactionary’ tag.

When young I was naive enough to know that there was an “arc of history” which “bends towards justice”. That the future was almost already written, and the important thing was to be on the “right side of history” as we progressed onwards. Those of us in the vanguard could be expected to meet people who would try and stop our progress, but we would soon dismiss these reactionaries as we marched ever onwards to our utopia. It was simple really, we were on the side of progress and therefore good, reactionaries tried to thwart this and therefore were bad. But unfortunately this all has a fatal flaw. Namely that, change and progress are not synonyms. Whilst the progress is towards making life better for all, then those pushing this are indeed on the side of the angels. However, if the change is dangerous or likely to bring future harm then good people have a moral duty to try and oppose it. Reactionaries are simply reacting to proposed change; if the change is bad then they are the good guys.

At present we are witnessing an extremely dangerous trend in our culture. The idea of free speech is being eroded: authors and commentators are being pressured to talk within narrowing guidelines; the public is being advised to censor itself, by shaming and bullying, and the state, in the form of the police, is increasingly deciding the limits of acceptable discourse. While this important liberty is being eroded an important advance is being turned back. We are watching a return to racist and sexist thinking as we define people, and their actions, increasingly on their biological groups rather than on their thoughts or actions. This tends to fracture our humanity and fragment us into small groups. The net effect of this is to damage the idea of community. Through the mechanism of this change and increasing consumerism and individualism we are also witnessing a weakening of the family structure with little evidence that we have any though of what will take its place in the roles of mutual support and child rearing. On a larger scale the advance of globalisation threatens, and has seriously weakened, national planning giving capital the whip hand over labour and undermining the practice of democracy. When capital and wealth are globally mobile it is very hard for national democracies to hold them in check.

All of these changes demand a reaction and for this reason I am a reactionary. However, as this term still echoes in my psyche unpleasantly I might have to find a different moniker. After thought it was obvious, that as a reactionary, I was resisting change. Therefore, I was part of the resistance. Indeed, as I was trying to preserve freedoms, the freedoms of thought and association as well as the freedom from prejudiced appraisal, I was also a freedom fighter. A member of the resistance and a freedom fighter, now with that title I’ll sleep happily.

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

I was rather late in reading this book. I had been aware of its good reviews, and status at the top of the bestsellers lists for some time, but it was only last week that I got around to reading it. I guess, prompted by the Black Lives Matter protests and recent news headlines, this seemed a good book to broaden my knowledge and awareness of the problems of racism. It is always a problem with books that generate a buzz and hype; that they do not live up to expectation and essentially disappoint. This was certainly the case with this book.

Although it is written by an academic (she is a tenured professor of education) it is aimed very squarely at the mass market. Thankfully, therefore it is relatively free of the some of the awful jargon that can accompany works in this area of research. However, in addition to having a simplified style it also has a very simplified content. In essence this is “dumbed down” and there is very little data or analysis beyond a few anecdotes from the authors own experience. I would wager that someone wishing to understand more about racism, particularly the societal aspects (how it is generated and maintained), will know no more after reading this book than before.

By the second half of the book it starts to be peppered by bullet lists which are clearly the PowerPoint presentations she uses in her consultancy work. The sense of ennui that these types of presentation cause when you sit and stare at them on a screen is carried over into the book. Some of the anecdotes are interesting, and illustrative of problems that exist, but sometimes the dialogue is toe-curlingly contrived and unbelievable. It is possible an American audience will derive more from this book than a European one. However, it is rather disappointing that a book about something as global a problem as racism pays no heed to differing cultures and is so parochial.

My initial feelings of disappointment, and of a missed opportunity, gradually changed towards one of more distress and annoyance (probably confirming my fragility) as I realised that this book will do nothing to reduce racism but might, counter-productively, increase it. The author of this book believes that we are prisoners of our skin colour. She can tell our motives and intentions by simply looking at our complexions. This book lumps everyone, black or white or other, into specific racial groups and treats them all as ciphers; nothing more than signifiers of that race, doomed by their skin colour to the collective guilt or victimhood they inherit from their ancestors. The differences between cultures, the powerful effects of important heroic individuals, and the changes seen in societies as attitudes to racism are tackled, are all ignored. Though possibly less malign than curent racist thinking, this is also a racialist agenda and it is a backward step. I fear that this effect is starting to be seen, when I watch the media or talk to my neighbours, it seems race-relations have taken a backward step rather than improve following recent events. Racialised thinking, suspicion and anger are now more prevalent rather then less. It is a sad and sorry tale.

I was glad therefore to see an open letter in The Spectator attacking this increase in racial division. The co-signatories, from a variety of different political and cultural backgrounds,  recognise the dangers that following this route can have. Unfortunately the author of White Fragility is not working with the angels in this case and is possibly promoting future problems. I think that this is important enough that I should finish with  the text of the open letter here :-

Dear fellow citizens,

In the wake of the horrifying and brutal killing of George Floyd, many in the UK expressed heartfelt solidarity; widespread protests showed a genuine commitment to opposing racism. Since then, however, activists, corporations and institutions seem to have seized the opportunity to exploit Floyd’s death to promote an ideological agenda that threatens to undermine British race relations.

The power of this ideology lies in the fear it inspires in those who would otherwise speak out, whatever their ethnicity. But speak out we must. We must oppose and expose the racial division being sown in the name of anti-racism.

The consequences of this toxic, racialised agenda are counter-productive and serious. We are all being divided by tactics and narratives many of us know to be untrue:

  • By splitting society into black lives or white lives, racial identity is being used to define who we all are and how we should fight injustice, as opposed to building a united movement to improve life for everyone.
  • Those who favour the identity-based politics of grievance and academic critical race theory are redefining racism. The achievements of civil rights movements in the past – that effected positive material impacts on the lives of ethnic minorities and increased equal treatment – are now being denied and undermined by those who claim racism is on the rise.
  • Demands that millions of people accept uncritically a prescriptive ‘white privilege’ agenda or be dubbed ignorant, racist or in denial is creating new tensions.
  • Under soulless acronyms such as BAME and POC, all ethnic minorities are robbed of individual agency, and assumed to be victims of injustice.
  • Free speech is being eroded by a McCarthyite culture of conformity in which to question the new dogma means to risk one’s livelihood and reputation.
  • Calls for the wholesale destruction of historical statues, symbols and works of art are fuelling an unhealthy war against the past and stirring up culture wars in the present.
  • An obsessive focus on the impact of colonialism threatens to turn history into a morality tale, rather than a complex, three-dimensional understanding of the past.
  • The common conflation of the issue of race in the US with the UK (in relation to criminal justice, for example) is unhelpful as it makes it difficult to discuss our specific historical circumstances and the contemporary challenges we face.

We are committed to supporting open-minded, fact-based investigation into the roots of our many social problems but reject simplistic explanations that reduce all injustice to racial factors.

We are dismayed at the moral cowardice of political and cultural institutions that refuse to speak out in defence of tolerant citizens who are being targeted as though their skin colour is synonymous with ‘unconscious’ bigotry.

We oppose the notion of collective guilt, and support the goals of those who have struggled to ensure that individuals are judged by the content of the character and not the colour of their skin.

We reject the proposition that the UK is inherently racist in 2020, with racial prejudice embedded into our educational, cultural and legal institutions. We salute the struggles of earlier generations of civil rights activists and the progress they made in defeating racist discrimination and attitudes.

We want a genuine movement to fight for equality of treatment. Where racism exists, it should be unapologetically challenged. We oppose those ideologues who seek to irrevocably damage our society by hijacking this important cause. We also oppose the opportunistic far right groups who are already exploiting this new climate of fear and disunity.

We will not be divided – by reactionary racists or culture warriors – who refuse to see us as individuals beyond our skin colour.

We call on people to share their insights and experiences (@DontDivideUsNow on Twitter and Instagram) and join us in challenging these regressive trends.



A tale of two stabbings

There was period at the start of the period of lockdown when there was hope that something good might follow all of this. People noticed the clearer air, the reduced traffic noise and smog, they discovered aspects of family life that had been lost to the daily grind of work, and noticed that many things which had once been seen as important were in fact frivolous and wasteful. But as the lockdown progressed we started to chaff against the restrictions and to desire top get back to our “old world” and its ways. It seems that, alas, we are rapidly doing this. The last days have seen the return of mass stabbings to our cities with killings in London and Glasgow. Horrible as this was to hear of the return mass murder; almost as depressing has been the realisation, in its telling of the events, of how debased and partisan our news media has become.

Throughout the lockdown the media has performed poorly. It was outraged and shocked when Dominic Cummings seemed to break the lockdown rules and warned that he was almost single-handedly creating a second wave of deaths. They lost this concern about the breaching of social distancing rules when thousands demonstrated for the Black Lives Matter campaign, only to rediscover their shock and horror about such behaviour when working-class city dwellers went to the beach, and just in time for Trump’s disastrous rally. At a time when we need to be given facts and details we can trust, when literally our lives depend upon it, we have a media that spends more energy in ensuring the correct political spin on a story than on its value for public health or safety.

The stories of the stabbings were unintentionally revealing. When the news initially broke in both cases the media’s call was initially for silence. The initial responses from the Scottish Government and the London Mayor’s office was to advice people to say nothing. There is always an awkward period just after an atrocity when the victims are not known and the intentions of the perpetrator are unclear. During this time, the media doesn’t know if this story fits the narrative or not. The range is horrifying to the media; it could range from “Islamic fundamentalist slaughters gays” to “White supremacist slaughters black men”. The media doesn’t know if the killers are the kind of people we are encouraged to hate (right wing, racists) or not and whether the victims are the right sort of people. There is during this time the great worry that killer could be one of the folk from ‘your team’ and it is best for everyone to be quiet until the correct story has been decided. Really there is no need for this. There is never a situation, outside of war, where the person doing multiple killings is the good guy, and, even in war, those killed are clearly the victims and deserve our sympathy.

Our initial responses should simply be our natural one’s; shock and horror that people have been killed and anger and outrage at the person who did it. We don’t need politicians to tell us to wait until they know the details so they can tell us if we are angry or not. It is our anger which worries them. They are worried that the conclusions we draw may lead us to be angry with the wrong people. We might be angry that our communities are breaking down, that our police force is underfunded, that our involvement in foreign wars has brought echoes of these wars to our high streets, or that there are groups promoting intolerance and division with impunity. These might not be the story as it is meant to be told, so we should shut up and wait.

The media wants to keep to its narratives, and this can prove awkward. What if the man killing the asylum seekers in Glasgow was another asylum seeker and not a rabid local bigot? Where is the story then? What if the killer in Reading did kill the three gay men in the park because of his own Islamic intolerance of homosexuality? What about the view of the religion of peace then? To control the narratives the media must either alter the attacker or the victim. It will either convert the attacker into a “madman”, so that insanity is the cause of their evil, or remove the features of the victims (“The police report that the victims were not attacked because they were gay”). Anything to remove discordant facts that might make the overall stories being told less consistent. In London the gayness of the victims was less important than the refugee status of the attacker (as they were also white, middle-class men) so it is more important to avoid the possibility of increasing islamophobia than it is to avoid appeasing homophobia. This is intersectionality at work; weighing up our value on the victimhood scale and seeing where we sit – sometimes our victim status is too low to be worthy of attention.

Thankfully, most people can see past this. Most people know that every person has the right to life and that any ideology which results in hatred and killing is shameful. We see past the reports that we receive to the truth behind the headlines that groups exist which wish to divide us up and control our lives. Sometimes we only see it “through a glass darkly” and it takes us time to appreciate what is going on. In difficult times, like the present, we need facts and open discussion so we can grope our way out of this dreadful situation. The same old stories that got us into this mess do not help.

Toppling Tyrants

Toppling Tyrants

Toppling tyrants is such an obviously good idea that I find myself unsettled that I have not been sharing in the exhilaration when I see the statutes pulled down by crowds. Statutes are erected to those that we want to honour and remember, it is our way of paying homage for great deeds. It is clearly the case that if we find we have made a mistake that we should rectify this. One of the first steps that any liberated peoples do on gaining their freedom is to destroy the signs of their prior oppression. We all cheered when we saw Saddam hit the dust, and Stalin and Enver Hoxha likewise. We await the day when Kim Jong-un totters and crashes.

I’ll look forward to seeing Sir Thomas Picton’s effigy being removed from Cardiff and Wales as it is clear that he was a sadistic man. It is wrong that a statute of him remains in the “Heroes of Wales” hall; he may have been a successful military man but his admission of the torture of a 14 year old slave girl and his reputation as the “Tyrant of Trinidad” weigh too heavily, overshadow, and obliterate, any positive contributions he may have made in his life. It is similar, though perhaps less obvious, with Edward Colston who’s statue met a watery grave in Bristol this week – it seems agreed that his financial philanthropy can’t outweigh his personal involvement in the slave trade. Like many wealthy he hoped his financial largesse and benevolence might buy him some grace, and for a while his charity did whitewash his reputation. But no longer.

So why my unease ? Why am I not outside cheering ? I suppose because obvious examples are obvious, and these are not a problem. But after these come many more, much more difficult decisions. It is very hard to look back without our views being coloured by our present knowledge and culture; this is as it should be. This allows us to be wise after the event. What was once a generally accepted fact is now known to be wrong, what was once customary and usual is now viewed with revulsion and horror. But we can not rewrite history to make it look as we would have wished it to be, to rewrite it in our present image would be a mistake. We are able to learn from history, to know the mistakes we made, to learn from them and atone for them. We can only do this if we know our history.

That does not mean we need to keep all of the statues and plaques that have been raised. If they are to stand they need to be understood, they need to be seen in their historical context. We might keep the statue of a victor but frame it in such a way as to reveal their subsequent trouncing. We might use the effigy of the wealthy industrialist who sponsored charitable works to remind us that apparent breeding, obvious wealth and social acceptance do not mean that someone may not be party to dreadful deeds.

There are two aspects of statue raising that we should also consider when we are pulling them down. What is the statue celebrating ? Who decided to raise the statue ?

What is being celebrated is important. A slaver who repents in late life and donates all his money, gained through immoral means, perhaps should continue to stand as a reminder that even when society tolerated an evil some individuals did not. So it is quite conceivable that the statute of someone who benefitted from slavery should stand – the obvious case. But there will be many, many more difficult cases. Whole societies benefitted from the process of slavery and whole nations and peoples were complicit in it (some still are). Some of those individuals have have statues erected for other acts or heroism, goodness or charity. It is these acts that are being celebrated and it is right that they are. Occasionally information will be discovered hat casts a previously celebrated individual in a new light and it is felt that their behaviours were so heinous that any honours need to be removed. Another obvious case at the other end of the spectrum. But in the middle we have those whose ‘distinction’ was only the action for which they are being celebrated, in these cases we will have to weigh these on their merits. Does the statue celebrate something we still revere ? Does the memory of the individual help us understand how we should behave ? Does the statue remind us of something we should really forget ? These questions would help us decide what stands and falls. But that leads us to our second question – who decides ?

In private spaces the owner clearly decides what artwork they wish to display. It is a private matter, but, in public spaces it is a public matter and one which needs the publics involvement. However, I mean the public and not ‘the mob’. Thirty or forty aroused individuals with ropes, no matter how well-meaning, do not have the right to take that decision from us. They are no different to the soldiers of an incoming, victorious army that pull down the icons of our old leader and replace them with a new effigy for us to worship. If we are going to make public statements of what is morally correct, what we feel should be revered, what or whom we should respect then we as the public must have our say.

When we start pulling down statues we are rewriting our history in a deliberate fashion. They are part of our memory of what were and what we did. It needs a conscious democratic and careful act to do this. As is often the case, George Orwell knew how dangerous this can be :-

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

1984, George Orwell.

So I feel queasy when I watch a gang pull down public statues. I may agree that the statue should go, but my agreement is just chance. Next time they might be pulling down something I hold dear. Do I have to go out on the street and fight them to try and keep it standing ? This is the way of chaos. The passions of the street can be correct and seeking justice and just retribution; but they can also be the passions of the lynch mob. We skate around such things at our peril, as the great German director Werner Herzog said :-

“Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.”

My queasiness is the fear that I hear the sound of distant cracking.

The New Class War by Michael Lind

The New Class War by Michael Lind

Looking around the world it is obvious that there are concerns about the growing success of the populist movements; mainly right-wing but occasionally arising from the left wing of politics. America has been rocked by Trump’s victory and Britain by the Brexit Referendum, across Europe far-right parties have entered the governmental chambers and in Hungary and Poland taken power. This is not a problem limited to the west; Latin America has seen Brazil fall to Bolsonaro and in India Narendra Modi’s religiously tinged populism has proven electorally very successful.

Though local factors often colour the appearance of the local populist groups, and they do vary a little between them (Podemos in Spain leans to the left as do factions of the 5 Star movement in Italy), the causes seem similar much the world over. There is an increasing disengagement between the governed and those who govern them. People feel increasing disempowered from decision making which seems like more and more a remote activity over which local people have little say. As this has occurred, public involvement in society and its governance has declined with a serious reduction in the amount of community participation in government at any level. Indeed in many developed nations the number of the populace who turn out to vote has fallen by alarming levels, These changes have coincided with a growing wealth inequality so that the relative gap between rich and poor has widened greatly. All of these change provide a fertile ground for a world view that proposes the real battle, the real class war, is between us and them – ‘us’ the poor, the masses, the populace and ‘them’ the rich, the others, the elite.

This book explores the development of these changes and details them well. It does not shrug off the fact that they have occurred. It is correct that the power of the working class has waned (trade unionism is at an all time low), it is correct that power has been taken away from national democratic bodies and now resides with international, corporate friendly, agencies without democratic responsibility and that structures which previously gave support and strength to the masses (family, church, society) have been greatly weakened by by the growth of individualism and the fracturing of societal bonds. These changes have been promoted by the development of a “management elite” (as described by the one-time Trotskyist James Burnham ) or “technostructure” in the words of J.K. Galbraith whereby an oligarchy, a small group of people, hold concentrated power and run an increasingly unequal society with only the semblance of true democracy.

To this point the book is much like many, bewailing the populist advances and recognising the problems which have started this wave of protest. However, the book then proceeds to propose how society might avoid this. Not simply making a diagnosis but also suggesting a treatment. This is based upon the idea of “democratic pluralism” which looks for societies built up of a number of groups with significant power ;-

“For democratic pluralists, the state – usually a nation state, but sometimes multinational state or independent city state – is not a mass of individuals to whom a general will can be attributed, but a community made up of smaller communites.”


The three main foci of power he considers are the “guild” (labour and the economy), the “ward” (government) and the “congregation” (culture). The book discusses ways that these groups in these areas could work to create balanced power groups :-

“In the economic realm, the guild would would exercise countervailing power on behalf of working class citizens against employers and investors. In the realm of government, the ward would exercise countervailing power on behalf of working class citizens against organized money and organized expertise. And in the realm of culture, the congregation would exercise countervailing power on behalf of working class citizens against overclass media elites and overclass academic elites.”

pp 136

Using a different approach in considering the power imbalances in our society, and the need to tackle the divide in inequality, the book proposes different solutions to perennial problems such as funding the welfare state, or managing immigration, which could defuse right-wing populist growth by rejecting racism and isolationism in favour of communitarianism and cooperation. He summarises the problem well –

“Demagogic populism is a symptom. Technocratic neoliberalism is the disease. Democratic pluralism is the cure.” 

There are many books listing the problems we have. Many philosophical tracts describing the state we are in. However, as Karl Marx correctly said it is not enough just to describe the situation “the point is to change it” and the outline of a better, fairer system is sketched out here.

The practicalities of how we push for these changes is not the subject of this book but it may not need the upheaval of a revolution to attain it. As he is aware, under democratic pluralism there will still be a managerial elite although one with a positive and democratic philosophy. And, to end on a positive note :-

“Most members of the elite under the new policy regime will have been members of the elite under the old one. The fact that most ruling classes include large numbers of opportunistic careerists is a blessing in disguise. It means that radical revolution in policy can take place, without a radical replacement of personnel.”


Queasy but Straight Knee’d

It is very hard to watch America these days. After repeated mass shootings, shootings in schools, scandal after scandal, it is hard to imagine things could get worse. But then they do. Again we watch as yet another black man is choked to death by a policeman, then follows the protesting, and then the orange haired buffoon manages to pour gasoline on a gathering fire by his incendiary comments. All of this occurs against a backdrop of failure of politicians to cooperate in the face of a deadly pandemic.

Some of the events are easy to understand in themselves. Police brutality is no surprise, nor is police murder, when you have a routinely armed police force. It is not surprising to see that these atrocious events repeat when previous police officers have walked away from crimes due to effective bending of the “qualified immunity” rules. The “war on drugs” often seems to be a war by the state on its own people. Not all of its people; but its young black people who it incarcerates at horrifying levels. In a war against their own it is not difficult to see how tragedies like this occur.

The country’s growing wealth inequality leads to ever widening gaps between the ‘have’s and the ‘have-not’s and this gap is increasingly split along lines of race. This fuels the racism that persists in the country’s history and amplifies the anger and grievance. It is no surprise that young and old black people think ‘enough is enough – this has to stop’. I might be surprised if there were not raging protests. I too would want to lash out at the symbols of wealth and power.

I can even understand some of Trump’s statements. It is not an accident that he promotes further division. He has calculated that he can play to the audience on one side of the American divide and ‘to hell’ with the rest. He knows that he will never gain support from some sections of the populace and he will happily cast them adrift and ride roughshod over their concerns. It may be wrong, it may be counterproductive, but it is not, alas, surprising.

However, I do find some of the response difficult to understand. The needs for protest and action are clear and the need to counter inequality and injustice stares us in the face. There may be disagreements about tactics, especially in the midst of a pandemic, but these are minor. However, to loose sight of racism as the evil we face seems a major problem.

To reframe the issue as a problem of “whiteness” is a grave error. It fails on two levels. Firstly it fails as it lets the culprits off the hook. Those with wealth and power, who foster division and inequality, love the focus on whiteness – it takes the focus away from the plundering of developing countries of their resources and puts in on some white (conveniently dead) historical folk. It takes the focus away from the number of black people in our prisons and how they got there and puts it on the concerns of white folk and their feelings. Every middle class white writer bewailing their whiteness, while doing nothing to change the inequality in our society, is using their shouts of woke awareness to disguise their prospering from all that is wrong. Big companies have quickly learnt a new skill. Instead of ‘greenwashing’ their problems away they can use this new whitewashing strategy – just posture something about ‘whiteness’ but go on shuttering your factories so as to pay lower wages to different groups (and often different coloured) workers.

It fails because it doesn’t address the problem. The problem doesn’t rest with someone’s colour. A person’s colour does not stop them learning and changing. Knowing a person’s colour does not mean you now know how they will behave, you don’t know just by a person’s colour if they are guilty or innocent. This is the kind of error that some police officers make; they see the skin colour and stop thinking, they see the skin colour and think they know who’s right and wrong. To think that somebody’s white skin means that they must be racist, must be privileged, must be biased is to make the same mistake as the bigot. To think you can reduce a problem or a person down to the issue of their race is simply racist and no amount of sophistry about power balances will negate this. Because Black Lives Matter we need to defeat racism. We are not born racist, we have to learn it, and it looks as if we are well on our way to teaching the next generation.

White shift. Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities. Eric Kaufmann

White shift. Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities. Eric Kaufmann

This is a book about ‘whiteness’, what it is to be white in our curent society, what it may be like to be white in the future, but it is a book with a difference. The difference, which feels taboo breaking, is that he looks at the issue of the major ethnographic changes and includes the viewpoint of those that are white. It looks at the fears that they may have for their future and how these may be driving current populist politics.

White Shift by Eric Kaufmann

The book attempts, and largely succeeds, to look at this issue from a dispassionate viewpoint. It is not a book which looks at whiteness in order to clarify some other issue, and although issues such as empire, racism, slavery, and inequality rightly are addressed they are not the sole lens though which this analysis is made.

This attempt at objectivity, while it is the root of the book’s success is also its achilles heel and its ultimate failure. Many reviewers have commented on the magisterial and mammoth amount of data collection that the book contains. No statement is made without reams of data to support and buttress it. While this does make it possible to accept many of his observations and conclusions it also means that this is extremely heavy reading. This reads like a heavy reference tome not like a political book. So while I can say I found this book interesting I can not say I found an easy or pleasant read.

An important strand of the book is the current failure to look at these changes in an impartial way. The inability of most commentators to understand that people may be upset or anxious about the changes they see to their communities brought about by demographic change. The dismissal of these concerns, and the lazy assumption that these worries simple reflect racism, is shown to be a potent driver of support for populist political groups.

The book makes a good case that the future should not be bleak. All evidence suggests we accomodate to change and further manage to create better societies a consequence. But, if we ignore this change, or mishadle or responces to it, as we are currently doing, we may stoke the very problems we seek to avoid.

So in summary, a worthwhile and valuable read, if not a very enjoyable one. Perhaps one for the reference shelves.

James McCune Smith

I spent many years at Glasgow University; six years as an undergraduate learning medicine and a further decade later on when I worked as a lecturer in the medical faculty. During this time, I learnt about many of the illustrious ex-alumni such as Joseph Lister, Tobias Smollett, William Hunter and A.J. Cronin to name a few. However, to my shame, I did not until recently know the name of perhaps one of its most important sons – James McCune Smith (1813-1865). If the University can be proud of any part of its heritage its role in this gentleman’s education is one it should cherish.

James McCune Smith was born in slavery but was emancipated at the age of 14. Despite this emancipation no University in America would take this intelligent young man as a student because he was black, and his emancipation didn’t mean the end of racial discrimination. Being exceptionally bright the African Free School in New York and Abolitionist societies in Britain arranged to pay for his transport and education in Glasgow University. His promise was confirmed when he graduated at the top of his class and graduated with degrees in 1835, 1836 and 1837.

He was the first African-American to obtain a medical degree. He undertook his internship in Paris before returning to America to set up practice in lower Manhattan and work as the resident physician at the ‘Colored Orphan Asylum‘. He was a prolific writer and active in political circles. Indeed, Frederick Douglass described him as “the single most important influence” on his life and another commentator at the time noted “As the learned physician-scholar of the abolition movement, Smith was instrumental in making the overthrow of slavery credible and successful“. He was the first black man to have an articles published in American medical journals and he established the first black owned and run pharmacy in the United States. Despite all his success no New York Medical association, nor the American Medical Association, would accept him as a member because of his race. Racial discrimination followed him, despite the many successes of the abolitionist and emancipation societies over the years, and he was buried in an unmarked grave by his pale-skinned children to escape racial prejudice.

Glasgow University is to open a new learning hub building and intend to name it in James McCune Smith’s honour. It is about time. Hopefully future doctors in training won’t remain as shamefully ignorant, as I was, about the history of one of our most important colleagues.

Is Unnecessary Suffering the price of our tolerance?

Is Unnecessary Suffering the price of our tolerance?

Religious freedom; that is, the ability to think freely on religious matters, the right to worship an the manner your religion decides, the freedom of associate with others of your faith, and the freedom to express your faith, through words or actions, is one of the hallmarks of a modern, liberal, civilised society. One of the signs that this has been reached is the tolerance that citizens show towards fellow citizens who do not share the same beliefs as them. Thus in a tolerant society people may disagree, even vehemently so, and believe others wrong in their thoughts and deeds but we tolerate these differences and live alongside each other despite them. We do not insist we all think and believe the same way and do not demand that people act, or don’t act , in the same way. We don’t insist that we all abstain from meat on a Friday, nor that we all observe the Sabbath on Saturday, nor do we insist we all face Mecca while we pray.

However, there are some limits to this tolerance. This tolerance does not allow us to commit acts which are harmful to others and we insist that everyone is equal in front of the law. Or rather, with the rare cases of religious exceptions, we insist everyone is equal in front of the law. We tend to think that these exceptions should be rare, and should be based on a clear picture that they are necessary for religious observance, and do not break the natural rights of others. For example, I am sure that no matter how liberal a state became, and no matter how protective it was of religious freedom, that any modern state could countenance an exception to permit ‘child sacrifice’.

That above example was an extreme and therefore easy choice, but what of the difficult choices ? What about when a religions try to preserve archaic practices which we no longer hold to be reasonable ? What about when a religion demands of its adherents that they mutilate the genitals of their young ? This one is difficult . In the UK we allow a religious exemption to mutilate young boys’ genitals , while we circumcise them, but ban and prosecute anyone who tries to mutilate a young girl’s genitals. We cope with a difficult problem by having obvious dual standards. This is how important religious freedom is; it is more acceptable to be incoherent and duplicitous than to infringe any more than is absolutely necessary on the rights of citizens to practice their religion.

When these practices do not involve the suffereing and rights of people, but rather relate to animals, we become even less logical. It is generally accepted that if we are to kill, to eat, large animals such as hens, sheep or cattle, then they should be stunned into insensibility before the final act of killing the animal is performed. There is a clear body of evidence that animals which are not stunned and who bleed to death suffer pain and distress during this process. (For a summary by the RSPCA and British Veterinary Society see here). Therefore it is against the law to kill an animal by bleeding unless it has been stunned beforehand. Except if there is a religious excemption such as exists for the halal or kosher slaughter of animals. In most cases, even those animals who are slaughtered under kosher or halal regulations are still stunned before slaughter but it is estimated that up to 1 in 5 animals killed under these relgulations are killed without being stunned.

I am of a liberal disposition. I do not agree with this method of killing and think those that do this are doing a great diservice to the animal and to their faith. I argue with them and hope that, given time, they will see the error of their ways and behave better – either by stunning their animals or by deciding not to eat them at all. If you can only eat the animal if it has suffered it would seem inhumane to eat it, especially as there is no necessity to eat meat at all. I will, and have, argued strongly on this topic but because I am a tolerant individual I must tolerate their right to do this. It is one of the costs of maintaining our society, I would not seek to ban them but would urge them to reconsider their practice.

Unfortunately, I fear that an aspect of this problem is not being dealt with fairly and that a lack of openness and honesty is causing unnecesary suffering for animals. Many animals in abbatoires are killed in accordance with halal practice and the numbers killed thus exceeds the number needed for sale clearly labelled as killed under these religious excemptions. It is felt wiser in the slaughterhouse to do more animals this way than needed as they can be sold as normal while an animal killed humanely can not be sold as halal or kosher.

There is obviously no harm which will befall someone should they eat halal slaughtered meat unknowingly, though an observant religious person finding they had unwittingly eaten meat not slaughtered in such a fashion may worry for their souls (Though I believe the religions themselves give dispensation for such accidents). So many animals are killed without stunning but no mention is made of this on the labelling except when it is sold explicitly as halal meat. It has been suggested that almost every kebab sold in Wales is mad from meat slaughtered to halal standard (some stunned, some not) but no mention of this will be made at the point of sale. This is the very definition of unnecessary suffering , if I eat meat killed without stunning when I have no religious need to do so, then that the suffering of that animal was unnecessary and should have been avoided.

We already place labels on our food, various pleasant red tractors, or green trees, to ressure us that our animals had a good life and were well cared for. But we seem reluctant to place a label which lets us know that the animal didn’t suffer at death. I can understand the retailers’ reluctance; they clearly know that if there was a label saying halal slaughter some buyers would avoid that product because they do not want to be party to unnecessary animal suffering. They would prefer that we remain ignorant and continue to make the purchase unhindered by any moral deliberation.  Unfortunately they thus remove a choice we may wish to make to support better animal husbandry.

I fear our legislators also wish to avoid this issue but for a darker and more sinister reason. I believe that  they fear, that should they insist on labels saying ‘humane slaughter’, or something similar, then people may ask for a debate on how far religious exceptions in law can go in our society. They fear that they may unleash public anger. They tend to believe that for every person troubled by issues of religious tolerance and animal welfare there is a bigoted, racist, islamophobic or anti-Semitic  doppelgänger who will be released, and therefore it is best just to keep quiet about all of this.

Unfortunately keeping quiet and hiding secrets never encourages anyone to change. Those to whom you lied never find themselves pleasantly surprised when they find out the secrets you kept from them. It is more likely that when people find the truth they tend to become angry and hostile. Thus, if anything, this strategy of hidding the religious exemptions from humane slaughter is, in the long term, likely to increase animosity between groups and reduce the drivers for change and increased societal harmony. A simple label “killed humanely” would reassure those of us who eat meat, it might make some of us who eat meat think about whether we should continue to do so, and would hardly be offputting to someone who felt that their alternative methods were appropriate (Though it may make them think).

Surely it is just as important to know the animal was cared for when it was killed as to know that it was treated fairly while alive ? It might even be the very least we could do.



Drifting towards the rocks.

Drifting towards the rocks.

It is increasingly apparent that the left has abandoned its originators. It was through the struggles of the working class that many of the present left wing organisations were born. These movements had their roots in the organisations formed by the working class to protect their interest and promote their advancement. The trade unions were the stalwarts of the Labour Party in Britain, and to a degree remain important today, but few on the left today have more than a vague awareness that the other strand which pushed the development of the left was Christian thinking. As Morgan Phillips, when General Secretary of the Labour Party said “the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism“. In any event, any link between the Labour Party and working class organizations and culture has largely atrophied and disappeared. Now, like many organisations on the left, is more concerned with identity politics and intersectional theory than with any class struggle.

Thoughts on this subject were stirred last night MV5BMzc1MDY3NDIwMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzkwNzU0MzI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_when I went to see the Swedish film “The Square” which won the Palm D’or Award at Cannes. I’d heartily recommend this film to anyone who has not yet seen it as it is a biting, vicious satire which is genuinely funny but also very thought provoking. Although the main target is the “Art World” it also takes aim at the progressive elite who run our charities, government quangos,  health boards, government enquiries and generally wield a large part of the day-to-day power in our society. These people talk the talk of inclusion, accessibility, sharing and caring and empowering the powerless, but rarely do they walk the walk. As the film reveals they often have a deep seated fear of the poor and have much more interest in satisfying their own needs. In the film they create art to show they care for their fellow man but fail to recognise their fellow man in need when they pass them in the street.

On the left the politics of identity and intersectionality may have been able to help some groups. Although the womens’ struggle and the fight against racism seemed to be being fought with success before this new theory took the high ground, and it is arguable how much added benefit these theories have had in advancing the causes of women and minorities in western societies. Sometimes the focus on cultural issues, and cultural identity, has indeed been counterproductive when one considers the struggles of women, or homosexuals,  in Islamic countries where a blind eye has been turned to horrific events and support has been denied to those struggling for liberation. But there has been also an unintended negative  consequence of these theories. Now there is a problem of what to do with white working class men and boys.

These individuals have found that ‘class‘ does not count in the hierarchy of victimhood. Poverty and powerlessness do not, in themselves, interest the left. Their struggles are no longer what drives the progressives and their culture no longer has any interest to them. When they think of white working class men they think of brutes, loud scary people with opinions they reject, the wrong ideas on Brexit and immigration. often with attachment to old fashioned cultural constructs and morals. They just don’t fit. In the world of the media and the arts they have all but disappeared. Working class men make up a third of the population but they will not be seen in our plays, films or television series except as in small roles as bigot No#1 or possibly as a wifebeater. In between the programmes on television, the adverts will show every demographic possible with the exception of white working class men. They are an embarrassment which will hurt sales, best to hide them away.

We have a culture that despises them, as Frederick Mount in his book “Mind the Gap” reported they have been “subjected to a sustained programme of social contempt and institutional erosion which has persisted through many different governments and several political fashions”. They have no political project promoting their aims and therefore is is no surprise  that as a group they are suffering badly.   In education, according to the 2016 report by the Sutton Trust, white pupils on free school meals achieve the lowest grades of any ethnic group. In employment and housing they are also steadily failing. These effects should have been anticipated.

The final, probably unintended, consequence of these changes should worry us all. These people who have a proud tradition of fighting for equality and for the moral good have shown themselves able to transform society. Their rejection by the left and progressive movements creates a vacuum. We can hope that new movements will form and pick up the struggle for social improvement. However, recent experience in Europe and America makes me fearful that other political movements will move to fill this vacuum. I fear it is easy to sell a project based on hate and anger to a group that has been marginalised, alienated and held in contempt. Vengeance is a powerful motivating force !

We need a progressive movement that includes everyone, particularly the majority of working class men and women who make up our society. We need to stop defining ourselves into smaller and smaller groups and trying to create our power bases and start defining what we want a good society to look like. We have to start to think we can change society and that we all have something to gain in the future. As Vance wrote in Hillbilly Elegy “We hillbillies need to wake the hell up.” – we all do  – because if we don’t Trump, Orban, and Le Pen are only the first glimpse of our future. We still have a chance to stop it.