Search

Stewart Hotston

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

Category

Globalisation

Slavery

If you follow this blog even a little you’ll have read posts from me about racism, inequality and other related themes over the years. However, it’s in reading the three books I want to talk about here that have really challenged me over the last year.

WARNING – I use racial terms some of you may find uncomfortable or offensive. This is not meant as anything except a review of how these books have effected me but consider this your trigger warning.

The first of the three is Lincoln’s biography by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s a book that is epic in its scope and puts a number of subjects into sharp focus for me. The first of these is the cause of the civil war in the US. It’s clear it was about slavery, it’s also clear from this startling work that modern debates about ‘heritage’ mean slavers’ heritage of being able to claim that it’s ok to enslave non-whites because they’re sons of Ham, and it’s ok to treat them as worse than cattle (for what farmer would beat their cattle to death with regular abandon?). From Goodwin’s meticulous description of the events of the time, it’s very clear that the heritage argument is one for white people being at the centre of all and for everyone else to be disenfranchised.

Furthermore, I have very few heroes but Lincoln is one of them. A flawed man capable of change, of growth and, most importantly, seeing how to get what he wanted – even if that took years to achieve. A man capable of welding together people from all walks of life, of winning them over and of creating coalitions capable of achieving more than anyone thought possible. My heart aches over the possibilities lost in the aftermath of his murder.

It also highlights just how dangerous it was to be someone who was abolitionist. It wasn’t an opinion one had, it was, for those who were committed, a way of life that involved fighting, violence (both political and actual) and real danger. I suppose this isn’t different to most political movements – they’re founded on the recognition of incipient violence for a cause. This last point is one our political systems today suppress with every tool at their disposal because the possibility that we would be that politically conscious threatens the system most of us live within (and prosper from). It may feel that these people were the same as us but their lives appear, when you think through what they really faced, a distance from me that makes it an effort just to put myself in their shoes and imagine how they feel. Their concerns were different to ours, their perils alien and their fights distinct.

Although grounded in tales of individuals, the book delivers a grand political overview.

The work of fiction, The Underground Railroad, delivers the personal account to go with the political of Lincoln. Set before Lincoln (and indeed, mashing up several periods of time to tell its story) the novel follows the life of Cora, a typical black slave living in the south of the United States. Owned. Referred to as it because property doesn’t have the dignity of being recognised as human or gendered.

It is a brutal book – in that it doesn’t flinch from detailing actual events and treatments of slaves as they happened. It’s easy to watch films and see slaves treated as indentured workers but this isn’t how it was for much of US slavery’s existence. With a sickening post-hoc rationalisation, white slave owning culture was comfortable with lynching people (both white and black) for helping slaves escape, it was comfortable with torture and that torture was carried out by children, women and men. Children informed on abolitionist parents. Runaways were lynched (if they were lucky) or tortured to death in public if they were unlucky.

In a sign that everyone knows that slavery is iniquitous, blacks are killed for learning to read and a black library becomes a focal point for white violence because it’s too many ideas for a negro. The culture was one of ‘natural order’ where White people were in charge and any ‘negro’ who thought beyond being a slave was uppity, dangerous, asking for it. Freedmen were killed by ‘recovery patrols’ with impunity because they’re only one step away from being chattel.

One argument was that to deal with the fact that there were more slaves than whites – sterilising them would solve the problem over time – especially it would help if they decided to rise up and treat the whites like they’d treated the blacks.

There is no freedom from slavery – even freedmen know this, their dreams replete with memories of beatings, of those who were killed or abused by those whose power over them was utter and unaccountable. Being oppressed twists the mind, breaks the heart in a way that may be impossible to recover from. It raises questions of whether, decades after the end of segregation, the US can safely conclude that the legacy of slavery and the suppression of the ‘other’ has passed or whether it continues to influence the culture, say in laws passed during Jim Crow, in basic cultural tropes and in the application of funding, judgements and a myriad other handles that impinge on civic life.

The character in the book is deeply suspicious of all whites. That may be unfair, but let’s be real – a slave has good cause to hold this view – even when a small minority give their own lives to help them. It questions whether there is a ‘black’ culture and challenges its own main character as to whether there is a ‘white’ culture. There’s reference to Europeans, Whites, Irish and the like. All of which the main character rejects even as the author makes sure to make the distinction. It’s a masterful presentation of the issues in and around a story that is deeply focussed on the personal disaster of being a slave from birth.

You may think Game of Thrones has a high body count (among it’s almost exclusively white cast) but this is worse because it’s not just murder, it’s the complete massacre of agency through repeated abuse followed, eventually, but the death of the body.

If the thought of slavery doesn’t make you sick you’ve either not understood it or there’s something wrong with you. It’s really that simple.

And so we come to the last of the three – The Sellout. This is a vicious, acid burning satire about living as a black person in the modern US. It’s about a black man who ends up owning a slave (who volunteers to become his slave) and the world they both live in that can find space for this relationship to arise and then how it responds to it.

It is harsh, whipcrack smart and extremely funny but it presents a society which I realised that although I’ve seen representations of elsewhere, is one I don’t know and one I don’t experience. It was more alien to me than both Lincoln and the life shown in The Underground Railroad. Which was a shock – that something contemporary was so much more alien than I expected.

Both novels are hard reads in their own way. I know plenty of people who will not read them because they present difficult subjects and all they want from their fiction is ‘escapism’. I lament the intellectual torpor of these peers of mine and I worry that their apathy is half of why the issues discussed in these books persisted for so long in the first place. Fiction like this should be essential reading because it can awaken the heart, it can shake us out of our comfortable self-indulgence. For people who claim to be ‘good’ or ‘moral’, fiction like this should demand their attention because it reminds us all that we’re really not very far away from such horrendous times. Moreso than any non-fiction, because fiction makes it personal and thrusts it into your face and asks you for your empathy.  Sorry – this is my ‘why fiction is so important’ rant.

I recommend all three books. They’ve each served to awaken my political sensibilities more than much of the news on the same subjects in the last year (although the two have worked together I’m sure). I’d start with The Underground Railroad because it’s the most personal, the most accessible.

In the end, slavery and its legacy is still very much alive for most of us both directly (for isntance, find a stone built house in Bath or Bristol not made possible by  the slave trade) or indirectly (US culture is so heavy with its legacy it’s impossible to list all the ways their language, tropes and stereotypes code slavery into the mainstream consciousness). This triplet of books opens a door into this discussion.

As a writer – these books have challenged me to present worlds and stories that take the lives of all those involved in these kinds of relationships more seriously. It’s a frightening task that I know I’m not up to.

 

Crisis? What Crisis?

I see the words shambles, crisis, clueless, hopeless, disaster, fury, anger, not fit for purpose and half a dozen other key words in the paper most days.

I wonder what happened to create this febrile sense of disaster that seems to hover over us every time something happens that we weren’t expecting.

Don’t get me wrong, these phrases are often used for events that are, undoubtedly, tragic and demanding of our compassion and generosity.

Yet in the scheme of things we’re still here (bar the one real crisis I can see right now, which involves the US and DPRK in an increasingly worrying and shrill stand off – there’s no doubting the eventual victor but real uncertainty about the number of people who might die and the impact on relationships across dozens of allies and opponents in the wake of this being resolved).

Then I look back at history and think about the number of people who died young, the children who died before they reached the age of five. I think of the pogroms, the persecutions, the real disasters that wiped entire civilisations from the earth and I wonder why we get so incensed.

I’ve got one, really simple explanation. That we, in the rich late capitalist nations of Western Europe, North America and APAC, have never had it so good.

Until now. In the face of communities creaking from the first decline in life expectancy in  generations, in the first generation to be poorer than their parents since 1945 and with a rapidly changing tech environment that leaves people feeling quite insecure we find our expectations about what normal is to be completely skewed.

We’ve had it good – medicine, travel, food, jobs – all abundantly available within historically stable societies. This is a massive miracle cast by humanity like a spell that’s now starting to expire.

I propose that we’ve got so used to the good stuff that now we see the cracks appearing – rather than remembering the fights that had to be committed to in order to win these freedoms and luxuries, we stand around lost as to why this is happening to us. In our short termism, we lose the strength we could have in remembering just how bloody hard it was to get to this point.

I think that if we remembered how hard it was for those who were there at the time to win enfranchisement for women, rights to reproductive decision making, the end of slavery, gay equality, prohibiting discrimination based on physical identity, the gutting of the class system and LGBT rights we’d realise that those fights will never (unfortunately) be over because cultures flow like tides, responding to scarcity, the need to have identities that keep others out and certainty of material wealth over and above others.

I’m not saying we should be depressed! Far from it. I’m saying that we should smell some of the good things we’ve got going and decide if these are the things we want to leave to future generations. If they are then we need to alter what we think of as normal. Normal isn’t a state of having it good – that’s a momentary achievement we should always celebrate. Normal is fighting for what we want – collectively, constructively – and channeling some of our energy into making sure we’re ready to stand up for it. Not once, not twice, but all the time.

In some ways, I’m saying that the lethargy we feel about politics is misplaced and comes from a feeling of powerless that arises not because we’re powerless but because we’ve forgotten just how hard those who came before fought for what we’ve got.

Preach over.

Nineworlds – observations from my first con

I went to #Nineworlds this weekend just gone in Hammersmith (which is in London, UK for those of you who may be unfamiliar). It’s a fan led conference that’s deeply concerned with the stories we tell ourselves and how those help (or hinder) us when we try to construct our identities (whatever those might be). This could be dry, pretentious, domineering or just plain pedantic but #Nineworlds manages to engage with all of the things it cares about successfully – being witty, passionate, respectful and intelligent.

It was also very welcoming, compassionate and wonderfully cool.

I was lucky enough to be speaking on two panels; the first on how we might deal with historic texts which present us now with themes and subject matter that are difficult to reconcile with what we think of as acceptable – be that explicit/implicit racism, sexism or views on what gender identities are acceptable (or even normative). It was a really fun/deep panel and my co-panellists were interesting, from very different backgrounds to me and together I hope we managed to discuss some interesting angles on this subject – I’ve got a post on this theme coming soon and I’ll use that to re-present some of my thinking on this.

What was most wonderful about that panel though was that during the questions, one of the audience members was brave enough to challenge us on something we had been blind to – the trope of the disabled person being morally deficient and how villains were often disabled in some manner as if they deserved it and specifically because the physical circumstance tagged them as evil. That contribution meant the world to me because I was worried about the discussion being didactic and that someone could contribute as they did meant we succeeded in not speaking at the room but in talking among a community.

The other panel was on AI, Robots and the future of work – and was really an excuse to talk about all those subjects we read about weekly where another advance creates something for us to scratch our heads over – be it machine learning running data centres more efficiently, Amazon warehouses being in the dark because the robots don’t need lights or medical diagnoses being done through automated pattern spotting. And yes, we did also talk about socialist utopias, work, the price of labour and the impact of class, race and location on how we live that experience.

My favourite moments being twofold – a story that made people gasp with shock and seeing David Thomas Moore turn into Citizen Smith.

Aside from that I bundled along to a number of panels – my favourite ones being Dr Magnethands, which is a game I shall be inflicting on friends at parties and one on writing from different points of view. That latter one was the writer in me wanting to learn, wanting to see if how I approach my work makes sense and how I could be smarter about it.

Anyway, I’m now knackered, but home. So adieu to #Nineworlds and thanks again.

Oh, and particular thanks to people who shared drinks and panels with me like David Thomas Moore, Jon Oliver, Joseph Adetifa, Sasha Garwood Lloyd, Dolly Garland, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Peter Smallridge, D Franklin, Ed Boff, Sarah Groenwegen, Matthew Blakstad, Peter Ray Allison and Jeannette Ng to mention just a few. (And obvious apologies if I’ve missed you off this list – the fault is mine, not yours!)

What did the Leave vote mean?

I’ve had a lot of conversations about the Leave vote, and the movement behind it, in the last few days. Most importantly, I’ve been thinking about what it means that people voted Leave. I will state here (as I’ve done elsewhere too) that I voted Remain.

I’m not so interested in the surface read – that’s pretty obvious – anti-immigration, anti-EU, pro-sovereignty, pro-democratic. Those are the arguments when they’re boiled down to two word slogans. There’s a lot to admire in the ideas behind it. Except, just like the Remain position, there’s a more fundamental set of axioms underlying these positions that I think needs explicating if we’re to i) make any sense of what’s going on and ii)learn the lessons that we could learn as a society that needs to reflect on what’s going on.

I posted elsewhere asking, a little tongue in cheek, whether the Leave campaign was really, honestly, the truly anti-colonialist outworking of the collapse of empire? Think of it like this: your world spanning empire, through which you’ve exported your own people globally, together with your language and customs ends. You bring your people home (to a greater or lesser extent) BUT the impact on the world doesn’t simply stop, everything has to readjust, find a new status quo. Part of that is a movement of people (in)directly impacted by that empire and its end. Whether it’s former underclasses or opposition or even those who benefitted from the empire’s infrastructure and presence in their native territories. This, like the empire itself, can last decades, if not longer. However, a natural part of this deflation is that those who were impacted by this process wish to make their lives at the heart of what once ruled their world. In this specific case, people want to live in the UK because of its legacy on the world. Not consciously – few people wake up and say to themselves “I know, I’ll move to the UK because of it’s legacy in the world.” Systems of the World (to borrower Neal Stephenson’s phrase) are far more subtle than that. They provide localised reasons for what people decide to do. e.g. people DO wake up and think, the UK speaks English but is more open than the US, it’s culture is one I think I understand and it’s education system is just as good, so I’ll go study there for my qualification. Which is legacy all over.

Now, if you’re the centre, then you see this deflation with various view points, but one of them is this: we no longer draw wealth into the centre the way we once did but these people still come here. This makes no sense because there is no perceived benefit from the movement of people when the financial benefits one could say used to accrue from ruling them have ended. At this point the anti-colonialist says – let’s stop these visits then.

I hasten to add that it’s just one narrative and I am not proposing it as authoritative. I am simply saying what was behind my puckish question about are Leavers properly anti-colonialist when Remainers are, by and large, not truly committed to that. I’m not going to put here why I think you could argue that Remainers lean more to pro-colonialist narratives than Leavers – they’re not really, but their arguments about empire are differently constructed although arise from the same root – legacy of empire.

What I really want to write about here is legacy.

Let’s start with a bold statement – Leaving the EU is not about the EU. It’s not about Immigration either. It is about capitalism. It is about globalisation.

so point 1. Leave voters rejected globalisation. Both its good points and its bad points.

point 2. In voting remain, voters literally stood on the other side of the coin and said the opposite.

Now, I want to understand why, on the whole, people might have adopted these positions. To do that, let’s clear out a couple of surface level counters:

  1. No, I voted to leave the EU because it’s broken/needs reforming etc.

This isn’t really true when one examines the counter-factuals to this. If asked what could be done to reform the EU to make it acceptable, the only answers that come are either – we want no push for political union or that the EU needs to end completely.

The former of these is an explicit statement that globalisation should be limited. Freedom of movement of people – that is, you and I, is a good thing for workers because we can move for better jobs. Except people don’t really want to move around and face that kind of instability. So they’d rather that the opportunities were close to them (on the whole because there are huge costs with moving, not least the social ones that only the rich can really offset). I understand this even if, in economic theory it is suboptimal. It is a specific limit on globalisation with an obvious corollary – that eventually those people who choose a life where they don’t want to move around for work are also going to want a world in where the work can’t move around so easily either because when it does it will undermine them and their ability to prosper. It’s no malicious but rather an inevitable consequence of choosing a certain kind of life. Now, that demand could be from a minority, but if asked, I would expect that most people would rather have a stable home life and a job that suited them rather than a life spent globe hopping in search of that extra dollar. And remember, I’m not talking about CEOs here. I’m talking about normal people for whom that move might eat their entire benefit arising from the move.

The latter argument is just the former pushed to its logical end.  If you see no benefit from supranational structures like the EU, then really it doesn’t justify its own existence and so should disappear. To the extent it doesn’t, and worse than that, keeps pushing an agenda that undermines your choice of life, then it is a problem not just a neutral to be lived alongside. For most there is no chance to challenge such a behemoth…well most of the time and that resentment focusses itself not on the flaws in choosing a staid lifestyle of staying in one place but on the flaws in a system that doesn’t reward, or allow for, that choice of lifestyle. Like most blame seeking it looks outwards rather than inwards (if only people read more G K Chesterton it might be different one supposes).

2. No, I voted because I want to control our borders…

This is the same as the above, but phrased in a different way. Why should someone consider free movement of people as a problem at all? Well, if one chooses a certain lifestyle and others arrive who are different, that presents an implicit threat to the way of life being sought – because they may well prosper over and above those who chose the other way of life. For example, if someone comes in with better qualifications or with more experience, that means they should get more return on their labour which then means they will prosper over those whose education stopped at 16 years of age with a glad gasp to be away from schooling forever. We may wring our hands over the failure of education or the lack of ambition or the prejudice of such circumstances but the outworking is a difference in opinion about what is appropriate a way to live. We may even say to ourselves that the less well educated deserve their lot and we shouldn’t weep over their choices. However, I think the Leave vote offers us something to learn that our Elites should really be taking notice of for its own sake (rather than as leverage to get themselves more power).

Globalisation has had very palpable benefits. These are documents everywhere, not least in our ability to eat take aways, see films, use phones and have modern medicine when we need it. However, per Joseph Stiglitz’ book “Globalisation and its discontents’ it is not as simple as that. Globalisation has also had its losers and by number there are probably more losers than beneficiaries – especially in advanced western democracies.

Income inequality in advanced capitalist societies is about as bad as its been since enfranchisement. It’s certainly much worse now than at any time since the post war settlements. There is massive evidence in the literature that inequality drives poorer outcomes for the less well off, those who have fewer opportunities. They live shorter lives and at every stage of their interaction with official infrastructure achieve poorer outcomes than their richer counterparts. These differences scale with the gap between richest and poorest. It is not cynicism on the part of the less well off to look at the rich and better educated and believe the deck is stacked against them.

When one votes against the EU, one is voting to i) punish the elites, or ii) to kick against the sticks of official infrastructure that are stacked in other people’s favour.

It may not make one’s life better but it is unlikely to make it obviously, tangibly worse. If one sees this protest as validated then it also permits one to aggressively pursue a rejection of other people’s ways of life (i.e. more racism comes out into the open as a result).

For those who don’t see the argument from the bottom of the opportunity ladder the implicit reasoning is still there – we are insulated from the impact of globalisation, we have our own networks, we can benefit with or without that specific network and, as vested interests, we may well benefit MORE without the competition represented by the other network of powers. I hesitate to use the phrase checks and balances but when multiple sets of vested interests are in peaceful competition, it is nearly always good for the majority who benefit from stability because no one ideology can ascend unchallenged.

So the lessons:

  • Globalisation has its losers, it always will but right now our society is rejecting the notion of globalisation as it’s been presented to them
  • Elites across the western world are perceived by much of the population as the enemy – they have lost legitimacy (for whatever reason – I’m not talking about why or why not)
  • The rejection has a logic to it that makes sense from its own perspective
  • It is not simply here in the UK that this movement, populist in its nature, has taken hold, but across western democracies whose polities have seen their income erode even as elites are perceived to obtain more security, more wealth and deliver fewer goods to society.

I’m not going to talk here about what Remainers might have been voting for beyond the sense that we are better off in a stronger/larger network, that multi-culturalism has brought a massive peace dividend or that the benefits from globalisation outweigh the flaws. Why? Because this is already 2,000 words long and I’ve not got the time or inclination to do that here.

What can our responses be?

  • We need to recognise that, at its heart, a rejection of globalisation as we’ve seen in the last few days comes from almost the same place as Remainers own pleas for equality of opportunity. It’s just being expressed very differently. I think, primarily because the focus is different. In accepting globalisation, Remainers calls for equality and greater justice focus on all people. Leavers start at home and want it for themselves and their own tribes in priority to others. However, the want for perceived justice is the same. Given this idea (if true at all) both sides have a common mandate to pursue a change in the economic and political order that calls for a less wealth inequality and a financial system that permits that (while not actively discouraging wealth creators from innovating and creating)
  • We need to recognise that it is not in the interest of our elites to hear that message. They will look to treat the symptoms of the problem without addressing the underlying causes. They may well control our borders but the UK will become poorer as a result. Those who voted for it will also become even poorer with access to even fewer services. However they will then have nowhere left to turn because they will have been entirely disenfranchised in favour of the elites. Arguments that it’s not about immigration or the EU will be met with suspicion – only by challenging what our politicians enact in law as normative for finance, society and politics itself, can we try to create a space where income inequality is seen as a bad thing for society and, possibly, look to create a space where it is reined in.
  • The bumps in the financial markets right now are the recognition by elites around the world that there is a massive disconnect between them and their constituents and that, at some point it won’t hold together any more.

Our job, if I can be so brassic, is to make sure we change the debate now. That we don’t let decision makers bandage up their pride, throw us a few bones and carry on as normal. If we do, the rejection of the ideals embodied in liberal postmodernity that, in my view at least, benefit mankind more than they harm, will be swallowed up in a sea of intolerance, extreme difference between the rich and the poor and a properly dysfunctional society. I don’t want my kids to live in that world.

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

Sparkonit

Science Simplified

SwordNoob

Adventures in HEMA, LARP, Archery and other activities

ebookwyrm's Blog

Smile! You’re at the best WordPress.com site ever

Daily (w)rite

For lovers of reading, writing, travel, humanity

countingducks

reflections on a passing life

BlondeWriteMore

The Adventures of a Blonde Writer

Writings By Ender

One Hell of an Apprenticeship

Adrian Faulkner

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

Fantasy-Faction

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

Alternative Realities

Why have virtual reality when you can have alternative reality?

1001Up

1001 video games and beyond

Fringeworks - Blogs

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

Shadows of the Apt

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

Tickety Boo Press Ltd

Quality books. Quality anthologies. Quality authors.

KnightWatch Press

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading