Below is a slightly expanded text of a ten-minute speech I gave at the Oxford Union for the proposition ‘This House Believes Britain Should Be Ashamed of Churchill’. The bits in square brackets are things I didn’t have time to say, or hadn’t thought of saying at the time, or reflections on what happened later. Shoulda coulda woulda: that’s what blogs are for.
In April 2016, Boris Johnson (while still mayor of London) wrote a curious article for the Sun. The article was timed to coincide with a visit to the UK by President Obama, who was widely expected to appeal to the British people to vote to remain in the European Union in the upcoming referendum. As a leading spokesperson for the Leave campaign, Boris wanted to pre-empt Obama. He tried to do this by invoking Churchill in two ways. First, he drew attention to one of Obama’s first acts upon entering the Oval Office, when he returned a bust of Churchill to the British embassy in Washington. Speculating on why Obama might have done this, he suggested—with more than a hint of Trumpian Birtherism—that this might have been ‘a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire—of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.’ See, Obama’s grandfather had been arrested and tortured for his alleged participation in the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya, which began during Churchill’s postwar premiership. Having tried to discredit Obama by reminding us of his dislike for Churchill and the British empire, Boris then invoked Churchill in a more positive vein as a symbol of the struggle against dictatorship in Europe who might similarly inspire the efforts of Leavers in their own struggle against the dictatorship of the European Union. In this strange little article and its intersecting oppositions—Boris v. Barack, Leave v. Remain, Churchill v. the empire—we have all the ingredients that might explain why this House, in 2018, is being asked to consider whether to express shame in a long dead British Prime Minister.
This is the third in a series of posts about statues. Because shit keeps happening. You can read the first and second posts in any order.
Thanks to Newsnight for the TL; DR version:
Here’s the discussion that followed:
One striking aspect of this conversation is the degree of anxiety about the precedent value of statue removal: as Kirsty Wark asks, ‘where do you stop?’ Donald Trump wondered the same thing in a tweet that, I suspect, he hoped would be a conversation stopper:
Mother, stepmother, perfidious Albion—whatever metaphor one prefers to employ, Britain has always been important to Canada. But what is Canada to Britain? It depends on whom you ask.
This post originally appeared on Open Canada.
The chafing constraints of a thesis prevent any original reflection on our hallowed Olympic moment (not least because Rahul has already said so much, and so well). There was little to better Iain Sinclair’s apt diagnosis of “a wonderful national hallucination: a beautiful conjuring between William Borroughs and Charles Satchi…the combination of paranoia and advertising run wild” (a clip worth watching for Jon Snow’s outraged ignorance at the origins of the Olympic Flame [clue: Nazis]). Reports had filtered through that the economic miracle was not as originally billed, with talk of Central London’s ‘ghost town’, stimulating a description elsewhere of the Olympics as an “economic bomb deployed against world cities”. And now there is the most welcome return of K-Punk. At length:
Welcome to the Hunger Games. The function of the Hunger Games is to suppress antagonism, via spectacle and terror. In the same way, London – 2012 preceded and accompanied by the authoritarian lockdown and militarisation of the city – are being held up as the antidote to all discontent. The feelgood Olympics, we are being assured, will do everything from making good the damage done by last year’s riots to seeing off the “threat” of Scottish independence. Any disquiet about London 2012 is being repositioned as “griping” or “cynicism”. Such “whinging”, it is claimed, assumed its proper place of marginality as the vast majority enjoy the Games, and LOCOG is vindicated…
…But once the Olympic floodlights are turned off, most will switch back from an attitude of mild interest to indifference towards even the most dramatic Olympic sports, never mind those many Olympic sports which plainly have limited specator appeal. This isn’t the point though: disquiet about London 2012 was never necessarily based in any hostility towards the sports. Enjoyment of the sport and loathing for LOCOG and the IOC are perfectly compatible.
Cynicism is just about the only rational response to the doublethink of the McDonalds and Coca Cola sponsorship (one of the most prominent things you see as you pass the Olympic site on the train line up from Liverpool Street is the McDonalds logo). As Paolo Virno argues, cynicism is now an attitude that is simply a requirement for late capitalist subjectivity, a way of navigating a world governed by rules that are groundless and arbitrary. But as Virno also argues, “It is no accident … that the most brazen cynicism is accompanied by unrestrained sentimentalism.” Once the Games started, cynicism could be replaced by a managed sentimentality.
Affective exploitation is crucial to late capitalism. The BBC’s own Caesar Flickerman (the interviewer who extracts maximum sentimental affect from the Hunger Games contestants before they face their deaths in the arena) is the creepily tactile trackside interviewer Phil Jones. Jones’s “interviews” with exhausted athletes, are surely as ritualised as any Chinese state broadcast. Emote. Emote again. Emote differently. Praise the crowd.
And, just in case you somehow missed it, the irrepressible CassetteBoy:
To reiterate somewhat, there is a politics to these riots. Panicking, political leaders and many others, have queued up to deny this, labelling it “pure violence,” “criminality, pure and simple“, or “mindless violence“. Over and over again, the distance between the rioters and the ‘community’ or ‘Londoners’ has been set up and reinforced. This is not without some public backing. After all, many Londoners are, rightly, angry, frightened, upset, frustrated, shocked and saddened by the sight of homes and businesses not just smashed but burning voraciously into the night whilst looters showed off their new gear. We were a world away, it seemed, from the specific, dignified, coherent demands for justice being made by Mark Duggan’s family and their supporters. Many asked themselves: what do they want? The answer seemed to be: trainers. What could be political about stealing from Foot Locker?
First things first. This post is not about constructing a narrative of social apologia via moral determinism – i.e. the idea that people couldn’t help themselves, or were bound to do it by their economic status etc. Between this and the ‘mindless violence’ line of argument, there are plenty of fools (sadly many, powerful, wealthy, and in charge of your country) trading in pretty stupid accounts of human behaviour and social causation. Continue reading