2016: A few things left to say

Here we are at the end of 2016. From January onwards, there have been an abundance of social media posts about this being the worst year ever. You’ve all seen the gifs and the memes about what a crap year it’s been, and the posts listing the shit that has happened: Bowie, Prince, Brexit, Trump. The last few days it seems to have been another day, another celebrity death.

I don’t have much else to say about Brexit and Trump. They have dominated the news for the entire year. Instead I want to talk about the bits of 2016 that stick out to me as being particularly disappointing, partly because of the way they have been reported in the news and on social media – or rather, the way they haven’t been reported. While the deaths of much loved actors, musicians, and comedians are very sad, and I don’t want to take away from people’s grief, all these people will be remembered. Most of them lived full and interesting lives, and even if some were taken too soon and too suddenly, it is clear that they will live on in their arts and their fans.

None of us have been able to get away from Brexit all year. I am sick and tired of hearing the word and wish to goodness nobody had thought it up. I have largely tuned out of the negotiations or lack thereof, the ridiculous arguments about soft and hard and single markets and other nonsense. The truth is people voted for something they didn’t understand, something that seemed threatening and pointless, and nobody managed to articulate properly why it was something we needed. I’ve read a few articles laying the blame for this at the feet of the UK media, which have been reporting for decades on EU bureaucratic red tape, pointless studies on the shapes of bananas, and other ridiculousness, meaning that for years we have focussed on the negative. This shouldn’t be much of a shock: the media focuses on the negative 9 times out of 10 now. I already disliked following the news much because of that tendency, but this year my belief in our media has failed completely. At the same time as all the endless coverage of Brexit and Trump and the pages and pages of celebrity obituaries, some of the news stories of the year that have shocked me the most have barely caused a blip on the radar.

So far, I haven’t seen a single 2016 round-up article, meme, or social media update that mentions Orlando. This was the worst shooting in US history, and the worst crime against the LGBTQ+ community since the Holocaust. At the time I was bewildered by how little impact it made on my social media, and now I am twice as confused about why it is never mentioned, never alluded to in stories and speeches and thought pieces. Even at the time, the UK media coverage left a lot to be desired: the Daily Mail has been overt in its homophobia this year, and didn’t even put the story on the front page. Most UK newspapers focussed on the gunman’s connection to ISIS, even though it was clear from the start that the affiliation was tenuous at most. Owen Jones walked off a breakfast programme after the hosts refused to acknowledge that this was a homophobic crime. Unfortunately, happening as it did in the run-up to the Brexit vote, this tragedy got swept up and forgotten. I too am sad about the deaths of various famous people this year, and I am deeply disappointed in the outcomes of the referendum and election. But I hate the fact that these people, who died in the worst circumstances of terror and hatred, have been completely forgotten by so many.

Shortly after Orlando, Jo Cox was killed. I still don’t quite understand why her death knocked me so hard, but it did, and it still does. Perhaps because it seemed such a remarkably unlikely thing to happen in the UK: an MP be gunned down in the middle of the street, in broad daylight. It seemed completely unthinkable. Again, the newspapers glossed over the motivations for the crime, focussing instead on the idea that the gunman was mentally ill. I was completely confused, again. Why weren’t more people talking about his affiliation to far right groups? If he’d been connected to ISIS that would have been all anyone had to say. Why, when it was a white man who was committed to xenophobia and racism, was that fact not really talked about? Again, the news story got pushed out of the papers by the result of the EU referendum. Farage had the nerve to say that they had won ‘without a single shot being fired’. When her killer was sentenced, more newspapers covered the motivations behind the attack. Why didn’t anyone say anything at the time, when – potentially – it could have made a difference? Maybe I’m overestimating the effect better coverage of a woman’s violent death could have had. But I do think the media covered it poorly. Of course the Daily Mail was not to be outdone on this story either, as the sentencing of her murderer was moved to page 30. They even painted him as a sympathetic figure who just wanted Jo Cox’s help protecting his house from some sort of swarm of immigrants. What a repulsive rag.

Other devastating news stories from around the world appear to be getting more coverage as the year draws to a close. The pictures and stories coming out of Syria have been horrendous for some time, and there seems to be more being reported at the moment, as Aleppo is bombed out of existence. Sometimes it seems ridiculous to me that we in the UK have been complaining so much about a referendum which, yes, is ludicrous, a marker of social disharmony and is likely to bring about a great deal of change – quite likely negative for many of us, especially if you are a minority – but we are hardly being bombed out of our homes. I don’t want to minimise people’s fears, but it is good to gain some perspective and think of other people who have it worse and need our help.

Similarly, the situation in the Philippines has brought me up short recently. Their President, Rodrigo Duterte, is a complete psychopath. You may remember him being elected earlier in the year, saying he was going to crackdown on drug usage by sentencing users and dealers to death. Well it’s not turned out to be quite as official as that. It’s getting reported more now, but I didn’t hear a whisper about what was happening (and neither had my mum, who reads The Times every day and listens to BBC Radio constantly) until I read this New York Times article a month or so ago. They sent a photojournalist there who documented the deaths of 57 people in 35 days. Reports estimate that 6,000 people have been killed since Duterte took office. And this is not trial and law and order and sitting on death row. People who turned themselves in as drug users are being slaughtered in their own homes. Police turn up, shoot them (sometimes in front of their family and children) and then leave them. Later someone comes to collect the body. Police drive past on motorcycles and gun people down in the street. If you do look at the NYT article, take great care. We may think we’re immunised to pictures of violence these days but these photographs still haunt me.

I realise this is not a cheerful post. Basically I’m just giving some more reasons why 2016 was a bag of crap that aren’t talked about quite so often. Despite the death and the stupidity and the hatred, many good things have happened this year. We don’t hear about them because good news doesn’t sell. Several animals have been taken off the endangered list, which I’d never thought about as being a thing: somewhat pessimistically, I assumed that once an animal went on the endangered list, they were headed the way of the dodo. But giant pandas, humpback whales, and green sea turtles are no longer endangered. The number of tigers in the wild rose for the first time in 100 years. We have an Ebola vaccine. The survival rate of people with pancreatic cancers has risen by 9%. Leonardo di Caprio finally got an Oscar. While in many ways this has been a poor year in terms of progress for LGBTQ+ people, Taiwan is on the verge of becoming the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage.

There is good news out there. What this year has shown me more than any other is how much we all live in a bubble. So many people on my social media were out preaching to the choir before the Brexit and Trump votes. Both results were a huge shock to me because I live in a comfy liberal circle of people. We have been fed on bad news for the whole year, and we have kept the circles going, feeding it back to each other in an endless cycle of ‘2016 IS THE WORST’. Some months ago I started feeling like ‘2016’ had become a separate thing, some kind of personality with its own agency that was out to cut us all down. Obviously, this is nonsense, and 2016 is far from the worst year in history. Have half our families been wiped out with the plague? Have all the men we know been sent off to war? Have we lived through a famine? Occasionally I understand why people must get so annoyed with the liberal people wanting the world to march forward on what we see as its inevitable journey towards freedom, democracy and love for all: as someone puts it in The West Wing, we are incredibly smug. I’m not saying we necessarily should change. I don’t really know how, and despite all the calls to action over the last few months, I’m not convinced anybody else does either. But I am frightened of the power that the media and social media have now, and that they are being used for deeply negative ends. From trolling, to negative feedback loops on everyone’s facebook pages, to fake news stories spread by bots and believed by half the people that see them. Perhaps we all need to think a little more about how we are using our influence, and spread a little more happiness. Even if it doesn’t change the world, bring the UK back into the EU and oust Trump (preferably before he even gets into the White House) at least it will make people smile instead of making them think, ugh, yes. This year was the absolute worst.

Keep hoping, friends.

Well. Since 3am I’ve been lying awake or having nightmares about Trump becoming president. Maybe it’s because I had a few run-throughs of waking up to it before I actually woke up to it, or maybe it’s because of the Brexit result in the summer, but this result isn’t such a shock to me.

I know how terrifying this is, especially for people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, women – or essentially, anyone who isn’t a straight white misogynistic power-crazed man. I am very depressed for what this says about people’s attitude to women in the 21st century. By voting for Trump, people are voting for a view of women which many hoped had died off around the 1950s. And by going with an “anyone but Clinton” attitude, although people say it’s because of her corruption, it seems to me pretty obvious that one of the main reasons for it is because she’s female. If you keep their histories and behaviour but switch their genders, there’s no question about how this election would have played out. A 70-year-old woman who had been divorced three times would never have got close to the White House, while a man with Clinton’s experience would have been, I would guess, far more popular. I don’t understand all the reasons why people dislike Clinton so heartily, but I do think they underestimate the role sexism has to play in it. If we take the view that people see women as Madonnas or whores, Clinton doesn’t fit: she’s clearly not a whore, but she can’t be a Madonna because she is powerful and, at times, ruthless. Terrifyingly, apparently the majority of white women voted for Trump. This is baffling to me, but perhaps feeds into arguments that women are threatened by the power of other women. Or maybe they enjoy that kind of ‘man taking control’ bullshit that Trump espouses so brilliantly.

Anyway. We could talk for hours about what a depressing result this is. God knows 2016 has been a hell pit for anyone of a liberal persuasion. Here are a few thoughts I’ve been having to try and counteract the negativity this morning:

  • I have such low hopes for Trump that really, the only way is up. If he hasn’t nuked China within the first six months, I’m counting it as a win.
  • I am taking solace in the fact that there are millions of people all around the world who are feeling just as lost and powerless as I am today. Thanks to today’s technology we all have ways of connecting and joining virtual hands around the globe, and that kind of connection can only be a point of comfort.
  • I have recently finished The Art of Happiness, a book full of conversations between the Dalai Lama and an American psychologist. Together they try to find ways of creating happiness which take elements of both Eastern and Western philosophy. It is a heartening book particularly at times like these, showing the surprising similarity of ideas that originated in such different cultures, and also what it can be like when people are open and receptive to other people’s thoughts and opinions. One idea that is helping me in particular is samsara, or cycles of death and rebirth, which is central to Buddhist thinking. I do not believe in reincarnation per se, but Buddhists also believe the world goes through cycles of samsara. I’m not entirely sure if it’s supposed to be used in this way, but I am looking at history today for these cycles.

    In the nineteenth century there was a rapid increase in communication across the world, with the advent of telegrams, railway lines, and increases in trade. This was in many ways the beginning of western hegemony, as previously China was one of the most powerful empires in the world. With western industrialisation, the balance of power changed. Through the first half of the twentieth century many racist attitudes held sway, and extreme nationalism brought several terrifying leaders into power. After a massive cycle of change and, of course, wars, the balance changed again. The second half of the twentieth century saw many of these “scientific” racist attitudes thrown in the trash, empires slowly began to come apart, and since then we have had huge steps forward for women, gay rights, and civil rights.

    I am, of course, simplifying MASSIVELY and I’m sure any academic reading this will want to step in and teach me a few things. Not today, please. Be tolerant today. Unless you believe my views are harmful or you’re really in the mood for teaching and debate, in which case, let me know and we’ll discuss it like adults, and like rational human beings, and I’m sure we’ll both enjoy the conversation immensely. But sadly we are now seeing a backlash to this “opening up” which has brought joy and happiness to so many. Unfortunately, for some, these expansions in rights have not been a sign of progress, but a sign of their own power being reduced. If we believe that there is only a finite amount of power and influence to go around, these are frightening times if you are someone who has, to date, held most of that power. Or if your beliefs are such that you think only certain people should be allowed to hold it. If you believe in the verses of the bible which prohibit homosexuality, then I can only imagine that the day the US allowed same-sex marriage you had much the same feeling as I do now. If you believe that the colour of someone’s skin has something fundamental to say about what they can and cannot achieve as a person, then the anger that has flowed through many American cities of late can be read as confirmation of your beliefs, rather than the righteous fury of people mistreated for too long, too often. And if you believe women’s main role should be at home raising a family, then this year will have been a real shake-up for you.

    I am sad to think that people believe these things. But I am not surprised by the fact that they have not disappeared yet. It seems clear that these attitudes have risen up again, that we are rushing headfirst into a new era of intolerance and rolling back of the rights of people who have been fighting so hard for them. I am hopeful that we will avoid wars of the kind of magnitude we experienced a hundred years ago, especially as, with someone like Trump having their finger hovering over the button, it would literally be the death of the earth. And although that’s depressing to think about, if it does happen, then we’ll have nothing to worry about anyway. (Side note: I’ve just started watching The West Wing (I know, I’m ten years behind the times. When I’m 40 I’ll start Breaking Bad) and I had no idea that it is basically ONE person’s decision to start attacking another country. Just the president. Terrifying! Also, is Aaron Sorkin and the West Wing cast available to run America? I feel like they’d do a stand-up job, especially compared to this crazy waxwork clown who’s got in instead.)

    Steering back to my positive point: the world has gone through some serious shit before. We’ve had men who chose to try to exterminate an entire race. We’ve had terrifying eras of persecution and intolerance and people treated like less than animals. And it does end. Eventually. Although sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, we’ve come a long way and more people have more than they have done at any time before in history. A friend said she read an article which argued that if Clinton had got in, as the ultimate establishment figure, the feelings that started with Sarah Palin and ended up in Trump would just have got worse. Maybe getting what they think they want will prove that it isn’t as advertised (hello, Brexit). Keep up the hope, my friends. We are all human beings underneath. I know it is tough for everyone who has already worked out this fundamental human truth – that we are all just people – to see the rest of humanity continue to be so fucking stupid, but the millennial voting map in America was very positive. Hopefully this new generation, of which I am a part, will rise up against the bigotry and dumb rhetoric which has characterised politics in the UK and US this year, and we will fight for a brighter future. The cycles will keep on turning.

    And in the meantime, there’s The West Wing to distract us.

Brexit: new racist incidents and Jo Cox. How will history remember this?

I wasn’t going to write a blog about the referendum, as I didn’t feel like I had anything to say that somebody hadn’t already said. However, yesterday I saw a collection of tweets detailing racist attacks across the country since Friday morning, and I now feel like everyone needs to speak out to condemn these acts – even if it’s just in a small way.

I know that racist attacks are not exactly uncommon in this country. I did a Master’s dissertation on second generation Chinese migrants in Britain, and one of the focuses was on racism. So I know people still encounter lazy racist stereotyping and hurtful abuse. What makes these new reports different is not only the number reported in different parts of the country over a short space of time but that the abusers clearly feel the referendum result has legitimated their disgusting opinions. I am not branding all Leave voters with this, I know it is a very small minority and many people voted Leave for what they feel to be sound economic reasons. I don’t understand what EU regulations have done to some British fishermen but I was in Whitstable yesterday and there were several signs out thanking people who had voted Leave. I sincerely hope that if the result does go ahead that they get what they wanted.

Of course, the Leave voters who are now hounding migrants of all kinds across this country are not going to get what they want. They seem to be under an illusion that voting to leave the EU means all migrants in this country need to ‘get out’ – and quickly, as one man was apparently calling for ‘all foreigners to get out in the next 48 hours’. The total lack of information about what would actually happen if we voted to Leave is now being shown in all its alarming starkness. We have no fucking idea, and it doesn’t seem like anybody else does either. Some people were apparently surprised at the sudden drop in the value of the pound, despite it being forecast many times before the referendum. Presumably people will be even more surprised when businesses start to move elsewhere creating job losses, when even those who are still legally allowed to stay choose to leave to get away from racist abuse- with subsequent issues in NHS staffing for a bloody start; when the universities suffer even further as their EU funding and grants get pulled, and so on. Here is the change people so desperately thought they wanted, but for now at least it will be change for the worse.

I understand that many people in the UK feel powerless and wretched with our current state of affairs. While economic hardship has been blamed on immigrants for decades if not centuries, I still blame the media and politicians for exacerbating this belief and somehow making people believe that voting Leave would bring about some magical change in how Britain works. The people here who do not tick the ‘White British’ box on a census are not going to immediately leave, or even slowly leave, or quite probably leave at all (as one Vote Leave authority said at the weekend, that migrant numbers will likely stay the same). And thank fuck they aren’t going to leave. My (Canadian) partner said at the weekend, what would happen in this country if all the immigrants went on strike tomorrow? The hospitals would be screwed, universities would lose half their staff, I would lose two of my own expert colleagues, building, plumbing, and electrical work would decrease, etc. etc. I am tired of being lied to by these politicians, and the media’s ill-considered coverage of their plots and schemes. I believe politicians from all sides need to make announcements now, to explain exactly what voting Leave has meant, and to explain that it will not mean the immediate exodus of our non-white British residents. Brexit campaigners are already saying that the ‘facts’ they have been peddling for months are total horseshit, which many of us knew already having done any research at all – but if you’re desperate and you want change then statistics sound so beautifully plausible. Quite apart from telling us exactly how much money we’re going to save (certainly not £350 million) and what will happen to immigration, something needs to be said immediately to protect people from this awful racist bullying, driven by a belief that this racism has been validated by the election result.

All the time that I was reading these stories, of a Muslim girl being cornered by a group of men in Birmingham while they shouted ‘Out! Out! Out!’, notes put through the letterboxes of Polish residents in Huntingdon mere hours after the result, and so many more, my mind kept returning to Jo Cox. She was in many ways the first victim, and I am devastated by how quickly her death has been forgotten. Farage actually had the unreal shittiness to say that they had won ‘without a single bullet being fired.’ And this was hardly reported as the utter arseholery it was; I only saw it on Sunday night catching up on The Last Leg. I think many of us had a rather distasteful and unspoken hope that her death would cause a rise in awareness, that some people voting Leave would realise what side they were on, a side with someone who was undoubtedly ill but who was also spurred on by the Vote Leave campaign’s repulsive rhetoric to murder someone for wanting to promote equality. Although  I decided not to make studying history a career, years of examining events from the viewpoint of the future makes me wonder how people will study this period in fifty or a hundred years. What will happen? Will these racist incidents increase? Will we get a more right-wing government bent on removing the rights of those who were not born here, and doing even more to stop more people coming here to live and work and share their knowledge? It is already extremely difficult to get leave to stay here, how much worse will it get? Will those who find this all a hideous nightmare leave, removing some bastions of decency and normalcy? Will people looking back see the murder of an MP in broad daylight – and the swift amnesia that followed it in the minds of some – as the beginning of the country’s downfall?

I have read elsewhere a comparison to 1930’s Germany, which I’m glad and not glad someone else made – I thought I was being melodramatic so I’m glad I wasn’t the first, but I’m not glad others share my opinion of how frightening all this is. I haven’t studied the social history of the Nazis, so I don’t know exactly how many people were against Hitler from the beginning. But being in this country while we are slowly dragged to the right makes me think of all those who were sitting in Germany nearly a hundred years ago, with this sick feeling of dread in their stomachs at what they were seeing.

People think London would be a safe place for migrants still, being as it is such a multicultural and inclusive city. Yet there have been reports of racist incidents here too. I am apprehensive, hoping that I don’t see anyone being abused, because I would hope against all hope that I would be one of the ones to step in and stop it. But I know it isn’t as easy as proclaiming ‘YES I WILL DEFEND YOU ALL’. I had an incidence of this just recently. I was on a train with my partner, and we were stopped at a station. A man was standing in the doorway looking out at the platform. He started speaking to somebody we couldn’t see: ‘What are you doing spotting trains? Why don’t you go and do something real with your life? Get a girlfriend! Became a computer whiz! Go to the gym! You’re too young for this! It’s just sad!’ I wanted desperately to say something but the man speaking was several inches taller than me and about twice my body weight. I was frightened of what he would say to me or my partner if we got involved. He was radiating aggression. But I felt so bad for the boy, especially when we pulled out of the station and we saw him, standing pale and sheepish with his camera phone. I regret not putting my head out and saying, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not hurting anybody, so you just carry on doing exactly what you like. We need more people with passions like you, who follow their interests against the grain. And I know that just because you enjoy trainspotting doesn’t mean you don’t have a girlfriend, or that you’re gifted with a computer, or that you do exercise. There are so many sides to all of us and you don’t need to hide them.’

I wish that the people spouting this frightened abuse at people they don’t know could see beyond something as accidental as skin colour or place of birth. If they got talking to all these ‘vermin’, wouldn’t they find that they share some interests? Most of us can find some side of ourselves that matches with others, and sometimes you have several sides that match and you get on like a house on fire. Or even hardly any match at all and you still get on like crazy because you love each other’s differences. I am a daughter and a sister and an aunt and a partner, an amateur historical anthropologist and an even more amateur dancer. I am a part-time seamstress and an increasingly part-time Formula One enthusiast. I am getting into cloud watching and, aged 28, have recently become re-addicted to Ribena. I have studied for five years at SOAS, part of the University of London, and there of all places we embrace all sides of people and focus on learning about others (it is, I believe I’m right in saying, the only university in Britain that doesn’t study the country it is sitting in). I am desperately afraid that it will now face closure, as getting enough funding there was already a tricky question. It would be devastating to lose an institution that prides itself on debate and allowing people to be every side of themselves. I wish people would make more of an effort to embrace this way of thinking, rather than judging people so quickly and with so much anger. I know I am guilty of judging others quickly too, but I hope it doesn’t change my behaviour towards them too much, and I know that I would not abuse them pointlessly when they had done nothing to offend me or anybody else. And more than anything I wish that the leaders of the Leave campaign had not used the words and the ideas that they did to win this vote. ‘Take our country back’, always menacing and without any solid meaning (take it back where? Removing what?) now has an even more sinister edge after these reports of racism and people being told that the nation has voted for them, specifically, to get out. Little Polish girls at school were crying to their teachers, afraid that they were going to be deported. We need someone to stand up and eliminate all the confusion, tell these people that their behaviour is reprehensible and founded on lies, and that they must stop.

I don’t know what the future will bring us. I know most of us are still in denial, hoping desperately that some loophole will be found so that the referendum result will not go ahead. Perhaps it will, perhaps not. But I hope that this spread of hate and disunity stops before it goes any further. Jo Cox needs to be remembered for all the sides of her legacy. The sides of her that I am sure are most immediately missed are her identities as a mother and a partner and a friend. But she also needs to be remembered as a campaigner, a passionate MP, and as a murder victim – and, I hope, not remembered for being only the first victim in the beginning of an onslaught of violence. I am astonished and saddened that such a unique event as the death of an MP for political reasons has been explained and swept away as the result of ‘mental illness’ – a catch all term which I am not saying wasn’t a part of her death. But I do believe like her husband that it was not the only reason, that it was not random, that it was in some way a result of the viciousness of the Brexit campaign.

The saddest and most infuriating thing about our whole situation is that it was all lies. I feel desperately sorry for the people who voted to Leave, believing in these ridiculous claims. But I feel even more sorry for the people who are now being attacked as a result of people’s feeling of ‘triumph’ in this result. Let us hope that things do not continue on this trajectory, and that history will not remember this summer as the beginning of a slide into hate, terror, and persecution.