Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Dale goes to a fascist rally


I found out about the rally from Facebook.

On the 2nd September we will hold a demo at 1pm in Keighley and afterwards we will head to Bradford and demo there aswell,’ said the post. 

I write about cities and communities for lefty publications like The Guardian, but it occurred to me that I'd never seen any of this with my own eyes. I'd written about fascism - but I'd never seen fascism. Not only were the EDL going to be there but also their enemies, the ‘Antifa’ (Anti-Fascists), as well as something called the ‘MDL’ (Muslim Defence League). It sounded like a bit of a punch-up.

Was I going to be okay? What should I wear? It was an odd question but one that was eminently worth considering if I didn’t want to get my head kicked in. How do you dress for a fascist rally? Should I wear a suit? Or go for smart casual? ‘You must wear a hi vis and a bona fide press badge,’ a friend stressed. Another suggested blue jeans.

I looked through my wardrobe. I didn’t have any blue jeans. All my jeans were black and frayed and originally from Top Shop. They looked like the kind of jeans a fascist would hate. Why were jeans from Top Shop less acceptable to fascists than blue ones? I was increasingly feeling a bit of my depth.

I decided to put the question of what I should wear out to Facebook. 

‘Flat cap and tweed jacket,’ said someone. 

‘Princess Diana fancy dress,’ added another. I got the feeling my friends weren’t taking this entirely seriously. In any case on Saturday morning it seemed like the rally might be cancelled anyway. Different websites suggested different things, and the Facebook pages for the different factions of the EDL were poorly updated. Most of them only had a few followers. Fascists are less well organized than they used to be, I thought to myself. When I got to Manchester Victoria station I thought about getting a big Starbucks, but decided against it. Somehow walking in to a potentially violent racist rally with a grande latte didn’t seem quite right. Instead I hadn’t phoned my mum for a while, so I gave her a ring on the train.

‘Why didn’t you let me know you were going to an EDL protest,’ my mum said. ‘I’d be quite interested in going.’

‘How do you mean, you’d be interested in going?’ I asked, suddenly worrying that my mum was turning into a fascist. My mum votes for Jeremy Corbyn and lives in Hebden Bridge, and has never shown any inclinations in this direction.

‘I’m not turning into a fascist,’ she said. ‘I meant cheer on the other side.’

I tried to imagine me and my mum going to the EDL protest. We generally meet for cups of tea, me and my mum. We’d even been past Keighley in the car recently, so it wouldn’t have been different to one of our usual days out, except that we’d have been watching violent white supremacists throwing things at riot police. Would we also have got a cup of tea and had a chat? It would have felt a bit weird.

‘To be honest, I didn’t really envisage taking my mum to a fascist rally,’ I said.

‘Fair enough,’ she said.

As we approached Bradford Interchange – the station I always used to pass through to visit my gran – I began to feel nervous. Was I really going to be okay? ‘There will be literally 6 people surrounded by 400 'anti fascist' twunts and 200 cops,’ someone had commented on Facebook. ‘You are more likely to be seriously injured by standing on Lego.’ I hoped they were right.

By the time I walked down into the city the police were massing in Bradford’s central square. I eyed them with curiosity. They looked up eagerly when I eyed them in the hope that maybe I was a fascist. Then they realised I wasn’t and looked away again. It was still 40 minutes before the rally was supposed to start. I couldn’t see any of the EDL, or the MDL, or the Antifa. All I could see was loads of families splashing around in the big paddling pool. 

‘Maybe they’re just a bit late starting,’ I thought to myself.

I decided to go off and get a McDonald’s. I’ve known Bradford ever since I was a kid. I used to come here with my family to play on the Magic Carpet ride in the Photography Museum. The city had always seemed like quite an okay place on the whole – grand Victorian buildings, neo-Gothic shopping arcades, things built in the rich days of the wool trade – but it had certainly has an uneven history. The city experienced race riots back in 2001; it was one of the cities where copies of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses were burnt, and it combines one of the most mixed populations in Britain outside of Tower Hamlets with high unemployment and a struggling economy. Infant mortality is double the national average.

When I got back the police were still standing there, waiting. I still couldn’t see any rioters.

‘Maybe the fascists are in Wetherspoons,’ I thought to myself.

I went in. There were a couple of wedding parties around, but I couldn’t see any EDL. It occurred to me that in any case I didn’t really know what a contemporary fascist would look like. Surely they wouldn’t all be skinheads, like the type that I used to brush up against when I lived in Poland? A guy was sitting near me on his own with shaven hair and a serious look, gazing out of the window at the ranks of police. ‘Maybe he’s a fascist,’ I thought to myself. I watched him for a bit, but he didn't do anything. If he was a fascist he wasn't a very active one.

Outside I waited around the paddling pool for another hour or so, but nothing happened. Kids splashed; adults chatted. I talked to a newly-arrived Indian guy for a while. Eventually I went over to talk to the police. 

‘You missed it,’ the policeman told me.

‘I missed it?’

‘It happened in Keighley,’ he explained casually. ‘I don’t think they were ever planning to demonstrate here. I think they were just coming here for a drink.’

‘Oh,’ I said.

I wandered glumly away. I was glad that the fascist rally hadn’t taken place here, but also a bit pissed off that I’d come all this way to watch people sitting around a paddling pool. Maybe I was wrong, but I was starting to think that fascism – actual, obvious fascism – might be a bit less widespread than articles by Owen Jones tended to suggest. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a worrying trend. Mein Kampf has just been reissued to sell-out runs. In places like France and Holland and Eastern Europe neo-fascist attitudes are anything but hidden. The far right have serious clout in the polls.

But in Britain, here, right now? For all the talk of the resurgence of fascism it sometimes seems awfully hard to catch a real one. I know that far right rallies have been taking place across Britain. But does that really represent more than a lunatic fringe? When Britain First - a 'party' with more Facebook likes than the Conservatives - can barely muster 100 people? When UKIP seems to have collapsed? Of course a nasty undercurrent of racism exists in modern society, the kind that's seen a spate of Islamophobic hatecrime in the last couple of years - but I'm not sure it's ready to break out into fisticuffs. 

Here's the thing. I've studied and written about this subject for a while now, and I actually think Britain’s better at getting on with itself than many give it credit for. Fascist rallies are the exception to daily life. So are violent religious extremists. An EDL rally or a bomb in Manchester don’t represent the way most people think and feel, because most people don’t want Christian-flavoured fascism or violent Wahhabis dictating their world. Most people just want a quiet life. To get along with those around us. All we need, in the end, is a big enough paddling pool.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

"Orange is the New Black"? Rubbish. It's Scrubs with shower rape jokes


Growing up one of my favourite films was Trainspotting. Wit, snappy cutting, MTV aesthetic: it was heroin as pop video. ‘Just choose life...’ The blu-tacked face peered down from my bedroom wall. If there was anything I aspired to, back then, it was to become a drug addict.



It was a trend that persisted throughout the iconic films of the 1990s. Oldman in Leon, Keitel in Bad Leuitenant, Thurman in Pulp Fiction: charismatic stars taking drugs in designer colours to cool soundtracks. Awesome! It was only later I began to wonder if it really appropriate to film narcotic addiction like you’d shoot the titles for a Blur video. Legalise them or not, drugs do change lives, especially young ones. Had Trainspotting done for drugs what Tarantino did for guns? In other words, should coke and heroin abuse really be made to look cool?



Which brings me onto Orange is the New Black, which has been airing for a while here. It’s the witty gritty tale of a woman imprisoned for a brief contact with a drug dealing girlfriend a decade ago, and it has some good points: it has a bisexual lead, which is good to see; it’s wittily and snappily written, fluidly filmed; it’s entertaining pizza television.  



So what’s wrong? And how’s it any different from the rest of the focus-grouped and test-screened U.S. sitcoms, which are generally pretty watchable in a time-wasting kind of way?



Here’s what’s wrong. A series about prison life – about damaged lives, violence, trafficking – doesn’t need to be fun. It doesn’t need to be sassy, or smug, or snarky. Sitcom values aren’t appropriate here. How funny is a colonic strip-search for prisoners who are actually forced to undergo them, rather than the attractive actresses pretending to for a few takes before they waft back to their trailer? Do we really need to raise a smile about starvation, racism, sexual abuse? Do we need this stuff enacted by a shiny cast of mostly beautiful people who help to make prison look kind of fun – Scrubs with shower jokes?



And boy, is Orange twee. It’s aggressively twee. It's like being waterboarded with caramel smoothies. Cool, gentle, new-age, indie boyfriend? Check. Cool, gentle, new-age, indie soundtrack? Check. Cool, cute scenes of lying around in bed checking photos and Netflix on Apple tablets? Check, check, check. It's awful. Orange is fodder for the iPad bourgeoisie. 



The thing is, I can take twee. I can: I just need it to be quarantined. I need twee to be kept in its own little Twee-hole, cute and pink and curly – and I need it to stay there. When twee embraces social commentary (black people! human rights! prisoner abuse! #WeReallyDoCare) it feels tonally jarring – like a segment on child suicide in Nuts! magazine. I get that this is the kind of class slumming the show is gently mocking – we’re as complicit as the lead character in finding out what prison’s “really” like – but... Well, no. Sorry. Orange is TV wanting to have its cupcake and eat it, to be both thoughtful social commentary and iPod froth at the same time. I don’t buy it.



I’ve been briefly imprisoned myself (only a few hours, for a mistaken arrest, but boy – those few hours really mark you) and had DNA swabs in my mouth and all the other routine invasions of the body modern policing rests on, and let me tell you there’s nothing funny about it. And I was only in there for about three hours. Orange is the New Black is a smart, smug, sassy, snarky, sarky piece of moving wallpaper, but it won’t be going up on my wall. Which makes me also wonder how many prisoners’ll actually get the chance to watch it. Or if they'd want to.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Book review: All the Places I’ve Ever Lived by David Gaffney

The doctor stares down at my skin.

“You don’t know how it happened?”

I shake my head. “I don’t remember anything.”

“You say you were reading something.”

I try and remember.

“There was this book...”

She sighs. 

“Do you remember the name on the spine?" 

Silence. 

"Was it... David Gaffney?”

I look up.

“There’s been an outbreak,” she explains. “Early-stage Gaffney-exposure. We’re trying to keep an eye on it. Feral themes cloaked in prosaic absurdity, witty period pop-references, slippery plotting: it’s burying beneath peoples’ mental defences and planting itself in their subconscious.” The doctor stands up and walks over to the calendar, then picks up a rectractable biro. “We think it might be spreading.”

I swallow. My skin is burning.

“Doctor,” I say, “am I going to be okay?”

She turns back and looks me up and down. She clicks the biro, twice.

“Of course. Just sit tight. A couple of men from the Ministry will want to talk to you.”

“What men?”

She turns and scribbles something on a pad. “Nothing to worry about.”

My eyes narrow. The calendar on the wall...

“Doctor,” I say. “What year is it?”

“What do you mean?”

“I...”

She looks me hard between the eyes.

“It’s 1976,” she says. “Now don’t you worry. Lie back and close your eyes and everything will be okay.”

- Dale Lately


All the Places I’ve Ever Lived by David Gaffney is out now on Urbane Books 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Trump a fascist? Well he certainly has a neo-Nazi fanbase...



It’s reckoning time. A few weeks in and even those of us who thought it couldn’t be bad – well, it can. It is. How could it be any worse? Flagrant racism, bumbling autocracy, Twitter diplomacy – and God Knows What to come.

Is Trump a fascist? Perhaps that depends on your definition of fascism. If you count it to mean “bigoted autocrat with a fondness for executive rule” then he is. If you count it to mean mass exterminations and martial law well then, no, not really. Although it’s still early days.

But a fascist fan base – well, that’s much clearer. We all know that Trump was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, something that’s pretty disturbing in itself. But it goes deeper than that. The Alt-Right communities that spurred his success online have certainly got roots in neo-Nazi thought – less “alt” right than “far” right.

They may have ways of hiding it, though. And here’s how.

Take the idea of “human biodiversity” floated by some prominent bloggers. At first it sounds like a term from the left: an inclusive approach to human difference, perhaps? But human biodiversity is really just a new way of dressing up eugenic racism – an unpleasant bit of pseudo-science aimed at dividing and “classifying” humanity into clear, well-defined groups based on skin colour, population difference and racial hierarchy. (Or “racism in a lab coat”, as the Baffler magazine put it).

Because Twitter and the like have hate speech policies in action, many online hatemongerers found a novel way to spread their ideas: using three parentheses on either side of a name to indicate someone of Jewish origin. This social media answer to the “Juden” Nazis used to paint on the doors of Jewish families ultimately proved, like Trump’s words, largely unpoliceable (there is nothing obviously offensive about parentheses, to either human or algorithm – so they’re nearly impossible to remove systematically from the platform).

This “closed captioning for the Jew-blind” as one white supremacist gleefully put it, successfully “outed” a number of online journalists in targeted hate campaigns which sought to mock Jews or expose supposed Jewish collusion in controlling media or politics. It served as a flagging device for other anti-Semites, and led some writers to experience death threats, anti-Semitic cartoons, home phone calls and delightful memes (like the photo of the gates of Auschwitz with the “Arbeit Macht Frei” slogan replaced by “Machen Amerika Great.”)

The offenders have since developed their dark “netiquette” further with a kind of Turing replacement-code where innocuous words – “googles,” “skypes,” or “yahoos” for example – stand in for racial slurs. The result are tweets like “Chain the googles / Gas the yahoos” or “If welfare state is a given it must go towards our own who needs. No Skypes, googles, or yahoos.”

Such obvious race-hate is an ugly thing to encounter anywhere, but it’s far more frightening when the techniques it employs are adopted by those seeking political power. Trump is well-known for his attacks on opponents, but what’s less well observed is the underhand meanings implicit in some of those attacks. He tweeted a meme about “Crooked Hillary” which featured her face and the words “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!”. This slogan appeared in a little coloured star which at first sight looks like standard desktop publishing style. The star, though, was the Star of David, and a giant pile of atop a giant pile of money: the insinuation is not so very subtle.

Elsewhere he talked repeatedly of “global special interests”, another dog-whistle term that sounds conveniently vague to the outsider but is all too specific for those in the know (as Will Drabold put it in Mic, “Donald Trump says "global special interests." Anti-Semites in the alt-right hear "Jews."”).  Always keen to attribute his sources, he once even openly retweeted something from WhiteGenocideTM, a user fond of white nationalism and neo-Nazi imagery, in an unintentionally surreal message that manages to mix petty jibing with a nod to the swastika brigade:

@WhiteGenocideTM: @realDonaldTrump Poor Jeb. I could've sworn I saw him outside Trump Tower the other day!  

It got over nine thousand Likes.

The extent, the potential, the possibilities are still unknown to us. But someone who can retweet someone calling themselves White Genocide is either exceedingly stupid or at least sympathetic to fascists. Right now it looks like both could be possible.