On Wednesday, I gave a talk about the Internet of Things in relation to ‘smart cities’, inequality, and high modernism. As a topic, it sounds a bit like the addressing system Mongolia has just decided to implement, where three random nouns – apple.truck.envelope – are used to represent a place instead of, say, a street-name, townland or unmemorable grid reference. (But actually, there is a there, there in my talk. Combining three parts from another naming system is the clue: ‘James’, ‘C’ and ‘Scott’.) In the Q&A, there was a question about how the platforms we design for good are used for evil. How/should we deal with that?
My answer was a hostage to fortune. I said we needed to chill the hell out about bad things happening and understand that the Internet reflects or even amplifies what is still, basically, human nature. That’s the kind of thing you can say between bad things happening, when the horror is ebbing just a little and the next awfulness hasn’t yet occurred. I still think it’s the right answer, but I’d give a lot to erase the hands-upturned shrug I did at the end.
How do we make our peace with the fact that yesterday an MP was savagely assassinated outside her constituency clinic? It would be hard at the best of times, but at a historical moment when violent ill-feeling is being stoked by right-wing politicians and newspapers, we can’t just shrug, as I did, and say this is a regrettable and awful cost of doing democratic business.
We can and do make peace with risks in public service that are made worse by the self-interested acts of others. A family member had to check under his car for explosives every morning for years, in a political environment made toxic by the IRA’s mainstream apologists and also years of self-righteous Tory refusal to engage. (The same party currently sees no problem with a Northern Ireland Secretary who puts Ruritarian escape fantasies before the legal underpinnings of the Good Friday agreement.) But personal physical risk can be just one small part of public life; I remember my relative joking at the time that the biggest worry he had while poking around behind the tyres was that of putting his back out.
For my own part, I waved off the love of my life to Helmand Province, knowing full well the job could have been finished a decade before, if Blair + co hadn’t gotten simultaneously bored with it and infatuated with GW Bush’s Iraq War. Or indeed, if in 2006 the toxic combination of military can-do spirit and politicians’ desires to keep moving the narrative forward had somehow not resulted in Britain taking on that unmanageable province. (Goodness only knows what the relatives of soldiers who died in Iraq must have felt and still feel.) But when you’re thinking about losing someone, you’re mostly thinking just about losing them. Slight exacerbants barely register – and that much is likely right and true.
But this assassination and the political climate it happened in are not something we should be making peace with.
At lunchtime yesterday, just as this assassination took place, I was walking through Westminster, talking on the phone to a cousin who also lives in the UK. The traffic slowed as a big, purple UKIP bus rolled through, blaring out music and demonising refugees. The tourists took bemused selfies. The rest of us just wanted to cross the road and get away. It reminds you that the audience for stunts and such is never the people there, but the consumers of pre-chewed media cud.
When we could hear ourselves again, my cousin and I each said in different ways how shocked/not-shocked we were by the past few weeks in Britain. Or, let’s be honest, England. The insularity, the ignorance, the mean-minded ugliness of the campaigns seemed to magnify and put in the centre some parts of English political culture we’d either not noticed or dismissed as fringe. The last few weeks of increasingly toxic, anti-immigrant campaigning have seemed a bit like finding out through the grapevine that a guy you slightly know is a domestic abuser. The shock and repulsion unite with a sick thrill of recognition as memories of his pushing it too far jokes, attention-seeking and general touchiness re-shuffle themselves into a years-long narrative arc of barely-concealed misogyny. Somehow, you now say to yourself, you always knew.
Today, the campaign has paused. For a day, or maybe even for the next week, the pantomime villains have put their costumes back in the dressing up box. Perhaps, for some of the out campaign’s leaders, the past few weeks will turn out to have been a regrettable, embarrassing, out of character tantrum. And not, as I darkly thought yesterday morning before the murder, an attempted right-wing coup.
Political cultures are weird; more for what can’t be said or for the distorted way certain things are allowed to be expressed than for their face value. Working and lower middle class people in the UK have indeed been sold a pup. For all the talk about ‘competitiveness’, no one has taken the trouble to explain that quality blue-collar jobs have not really been stolen by immigrants. Those jobs have gone to China and then to the robots and they’re not coming back. No one has a credible idea for what to do about it. Wages are held down by immigrants competing, yes, and also by a government that insists on paying apprentices £3.30 an hour, and is now forcing student nurses to pay while they do the scut work many NHS wards depend on.
Nor have immigrants hoovered up all the GP appointments and school places; austerity has hacked at the health service and ideology insists new school places are created not out of need but wherever an academy feels like setting up shop. State schools are becoming unaccountable battery farms where the children of the 93% are force-fed rote-learning, obsessively measured and their SATs found wanting, all the better to train them for working lives of unimaginative obedience in rapidly disappearing call centres. Meanwhile, the upper middle classes say they can’t live comfortably on 200k p.a. while privately educating their children in schools that offer art, music and lush, green playing fields. They see what’s coming and jostle each other out of the way as they panic-buy the last few bolts of social capital.
We have systemic problems but we do not have a systemic conversation. Instead, we have convenient whipping boys. It used to be the Irish and Caribbeans. Now it’s the Poles and the Syrians. As Charles Stross put it, fascism is coming to Britain, “wearing a tweed jacket and a cheeky grin, holding a pint of beer in one hand and a noose in the other.”
Maybe it was inevitable that both campaigns would fill an information vacuum with the ugliest of England’s sub-conscious. In contrast to the EU campaigns I worked on in Ireland during the nineties (admittedly more innocent times, before the European Commission and IMF ripped up our democratic process to bail out the bondholders), this campaign seemed astonishingly fact-free. The UK has no public baseline of understanding what the EU does and doesn’t do. If it did, we might have heard competing visions of how or whether it’s possible to reform the EU, what it’s done that has been good and bad, or some recognition of things like policy-laundering by member-states – notably the UK. Hell, we might even have heard a bit more from a few MEPs.
All we got were scare stories from both sides, and impassioned cries to take Britain back. To the Stone Age, presumably. In recent days the campaign evolved into a manifesto-less plebiscite on a new, even more right-wing government, post-referendum. No wonder headlines and airwaves were stuffed with part-facts, misinformation and all the nightmarish dross of people’s worst fears.
Seriously. Jung would have a field day with this shit.
And yesterday an alleged neo-Nazi butchered a woman as she went about the humdrum quotidien of late-capitalist democracy.
I know about a dozen women who are a little bit like Jo Cox. (I didn’t know her, though I think we have some friends/acquaintances in common.) A few of us even self-identify as girly swots – not to be confused with head girls, completely different tribe – who have a winning ticket what with being white and being/becoming and middle class, but we’re also women in patriarchy, with all that brings (punished for being pushy, points stolen at meetings, bit of online misogyny, all that stupid stuff). We see a lot that needs changing, but are socialised into people-pleasing. We do jobs in nonprofits and the civil service. We sit on school boards or Church committees. A tiny number go into electoral politics. Most of us are the support staff. We come into our own in our thirties and forties, and accept with good grace that we won’t go all that far. We politely budge up on the small bench set aside for all the others who were locked out, thinking it sad but correct that we don’t get a special moment in sun. We work towards doggedly incremental social democratic goals. They don’t much nourish the ego, but our small in-system changes improve things for a few people in the foreseeable – though it doesn’t pass our notice that the whole thing is screwed. We organise book clubs and nurse each other through bad bosses and break-ups and cancer scares. For those that have them, we look after each other’s kids. We help each other persevere.
So for one of us – and I know it is presumption to even loosely associate myself with one of Shelley’s ‘day stars of the age’ – to be killed so horribly. So horribly. And though it stings to know that a woman is more mourned if she is lucky enough to be a mother, I, too, can’t think of those two children and the party they were to have this weekend and not weep again.
This week has gone on for far too long already. I really didn’t and don’t want to be writing one of these ‘what does it all mean’ essays. For one thing, there’s no fucking point. We pass around links on Twitter to people’s pieces on the latest atrocity saying ‘this one really nails it’. Or get tangled up in some solipsistic meta-discussion about the doctoring of the piece that really got it before it was censored. And for another, writing is just another narcissistic act in an aggressively subjective culture.
Peace isn’t an endgame. It isn’t even an equilibrium. (OK, maybe when it works it’s a pearl-string of contiguous Nash equilibria, each of them worked out the hard bloody way.) It’s a process that’s never finished and more people are always turning up to argue for their piece of it. I think we should be trying to ‘make peace’ with this, in some form that recognizes it as a fundamentally right-wing political act. And we make peace better in small, steady, instrumental acts than big expressive ones. Obviously. But ugly compromises and the things that can’t be said about them do damage. We just can’t predict how or when. Maybe the girly swots win in the end just by wanting it less. Maybe no one does. And beyond that? I don’t know. I just don’t know.