“Facts, it seems, are not things that are verifiably true or false, merely components in a story. And bullshit is a far more pliable material than facts for creating narratives” (Stephen Duncombe, 2019, from “Dream or Nightmare: Reimagining politics in an age of fantasy”)
Although I mostly write here about my professional life, and the random things that I think about the world of education and technology, I noted some time back that I made a deliberate decision to blog on my own domain because I didn’t know quite what I would want to say over time, and wanted freedom to explore that. I’ve posted the odd thing here and there that’s a more personal reflection since then, but my comfort level is still pretty low with that. In the spirit of some recent blog posts, I’m once again going to push myself out of my comfort zone, because writing feels like sense-making and reclaiming personal agency, and goodness knows I desperately need that now. *
I don’t talk a lot about my politics here, but I suspect they’re pretty well known. It won’t surprise anyone to know I’m left of centre and tend not to hold with nationalism in most forms except the sentimental. Which makes the last few days some of the strangest of my civic life. I cast my vote for the SNP for the first time in my life. I voted “No” in the Independence Referendum, because I did not wish to see the UK split apart, but it’s clear that we are not united. A vote for the SNP was in my mind a vote to deliver a strong message that Scotland has a different vision for what a country should be.
I’m struggling to process what’s happened in the last 72 hours in Britain. Obviously what’s happened has been longer than 72 hours in the making. Arguably much like the U.S. we’re seeing the ugly heart of our nation emboldened and laid bare. If Brexit was the warning shot across the bows, the vote on Thursday leaves no doubt that there’s a solid vein of selfish racism running deep through our land. There’s an historical analogy one might draw here to the black seams of British coal that sparked an industrial revolution, built an empire, and along with oil will probably destroy a planet. This is destructive stuff and the mining of it will make a few people very rich and cost a lot more people their livelihoods and lives.
We will no doubt also argue that a large number of people voted in ignorance, or as a result of being lied to in a direct and sustained manner; a set of lies that were designed to provoke an angry, defensive, self-interested response (if you are interested, this 2018 episode of Analysis gives some insight into just how the micro-targetting of these messages works). Ignorance isn’t an excuse. It takes actual wilful blindness to ignore the reality that foodbank donation boxes are a normal part of most British supermarkets these days.
“Dreams are powerful. They are repositories of our desire. They animate the entertainment industry and drive consumption. They can blind people to reality and provide cover for political horror. But they can also inspire us to imagine that things could be radically different than they are today, and then believe we can progress toward that imaginary world.” (Stephen Duncombe, 2019, from “Dream or Nightmare: Reimagining politics in an age of fantasy”)
I’ve felt beaten, wounded, and like hope has gone over the last few days and that’s a hard place to be. I’ve been to some hard places before but this feels worse, because it feels like I have no agency. This is too big and too overwhelming. Too terrible.
In the face of an overwhelming choice in favour of self-interest and cruelty, that delivers a mandate and a majority to pursue national policies in pursuit of this, what kind of response can we make? When I see hints of what is yet to come (and think of what it means for family and friends who depend on the NHS to live), what can I do that could be in any way effective in countering this?
Consultants working on the Brexit deal in London and in Washington, D.C., have asked to limit the ability of British regulators to set the price for pharmaceutical drugs, and lift safety restrictions on pesticides and agricultural products. https://t.co/KWXfAaZE7z
— The Intercept (@theintercept) December 14, 2019
That’s why I very much appreciated this article in the Scotsman this morning.
“Speak up; be kind; watch out for one another. And refuse to surrender to despair.”
Whilst I said above that I “feel” certain things, I take more comfort from thinking my way through things. That article sparked a chain of useful reading and reflection which has helped me think my way through my response to the last few days, and come to some conclusions about what I believe, and what I want to do. I’ve spent the morning looking at the poetry of Ian Hamilton Findlay and the words of Alasdair Gray; re-visiting my own photographs and memories of Little Sparta; reading the updated version of Stephen Duncombe’s book “Dream or Nightmare: Reimagining politics in the age of fantasy” and various other warrens of words and thoughts.
On the walls of the Scottish Parliament is carved the line “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”. It’s attributed to Alasdair Gray, but he is open that it’s paraphrased from the poem “Civil Elegies” by the Canadian poet Dennis Lee “And best of all is finding a place to be / in the early days of a better civilization”. Gray tweaked the line again for the Hillhead subway station “Work as if you live in the early days of a better world”. Stephen Duncombe talks about using spectacle “not as a fantasy to lose ourselves within” but a “a lucid dream that we know we are part of creating”.
I’m not surrendering to despair. This is terrible and overwhelming. But I am not without agency, even if it’s just at the small scale of being consistently kind and thoughtful in the face of cruelty.
I’m not giving up the hope that things can be different. Different tactics are needed to get there for sure, but I’m not going to wallow in negativity. Dreaming of and working for a better world is not naivety. I will talk of possible better futures because we need new stories, and honestly, if bad bullshit can win the day, then why can’t good?
I’m not giving up hope in people. And on this one, Ian Hamilton Findlay can have the last word:
There is work to be done, and I’ve never been afraid of hard work.
* I want to give a nod to Sheila MacNeill, who has been using her blog to increasingly work through and verbalise some of the difficult times we live in. This is brave stuff to do, and I drew no small amount of courage for my own witterings from her example.