Sunday, 4 October 2015

Update in 5: Required reading and Unknown Knowns

1) Required Reading


Spot the difference between now and last month's reading list. Things just got a little more academic. 

I'm mostly researching particular branches of Pentecostalism within the Caribbean diaspora from the 1970s onwards. I already feel a little apprehensive about coming up with a decent approach, but I'll find my way into it.

I'm still reading a little poetry on the side: after a trip to Spain, I picked up a bilingual edition of an Elizabeth Bishop collection; I've also been devouring Mona Arshi's Small Hands, which I bought after hearing her read at an event I was also performing at. I'm glad to see I'm not the only person who appreciated the book - she just won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. 

I went to the the Prize event at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday and enjoyed seeing and hearing the poet nominees and the audience, comprised of fans, associates and clusters of fellow poets. I was happy Claudia Rankine won the Forward Prize; it's also the second time in a row a Jamaican writer has done it! I don't think the couple sitting next to me in the audience were particularly thrilled; after giving the obligatory polite three-second applause, they glared at me when I cheered. I'm not one for sustained passive aggressive behaviour; I proceeded to whooping, spurred on by the people behind.

2) Unknown knowns

I remember this moment, back in 2009, when the whole world seemed to go "huh??!" 

At the time, I considered it to be the most profound thing a politician has said [insert big smiley face here]. But there are some things we know we know right? The sky is blue, the grass is green, the Pope is Catholic, global warming is a problem*, power corrupts... that sort of thing. Then there are absolute unknowns. Then all the stuff in between. 

Among that stuff in between, there's the stuff we know but can't always prove without a doubt. While we know that power corrupts, for instance, the statement is meaningless unless we dig further. And when we dig further, other assumptions follow, which could be proven if we dare to. For instance, we can assume, based on human nature, that institutions which exert power will often attract the kind of people who shouldn't have it: bullies; people prone to taking draconian measures in order to hold on to that power; people who will abuse said power if left unchecked. We know that police, politicians, security forces (etc.) all, to a greater or lesser extent, have the power to destroy lives and that, with that power, comes a bit of recklessness and corruption. 

The fact that Lord Ashcroft published an allegation about the Prime Minister after feeling he was snubbed a government position he felt entitled to buy says less about Lord Ashcroft or even David Cameron and more about the *possibility* that others have successfully bought their place into government. The gap between what we absolutely know and what we intuit is full of such possibilities, or 'unknown knowns' [said with a wink], hypotheses that we can only flesh out through anecdotal evidence.  

But while there are things we - perhaps understandably - can't fully get a grasp on, there are others that haven't come into focus through wilful ignorance. We know that thousands of people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea on boats in the last couple of years. Many of these drownings have been reported; it doesn't take much to imagine that many more have occurred which weren't. We know that women and children will have been among those found dead, or permanently lost at sea. It needn't have taken photos of one Syrian boy** to stir public conscience. We already knew many others like him have died in similar circumstances; we already knew many Africans of all ages and genders have been in the habit of dying en route to Europe. But to 'unknow' it is a way of alleviating responsibility. Up until recently, it hasn't been reported in a way that portrays these dead as human. It's easier to use words like 'cockroach' or 'swarm' or 'economic migrants' to describe people feeling from war and extreme poverty than it is to really know what is moving them to take these extreme measures. It's also easier to go with the 'official line' as a way of legitimising that lack of engagement. It's simpler to say that Syria and Eritrea are now countries with 'legitimate' refugee crises, but other people in desperate situations are 'economic migrants' (as if that were a dirty word...) Anyway, don't let me get started.   

Among the other 'unknown knowns' popular sayings, like 'don't trust everything you read', figure. I don't know anyone, for instance, who would really look at all the emissions or efficiency data before purchasing a car; we know that, somehow, figures will have been massaged for some kind of impossible optimum performance. Yet, when Volkswagen is shown to have done a little massaging, cue the surprise. I doubt they're the only ones. FIFA awards the World Cup to Qatar, of all the unsuitable places for a summer competition; even if no one were ever accused/charged with corruption, everyone knows there's something fishy going on. But it's only now that the charges have been pressed the corporate sponsors need to show something's being done. So they exert pressure to get rid of the guy at the top, as if it would do something. As if they really cared about it in the first place...

When we talk about corruption, and when we talk about police violence - disproportionately affecting black and minority groups - we know there is much more that will never be reported, filmed, documented. Places such as prisons, refugee detention centres (and even some care homes) form a blind spot for the powerless - we know awful abuses take place there but it would be too painful to acknowledge them properly, to accept that the system is broken, not just individual units within it. 

Looking at the past week, there's a lot of stuff we know which we prefer to 'unknow' to keep the status quo going* but I shan't go on much longer, because I also know that opinion pieces are a little ridiculous. You either agree or disagree. I won't know everyone who reads this but I'll gather most of you are friends, friends of friends, or people who already know and like what I do. In my experience, people often like to hear what they already think they know, from people they like and already mostly agree with. I have yet to meet someone (who isn't already a close friend) who says to me, "You know what, Keith, I had one opinion about this thing and you've just completely changed my mind. Thank you". I also have probably only had my views changed a handful of times in my life by someone who wasn't already a close relative or close friend, or perhaps a teacher with whom I was in regular contact. 

One thing I didn't fully know - which I only now realise - is that I've become ever-increasingly intolerant of people who hold widely-differing opinions to mine on certain issues. I don't like that about myself. But I still find myself being drawn to below-the-line comments when particular news stories break. This time round it was probably a video of a man mauled to death by a police dog, and the steady stream of suggestions that he 'must have been struggling', despite all the evidence to suggest he was knocked out at the time, and already on the floor. (I don't even need to say he was black. I don't even need to say people will always believe what they want to believe. You could film an incident and show it to five different people and get twenty five wildly differing accounts). Next time it'll be something else, usually some social issue I have a bee in my bonnet about. And I'll still feel physical recoil at the way humans bicker, berate and belittle at each other online and then twist their bigoted views into more presentable jargon out in public. I know deep down that it's mostly bravado - frightened and often ignorant human beings posturing, preening, hoping that if they scream loud enough someone will pay attention, but it still makes me feel much less optimistic about the fate of humanity.      

*don't even... it is a well-proven scientific fact
**I won't link to actual pictures of him dead... I agree with many, if not all, points in the linked article as to why
***and that's how the stock market works too, much of the time. 

3) Black History Month again

After just ranting about 'unknown knowns' I have little urge to discuss this in depth but the Prime Minister's visit to Jamaica is an interesting one for bringing up a certain element of black history which won't go away.

When Cameron told Jamaicans to 'move on' when urged to consider reparations (beginning with an apology) for transatlantic slavery, we knew that even to countenance a positive reply would be a big no no. But the fact this was even brought up suggests real change; the reparations movement, even just a few years ago, was something people outright laughed at.* But his offer to build a prison on the island screams 'fuck you' loud and clear.

The legacy of slavery and colonialism - 500 years worth of it! - cannot just disappear in the space of a few decades. My parents were both born in Jamaica during British colonial rule (and, consequently, probably see themselves as more British than I do). The legacy of slavery is written in my facial features, in my name, in the countless occasions I'm asked where I'm really from, in my reasons for being in Britain in the first place, for my parents being born in Jamaica in the first place, in some inherited cultural practices, in religion, in my genetics.... need I go on? I agree that we do need to 'move on' from it, but part of the 'moving on', surely, could be found in the symbolic act of a state apology. This isn't a personal apology from the Prime Minister, or the Queen, or an apology that ignores the fact that worldwide slavery still occurs - although not on an official state-sanctioned level - or ignores the fact that other countries profited from slavery, or ignores Africa's part in it, or that Britain was not as bad as the US, post-slavery (all the reasons people give... which I call 'they did it first/worse, Miss!' syndrome). 

With or without an apology, with or without reparations (you cannot unpeel an orange**), I'll do pretty well and get on with my life. As one Year 8 pupil I taught put it: 'the paper you have crumpled will never be ironed of its creases but I will write my own story, no matter what'. I do, however, see power in the symbolic (which is also one of the reasons I'm anti-monarchist and why I'm drawn to fiction and poetry). The symbolic act of apologising does not change the past but it represents turning towards that past, accepting it as part of a continuous reality - i.e. that events in the distant past affect events in the recent past which affect our present, including the way we see things - and deliberately, publicly, renouncing it as a way of 'moving on', not just for the historically oppressed but also for the historical oppressors, a burial rite if you will, in order to appease the unsettled spirits.          

*The Indian government also, recently, made a similar case. It won't be a surprise when more countries do.
**I think Ngugi Wa Thiong'o said this... I can't be sure, so don't quote me on that.


[musical interlude]

5) Upcoming  

Tonight, I head to Nunhead for the South London portion of We Shall Overcome festival, in solidarity with those hit hardest by government cuts. More info is on the website. Really looking forward!


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