When the news of Queen Elizabeth II’s death broke I, along with Brits everywhere and seemingly half of the rest of the world, was rendered suddenly and surprisingly silent. The pre-planned obituaries and messages rolled out, sure, but in the moment most of us were left stumped as we considered for the last time what our Queen really meant to us. The truth is, she represented so much more than a face on a throne. Present on everyone’s TVs in her annual Christmas day speech all the way down to the few pound coins I still carry around in my pocket (just in case I’ll need them — you never know), she was an untouchable leader and global icon.
But while the Queen is someone that I was proud to have representing me, her death has once again led me to reconsider my feelings on the royals as a whole. Unfortunately, while they’re the cultural and diplomatic faces of the country, our ruling family is ultimately a deeply problematic institution that continues to represent the UK’s past of abuse of power both domestically and abroad. There are, of course, the scandals, which are far too pervasive to ignore: There’s Prince Philip (the Queen’s late husband)’s well-documented racist and sexist remarks, or Prince Andrew (her son)’s all-but-admitted grooming of seventeen-year-old girls (did I mention one of his best friends being a certain Jeffery Epstein?), and of course Princess Diana, a woman who was manipulated into falling in love with the whole family before being tossed aside with no remark on her convenient death once she’d produced an heir – even after she had become more adored than the rest of them put together.
But while what they do can be a serious issue, it’s more what they represent that’s the problem. They were, after all, once called the “Imperial Family” — their continued rule over much of the Commonwealth serves less as a signal of friendship and more as a reminder of who used to be the colonisers versus the colonised. The worldwide power and renown they’ve gained is far from a product of Elizabeth’s good grace and manners; rather, it is a legacy of an empire which brutally oppressed millions over hundreds of years (many Irish and fellow Scots would argue that that continues to this day, but I digress). That past is something that we have to atone for, but that the Windsors’ dominion only serves to perpetuate. The protests surrounding Will and Kate’s recent visit to Jamaica showed that their so-called “subjects” are growing less and less patient with their presence. With Elizabeth’s death bringing her less-than-popular son Charles to the throne, I think that it’s time our country had a serious reckoning with who we want to be and how we want to present ourselves to the world.
These reflections aren’t unique to the UK, however; I knew I’d be encountering a similar sense of a problematic institutional past long before I actually got to Penn. A few months after I got my place here, a good friend of mine sent me an Instagram page called @segregation_by_design (which you should absolutely check out if you’re interested). They were doing a series on the forced upheaval of Black Bottom, the thriving 78% Black neighbourhood which Penn worked with the authorities to label as a “slum” and clear out to make space for University City — our campus stands on the ruins of that 10,000-strong community.
The legacy of this societal damage sadly continues today with the UC townhomes, one of the last remnants of Black Bottom, as residents are once again being forced out of their homes with little notice and nowhere else to go. The University, meanwhile, which has billions of dollars in wealth and continues to benefit from that community’s dismantling, is silently sitting and watching. Penn has been given the chance to come to terms with and begin to fix the historic wrongs on which it was established by stepping in and saving the townhomes, stopping the past from repeating itself; unlike my Royal Family, who I know full well to be incapable of such fundamental change, I hope the choice that our university makes is the right one.
Just as the UK owes atonement to the rest of the Commonwealth, Penn owes the UC townhomes to its community in West Philadelphia. We both have an opportunity to choose the type of institutions we want to be: ones that ignore and in so doing perpetuate the sins of our past, or ones that work with those we’ve wronged to build a better future. Though I loved Elizabeth in many ways, I doubt the latter is what she would have wanted, but I know that it is what Diana would have. I’m sure you can guess who the Queen of my heart truly was.
In January this year, M. Liz Magill was unanimously selected to be the President of Penn by the board of trustees. In her acceptance message, she talked about building on a legacy of “making a difference” through “pragmatism, creativity, and humanity” and expressed her desire to work with the whole Penn community to achieve that. The issue is, though, that that community isn’t who she answers to — instead, the only ones with any power over her are the board themselves, a detached group of alumni and bureaucrats who most of us will never get to see or meet.
The President functions much like a politician: She makes decisions about what goes on in the University and represents us to the outside world. The key thing about (democratic) politicians, though, is that we can hold them accountable — when they let us down, we don’t vote for them, and they lose their jobs. The issue with the Penn administration is that they don’t grant us that mechanism. Sure, there’s the Undergraduate Assembly, which does some great work to improve our campus, but even that can only make recommendations to the administration. They have no reason to take those recommendations on board and no reason to engage with any other student bodies. So, they don’t.
For instance, they’ve been threatening and intimidating the Fossil Free Penn encampment on College Green since its inception but have yet to be reported as meeting with them about their demands. So much for working with “faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community members” as Magill pledged to do when she got the job.
I’m sure that you can see what I’m getting at — there is a serious accountability deficit here. On one hand, it makes sense — it’s not like we can realistically threaten Penn with dropping out en masse if they ignore our demands. But when the University repeatedly avoids talking to student advocacy groups and takes eight months to respond to issues such as the UC Townhomes sale (which also has widespread faculty support), they’re demonstrating a blatant and deliberate disregard for anything the Penn community cares about that might be inconvenient for them.
And while we can’t threaten any staff’s positions directly, I find their cavalier attitude to be unwise: For an institution that relies on alumni donations, they’re doing an awfully bad job at making current students want to give back. Regardless of what the reality is, we’re meant to be members of a community, not customers of a business — we deserve a legitimate voice.
Now, Penn’s administration doesn’t have to enact every last desire of its students, no matter how socially prescient — if it did, I doubt an endowment even as big as the one it has would last very long. While I absolutely believe that the University should divest from fossil fuels (a move made by most other Ivies thus far), help the townhomes, and make its vast wealth work to benefit the West Philadelphia community which it has so damaged, I don’t believe that I should be able to force it to.
What we should expect, though, is for our opinions to at least be respected — students shouldn’t have to interrupt convocation, stage protests, or occupy the field outside Magill’s office in order to open any sort of dialogue with her (in terms of pragmatism and creativity, at least, they’re definitely winning).
But they’re left without much choice. When they try through official means, they get sidelined and palmed off. Can you really blame the activists for taking over College Green? Our President may try to avoid it, but she can hear their voice loud and clear — what she doesn’t seem to understand is that the more that she ignores it, the louder it will get. If she wants to represent this community in the way that she claims she does, she should listen to it. We are Penn — the students, the faculty, the staff, and the West Philadelphia community, too. The board of trustees is not.
We choose to attend institutions like Penn, I hope, because we believe that we will be well represented by the values that they stand for, both in our time here and in our future lives. But it’s equally important that those values grow and change to represent us, too. It’s time that those who claim to lead the Penn community respect the fact that they answer to more than a board of invisible bureaucrats. They can’t ignore us forever; in the meantime, I’m sure, our friends over on College Green won’t be going anywhere.
Love Actually seems to be, at this point, a nationwide Christmas tradition. The evenings draw in, the trees and the wreaths and the lights go up, families reunite, and everyone manages to, at some point, get through two hours of festive-ish metropolitan romance (even pushing it into the top 10 on Netflix in the week coming up to the 25th). It’s a film with its fair share of critics and poorly-aged story beats (unnecessary fat jokes, a sprinkle of patriarchy, hints of adultery, an unfortunate lack of diversity especially for a film set in the UK’s least white city), but it remains one that I hold immensely close to my heart.
Richard Curtis’ classic is a love letter to London and, to an extent, humanity itself. He masterfully weaves an interconnected series of stories following various residents of the capital, played by what is essentially a who’s-who of British actors at the time, and their pursuit of, well, love. Hugh Grant is a single Prime Minister who falls helplessly (as he so effectively does in most movies he’s in) for his Catering Manager, Liam Neeson is a widower who helps his stepson Thomas Brodie-Sangster (who, fun fact, also voices Ferb) chase his primary school crush, Colin Firth is a writer who, after being cheated on by his wife and running away to France, becomes enamoured with his Portuguese cleaner despite the fact that they understand almost nothing that one another says; the list goes on. Special mention must go to Bill Nighy’s performance as a lewd, aged rocker going for Christmas number one—he is an omnipresent and utterly hysterical presence, marking one of the best outings of one of my favourite actors. As the movie progresses, we slowly see the links between each character grow into a complex web of relationships, adding a sense of unity and connectedness to the whole experience.
The result is a sort of highlight reel of romance: the first dates, the proposals and the heartbreaks, with the rest of the story having to be left to us to fill in. Love Actually’s wide scope means that unlike most other rom-coms, in which we tend to focus on the exploration and development of one or two relationships, the unlikely couples this movie homes in on get significantly less time and thus tend to be labelled surface-level and incredible by some of Love Actually’s detractors. That’s not how I see it, though: I think its breadth allows the film to cover a whole range of diverse love stories in one tight package. While we aren’t shown the growth of relationships in full, it’s not some compilation of people running into each other, having sex, then suddenly finding happily ever after—although sure, we don’t necessarily see the full build-up of each and every character’s relationships, that doesn’t make them any less believable. Rather than a deep dive into the complications of relationships, then, this film is about expressions of love: I don’t think that comparisons to most other rom-coms really do it justice.
Much like other Curtis screenplays such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually’s beauty lies in its honesty. Not all of its stories are perfect—many of them don’t even end happily (which, for a rom-com, is a bold move)—but neither does love in real life. Some explore different types of love to your classic girl-meets-boy: love between friends, siblings, families. The interplay between these and romantic love, often ending in tough and seemingly impossible choices in which our characters have to sacrifice one kind of love for another, leaves us with several bitter, painful and seemingly unjust conclusions interspersed with our feel-good heartwarmers. The thing is, this story doesn’t try to sell you some sort of wildly romantic, intercontinental epic built on impossible coincidences and indescribably instant connections like other seasonal movies might—instead, it tries to provide you a brief window into genuine, human relationships, flawed, raw and dashing though they may be. Yes, there’s cheating and jealousy and death and pain and heartbreak, and the film doesn’t try to hide that from you: those moments of despair are essential elements of its narrative. Above all, though, what Love Actually wants to show us is the scene at its beginning and end, in Arrivals at Heathrow Airport—the joy of seeing those families, friends and loved ones reuniting reminds us that despite all the hardship the world may throw at us, we are all greeted by those same beaming faces once we come home. All of us are loved.
Love, life, isn’t perfect. But that’s what makes it worth living—we need to get through the tough times to reach the good ones. Though Love Actually doesn’t mince its words, its overall message is one of hope: that if we look hard enough, love really is everywhere. Christmas is all about reminding us of that, I think, and few pieces of art are able to express it better. That’s why I come back to it every year—I absolutely adore this film, and I’ll tire of it once I tire of life itself.
Summer is always the part of the year where I really get the time to sit down and tear through some books. This time, though, I thought I’d do something a bit different, and get you lot involved in the process; so, I made an Instagram story asking for recommendations. I was honestly blown away by the response—I got about 60 different people with suggestions of what to pick up (Images below). It has made it even more clear to me how much books matter to people; after the response, I wanted to share my very quick thoughts on what I did get through in June and July here (and might start doing this kind of thing a bit more in future). It’s in order of when I read and there are a lot of words here, so just click over to what you’re interested in. As for the ones I haven’t got to yet, I haven’t forgotten you; a guy can only get through so many books at a time. Watch this space. If anyone else has or wants any recommendations, get in touch! –AB, 1/9/2021 x
Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappé, Frank Barat: “On Palestine”
In May, the world’s headlines (and everyone’s Instagram stories) blew up once again with displays of the atrocities committed by Israel against the Palestinian people. This was one of those issues that I was aware of at the periphery, but had not fully explored, so I decided to educate myself; I came across this on a visit to Lighthouse Books in Edinburgh, and having wanted to read some Chomsky for a while, picked it up. Chomsky is one of the most important thinkers of our time, with work covering Linguistics, History and Philosophy, while Pappé is an Israeli historian who is extremely critical of the state and its occupation of Palestine. This book was an incredibly interesting read as, though it was written in 2014, gave me massive insight into the situation today (as, honestly, not very much has changed). The book consists of a conversation between the two, led by activist Frank Barat, which covers the past, present and potential future of the Israeli state’s occupation and abuse of Palestine and its people, as well as various articles and speeches by both figures from other sources at the end. It is obviously very biased against Israel (who wants to support a violent settler/colonialist state anyway?) but has provided me with a decent starting point to learn more about the topic. If you want to actually look into and understand the context of one of the most crucial and important conflicts of our time, this is an excellent place to start.
When I put up my Instagram poll in June, this was one of the most popular recommendations I got. I managed to find it on a bookshelf at home, and got to work. The best way I could describe this story is one of humanity. The human that the story follows Amir, a child growing up in 1970s Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, as well as his life as a refugee in the USA after the Soviet occupation sent the country spiralling into decline. Amir is a deeply flawed protagonist; much of the story is driven by his mistakes as much as his successes. This means that you both root for and sometimes hate the narrator of the book—but ultimately, that’s the same as any person. Amir’s sort of reverse foil is his best friend and servant, Hassan; an innocent, pure yet fearlessly loyal sidekick. The story follows their relationship as it is tested and changed by time. The book is likely heavily inspired by the author’s own experience—Hosseini himself fled from Afghanistan from the USA at the same time—but it is this detail that gives the it its riveting authenticity; its descriptions of a prospering Kabul, free of the unbearable heat, violence, and poverty of today, are vivid and captivating—it’s a world I wish I could never leave. This window into the beauty of the past only makes it more heartbreaking as we watch, through Amir’s eyes, the city we have come to love be corrupted and destroyed by people who are, in many ways, as flawed and scared as our imperfect narrator. While this story shows humanities at its best and its worst, its most important takeaway is a glimmer of hope—that of redemption. This is one of my favourite books ever; please read it. I read and wrote this in June, but I am adding an addendum now given all that’s happened in Afghanistan since. Above all, this book is a love letter by the author to his home: a country he once knew so well but would barely recognise now. The Afghan people have endured forty years of pain and suffering, watching the community, culture and country they love be repeatedly ripped to shreds by insurgents hellbent on destroying it; this book passed onto me the tiniest piece of their immense longing. They deserve a chance to find that home again; I will support them in any way I can.
Despite adoring the movie and owning several other Patrick Ness books, I don’t think I’d ever actually read this in the past. I got through it in a single sitting (it’s only 250 or so pages) and, though I knew how it would end all along, still teared up a bit by the time I’d finished. This book was actually originally a concept by the author Siobhan Dowd that she never got to write before her death; it was posthumously given to Ness to write. I think he did a fantastic job. The story follows Conor O’Malley, a thirteen-year-old boy living alone with his terminally-ill mother. In the night, he is visited by a monster who emerges from the yew tree outside his window and arrives to tell him stories. It’s hard to talk about this book without spoiling it too much, but the result is a gut-wrenching tale of a boy trying to find peace in the inevitable and, ultimately, with himself. I find Conor so enthralling as a protagonist because of how much of oneself I think you can see in him; deep down, I think we sometimes all feel like a hurt, confused and lost thirteen-year-old, and Ness captures this sense of hopeless immaturity beautifully. This book didn’t win the Carnegie medal for nothing.
Adam Kay: “This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor”
I’d known about this book for a while now; my parents read it a few years ago, and I always see posters for Kay’s sold-out show on the Fringe. We had this lying around at home, so I picked it up. Speaking to my friend who’s applying for a medicine degree, I was told that everyone even dreaming of being a medic has read this book. Having read half of the book at this point, I went on to ask why on earth they still wanted to apply, knowing full well the world they were signing up for; they replied that the scariest and most important part about is that despite the fact that they all read this book, they still choose the degree anyway. This book is a red flag: it is a warning sign to those who dare follow its path, and an SOS to everyone else, who will never truly understand what our friends are going through. It consists of an edited eight-year diary of Kay’s daily life as he worked as a Junior Doctor—the highs and the many lows that come with the job. He guides us through a pain of hundreds of unpaid hours and ridiculous bureaucracy and the joy of saving lives, as well as the toll taken on his personal life and relationships as a result of it all. All of this is delivered with Kay’s touch of sarcastic brilliance, explaining away impossible-sounding medical terms and the intricacies of the NHS’ system with quips ranging from fiddling priests to Ryman’s stationery to Lego Star Wars. You never know whether to cry at a tragedy or to laugh at Kay’s hilarious jokes about it—regardless, I could read Kay’s entries forever (though I doubt he’d like to go back to the NHS in order to make them). The main thing I’ve taken away, though, is never to underestimate a doctor—they’ve been through more than you know.
This was another one recommended to me from my Instagram; it’s in about every charity shop ever, so I picked up a copy in Rugeley, where I was living at the start of summer. Everyone knows what the deal is with this one, and most of you have probably read it already. Ignoring the fact that this world is literally just the author creating a projected reality in which he is a master journalist/detective and all women have an inexplicable urge to have sex with him, this was a really good read. The book follows Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist who is hired to investigate a 40-year-old murder case, and how, along with the enigmatic investigator Lisbeth Salander, his ghost hunt uncovers armies of skeletons in the closet of his employer’s family. It is equal parts mystery and thriller, and has a million aces up its sleeve; as soon as you think you’ve solved one of its mysteries, another twist leaps out at you. This story thrives on the contrast between its uncertainty and intrigue, its gore and violence, and its occasionally profound emotional depth. Its characters are as human as they are unrealistic, its world as understandable as it is complex, and its conclusion is both predictable and shocking. Several times while reading this, I genuinely sat up and shouted “What?!?!”, which should probably tell you enough about how invested I was in the story. At over 500 pages, this isn’t a mild undertaking, but this book lived up to its reputation. I determined I’d read the second in the trilogy as soon as I came across it.
After being told to read this book by about the whole world (I got recommended Murakami by no less than seven different people on Instagram) I borrowed this one off of my friend, who herself had been trying to get me to read this for ages (although she does prefer the Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Maybe I’ll hit that next?) I think my favourite stories aren’t ones that focus on superhuman power, flawless heroes and battles to save the world, but the ones about emotions, imperfect protagonists and battles to save themselves (usually from problems of their own causing). There’s beauty in simplicity and relatability, and while a superhero or an apocalypse is great every now and again, the stories that stay with me are those that are seen through the eyes of normal people in our very normal world—a snapshot of the human experience. That’s what Norwegian Wood represents, to me; it’s a tale of love, loss, and growing up that grabs you by the heart and refuses to let go. It follows Toru Watanabe, a university student who has just moved from Kobe (near Osaka in central Japan) to Tokyo in search of a new life, and his relationship with Naoko, his best friend’s girlfriend from home who represents everything from his past that he is trying to escape. Murakami has this beautiful way of writing, too; the indifferent flair to his narration vividly reflects both Watanabe and the world of 1960s Japan, lending the story an irresistible character that I couldn’t put down. This is one of those books where you can see the conclusion coming from a mile away, I think, yet still find impossible to pray that the inevitable won’t happen; it’s utterly immersive and gut-wrenching, and makes you nostalgic for a youth, country and time that you have never experienced yet come to fall in love with. What’s good enough for Harry Styles, Andrew Yang and half of my Instagram followers (apparently) is more than good enough for me; I believe the hype on this one.
This is another one that got recommended to me a good few times, so I grabbed it while down in Bath at the lovely Topping and Co. outpost there (there’s also one in Edinburgh, just on Leith Walk, which you must visit if you haven’t). Quite the opposite from Norwegian Wood, The Song of Achilles is the story of the mythical hero, told through the lens of his close friend and eventual lover, Patroclus. This is a world of legend; Gods walk among men, mighty kingdoms with lauded leaders wage war and settle for peace, and homosexuality is even mostly accepted (Maybe things were better in 2000BC after all?). Our protagonist Patroclus is an exiled prince who, after being taken under the wing of Achilles’ father, Peleus, develops a lifelong relationship with the boy, following him from the palace of Phthia to the gates of Troy. Despite the far-flung setting, the lens that is provided by Patroclus, a weak, clumsy and decidedly non-legendary man, grounds the story and allows us to feel, through him, at home in this land of Gods and Kings. Miller masterfully reinterprets and bends the legend of Achilles, relying heavily on Homer’s Iliad, into a tale that feels exciting, fresh and poignant, while still remaining faithful to the source material. Making Achilles and Patroclus openly gay, too, is something I have to touch on entirely because of how natural it feels; not only does it fit with the story, but the addition of this profound emotional relationship with his canonical best friend provides a level of depth and humanity to Achilles that no other version of him properly manages to provide. That’s serious testament to this story, and Miller’s telling of it. Though this book didn’t touch me emotionally in a way that many of the other ones I’ve read have, I am still really glad I picked it up; if you liked Percy Jackson, especially, I think this pulls off what that tries to do far better.
A year ago, affected especially by the death of George Floyd, I, like just about everyone else, read a copy of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”. That book is an incredibly common choice for a reason; it offers a comprehensive introduction to the academic side of modern racial inequality in the UK, from slavery, to education, and with some intersectionality thrown in there as well. It actually set me up for my study of Politics at university much more than I ever expected, and had a decided impact on my worldview today. Citizen, though, takes a very different lens to the problem—Rankine here attempts to convey the emotional side of the Black female experience, how it feels rather than what it objectively is. This essentially takes shape as a long-form poem, split up into several sections, each covering a certain part of the “othering” faced by people of colour in the West, how they are constantly made to feel like they don’t belong by people who barely seem to realise or care about the fact that they’re doing it—as she puts it, a stark reminder of being coloured person against a white background. At about 200 usually half-empty pages, this was a super quick read, which only leads me to recommend this even more. I am never quite sure how to react to books such as this; it was something that I absolutely adored reading, yes, but the issues that it covers are so incredibly unjust that it almost feels wrong to say that I loved this as a whole. I did, though; this does an incredible job at capturing this facet of humanity, as unfair and horrible as it is—it is an extremely powerful read. Though as a white person living in a white world, the experiences Rankine outlines so impactfully here are ones that I won’t ever be able to fully understand, I now feel that I am that slight bit closer. This is one of those books that I think almost anyone should read (in fact, I gave it to my Mum almost immediately after finishing it). This is one of the most impactful books I have read in a long time, and I wish I could write with the raw yet sophisticated emotional efficacy that Rankine has.
The Euros start this week, so I wanted to talk a bit about football, and what it means to the people who support it. Let me start with a sweeping and possibly controversial statement—I genuinely believe that one of humanity’s greatest achievements is the Football World Cup.
It’s a phenomenon that you can’t really put your finger on; for a month or so in the middle of the year, this electric atmosphere buzzes around everyday life as the whole world becomes enthralled in this high-skill, high-stakes stage of a game so simple that almost anyone could play it. The differences between countries are both intensified and nigh-on forgotten as our heroic foot-warriors jostle with, shoot at, dive from, leap over, and blatantly foul each other to the shouts, jumps and cries of the millions watching, proudly bearing the same jerseys as the ones plastered on the big screens. The competitive yet unifying energy of it is something genuinely like no other, and is an incredible feat. I think human progress is at its best when it brings us all together; when done right, that is exactly what the World Cup (and, by extension, the Euros) is about—appreciating and embracing diversity.
But why is this so different to normal club games? After all, it’s the same sport, just with different jerseys, new teams, and a fancy, if sometimes utterly irrational, location (I’m looking at you, Qatar). What changes in the World Cup, though, is this element of national identity; those odd labels that merely represent the place that you’re from, yet somehow have the ability to turn a game of football into a worldwide spectacle. The thing is, nationality isn’t just a passport, or a flag in your Instagram bio; much of the time it is an indicator that we use as the very definition of who we are. There is serious power to that. This sense of identity and belonging is what drives that World Cup fever, I think; rather than looking at any football game and thinking that we could probably do it ourselves, having these players represent our country, and by extension us, on this global stage makes us feel that we really are somehow involved in it—that we are more than mere spectators. This connection is uplifting, captivating and inspiring; international sports simply wouldn’t be the same without it.
The extent that nationality matters to people bleeds pretty heavily into many aspects of life; from sports to immigrant communities down to the very lines along which our country’s borders are drawn. It’s more or less this last aspect that I want to focus on—nationality, and its importance, is something that I think is blindingly obvious yet not appreciated nearly enough in political conversation. Ultimately, it holds a compelling power over people that, when properly harnessed, is almost impossible to convince them away from. This has the power to turn politics from a rational debate to an all-out clash of ideology and identity, with the power to cause war, break apart countries, or both. This has been specifically evident in the UK, with the division of Ireland some hundred years ago and the now hot-button topic of Scottish independence. Nationality plays a central role, I think, in why Scotland wants to be independent in the first place, and why the UK government’s attempts to get rid of the debate won’t work.
People who know me will know full well that I never stop going on about being Scottish; my dad’s family is originally from here, and my parents met in Edinburgh (I qualify for SAAS, alright?). But despite how much I jokingly go on about it, I really am Scottish in name only; my dad’s job has meant I have never actually lived here, and I grew up in the South of England, far away from even the faintest whisper of bagpipes or a trace of Haggis on supermarket shelves. What this distance means is that while I’m “Scottish”, I lack the Scottish experience; that intimate relationship with this country, gained from growing up and spending one’s life in it, that makes it an irreversible element of your identity. At the end of the day, no amount of ranting about education fees can provide that. It’s taken coming to university here, though, and actually interacting with people who do have this experience for me to realise its importance and how much I’m lying to myself when I call myself “Scottish”; if we’re honest, I don’t really have the full picture. I think that this means that I fail to properly understand the issue of Scottish independence, because like my Scottishness itself, I view it as much more of a title and less of a part of who I am; for someone truly Scottish, though, it is all about the latter.
I think that democratic politics is, in a way, a lot like football: people have this desire to see a reflection of themselves when looking at their representatives on the political stage. But much like the difference between club games and the World Cup, this reflection is not just about looking at government and thinking we could take over and make it better ourselves (which, let’s be honest, most of us do), but it’s about feeling that we are already doing so through the people we elect. And though that sense of involvement isn’t displayed as clearly as by those matching national uniforms, it’s every bit as important to the people’s participation in the process. This is directly relevant to independence; ultimately, for a large part of the Scottish population, British politics is no longer a game they want to play. They don’t feel that the people they are watching truly represent them; Westminster for them is full of people who, much like me, claim to understand Scotland but have no real conception of the true Scottish experience. And though these people should be easily democratically replaced with better ones, Scotland is currently still a (relatively small) part of the UK—they can’t just vote in a whole new Westminster Parliament by themselves. Now, if the Scottish people were still fully invested in preserving the Union as a whole, this would be fine by them—but the point is that they’ve had enough. Scots have found that who they are no longer matches up with the rest of Britain; their left-wing, internationalist yet distinctly Scottish outlook is ever more starkly contrasted with England’s Brexit-fuelled separatist Tory government (even if a cabinet more similar to Scotland’s won a general election, though, I think that the damage has been done). The current system denies them the chance for that sovereignty that they so desperately want—breaking free of that is what independence is fundamentally about. I don’t think that such a dramatic ideological rift can be easily closed once it has formed, and the one between Scotland and England is widening at an alarming rate.
Those in power at Westminster, though, appear to have taken an interesting strategy to tackle the problem—namely, just ignoring it entirely. Obviously, Covid has thrown domestic politics into disarray, providing a convenient excuse to dance around the issue, but the Scottish elections in May especially has driven it right to the forefront; all the while, the UK government has barely spoken out on it at all. This refusal to directly address independence head-on has been going on for years now—from devolution, to the “once-in-a-lifetime vote” rhetoric from 2014’s referendum, to this year suggesting the SNP would require an outright majority at Holyrood before another referendum is even considered. When they do mention it, they proffer flimsy narratives in response of impracticality and economic instability that only seem to delay a vote rather than truly convincing anyone away from independence as a concept. But this childish plan of debate-dodging won’t last; issues of identity, especially those as deep-rooted as this, only grow stronger if not dealt with. If anything, it only proves how out of touch the English government truly is; if they don’t face this argument that has gripped Scottish politics for over a decade, how can they hope to truly represent it? It either shows a lack of understanding or a lack of democratic competence—honestly, I’m not sure which is worse.
A lot of this was playing on my mind last month as I voted for the first time ever in the Scottish Parliamentary elections, and watched the SNP narrowly fall short of that essential majority at Holyrood. Boris Johnson, yet again, will surely take this as a sign that he can continue to reject Nicola Sturgeon’s requests for another independence referendum. But Westminster has already been trying that for too long, and I can promise that it won’t work much longer. To be fair, much unlike the World Cup, I don’t think anybody wants a referendum every four years—by now, we’re all pretty tired of this worn-out debate. But what I’m arguing is that another vote is inevitable. People’s identity, and genuinely feeling that they have sovereignty over their own affairs, rather than being controlled by a government from a distant English metropolis who doesn’t understand them, matters. That feeling of fundamental disconnection is not one that any amount of delaying and sidelining can have any long-term effect on—the argument of Scottish independence is as prevalent as it is permanent, no matter how much Westminster may pray that it might disappear if they ignore it enough.
Much like the beautiful game, Politics’ value comes from the fact that anyone can get involved and make a difference on the pitch. Remove that appeal, though, and people stop wanting to play—it ends up becoming a bit more like polo than football. If the people don’t believe in Britain, British politics simply won’t work anymore; even if it means trading the money and security of a stadium for the familiarity and chaos of a playpark, people would rather play a game they have control of. Scotland may have decided that the UK simply doesn’t provide that; no matter how much you deny, delay, or argue against it, we may have come too far for that schism ever to be healed. After all, football has never been about how many trophies the team wins, but about their genuine connection with the fans; for that, I know which match I’ll be watching on Monday.
References Most of this one was done from my own experiences having spent a year (already!!) at university in Scotland. This article is a sort of tribute to that. I’d like to take this chance to thank everyone I’ve met along the way; I’ve learnt a lot, not just about Scottish independence, from the people I’ve met and the interactions I’ve had. However, I picked up George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism for £1 from Lighthouse lately, which was incredibly interesting and quite influential towards my writing of this piece (even if he takes a very different view on Nationalism and even sports throughout). You can pick it up in-store or from here (for a quid): https://lighthousebookshop.com/book/9780241339565
Almost one year ago, a 46-year old man walked into a store in Minneapolis and, while attempting to pay, was accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill. The police were called, and the man was arrested; 8 minutes and 46 seconds later, a full two minutes after he had become unresponsive, he was dead. Last week, the person who was kneeling on his neck faced trial.
Meanwhile, the UK has been ripped apart by the fallout from the release of the Sewell report on racial disparity; in case you (somehow) missed it, it controversially concluded that “we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”. To many, this was an affirmation of what they’d believed for a long time; that structural racial discrimination in the UK no longer exists, and that those who claim it does are selfishly inventing an issue where one doesn’t exist. To me, though, this report was the most direct possible highlight of everything that I think people fail to understand about the structural and institutional racism that pervades our lives.
Contrary to the investigation’s suggestions, I believe that in the West, racial equality is a myth—structural racism penetrates deep into our society and continues to have huge effects today, regardless of how far we’ve come in alleviating it. This piece is my attempt to back up that idea (from the point of view of a white guy who has benefited from the exact systems it outlines).
Institutional racism is a deeply multifaceted issue, and getting into its full extent would take somebody who knows a lot more than me a lot more time than just one article. So, in the interest of brevity and providing an example of where the report goes wrong, let’s talk about one issue the investigation brings up: education and success.
Over summer, a friend of mine recommended a book to me called “Outliers”, by Malcolm Gladwell; it’s a book that aims to explore the factors behind successful people, well, becoming successful. I really recommend reading it, but I’ll save you the time by cutting to its main finding: that success is about opportunity. More specifically, the only way that anybody ends up good at anything is by getting the opportunity to practice and become good at it. Across the book, Gladwell uses examples from Canadian ice hockey players to Bill Gates himself to show that the success of all of them was not determined by talent, but the opportunities they were provided from a young age. As he states in the conclusion to the book, success is “is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky”. The truth is that we don’t live in an egalitarian society; life is made incredibly easy for some (myself included) and incredibly difficult for others based on factors over which they have absolutely no control. This is a principle that I think can be applied across the human experience—the truth is, many of the things that you’ll be able to achieve are predetermined long before the day you are born.
Most of the people who maintain the idea that racial inequalities do not exist seem to parrot the exact same alternative narrative—that success is solely a result of hard work, and that if anyone works hard enough, their dreams are guaranteed. They laud figures such as Denzel Washington, who preaches that “hard work, works”*. They then extrapolate this to suggest that just because one person from a particular background can make it out and achieve amazing things, so can every single person from that background—and, according to them, those who fail to “make it” do so because they simply aren’t working hard enough.
Listen: in a lot of ways, this isn’t incorrect. Success definitively requires hard work; nobody with any number of ideal opportunities is going to get anywhere without putting pretty significant effort in. But how much work you actually have to put in, and how conducive that work is going to be to actual achievement, varies heavily depending on your individual situation. To harness that hard work, you need the right opportunities—who gets which opportunities, then, depends majorly on your background. It is true that in today’s UK, you’d be lying if you suggested that it were absolutely impossible for someone to do anything based upon their ethnicity (though we’re still waiting on a non-white Prime Minster; we’ll get there.) But think of it like a running race, in which some contestants start 50 metres ahead while others start behind, with hurdles and obstacles in their way—those who start behind could win, say, if those in front walk really slowly, but it’s going to be tough work. No matter how much you grind, life is still more or less a game of luck—succeeding isn’t guaranteed. And what is important is that for a middle-class white kid like me, the amount of better-quality advantages you receive in life (which you can harness to eventually become successful) is going to be so much more than the average kid from an ethnic minority background**—we start out in front, and the course is much more clear. For others, the opportunities they receive are more likely to be fewer and further between; this means they can still do well, sure, but the odds are much more heavily stacked against them.
“But isn’t all of this more or less determined by class, not race?”, you might, pretty fairly, ask. Class definitely comes into it; indeed, regardless of race, the more money you have, the better your schooling, tech, extracurricular help, and even basic food provision can afford to be. Indeed, I reckon that most of the differences that I’ve outlined above can be put down to variation in class, not race (though other more subtle racial ones definitely do exist). But even if you ignore the other factors that affect education and futures and assume (pretty tenuously) that disparities in eventual affluence are totally explained by your socioeconomic position growing up, the blaring issue still stands that race is not accurately represented across classes. In the UK, white British people are easily the least likely ethnic group of all to be in the poorest income brackets, while the most likely to be in the richest:
People of colour are far more likely to be in those lower income brackets, receiving worse opportunities and therefore being set up to do less well than their white counterparts**. White people are more likely to live in richer areas with better schools (or just be able to pay for better schools), to have affluent parents with powerful contacts, and to get tutoring, internships, extracurricular funding, summer schools, textbooks, and everything in between. This social, economic and cultural safety net consists of the exact advantages that Gladwell is on about (and many of the ones that I have benefited from myself)—sure, you can be absolutely fine without them, but you’re going to need a hell of a lot of luck. I think that many people fail to recognise this key difference between the possibility and probability of success; just because we could, in theory, all achieve something, doesn’t make us all equally likely of being able to achieve it, and doesn’t make it fair (think back to my running race analogy from before).
Being poorer, as ethnic minorities are more likely to be, doesn’t make success impossible, just as being rich doesn’t guarantee it; we’ve all heard stories of rags to riches and spectacular falls from grace. But just because one person bucks the trend created by this disparity doesn’t mean that all of them can—the truth is, most of them don’t. And as the gaps between socioeconomic classes increase due to this biased system (which they definitively are; inequality is not getting any lesser in the UK), so do the gaps between races as disadvantaged people fight harder to get less far. This is just one single, very focused example of how our society is ruthlessly rigged against ethnic minorities; I haven’t even touched on other broad issues like policing, health, or even employment (though the latter is very linked to what I have explored). Nor have I gotten into how discrimination expresses itself within classes and schools, through indirect biases such as how students of ethnic minority backgrounds can be hit with disproportionate rates of disciplinary punishment—these are incredibly pressing issues that the government’s “landmark” investigation fails to properly investigate.
For its part, the Sewell report acknowledges the issues that affect educational achievement, including parental income levels and education, geography, and family structure, while asserting that socioeconomic status by far correlates the most strongly with attainment. I more or less agree with this breakdown of the issue; what the report then suggests to solve this, though, is simply the improvement of early-age state schooling. I think that this could definitely make up a lot of ground, but at the end of the day equalising your first few years of school simply isn’t enough to deal with structural societal inequalities. This solution only addresses what happens within the classroom, and ignores the fact that most of the difference expresses itself without, through background, extra support, etc. It also doesn’t get into the massive advantage that mostly-white private schools provide.
They’ve pretty much admitted that the root of the problem is socioeconomic status, and the misrepresentation of races in this respect. So, why aren’t we dealing with that? Why are we focusing on early-age education while upholding this inadequate hierarchy when we could be working to change that system as a whole? This rationale is more or less, I think, reflected across the entire report; though in many cases, it identifies the problems we’re facing with surprising lucidity, its recommendations of solutions repeatedly fall short of what is necessary. The thing is, until we start addressing the deep racial disparities that are actually behind all of the issues we’re debating, those issues will never really go away. Many hoped that the Sewell report would start addressing that by actually beginning to confront these problems; I, for one, was incredibly disappointed to see that it didn’t.
For me, the death of George Floyd was a wake-up call to facing issues that, as a privileged white kid, I had never been privy to in the past—more than anything, it was a reminder of just how different others’ lives are to mine, and just how much I have left to learn and to understand. That’s what I’ve spent the last year attempting to do, and I’m still trying. I’m nowhere near fully getting it now (and I never will be), but I know that I’m a lot closer than I was. What worries me, though, is that there are still so many people who don’t try: who are happy to be complacent and deny just how rigged our society is, to pretend that the reason that individuals pass or fail, work the trading floor or the streets, and receive a warning or a knee to the neck is because of their own faults, and not because of a system that is structurally stacked against them.
Though the conviction of Floyd’s murderer might bring his family peace, it won’t truly bring him justice; he won’t receive that until we finally create a world in which no innocent person like him dies in the first place. What pains me is that with the way things seem right now, that reality is still a long way off.
* I don’t at all think that Denzel doesn’t understand the issue, but I think that he is often misquoted and his ideas bent to fit a certain agenda.
** I am grouping all ethnic minorities together here as they are all at a disadvantage, but I want to make it clear that the difficulties that ethnic groups face are by no means homogenous and should not be unnecessarily generalised. Every individual’s, and every group’s, experience is complex and unique and should be treated entirely as such.
It isn’t a particularly important age for most people, I imagine; the afterburn of an eighteenth year full of change, from school to the real world (or halfway there, at least), from a child to something resembling an adult. I guess that turning this age also holds a lot of that for me—more than anything, Covid has led to this year being an even harsher cacophony of ups and downs, often in quick succession, and my birthday marks nearly a year since it all started. In my case, though, nineteen holds a certain significance. To explain that, I’ll need to tell a story about a friend of mine.
A lot of you will know his name, but that’s not important: for the purposes of this, I’ll just call him J. By all means, I never actually knew J very well; when I joined my senior school aged thirteen, he was in his final year there. He seemed to have everything: he was Head Boy, captain of the school’s first-ever undefeated rugby team, and a living legend around campus. But what always stuck out to me was how despite all of his achievements, he was incredibly humble and down-to-earth—seeing him daily in our close-knit boarding house, he would never look down on us, the youngest in school (as most older kids, out of pride or perhaps insecurity, tended to). Sure, we never felt like equals, exactly, but more importantly he made us feel like we mattered; knowing he’d been at the forefront of pushing greater mental health awareness in school over the years, we all knew that if we ever had a problem, he would always be there to listen.
My memories of the guy are mostly pretty positive: I remember watching him charge down the rugby pitch in the final match of the season, fearlessly acting as an Eastern European maid in our house play (though the cast’s abilities were questionable, you will never see as many penis jokes in a single 90 minutes in your entire life) and screaming at the latest twist on Game of Thrones on a Monday night. As a kid, I never really got to see the other side of him: I am not sure that many did (though looking back, most of our house, at least, seemed to somewhat know). Hearing about his death, then, came to me as an incredible shock.
It’s as if it were last week, or maybe a month ago: the afternoon remains crystal clear, imprinted in my mind. It had been announced in the morning that the whole school was meant to meet later in the day: which, for a Thursday, happened to be pretty odd. I knew it was serious, obviously (this kind of thing hasn’t occurred before or since), but had absolutely no idea what was coming. At athletics that afternoon, I discussed the affair with my mates while (pretending to be) training our triple jump in the lazy, English summer sun: we decided another friend of ours had probably been busted for drugs (he’d been searched that morning and, turns out, had somehow managed to get away with it). Nonetheless, we thought, a whole school meeting would be a bit overkill, and so nobody was really sure what was going on—we should have taken the news that one of his teachers had been seen in tears that morning as a warning sign.
An ominous mood hung over the school as the Headmaster stood up to speak. He kept it brief: he announced that earlier that morning, he had heard of J’s death while on a gap year in Vietnam. He didn’t tell us how it happened: my naïve, fifteen-year-old mind wouldn’t fill that bit in until later. While I don’t recall his exact words, I can still feel the punch to the gut that I sensed the whole room, especially our house, most of whom had been living with him less than a year before, take as the news hit us; I remember the eerily silent, ten-minute walk back to our boarding house, as sixty boys tried to come to terms with their friend’s death; and I remember us getting back, collapsing onto the various benches that had been assembled outside to greet us, and crying, unable to believe that someone we looked up to and cared about like a brother could be so suddenly and unexpectedly gone.
He was nineteen years old.
I mentioned before that me and J didn’t have a very close relationship. Given our ages, that was inevitable, really; while being in his house meant I knew him better than most, it’s not like we were best mates. What he did represent for me, though, was a role model. When he was at my school and in the years after he left, I looked up to him immensely; when I was that age, I thought, I wanted to be something like him. Sure, I never made Head Boy, and I was nowhere near captaining any rugby teams (never mind an undefeated season). But before and especially after what happened I was always determined to, if nothing else, try to live up to the way he inspired me, and instil that same inspiration in the kids who came after me. Because more tragic than the fact that I knew he would never be able to play another game of rugby, or see the end of Game of Thrones (although that was almost definitely for the best), was the fact that his memory would one day fade. I wanted to be a part of keeping it alive somehow, even if indirectly.
Looking up at J aged thirteen, I saw someone with the world at his feet. At nineteen, I feel just about as directionless now as I did then and I’m sure he felt nearly 4 years ago. But what’s changed is that we finally are, in a way, equals; today will be as close as I’ll ever get to seeing the world through his eyes. And in that respect, I think that my vision of his story, too, needs to change. After all, I’ve grown out of my school: my time at university has already had a huge effect on me, and starting to grow up has given me the chance to take a new perspective on the childhood I’ve left behind. Maybe now, the best way to keep his memory alive is not within some tiny country school, but beyond, in the world, by trying to change what led to his tragedy in the first place. By encouraging conversations about mental health. By deconstructing the toxic masculinity behind the struggles of him and those close to him in accepting his sexuality. By reminding people that any life, especially one as bright and inspirational as his, never deserves to be thrown away. While that’s a big ask, one I could dedicate my entire life to and still not achieve, making a difference starts with the small things; I guess that this piece is one of those.
Today I turn nineteen, and as I grow older, I realise that his is a story that I don’t need to hide behind anymore (people who have known me long enough are sick and tired of it, at this point). Nineteen is where his story ended. But mine hasn’t: I am determined to make it a force for good, in the memory of him and so many, too many, other victims of male suicide. Being a man is more than simply masculinity: looking back, I see that J carried that message, from the rugby field to the boarding house to the stage and beyond, and if nothing else, he passed it on to me. I intend to live by it. If you’ve made it this far, the most important step that any of us can take is simply to check on your mates. We, I, don’t do it enough; it’s always “what’s going on?” and never really “how are you?” And even if they’re fine, I promise that even being asked can make a world of difference—knowing someone cares about your problems does so much to lighten their load. Again, it starts with the small things; but if we can change even one person’s day for the better, every day, it stacks up. When you feel totally alone in the world, the reminder that even one other person is there with you can be all that you need.
Like all of us, J faced many challenges in his life; though he responded to all of them valiantly, in the end it was the battles inside of him that became too much to bear. I can never fully understand, but today marks the closest I’ll ever get to it—I want his memory to help me make change, however small. And I know that if I, or you, can make a difference in at least one story like his, he will be looking down with pride.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Images All images used are from the King’s Bruton Flickr, where they can still be accessed: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kingsbruton/ Though they feature my likeness (go have a look if you missed me), they are not owned by me. All credit goes to King’s, their rightful owner.
Abraham Lincoln famously quipped that “A House divided against itself, cannot stand”. Though these words were addressed to an 1800s America on the brink of Civil War, their message is applicable all across history: a timeless reminder that fundamental differences between allies can destroy even the most valiant institutions and movements from within.
A poignant example of this is the Spanish Civil War, which raged from 1936 through until 1939, ending just as the rest of Europe erupted into chaos with the outbreak of World War II. Spain, since the exile of its king in 1931, had become a democratic republic: it championed values such as suffrage, divorce, gender equality, and freedom of religion, all of which were controversially progressive issues for a country that even today is still deeply devoted to its traditional Catholic roots. Even these five years, then, were plagued by bitter political battles between the progressive left and the traditionalist right, as well as spats within each camp between those in support of republic and people wanting to tear it down, whether that be Christian monarchists or radical anarchists. This period of tension, subterfuge and backstabbing eventually concluded with the army’s right-wing generals launching an invasion of southern Spain, plunging the country into a Civil War.
The lines of this war were quickly and decisively drawn. There were “Nationalists”, people in support of the rebels’ leader, General Francisco Franco, and his fascist invading forces, and “Republicans”, which were pretty much everyone else: an alliance of everyone from moderates who simply preferred democracy to fascism, to socialists, to all-out anarchists, who just hated Franco more than they disliked the moderate Republic. While this uneasy alliance, borne out of hatred of their shared enemy, lasted about a year, by 1937 in-fighting began: extremists and moderates began to attack each other in the infamous “May days”, leaving the entire alliance vulnerable to the more unified, aggressive and focused Nationalist forces, who took advantage of the chaos to gain the upper hand in the war. The Republicans never recovered, and lost their stronghold of Madrid in March 1939, letting in nearly forty years of brutal dictatorship.
I think there are important lessons we can learn from this example, many of which are particularly relevant in today’s US. The truth is, like the (Spanish) Republicans, the current American Democratic party is an incredibly unlikely alliance: for the past 4 years, it has shown surprising cohesion as the “anything but Donald Trump” wing of the American political spectrum. Trump himself, on the other hand, is no match for Franco’s extremism and brutality—nonetheless, his recent denial of the legitimate results of the 2020 Presidential election only reinforces his long-standing opposition to democracy if it does not work in his favour, much like the 1930s Spanish right wing. And while, like in Spain, this shared enemy of democracy may temporarily unite two disparate viewpoints to oppose it, I think that the party, and President Joe Biden at the head of it, are going to face the mounting challenge of keeping the organisation together as time drags on.
Over 81 million Americans voted for Joe Biden: more than in any other election in the nation’s history. This, in itself, is a staggering figure which only highlights the importance of last year’s election. In the world’s most diverse nation, this group obviously consisted of a wide range of demographics: people of all ages, genders, races and backgrounds stepped up to vote, many for the first time. The victory they achieved was massive both in terms of sheer numbers and significance, and pushed Biden over his first hurdle to become the 46th President of the US. However, it only represented the first of his many challenges: more than anything now, it emphasises the weight of the unique hopes of those millions of individuals, all of which now rest on his shoulders.
Biden has already taken further steps by winning a majority in the US Senate. Unlike the UK, where the Prime Minister is simply appointed by the biggest party in Parliament, which is elected at once, America has separate elections for both the Senate and the House (think of these as almost like the House of Commons and the House of Lords, but both have important powers) as well as an entirely different one for the President, which is what we saw in November. While the approval of all three is needed to pass major legislation, it is possible for a President to have control of only one of these or even to have neither, as Obama faced later on in his Presidency—this means their opponents can stop almost anything they do. The good news is that while the world was watching Trump-supporting extremists storm the Capitol a week ago, the Democrats quietly won two Senate seats back from Republicans in special elections in Georgia, securing (barely) a majority for Biden when he is inaugurated on top of his control of the House; this means the President will actually be able to effectively pass laws through the Houses without the Republicans entirely blocking everything.
However, the battle nowhere near done—the new President still faces the crucial issue of keeping his party together, on top of running a whole country, down the line. Even after the races in Georgia, the Senate will be perfectly split 50-50 (with the Vice-President having the deciding vote): if even one Democrat decides to vote against him, he won’t be able to pass anything into law. In his new autobiography, “A Promised Land” (which I really recommend if you want to learn about American politics; it’s teaching me a lot), Barack Obama highlights the difficulties of this situation. The knife-edge majority grants every Democratic Senator a huge amount of bargaining power, allowing them to force any law Biden tries to pass to change, stopping it in its tracks by voting against it if he doesn’t listen to their demands. This presented huge issues for Obama who, even though he had a bigger majority than Biden does now, had to bend over backwards to ridiculous personal requests in order to pass anything at all, taking huge shortcuts such as extra billion-dollar projects in Louisiana to deliver his landmark healthcare bill, for example. The new President will face all of the same issues that Obama did: even so, I think that the fallout from having to concede to these demands may be greater than ever, effectively threatening to divide the party in two.
The Democratic Party is split between two blocs: “moderates”, who are less harsh right-wingers looking to keep continuity in the US (think UK Tories but mixed with Lib Dems), and “progressives”, who push for greater government investment and change (more like Labour). This important rift, while having been swept under the rug for years in order to deal with Trump, is once again beginning to rear its head now that the Democrats once again have control of government. Biden and his future Vice-President, Kamala Harris, mostly fall into the former camp, while figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are more prominent leaders of the latter. Progressives, though, were instrumental in securing Biden’s win—led by Bernie after his defeat and young campaigners on social media, they began a mighty push to “settle for Biden”, throwing their support behind him solely in order to kick out Trump—Biden, too, rose to their demands, for example on cancelling student loan debt, knowing that he had to count on their support to win. And, he has: but now that aim has been achieved, the atmosphere amongst progressives is beginning to change from support to suspicion. Biden’s cabinet nominations are showing many more play-it-safe moderate figures than progressive torchbearers, causing many voters to be disappointed, indicating that there may already be a marked difference between Biden’s agenda and that which many progressives, both voters and politicians, were hoping for. The cracks, then, may already be beginning to show.
What does any of this mean? I am worried that like in 1930s Spain, the differences between the Democrats could spell disaster for them. The fact that any of the fifty Democratic senators could single-handedly stop a law from passing will mean that any of them could make pretty much any request they wanted: but what happens when a moderate makes a demand that progressives don’t like? Or vice versa? Such arguments are bound to happen, and I think they may well tear the party apart, causing either half to entirely veto legislation made by their own official allies. Meanwhile, the Republicans will surely be waiting on the sidelines, spying weaknesses to exploit during future elections in 2022 and 2024. If the Democrats can’t reconcile their differences, I don’t see their grip on power lasting long.
Mark Twain, Lincoln’s contemporary, told us that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”. The Spanish Civil War was fought over 80 years ago and in entirely different circumstances, but the principles at stake were mostly the same as in modern America: those who are driven to defend democracy pushing back those who are desperate to bend it to their will. And while we might think that if anywhere, democracy is safe in the Land of the Free, the 6th of January taught us that we should take nothing for granted (especially when the police and even the President support the aggressors). Joe Biden may yet face some of the toughest challenges of any President in recent memory: we will all be counting on him to overcome them.
Several weeks ago, in mid-July, I was standing in Dam square in Amsterdam. It’s a renowned centre of activism and multiculturalism in the area; on that day, I was sat listening to a busker playing a Turkish clarinet and watching stands that ranged all the way from an online summit on Iran to a single person holding up a sign against systemic racism as an eclectic mix of people of all ethnicities and nationalities passed through. As I took in the scene, I was approached by a Chinese man who, in broken English, explained to me that he was collecting signatures for a petition over the CCP’s treatment of the Falun Dafa movement. As he explained his story to me, I was struck by the striking similarities between his situation and ones I have seen across social media and even in history class; specifically, the recent persecution of the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang. Their plight has been reported since 2018 and is gaining a resurgence across the news and social media, but relentlessly continues all the same. It dawned on me then that we have seen their exact story before with Falun Dafa, and if authoritarianism continues to exist unchallenged, we will doubtless see it again.
Let’s start at the beginning; specifically, the mid-1990s, where a new form of spiritual practice, known as Falun Dafa or Falun Gong, is taking hold of China. Its founder, Li Hongzi, promotes a set of meditations and spiritual exercises designed to bring his followers the values of “truthfulness, compassion, [and] forbearance” which are central to the movement. It is, ultimately, about peace and self-discovery**(see edit at end); however, as it grows, China’s Communist Party, the CCP, seeks to control it, initially by attempting to establish Party branches within Falun Gong groups. When the groups refuse this, the CCP bans the publication of Falun Gong books in July 1996. Still, the movement grows; by 1999, some estimates pin 70 million people as practicing it, 18% of the population. Then, in July, the crackdowns begin; within a week of the CCP beginning nationwide arrests, some 50,000 Falun Gong practitioners are detained by the authorities. Hongzi flees for the US. Those who are captured are sent to secret concentration camps, where they are tortured, beaten, and forced to renounce their beliefs, calling Falun Gong an “evil cult” and expressing utter loyalty to the CCP. For those that succumb to the abuse, there are reports of their organs being harvested by the government. One practitioner, James Ouyang, tells the Washington Post in 2001 that he was abused by police for nine days straight before he denounced the movement and was allowed to leave. The West, shocked, condemns China’s actions to no avail; the systematic abuse carries on regardless.
Sound familiar? It should. The exact same strategy is being used today against the Uighurs. The Uighurs are an 11-million-strong ethnic population from Xinjiang in Northwest China who bear close links to central Asian nations and, majoratively, practice Islam. In the past, the Uighurs have intermittently expressed wishes for independence from a China which is different to them ethnically, religiously, and ideologically; nonetheless, separatist rumblings have been silent for years. Since 2018, there have been reports of many Uighurs mysteriously vanishing, reportedly having been sent to hastily built and rapidly expanded “re-education” camps, where, the CCP asserts, they are merely trained in artistry, poetry and music. Family members from outside of China claim that they have had no contact with these relatives, some of whom have apparently disappeared off the face of the earth. Though China studiously denies any maltreatment in these camps, stories relayed anonymously by survivors, terrified for their lives, show that through systematic torture, pressuring and brainwashing, inmates are forced to curse religion and renounce the Qur’an while singing songs praising the CCP, and chants of “Long Live Xi Jinping!”. Yet again, reports have escaped of the organ harvesting of those who die. Despite constant coverage since 2018 and international condemnation, Communist Party denial remains intact while these prison camps continue to expand. The relentless campaign to remove Islam from China shows no signs of slowing down; and, what is more, its development shows profound resemblance to what happened to the Falun Gong movement in the 1990s.
First of all, why? Why go to such extremes, even against international pressure, to crush what are mostly peaceful religious movements? The answer is, to put it simply, because the CCP are scared. Authoritarian regimes thrive on a sort of fanaticism; much like religions do, they aim to invade and control the daily lives of their followers, and need their utter devotion to effectively function. Religion, in any form, poses a direct threat to this aim; it has the potential to replace this devotion to the ruling party with another, rival one, freeing those who follow it from the direct control of the regime, and even uniting them against it. We’ve seen it all before; Adolf Hitler himself spent years embroiled in a bitter fight with the Catholic Church, which refused to come under his control. No matter how hard he tried, whether through replacing priests or trying to swap pictures of Jesus for those of him in churches, he was emphatically rebuffed; and leaders of the Church, ever-popular amongst the people, were untouchable even to the SS lest they risk an all-out rebellion. Hitler failed to defeat religion, and the Church led resistance against him throughout the war, undermining his grip over the people.
The CCP refuses to make the same mistake; it wants its local headquarters to be its people’s Church, and Chairman Xi Jinping to be their God. If Falun Gong, or Islam, or whatever comes next, no matter how peaceful it is, stands in the way of that by setting forward an ulterior ideology, of course the Chinese government will stop at nothing to take it down—it wants the people’s devotion to itself, and it alone. And why shouldn’t they stamp it out; after all, they got away with it last time. Post-1999, the once-surging Falun Gong movement melted into the shadows, its memory erased from the Chinese people’s minds, and its followers banished, with little left to do but try to drum up support in places such as Dam Square for a cause that is long lost. If nothing changes, we are cursing the Uighurs to the same fate.
But finally, will anything change? Can it? The depressing and slightly morbid answer is, unfortunately, probably not. Recently, I have seen waves of support across Instagram for the Uighurs; stories seem awash with thousands of posts indicating the grim reality of the concentration camps and organ harvesting. Our politicians aren’t unaware, either; Dominic Raab, Marco Rubio and a whole host of others have officially condemned China’s actions. All of this seems impressive; however, do China care about Instagram stories, or foreign “condemnation”, or tiny petitions signed by tourists in a square in Amsterdam? No. Not at all. Western social media is banned in China, after all, and China’s historic hatred of foreign intervention in its affairs has only further hardened it against listening to any recommendations the West might make to it on how it chooses to treat its people. In an epitomising example of this in late July, the Chinese ambassador to the UK blatantly denied all misconduct even when faced with tapes of prison camps on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show; he, like the government he serves, cares precious little for what we think, so long as we keep buying their exports and using their products. If we really wanted to try to stop any of this, we would have to engage with China in a unified and direct way, and hit them where it hurts. I’m talking trade embargoes, or even further. A situation like this could even offer opportunity for an alliance between the defenders of human rights in the West and Islamic countries in the East to fight this injustice, together; if enough countries banded up, we could send out a threat that China simply couldn’t afford to ignore. But in a world fraught with xenophobia, mutual distrust and outright war between the West and Muslim nations, could such an unlikely unification ever be pulled off? And is Boris Johnson, or Donald Trump, really going to put their compromised political status and their already-crippled economies on the line in a war against China over a group of persecuted Muslims, half the world away? Perhaps, taking action would only serve to divide us just as much as our lack of it defines us.
We failed to properly react to Falun Gong 20 years ago. Today, the Uighur crisis is showing us that we clearly haven’t learnt our lesson. And mark my words: if we don’t learn it this time, the next will play out the exact same way. The harsh reality is that as long as authoritarian regimes like the CCP continue to exist, systematic killings like that of the Uighurs will occur. And with the way things are, none of that is showing signs of changing anytime soon.
One of my favourite quotes on UBI is the Rutger Bregman slogan: “Poverty isn’t a lack of character, it’s a lack of cash”.
Our current benefits system seems to believe the opposite—it blames the poor for their position, forcing them to cut through countless lines of red tape just to get the cash they need to survive. But this constant state nannying is far from fixing the problem—most sources show relatively constant poverty rates of an insane 20%. Wasting all of your energy proving your poverty to the state is both humiliating and directly counterintuitive to what our benefits system should be aimed at doing: getting people out of poverty.
Enter UBI, a policy that aims to tackle this issue from a practical and an ideological standpoint. As a form of welfare, UBI is the purest form of individualistic libertarianism: rather than micromanaging, compartmentalising and dictating the path out of poverty, it puts the cash in the hands of the people that need it and lets them do it themselves. The upcoming trials in Wales will speak for themselves, but studies from Scandinavia to the infamous Speenhamland demonstrate that this simplification and liberalization is far more efficient and effective than standard welfare—some studies have shown that basic income schemes can even save tax money. Suggesting that the poor will waste away this vital stipend rather than investing it in themselves is both deeply derogatory to their character as well as being a plain misunderstanding of the data.
From an ideological standpoint, giving this money to everyone establishes it as a basic right. Yes, many of us are fortunate enough not to need the extra cash, but the fact that we all get it makes UBI a privilege that absolutely does not discriminate; one that we can rely on should we need it, without having to report when and how we use it to a state who has no business knowing. As citizens of our society, then, UBI guarantees everyone a minimum standard of living—no questions asked. Is that not something we should have been aiming for all along?
Avatar is, by most accounts, a modern classic: a technological masterpiece and the arguable founder of Hollywood’s current CGI era, all while consistently defending its spot as the highest–grossing film of all time. And yet, before last week, I had never seen it. Remaining an Avatar virgin, so to speak, wasn’t a deliberate move; I just happened to miss it when it came out and never felt very compelled to catch up on it. There isn’t exactly a lack of graphics–heavy Disney content these days after all, and there is much more media touting that the movie’s plot is mostly forgettable than singing its praises.
However, with the 13–year–wait for the sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, almost over and the original film back in cinemas in a remastered, 4K version, I decided to pop my Avatar cherry to see how the film, which was the CGI movie of 2009, holds up in today’s oversaturated climate.
First and foremost, Avatar simply has to be seen in a cinema—this movie was intended to be viewed in 3D on the big screen, and its graphics absolutely deliver. Before our protagonist even starts talking, the stunning visuals come in: sweeping space vistas as his spaceship comes in to land on the harsh, concrete human military base, surrounded by the rich and vibrant Pandoran jungle and the breath–taking cliffs of the Hallelujah mountains. The Na’vi also look far better than most MCU computer animation released today (look no further than She–Hulk). The initially awkward lankiness of the Na’vi, too, is quickly forgotten as their beautifully animated features blend into the spectacular landscapes. Even though Avatar came out in 2009, it doesn’t look dated at all. In fact, it looks a lot more polished than some movies this year; although to be fair, this version is remastered from the original. Between the stunning visuals and the rich lore of this alien moon (which avoids too many obtuse exposition dumps), the world of Pandora is incredibly immersive. Unlike the relentless business model of the average Disney franchise, this truly feels like a passion project 50 years in the making. It makes complete sense why Avatar so enamored audiences 13 years ago; however, even though she was lovely, the woman who turned up to my screening in a full Na’vi costume may have been a bit over the top.
While the visuals are stunning, the reasons why nobody seems to remember the plot are obvious. In particular, the character development is severely lacking. Our protagonist, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is a disabled ex–marine who takes the six–year flight to Pandora after his brother, the scientist intended to go on the trip, unexplainedly dies. This concept of a stoic yet uneducated everyman heading into a complex alien world occupied by scientists makes for a compelling audience surrogate. But the execution lacks any emotional resonance, as his brother’s tragic death isn’t touched on or even mentioned after about 30 minutes in, and Sully himself has about as much personality as a wet blanket. Sully has little to no agency throughout the film, essentially being dragged around and told what to do by other characters up until the finale. While his transition from order–following corporal to heroic rebel leader by the end is again good on paper, he didn’t grow much at all during the film. Zoe Saldana is fine as Neytiri, Sully’s Na’vi teacher and eventual lover (which is quite predictable), but their romance overall lacked chemistry. Their relationship seemed to exist more because the plot needed it than due to a real connection.
The supporting cast also consists of mostly one–dimensional caricatures. Avatar’s main villains, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribsi) and Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), feel like cheap space copies of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) from The Wolf of Wall Street and Nathan Jessop (Jack Nicholson) from A Few Good Men. Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) almost has an interesting betrayal arc after his years of preparation for the Avatar program are quickly overshadowed by Jake’s Mary–Sue natural ability; however, he quickly joins our heroes again and proceeds to contribute next to nothing to the rest of the story.
Michelle Rodriguez’s badass helicopter pilot is well–acted, but her characters lack any originality and could’ve come from literally any action flick; meanwhile most of the Na’vi, the truly unique part of this movie, barely get any screen time. Of all the characters, Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine stole the show: her frustration over her scientific research being repeatedly disregarded by greedy corporatists hellbent on destroying the beautiful world of Pandora was deeply compelling.
This leads into what is Avatar’s greatest triumph, aside from its visuals: its thematic cohesiveness. The concept of colonization is far from new in the science–fiction genre, but Avatar really nails the narrative here: the perfectly happy native people continually being called “savages” in need of “development,” the forced removal justified by talks of “humaneness,” and the general destruction of nature and culture as the unfair negotiation fails. The story serves as a really effective recontextualization and reminder of the sins of the world’s own history with colonization. Despite all the issues with the characters, the plot absolutely delivers when taking revenge against being colonized: fewer deaths are more satisfying as when Quaritch (who simply refuses to die) finally bites the dust.
Overall, Avatar definitely holds up today as a cinematic icon, and the spectacle of the visuals and themes far outweigh most of the issues with the plot. As for round two, which comes out this November, there was a post–credit teaser at the end of the screening featuring Jake and Neytiri’s Na’vi family. Anticipations for the release are mixed, though: while the visuals are sure to be stunning, the reintroduction of Quaritch as an antagonist and the more–than–likely return of humans to Pandora invites worries that the major plot themes that were so well explored during the original are simply doomed to be disappointingly rehashed in another shallow Disney cash–grab. But with James Cameron back at the helm with years to work on it, Avatar: The Way of Water is a film I want to believe in. Its opening is sure to be a spectacle: seeing it in theaters come November—in 3D, of course—will be mandatory.
“I honestly think Pitch Perfect did wonders for college A Cappella,” Victoria Conroy (C ’24), music director of the pop/rock a cappella group Off The Beat, told 34th Street. “I think one of the reasons that it was so successful is that there’s nothing like college A Cappella…and there’s just something about it that draws people into it.”
It’s been ten years since Pitch Perfect hit theaters for the first time, and it has quickly evolved into a sleeper hit. The film follows Beca (Anna Kendrick), a freshman at Barden College in Atlanta and aspiring DJ, who gets caught up in the vibrant, dramatic and high–stakes world of collegiate A Cappella. The romance, drama, and incredible performances introduced all of us to this wild atmosphere for the first time.
However, there are bound to be some mistakes, misconceptions, and exaggerations about college A Cappella in the film. A decade since the first film and just weeks before a new Pitch Perfect spinoff TV series releases on Peacock, 34th Street asked some of Penn’s A Cappella community about their thoughts on the film itself, its legacy, and how similar the a cappella scene it portrays is to ours here at Penn.
To address most people’s first question: unfortunately, no, Penn does not have a version of the legendary riff-off scenes from the movies (though interviewees expressed regret over that fact). However, the iconic audition scene, where Barden’s various groups occupy a theater and watch the auditionees perform Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You’ve Been Gone,” does have some strong resemblance to Penn’s A Cappella audition process.
“All of the A Cappella groups go to Williams Hall all day—11am to 11pm” Conroy explained. “It’s an open call audition—anyone can come in”. Though she de–emphasized the competitive nature of the process, Ethan Soloway (C ’25), a member of the Shabbatones, Penn’s Jewish A Cappella group, as well as Penn Glee Club, mentioned that entering Penn’s performing arts community can feel just as stressful as it’s portrayed in the film.
“I ended up auditioning not just for [The Shabbatones], but for a bunch of a cappella groups. And it’s kind of a cutthroat process—that’s a parallel with the movie,” Soloway said. “They’re sitting in front of you. They’re judging you. They want you to be a social fit as well as a musical fit, and you go through several rounds of auditions.”
Nonetheless, Soloway feels that he eventually found a home in the Shabbatones, just like how the Barden Bellas became a family for Beca in the film.
“A Cappella for me was not about the cutthroat [mentality]…[Shabbatones is] much more of a family, because we’re a smaller group and a lot closer [to one another]. And I’ve really enjoyed that,” he said.
Allegra Greenawalt (C ’23), president of Dischord, which focuses on Pop and R&B a cappella, agreed that much like with the diversity of the groups at Barden, everyone at Penn can also find a group where they fit in.
“Auditions can be competitive…but all of the groups are so different in their niche that everyone gets to be a part of the group that they feel like they most fit into,” Greenawalt explained. “It’s more of a community than a cutthroat environment.”
Others highlighted how the A Cappella community at Penn is much less high–stakes and competitive than that of the movies. Groups here don’t tend to compete in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA), which is the central theme of Pitch Perfect. Equally, the series’ emphasis on single-sex groups is great for generating drama, but isn’t reflected in the prevalence of co-ed organizations at Penn. Instead of competitions, groups focus on performances and recording music. Off the Beat, for example, have released almost 30 albums.
But the links between Penn and the movies go beyond mere similarities. Penn Masala, Penn’s South Asian fusion A Cappella group, was featured in Pitch Perfect 2, representing India in the world ICCA final. The movie was huge in propelling the group to the stardom and fame they currently have, as well as inspiring current members to join the group when the film came out seven years ago.
“The group got reached out to by [Pitch Perfect 2 Director and Penn alum] Elizabeth Banks… and we got invited to come on out and perform a segment of the movie as a guest act,” Sachit Gali (W ’23), Penn Masala’s business manager, recounted.
Before Gali even knew that Masala was an A Cappella group at Penn, the representation of his culture on the big screen was very important to him.
“I distinctly remember watching Pitch Perfect 2 and when the segment came on with a South Asian A Cappella group singing, I did not know it was Penn Masala, but it stuck in my mind that [we had] representation [on a] global stage,” Gali said.
Masala don’t place responsibility for all of their popularity on Pitch Perfect’s help, but the movie was groundbreaking for catapulting them to stardom. Due to the series’ success and their own influence, they’ve been happy to see other groups like them appearing across the country.
“I would say that at almost every school across the country, you can find some sort of South Asian fusion A Cappella group,” Albert Gu C’23, Masala’s music manager, recounted. “You realize that we are the standard bearers for this, and that pushes you to elevate the content you’re making… and to be a better musician generally.”
The franchise’s expansion to other cultures is set to continue next month with the set to November 23rd release of the series Pitch Perfect: Bumper in Berlin, which will follow the titular character and former Treblemakers leader Bumper Allen as he moves to Germany in pursuit of fame. The show presents the chance for more A Cappella content in the mainstream, but invites fears that the Pitch Perfect name is being milked for clout, especially given lackluster reviews for the third movie installment.
Greenawalt, for instance, is fully in favor of more a cappella content. However, she hopes that future content focuses less on the competition side of the a cappella scene.
“I think it’s great that [A Cappella is] getting more attention, especially from someone who does it and is passionate about it,” she said. “The competitiveness and the dramatic parts [make for great TV], but there are great parts to being in A Cappella [aside from competing] that hopefully they’ll highlight in the upcoming TV series.”
Though the film is mostly remembered fondly, Pitch Perfect does have some serious problems which haven’t aged spectacularly. Stereotypes are very prevalent in terms of certain characterizations—Rebel Wilson’s Amy plays the classic “fat friend” role, while Hanna Mae Lee’s Lilly demonstrates a harmful orientalist interpretation of East Asian women as extremely quiet, mysterious, possessing dark secrets.
“I watched Pitch Perfect recently with two of my friends from Off The Beat, and we were like ‘wow—this is a little racist!’,” Conroy concurred. “I think that is a reflection of it being made in 2012… but it’s crazy that that was ten years ago. That’s not that long ago.”
But Saaketh Narayan WE’23, Penn Masala’s president, views the franchise in a more positive light.
“Maybe it represents some parts of Asia badly. But [Pitch Perfect] was, in some respects, a start for representation, especially for groups like us. And if you look at where mainstream media is going, you have people like Hasan Minhaj and Mindy Kaling really pushing the envelope for the South Asian community,” Narayan said. [Today] there is a more even-handed representation than in Pitch Perfect. So I don’t know if it’s aged badly, but I think it’s one of those things where you can look back and say: look how far we’ve come.”
Hi! This is another op-ed I wrote for The Student earlier this month. I just wanted to note that this piece was written before the identification of the Omicron Covid variant, so all views expressed here should be taken within the context of when I published them. What’s going on as I write this now is a wholly different picture. Enjoy! –AB, 31/12/2021
In an unsurprising yet disappointing move, Durham University announced this week that all of its exams for the 2021/22 period are going to remain online. Edinburgh will not be far behind: in an email to students from Colm Harmon in late October, prospects for further opening this year were made out as overwhelmingly bleak, with the narrative of “community protection” yet again being touted as an explanation. However, while I do understand that Universities want to be seen as being concerned about the still-relevant pandemic, I find their repeated insistence on unnecessary hesitance to be utterly transparent.
Having joined Edinburgh last September, I faced a first-year experience in which I visited George Square a grand total of zero times for academic purposes. Whenever I happened to walk by, seeing the tumbleweed-worthy ghost town it had become was possibly the starkest possible reminder of how much I was missing out on. I wasn’t so much going to university as I was watching lectures from my bed—there were some days that I didn’t even find an excuse to leave my flat. In most cases, though, I at least understood why things had to be this way: after all, we were in the depths of a global health crisis, and jeopardising others’ safety was the least of my priorities.
Having returned this year to a world of vaccinations, re-openings, and a safe-ish semi-normal, life has certainly been much less depressing: studying in the Main Library and seeing our brutalist, concreted oblong of a campus at least slightly inhabited again makes me feel somewhat like a real student. But though the situation has come forwards in leaps and bounds since the state it was in a year ago, I have two more in-person activities per week to show for it—if I’m honest, that doesn’t feel like anywhere near enough.
I play for the American Football team here; one of our main sponsors is the famed Whynot nightclub, which we visit every Wednesday. Along with about eight other sports societies and hordes of others, we make a total of some six hundred hungry hedonists: flashing our vaccine passports, we pay for entry to spend the night drinking, dancing and otherwise breaking social distancing guidelines until about three in the morning. These activities all happen with the blessing of the law and the University—nightclub-society sponsors are even encouraged by the SU. My point is this: if even one Covid-positive person were to head to Whynot (or any other of Edinburgh’s countless clubs, pubs, and other venues) that night, they would be in prime position to go on a super-spreading rampage. Now I am no virologist, but I can guarantee that if 600 fully-vaccinated students (far more than most courses here actually have enrolled) were to head into a distanced lecture (or exam) hall wearing masks, the risk would be nothing like that of a packed nightclub on a busy evening. The story is similar at Durham and across the country—there is absolutely no logical reason for universities to allow us to go clubbing while forcing us to watch lectures on a computer screen.
As for who is to blame for this abhorrent double standard—whether it be lecturers complaining, Universities being lazy, or governments being hypocritical—it is hard to tell. But what is clear is that students are still being disproportionately hurt by the impacts of inconsistent pandemic guidelines. We need to ask more questions of those who claim to represent us; I, for one, will be taking the next round of excuses they offer with a heavy dose of salt.
Featured Image: Main Library, George Square, October 2021. Image taken and owned by me.
This is my first opinion piece for Edinburgh University’s student newspaper, The Student; it’s also the first time my work has been published in print, which is pretty cool. I’ll be trying to write a lot more for them in the future, so watch this space! If you’re reading this the week it comes out, there should still be a few copies available: try Teviot, Black Medicine or the Main Library if you’d like to pick one up. –AB x
Let me ask you a simple question: why did the UK public vote for Brexit?
Was it due to fatigue with the tedious bureaucracy of Brussels? Did they believe that some short-term economic strife would be worth the increased flexibility that freedom from the single market would allow? Or was it due to Johnson and Farage’s slick charisma and can-do attitude?
While all of these factors definitively played a role in swinging the vote, I think that each misses the core of the issue. The thing is, people that voted to Leave were majoratively not particularly concerned with the nitty-gritty details of immigration laws and bilateral trade agreements. Rather, in something of a precursor to the era of politics that has proceeded it, the vote was driven by that raw and almost irrational desire for independence and sovereignty. The details didn’t matter, really: those could be left for the politicians to sort out. As my Nan put it to my (visibly exasperated) parents at the time, she voted Leave because she “wanted our empire back”.
However, as Liz Truss is learning the hard way on her recent catapulting into the role of Foreign Secretary, the “sorting out” part of that fool-proof plan is much easier said than done.
In June 2016, while the Leave/Remain Debate was busy heating to melting point, then-US President Barack Obama delivered a pessimistic prophecy on the final UK visit of his term: despite campaigners’ insistence that an agreement would be imminent in the years following the referendum, Brexit Britain would be at the “back of the line” as far as American trade deals were concerned. Vote Leave dismissed this as nonsense at the time, reminding us that Obama would soon be out of office, meaning that a deal could be put through right away with his successor. Two Presidential elections and five years of negotiations later, though, the Biden administration has held no punches in informing our government that their long-promised bilateral partnership would not be materialising any time soon.
Now, the natural reaction to all this would be to guffaw at our short-sighted, xenophobic compatriots. In their defence, Truss’ speech at this week’s Conservative Party conference assured listeners that the US prioritising relations with countries such as India and Japan over us was nothing to worry about, and that we should strengthen our other alliances, too. While I think she is right, this is still hardly the “Global Britain” we were promised, never mind my grandmother’s reveries of an empire revived. But despite the fact that I, along with a host of pessimistic Remainers (and likely most Vote Leave politicians), absolutely saw this coming, the childish “I-told-you-so” victory that the UK’s floundering trade status provides us is profoundly hollow. At the end of the day, Leave voters were not in it for economic stability and trade negotiations—theirs was a vote for ideological independence. If this was what it would take to get that, then so be it; the sneers of the cosmopolitan minority will never make them regret their decision.
This new period of identity politics is so potent, and so potentially dangerous, because utopian ideas run the show—sometimes seemingly taking precedence over reality. These ideals, when harnessed correctly, can be the building blocks for a better world; we must be careful, though, lest they be used to tear the current one apart at its foundations. Though the Brexit vote has not yet led to the latter, it will be up to politicians like Truss to fulfil their promises and forge us a more prosperous future. After all, who needs America anyway?
This one is a big deal for me, as it’s actually my first ever properly published article. While interning at the IEA, I was told about 1828 and that they were looking for writers, so I got in touch: the rest is history, really. You can find my article over at https://www.1828.org.uk/2021/08/23/the-crisis-of-identity-in-british-politics/; with a bit of luck and a lot of work, this will just be the beginning. –AB, 31/8/2021 x
Politics, at its core, is the art of identity. It’s a method of placing labels on ourselves, and defining where we stand in public society — whether we’re conservative or liberal, leftist or rightist, authoritarian or libertarian, and anything in between, they’re the flags we fly on our ideological galleons.
While incredibly arbitrary, though, these labels are essential not only for self-definition but for finding and joining with others who share those same views. It is then that we can really set about conveying our vision to the rest of the world.
It’s on this basis that all political parties and organisations stand; they exist in order to rally together politicians and voters alike under one unifying banner. While these institutions may often seem unbreakable, the thin links that bind them are dangerously vulnerable to shocks —and when a new issue emerges that divides the crew in two, they can be shaken at their very foundations.
It’s pretty obvious to see that we’re going through such a paradigm shift right now: starting in 2016, really, we’ve seen our political climate become increasingly torn between traditional left-right economic arguments and a new axis of nationalism vs cosmopolitanism, which was ultimately defined by the storm of the Brexit vote (where the Remain side discovered that arguments relying on economics held little water). It is how our political parties respond to this change in the tides that will dictate their success now and for many years to come.
The Conservative Party, specifically, is the perfect example of this scramble to work out where it stands in these strange waters. Much like many right-wing parties today, it’s divided between two very distinct halves, both in its voters and its representatives: essentially, between traditional, middle-to-upper-class Conservatives under the old guard such as Commander Cameron and Admiral Johnson’s barmy Brexit Army, which taps into a younger voter base as well as the swathes of Vote-Leavers in the Red Wall.
As we saw with their 2019 landslide, the Tories have very effectively consolidated these groups with their “Getting Brexit Done” shtick, uniting both their passionate Leave voters a well as tired Remainer conservatives. But this unity won’t last forever, and I fear that the leaks have already begun to show: for evidence of that, one only need look at by-elections in Buckinghamshire and the outright mutiny of a former (and vocally anti-Brexit) Conservative Speaker to the Opposition. This last point, especially given the sorry state of Captain Hindsight’s Labour Party (due largely to the exact same issues), sets a worrying precedent for the Conservatives’ future.
So, what happens now? If you dismantle the Conservative Party and build it back up again, will it still be the same ship?
It is unlikely that the party will collapse, but if it continues on its current course, it will struggle to maintain its current popularity in future. It is today faced with an all-important choice: it can go back to the Tory party of before, or it can decide on a new identity of Brexit-fuelled, nationalist authoritarianism. It certainly seems that they are headed for the latter: if they elect to steer towards that dangerous route, I see moderates and liberals alike jumping overboard (as they have already started to do) before an iceberg is struck.
Identity is so powerful because it gives political actors purpose: without a strong sense of where exactly you stand, voters won’t be compelled to stand behind you. In a world which is increasingly defined by ideological clashes, this sense of who you are is only becoming more important; it will be up to politicians to conclusively choose which flag they want to fly, lest their supporters abandon them as a result. After all, how can you be expected to control the direction of a country if you can’t even decide your own?