Remember, remember

Every year we’re asked to remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot. But how many of us really know what this means, this annual reinforcing of historical, institutionalised hatred and prejudice?

In her latest newsletter, The Conversation’s deputy editor Jo Adetunji compares our slightly bored commemorations today with the nightmare people went through at the time.

Before coming to the UK from Canada, I had no clue what Bonfire Night was. It was vaguely explained to me by friends as a celebration of some man named Guy Fawkes and his failure to blow up parliament on November 5th, 1605. Traditionally, the occasion is marked with fireworks, bonfires, and the burning of Guy Fawkes effigies. Or, as I’ve found in London, paying a £10 entry fee to stand in a wet, muddy park in some corner of the city, shivering while you wait for a five-minute fireworks display soundtracked by The Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars.

Of course, the real history behind Bonfire Night is far more dramatic than my recent celebrations let on. England in 1605 was bitterly divided – except back then, it was a religious schism taking place between the Protestants and the Catholics following the Reformation. Following the foiled attempt by Fawkes and his 12 co-conspirators, it only got worse. Accusations of treason, heresy, and even witchcraft, were used to persecute perceived enemies of the crown. Catholics fled north to escape, settling in places like Lancashire, which was cast as lawless – and full of witchcraft.

Through the lens of Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate, a fictional account of England in the early 1600s, Shareena Z Hamzah writes about the horrendous treatment of Catholics and women accused of murder by witchcraft. While Bonfire Night is a reminder of Fawkes, it should also be a reminder of the innocent people caught up in England’s troubled past.

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The calls to continually burn these effigies (these days, I think, a thing of the past) remind me a little of a calmer, slow-motion Two Minutes Hate event.

It would be nice to think such religious intolerance is consigned to the history books. Alas:

In China, every day is Kristallnacht
In a cultural genocide with few parallels since World War II, thousands of Muslim religious sites have been destroyed. At least 1 million Muslims have been confined to camps, where aging imams are shackled and young men are forced to renounce their faith. Muslims not locked away are forced to eat during the fasting month of Ramadan, forced to drink and smoke in violation of their faith, barred from praying or studying the Koran or making the pilgrimage to Mecca.

And — in possibly the most astonishing feature of this crime against humanity — China has managed to stifle, through 21st century repression and age-old thuggery, virtually any reporting from the crime scene.

The sounds of up north

Made as part of BBC4’s ‘Listen to Britain’, this glimpse into a typical day and night round here shows that it’s not all green Dales and romantic moors.

That Yorkshire sound
A hand drawn animated documentary, following the rhythms of a day in Yorkshire. It captures the sound of Yorkshire, from it’s multicultural and bustling cities like Bradford and Sheffield, to the delicate sounds of birds in the country side and the hypnotic rhythm of the motorways and train tracks.

Political storytelling

Politics is all about story-telling, reframing the world around us to encourage us to think a certain way. Verso have released an extract from James Meek’s new book, Dreams of Leaving and Remaining, offering an explanation of why the Brexiteers got the upper hand at the referendum.

James Meek on Brexit and the myth of St. George
Of the two folk myths bound up with Englishness, the myth of St George and the myth of Robin Hood, the myth of St George is the simpler. Robin Hood is a process; St George is an event. Where Robin Hood steals from the rich, which is difficult, to give to the poor, which is trickier still, and has to keep on doing it over and over, St George kills the dragon, and that’s it. Before the dragon is slain, the people are tyrannised. They live in a state of misery, fear and humiliation. When the dragon is slain, society’s problems disappear. The swish of the warrior-saint’s sword slicing through the dragon’s flesh and the great beast’s death cry are, to the oppressed, both a joy in themselves and the herald-notes of a new era of happiness. The slaying of the dragon is quick, easy to remember, and easy to celebrate.

Robin Hood is justice; St George is victory. Slow, complicated, boring Robin Hood–like achievements such as a national health service, progressive taxation and universal education yield in the folk narrative of England to events that can easily be held in consciousness as St George–like releases, so often involving the beating by the English, or the British, of the non-English – the destruction of the Spanish Armada, Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, or Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick against Germany in 1966.

The Guardian continues this look at political language with its new series on the recent shift to a certain kind of anti-elite, right-wing politics.

Revealed: the rise and rise of populist rhetoric
Major study analysing speeches of leaders from 40 countries over two decades shows surge in populism.

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It’s interesting, though, what research is suggesting about the poster boy for populist politics — it might not be all down to him.

The Teleprompter Test: why Trump’s populism is not his own
Kirk Hawkins, an associate professor at Brigham Young University, said there was a “dramatic difference” in the language in Trump’s speeches, depending on whether or not they were scripted. “Trump’s speeches with teleprompters all have longer words, longer sentences, and less frequent use of his pet words. And they have much higher levels of populism,” he said. “This is powerful evidence that Trump’s populism is not entirely his own.”

He’s still full of BS, though.

President Trump has made 9,014 false or misleading claims over 773 days
The president averaged nearly 5.9 false or misleading claims a day in his first year in office. He hit nearly 16.5 a day in his second year. So far in 2019, he’s averaging nearly 22 claims a day.

You’d think that would cheer him up a little.

A debate-watching robot learned Trump’s emotional self: sad!
A robot built around Microsoft’s Emotion API may have uncovered something surprising about the dominant emotions of either candidate. Or it may have just spat out a lot of random numbers.

The English alternative to therapy?

An interesting view of us, our language and our politicians, from Rebecca Mead, of The New Yorker.

Jeremy Corbyn and the English fetishization of irony
In the London Review of Books personals, the wounding quality that is so often present in English irony is turned inward, to the point that self-loathing is so acute it becomes a form of self-love. (I may be ugly, but look how clever I am.) Often, though, the violence of irony is turned outward. The British playwright David Hare, in the notes to his play “Plenty,” writes that, when foreign actors ask him why a character behaves in a certain way, he believes it is sufficient to reply, “Because you are English.” Hare goes on, “Irony is central to English humor, and as a people we are cruel to each other, but quietly.” In this sense, Corbyn’s charge that some people “don’t understand English irony” participates in a ratcheting up of cruelty in the name of humor. The next step beyond hurting an individual or a group with a joke at their expense is to insist that their pain, far from being a justified response to verbal violence, is a symptom of deficiency on their part. The charge that a person lacks a sense of humor is a familiar bully’s tactic. Women in particular will recognize that the phrase “Can’t you take a joke?” is an expression of menace, not an invitation to share a laugh.

I’ve never thought of our self-confessed love of irony in such terms before. Our pride in our national sense of humour is no joking matter.

To be able to maintain an ironical approach to life means avoiding a more passionately committed or passionately expressive one. It means arming oneself in advance against the possibility of pain or disappointment, by building pain and disappointment into one’s emotional default. Irony is resignation in jester’s clothing.

Being British as well as American provides Rebecca with a great perspective on us all. Here’s another great and quite moving essay from her.

A new citizen decides to leave the tumult of Trump’s America
After decades in New York, I’ve made the wrenching choice to return to Britain. But England isn’t home.