While I was in the States at the end of last month, I had an afternoon to kill in Philadelphia. So the completely obvious thing to do was record another Q conversation. This time I sat down to chat with Ruth Naomi Floyd, whom I’d met at the European Leadership Conference in Hungary a few years ago. It’s available on iTunes podcasts, or if you prefer a direct feed, here on Jellycast.
Nearly 10 years ago, a dear friend of mine was addressing a gathering of Ugandan MPs in the Parliament building in Kampala (around the 40th anniversary of independence). It included those from all shades on the political spectrum, including not a few post-colonial firebrands. My friend is certainly no great apologist for imperialism, but he posed two simple questions.
- “Which Ugandan regions (of those that the British failed to develop) have we since developed?”
- “What aspects of public life, government and rule of law have we improved on or done better in than the colonial regime?”
It is a truism to say that the media is influential in politics. But there is no doubting that its power to mesmerize and acclimatize contributed to Obama’s election. Having focused yesterday on the way in which Obama both innately and deliberately sought to build bridges across community divides and with historical landmarks (as described in David Remnick’s remarkable book The Bridge), I want to pick up on how he was able to surf the media’s wave all the way into Pennsylvania Avenue. Read more
If there is a point to Barack Obama becoming US President – and let’s face it, how can we ever reduce anyone’s life to having ‘a point’ – it is not his politics but his race. Race is what made his election seem so unthinkable, and yet, conversely, once he was the Democrat candidate, such a difficult opponent to beat in the 2008 election. And it is what will give him his enduring legacy (politics and 2nd term aside). Read more
Just been leafing through the latest Tate magazine – one of my favourite bits is the regular feature MicroTate where people from different walks of life offer a brief reflection on something from the Tate collections.
I was gobsmacked by this picture painted in around 1827: John Simpson’s Head of a Negro. It portrays such dignity and yet also such stoicism – above all, it surely points to a common humanity. There shouldn’t be a surprise there – of course. But just consider what was going on in that year (a few very random factlets):
- George IV, the former Prince Regent, had 3 more years left to reign
- Beethoven and artist William Blake died
- Aluminium was discovered (!)
- More significantly, it was 20 years after the British Slave Trade Act (1807) but 6 years before the Slavery Abolition Acts (1833)
So slavery was still a gruesome reality around the British Empire at the time. The famous Wedgwood medallion was still profoundly necessary.
I don’t know whether John Simpson had a model for this portrait, whether he met a real black man who sat for him, or whether he glimpsed someone on the street whose eyes he could not forget, or whether the picture simply came straight out of his imagination. When I look at the painting, I like to imagine what its first viewers saw. Those eyes pull you in without looking at you; you cannot turn away. Did they recognise a common humanity shining from those eyes, those first viewers in the age of slavery? Did they recognise that beauty can come in this form? There is beauty in those eyes, yes, and there is a look of nobility and suffering borne with defiance.
I cannot help but think of the first two verses of HW Longfellow’s poem The Slave’s Dream:
Beside the ungathered rice he lay,
His sickle in his hand;
His breast was bare, his matted hair
Was buried in the sand.
Again in the mist and shadow of sleep,
He saw his Native Land.
Wide through the landscape of his dreams
The lordly Niger flowed;
Beneath the palm-trees on the plain
Once more a king he strode;
And heard the tinkling caravans
Descend the mountain-road.
The poem about a dying slave’s remembered past life of contented nobility, complete with a dark-eyed queen, kissing children, a powerful stallion and bright flamingos, was written on the other side of the Atlantic, and long after Simpson’s painting, so it cannot have influenced this portrait. There is no possibility of a direct connection, other than in the idea of the enslaved nobleman, a romantic notion that has a strong pull on the imagination. Perhaps it was necessary that those first viewers saw this man as a king in chains in order for them to understand that black slaves were people too. This is ultimately what those eyes demand; a recognition of a shared humanity.
Head of a Negro was presented by Robert Vernon in 1847 and is currently not on display.
Yet more from Holmes’ Age of Wonder. This time the focus is the new-found fascination with flight, as provided by hot air balloons. For the first time human beings could escape the shackles of gravity and deliberately ‘fly’ – albeit in a rather clumsy and highly dangerous way. What struck me was the contrasting reactions from those who gawped from the fields below.
On the one hand, balloons provoked a wild sense of possibility, with all the enlightenment fervour and ambition that entailed. Here’s the poet Shelley again, dreaming of abolition:
Perhaps Shelley put it best, when he was a young undergraduate at Oxford in 1811, and had just witnessed another of Sadler’s balloon ascents one sparkling summer morning from Christchurch Meadows:
The balloon has not yet received the perfection of which it is surely capable; the art of navigating the air is in its first and most helpless infancy; the aerial mariner still swims on bladders, and has not yet mounted the rude raft… It would seem a mere toy, a feather, in comparison with the splendid anticipations of the philosophical chemist. Yet it ought not to be altogether condemned. It promises prodigious faculties for locomotion, and will allow us to traverse vast tracts with ease and rapidity, and to explore unknown countries without difficulty. Why are we so ignorant of the interior of Africa? – Why do we not despatch intrepid aeronauts to cross it in every direction, and to survey the whole peninsula in a few weeks? The shadow of the first balloon, which a vertical sun would project precisely underneath it, as it glided over that hitherto unhappy country, would virtually emancipate every slave, and would annihilate every slave forever. (p162)
And yet, as at every great technological advance, there is the dread of the malicious ends to which it might be used.
Surprisingly, balloons did not appeal to the gothic novelist Horace Walpole, though perhaps at sixty-six he was a little old for such perilous novelties. He thought balloons might be sinister [as he wrote in a letter of 1783]:
Well! I hope these new mechanic meteors will prove only playthings for the learned and idle, and not be converted into new engines of destruction to the human race – as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in Science. The wicked wit of man always studies to apply the results of talents to enslaving, destroying or cheating his fellow creatures. Could we reach the moon, we should think of reducing it to a province of some European kingdom.
It was an ominous prophecy. (p135)
As ever, the rough with the smooth – and our forebears were all too aware of both… It is no surprise therefore that Holmes gave his book the subtitle: How the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science.
He never thought he’d see the day – but politics and policy aside (whether of Jesse Jackson or Obama), this picture of Jackson last night says it all. And McCain caught the mood in his more than gracious concession speech (eg references to Roosevelt and Booker Washington).
(Photo HT: Christian Scharen)
Blonde Roots is a remarkable book. That should be reason enough to check it out – but of course, most will need more than that to go on. I spotted a Saturday supplement review of it and so picked it up – and couldn’t put it down.
It was one of those books that got under the skin and provoked a response – so i ended up reviewing it for Damaris, here on their CultureWatch site. But to give you a hint of why it stuck in my mind, here is an excerpt from the review:
How on earth do we help an ethnic majority to understand the realities of racism? What needs to be done to expose any lurking prejudice?
Bernardine Evaristo’s answer was to write a novel. Blonde Roots is the daring and shocking result. Her premise is simple. What if it had been Africans who enslaved Europeans for 400 years, and not the other way around? What would that have looked and, more importantly, felt like? As someone who is half-English, half-Nigerian, she is perhaps more well-suited to write this book than most.
The book depicts a universe that is both eerily alien and yet also unnervingly familiar. Geography and place names are familiar but in the wrong place or spelled differently; history is not so much revised as ransacked – and yet the way she does it leaves one in no doubt about the horrors of ‘real’ history.
But the reason I found this book so challenging in the end was not its utterly reasonable attacks on racism and slavery. No instead, it is the fact that Evaristo makes a pretty well crafted case for dismissing all truth claims on the grounds that they tend to be at root power claims. And that is a challenge that is not easy to dismiss.
Well, it wasn’t all fun, fun, fun – there was some work as well – but it was full of joy. We all met at a government-owned training hotel in Runaway Bay on Jamaica’s north coast (what a great idea that is – 90% of the staff are students training to work in the hotel industry across the Caribbean – each has to spend a few months doing all the various jobs needed in a hotel – from the front desk to cleaning the rooms via the kitchens and waitering). There were around 80 delegates on the conference, from around 7 or 8 different denominations and representing the whole island of Jamaica.
United by Language
This is the only country that i’ve visited with Langham where English is everybody’s first and only language – and what a difference that makes. In fact, Bishop Harry Daniel, one of the leading lights behind Langham’s work in Jamaica, told the story of how years back he was filling an application form to study at an American college which asked him to fill in a box on the standard of his English – he left it blank because it seemed unnecessary. For he was from JAMAICA, after all! The truth is, from my little experience of being there, many Jamaicans have much better English than Brits, let alone Americans. But far more significant that simply sharing a language, it really felt like a meeting of minds – sharing the joys and challenges of ministry with people who face similar issues despite huge differences in culture and context.
This is an edited version of an article i wrote about Naomi Klein’s brilliant No Logo, which came out in 2000. I have to say that for all the controversy and debate it generated it is still one of my favourite and most challenging books of recent years. Pretty radical, definitely lefty, and certainly compelling! I think that 7 years on, the book is as relevant now as it ever was (if not more so). You can check out her more recent publications and journalism on her NoLogo website.
Nottingham University caused a storm at the start of December 2000 by accepting nearly £4 million from British American Tobacco (BAT) to set up a School of Business Ethics. As Alex Thomson reported on Channel 4 News, ‘It couldn’t be more ironic. One of the largest tobacco manufacturers in the world providing cash for a centre for corporate social responsibility.’ (C4 News, 5 Dec 2000) Corporate sponsorship has been a feature of modern university life for a while, so BAT’s move would previously have been confined to a few column inches on the business pages. But now, multinational giants have been under intense scrutiny. Where before new products and inventions hit the headlines, their manufacturer’s ethics are now just as likely to be big news. And it’s not just the tobacco companies who are in the firing line.
Canadian journalist Naomi Klein set out to analyse the antagonism to global capitalism that sparked off the riots in Seattle, London & Prague in recent months and NO LOGO is the fascinating, gripping and disturbing result. What she found was a growing voice of discontent from the very people that many of the big corporations (like Nike, MTV, Tommy Hilfiger and Gap) are seeking to entice through their brands. The protesters are quite simply not the ‘usual suspects’ of eco-warriors and Socialist Worker vendors. So what has brought all of this on?
The corporations are no longer seeking to sell products – instead they want us to buy their lifestyles. So Nike has not just sold trainers. Their aim has been for the Nike ‘swoosh’ to represent first:
…the idea of sports, then the idea of transcendence through sports; then it wanted to be about self-empowerment, women’s rights, racial equality. It wanted its stores to be temples, its ads a religion, its customers a nation, its workers a tribe. (No Logo, p379)
This reached a logical, if totally bizarre, conclusion at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, when Nike created the Kenya’s first Olympic skiing team. Kenyan runners are renowned for their athleticism and so Nike wanted to demonstrate that ‘sports shouldn’t have boundaries’. (No Logo, p53) They spent $250,000 creating a Kenyan Skiing federation, training two runners in cross-country skiing in Norway (because Kenya has no snow, let alone training facilities!) and giving them custom-designed uniforms (marked by a ‘swoosh’ of course). Needless to say, one didn’t qualify and the other came last. But that was not the point. This is the world of the branding:
… by equating the company with athletes and athleticism at such a primal level, Nike ceased merely to cloth the game and started to play it. And once Nike was in the game with its athletes, it could have fanatical sports fans instead of customers.
Not that Nike are alone or unique in this. Walt Disney has been playing this game for years – the Mouse is the grand-daddy of branding. While the world’s press focussed on the shenanigans in Tallahassee, Florida in the aftermath of America’s 2000 Election, citizens of a town called Celebration, Florida were quietly living their lives (no doubt having avoided the dreaded dimpled chad on their ballot papers). But it is a town with a difference. Celebration was meticulously planned, authentically built and completely owned by Disney. It mimicked the wholesome Midwest communities of American folklore – with picket fences, a Disney-appointed homeowners’ association and even a phoney water tower. As Naomi Klein points out, ‘for families who live there year-round, Disney has achieved the ultimate goal of lifestyle branding: for the brand to become life itself.’ (No Logo, p155) The genuine virtual ‘Truman Show’ world has arrived!
That is just the start – it seems no exaggeration to say that brands are surreptitiously taking over our lives. This take-over of public space by private corporations who are accountable only to shareholders has been alarming. But it was only when the true costs of such brand expansion began to emerge that people across the world started protesting. In our global village, many of the high street’s wealthiest brands are built on the murky and oppressive foundations of sweatshops and wage-slavery in the 2/3rds world. For example, it’s shocking to discover that:
Disney CEO Michael Eisner earns $9,783 an hour while a Haitian worker [manufacturing Disney clothes] earns 28c an hour; it would take a Haitian worker 16.8 years to earn Eisner’s hourly income; the $181million in stock options Eisner exercised in 1996 is enough to take care of his 19,000 Haitian workers and their families for 14 years. (No Logo, p352)
So now, protesters are as likely to picket the HQ of a big global corporation (if not more so) as they are an embassy of an oppressive regime.
When you discover that of the top 100 economies in the world, only 49 are countries, while 51 are actually corporations forces us to ask uncomfortable questions. Could it be that George Orwell’s vision of Big Brother is gradually being realised not politically, but economically? Since capitalism ‘won’ the Cold War in 1989, this has perhaps been inevitable. So people are protesting in whatever ways they can and Klein records a number of the many subversive and creative examples of this (such as Adbusters’ brand subversion – the site is well worth a look).
But we shouldn’t be surprised. Human beings have always played the power game using whatever means available, regardless of the suffering it causes. Surely the domination and oppression by brand culture is just a 21st Century manifestation of something that has a branded logo all its own – a serpent coiled round a piece of fruit with two bites taken out of it?
Brands lull into a false sense of security with their promises of free and easy lifestyles, where the watchword is ‘Just Do It’. Could it not be that they have domesticated Big Brother? And could it not be that we have actually known his name for years? Could it not be that Big Brother more resembles a mouse with big black ears, who answers to the name of ‘Mickey’?
This article originally appeared in UCCF’s Monitor magazine, Spring 2001