Black Lives Matter, Brexit, Brexit Negotiations, Cartoon, Clayton Barnes, Coronavirus, COVID-19, Donald Trump, Edinburgh, Fiona Apple, Happy New Year, Illustration, Killing of George Floyd, Lockdown, National Museum of Scotland, Qasem Soleimani, Review of the Year, Scottish Independence, Social Distancing, Tyrannosaurs, Vaping
“What was it that Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan once said?” The head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Elite Unit Gen. Qasem Soleimani mused aloud to one of his soldiers at Baghdad Airport, “The medium is the message?”.
No sooner had Gen. Qasem Soleilmani said this than he was killed in a spray of gunfire shot at him by a U.S. military drone.
Ares the Greek god of war who was eating a banana and sipping from a glass of combined Greek ouzo and Italian Sambuca remarked to Morrigan the Irish Celtic goddess of war who was standing alongside him at Baghdad Airport, “You know there’s a word that my sister Athena would probably use to describe Gen. Qasem Soleimani’s last words and then immediately being hit by a drone. I can’t think of the word.”
“Would the word be irony?” Morrigan asked as she sipped from a glass of champagne.
Dracul Van Helsing, “The Death of Gen. Qasem Soleimani” (January).
When a small child touches the screen that is showing the city, it unexpectedly flinches, like a reflection of some buildings shivering on disturbed water. The buildings seem to wobble in their sockets. I don’t know whether this effect is intentional, but it becomes a reminder of how our survival as a species is no more guaranteed than that of the tyrannosaurs ever was. Edinburgh has its appointment with the tyrannosaurs at the same time that the whole world is ghoulishly enjoying the frisson from the spread of the coronavirus in China. The tyrannosaurs were a failed experiment – unsentimentally wiped from the planet by a chance meteorite – and we will have to doubtless cope with such a cosmic test at some point during our own existence as a species…
“Museum Review: Tyrannosaurs” (January)
That Scotland and England are here “at loggerheads” is meant to be a joyous, wonderful thing. In the steamy jungle of [Lesley] Riddoch’s nationalism, where she is trying to separate apparently identical citizens into Hutus and Tutsis, the innate love for Europe that is supposedly shown by Scottish people offers the most helpful label. What a shame, therefore, that the UK’s departure from the EU has been met with mass indifference across Scotland, aside from amongst a rag-tag of mostly English middle-class students on “vigils.” What a shame that the low turnout in Scotland that had helped along the Brexit vote in 2016 is continued today in the general apathy about leaving. What a shame that the Europhilia that Riddoch is so desperate to conjure up is hardly popular culture.
This is not only misjudged because historians are fallible and partial; it also shows a naive confidence in the idea that historians of the future will all ever agree. We have not, as a profession, settled on a single agreed narrative of the causes or consequences of any event in history, from the Battle of Hastings to the Battle of Britain. Nor should we: historians do not seek to write a single account of what happened, but to explore and offer up multiple overlapping, contested narratives of the past. Historians of the future will not explain Brexit once and for all; they won’t settle on a single story, any more than we can today.
Charlotte Lydia Riley, “On behalf of all ‘future historians’, leave us out of your Brexit rants,” Guardian (February).
According to AFP estimates, some 1.7 billion people across the world are now living under some form of lockdown as a result of the coronavirus. That’s almost a quarter of the world population. The world economy has seen nothing like this…. With the collapse in energy and industrial metal prices, many commodity-based emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Ecuador etc) face a huge drop in export revenues. And this time, unlike 2008, China will not quickly return to its old levels of investment, production and trade (especially as the trade war tariffs with the US remain in place). For the whole year, China’s real GDP growth could be as low as 2%, compared to over 6% last year.
“Lockdown!,” Michael Roberts Blog (March).
One of the few positive aspects of the crisis is the hilarity about toilet paper. Supermarkets have run out of this trivial, largely worthless resource and everybody is currently plotting to seize new supplies or to identify some tolerable substitute. In every supermarket, all of the customers are now suspiciously peeking at each other’s baskets. This unexpected purchasing reflex amongst consumers is mystifying – to bulk buy toilet paper rather than foodstuffs is surely, if I can manage to tastefully phrase such a vulgar thing, to set the cart before the horse. What is this surreal mass artwork, or absurdist-conceptual supermarket installation, that we have all conspired to create between us? It is like a tiny harmless dosage of the wider disaster that we are using to mentally get to grips with its more serious implications. Like a vaccine, in fact.
“Coronavirus: Edinburgh Is Going To Take A Dive,” (March).
Jamison’s channel initially feels like one long wait for that time when something does finally go wrong. After a while, though, we have joined him in his soothing delusion of security. I can remember when I had first watched these videos being very shocked by the squash in the enclosure and the apparent ricketiness of the fences. A mist has since floated over this sane appreciation of the danger and I have wistfully given up trying to reconnect with it anymore. Jamison is relaxed and playful with his tigers and it is not possible for you to maintain your suspicions of them over video after video. It helps that he is careful to avoid putting himself in immediate danger. The risk is instead of the tigers erupting out of their enclosure when he is not expecting it.
“YouTube Review: Michael Jamison,” (April).
However, medieval people were primed to yell about the sinful behavior of others because they lived in a world that saw everyone as being essential parts in the whole that was Christendom. They were a contiguous group whose overall moral rectitude was needed in order to assure the safety of the whole. This idea that sinful individuals were to blame for the suffering of the whole was encouraged by the Church who was tasked with the salvation of the Christian world, and nevertheless was seeing its flock destroyed around it. It was to their advantage to blame individuals rather than have the blame turned back on them, the people meant to be responsible for societal morality. The yelling was therefore an expression of their understanding of the place of the individual in society.
It’s the same for us, but on an even larger scale….
“On individual blame for global crises,” Going Medieval (April).
Supposing, in fact, that every new political idea that society came up with – the noble vision of the European Union, the disruptive excitement of Scottish independence, the cry for change from Barack Obama, the “fairer society” of Jeremy Corbyn and the environmentalist revolution of Greta Thunberg – all failed. Supposing that each one sank into mass unpopularity or indifference without a trace. With this wilting of civilisation, might not the final recourse be a turning back into our own individual instincts of aggression and self-destructiveness? If millions of us together abandoned civilisation in such a way, in a kind of starling-like murmuration, we might converge on a completely alternative sphere and one where our practical civic society had been replaced with Thanatos alone.
“The Lockdown and Thanatos” (May).
According to the Scottish Government’s own statistics, more than a third of Scots live alone, either apart from, without or between partners. That’s some 885,000 people, putting the self- in self-insolating, locked down on their tod. And yet, despite the prevalence of this phenomenon, despite how many of us it concerns, almost none of the coverage has given this reality much prominence, or much reflected on the particular predicament those of us living alone have experienced and will continue to experience as we click slowly through the next phases of this crisis…
Three weeks ago, former Edinburgh Central MSP Marco Biagi reflected: “I live alone in a 52sqm flat and haven’t interacted with anyone in person for 54 days. I’m tired of reading that all I need to do is keep routine, eat well and take a walk every day. Those are the functions that shut down first. It’s like blithely advising anorexics to ‘eat up.’”
Andrew Tickell, “Coping with a lonesome lockdown in a household of just one soul” (May).
The government, and its cheerleaders, expect these young people to sit passively in their houses and there are immediate cries of “selfishness” whenever any signs of normal human behaviour begin to resume. But these young people want to get drunk and to hook up and to have fun. For many of them, the Meadows is all that they have left. In effect, it is either the Meadows or a nervous breakdown. So commentators who are condemning the partygoers on the Meadows for their selfishness, their drunkenness and their litter-throwing might be guilty of a basic lack of empathy. But you cannot afford to succumb to empathy if you are going to condemn the partygoers on the Meadows for their selfishness, their drunkenness and their litter-throwing.
“Locked Down in Edinburgh (3),” (June).
It’s not just the continued abysmal treatment of people such as Clayton Barnes. It’s also the refusal to rethink the “no recourse to public funds” rule. This rule, which was brought to the attention of an apparently surprised Boris Johnson during an appearance at a parliamentary liaison committee earlier this month, bans all immigrants from outside the European Economic Area, however long they have lived and worked here, from claiming most benefits unless they also have indefinite leave to remain in this country, a rule that has caused great hardship in the lockdown. The Home Office has promised a review, but so far nothing appears likely to change.
Kenan Malik, “That Clayton Barnes is still not a citizen shows the ongoing cruelty of ‘hostile environment’,” Guardian (June).
The Lothian Black Forum (LBF) rose to prominence through its 1989 campaign to recognise the murder of Axmed Abuukar Sheekh as a racist crime. Sheekh was a Somalian student who had been killed by white Scottish fascists on Edinburgh’s Cowgate in January 1989. The police refused to recognise the incident as a racist attack, which led to a series of anti-racist protests. Sheekh’s murder was part of a wider rise in racist attacks across Scotland in the late 1980s. The Runnymede Trust reported that between 1988 and 1990 racist incidents doubled in the Lothian and Border region and increased by almost 300% in the Strathclyde region. It was in this context that the LBF challenged Scotland’s pervasive culture of denialism about racism…
“Fighting Denial: The Lothian Black Forum and Anti-Racist Protests in Edinburgh, 1989-1992,” Scottish Critical Heritage (July).
In short, Unionism is currently so vulnerable because it is predominantly fielding Tories as its spokespeople. Being Tories, they do not instinctively connect the Union with Chartism and Suffragism and the rise of the welfare state. They do not see that the Union was once the theatre within which the working class had taken to history’s stage as the hero of the play. It does not occur to them to argue that walking out of a gigantic mass-participatory democracy, in which the working class has wielded such historical influence, is the very antithesis of progressive politics. Whilst the SNP pretend that austerity doesn’t exist anywhere on their map (it is all of the map), the Tories proclaim that the Union is indispensable for navigating a paltry capitalism that very few people, at heart, honestly like.
He goes far deeper than our permanent preoccupation of witch-hunting. Yes, the administrators — whether politicians, magistrates, officials, whether elected or unelected — are obvious targets for contempt and even pity, wallowing hopelessly in their pontifications while doctors, medical staff and volunteers are literally working themselves to death. But Camus turns a shrewd screw here. One of the most shattering moments in the novel is the exceptionally painful death of the boy Philippe, son of the self-assured and futile magistrate Othon; despite all they have witnessed and nursed, it is a horrific event for doctor and priest as they blindly wonder how a merciful God could let this happen, but they tell Othon that the boy suffered little, realising he is mentally unfit to be told the truth.
Food banks presently exist as public larders but this is only a single dimension of what I am envisaging. Today almost everybody has a kitchen installed within their home, with utensils, gadgets, a stove-and-oven unit, possibly a microwave, spices, seasonings and condiments, and a fridge/freezer packed full of food. I propose that we fling out the whole lot of this. Instead, these resources should be pooled on a community level….
“Abolish Restaurants or Eradicate Kitchens?” (August).
So many of us are the wage worker, as portrayed by Karl Marx. Dependent upon our bodies as potential, symbolic of lost labour power. No consistent means of income and nothing other than bleak apocalyptic future horizons. So we look back to the cartoonish and grotesque spectres of childhood, with nothing left to work on but our own bodies and the abstracted value that they might produce. And so we sell them. For something as cheap as attention. In the hope that someday that might turn into some form of tangible power such as fame and fortune.
Leonard Hawksmoor, “Body Horror: The Dark Patterns of Algorithmic Dysmorphia” (September).
Hume is a veteran of being cancelled by Edinburgh University. In 1744, he had been a candidate for the Chair of Moral Philosophy but the city’s clergy had objected to his reputed atheism. Ever since, Edinburgh University has been shamefaced at having missed out on bagging such a prestigious philosopher, so much so that the tower was named after him as a belated, symbolic act of atonement. But in a recurrence so palpable that it virtually aches, the people who had in 1744 controlled the university administration were clearly the same stock narrow-minded characters, playing the same ignominious role in history, as the people who are in charge now.
“It Is Still The David Hume Tower,” (September).
The massed ranks of mom and pop businesses and evangelical ex-smoker start-ups that made up Big Vape in those days were allegedly targeting teenagers with ‘kid-friendly’ flavours: sweet and fruit flavours, sometimes with names reminiscent of the kind of candies actual kids like. ‘Gummy bears’ was a common talking point. The slogan, repeated to this day, was ‘Flavours hook kids’. The claim makes sense until you give it a moment’s thought. When you do give it a moment’s thought, you recall that teenagers are anxious to put away childish things, to take on the trappings of adulthood as quickly they can, and to defy the conventions and pieties of the adult world as annoyingly as they can. This is, of course, one reason why they smoke cigarettes. If you wanted to appeal to teenagers, your ideal vape flavour branding would be redolent of tobacco harvested by slaves, shipped by pirates, imported by smugglers and smoked by highwaymen.
Ken MacLeod, “Vaping” (October).
One of the most encouraging aspects of Trump’s presidency is that Biden, the man who has been got up to replace him, so visually reflects Trump’s own powerlessness. It would be usually to a presidential candidate’s disadvantage if they were elderly and doddering and not all there. With Biden, it is designed as a reassurance. His every indication of mental weakness is a power-boost. When you look at Biden, you don’t think of Syrian cities being bombed and nuclear standoffs with Vladimir Putin. You are instead likely to think of relief from Trump’s excesses, just as Trump had previously promised a relief from Obama’s distracted warmongering.
“Donald Trump and ‘the Imperial Presidency’,” (November).
So, what have we learned? Well, we learned (despite the protestations of boomers everywhere) that class remains the primary dividing line in society.
This was evidenced early in the crisis when half the country moved onto Zoom, while the other half brought them food, alcohol, sex-toys and bread-makers.
We also learned the state-interventions (previously portrayed by free-market extremists as illiberal inefficiencies that would lead to a socialist dystopia) are actually Ok – as long as they are targeted disproportionately at the livelihoods of economically viable, politically lucrative, over-mortgaged sections of the population, whose “stay-cations”, credit cards, gas-guzzling cars and gym-memberships must be covered at all costs.
Darren McGarvey, “What’s covid taught us? Lots – and almost none of it is good,” Daily Record (November).
It was late April, deep in quarantine, when Shameika first found out about Fiona’s song, but not by hearing it. (She was always only vaguely aware of her former schoolmate’s music career.) The news came, instead, via an out-of-the-blue handwritten card sent in the mail by her and Fiona’s adored third grade teacher, Linda Kunhardt. Shameika remembers venturing to her mailbox one day for a bit of fresh air and finding the curious note. Her disbelief is still palpable as she recalls the contents of the card: “Shameika, I hope this letter is finding you safe during quarantine, I had to write you because I don’t know if you remember this girl Fiona McAfee. You told her not to listen to bullies, and that she had potential. I just wanted to say thank you. And I wanted to let you know that your prophetic words have been turned into a beloved song titled your name…”
“Meet Shameika Stepney, Inspiration to Fiona Apple on Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” Pitchfork (November).
The financial case for doing this equates to the most gaping common sense. Why spend a fortune subsidising a theatre that is not allowed to open and furloughing all of its staff when you can just send two dogs? Unfortunately, the government has still no grasp of the potential payoff here. It has pledged a mere £500,000 towards researching uses for COVID dogs, the scrappiest of small change when compared to the amounts that have been wasted on out-of-date PPE and expensive freezers for a half-invented vaccine.
“Locked Down in Edinburgh (6),” (December).
Tychy wishes all readers a Happy New Year.