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Transcript: In conversation with Gary Younge


Paul Gilroy: My name's Paul Gilroy, I'm the Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation at University College London and I'm very privileged and delighted to be able to have Gary Younge, newly appointed Professor of Sociology at Manchester University and distinguished journalist, commentator on many things but particularly I guess on the social and cultural lives of black America and black folks in Britain certainly over the last few years. So welcome Gary and thank you very very much for making the time to have this conversation.

Gary Younge: Thanks for having me Paul, I'm looking forward to it.
 
Paul: I remember once, I think it was in something you wrote but I don't remember where you wrote it but it stuck in my mind; you were quoting Mark Twain or something, you say 'history doesn't repeat itself but it rhymes'. And I thought we could begin with that idea of history repeating itself - not repeating itself but rhyming - I was thinking, well, if it's rhyming what kind of rhyme is it now? Is it a sonnet? Is it a limerick? You know, 'there once was a country named Britain whose people were utterly smi-' and on we go. So how do you see the rhyming process going at the moment Gary?
 
Gary: I've had people say quite a few times 'do you think this is like the '60s?' And I say no it's not like the '60s, it's not- we're not in the same place; although there are similarities and of course it would be banal to say each moment is its own moment - although that's true. But that there are significant ways in terms of- there are slogans but no movements, as far as I can fathom. That's not to denigrate anybody or anything, but Black Panthers were a movement, they had meetings and discussions and there was an internal coherence, attempts at democracy, and so on. Whereas Black Lives Matter isn't that, which isn't a criticism of it, it's a critique of it. In the '60s there was this conversation that you could say everybody was having in the diaspora about citizenship, and whether they were African Americans or in Africa or- because there were still many colonised people even in Britain and Europe. Whereas here there has been an almost a boomerang effect where you've had this murder - which is itself only historical insofar as people made it historical - and it's gone global. I read, I can't confirm, but I read that Portugal's biggest anti-racist demonstration was about this. Now clearly it can't just be about this, clearly it can't be. And so, there's been this boomerang and now it's come back in the form, in Britain, in the form of historical reckoning, Colston, Basil Fawlty - they're all wrapped up in it. And there is this thing which wears me out where it's either feast or famine. I remember in America trying to get a mortgage and just before the financial crisis they were just giving them out like candy. No scrutiny. After the financial crisis you couldn't get a mortgage for love nor money, it didn't matter that we actually had more money at the time, you couldn't get one. And it was though the mortgage people had not realised that their job was to scrutinise who could get a mortgage or not. So, they either said no to everybody or they said yes to everybody. And I feel that we're in one of these moments now having struggled to get any scrutiny - or sufficient scrutiny - of Britain's historical record, of people's responsibility, of police brutality and so on, we've gone from that to this kind of almost like teenagers discovering sex where everybody wants to do it very urgently and not particularly very well.

Paul: Yeah that's interesting. I was thinking about that because two things happened to me this week; this morning when I went out for my walk at 6:00 which is what I've been doing, I suddenly realised that where I was walking in North London there were stencils everywhere of fists and 'black lives matter' that had suddenly gone up overnight. And the other thing that happened was I was watching - this time of year we try and spend a lot of time out bird watching which is one of things I do for my own mental health in normal conditions not just in states of exception - and one of the places I go which is an area of London where you can listen to nightingales, I suppose the nearest nightingales to the centre of London, and it's easy to get to from where I live on public transport as I don't drive. So I was looking at a video that had been shot in Hoddesdon High Street of the local Black Lives Matter protesters who had assembled there. They'd gone there to stage their protest- their solidarity- and had come under abuse from some of the locals who announced that they were defending the war memorial against the possibility that the Black Lives Matter protesters might assault it, and were abusing them, the usual standard rhetoric for that kind of abuse. Now I'm just thinking in a way we're not very good at theorising this but actually the cultural antagonisms that are being revealed with great clarity in this period are not something that have been invented by those people in the government on the right, the alt right, who want a culture war. The culture war, in as much as it- it's not really a war, it's some other protracted low intensity conflict or something, or some other euphemism for something that's not quite a war; those lines go back such a long way and they are there and any black person in this country who goes for a walk or something somewhere unfamiliar is utterly familiar with the effects that that has. It's a bit different from the '50s and '60s and I remember going for a walk with my mum and people would try and touch her for luck or ask about her tail and that kind of thing. That doesn't happen but those things have been able to reproduce quietly and periodically they come into view and sometimes they're satirised or interrogated but that process doesn't really go anywhere; and it can't go anywhere because the possibility of working through it has being closed off. So the question I suppose for me right now is does this mobilisation - and I think you're really, really right, not to say it's not a movement yet, I'm calling it a mobilisation to distinguish it from a movement in the things that I've been writing and thinking - does that mobilisation hold the promise of working through these patterns which have arrested the development of postcolonial Britain in this really pathological way for, well I guess, for the whole of my lifetime to be blunt.
 
Gary: It holds the possibility but not the promise. And I think we're in a protractive now, now it seems the fires have stopped burning, but there is still engagement, a lot's in play. There's an awful lot that people- they're always in play, but people can barely hear it in certain moments, as to what we do with this and the degree to which there's been a lot of symbolism, and the degree to which any of that can be translated into substance. And I go back to the mortgage idea because until people are prepared to actually scrutinise as opposed to either throw up a stone wall and say 'there's nothing to see here' or to say 'everybody's awful and let me share my personal- the personal ways in which I've wronged you'; and agree to which, there are so many bland alleys that one can move down, so many and so much opportunity for co-option. My hope resides in the fact that significant space has been cleared; and my fear resides in the fact that I think over the past 10 years, in a range of ways, from occupy Wall Street to this moment, we've proved ourselves capable to the broad mushy progressive world, cosmopolitan world, to which I like to think I belong. We've proved ourselves capable of clearing space and really bad at holding it. And the fact of clearing it is no small factor, but when you don't hold it actually it leaves a significant amount of room for hucksters and opportunists and there's a lot of money flying about now; a lot of 'where can I give my £1 million - £2 million' for those who- for the individuals who have it to back people doing- 'how can I buy my way into this?'. And it worries me, all of that worries me. Stormzy and his £10 million doesn't worry me, Stormzy has a history of engagement.

Paul: No, me neither, I wouldn't give it to Oxford and Cambridge though. You'd find some other outlets for its institutional life as far as education is concerned.
 
Gary: Yeah, at least have a history of engagement. There's all these people with no history of engagement making statements and so that can make people reasonably but not particularly productively cynical. And that's my worry. - in that space hucksters, opportunists, cynics can operate.
 
Paul: But what's the balance of forces? When I hear you say that I think to myself actually that's an indictment of the left really. I know English and US political conversation means different things by invoking the liberal, and I know that there's a conversation to be had about liberal settings and defaults and ignorance and the things that you prevent yourself from knowing because they damage your sense of yourself in the world as an actor. So I hear what you're saying as an indictment of the left as much as anything else, and the failure really of the left to think that anti-racism is anything other than a bit of sprinkles on the top of some cake you already know the recipe for. So what's the balance of forces then? I suppose it's in our hands at the moment whether there are new kind actors involved in this conversation. For example, I haven't been out in the demonstrations but from what my spies tell me, there are a lot of very young people there - there are a lot of 16-17-18 year olds there - the people for whom their political horizons have been absolutely closed down by the financial crisis; and people for whom an existential anxiety about the future of life has been introduced before life's begun in effect. And those of us, because I'm a little bit older than you, my life was shaped really by the Cuban Missile Crisis and my sense as a child that the world was about to come to an end, and all my neurotic investment in the possibility of making a better future derives from that moment where I sat over my porridge wondering whether I'd be able to live to the end of the day from my school day. So I'm really wondering about the balance of forces and about what kind of - maybe those young people whose existential concerns have also been stoked by extinction rebellion in the sense that what's happening to us now is in some respects a rehearsal for the processes of emergency that are going to become much more routine as the climate crisis reaches more directly into our lives - I'm thinking, well I'm hoping that there are new actors here and that they will change that conversation and I feel encouraged. I know we'll talk about technology and internet and what's present, all of that, and there's a very good critique of timeline media and what's exciting and what's thrilling and what's energising and affecting you by watching a video of someone dying and circulating such a video. But there's a good side to the forms of political communication that have been opened up by those technologies as well and without being naive at all about how they've been set to work, I do still hope that there's something that can be salvaged from all of that that will turn this mobilisation into a movement and make some new actors possible to make people begin to see common concerns and common interests and common goals in ways that they perhaps just haven't been able to. And maybe the period of enforced withdrawal, the change in tempo, does encourage you to read or to want different information. That seems to be this amazing moment of wanting to share stuff and circulate stuff and think about the relationship between the past and the present in a world which doesn't normally accommodate that kind of temporal span, it's usually just reacting to what's in front of you. Well okay, we're not just gonna live with reference to a future which is going to be different, but we're also going to open our own understanding of ourselves in the world to a history that we haven't really been able to think about.
 
Gary: Yeah, it's interesting how generations work in all of this because you're not that much older than me - I'm 51 - and yet my upbringing was defined by the miners' strike. Now to some extent we may choose these definitions and to some extent they choose us, but it was the beginning of a period of unrelenting defeat for the left and retreat for people of colour. And I feel that now there's a generation that- well, there are a few political generations: there's one coming up that this will probably be the defining moment in the political consciousness For another one it was the last financial crisis which we're barely out of. I mean, the wage stagnation- wages only returned to the level that they were in 2008 something like two months before the crisis - that was the school of student fees and that was already a significant amount of time that was lost; that's what struck me when I interviewed Stormzy and one of his first memories was 9/11 - his first political memory - and he would've be in primary school, so by 15 there's the economic crisis, there's the riots, there's Arab Spring. And we were just emerging out of that and now there's this, and that this which one could see as an extended decade - although I think you'd experience it differently if you were 15 or if you're 25 - and the degree to which there's been this exhausting thing of the left, this desire to put things in silos, to deny any intersectionality, to reduce so that one can ridicule all notion of identity in politics - and to call it identity politics and therefore to relegate it to nothing as though your experience has no relationship to your politics. Because I do feel that social media, and new technologies in general, they caffeinate these moments, they provide you with images, they create their own instant diasporas of 'have you seen this... you should see... oh my god, did you?' And the thing is that they can move fast and far, and then the question is whether they can settle. And that's one of the open questions now is can this settle around something sustained and substantial? And I hope it can for all our sakes, but I don't know, I don't know if it can.
 
Paul: But then we look at the government and this the most diverse cabinet we've ever seen - sort of endless legion of posh Tories. Of course, there are one or two people who weren't born to money or whatever, but for every Adam Afriyie there's four or five Kwasi Kwartengs and Rishi Sunaks. And that's before we get to the Suella Bravermans and the Badenochs. Now why do you think when we look across the House of Commons, artfully spaced out for us in the new drama of power, with Mr Toad on one side and the forensic barrister on the other - what accounts for that discrepancy and how do we begin to talk about it? You talk about hucksters, far be it for me to cast that particular aspersion, I'm thinking about class really. I'm thinking about what kind of theory of class, intersectionally reconfigured of course to take other dimensions of power and inequality into account, but how do we begin to talk about class again in a way that can speak to the complexity of that? Because it seems to me that the McKinsey multiculturalism that's ranged up on the Conservative side of the house doesn't have an organic equivalent on the Labour side.

Gary: No it doesn't. And we have always needed to talk about class in a more porous, less deterministic, and more qualitative as well as quantitative way. And there has been a proven inability on the left, or unwillingness, on parts of the left, to do that. What's intriguing about the multiracialism of the right - because they're not really multicultural, they more or less come from the same culture don't they, they're monocultural but multiethnic - is that it doesn't speak to anything beyond itself. It doesn't even aspire to. It may be that on occasion they do and I've missed it, but the buttons they've been pressing, the whistles that they have been blowing, do not sit well with the array of faces that they are pitching. And what I hope- my fear, not least because a significant section of the most prominent people in this are of South Asian descent, my fear in this moment is an awful ethnic gun fight in which Priti Patel is set against George Floyd and his global- and the global dead who have come from there - and that we move in that direction. My hope- I mean, this I just feel like our electoral politics aren't equipped and I think we've seen that over the last five years, that our electoral politics are not equipped for this conversation, I'm not looking to Keir Starmer or Labour in its present form to actually really be able to engage this, that they will do what they have to do. I'm not even sure, much as I was glad that he was leader that I would have looked to Labour- I'm not sure that that party is fit for this purpose - historically it certainly never has been. But one of the things I really think is intriguing about the landscape and why there is so much in play, is because the Tories in December - which seems a long time ago - they won a decisive electoral victory but it wasn't an ideological victory in my view. It wasn't- they just kept saying Brexit a lot, and whatever Labour said took longer, and Labour were demonised and they had their own problems, and personally I think you can't do that every two years - just come out with a massive plan for reconstruction and expect that people will be sufficiently politically educated to get it. But it wasn't an ideological victory I believe. Which is different from saying that- I don't think Labour won an ideological victory either, but the Tories didn't. And the jury's out on the degree to which it's a political victory, the degree to which actually they are capable of turning that into politics- that's very much in play- they nearly collapsed over Dominic Cummings. They retreated on the nurses’ surcharge, they don't have to retreat on anything, they have a massive majority. But clearly while that electoral support was broad, it's not particularly deep. And so there are real pressure points here. They are numerous but they're not strong. They could rot from the inside I think.

Paul: Yeah, I agree with that and I think obviously the personality of Mr Toad at the centre of everything is the issue for them because in looking at his recent performances, post-hospitalisation performances at the dispatch box, I'm not sure that the charisma is quite what it was a little while ago. But we know from looking at the success of populist political projects elsewhere in the world - that pivot around central charismatic personalities to different degrees in different political climates or polities, that the magic of racism and xenophobia and nationalism, the racist's xenology of recovering lost greatness and all of that kind of thing - that this is in a way, my anxiety is that, you don't have to have an ideological victory if you can iterate that sufficiently with your psychographic tools and gaming of Facebook and YouTube algorithms and whatever else is part of securing that outcome. And actually, our juridical order and our democratic institutions and our policing and criminal justice institutions aren't equipped to manage that process either- goes back to the point you were making earlier on. Maybe ideology is not what it was, it's like whiteness - nobody knows what the value of it is anymore, it's falling stock- it's going down in this market, but we don't know quite where it's gonna settle and what the value of ideology matters. Because actually what you think and how coherently you put it together is utterly second now to how it makes you feel, and that's all that matters really.
 
Gary: Yeah and that is deeply worrying. And also offers an opportunity doesn't it, to make people feel differently. And that potential is there, in Britain certainly, and in a different way we've seen it in the US - the a desire to be more cosmopolitan, more accepting. And there are these moments when Alan Kurdi died, around- sometimes around the Brexit event, not always, where these constituencies emerge of people and you didn't realise there were as many of them as there were who really do- and we're in one at the moment- who are like 'no that's not who I am, that's not the story I want to tell myself about where we're going'. It was why the symbolism- you could talk about the substance of Obama all day long and what he didn't deliver and what he didn't even promise that people just thought he embodied and all of that. But there was this urgent desire that you saw after eight years of George Bush for an America that was cosmopolitan, at peace with the world, that was breaking out of its pathologies into some new different- there are constituencies there for that story, which isn't an ideological story in a way, it's a narrative. But it speaks to a set of possibilities that have ideologies in it- in them. I've been intrigued by these polls showing significant increase in support for Black Lives Matter in America; it just suggests people- not enough people, but lots more than there were- are just done with this, they don't want it anymore, they don't want to feel complicit, they don't want to feel bound by it anymore; that they would feel freer and better if this were not the case. And how one harnesses that, how one moves towards that with the critical and robust generosity, is one of the challenges of the left in this moment - that when people say 'you know what? I didn't get it before, but I'm beginning to get it now', the degree to which the left say 'well sod off until you completely get it, and why didn't you get it', and the degree to which they can say 'okay look, let's engage'. And just finally because I was just reading this yesterday - I'm reading Stuart Hall's memoir - and he talks about the degree to which in the late-'40s early-'50s independence was- the notion of independence seemed inevitable everybody was talking about this and that and the other. And then you read Eric Hobsbawm in Age of Extremes and him saying 'this whole anti-colonial thing was a complete surprise to us'; he was at communist camp as a teenager in the late-'40s and early-'50s and they didn't see it coming at all. And so you see the degree to which there have been these different- even among so called likeminded somewhat fraternal- there have been these very very different conversations, these very very different trajectories, and that's still true.

Paul: That's true, I had a similar experience - one of the rare opportunities I had to converse with CLR James interviewing him and making some offhand remark about how intractable things were and he said 'look, when I was your age you look at the map of Africa and every country was dominated by a colonial power and look at it now, the South Africans are clinging on by their fingernails'. So absolutely yes that's right - why are we so bad at clairvoyance? What is it about that challenge? But I think it's a related question and it speaks to the polls of what you just said a moment ago which started with Alan Kurdi and went to Obama; I think with Obama I'm absolutely with you in the sense of the feelings, the effect- the affect- that he creates, the performance of authority, the relationship to reliable forms of- or apparent relationship- to reliable forms of interpreting the world and understanding and being guided by- guided by the science or whatever it is in the simpler information ecology. But for me the Alan Kurdi case which I am also really really interested in - I've been writing about because of this book I'm writing about the sea. I remember going to a conference actually, just after this had happened, a conference in Bologna and I was talking to a lot of Italian academics who were working on the Mediterranean crisis and it was the first time I'd really tried to speak about it in public and to raise more philosophical problems I thought were pending in that story; and one of the people who spoke before me in that day talked about Alan Kurdi and used the image of his dead body on the beach and left it up. Everyone goes off to get their coffee and this image of horror, this absolute image of horror, is still there in the room. And I said to what are you doing? Why is this here? What do you- is it so drained of all meaning for you that you think it's a suitable backdrop for us to all go off and get out coffee and have a ciggy? This is not right. And it's almost as though there's a certain set of left, and sometimes I think that there's a feminist version of this, which says that you have to be suspicious of sympathy; that actually these are the most unsophisticated political responses you can have that really they're all things you should be aware of in yourself the desire to- the similar criticisms people make of what they call white saviour narratives and so on. What would be a good example of this? It's like Mrs Thatcher and the Good Samaritan in the Bible- the parable of the Good Samaritan- where she ignores the fact that, in her rewriting about parable, the good Samaritan is actually a foreigner. The force of the parable - and I'm sorry if anyone's listening to this isn't a Christian is unfamiliar with it, you'll have to go and look that up on Wikipedia - point is that the good Samaritan is able to be generous and sympathetic and caring because he's a foreigner and he can see certain things, and this is also part of the parable, that people don't expect the foreigner to be like that. But in Mrs Thatchers rendering of that parable, the reason he's able to be generous and decent is because he's rich, she thinks it's a parable about wealth or at least she presents it as though it were a parable about wealth. But it is curious to me, I haven't read the book on empathy that was written by Cameron's Dominic Cummings, I can't remember his name now, the guy that went off to work for Google. But empathy, empathy is sort of alright because it's a kind of buzz, we want to promote empathy; but sympathy is terribly terribly terribly problematic because that raises the idea that by feeling with somebody you're feeling for them and I don't really buy that distinction. I think empathy, if you look it up in the dictionary, is a newer word than sympathy obviously, and empathy carries with it the suggestion that you feel everything that person feels. But sympathy doesn't carry that suggestion, sympathy carries the idea- it's like a sympathetic string on an instrument or something- that there's a little bit of what's going on that you get. So from a more theoretical point of view I'd want to argue for a lot more attention to be paid to sympathy, a lot less distrust deployed in the direction of this sense of a politics of emotion and that all the stuff about neurology and affect really doesn't deal with the human scale on which things are engaged, or the political scale in which these things come into play.

Gary: Yeah and that brings us actually back to the balance of forces, in a sense, because there is potential in sympathy. Now there's potentially- you can infantilise people, there's all sorts of ways in which you could patronise and paternalise; but there's also the potential for solidarity. And that when one dismisses sympathy out of hand, you forget that reigned against us are a group of people and an ideology or a sentiment that these aren't people at all - that this is not happening to people and therefore we should- I sensed that when I when I did my book, Another Day in the Death of America, about all the kids who were shot dead in one day in the States, and seven of them were black, two were Latino, one are white - which is not statistically- it's a random day, not an average day. But the people would talk about the kids as though they didn't love life, and the parents as though they didn't love their kids. And so, one of the reasons it could go on in the way that it has, because of people thinking 'well it's happening to people over there and it's not just that they're not like us, they're not really people'. And so when you have that, whether it's Bolsonaro or Trump or a form of the UKIP-y stuff or the kind of 'let them drown in the Mediterranean', that actually the presence of sympathy is quite an important starting point.

Paul: That recognition, of course that goes back to the beginning of anti-slavery activity doesn't it? 'Am I not a man and a brother, am I not a woman and a sister' at the bottom of that righteous sugar bowl. And the history of black writers and people coming out of slave experience, fugitives, escapees, free people making exactly that argument, looking exactly at that thing over hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of texts in a very ambivalent and sometimes uncomfortable relationship with other forces of radicalism, particularly the left actually because I think those questions around who's worthy of recognition and who can be identified as endowed with the I in thou or whatever - these things are in a way older than the left, the left comes into that conversation at a certain angle at a certain point historically. So yeah absolutely and that's one of things I'm trying to do in the book I'm writing at the moment, is to tell a story over a much longer arc than I've attempted it before. On my list of things Gary, we're running out of time, and there's just one more thing I want to say to you and ask you about really because I think of you in your writing, one of the reasons I enjoy your writing so much, is that you use humour very very deftly. And I'm wondering, given that it's not just the the horrors of this moment that circulate in internet culture and timeline media, it's also the gifs and the memes, and there seems to be- Cold War Steve who of course I absolutely worship, because he's like Hogarth of this time- I know doing three or four or five or six of those images per day, because the tempo at which he works is very very high. But I'm wondering what a post-satirical comic response to this pathology and horror that we inhabit looks like because you seem to me to have been able to use humour very productively in amplifying and extending the critical angles that you want to adopt on this process; and I wish there was more of that but I think people often hesitate before they think they can start to use humour, to use comedy really as a way of taking this edifice to pieces or showing its limitations.

Gary: Humour is an interesting instrument, isn't it? Because it often rests on the absurdity and often plays on the obscenity and demands a certain amount of lucid courage in order to work. And I'm gonna assume for now, for reasons that are a bit of a shame really but speak to that lack of generosity, that there will be a certain black humour - by which I mean black people humour - which probably will flourish in this moment. And that there will be a certain amount of reticence among white humourists about what they can and can't laugh about. Although I've seen some quite good skits online, and I guess I think it's always worth thinking at least twice in these moments, particularly if you are from the quote unquote 'privileged group'. It's probably death to think three times- do you know what I mean? It's probably the end of you to overthink it. But the scope for- some of the things that are happening almost defy- this morning Tara my wife was talking about Los Angeles' school police department, no it was last night she was telling me. Los Angeles' school police department - this is the police department- a section of the police department that only deals with schools - was asked by the LA authorities 'okay you're gonna need to kind of weapon-down'; and they handed over their grenade launcher- the schools department of LA had a grenade launcher, but they weren't going to give up mine detectors and there were a bunch of other things and you're like 'oh my god you are the people who are policing our kids'. There's so much scope there, it's almost unnecessary, but the level of absurdity and obscenity that we've reached because these things have gone unchallenged with impunity for so long, that the people policing our kids have a grenade launcher that they are prepared to hand over. So that there is- there's plenty of scope and there's plenty of power in it too, because there's plenty of power in revealing that absurdity in a way that doesn't necessarily, which you may not have even questioned before without feeling overly, cripplingly judged and complicit in your own mind.
 
Paul: Yeah and of course that absurdity rests on the founding absurdity of racial hierarchy, of racial differentiation, but then I guess that's another story for another day. So, Gary thank you very very very much for that.
 
Gary: Thank you.
 
Paul: And let's keep the conversation going. Hopefully under more convivial circumstances then the lockdown, if that's the right word for it, has allowed us.
 
Gary: Yeah, here's to hoping. Take care.