On the Loss of Citizenship

This is probably my last night here as a citizen. My family’s been coming here since my aunt worked in Italy in the 70s. It’s a modest, friendly ex-mining village in a beautiful corner of the Alps: lovely for walking in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter. It has a downhill slope too, which is OK but not great. And good mountain-biking, if you like that kind of thing. It’s unpretentious. It’s not expensive, as these things go. Some crazy Brits and others come to risk their lives climbing frozen waterfalls but most the people who come here are Italian. It’s very white and I’d guess a fair few residents voted for the fascists of La Lega. There’s some poverty. People are generally kind, and go out their way to be helpful. There are things that drive me crazy and many things I love, the same as in the UK.

We have long-standing friends here. We always stay in the same apartment. My aunt knows most the village. I haven’t been coming here as long as her but when I go to the shops I meet people I know. My aunt comes here twice a year, and after she retired she spent 11 months here. She sometimes gives free English lessons. And when she’s been ill, or had a problem with the car, or had any other kind of trouble, there’s never been any shortage of help. We’re not locals, but we feel at home here. And of course we share citizenship. You see more regional than national flags here, and you also see plenty of EU ones.

Citizenship, as a concept, is by no means the most important aspect of Brexit. The dark money, the lies, the corruption of democracy, the callous disregard for peace in Ireland, the ripping away of rights from non-British EU citizens living in the UK, the appalling lack of planning and foresight, the cynical stirring up of race-hate, the attacks on our rights and protections, the effective suspension of functional government… all these are much worse. The fact that we are creating a divided, dysfunctional country and picking fights with former allies, instead of uniting to face global ecological catastrophe… that is much worse. But tonight I’m going to allow myself to reflect at a personal level, and tell you that I already grieve for my loss of citizenship.

Look at history and you’ll see that people have gone to war for less. But we’re to have it torn away on the back of one undemocratic, uninformed vote. So what is it, this citizenship that I’m soon to lose?

We Brits are European, geographically and culturally, whether we want to be or not. Some of us may be Bangladeshi-European, or Kenyan-European, or Canadian-European, but if you live in Europe you are part of what defines Europe. That’s what the new wave of European identitarians, like Salvini here in Italy, do and do not understand: they know that it’s the people that define the place, and that a mix of races is slowly and wonderfully redefining Europe as a multicultural continent. They know that all too well, and they fear it. But what they don’t understand is that their last chance for a white Europe was nearly a century ago. And they lost. All they can bring now is division and chaos, along with (intentionally or not) golden opportunities for disaster capitalists and free-market ideologues.

As for the UK, leaving the EU will not change our Europeaness: leaving is simply an act of self-deception. Likewise, the EU’s faults are only reflections of our own European faults. The EU may be too protective against non-European migrants, but that’s because our culture is. The EU may be too wedded to neoliberalism, but that’s because our culture is. In fact, if you look at the Brexit agenda, post-EU Britain is set to become even more racist, and even more tooth-and-nail capitalist than it is now. We’re not going to change those things by walking away; we might be able to change them through solidarity and co-operation.

I’m so sick of all the criticisms made in bad faith: that the EU is less democratic than our own calcified democracy, that the EU is more corrupt than our own stinking system, that the EU is more arrogant than our own pompous political elite. We’re blaming this amazing, flawed, messy optimistic experiment in partnership and peace for our own shortcomings when we could be using it as a first step towards more democracy, more international solidarity and co-operation, and a more equal society. It’s all so stupid. We, the people, have nothing to gain by leaving and so much to lose.

And tonight I specifically mourn for the loss of citizenship because the next time I’m here, short of a miracle, I’ll be a foreigner. I know my loss is nothing compared to what non-British EU citizens living in the UK have to deal with, or those devastated by job losses as firms flee the country, but still I feel a strong sense of injustice. What have I and others like me, who have a simple, honest sense of belonging in Europe, done to have so many rights, freedoms and protections taken away like this?

Actually, I think I know the answer. The elites who stand to gain from escaping EU regulation (which is what, in truth, Brexit was always about, until it was hijacked by its own nationalist propaganda) not only whipped up xenophobia to help their cause, but also fostered a kind of trumped-up class antagonism, underpinned by Gove’s infamous dismissal of expertise. The heart of this resentment is the demonisation of the ‘metropolitan elite’, a phrase that, especially when paired with that other phantom of the far-right imagination, multiculturalism, seems to echo the antisemitic trope of the ‘cosmopolitan elite’.

I’m clearly one of those monsters. Oxbridge-educated, middle class and Guardian-reading, I even – gasp – bothered to read as much as I could of what those terrible fear-mongering experts wrote about Brexit. I’m one of the bogeymen that Farage literally incited people to hate. But my mum’s family were all migrants and my dad grew up in poverty. They gave me a middle-class upbringing and I managed to go from a comprehensive school to Oxford. Are these not positive achievements? I’m not asking for sympathy; at least not for me personally. Brexit will create some added hassle for my work and travel but others will suffer far more. I am also fully, indeed painfully, aware of my privilege. My point is that we are not the bad guys in this story. We’re all doing the same really: using our wits to improve our lives and make the most of opportunities that come along, while trying not to harm anyone else, and maybe make things a little better for other people. Except that in the fantasy land created by the propagandists of Brexit, we are the bad guys, and I thoroughly deserve any future impediments to my shockingly cosmopolitan, elitist lifestyle.

Well, if that’s what you think, listen up. My family escaped poverty in England on the one hand and pogroms in Eastern Europe on the other: now we have a decent life. That’s progress. An alliance of European countries, after so many centuries of war and injustice, not only symbolizes that progress but helps guarantee it. Beyond that, the EU is as good or as bad as we make it. But that progress is part of my inheritance, and yours if you’re any kind of European. It’s certainly part of my sense of self. So that’s why I am here, at the kitchen table with my tea, watching the lights of the village across the meadow, and simply being a citizen here while I can.

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[Corrected for typos etc 10/02/19 and 11/03/18]

What is Green Criticism?

The last time I was purposefully academic was probably when I sat my finals. Even then, we’d only been educated in the philosophical contexts of the writers we studied; not in the context in which we ourselves were operating. Since then, I’ve taught at half a dozen universities at least, but always as a practitioner. Academically cutting edge I am not. But I do want to understand how the work I and my colleagues do in the arts fits with the urgent need, in the face of imminent climate breakdown, to view society as part of an ecological system. The question ‘what is green criticism?’ is neither theoretical nor rhetorical. Green thought has provided us with a sophisticated analysis of society and its relationship to planet. How can we apply it to artistic practice?

Around the time I did my English degree, there were some books emerging that used ecology as way to approach literature: Jonathan Bate’s Romantic Ecology springs to mind, and Kim Taplin’s Tongues in Trees; I probably should re-read them. The aim of these books seemed to be to understand how writers related to nature: how ‘green’ they were. But that approach is about ecology, not employing it as a critical tool. I wrote an extended essay in my third year. It was about depictions of landscape in literature and painting at the time of the first generation Romantics. I was interested in the sublime and the beautiful, not out of any kind of swooning romanticism but because they suggest two ways of modelling our desire for the external. Briefly, as I still haven’t got to the real point I want to make, I’d noticed how some writers saw nature as a force that transformed the tiny figures traversing its landscapes while some saw it as something that framed or provided a kind of extension to, or illustration of, heroic anthropocentrism. I was somewhat out on a limb, frankly. It probably wasn’t my best work. And it was also mainly ‘about’ the natural world. Yet it made me realise that there’s a deeper analysis which can – and probably should – be be applied to any kind of discourse.

So what might real green criticism be? Is anyone writing about how ecology could be a useful way to look at culture?  Continue reading “What is Green Criticism?”

A Long Wait for Radical History

My personal projects always seem to take ages to get off the ground. I suppose this is because all the work that leads up to getting funding has to happen in the gaps between everything else, not least designing shows for other people. Which I love doing and I get paid for. I’m not complaining. Still, getting a project underway takes a while and this one is taking even longer.

I had the idea for a project about English radical history around eight years ago, I think. At any rate, it was while I was directing A Place at the Table. Our stage manager at the time, Peter Barnett, was another fan of folk music. I remember discussing the exciting new idea with him, so I can roughly date it. This was also roughly around the same time as the Black Smock Band emerged from a series of gay folk nights in Vauxhall. A lot has happened since, with the far right seemingly in the ascendent, but even then it felt as though the narrative of dissent and radicalism in English history needed a bit of rescuing, from all that nonsense about how the Empire wasn’t so bad really and migrants are ruining our way of life. (Quite how you can hold both beliefs at once I don’t know. Anyway.) A major part of what we do as a band is explore the links between then and now, often updating traditional songs to explore their resonances to our contemporary social or political situation. Oh and making them less bloody heteronormative. It made sense to bring these two things – the band and the idea of a performance around English radical history – together. Continue reading “A Long Wait for Radical History”

Letter to a Brexit Voter

Dear friend,

I wasn’t a passionate supporter of the EU until the referendum made me stop and think. The thing I really valued highly was my European citizenship. The freedom to travel and to work in the EU. The sense of being part of of an expanding world. Of taking a small step towards that Star Trek dream of united Earth. But I could see that the Union’s democratic structures were as flawed as the UK’s, that the Euro was being torn between the very different economies of the richer and poorer nations, and that sometimes the bureaucracy could slide into absurdity. Plenty to criticise. Plenty to reform.

Then came the referendum. So I did my homework and it swiftly become evident that it was overwhelmingly in our best interests to remain. Not only because of the direct political and economic benefits to the UK but also the strategic benefits in the fight for social justice. Chief among these was that a Leave result would fuel the fanatics: not just the anti-European ones but the racists, antisemites and Islamophobes. Other forms of bigotry too, no doubt. As for the UK’s political and economic interests, the reasons have been given thousands of times in thousands of articles. The Guardian seems to be running several post-mortems a day in its opinion section. I’m not going to go over all that again.

Instead, I am going to talk about my personal experience. Why? Because I want you to know that we’re not enemies. And then I want to talk about how we can move on. Politicians and media alike have painted us as opposites in some kind of culture war. I disagree. I think we’ve fallen out over a big misunderstanding.  Continue reading “Letter to a Brexit Voter”

Why We Won’t Shut Up

I feel as though I should write something personal to explain why I’m so hurt and bewildered by what has just happened. Especially since plenty of people seem to think folks like me should shut up. In the lead-up to the vote I focused on facts; on the direct disadvantages of leaving and the possible political consequences. I didn’t make it personal; I’m involved with politics because I care about our country and the wider world. I would never normally make the kind of argument I’m about to make now. I’m even going to try, for once, to resist discussing the bigger implications. But these are exceptional times.

Firstly, however, let’s remind ourselves that this wasn’t an election for politicians who can do only limited damage over only a limited period; it was a decision with massive, long-term ramifications. These are not only political. Many of the consequences put severe limits on our personal freedoms; so for those of us who embraced those freedoms, the decision to leave the EU restricts the way we live our lives and, as I’m going to argue, is a kind of censoring of the way we see ourselves. Continue reading “Why We Won’t Shut Up”

I’m done with the economics, how about the revolution?

I’ve tended to be quite ambivalent about the EU in the past. But I now find myself pretty passionate about staying in. I wanted to articulate why.

One thing to get out of the way first. If conventional economics are your thing then the economic arguments for the UK staying in the UK are overwhelming. Even som’eone without much economic expertise – like our Chancellor, say –  can see that. Conventional economics is clearly a load of cobblers though. Look at what a complete mess it’s making of, well, everything; it’s a mix of ideology (the invisible hand of the market will work for the common good? Yeah, right!), guesswork (cos trickledown will definitely happen) and a ridiculously unscientific attitude to growth and the planet’s resources. So I’m moving on to the more serious stuff right away.   Continue reading “I’m done with the economics, how about the revolution?”

Dodgy Analogies, Dodgy Politics

The arts give society a space to think. Without them we are a golem: a figure of clay, subject to its master’s command, and deprived of the imaginative space necessary to relate meaningful to others and function in society.

OK. That’s an analogy with which you may or may not agree. It’s fairly useful as away to explain an idea that I personally find interesting. On the one hand, it’s way too reductive to be truthful in any philosophically helpful sense. It’s only of very limited use in explaining our need for the arts. Continue reading “Dodgy Analogies, Dodgy Politics”