Very Last Words on The Long Goodbye

In America, the involvement of uniformed police in execution-style shootings has received a lot of media attention. I was just reading about the shooting of Patrick Lyoya in Michigan, on April 4th. He was shot in the head while lying on the ground, apparently. With the development of high-quality phone cameras, more and more footage of these events has become available. 

A British audience, recognising the quintessentially modern British nature of the characters, and the suburban setting, in The Long Goodbye will instantly recognise it as depicting an event that has never actually occurred in this country. They will automatically understand this as a dystopian nightmare, a fear for the future and an expression of alienated anxiety. Not so an American audience. For them, the imagery must seem much more plausible and immediate. 

My daughter (a 16 year old political firebrand) was online, discussing Britain’s relatively high rates of inter-racial marriage (though lower than the U.S.) and her American inter-locutor said, “Yes, but you guys are still very racist. Look at The Long Goodbye.”

In fact, minorities in Britain seem, by and large, much more integrated than in the US, although this isn’t saying much. Most people don’t seem to have much trouble getting along with, and forming friendships with, people of other ethnic backgrounds. 

Of course, there are tensions and misunderstandings. Biased assumptions are made, but that’s not restricted to racial issues. After all, one of the great miracles of human intelligence and imagination is our ability to generalise from one experience, situation, or piece of information to another. It’s something A.I. is unable to replicate, so far. 

The greatest racial problem in Britain remains whole population unequalness, demonstrated statistically, rather than through the frequency of racist attacks most individuals experience. (off-line, at least. On-line trolls will use any insult they think will work.) This is, I think, usually a consequence of a xenophobic indigenous population hoarding their resources, rather than actual racial disdain. 

I can’t believe such talented and thoughtful film makers truly believe that their demonic Neo-Nazi death-squads represent the attitudes of the majority British population, so The Long Goodbye feels more like an appeal for reassurance than an outright attack, although that direct address to the camera and thus the viewer, at the end, does make you feel personally accused. That’s probably good for us, though. It makes us stop and think, “Am I complicit?” and, even if you conclude, in the end, that you are not, it’s an important check to make. 

My fear for this film is that it will now be picked up by American influencers as evidence that British society is as divided as American, perhaps more so. It is my belief that the division between self-identifying groups in Britain is being aggravated by American cultural imperialism, imported through the internet. People brought up on the internet assume that all culture and cultural tensions in their own countries are the same as those delivered to them online. But the internet is a dark, digital mirror of its creator-culture: America’s capitalist Silicon Valley, where racial tensions are much greater. 

Basing their campaigns on undeniable statistical imbalances, powering them with mass online support, social activists have encouraged tribes to pit themselves against each other, in pursuit of their rights. Ironically this has driven tribes into mutually hostile enclaves. 

Might this film not become an instrument of such division? 

More on The Long Goodbye

In my last post I was suggesting that American viewers of Aneil Karia and Riz Ahmed’s The Long Goodbyemight assume that it depicted the true state of race relations in Britain, at an essential, if not a literal level. This hunch appears to be borne out by an interview I discovered in The Hollywood Reporter, where the journalist describes the film as “A terrifying look at an everyday nightmare for certain marginalised communities” (“Riz Ahmed and Director Aneil Karia on Making ‘The Long Goodbye’: “It’s a deceptively difficult thing to Nail”” 31/01/22)

I hope such cataclysmic terror isn’t the “everyday” truth for Britain’s Asian communities. I don’t think it is. It would surely be impossible to live with that level of extreme anxiety, day to day. 

Of course, there are some terrible, violent racists, in Britain, who hate and fear Asian people. Of course, there are some prejudiced white policemen who make biased judgements and can even infect the whole working practices of their organisation with racist assumptions, as they gain seniority. Of course, there is institutional racism, which, when demonstrated statistically, can show how much more difficult it is to excel if you are a person of colour.

What there isn’t (yet) is an explicit, intentional collaboration between these factors, so that organised paramilitaries, openly supported by the organs of the state, can enact a systematic programme of genocide in broad daylight. 

There isn’t even anything approaching that in atmosphere or public rhetoric. No matter how cowardly, prejudiced, and miserly we all are, neither the government nor the police, nor the people of Britain would tolerate that, at this point in our history. Each would feel too threatened by the lawless violence of it all; none currently feel threatened enough by ordinary British people of minority heritage. 

I am decidedly anti-nationalist and have no illusions about the “virtues of the British character.” This is the nation that pretty much single-handedly invented rapacious modern capitalism and imperialism, although the U.S. has learned to excel us, and to claim British people were born with certain democratic qualities would be deeply racist.  

Of course, our cultures and societies profoundly condition our thinking and our assumptions, and not all are equally benign. The current British ethico-political belief system is founded in liberal humanist principles: however hypocritical we are, we like to think we believe in the equality, the rights and freedom of all individuals whatever their race or creed. Examples of ethnic cleansing from around the world suggest we could be persuaded to accept murderous regimes, but from this starting point it would take time to prepare us. 

The Long Goodbye: A savage Gut-Punch of British-Asian Paranoia

I’ve just watched The Long Goodbye (Aneil Karia and Riz Ahmed, 2020), which won the 2022 Oscar for best short film. Ouch! Brutal. Very powerful. A savage gut-punch of British-Asian paranoia, resentment and hurt. It ends with Riz Ahmed delivering the most thrilling performance poem I have ever seen, straight to camera. That monologue is a truly exhilarating experience. It’s a brilliant example of artistic creation: intense, passionate expression, comunicating a profound psycho-social message that might genuinely change minds for the better.

The viewer is made receptive to that final message by the increasing horror of the story that precedes it. The warmth and happiness of a crowded British-Asian household, as they prepare for a celebration, is enhanced by the intimacy of a hand-held camera that weaves its way through them, following Riz Ahmed’s character as he plays with his little nephew, bickers with his siblings, helps set up. It’s such a lovely portrait of normal, British family life that you just know it’s all going to go wrong, which it duly does, as black vans full of armed and balaclava-wearing racists pull up outside. They are supervised by weary looking police officers who do not intervene.

The film conveys the sense of alienation and threat felt by some, in contemporary Britain. It’s a deeply disturbing attempt to render society’s divisions and tensions in a visible, concrete form. The fear of organised racist violence endorsed by the state is depicted as actual organised racist violence endorsed by the state. 

As a result, this short is troubling in a way that the film makers may not have intended. The Academy awards are American as, presumably, are most of its prize jury. Racial tension in America is clearly endemic, virulent, and highly, highly toxic, especially between people of colour and the police. The catastrophic rifts in American society have become increasingly visible, as more and more videos of police brutality and summary execution have emerged. 

Academy jurors may have taken for granted, then, that The Long Goodbye, in its depiction of distress, rage and hatred between racial groups, is expressing an essential emotional truth of British society, rather than an expression of British-Asian fears for the future. 

But it isn’t like that, in Britain. It truly isn’t. I am not British-Asian, but I walk these same streets, and I see how different people interact. An event like this has never occurred in modern Britain. Not yet. 

Statistics on Inequality are Not Lived Experience

Added together, a disproportionate number of people of colour suffer from a whole range of disadvantages. The statistics reveal a fundamental problem (or web of related problems) in society that we might label “institutional Racism” or “Structural Racism” or “Systemic Racism.” This is dreadful and we must work hard to dismantle these structures and remain vigilant that we do not make biased assumptions about people of colour, based on our acceptance of them as the norm. 

But statistics are not lived experience, as I’m always saying. Any individual of colour may not have experienced all, or even any of these disadvantages. For example, according to statisa.com, Police have shot just under 1000 people a year in the USA, since 2017. The number of people of colour is disproportionately high in each year. However, every year the total number males has been well over 900 (940, 942, 961, 983 and 996, to be exact, excluding the incomplete data for 2022). The total number of women has always been under 60. (45, 53, 43, 38, and 56), so a woman of colour is not at significantly increased risk of being shot by the police, whereas a man of colour is. (Individual black women have been shot, as have a higher number – although a lower proportion – of white people and so these statistics were of no use to them, as individuals, at all.)

So, when any white person encounters any person of colour, each may have experienced any, or any combination of, a whole range of privileges, disadvantages, or discriminations, just as each may hold any number of biased beliefs about the other. This white financier’s son may have been traumatically abused and neglected as a child while that woman of colour, brought up on a council estate by a single parent, may have been lovingly cradled in the bosom of a warm, extended family. This woman of colour may be the Oxbridge educated daughter of a cultured diplomat. This afro-Caribbean kid from an impoverished background may be formidably intelligent, or lucky enough to go to a good school with teachers who nurtured his talents; that white boy from an affluent area may have severe learning difficulties or crack-addicted parents. Who knows? 

Through a coincidence of factors in my upbringing, I seem genuinely to lack the anti-Semitic assumptions so wincingly present in British society.  This was luck not judgement. (I assumed, until I moved to England, around the age of 30, that tropes such as the Jewish Banker stereotype were dead, in the British Isles. I was wrong.) You cannot tell on an individual level who has suffered more. You cannot even reduce the unique experiences of human existence to a single unit or rubric to compare them.

Whole population statistics, national or world-wide, will involve thousands, even hundreds of thousands, even millions, of exceptions to the trend. Significant trends and disproportions in statistical data can involve small numbers and proportions of the population. For example, the British government’s own data on prison populations for 2020 showed that Black people made up 3% of the general population, but 10% of those receiving custodial sentences. As the total prison population in 2020 was, according to World Prison Brief (@prisonstudies.org) 79,514, that puts the number of Black people in prison at just under 8000 out of a population of just under 2 million, or 0.04%. So, while Black people are disproportionately jailed, and this is a sign of systematic injustice, imprisonment is not the common experience of black people (or any other ethnic minority) and any person of colour you meet is unlikely to be an ex-convict. 

Assumptions should not, then, be made, by either party in a personal encounter. Individuals are not responsible for statistical injustices; presuming that someone share the prejudices or the ignorance of other members of the group you’ve assigned to them is prejudice. You have “prejudged” them.

We are all far more intensely and viscerally aware of our injuries than the abstract idea of any one of the literally infinite number of ways we haven’t suffered (and that goes for all minorities groups, too.) If this is “privilege”, everybody on the planet has some form of it. It is a necessary constituent part of human identity because each human consciousness is singular and isolated from all others. We should all strive to overcome our insensitivities, but they should not be used as an accusation. What elevates us is our capacity for imaginative empathy, which leaps that gulf. Celebrate it.

Ammunition for the Far-Right (an aside)

Katy Lee, writing in The Daily Telegraph, recently (04/04/22), was reporting on how French people intended to vote in their upcoming presidential election. She’d gone to Arcachon, a coastal town in the south-west and discovered a worrying rise in support for Marine LePen, the far right leader of the National Rally party (which used to be the National Front.) A retired teacher, who voted for the left wing Jean-Luc Melenchon in 2017, gave her this explanation, “We don’t like all this ‘Cancel Culture’ and ‘woke’ stuff there is on the Left now, …I don’t feel like I abandoned the Left; the Left abandoned me.” 

This is our own doing. The far right pose a genuine and serious threat to the health and well-being of our communities, our freedom, our safety, our struggle for a humanist equality, even to peace between nations, as we’ve seen in Ukraine. Now our lunatic fringe has provided the far-right with ample ammunition. They don’t even have to make up the usual lies to make us sound completely unreasonable and themselves as the voices of common sense. 

This is what happens when you pursue a policy of confrontation and blame aimed at ordinary people. 

Of course, the theory is that we will goad them out of their complacent passivity where they can pay lip service to liberal humanism without actually doing anything to effect positive change. But, if we tell them to choose a side when we’ve already rejected them, we’re driving them into the arms of the truly poisonous and dangerous forces in society. We are acting as recruiting sergeants for reactionary armies. 

In our self-reinforcing bubbles we encourage each other to greater and greater unreasonableness, but, without challenge, we believe we speak for all sensible normal people and are resisted only by extremists. This is not true. In anything approaching a democracy we need to understand the point of view of those who oppose us. We need to reach out to them and negotiate a compromise position. They’re just people. (Except, maybe, the MAGA/ QAnon lot.)

Hijacking the Immigration Debate: Windrush

A similar deliberate confusion between racism and xenophobia appears to have happened with the Windrush Scandal. Here, the endemic hostility towards foreigners, and thus immigrants, in certain sections of the British population, was turned into official government policy and legislation by Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary in 2012. This was a naked attempt to win over right-wing voters and it meant that, among many other implications, hundreds of people from Commonwealth countries, who had spent their whole lives in Britain, suddenly had to find documentation to prove they had the right to remain here. 

The burden of proof was placed on the individuals, who were required to find at least one document for every year they had spent in the country! This was despite the fact they had been invited by the then British Governments, to ease a shortage of workers, and that the Home Office and Immigration services had destroyed much of its own records. (Theresa May also required employers, banks, landlords and the NHS to follow these enquiries up, to do the Home Office’s dirty work, in other words, presumably as a cost saving measure.)

Of course, this was an impossible task for many people. Ironically, the longer they had spent in Britain, contributing to the economic, community and cultural life of the country, the more difficult it became to prove “the right to remain.” Without this proof, they began to lose access to healthcare, housing, bank accounts, driving licenses and so on. Some were sent to detention centres for immigrants. Some were deported to countries they had left as small children, had no memory of, and no close contacts in. (The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ website has a fantastic page on this, entitled “Windrush Scandal Explained”: jcwi.org.uk) 

This is outrageous. It astonishes me how anyone in this country can still vote conservative. However, activists insist on calling this scenario “racist.” Even the JCWI says, “There was widespread shock and outrage that so many Black Britons had had their lives devastated.” (Would there have been less shock and outrage, then, if they had been Asian? or European? Presumably not.)

The specification of skin colour, here, is unhelpful and unnecessary. The legislation that underpins the persecution doesn’t seem to specify, by race, who is to be targeted. It is generally xenophobic, not racist. 

Anti-racism campaigners are trying to muscle in on a separate injustice, to feed off the energy of its outrage, to maintain their own importance and centrality to the debate, I assume. It’s another form of colonialism, or, at least, an activist coup. 

(We Become What We Abhor: another Aside)

Writing in The Observer (20/03/22) Andrew Anthony was discussing whether the Social Networking ap Nextdoor promoted neighbourliness or paranoid, gated segregation (answer: both, of course!) He quoted a post on his local, West London group. Someone was reporting a door to door scam and wrote, “Had a black man knock on my door last night…”

The challenge for liberals like you and me, especially for people of colour is not to respond by saying, “That’s bloody typical of White People – always making massive, biased generalisations based on race!”

I’ve basically been making that same point over  and over again, in hundreds of posts: we become what we abhor. 

Activism as a Form of Parasitism

“Activist” has become a self-congratulatory term people apply to themselves. It seems to describe a sense of vocation more than a salaried job role, a sort of free-floating challenger who attaches themselves to rifts and points of friction and distress in society, and prospers from, and by increasing, that conflict. They are a bit like the extremophile microorganisms that cluster and thrive in the hot waters around thermal vents, except that micro-organisms don’t seem to do much harm. 

 Activists often operate by inserting their particular grievance into a more general injustice and then diverting the outrage caused by this injustice to fuel their own cause. Thus, Racial Justice activists insinuated themselves into the Grenfell tower tragedy. Noting that a horrifying 85% of the victims were of colour, they proclaimed this an example of Racism in Britain. This meant they could add immolating 62 people because of their race to the rap sheet that stands against Britain, a monstrously evil crime that supercharges the anti-racist campaigns with an enormous boost of outrage. 

At the same time, the Grenfell Towers protests could gain energy from the word “racist” which, as we’ve already discussed, has become one our language’s most potent condemnations, due to the hard work of previous generations of civil rights campaigners. 

Sanctimonious Bullshit Merchants

As Christian faith has dwindled, that habit of anxious self-doubt, of solipsistic obsession with moral purity and righteousness has persisted. Personal Integrity has become our most important, perhaps our only moral asset: “Staying True to Yourself” and to your core values. 

We are urged to join moral crusades to demonstrate (to ourselves) that we are “On the Right Side of History,” not to get anything useful done. It becomes part of our journey of self-actualisation, and the experience of campaigning is far more important than its effectiveness. 

Criticisms and challenges of others are invariably ad hominem: you attack your opponents for who they are, rather than the errors in what they are saying, accusing them of lacking integrity or inner moral purity. “You are a white privileged male,” you might retort to someone who doubts your opinions on race, “so you don’t know what you are talking about.”

These personal attacks have proved highly effective because moral self-worth has become our most precious commodity. Since the Civil Rights movement has succeeded in making racism taboo, accusations of complicity in a racist culture have become unendurable. Modern Social Justice campaigners, using slogans such as “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” have perfected the art of recruiting people to their cause by accusing them of being vile racists, simply by not vocally expressing an absolute agreement with the activist’s theory. They imply you can only absolve yourself by joining the movement, and, as it is a protestmovement that uses personal attacks as its weapon of choice, that means finding somebody else to accuse in their turn. It is a pyramid scheme of blame. Like the Salem Witch Trials. 

Go, and Do Thou Likewise

Reformation and Enlightenment thought gives primacy to personal integrity and purity, even if that makes you incapable of doing any good in the world. In fact, for many Protestant believers, the link between good action and Christian piety was almost entirely severed. Salvation came, they believed, not to those who displayed compassion and did things for the benefit of their fellow humans, but to those who sincerely accepted Christ into their lives. The Calvinists’ concept of pre-destination led them to believe that an all-knowing God must have decided who would be saved even before the creation of the world. And, as God’s reasoning is beyond the reach of mere human intellect, the saved need not have any virtues that we could recognise as such. 

The problem for Christians of all sorts, then, was working out if they were one of the chosen or not. Western Christianity demanded a constant self-vigilance to guard against lapses into sin. You couldn’t simply observe the rituals of the faith. You had to constantly interrogate yourself: “Am I Sincere? Do I truly mean it?” 

I think, however, the roots of this concern for purity may go much further back into the Old Testament, to Judaism. I know little about this, so I’m happy to be corrected, but much seems to be made in Jewish law of Tahara and Tumah, the states of spiritual impurity and Purity. Ritual washing, ablution, seems to be the means of achieving such purity and was necessary before approaching God in prayer. The Bible contains reference to purification after menstruation, sex, childbirth, the preparation of the dead for burial, and so on. (Sex and Death, unsurprisingly!) Ablution must form the basis for baptism, in Christian faiths. 

Protestantism promoted the idea of having a personal, inner relationship with God through reading and contemplating the Bible, so the concern with an inward-looking moral cleanliness persisted, but now the simple, physical rituals of purification held no power. All that was left was the habit of fearful self-scrutiny, the yearning to be pure and good, but without the easy means of acquiring it or being certain that you had it. 

In fact, Jesus, himself warns against the dangers of becoming too bound by a sense of your own piety and the need to preserve it. In the story of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25), both a priest and a Levite (a priest’s assistant) do not go to the aid of a man who’s been mugged and left lying by the road. The rules on ritual purity forbade priests from having contact with the dead (or with spilt blood, perhaps?) It is left to a hated Samaritan, presumably inherently an unclean creature, to come to the man’s aid.  

Importantly, this is all part of a discussion on how to achieve “eternal life”: salvation. (I’m using the King James Version of the Bible, because its archaic language is more fun and more sonorous.) Jewish law states that you must “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself” (10:27) Asked, then, who one’s neighbour is, Jesus tells the parable. On finishing, Jesus asks, “Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among thieves?” When he is given the answer, “He that shewed mercy”, Jesus replied, “Go, and do thou likewise.”

“Do,” not “Be…” Not “Identify as…” Do.