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Splinters: July 2021 – sallies into the here & now

This month: FEELING GOOD! RISING TO THE OCCASION!...
Who am I? ...
Put him to bed: social fabric and the spirit of laws...
Prisoners of the system...
When saying ‘No’ isn’t enough

Splinters collective
1 July 2021, 3.01pm
Splinters
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Theo Inglis. All rights reserved.

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Tell Boris Johnson not to weaken political sleaze rules

If enough of us speak up, we'll be able to protect honesty in public life.

FEELING GOOD! RISING TO THE OCCASION!
by Leonie Rushforth

"Don't stop believin'/ Hold onto that feelin'... " Journey song, (released 1981)

A clip of the spontaneous standing ovation of the Centre Court crowd in honour of Dame Sarah Gilbert who led the Astra Zeneca development team at Oxford University, has had over 4M views in 48 hours.

Bemused royalty in attendance, rarely can the middle classes have so enjoyed being virtuously at one in a version of what my fellow-Splinter writer Rosemary Bechler calls ‘the monocultural National Us’, as in this noisy display of national vaccine complacency under a closed Centre Court roof.

This is in the same week that we discover that double-vaccination does not prevent transmission of this latest variant; as the latest Covid wave starts to afflict the NHS (early evidence of which can be seen in the ambulance queue outside the hospital closest to the recent G7 summit in Cornwall); and as schools buckle under the realities of the herd immunity policy playing out in classrooms all over the UK.

On the same day in a timely Twitter thread, social psychologist and Independent SAGE member Stephen Reicher exposed the Government’s approach to the ‘Events Research Program’ of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport as not having been designed to yield any scientific conclusions whatsoever about the transmission risks contained in current mass events.

The ‘pilot’, he thought, had “used the good faith and hard work of scientists” as a cover for politically expedient events, “safe or not” – if anything preventing proper comparative research into how to make such mass events safer.

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Who am I?
by Christos Tombras

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No-one | Author's image

I am thinking of identity. I am trying to understand identity. I’d like to pretend it’s a simple matter, but I know it isn’t. Identity is a concept that is supposed to allow me some deeper understanding. We see ourselves as who and what we are, within the shared experience of being among others who coincide with us in who and what they see themselves to be.

I am trying to understand identity. I know this: Identity is not something self-evident. It couldn’t be. In order to be able to conceptualise identity you first need to be able to discern and register difference. It’s only on the basis of difference that identity becomes possible. That is, on the basis of time.

This is where it becomes difficult.

What identity offers you is an easy way to escape time. This is what the philosopher taught us. Did he say that? No. He only wanted us to open our eyes, so we might see clearly what we had already seen but forgotten. He wanted us to open our eyes again to the phenomenon itself. You can’t have identity unless you see difference, and you can’t see difference unless you are in time. You are in time anyway – that’s the trick. Because of that, you can see change. That is, you can see difference. But you cannot see what you see unless you put time in brackets. (Of course it’s not you who does that: it’s language that puts time in brackets.)

So, that’s the story. As soon as I bracket time, I can re-interpret difference in terms of identity. It’s not a proper re-interpretation, however, it’s a cheat. I might have thought I have bracketed time, but I haven’t stopped it. The singer has said it: Time waits for no one, and it won’t wait for me.

That’s the predicament: we, beings in time, subjects of language, subjects of change, eyewitness the impossibility of identity; and yet we all go about our lives claiming that identity is all we’ve got. Or rather, that it is all that we’ve got to get, even if we don’t have it.

Don’t we?

If we don’t, then who are we? Who are you? Who am I? Who is writing these lines?

It’s complicated.

Identity is what we’ve got, and at the same time it is what we haven’t got. Perhaps it would be better to think of it as something that we’d like to have on the basis that everybody else has it. Or seems to have it.

That’s the bigger predicament: We walk the earth trying to figure out what our identity can be, by mirroring others who we think are safe and comfortable in their own identities. I mirror you. You seem pretty ok to my eyes. I made a good choice. And now, I, too, am pretty ok.

Who am I?

I speak to people. This is what they tell me. They tell me they don’t know what they want. They tell me they don’t know who they are. They show me they cannot escape what the others wanted them to be.

Who are they? Are they men? Are they women? Who do they talk to? Who am I?

What are they? Are they fathers? Mothers? They are daughters. They are women. Or men?

What do they want? Do they want something? They do want something.

What are they? What do they want? Do they want at all?

I speak to people. They tell me they try to guess. They all try to guess. Each and every one of us. We all keep on trying. To mirror the Other. To guess. Each and every one of us. A hall of mirrors.

We succumb to the Other’s demands. Or expectations. Or hopes. What does the Other want from me? How am I to be a woman? What does it mean to be a man? Can I? Will I?

I doubt. I worry. I panic. I am frightened. You are too. Am I right to be here? Am I allowed here? Who writes these lines? Am I allowed to write these lines? Who am I? What is here? Am I a man? Am I a woman? Am I a son? Will they love me? Do they love me? What does this all mean?

And on we try; we try hard. We try to hold on to identities we doubt we have, in the vain hope that they can show us what we are. What are we? We are born this way. Or so the singer sings.

No, we are not born this way, she’s got this wrong. Unless she meant, born this way: in doubt. Then, yes. That’s what we are. Uncertain, in this cruel game that time plays with us. It is a game based on the assumption (or should I say, “hope”?) that the one thing that can stand between us and nothingness is whatever we can – at last – assert as our identity. It’s a false assumption. Identity is a façade. Identities are cheats. They are but ways to cheat time, to pretend that nothing changes, to pretend we always knew who we are.

We did not.

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Put him to bed: social fabric and the spirit of laws
by Iain Galbraith

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According to figures published on June 28, 128,100 people have died in the UK of Coronavirus. Who can understand this figure? Anything – whether number, event, dream or stone − is practically incomprehensible by itself. Comparison and relation of the similar and dissimilar are the tools of understanding.

But does it help to know that, in 1918, 228,000 died in Britain of the influenza pandemic? Or what is 128,100 when set beside the 67,100 British civilian deaths of WWII? Or how do the 67,100 sit beside 100,000, the number of civilians killed in a single night’s bombing of Tokyo in March 1945? Perhaps all we can do in the face of such blinding figures is think of the death of someone we have known. The only number we can compare 128,000 with is one. Each big number includes the same number of individually and communally experienced personal losses – these are palpable tears in the social fabric.

According to Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of Laws), published in 1748, the principle that upholds that social fabric (at least in a republic) is the “love of virtue”. This is the confluence of moral and political virtue “in the sense that it points toward the general good”, and where such “love” exists it will be in this sense too that laws are made. Perhaps the former UK Secretary for Health and Care, Matt Hancock, was citing this spirit when on 10 January last year he claimed in an interview: “People need to not just follow the letter of the rules but follow the spirit as well and play their part”. According to Hancock, “Every time you try to flex the rules that could be fatal …” And of course he was right. A mere hug, just one fond kiss, can be deadly.

When my uncle died at the end of December last year, for a moment I seriously considered attending his funeral. But the kiss, the hug, were rightly considered a danger and consequently forbidden. At the time the infection rate was staggering, the number of dead increasing intolerably, and on January 6 the Health Secretary was promulgating the “common good” and enjoining the Great British Public to follow what he called “the stay-at-home imperative”. Between my uncle’s death and the funeral I would have attended if I had flouted the laws, England was ordered into National Lockdown. So I stayed at home and thought what a funeral could be like if the spirits of the absent were to join the legal limit of 30 funeral guests. Aside from hugs and kisses, a funeral sometimes brings the opportunity to meet again, maybe for the last time, relatives unencountered for decades, or, for the first time, children born and almost grown up since a previous family event. I considered what I might say in my funeral address about my uncle’s place in a remembered social fabric − irrevocably torn since he had left it.

Today we bury a friend. The gurgle of sleet in the drain runs a rag-and-bone clip-clop through his mother-in-law’s back yard. I ate his food, he drank my drink, he asked the questions. Needleman of the north he stopped by on his route to Harris. I buried his sister-in-law, buried his brother-in-law, twisted with his wife at his mother's grandson's wedding, whose sister went a-waltzing with Archie of Austria, who gave her a gold crown for silence. He never threw a car away all his life, and here they stand, worsted yards apart, in a circle around his grave, and no place nowhere to park. Thirty silent, according to the Sacred Law: as paper roses flutter let the trowelfuls beat his breast. His father-in-law's granddaughter lost her girl, his brother-in-law's furious aunt drove a fearsome cart and horse, her nephew's father hill-farmed Blackface in the West. Who knows who was a mason, who went farther still? He it was who fathered his brother-in-law's niece and nephews. He married his sister-in-law's sister. He was an in-law with a decent family to boot. And from time to time he booted them − how could we ever forget? For he was a hoaxter, a prankster, a jigger and joker of fine spirits. His final trumpet was his final woe, the one he didn’t blow: and here comes the cold upper lip, melting now to weep. How shall we come down from here till tomorrow? Today I see him better than ever, knowledge unfurling as if from know-where, swirling around this standing stone. But the lichen of myth tears through the toughness of memory leaving only names and years: Arthur Braithwaite, Zilpah Garbutt, Annie Leaper, Born X, Died Y, names delicious to the palate as to the ear. Rulers-in-law, shakers-in-law of drink, wool and bespoke stuffs, you are taking us through the steps, the how much longer to wait. "Rags! rags!", sings a gurgle-in-law from the drain.

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Prisoners of the system
by Chris Myant

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On a Paris hospital wall: poster graffiti warning: When everything is privatised, we will be deprived of everything. | Author's image.

Like the detainee gouging repeated marks on their cell wall, I started making one little downstroke on a page in my notebook for each time the voice on the line intoned: “Thank you for waiting. Your call is important to us and will be answered by the next available agent.” The moments between were filled with computer-composed muzak so mind-numbing that my admiration for the obstinate inmate who keeps their sanity sufficiently to remember, day after day, to scratch that wall, began to equal that for the scientists who have developed our Covid-19 vaccines.

There were five full rows across the page by the time I decided that one hour of waiting was enough to prove that the organisation running the test system for those who come in to Wales from abroad did not rate my call as important. The packet containing my sample had been put in the relevant Royal Mail post box during the afternoon of 15 June. The email announcing the result finally came at 2.06am on the 20th. That lateness cost me three days of freedom.

From the point of view of the private company that holds this particular contract, my liberty was less important than the bottom line in its accounts. The steady hollowing out of the NHS – still “free at the point of entry” but with its services increasingly provided by profit-taking private subcontractors – is pushing it closer to the French model. There, private and public moneys mix more openly, all to the growing advantage of the private.

Doctolib and HOPPS

The only way of easily progressing on from your French GP to the examinations and treatments they prescribe is via the spreading tentacles of Doctolib. A web-based booking service, this company has moved from being a start-up of the kind so beloved of President Macron to a fully established powerhouse eying up the potential of world markets, all in less than a decade.

It has done this with the aid of public money and sponsorship and by exploiting simple digital technology to fill a gap in the way the French national health service operates. It makes life easier for patients and professionals alike. Helping patients navigate the fragmented system was a no-brainer. Everything Doctolib does could and should have been done by a properly organised public service, fully funded to help everyone toward better health.

This year it has been the principle means of individuals themselves arranging to get their Covid vaccinations. The annual flu jab is arranged by the public health service – every older person is sent their prescription. No such sensible idea on the vaccines.

During the run up to the French regional and departmental votes across the last week of June, all electors were meant to have received leaflets from the different candidates. Part of this work was contracted out to a delivery company, Adrexo. Many got nothing. This was not just a matter of one lone individual kicking their heels during an extra three days of isolation, it was a direct attack on the democratic rights of French citizens.

As I was hanging onto the phone line hoping for my result, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin apologised for Adrexo’s “particularly bad” work. Covid restrictions had already drastically limited public activity and face-to-face discussion. Those subcontracted by Darmanin’s ministry consigned to the dustbin, sometimes literally, this last part of the campaigning.

Adrexo is owned by HOPPS, a French conglomerate that aims, according to its own write-up, for “the creation of new industrial models, disrupting established markets and challenging historic monopoly situations … To be a HOPPer is to live every day with the pleasure of discovery, entrepreneurship, with the taste of the new.” It is “above all a human adventure”.

Engels had a saying that has long intrigued me: Freedom is the recognition of necessity. I came across it while a young student and when freedom in life seemed to require rejecting constraints rather than accepting them. Like many a philosophical aphorism that is useful in guiding action instead of filling time with idle contemplation, it explores an essential contradiction of human life.

If we want to enjoy liberty, we need to shoulder the work, the effort, the responsibilities that help make freedom a reality in our lives rather than PR hyperbole on a corporate website. Meaningful freedom is something we collectively create as a shared, fundamental practice of human social relations. We cannot be free without the help of others.

HOPPS claims it “creates human relationships” and so “takes part in constructing the future of the world in which we all live”. This, even as it gnaws at the heart of those public services that are the only ultimate protection for harassed staff and needy clients against being made the vulnerable prisoners of a system where figures on a bottom line weigh more than all the marks on cell walls counting down the days to the moment when the door flies open and freedom comes.

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When saying ‘No’ isn’t enough
by Rosemary Bechler

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Boris Johnson, 10 Downing St. and the English flag.

June on openDemocracy was packed with exposés of dodgy practise by Boris Johnson ‘s Government, many circling around the ‘Orwellian’ FOI unit our journalists have been investigating for some years. There have also been successful probes into the misuse of non-executive director appointments who are meant to deploy their expertise to scrutinise what the government does; the unusual secrecy surrounding the setting up of a new defence research agency (ARIA); the weakening of an election fraud watchdog; and ministerial preferences for using private email over departmental emails let alone official routes of communication.

Much of the attention has gone quite understandably to the croneyism enabled by this undermining of laws from within. But there is something else that all of these malpractices, large and small, have in common. That is the sheer unwillingness of this government to subject its dominant narrative to any kind of questioning, let alone dissent. The excuse is that democracy, as David Cameron described FOI requests, “furs up the arteries of government”.

Johnson’s Government has previous form on this. We should not forget that ‘Getting Brexit done’ was the winning formula for the 2019 elections, abjuring scrutiny and parliamentary debate and leaving all the difficult decisions to be worked out and fought over afterwards. Before that, there was the fracas in which Johnson tried to prorogue parliament rather than have an open parliamentary Brexit exchange, and his subsequent declaration of war on the Supreme Court for having the powers to prevent this.

But the overriding example is the way the Tory Party from Cameron to today has deployed the results of the binary choice Brexit referendum of June 2016: 52% in favour, 48% against. Our June exposés have coincided with the fifth anniversary of that historical turning point and some fascinating articles have emerged marking the retrospective.

The two I warmly recommend are by Ian Dunt for the Politics platform, on ‘Brexit five years on: How Britain fell to right-wing identity politics’, June 24, 2021: and Chris Grey for his Brexit Blog, on ‘When a Country Cancelled Half its Citizens’ June 25, 2021. Both of them consider the wider impact on our political culture of the major attack on democracy they identify, which in 2018 (as Leonie Rushforth mentions in her July Splinter) I referred to as the rise of the ‘monocultural National Us’.

Back then I was reading Albert Weale’s timely anti-Brexit polemic, The Will of the People – a Modern Myth’ (Polity), in which he showed how the argument behind the Brexit governance of May and Johnson was arrived at:

by equating the will of the people with the outcome of the referendum. It goes on to equate government policy with the referendum result. It ends up by equating government policy with the will of the people. In consequence, parliament becomes the enemy of democracy and has to be replaced with government by executive decree. And all this in the name of the will of the people!… One people; one will; one-party state.

On the fifth anniversary serious appraisal seems once again possible. There has indeed been time to ponder not only the falsity of this unitary ‘people’s will’, but the profound impact it has had, notwithstanding, on Britain’s entire political culture, a culture now in multi-layered constitutional crisis.

For Ian Dunt the turning point was the moment when May and Johnson chose to “embrace the right-wing identity politics of Farage”. They didn’t have to: “the referendum vote could have been pursued in a pragmatic way which reflected the closeness of the final result, or… could have been articulated in an inclusive manner which respected people’s multiple identities.” But instead: “Suddenly the real binary walls of identity came down… You were this or that. With us or against us. This is the creation of a homogenous group, with a shared consciousness and a general will, which is mystically interpreted by the leader…”. Dunt is deeply disturbed that the construction of this exclusionary ‘English tribe’ has become, “the core function of government.”

Chris Grey picks up the same “important but remarkably little discussed aspect of the impact Brexit has had since 2016” – “it’s not just that the nation is divided over Brexit, but that Brexit, as a project, is deliberately divisive of the nation in treating only its supporters as the ‘people’… ‘the 17.4 million’ was used as a battering ram in order to treat 16.2 million like dirt. And now that Brexit has happened, the same treatment is still being meted out through the endless culture war against those stigmatised as ‘woke’ and unpatriotic in what Maheen Behrana aptly calls 'the weaponisation of the metropolitan bogeyman'."

What I want to examine is how progressives should react to such an onslaught, and why we can’t use the same tactic of trashing the opposition. Hence my title. Meanwhile, it has been a source of joy to me on openDemocracy this June to come across another commentator (one whose extensive academic credentials are not confined to the study of C18th and C19th villain-heroes) who is also attempting to explore what the excellent Lori G .Beaman refers to as “the social imaginary, or the way people think about the collective ‘us’ ”. Her object of analysis is Canada’s ‘National Us.’

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