Agitation and the web

Could a new wave of online video help transform politics?

The last few weeks have seen a new spate of agitational web videos, accompanying the amazing upturn of politicking in Britain in response to the brutal, ill-considered and philistine cuts proposed by the coalition government which took office last May.

Last May, as I noted at the time, was the first time an election in the UK had encountered Web 2.0, and "the intrusion of blogging, interactive amusement, social networking, twitter and user-generated content, including videos." Surveying the trends in those election videos, I found them "enjoyable but mostly not very honed, either aesthetically or politically." Which meant "that internet culture still has a long way to go, at least in the arena of national politics in the UK, before it moves on from reactive political agitation to a more progressive mode of active intervention."

It is now, I think, beginning to move on.

There are good selections of current web video at Coalition of Resistance and Counterfire. There are several strands to be observed. The first is video of actions-in-progress, mostly filmed with mobile phones, minimally edited and posted rapidly on the numerous blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter tags which have sprung up as part of the campaigning. For this is a form of politicking which thrives on social networking, as several journalists have realised.

The BBC education correspondent explained how "the protests that took place last week weren't organised by any conventional political organisation, but they managed to mobilise youngsters in towns and cities from Bournemouth to Edinburgh." Said the BBC man, they were "run through social networking websites, with little centralised control," adding the curious comment that "This DIY radicalism has its own news channels, on Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and blogs, leaving the traditional news organisations and political commentators looking in from the outside." Curious, because it's a rare admission of what is actually always the case with professional media journalism -- always on the outside looking in, usually through tinted spectacles (the kind with blinkers on them).

In short, as I wrote a few days ago, the dynamic of mass protest has been shifted by mobile media and social networking, which now constitute a new extended dimension of politicking. It is not only extra-parliamentary, but also outside of existing associations within civil society, like the National Union of Students -- except that they opening up new networks within civil society, or rather, at its fringes. Probably the best description I've come across of what is happening from inside the movement can be found in a poetically-titled post at Edinburgh University Anti-Cuts Coalition, On our chaotic swarm:

The occupations have formed a swarm network. This network is very hard to destroy. For every occupation that is forcibly evicted, five more have sprung up. We do not rely on leaders or student unions. And in doing so we lack weak links. We can afford to lose connections and nodes in this network, for new ones are continuously forming in their place.

As a networked, chaotic group we can act powerfully and unpredictably. We can appear larger than we are. More powerful than we are. From our nodes we can mobilise, organise. Entirely chaotically. We are inspirational. These are not my words. Our movement have been receiving global solidarity, and global coverage. Internationally similar protests are spawning. And they are looking to us for that inspiration. They are looking to us for methodology.

A tad utopian, but I'm an old 68-er, so I'm not complaining!

The presence of video in this chaotic swarming is well represented by the UCL Occupation, which has set up its own channels on Vimeo and YouTube. Examples here include video solidarity messages, addressed to other occupations or delivered by visitors to the UCL occupation. This extends to spots by celebrity guests at the occupations like comedians Mark Thomas and Richard Herring, and the singer Billy Bragg. Longer items include talks by supportive academics and writers, like Michael Sayeau on the power of advertising, or the economist Graham Turner on "The Economic Crisis - Where are we headed?" -- in other words, examples of what was called in the 60s the teach-in.

Occasionally, the scene is shot with a cinematic eye, like this brilliant single-take of the UCL occupation which at the aesthetic level could hardly be bettered.

 

One of the purposes served by these video-posts is to impugn in several respects the coverage of the television news channels (whose choicest bits are of course rapidly posted and tweeted and retweeted, especially when they involve some politician being embarrassed by an interviewer's question). For one, they counter the promotion to front-page infamy by the mainstream media of rare moments of protestor violence, by projecting a different image of the demonstrations, especially non-violent street actions. Flash mobs protesting tax-evasion by Vodaphone and TopShop clearly articulates popular anger. They not only focus "disaffection with the failure of conventional politics to respond to widespread concerns about tax justice", but annouce in symbolic form that there is a different way of funding the deficit.

Second, videos which provide evidence of the misbehaviour of the police, correcting the spin the police try to put on events. Examples here and here. The general rule, of course, that governs the creation of video for the web is to keep it short, but this is not an unsophisticated audience. There's a post of 11 seconds showing a policeman punching a demonstrator; an extended version was posted up in response to a viewer's request to see the context.

Third are videos from inside the occupations, which communicate the enthusiastic atmosphere, cooperative behaviour and positive attitudes which prevail among these protestors. Most of these are made by aficionados -- who doubtless include students on the creative practice courses which, because they belong to "arts and humanities", will have their public funding cut off. But they also include professional work by independent film makers like the Guardian team, such as their video of the UCL Occupation. This is a piece of professional reportage, sans the unctuous voice of a reporter, which corrects the bias of the meagre television reportage of the events. There are several similar videos here.

In short, agit web video serves to re-write the "narrative" (as in the PR man's lament that "we got the narrative wrong"). But it isn't just a trendy accompaniment to a chaotic movement. It not only punctures the dominant version of the mainstream media, but enters into its own circuit of positive feedback, both as counter-propaganda and instrument of mass action.

Overall, what strikes me is that one can see a range of videos here that are strongly reminiscent of the variety of sub-genres in recent activist video movements in Latin America, like indigenous video (video indigena) in Brazil and Bolivia etc., and the movement in Argentina which exploded into action nine years ago, known as cine piquetero. Not necessarily the same subgenres, but appropriate ones for the context. Is there something about the short form of agitational video which predisposes this kind of arrangement?

There is also a currently lesser trend made up of campaigning videos produced to support the new movement. They are mostly semi-professional, or the political work of multimediamedia professionals, lending their talents to the cause. They turn up within this circuit because they provide points of attachment to the wider oppositional culture to which the student movement as such necessarily belongs. Some of them are video lectures by eminent Marxists. Other examples include:

"An important message about the arts" -- a simple aninmated video by artist David Shrigley, which is amusing, but perhaps ideologically a little confused in giving too much emphasis to economic arguments to Save The Arts.

Poet Danny Chivers contributes Shop a Scrounger

and perhaps my favourite, a brilliant music video from Captain SKA:

 

Michael Chanan is a documentarist and film critic. He blogs at Putney Debater, and you can view his video of the Turner Prize teach-in here.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.