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Laurie Penny on The X Factor: Gamu Nhengu and the importance of empathy

The plight of the X Factor hopeful reminds us of the power of reality television.

Nothing is real until it's been made into reality television, and that includes human suffering. After years of arbitrarily blaming every imaginable social problem, from housing shortages to unemployment, on migrants, the caring British public has finally rallied to defend one single, solitary immigrant from forced deportation after seeing her perform reasonably well on the X Factor.

Eighteen-year-old Gamu Nhengu, originally from Zimbabwe, has a cherubic smile, a powerful set of lungs and an expired visa. Millions of viewers watched entranced as she belted out a precociously soulful cover of "Walking on Sunshine" in front of judges on the TV talent show, earning herself a standing ovation and a welter of appreciative Facebook fansites. Despite her popularity with the viewing public, however, the young singer was kicked off the programme and into the welcoming arms of the UK Border Agency last week amid murmurings that X Factor producers had declined to deal with her precarious immigration status. Having lived in Clackmannanshire for over five years, Nhengu and her family now have just days to leave the country.

In the past week, tens of thousands of supporters have written letters to the Home Office, signed online petitions and even travelled to Scotland to stand outside Nhengu's flat with wobbly homemade banners, treading that occasionally precarious picket line between popular protest and co-ordinated stalking. Even the Daily Mail has caved in to reader pressure and run panegyric pieces portraying young Nhengu, a benefit-claiming immigrant, as the unimpeachably twinkly offspring of Michael Jackson and Little Orphan Annie.

It's incredible. Campaigners, activists, aid workers, lawyers, family members and any number of asylum seekers have dedicated their lives to persuading a hostile press and a population raddled by prejudice and private anxiety that migrants are human beings with human rights who deserve compassion - but it turns out that all that was really needed was for one of them to stand on a stage in a party frock and compete for the chance to be publicly humiliated by Simon Cowell.

Perhaps the Refugee Council ought to rethink its press strategy. Perhaps they could put out fewer serious pamphlets about institutional abuse in immigration holding facilities and more spangly song-and-dance numbers. Perhaps the public might be more sympathetic to the plight of the hundreds of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who come to this country fleeing persecution in countries where homosexuality is illegal if they were all to dress up in sequins and perform Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Disappointingly, however, stardom is not the top priority of most of the thousands of immigrants currently facing deportation from the UK. Most of them are more immediately concerned about being forcibly returned to countries where they face rape, torture and even murder. Most of them are interested in nothing more than the chance to earn a decent living and a scrap of social respect. Many of the 900 men and women currently locked up in segregated cells in the Yarl's Wood detention centre just want to be able to see their kids again. But not Gamu Nhengu: she wants to be famous, and unlike the aspiration to live a life free from hunger, terror and persecution, that's something we can all relate to.

The formalised rules of managed frenzy that pass for emotional interest on reality television provide an empathic format with which the TV-viewing public can relate, because we know what is expected of us. There's nothing challenging here: we know how this story goes. Here's the shot of the contestant in her home, surrounded by her family; now here she is, waiting for her cue on live camera, with the voiceover informing us about how she just wants to help her mum out. As she steps in front of the judges, chewing her beautiful teenage lips, cut to a shot of her loving parents waiting nervously backstage; as she finishes her set piece to rapturous applause, zoom in on her family crying with relief. A thousand asylum appeal videos with mournful piano soundtracks could not hope to produce the revenue-generating response of a televised reality pageant tugging robotically on the dull heartstrings of a nation used to producing feelings en masse, for someone else's profit.

It would be easy to extrapolate that consumer culture has now reached the point where the only emotion with which the general public can truly empathise is aspirational craving -- not pain, or fear, or intimacy, none of which can be reproduced or ritualised in gameshow format, but simple, needy, greedy longing, for more status, more luxury, more money. It would be easy to assume that the only thing that truly unites us in these troubled times when the social can only be accessed in commodified, photostat formats is the asocial impulse to better our individual situation sat any cost.

That, however, would be the wrong assumption. Late capitalism has warped our capacity for empathy on a social scale, but has not destroyed it. Inside every one of us, from the welfare-claiming immigrant to the wealthy city worker, is a vulnerable, hopelessly young person desperate for acceptance, preparing for our big moment in the spotlight, anxious not to let our loved ones down, hoping to be judged kindly. If we can collectively realise that notion, even for the interim of a Saturday-night talent show, we will be one step closer to building the kind of society that we need.

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

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There’s no other explanation for Boris Johnson – he must be a Russian spy

When you look back over Johnson’s journalistic career, it soon becomes apparent that he was in the right place at the right time too often for it all to have been a coincidence.

I had a hunch some time ago, but a source very close to the Federal Security Service strongly implied it during an odd meeting that we recently had at a hotel in Charing Cross, London: Boris Johnson is an agent of deep Russian penetration. Obviously his first name is a bluff – Boris the Bear has been hiding in plain view of millions of us Britons. I have no idea when he was recruited (on this matter, my informant remained obstinately silent), but if we look back over the Foreign Secretary’s career, the evidence is clear.

Take his well-known inability to keep his trousers on. It might be imagined that a bedheaded Don Juan was the last person you’d entrust to enter the “wilderness of mirrors”, as the secret world is often euphemised. But if Boris were a Russian agent, his physical jerkiness would make perfect sense. All intelligence agencies use blackmail to control their assets and honeytraps are the preferred way of doing it.

However, what if you instructed your agent to keep his muzzle more or less permanently in the honey jar? Under such circumstances, it would be altogether impossible for MI5 to compromise him: “Boris shags secretary/colleague/newspaper editor”, say, would hardly be news.

Speaking of news, when you look back over Johnson’s journalistic career, it soon becomes apparent that he was in the right place at the right time too often for it all to have been a coincidence. His stint at the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels bureau, for instance, began in the year that the Berlin Wall fell. Johnson’s articles, in which he sniped consistently at the European Commission, helped to exacerbate the tensions between Tory Eurosceptics and Europhiles – fissures which, as the world has turned, have grown, precipitating the sort of fragmentation that the Kremlin’s spymasters seek to create in the West.

With my novelistic hat on, I can say that Johnson’s literary style has always bothered me. Replete with recondite yet poorly understood terms and half-digested quotations, his prose has the pretentious clunkiness you would expect from someone who isn’t writing in their first language. My suspicions, inchoate for years, have now acquired palpable form: Johnson doesn’t write any of this magoosalum. It’s all typed up by Russian hacks, leaving him free to shin up the greasy pole . . .

And slide along the Emirati-sponsored zip wire, as well. It has always seemed strange, Johnson’s apparently wilful determination to place himself in undignified positions. But again, it makes sense when you know that it is part of an elaborate act, intended to subvert our ancient institutions and the dignity of our high offices of state.

The dribs and drabs of distinctly Russian racism – the “piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles” that fall from his permanently pink lips – are yet more evidence of the long hours he has spent being debriefed. An agent of deep penetration will live for years under so-called natural cover, a sleeper, waiting to be activated by his masters.

But it’s predictable that while waiting, Johnson’s handlers should have instructed him to throw suspicion off by adopting contrarian positions – his call for demonstrations outside the Russian embassy in London to protest against the bombing of Aleppo is entirely consistent with this – and it has also had the beneficial effect of further emphasising British weakness and impotence.

You might have thought that Vladimir Putin (who apparently refers to Johnson affectionately, in private, as “Little Bear” or “Pooh”) would want one of his most precious assets to shin right to the top of that greasy pole. Not so, and the debacle surrounding the Tories’ post-Brexit night of the long knives, which was revealed in Tim Shipman’s new book, was in reality a complex manoeuvre designed expressly to place Putin’s man (or bear) in the Foreign Office. Johnson’s flip-flopping over whether to come out for Leave or Remain makes no sense if we consider him to be a principled and thoughtful politician, loyal to his constituency – but becomes understandable once we see the strings and realise that he’s nothing but a marionette, twisting and turning at his puppeteers’ prompting.

After all, prime ministers can be rather impotent figures, whereas foreign secretaries bestride the world stage. No, the only way that Putin can be sure to have his way – bombing Aleppo back to the Stone Age, subverting Ukrainian independence – is by having his beloved Pooh bumbling about at summit meetings. Think back to Johnson’s tenure as mayor of London and the vast river of Russian lucre that flowed into the City. The Kremlin has also been able to manipulate errant oligarchs as if they, too,
were marionettes.

And now comes the final proof, as if any were needed: the government’s decision to support a third runway for Heathrow. Will Johnson resign over this matter of deepest principle? Will he truly represent his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituents who labour night and day under a toxic smir to the accompaniment of jet howls? Will he hell. There will be a few of his characteristically garbled statements on the matter and then he will fall silent. You all know that slightly sleepy yet concentrating expression that comes over his face when he thinks that the cameras are pointed elsewhere? That’s when Johnson is receiving his instructions through a concealed earpiece.

Should we worry that our Foreign Secretary is in the control of a sinister and manipulative foreign demagogue? Well, probably not too much. After all, think back to previous incumbents: great statesmen such as Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett and William Hague. Do you really imagine that any of them struck fear deep into the heart of the Russian military-industrial complex? 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage