Lana Del Rey and whiteness

Beginning on the 21st May 2020, my phone blew up for a few consecutive days with incredulity, anger and disbelief at Lana Del Rey’s numerous statements directed at ‘the culture’. I still don’t really know what she is trying to define by that term. After the first statement, in which she namechecks numerous black female artists who have allegedly been allowed to sing about ‘being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating etc.’ when she has not, I declared to one group chat that I would get our thoughts and analyses, which were extensive, down here. I held off writing straight away and I’m glad I did: what followed were even more spurious statements and rebuttals from Del Rey about how people criticising her had begun a ‘race war’, and that people who ‘misunderstood’ her should ‘fuck off’.  We saw her Instagram fill with images of white Hollywood movie stars, including that classic chauvinist James Bond no less, a GIF of her pole dancing in the ‘Gods and Monsters’ music video, and declarations that ‘no one gets to tell your story’. Del Rey claims that she embodies a ‘delicate’ form of femininity that is currently rejected by feminism, bizarrely claiming that it will be the forefront of a ‘new/3rd wave of feminism that is rapidly approaching’. We are, of course, already in the fourth wave and have been since the early 2010s. I aim to discuss Del Rey in relation to feminism at greater length in another essay.

With regards to race, Del Rey has, unfortunately, proven herself painfully unaware of how much privilege her whiteness affords her, and thereby has been unable to show how race and her question of feminism intersect. I can see why Del Rey believes that she is, in the words of  Ibram X. Kendi, ‘anti-racist’: she cast A$AP Rocky as her JFK in the ‘National Anthem’ video and wrote songs with him for ‘Lust For Life’; she has collaborated numerous times with The Weeknd; some of her best friends are black women who have featured prominently in her music videos and on tour from ‘Lust For Life’ through to ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’; and she is giving all of the profits from her poetry collections as reparations to the indigenous Navajo community.  She has proven, however, that she is not necessarily anti-racist, with each new comment she released digging her heels into her first problematic statement even further until a defence of her is rendered almost impossible.

Lana’s original namecheck of predominantly black and Hispanic women, Doja Cat, Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, Cardi B, Kehlani, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé, was used to highlight how these women have been celebrated and rewarded by ‘the culture’ for being sexual, provocative and complex whilst she has been maligned. In doing this, she demonstrated a lack of awareness about the more significant barriers that Women of Colour (WOC) face in getting to a prominent position in the music industry in the first place, as well as equating these women, who are already exposed to latent racist exoticisation stereotypes, purely with sexuality and sexual mores. This is deeply ironic coming from someone who has both Nina Simone and Billie Holiday’s names tattooed onto her clavicle and has regularly referenced Holiday in her music, for example in the music video for ‘Summer Wine’ and on the song ‘The Blackest Day’ from the album ‘Honeymoon’.

Blackest Day Higher QUality

Simone and Holiday both famously used their art to fight racism and empower black youth throughout their careers, for example in the songs ‘Young Gifted and Black’ and ‘Strange Fruit’ and in numerous other contexts. This video of Simone talking about the artist’s duty to reflect the times, particularly with regards to fighting racism, is one that Del Rey has shared herself on her Instagram:

Nina Simone

It is bizarre, then, that Del Rey, who so idolises these black women who spent their careers and lives fighting racism, is unable to acknowledge and concede that bringing WOC into a conversation about how she has been hard done by the music industry is problematic. It does not matter how may times you tell people that you are not racist: if you are making racially coded comments and comparisons, even and especially unconsciously, then refusing to accept the fact that your white ignorance and privilege have been exposed by those very comments, you are being racist. For white people, our racism is often unconscious and unthought of: our work is to bring our assumptions and everything we take for granted as white people into consciousness, to learn, listen and ultimately become allies in the fight against racism, racial inequality and injustice. Not to dig our heels in, take offence and accuse others of starting ‘a race war’.

This need for clarity and consciousness has become even more sickeningly potent in the days after Del Rey’s flurry of racially coded and unapologetic statements. The video went viral on 25th May 2020 of Amy Cooper threatening Christian Cooper (no relation), a black man, that she would call the police and tell them that he was threatening her life when he had asked her to put her dog on a lead in Central Park’s protected nature reserve ‘The Ramble’. Amy Cooper chillingly showed how America’s law enforcement system, well known for its extensive brutality of black people, was geared in her white favour, and that she was more than willing to use it to get her own way at whatever genuinely life-threatening cost to Christian Cooper. Within days, we saw what the outcome could have been: George Floyd, an unarmed black man, suffocated to death by police officers in Minneapolis. In recent weeks, we have already seen how the American justice system values the life of Ahmed Aubrey, who was lynched by a white father and son in Georgia. It seemed serendipitous that we had this public genealogy of white supremacy and racism unfold so compactly this week:  from Lana Del Rey accusing people of starting a ‘race war’ when what she had articulated was racially coded and, yes, racist; to a white woman using her whiteness as a weapon to threaten a black man who left the altercation, thankfully, safe; and yet another terrible and all too familiar example of police officers murdering an unarmed black man. Even though what happened with Del Rey can be interpreted as a celebrity scandal, it does not exist in a vacuum. Every single part of the events of this week are connected, and are expressions of what is normalised and still accepted in a white supremacist society.

This is not, of course, a problem that only exists in the USA. As writer and journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge argues in her amazing book ‘Why I am No Longer Talking to White People About Race’, by focusing on race as something that happens on the other side of the Atlantic, Black British history is ‘starved of oxygen’ and not given the attention it needs. Racism and white supremacy are alive and well in the UK, and we cannot fall into complacency, believing that it is only in the USA that racism exists. I have spent the past few weeks writing an inquiry project for my teacher training qualification (PGCE) about race and curriculum in the UK and there is no doubt in my mind that the National Curriculum devised by Michael Gove, particularly in Key Stage Four English, serves to perpetuate white cultural hegemony, erasing, denying and ignoring the communities and cultural identities of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) pupils and anyone else who identifies as non-white British. White people are profoundly ignorant of the way in which we accept whiteness in all parts of our lives as standard and normal, as though our entire country’s history was not built off the back of slave labour and colonial oppression of BAME people. Now more than ever, white people need to be doing the work to make our unconscious privileges and ignorance, conscious. This is a battle, in part, because ideological vehicles like The National Curriculum hit us when we are young; but as responsible, conscious adults, we must actively educate ourselves. Too many people continue to suffer and we must do our part to fight and stop that.

This essay has been fuelled by anger, to be sure. But I also offer it in the spirit of generosity. I have been critical of Lana Del Rey because I think it is important for white people to call each other out and educate one another about the way our unconscious privilege and ignorance is a form of racial violence. As such, I want to provide a list of materials that have helped and continue to help me, as a white person, to recognise and check my own privilege and ignorance, which, I hope, help me to be an ally to all BAME people and actively fight racism. I recommend the following to all white people:

‘Why I am No Longer Talking to White People about Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge

‘About Race’ podcast by Reni Eddo-Lodge

‘Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire’ by Akala

‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas

‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ by Dr. Maya Angelou

‘A Raisin in the Sun’ by Lorraine Hansberry

‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith

‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama

‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ by Arundhati Roy

‘The Wretched of the Earth’ by Frantz Fanon

‘Orientalism’ by Edward W. Said

‘OJ: Made in America’ by Ezra Edelman

‘Black Panther’ by Ryan Coogler

‘Straight Outta Compton’ by F. Gary Gray

‘Get Out’ by Jordan Peele

‘Mississippi Burning’ by Alan Parker

‘Lemonade’ by Beyoncé

‘Homecoming’ by Beyoncé

‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ by Kendrick Lamar

‘Kiwanuka’ by Michael Kiwanuka

Gal-dem

The Runnymede Trust resources

‘Let Them Drown: the violence of othering in a warming world’ chapter in ‘On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal’ by Naomi Klein

‘Episode 102: Empire State of Mind: overhauling the history we teach’ by ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’ podcast

‘Episode 59: Black Revolution and Whiteness Psychosis with Kehinde Andrews’ by ‘Under the Skin’ podcast

The International Slavery Museum, Liverpool

 

Here are some works that I am yet to start:

‘How to be Antiracist’ by Ibram X. Kendi

‘Brit(ish)’ by Afua Hirsch

‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe

‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ by Dee Brown

‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernadine Evaristo

‘Women, Race and Class’ by Angela Davis

‘Sister Outsider’ by Audre Lorde

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ by James Baldwin

‘Ain’t I a Woman: Black women and feminism’ by bell hooks

‘Bad Feminist’ by Roxane Gay

‘Hamilton’ by Lin Manuel Miranda

 

I am absolutely in need of more recommendations, particularly films, so please do send me anything that you are aware of that will help me in my learning.

Love Note – Corona-party

On Tuesday 17th March 2020, I was told at 15:20, after a full day of teaching, that my placement was to be suspended with immediate effect. At this point, I am aware that my course will continue with online learning and seminars, that I have up-coming assignments that I will need to prepare and I have a stack of journal articles to read, but that I will be housebound for the foreseeable future. This has presented me with something of a paradox: being at home is both unnerving and reassuring; liberating from the busy-ness of normal life but may also create a void of emptiness that will leave me climbing the walls. As such, I am doing my best to come up with a daily routine of interesting things to do that will keep me calm. I think that, in spite of all the chaos, this is a really pertinent opportunity for me to dig into some of my interests and hobbies, learn some new things and keep staying curious. At this point, and it is still early days,  I have three books on the go, which I can barely believe myself, I am filling my days with interesting tasks and activities that prevent me from binging on television, and I am keeping positive and cheerful in light of a perfect storm of governmental confusion, media confusion and general upheaval.

‘What Would Boudicca Do?’ by E. Foley and B. Coates

Boudicca

This was a New Year’s gift from a dear friend and is a fun whistle-stop tour of remarkable women from history. I have decided to read a chapter a day over the course of whatever it is that is happening (am I self-isolating, in quarantine, living out a course suspension? Who knows). So far, I have read condensed histories of Boudicca and Mary Wollstonecraft. Tomorrow, Mae West. The book is fun, digestible, full of nuggets of important intersectional feminist history and reading just a chapter a day gives me something to look forward to for tomorrow.

Duolingo

Duolingo

I downloaded and started learning through Duolingo before the corona-party started, and I am now even more committed to keeping at it. Currently, I am refreshing and building up my French and I have started learning Welsh from scratch. I was inspired to start by a friend who is on a 200-day streak and I loved his commitment to the cause. Additionally, I was stunned by the fact that whilst I’ve been chugging away nonchalantly speaking, reading and writing in English alone, over half the world’s population is bilingual. Language learning is going to become more and more essential for Britons, especially in light of our new (sob) relationship with the EU, so I think it’s important that learning new languages and, by proxy, understanding the cultural contexts of different countries and their peoples, becomes more of a priority. French has always been of interest to me (I have delusions of grandeur about moving to Paris) and Welsh is an important part of my own personal heritage. My mum is a native speaker, as is my Grandma on my Dad’s side. Hilariously, they speak different dialects so can’t communicate with one another. Nevertheless, learning Welsh has been an absolute joy. I can just about tell people that I am a vegetarian from memory (dw’in ddim yn bwyta cig) and it is just delightful learning how to speak and write a language that so liberally uses the letters ‘w’ and ‘y’. Duolingo isn’t perfect, but it’s exactly what I need it to be right now: good for my brain, good for my cultural awareness and a diversion from binge-watching TV. Speaking of which…

The Good Place, Netflix *slight spoilers*

The Good Place

Of course a bit of Netflix was going to feature. MW and I are on the final series of this hilarious sitcom that incorporates trashbagism with the central tenets of moral philosophy. The writing is sharp, effortlessly condenses complex philosophical ideas into twenty minutes segments, has truly mind-blowing twists and a range of characters that I absolutely adore. Up there for me is Jason Mendoza, a hapless dimwit from Jacksonville, Florida, who has a heart of gold. Jason is one of the most stupid and naive characters I have ever encounterd but is extraordinarily emotionally intelligent. Whilst head haunch Michael has to scam and manipulate everyone else to get them to do the right thing, Jason is receptive, honest and the most in touch with what he needs. Our time with the show is coming to an end and I am going to miss it enormously.

Going for a walk

The Park Nottingham

MW and I went for a half an hour walk around the Park Estate in Nottingham today. We saw the first of the cherry blossoms coming out; a cute dog with a bandage on its paw who was still tugging its owner along; beautiful Lady-and-the-Tramp Fothergill architecture; my favourite cedar tree; and we talked about everything and nothing. It started trying to rain at one point and we both arrived home with rosy cheeks. Going for a walk was such a nice break from the work of the morning. We felt refreshed by it, we’d had some good exercise, and it helped us to disengage from our screens.

Staying connected

Meme FINAL

I don’t mean this in a mindless, compulsive way: more like checking in with friends and family members on a regular basis, if you can. I have had hilarious and lovely chats with my mum and Grandma today, as well as touching base with a variety of WhatsApp groups where the memes, bad jokes and cute pet photos are flowing. I think it would be quite easy to become very insular and isolated at this time. As much as it is nice to hole up for a while, we need to stay connected and active in a healthy way. Additionally, we need to be mindful of the isolation others may be feeling, particularly older people who are having to self-isolate. Age UK run a befriending service that I volunteered for last year, and I am sure they would appreciate more people signing up at this time. I wrote more about the importance of building relationships with older people here

 Yoga with Adriene, YouTube

Yoga With Adriene

As many of you know from my incessant ramblings, I have sworn by Adriene Mishler’s YouTube channel for years. It is free, full of warmth, wisdom and fantastic yoga practices, and is a go-to for grounding and exercise. Life is always uncertain, but we are experiencing that all the more keenly at this point: yoga is an amazing way to breathe into the uncomfortable feelings, emotions and sensations that may arise, especially if you are prone to anxiety. Her 30 day yoga journey, released in January and prophetically entitled ‘Home’ (where I am spending an awful lot of time at the moment), is one I will be gravitating towards. She also announced today a new yoga playlist that contains videos of practices that pertain to uncertainty and crisis. Just twenty minutes of tuning into my breath and dropping down into my body makes such an incredible difference to my day.

Pema Chodron

Pema

I couple my practice with reading a chapter of Pema Chodron’s ‘The Places That Scare You: a guide to fearlessness’. Chodron is a cornerstone of Buddhist wisdom and guidance, encouraging us to see our fears, anxieties and stuck points as opportunities for growth, self-knowledge and integration. Instead of pushing away or resisting old patterns that no longer serve us, we can get to know them, allow them to pass through, and grow our compassion for ourselves and, as a result, all human beings. We all struggle. We all have our edges that push us to our limits. In this time of collective uncertainty, chaos and fear, we have a real chance to see our lives clearly: we may not like what we see, but that’s OK. It’s better to be conscious of our choices than to live in ignorance or stuck in cycles of self-abandonment.

Music

Music

Over the past couple of days, I have revisited a lot of my musical favourites. I was partially inspired by Daniel Radcliffe’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ which was an absolutely delight. Since then, I have been listening to Father John Misty, Bob Dylan, Sade and Agnes Obel, with a little bit of Andrew Lloyd Webber thrown in (he did a Twitter poll for a song to perform and ‘All I Ask Of You’ from The Phantom of the Opera cam out on top. The whole thing is lovely: check it out). Normally at this time of the year I have my annual Stravinsky Rite of Spring binge due to the impending seasonal transition: it definitely still freaks me out even after all these years, but I wouldn’t be without it. I have started reading Tolstoy’s description of the Russian spring in Anna Karenina as a companion to Stravinsky. The violence and the vibrance of spring, with its renewal and rebirth, is both excruciating and profoundly beautiful.

 

N.B

I genuinely believe that coronavirus is forcing us to re-assess our social structures and our places within them. At no other time has such a compelling case been made for Universal Basic Income; the free childcare labour of grandparents has been shown to be so underappreciated; the undervaluing of the NHS, teaching, and ‘low skill’ jobs such as cleaning and delivery work has been exposed and challenged; rates of pollution dropped in China because of lockdown etc. This is a confusing and uncertain time, but it can be a fascinating time. I think it is giving us the chance to evaluate what most certainly is not working for us and what we can change in the most positive way. Business as usual wasn’t working before coronavirus, it certainly isn’t working now, and we would be fools to let this opportunity to enact progressive, socially aware and compassionate policies post-coronavirus to just slip away. I am not completely fluent in politics, I don’t know what the right answers are; but it is clear that we are in a unique situation where we can move to build a fairer, more just world where everyone is taken care of. I wish that people would stop worrying about market volatility as though it were something that wasn’t invented and perpetuated by humans in the first place. Let’s build something else.

Love Note Year in Review: 2019

Like 2016, 2019 has, in many ways, been a stellar year for me, but has been societally shambolic and difficult to digest. Here, I have written about some of the films, music, TV shows and podcasts that have been my companions along the way. These have all inspired me, taught me new things, expanded my thoughts and given me a richer understanding of the world and the people in it. Enjoy and do let me know what you think.

Book: Crudo by Olivia Laing

Crudo 2

I have read a few books this year that have completely blown me away, including Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  and Circe by Madeline Miller. Here, however, I want to discuss dearest Crudo. I bought this book from Shakespeare and Company whilst in Paris on the recommendation of a great friend with great taste. Crudo is a very short book but it is an absolute gut punch of hilarity, darkness and tenderness. Indeed, it’s hard to really pin down exactly what happens in it because it is such a heady mixture of consciousness, recollection, projection and commentary. For me, this spells perfection: I have always loved character studies and don’t think an exacting plot is always necessary all the time. What I can get to with Crudo is that it centres on Kathy, who is getting married but has all sorts of qualms and skeletons to negotiate with first. Almost every page I declared ‘I LOVE THIS BOOK’ as it twisted and turned unpredictably through the mental chaos of anxiety, exhaustion, eating, friendship, loss, Twitter and drunken chaos in beautiful Italian locations. It is a love letter to anyone who is in despair at recent political turns of events, sardonically laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation whilst also grieving and mourning the rise of hatred, fear and intolerance in the West. I think this book will benefit from many readings, and I cannot wait to sink my teeth into it again.

Film: Apocalypse Now

11365761493_ec95cd78d6_o-1500x755

I was horrendously late in joining this film’s bandwagon, but was so glad when I did earlier this year. From that first shot of palm trees and the withering notes of The End by The Doors floating in like a breeze before the chaos, I was completely enthralled. This film is one of the greatest examples of a disorientating, arthouse viewing experience blended with the hallmarks of an epic: dramatic helicopter sequences and iconic lines offset with simmering delusion and madness all the way throughout. One such line, ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’, is a case in point: the line is delivered so much more softly than I thought it would be. I imagined that line to be a yelled declaration in the heat of conflict, but it is almost a tender revelation: an insight into how war and nationalism has warped and disfigured these men’s emotional engagement with the world around them. Amongst a host of spectacular performances, and there really isn’t a bad one in the whole film, Dennis Hopper stood out for me. With cameras draped around his neck like beads, Hopper plays a sycophantic, voyeuristic photojournalist, an unnamed self-declared ‘little man’ who has been brainwashed by Colonel Kurtz and is always ready to get a picture. An embodiment of a culture and a media that will transmit horror without reflection, Hopper’s photojournalist is the keenest harbinger of the shit state that is our current retinue of communication and media affairs.

Music: Beware of the Dogs, Stella Donnelly

StellaDonnelly_BewareOfTheDogs

Music-wise, this year has been a stunner. With the returns of Lana Del Rey (who I wrote about here), Michael Kiwanuka, fka Twigs and Nick Cave amongst many others, and Billie Eilish’s brilliant debut, this year has felt particularly golden. I want to give my attention here to singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly, whose album Beware of the Dogs is undoubtedly one of my favourites from the brace of brilliance that was 2019. If there were to be any soundtrack to the #MeToo movement, it would be this album. From a sassy , beachy opener that holds a ‘grabbing’ middle-aged man to account, in what I would argue is a direct middle finger up to the likes of Donald Trump, to the searing and devastating ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, Donnelly keenly and devastatingly  confronts rampant toxic masculinity and a patriarchal culture that is riddled with sexual assault and violence. And yet, even with these serious concerns, the album is undeniably fun. With a contents list that features the maddening performativity of relationships, the deconstruction of awkward family dynamics and cake allergies in a register that nods to Noughties Lily Allen and Kate Nash (but with plinky plonky music exchanged for a wilting easy-breezy Australian nonchalance), this album feels assured, mature and endlessly witty. I can’t recommend it enough.

TV: The Politician, Netflix

The Politician

As the Golden Age of Television enters its late period of peak saturation, this year has once again been brilliant, if not slightly exhausting. Shows I loved included Stranger Things, Big Little Lies, The Real Housewives of New York City which, quite frankly, deserves an Emmy (that trip to Miami, in particular the first night, was the trip to end all Bravo trips), The Last Czars, which expertly wove dramatic reconstruction with historical analysis, and His Dark Materials. The Politician, made by the producers behind Glee (which I never much cared for) is an absolutely hilarious, obscene, outrageous drama which follows a group of Californian uber-rich teenagers taking part in a high school election campaign. Whilst this may ring with all the hallmarks of another glossy, predictable teen drama, The Politician is hilarious, piercingly dark and shocking, with some of the biggest knots of twists and turns I have seen on a TV show. We had to take a break after watching the first couple of episodes because it was so intense. Yet, the show’s astute political and social commentary feels absolutely essential in a ravaged post-truth Western world, in particular the stand alone episode ‘The Voter’, which serves as a microcosm of the lives of undecided and politically disaffected members of the electorate. With a soundtrack reminiscent of Western revenge tragedies and dramas, and a wardrobe department to rival seminal teen show Gossip Girl, The Politician is a sensory riot, and one of the most groundless viewing experiences I have had: I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next or which bizarre direction the drama was going to take. This all serves to make it utterly compelling and brilliant television.

Podcasts

I have found it impossible to pick one podcast that has stood out as my favourite this year. Different podcasts serve very different moods and purposes, and there is no singular podcast to be drawn from my list of regulars and favourites.

Reasons

Reasons to Be Cheerful – Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd’s podcast forms the audio backdrop to my Monday mornings. This podcast has introduced me to many exciting concepts and policy ideas that I hope will become a part of the fabric of our politics in the future. Favourite episodes included topics like social care for the elderly, tax on frequent fliers, music and history education, the power of protest, community organisation, architecture and town planning and sustainable fashion. I am also exceedingly proud that my email on green fashion alternatives and tips was read out by Ed himself. #goals

Dressed.jpg

Dressed: The History of Fashion – This podcast fills the gap that glossy magazines have left in my life (I still buy the September issue of Vogue and the December issue of Harper’s Bazaar but that’s just about it). Instead, I have a podcast full of incredible interviews and explorations into the personal and cultural stories of my favourite designers and some of the clothes I wear on a day-to-day basis. I have enjoyed listening to episodes on The Met Gala, fashion and physique (mapping the female body), the history of the penny loafer, the biography of Cristóbal Balenciaga, the history of the French haute couture industry (Worth, Vionnet and Louis Vuitton being some of the most interesting stories) and a compelling conversation with Dr Monica Germanà about Bond girl style, looking at sexual, racial and colonial implications of women’s bodies and women’s dress in the franchise. I have shunned James Bond for many years but this conversation, with its focus on masculine and imperial anxiety, has shifted my perspective entirely.

DIDs

The Desert Island Discs Archive – This year, I discovered the delights of conversations and the musical favourites of some of Western culture’s greats. Tucked away in the archive, I found Powell and Pressburger, Leonide Massine, Tennessee Williams and Lauren Bacall amongst others. Gregory Peck was as dreamy as I hoped he would be and had a great story about the filming of Moby Dick, which coincidentally was shot down the road from where my grandparents lived in Wales; Jessica Mitford was hilarious and sassy; Roald Dahl was a bit of a snob; and P L Travers wasn’t as scary as I thought she’d be and picked a list formed exclusively of recordings of poetry being read aloud. One such recording was of Alec Guinness’s reading ‘Little Gidding’ from T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets, which was a balm I never knew I needed. Utterly transporting listening.

One last thing…

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, Netflix

Joseph Campbell

Originally broadcast in 1988, and which I watched on Netflix this year but has now been removed, this series of six conversations in six episodes between comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers is one of the most fascinating TV shows I have ever seen. Combining conversation, story-telling, animation, archive footage and film clips, this series takes a deep look into the psyche and collective unconscious of human beings. Campbell takes us on a bewildering but utterly brilliant journey through indigenous ritual, Jungian archetypes, the world religions, Western capitalism, the sacred feminine, the interplay of symbols and allegory, the sublime, the liminal passage and many other areas to present a multi-faceted, deep and intriguing portrait of human behaviour, interconnectedness and culture. Every single episode had something profound to learn from it, but the episode that stood out to me the most centred on animal-human relations, including the role of sacrifice, the transcendence of Death and the horror of a world where human beings are divorced from where they get their food, their clothing, almost everything. Additionally, I loved Campbell’s ideas that stemmed from the Buddhist teachings: that the present is all there is, and in the present, when you sit wholly aware, unblinkered and unfettered from trappings of ego (fear, envy, jealousy, anger, boredom etc.) we are witness to and subjects of, what could be called, the divine. I have never thought of myself as a religious person, and I still don’t think I am, but I found immense power in what Campbell had to share. There are iterations of ancient behaviours and beliefs all around us, and Campbell’s myth work is a great source of inspiration and an anchor when the ocean of chaos, anxiety and societal disruption feels too overwhelming. His work prioritises the power of metaphor beyond what is material, and it has enriched my life immensely.

 

Holocaust Memorial Day 2019: I am a witness

Ever since my first foray into podcasts, I have become an avid listener of one channel in particular. Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul conversations are inspiring listens: she discusses life, love and death with a variety of spiritual leaders, academics, psychotherapists and artists in an attempt to connect us to ourselves, each other and the greater world around us. There is no specific religious angle that the podcast takes: it simply asks and provides perspectives on the biggest questions that confront us all: what happens when we die? What is love? What is reality and what space is there for the spiritual? I have enjoyed reading philosophy and cultural criticism for a very long time, but this realm of spirituality is one in which I feel quite out of my depth. In a world full of distractions, this podcast directly reacquaints us with perennial questions that it may be worth integrating into our lives on a more regular basis.

One of the episodes that touched me the most was the interview Winfrey conducted in 2012 with Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who passed away in 2016. There are so many amazing words of wisdom that Wiesel imparts over the course of the interview but one of the most important moments comes 27 minutes in:

‘All of us who went through that experience [the Holocaust] consider ourselves witnesses. When the last witness will be gone, I don’t want to be that one, too tragic. What will happen? So on one hand you can become pessimistic: with the last witness, all of the knowledge, all the experience, all the memories will be buried. Then what? So I came up with a theory, which I think is valid. To listen to a witness is to become one. To listen to a witness is to become a witness. Therefore, those who have listened to us, who read my books and other survivors’ memoirs… we have a lot of witnesses now. And they will protect not only our past but also their future’.

There is a profound message of solidarity and hope here that, I think, is very inspiring. Although the survivors of the Holocaust will not be alive forever, their memories will endure through the people who listen to them. I am a witness: from having read Anne Frank’s diary, Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and from having seen The Pianist, God on Trial and Schindler’s List. I have also listened to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors at The National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Newark (also known as Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre) and from visiting the death camps when I was 16 years old as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s ‘Lessons from Auschwitz Project’. For the latter, we were encouraged to disseminate what we had witnessed and learned about the Holocaust amongst our peer group, to improve understanding of the Nazi atrocities with the hopes that we can all prevent bigotry and hatred becoming a political killing machine once again. My friend and I planned an assembly about our experiences that sadly never came to fruition; therefore, for Holocaust Memorial Day 2019, I wanted to post about my experience with the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz Project’, and in honour of Elie Wiesel, to openly declare myself a witness to genocide.

I first learned about the Holocaust from reading a Children’s Encyclopaedia when I was about 7. This photograph captured my attention perhaps more than any other in my book:

elie wiesel

Interestingly, it wasn’t until a couple of months ago, when I listened to Oprah’s conversation with Elie Wiesel and decided to write this essay about it, that I learnt that he is one of the men pictured in this photograph (he is lying on the second row up, seventh to the right). I remember looking at this photograph for the first time and thinking that something very, very wrong had happened to these men. They look so thin and ill, tightly packed in together and using pots as pillows. I didn’t think it was possible for people to look like this. Their expressions are extremely intense: they don’t look pleadingly, they don’t look hopeful, they don’t look relieved at having been liberated. Their expressions are gaunt, calm and unflinching. They are the stares of people who have witnessed and experienced abject horror and brutality. It is the least I can do now to write this essay to say that I saw and still see them, I will listen to their stories and I will do my best to live a life where such horror is not forgotten or delegitimised.

In 2009, at the age of 16, two History students in my year group were to be given the opportunity to represent our school in the East Midlands cohort of the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project. I applied and was successful, along with one of my best friends. This turned out to be a bit of a blessing: embarking on a deeply harrowing and moving trip was really made all the more bearable by having a close friend to share it with. The project began with an orientation seminar at the Albert Hall in Nottingham where ambassadors were split into groups to discuss what we were all doing there. We talked about the Holocaust, how it unfolded, why it should be remembered and, most importantly, how we remember it with the respect and dignity its victims and survivors deserve. We discussed the ethics of taking photographs at the death camps; we critiqued the difference between listening and reflecting on survivor testimony as part of the trip, as opposed to turning a visit to Auschwitz into a tourist box-ticking exercise.

(As an aside, it still horrifies me that 10 years after my experience on the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project that some stag do packages for Krakow still list a trip to Auschwitz as a suitable activity, alongside Kalashnikov shooting, strip clubs and water parks. The hideously named ‘Last Night of Freedom’ site is the worst, see below).

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last night of freedom 2

 

The orientation seminar was an excellent way to prepare us for the trip because it established a context about Holocaust remembrance, but also prepared us for our reactions to the Holocaust trip. In short, there is no correct way to emotionally respond to the death camps once you are there: we were told that fear, sadness, anger and numbness were all feelings that might arise. To feel one, any or none of these was fine. There was plenty of support available, from our fellow ambassadors, volunteer teachers who were to accompany us, and the Holocaust Educational Trust course Educators themselves.

On 29th March 2009, we caught an early flight from East Midlands airport to Krakow. My cohort was accompanied by Andy Reed, who was the MP for Loughborough at the time, as well as photographers and journalists from the Loughborough Echo and Leicester Mercury newspapers.[1] The first location we visited after landing in Poland was the small town of Oświęcim, more renowned for its German name of ‘Auschwitz’. Here, we were taken to a Jewish cemetery. This was such an important part of the trip because it helped us to understand that prior to the Second World War, Jewish culture and communities in continental Europe had been thriving: indeed, in 1933, Europe had been home to 9.5 million Jews. Oświęcim itself had been home to 5000 Jews, 20 synagogues (including the Great Synagogue that was burnt down by the Nazis in 1939) and a bustling Jewish neighbourhood. Upon the Nazi occupation of Poland, the town’s Jewish population were all deported. Whilst some returned to the town after the liberation of the death camps, there are now no Jews living in the town today: the final member of the pre-war community who returned to Oświęcim was a man called Shimshon Klueger who died in 2000.[2] In total, 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, including 1.5 million children. The cemetery at Oświęcim formed the resting place for only a few Jewish men and women: but standing in front of these graves, knowing that the death of just one person is such a loss, such a great loss to the world and to loved ones left behind, the figure of 6 million became immediately and horrifyingly vast.

We were then taken to Auschwitz I, which houses the museum. We saw mountains of shoes, suitcases, glasses, prosthetic limbs and human hair, all forcibly taken from prisoners at the camp. The attempt to dehumanise the prisoners, to strip them of their dignity and their very identities was plain to see. We saw dingy corners of the camp where prisoners were hung or shot; and the cramped living quarters where prisoners were forced together like animals.

We were then taken to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the bigger, more spaced out camp with its infamous railway tracks and watch tower. We were taken to the different barracks, including the Family Camp where a frieze of Disney’s Snow White was painted on the wall, into the watch tower itself and to the crematoria. At each stage of our tour, we paused to reflect, to listen to a piece of survivor testimony or to a poem, helping us to personalise the experience. The barracks, toilets and train tracks weren’t just shells or husks of the past, they were brought back to hideous and heartbreaking life through the words of the people who were forced to live and die there. We learnt that the toilets became one of the most desirable places to work for the prisoners because in spite of the smell and the mess, it afforded prisoners the chance to work inside and out of the cold. And believe me, it was cold. We visited Auschwitz in March, so not the height of winter but still cold enough for snowfall. We were wrapped up as tightly as possible in layers of hats, scarves, gloves and big coats; we were keenly aware that the prisoners would have been in painfully thin prison uniforms without any of our protections against the absolute freezing cold.

Going into the watchtower was one of the most gut-wrenching moments for me because from such a high vantage, you could see every corner of the camp. I truly began to appreciate how big Auschwitz was, how big the Nazi desire was to kill people. The Nazis really had gone to such a lot of effort to kill people, and the scale of their hatred was reflected in the enormity of this camp. Auschwitz involved killing on an industrial scale, approximately 1.2 million people were murdered here. To see it all laid out, coldly and clinically organised, with barbed wire encasing rows and rows and rows of barracks, was terrifying and sickening to behold. From the watchtower, we saw groups of Israeli students, walking down the tracks waving a Star of David flag. It was defiant, it was funereal, it was a celebration: the Nazis had tried so hard to destroy the Jewish race, and here we were 64 years later, witnessing Jews coming to Auschwitz alive, healthy and full of pride, to mourn the colossal attack on their people and the whole of humanity.

The visited concluded with an emotional memorial service led by Rabbi Barry Marcus, who sang a prayer in Hebrew for all victims of the Holocaust. He named Dachau, Sobibor, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen and many of the other camps where Jews were transported and murdered: whilst Auschwitz is the most famous death camp, there were many others spread around Poland, Germany and even Austria. It began to get dark and we lit candles, which we laid on the tracks.

andyjreed - flickr group

Copyright: AndyJReed, Flickr

The whole day, with the enormity of what we had witnessed as well as the flights to and from Poland, felt like a bit of a whirlwind. Once we had returned home, we attended a follow-up seminar which, looking back, was absolutely essential. It enabled us to process and ground ourselves with everything we had seen and learnt. We discussed what we had experienced, what our reflections were and, most importantly, what we were going to do to increase Holocaust education and awareness. Ten years on, I still reflect on the trip I took to Auschwitz. What I have learnt is that the primary aim of this whole experience was to help ensure that with enough understanding of the past and with enough hope for the future, something like the Holocaust will never happen again. In the Super Soul podcast, Elie Wiesel was adamant that the biggest challenge in the present moment and in future was fighting indifference:

‘I’ve dedicated my life to not only fighting evil, too difficult, but to fighting indifference […] the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference […] indifference enables everything that is bad in life. And, therefore, fight indifference’.

Raising awareness and talking about the Holocaust lifts people out of the mundanity of day-to-day life and confronts us with what humanity is capable of. It is not comfortable, it is not pleasant but it is absolutely essential. Although hatred and bigotry act as sparks for crimes against humanity, it is indifference in everyday life that fans the flames of hatred. It is indifference, apathy and the belief that something that does not impact you personally isn’t your business that is the slippery slope towards unimaginable bigotry and violence. At the root of hatred and bigotry, I believe, is a profound fear of difference. If we were to explore this fear, crack open stereotypes and confront the inherited confusion and anger that fear might entail, we might bring about some positive change in the world. Indifference is a state of ignorant detachment. Indifference prevents you from truly feeling and experiencing life. It is a self-interested, privileged indulgence. I agree with Elie Wiesel that indifference is as great a threat to human life as hatred.

With anti-Semitism once again rising in the UK and across Europe, and worshippers recently being shot at a synagogue in Pennsylvania, it is imperative that the horror of the past is not forgotten. Genocide should have stopped after the Holocaust; however, there have been many instances of genocide since the Holocaust. Indeed, genocide is taking place right now in Bangladesh and the Democratic Republic of Congo. To me, the fact that human beings should wantonly forget or underplay horror on such a scale in the 1930s and 1940s is unfathomable. I defy anyone to go to Auschwitz and not come out knowing that human beings can and must do so much better for one another. I think the most fitting way to conclude this essay is with the man who inspired it, Elie Wiesel: a man who suffered so much cruelty but who was able to cultivate indelible light and hope out of the darkness of hate. He is still an inspiration to us all:

‘[I am] part of a generation that has felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind and yet I believe we must not give up on either. We must choose between the violence of adults and the smiles of children; between the ugliness of hate and the will to oppose it. Between inflicting suffering and humiliation on our fellow man and offering him the solidarity and hope he deserves for not. I know I speak from experience that even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion. There it is: I still believe in man in spite of man’.

 

[1] I learnt only recently that Andy Reed had signed an early day motion in 2008 in support of government subsidies for the ‘Lessons From Auschwitz’ project, which can be accessed here: https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/35229/holocaust-educational-trust-auschwitz-trips

[2] ‘Your Visit: Lessons From Auschwitz Project’, The Holocaust Educational Trust, p.15.