“Stick to swords, Guy.”
I hear that a lot- pretty much every time I express an opinion that is in any way political, or even somewhat outside my core competence. My response is always the same. If you don’t like what I have to say, then either challenge it with reason and evidence, or go away. The internet is huge- I’m sure you can find someone who agrees with you, no matter what your position. I am under no obligation to conform to other people’s expectations, nor does anyone have the right to tell me to stay in my lane.
Right now, the world appears to be on fire. There are riots in the streets of American cities, a plague has swept the globe, and in badly run countries like the UK and USA it continues to spread. Sure, I could write something about how to get better at your hobby, but I don’t think it’s the best use of my time right now. Instead I am just going to share some of the more useful resources I’ve come across, which may help you navigate these turbulent times.
Before I do so, a position statement:
Black lives matter. As I see it, in Europe and America non-whites have been systematically abused, exploited, and repressed, for centuries. And in the United States right now, it’s really obvious that peaceful protests against police brutality are being met by more police brutality, and vile disgusting white supremacists are inciting further violence and doing whatever they can to delegitimise the protests by looting and other criminality.
But it is also true that some police officers have seen which side they should be on, and joined in the protests. I have friends who are cops, in several countries including the USA. I honestly believe that most officers most of the time are generally trying to make the world a better place, and as a historian I am convinced that a well-regulated police force is an essential part of a safe and fair society. Power corrupts, and so it’s the “well-regulated” bit that’s the main problem. Better hiring practices, training, supervision, and more ethical leadership are the minimum requirements for the police to do their job for us, not against us. You only have to glance at what passes for leadership in both the UK and USA governments right now to see what failure of leadership looks like.
Nurses restrain agitated, violent, distressed people every day, and do it without crushing their airways. There is never a good reason to kneel on a suspect’s neck. Not for eight minutes, not for eight seconds. George Floyd’s name is on everyone’s lips right now, as it should be, but he is just the latest in a very long string of people murdered because the perpetrators thought they could get away with it (and in all too many cases, were correct in that belief). Eric Garner springs to mind. If I tried to list every black person killed while being ‘restrained’ by police, I’d be typing until my fingers bled. And it’s not just America: Sean Rigg (London, 2008), Joy Gardner (London, 1993): in the UK there is a long and shameful list of people incarcerated or killed because of their ethnicity. Racism isn’t always about skin colour (as the Irish and the Jews in the UK know all too well). It is always about whom those in power consider “us” and whom they consider “them”, which is why diversity (of sex, race, orientation, disability) is critically important at every level of government, and within any institution that wields power.
I don’t think this is a controversial position, but I know from experience that I am about to get a deluge of hate mail from racist arseholes who happen to like swords. Seems to me that’s the least I can put up with for the sake of supporting my friends.
But wringing my hands going “oh, the humanity” is not helping anyone. So what does? So far this week, three of the people whose mailing lists I follow have produced guides I've found helpful.
- Mark Manson has a mailing list called “Mindf*ck Monday”, which is always worth reading, and this week’s is especially useful. It covers historical precedents, cognitive biases, and the major socio-economic trends underlying the situation. It’s focussed entirely on the USA, but is well worth your time even if you live elsewhere. Read it as a kind of mental warm-up to taking useful action.
- Pandora Blake (see their NSFW patreon profile here if you dare), a political activist I support (they were influential in preventing the ghastly stupidity of the British Government’s attempt to enforce age verification on adult websites- a privacy nightmare and a gross violation of both common sense and human rights) has a long list of suggestions, including links to organisations you can support, protests to attend, ways to register protest online, things to read, and so on.
- Iain Broome, who I follow for writing tips mostly, has another list of useful resources in his online newsletter here.
Now may be a good time to gently remind everyone of Septimius Severus and his sons Caracalla and Geta, Emperors of Rome from 193-217. Septimius was African, born in Leptis Magna (which is now in Libya). And of course the mother of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, one of the most famous swordsmen of the 18th century, was black. Speaking of the Chevalier, he was not only an amazing fencer, but also a pretty damn good composer: here’s his Violin Concerto in B flat major, op 7 n. 2:
And within hours of this post going live, kind friends reminded me that Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, was the son of Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie (1762-1806), a full general in the French Army, whose mother Marie-Cessette Dumas was black. De la Pailleterie served at the same time as Touissant Louverture. And let us not forget Abram Petrovich Gannibal, another general, though this time in Russia, whose great-grandson was not bad at writing either- his name was Alexander Pushkin (and as everyone interested in duelling knows, was killed in a duel).
Personally, I am very careful about the actions I take at times like these because it is difficult to predict their outcomes. But doing nothing is also a decision, and a position. At the moment, with two of my household in the high risk category for death from COVID 19 if they catch it, I’m not going out unless strictly necessary, and I certainly won’t be joining any crowds for any reason. Simply taking a position and stating it publicly, as I’m doing here, is not much but it’s more than nothing, and I hope it will do some good while I research, think, talk to people with relevant experience, and come up with something more tangible. It’s not as if the world is waiting for me to spring into action.
One last thing.
I’m an optimist, and I find it comforting to remember that the race riots of 1968 helped trigger the passing of the Fair Housing Act, and the Stonewall riot in 1969 was the origin of the Pride movement. Corona has shone a light on how much we need our key workers of every kind, from supermarket shelf stackers and lorry drivers to nurses and doctors. The widespread collapse of businesses resulting in massive unemployment has shown us how a social safety net is an absolute necessity in a modern society. And the millions of people peacefully protesting the racism baked into our systems of justice show us that racism is not acceptable to the majority of us. I am hopeful that we are living through the fire from which a fairer, safer, better society will emerge.