COSMOPOLITAN SCUM

Journal of the "conflicted tendency" of the Revolutionary Fifth Column of Scottish Anarcho-Cynicism (in Exile)

From the Institute of Revolutionary Plagiarism

Millions of men lived in a huge building with no doors or windows. The feeble light of countless oil lamps competed with the unchanging darkness. As had been the custom since remotest antiquity, the upkeep of the lamps was the duty of the poor, so that the flow of oil followed the alternation of revolt and pacification. One day a general insurrection broke out, the most violent that this people had ever known. Its leaders demanded a fair allotment of the costs of lighting; a large number of revolutionaries said that what they considered a public utility should be free; a few extremists went so far as to clamour for the destruction of the building, which they claimed was unhealthy, even unfit for human habitation. As usual, the more reasonable combatants found themselves helpless before the violence of the conflict. During a particularly lively clash with the forces of order, a stray bullet pierced the outer wall, leaving a crack through which daylight streamed in. After a moment of stupor, this flood of light was greeted with cries of victory. The solution had been found: all they had to do was to make some more holes. The lamps were thrown away or put in museums, and power fell to the window makers. The partisans of radical destruction were forgotten, and even their discreet liquidation, it seems, went almost unnoticed. (Everyone was arguing about the number and position of the windows.) Then, a century or two later, their names were remembered, when the people, that eternal malcontent, had grown accustomed to plate-glass windows, and took to asking extravagant questions. “To drag out our days in a greenhouse, is that living?” they asked

Argument against Devo-Max

"A slave might have a benevolent master, might in practice be able to live as though he were free, but he is still a slave and is as such prone to the vices of servility” (Dan Hind, The Return of the Public)

Scottish media and independence: Should we be worried?

Over at his blog “Kelvin Grove”, journalism scholar (and one of my old lecturers) Brian McNair has started a series of posts arguing for the preservation of the union. I welcome contributions such as this, the more debate on the issues the better of we all are as far as I’m concerned, although naturally, I strongly disagree with him.

 

Brian’s latest post celebrates the “dynamism, irreverence [and] breadth of coverage” of the Scottish media and argues it would be diminished by partition – one of many reasons why the union should remain. I disagree profoundly with his description of the Scottish media, its bad and its only getting worse, and rather than see it as a reason for maintaining the status quo, I think it is one of the problems we really need to be thinking about post-independence. How are we going to rejuvenate the Scottish public sphere to provide both a vital forum for debates about our future, and the critical beady eye over those who hold the power in forming our new political and economic inheritance?

 

Brian’s post is entitled “the print union we value”, presumably as opposed to the unions who fought for the rights of working class people and tried to tell us that Murdoch was an exploitative and poisonous bastard, the valueless luddites! This sets the tone of the post which largely coheres with McNair’s later academic work which is, and I hope I’m not being unfair here, starry-eyed neoliberal fantasy narrated by an ‘end of history’ true believer.

 

We can’t afford, according to his argument, to lose our “rich media culture”, in which our local press is nested within a national press which is in turn enriched by its position within the UK-wide newspaper milieu. Our boring, local concerns are enlivened by “being part of a larger, more cosmopolitan whole”. I can’t disagree with this, a country in which I was consigned to choose between only the Scottish papers for my news would indeed be a boring one – but in no sense does independence entail a journalistic iron curtain: if a Scottish edition of the big UK papers is viable now, who is to say it would not be viable post-Independence? Furthermore, anyone with an interest in news surely gets it from all over the place – the New York Times paywall has diminished my news experience far more than that of the London Times, news is borderless and independence would no more remove Scotland from the world of news than it would from the world of nations.

 

Neither do I recognise McNair’s description of the UK press as “exceptionally well endowed”, nor do I share his friend’s love of the red tops, which make Norway’s press look “rather insular [and] narrowly focused on the business of a small country”. I hardly need to list the vile, vindictive, reactionary and downright anti-social behaviour of these beloved red tops – who have diminished the level of political debate in this country to the standard of the scrawlings on a public toilet wall. Nor do I need to go into the distain the “UK” press has sporadically shown for the people of Scotland – from A.A. Gill’s description of “shellsuited angry men with faces like melted funeral candles”, to the scandalous harassment and groundless abuse of the Dunblane survivors by the Sunday Express.

 

I have seen the office in Holyrood, perfectly designed to allow the press to perform their watchdog role in the belly of our flourishing institutions, lying empty. The Sun and The Guardian share an office, ideological differences put aside over a tacit agreement that nobody cares what happens at Holyrood anyway. Meanwhile our national press is on the rocks, The Herald group is haemorrhaging staff and can’t afford to pay freelancers peanuts for perfectly good public interest investigative research. And the only local paper that seems to be flourishing is The Digger. The well endowed Scottish public sphere is a myth.

 

Of course, this is not an argument for independence, rather it’s a worry for those thinking beyond it. The public sphere of a small country needs newspapers focussed on the business of running it to perform an essential watchdog role, to keep an eye on the wielding of power, the formation of new institutions. To watch where the money goes, where deals are made, where a new nation is negotiated. The Scottish press at the moment, it seems to me, is simply not up to the task. The national papers are treading water, and the local papers which can stay in business are, bud for a few notable exceptions, are producing nothing but advertising copy and rehashed press releases. This is rarely a question of ethics, I must stress, and almost always a question of money (I’ll leave the ethics of money for another time!). This is a vary real concern that those thinking beyond independence are going to have to engage with.

 

So, I don’t agree with Brian that the media in Scotland is so good we must stay in the union to preserve it. Especially not that independence would lead to media stagnation as we would “no longer need to worry too much about anything other than ourselves and our local concerns north of the border” – it strikes me that as a new, small country our concerns would be more diverse than ever, that now our relations with the rest of the world were actually within our control it might be more important to think and talk about them. I think I am for independence, but worry that as things stand we would not have the media required to negotiate the transition to a democratic, participatory and vibrant political life – we need to think about how we can sort this out.

Conatact: Twitter | Cosmopolitan Scum

"Scotrail No Ticket", next stop: Barbarism

Scotland spent a fair bit of last week basking in internet self-love. Our ‘plucky little nation’ found itself trending worldwide on twitter as the good natured profanity of #hurricanebawbag won over the world. Very good. This week however, a different, altogether more troubling image of Scotland has been presented to the world in the latest viral hit, the “Scotrail No Ticket” video.

For the uninitiated (and you should really just initiate yourself here), the video documents a stand off between conductor and passenger on a busy train between Edinburgh and Perth. The young passenger appears not to have the correct ticket, and the conductor stoically, and very publically, insists he get off. The conductor channels the arguments of the other passengers: “why should they pay and you’ve no’”, they “will start moaning” the longer the train is held in the station. The young man swears a bit, but is not threatening. Our Hero enters: “want me to get him off for you”? And proceeds to manhandle the lad off the train, before violently throwing him to the platform. The Big Man re-enters the train to some scattered applause.  The train, presumably, goes on its way.

This sort of incident must happen regularly on trains across the world: a public refusal to comply with the rules of carriage, here followed by violent intervention, there with embarrassed stand off. This time however, it was posted on YouTube. The video quickly went viral and became a new ‘face’ of Scotland in the online world. A quick look at the ‘top Tweets’ in response to this public act of violence is indicative of the response: “That scotrail, no ticket video is brilliant. The fat guy is a hero”; “THE BIG MAN!! He deserved a round of applause lol”; “This is what happens when you cheat on your train ticket in #Scotland”; “It’s the Bigman!!! F*cking brilliant!!!!”; “How to step in and be a decent member of society. Gone yersel big man”. It is, in short, bourgeois blood lust.

I am not commenting on what happened on the train. What we see in the video is a stern old conductor,  a swearing youth, and a man (more than capable of overpowering him) violently throwing him off the train. We have no context, the youth could be a hoodlum or a vulnerable runaway; the Big Man could be late for his wife giving birth, or just chronically intolerant. None of this matters as none of the thousands who ‘liked’ the video know any of that either. The virtual applause, at the violent assault of a fare dodger by a member of the public, amplifies that heard on the train, and presents us with an ugly, ugly situation.

Stripped of context as the video is, what we see is an out-and-out celebration of public transport norms being enforced by mob violence. Of course most people think it is unjust for one person to get away without paying while ‘the rest of us’ do; that it is rude for the fare dodger to inconvenience ‘the rest of us’ by holding the train in the station. But that this translates so easily into a celebration of the outsider’s (because he is not ‘one of us’) violent assault is a dangerous omen for us, as a society. The fair dodger on the train is one of a number of difficult problems a permissive society must negotiate, one which pits concern over rule transgression against human sympathy, or the appreciation of difficult personal circumstances. In this case there is no thought, no negotiation, the contradiction is eliminated through violence, the carriage is cleansed of the problem of the fair dodger and the train goes on its way. 

What would a society, in which The Big Man represented decency look like? Without an appreciation of context would we stand on the side of the security guard who assaults a poor mother stealing baby milk? Would we applaud the eviction of squatters into the freezing winter night? Where would we draw the line in the use of violence to put off asking the difficult questions about what defines us, as a community?

Sometimes questions about communal live are difficult, sometimes the train just has to wait in the station while we work it out, it’s complicated. The celebration of The Big Man violently deferring the confrontation of our contractions may get the train moving, but without paying attention to where it goes, we cheer it down the track to barbarism.