Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Olympics and the two Londons: letters from Barry Sheerman and Simon Wooley

My previous post here underlined that Britain is still ferociously divided, as Disraeli once suggested, and that despite the vibrant multiracial character of London, blacks and Asians and poor whites are often looked down upon and thrown away.

Barry Sheerman, my fellow student in political sociology with Ralph Miliband at the London School of Economics long ago, sent a pointed and largely justified criticism.


I do enjoy reading so much of your output and it refreshes my memories of the time when we were both students of Ralph Milbands at the LSE, however your latest comments on the militarisation of London are nonsensical. As a politician and someone who has closely monitored the preparations for the Olympics I know only too well that the use of our armed forces came about because the largest private security in the world failed lamentably to recruit and train sufficient security personnel. If you want to criticise any organisation why not focus on G4S, shadowy kind of organisation in itself.

All Olympics require sensible security arrangements and most Londoners will not recognise the outrageous exaggeration of your posting.

Nevertheless I shall continue enjoying your output.

Barry Sheerman”

“Dear Barry,

Thank you very much for this. There is a danger in writing from far away, and I guess I fell into it. I am of course happy about a public presence - the privatization of the military in England emulating the United States is both disturbing and, in this case, feckless. There is certainly a serious need for security at the Olympics and I should have said so.

Still, how sad, in terms of the social structure of London (and not with regard to terrorists), that such preparations are needed. I should, nonetheless, have been more careful in spelling out the importance of reasonable public security for the Olympics.

Thank you for the correction (and the patience).

All the best,

Mitt Romney, who has trouble relating to ordinary human beings (breathed in too many of the fumes of being in the .001% and a Mormon leader) and tends to strike out at what he is uncertain about (remember the young man with long hair whom he and his friends assaulted), managed arrogantly to diss London, and unite many in support of the Olympics, ironically and especially the Tories. The acid comment of David Cameron about organizing for the Olympics in one of the bustling and diverse cities of the world being harder than in the “middle of nowhere” illustrates the difference between presence (too bad Cameron displays none toward poor blacks and Asians and whites) and absence of mind.

And the opening ceremony beginning from the Tempest and a poem by Blake sung angelically was lively, fast-paced, multiracial, amusingly inventive (James Bond and the Queen), not emphasizing the empire or the dark side of hierarchy, and including J.K. Rowling, the national health service, children dreaming, with quite a lot of heart, and something that anyone not a fool could take pride in.

But my post also underlined the great divide, most for black people and Asians but also for many whites (part of the 99.9%).

I also received a letter from Simon Wooley, head of Operation Black vote (the Simon mentioned by Sharon Spencer in her letter in the last post here), which underlines that the Tory minister for Race (?!) has expressed precisely nothing about inequality and the lack of a future for black (and other poor) youth in two years (a fatuousness which rivals Romney…).

One can hear in his words how the deck is stacked against poor people, particularly the young.

“Hi Alan

The climate right now is pretty awful. We have a Minister for Race, who in two years of office has made no public statement in regards any race inequality, much less the persistent and pernicious inequalities such as the criminal justice, education and employment.

Thing is we have to hold on to the belief that we can change things. The other major difficulty as NGO's is our own survival during this downturn when public and private funding of any NGO's, again much less Black ones, is at an all time low.

Thanks for your words of encouragement from across the pond.


The belief that we can change things – always difficult – is what, as Simon emphasizes, we all need (it was a central point in my writing Black Patriots and Loyalists – see here and here).

And the need to be silent about racism is socially enforced, as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown writes with regard to the acquittal of John Terry, a soccer star for Chelsea charged with racist abuse toward a fellow soccer player, grotesque (some English, not to mention Ukrainean soccer fans have also recently disgraced themselves; a sad psychological aspect of racism is that people project all their bad feelings and uncertainties about themselves onto others…). See here.

In 2010, a Tory mp who did badly on the television with Yasmin tweeted she should be stoned to death. Racism and patriarchy: this is a paradigm of viciousness and emptiness and shows something about what the contemporary Tory establishment is like. See here.

Yasmin also has a fine column on why – until “a guy named Mitt Romney” showed up as Boris Johnson, the Tory Mayor of London, put it to an audience of 80,000 Thursday, many ordinary English people found the Olympics alien, not theirs. McDonalds and Coca Cola - the grasping hands of American “global” civilization - are everywhere. Yasmin also praises Boris for a lot of good work organizing the games – though not otherwise as she indicates. But even in this case, he didn't pit one corporation against others or insist that Londoners, too, have rights. Instead, he is a sycophant of corporations.

Why aren’t English shops there? Why do police goons threaten to tear down handsome Olympic logos put up in local fabric or flower shops? What’s wrong with English pride in the Olympics and in London, as she says, this ebullient multiracial city?

Her words about why the Olympics and London are a good combo, exciting and fun, are apt. Wouldn’t it be better to have a vibrant expression of multiracial Britain, one that deals with inequality by helping the poor and not casting them away. The last post from a reader of Andrew Sullivan – rather odiously said to be “credentialed” – notes that there are Keynsian benefits to employing people for the Olympics (for instance, some 40,000 workers, mainly in construction). The work rehabilitates East London - the five hundred acres of the Olympic park itself and much, as he says, of the housing. As compared to militarism or allowing public moneys to be sucked by the .001% (the banks or through personal tax breaks), this is entirely decent expenditure.

But too bad London didn’t direct this employment mainly toward poor and black youth (what is the Minister of Race for…?). It may, however, have provided some employment: there were a group of 500 welcoming the entry of the Olympic torch into the stadium in, again, a nice touch by Danny Boyle.

In contrast, imagine a political party which had the wisdom to respond to the rebellions of last year, driven by the depression and mass unemployment, by offering a jobs program targeted at poor young people. And think then of the likely multiracial exuberance in Britain surrounding the Olympics.

That is not, however, the Tories of David Cameron (recall him spewing "criminals" at the young, who have no jobs, no future, are stopped and frisked regularly in a Britain with a big population of lifers in prison - 17% compared to 3% elsewhere on the Continent - see here) or for that matter, the Labour Party (which could have fought on this, but is also tied to the grasping elite*).

Instead, the Tories have practiced austerity (for others), strangled recovery and plunged England more deeply into depression than even in the great depression. Lucky they had the Olympics to employ some people and get them spending to offset the continuing fall…

Some of the real tale of the islands now can be seen in Richard Marshall's fierce review - "His Bleak Interregnum" at 3:AM magazine of Owen Hatherley's A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys through Urban Britain here.

That the vibrancy of London has been suppressed by Tory harming of the life chances of poor people – no jobs, police harassment and murder, joint enterprise, privatization of prisons and the like – and as Yasmin testifies in addition, by government lackeydom to and hawking of Coca Cola and McDonald’s – good to have the narcissistic Romney to take out some frustration on, but it should plainly also be directed at the mega-corporations who dominated Boris in negotiations and sent Mitt - is sad.


Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The Games are here, but they don't belong to us

Only a fool would say the modern Games don’t need big bucks and big names

All last week I was a panellist on The Wright Stuff on Channel 5, a daily morning programme a full two hours long. Its presenter Matthew Wright engages the common man and woman, harvesting and challenging their opinions and feelings about life, culture and politics. The viewers, sharp, sensitive, smart, come from sectors of society largely disregarded by the elite. On Wednesday, Mr Wright asked why the London Olympics weren't firing up really big excitement across Britain. Why were people less upbeat than during the Jubilee? Where were our nation's fluttering flags? Was it celebration fatigue? The recession? Just native grumpiness? The phone lines were set alight, emails and tweets arrived as thick as rush-hour traffic.

One consensus to emerge was that the Games didn't feel truly, deeply, crazily British. The Jubilee, for them, was all that and more, an affirmation of their history and identity. I thought it perverse that they should celebrate a bunch of privileged freeloaders born to lord it over them, but not a festival of superhuman excellence achieved through ambition and skill. But as more responses came in the real reasons became clearer. They were proud that sports heroes were going to be showcased in Britain, but hated the oppressive logos of the big corporate sponsors, the biggest and brashest of them American. Most of us panellists agreed. Our island seems to be subcontracted to the US for the Olympics, without our consent, not good in a democracy. Welcome to the Coca-Cola and McDonald's Olympics – those legendary purveyors of healthy food and drink. Resistance to them is surely a patriotic duty. One thing we could all do is refuse to drink Coke or eat Ronnie's burgers and avoid buying the stuff of other backers until after the Games. But best check. Maybe such boycotts would be a crime in today's sell-out Britain.

Somewhere near Queensway in London on Saturday night we saw a fabric shop window with a gorgeous display using the Olympic symbol of the five rings. I won't tell you where because the "brand enforcers" will dash over and shred the hanging mobile. As this paper reported last Saturday, florists have been forced to remove arrangements rejoicing in the Games, cafes ordered not to refer to the torch or arrange bagels in seditious ways to replicate the official circles, and other shops obliged to remove even the smallest, sweetest symbol of the fact that their country is hosting the Games and they are proud. One email I had from an East Ender said the jackboots were even in the street markets looking for rebels to catch and fine. Even Michael Payne, the man responsible for Olympic business partnerships, says control has gone too far. Yet Seb Coe is cool about it all and told Evan Davis on Radio 4 that those attending events would not be allowed to wear T-shirts of rival brand names, as if that was just fine and no big deal. Although he has since recanted over this, it is cheek and crypto-Stalinism and the people don't like it one bit.

Now to be fair, I think Coe and Boris have done brilliantly to build the stadium on time and within budget, with all the incredibly complicated planning that goes into such events. Danny Boyle for the opening was an inspired choice and the Cultural Olympiad is truly inclusive and magnificent. I have never knowingly praised Boris before, can't stand his politics, manipulative charm, kinship with big money and adventures with women. His dad Stanley once told me off for being relentlessly critical of his terrific son. Today though I do salute Boris's verve and audacity, his style and infectious enthusiasm which have no doubt lifted the Games even before they take off. London is the metropolis of the world, brighter and buzzier than New York, Mumbai, Paris or any other capital. That it will be illuminated in all its glory over the coming weeks, God willing. And pray there are no bombs and riots to ruin those hopes.

But I still say, for many Brits the Games feel wrong, alien, representing corporate power over the most wholesome endeavours of humanity. And here Boris et al are to blame, absolutely. Only a fool would say the modern Games don't need big bucks and big names. Athletes rent out their chests and backs and heads to brands. Official sponsors were determined, possibly desperate, to get their names up during the Olympics. The 2012 organisers didn't have to be willing harlots. They could have bargained, set their own limits, made space for British small businesses and innovative local schemes, played one lot off against the other, and not accepted the conditions imposed by partners. But then Boris can never say no to billionaire business opportunities. They take our cash and now the Games have been taken from us and London has been too. Maybe next the medals should have sponsor logos on them. That would end the sham that these Games still simply honour physical endurance and skill, the body and spirit.


Andrew Sullivan
The Daily Dish
Olympic Angst, Ctd

A credentialed reader pushes back:

I'm someone who spends every day confronting the cost-benefit argument for the Olympics. The $17bn figure from the public accounts committee includes a lot of folded-in costs. For instance, the extra troops assigned for security were still going to have to be paid; it's just that now that's a line-item for Olympic cost because of how they've been assigned. It's a big number, sure. But a more accurate analysis would look at marginal costs, not just bottom-line costs.

Also, the economic impact shouldn't be measured in the short-term stimulus. Preparations for the Games meant 40,000 people were hired or kept in work, most of them in construction, which is always particularly hard-hit during economic downturns. The regeneration of East London includes turning the Athletes' Village into 11,000 new homes - 3,500 of them meeting affordable housing criteria. The International Broadcast Centre will become retail and commercial space after the Games. Westfield Shopping Center is one of the largest malls in Europe. Improvements to infrastructure - especially transport and high-speed internet - are attracting new business to East London (see Tech City for the primary example).

There's no doubt the Games are expensive. But the headline number doesn't tell an accurate story, and the long-term benefits are nearly impossible to put a monetary value on right now.


*The policies of the .001% are everywhere and increasingly loathsome and counterproductive. There is no more talk of Horatio Algers in America (that is for the now capitalist Chinese "communist" party to proclaim: the rich show the way for each, they say, a Chinese exchange student who is staying with us, told me this week). For a long time, in the advanced countries, revolution seemed distant. But as the emergence of Occupy and the indignados and the struggles in Greece show, the wherewithal to make revolution is unclear and the vision beyond securing a greater and more decent community imprecise, but the need is growing by the day. Would, in terms of common wellbeing, that London itself realized the vision of the Olympic opening ceremony and would that powerful people in Britain and elsewhere remembered the notion of a common good...

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