Tackling inequalities, the comfortable way

Lse_initials

‘Tackle’ is one of my least favourite verbs—maybe not when it’s applied on the rugby field, but certainly when it’s used with abstract nouns and intractable social problems. This struck me a while ago when I read a career summary that mentioned the author’s professional experience of ‘tackling child poverty’. As I started writing this blog post I came across another example: a poster from the Glasgow Council on Alcohol, ‘tackling the misuse of alcohol’.

But what really made me start thinking about the way this word is used was the announcement, a couple of months back, of a £64.4m grant by The Atlantic Philanthropies to the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The purpose of this enormous grant is to endow a fellowships programme, running over twenty years, ‘to support leaders tackling inequalities’. It’s been bothering me ever since.

‘Tackling’. It sounds manly, purposeful. It summons up sporting images: the attacker rushes forward with the ball, the defender stops them short with one effective tackle. It’s guff.

What does ‘tackle’ mean, in this kind of context? ‘Making a good living out of’, perhaps, like the civil servants who work for the UK government’s Child Poverty Unit. Or perhaps not, because it’s not clear from its own website whether this unit is still functioning. The CPU set about ‘tackling the causes of disadvantage and transforming families’ lives’ with a 2011 strategy, aiming ‘to tackle poverty’—that’s a lot of tackling—‘by strengthening families and providing support to the most vulnerable’. But the CPU’s homepage hasn’t been updated in three years: a new strategy, it says, ‘will be published in 2014’. And despite all this resolute tackling, child poverty in Britain has steadily worsened since 2011. So perhaps ‘tackle’ means ‘do nothing to hinder’. (The Glasgow Council on Alcohol says it’s been tackling the misuse of alcohol for fifty years: you don’t have to spend long walking around the city to see how effective it’s been.)
Glasgow Council on Alcohol

Now, as it happens, the worst child poverty rates in the UK are not in Glasgow, where I live, or in the most deprived local authority areas of England, like Blackpool: they’re in London. Of the 20 local authorities with the highest rates of child poverty, 14 are in London (pdf; figures for late 2014). London is a highly unequal city: if it’s housed at LSE, a project that aims to ‘tackle inequalities’ can find plenty on its doorstep.

But everything about this project, from the press release on, suggests that ‘tackle’ here is more likely to mean ‘reproduce’, if not ‘structurally reinforce’.

All publicity is good publicity, as long as it reproduces social hierarchy

Let’s start with the press release, and the very obvious inequalities that it manifests. It names, and quotes, the co-directors of the International Inequalities Institute, who will run the new fellowships programme: two middle-aged white men. It names, and quotes, the director of LSE: a middle-aged white man. It names, and quotes, the CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation that’s endowed the programme: a middle-aged white man. Then it gives contact details for the corporate communications and PR staff at the LSE and Atlantic who are meant to field any enquiries that the press release might generate: two younger white women at the LSE and one younger Iranian-American man at Atlantic.* It doesn’t quote any of these three, though, as they’re not in positions of power. So the press release for a programme ‘tackling inequalities’ itself reproduces fundamental inequalities of gender, race, age, and class, without a thought for how that looks. Only the privileged can be so thoughtless.

In fact, the press release doesn’t even mention anyone who’s at the sharp end of inequality, the end where most people in the US and the UK, let alone the world, actually live. They’re not people: they’re a set of abstract problems, ‘inequalities’. People might have politics, a word that’s also missing from the press release.

Now, I’m a white man working at a big, old university; not quite middle-aged yet, but pushing 40. Obviously I like to think that I’m a decent sort of chap. But on all those spectrums of gender, race, age, and class, I’m on the side that’s doing nicely out of inequality. So I have to admit that if anyone who really wanted to ‘tackle inequality’ came looking for me, they’d be carrying a hook and a length of rope, not a £64.4m grant.

For he that hath, to him shall be given

Then there’s the fellowship programme’s host institution, the London School of Economics and Political Science. By British standards, if not by American ones, the LSE is a wealthy institution. The size of its endowment is a good measure of that (for reasons explained in this blog post).

Only two British universities have endowments of over a billion pounds: Cambridge and Oxford, as you’d expect. (They’re both well clear of a billion, in fact, respectively close to £6 billion and around £4.25 billion). Most universities in Britain have endowments that are a tiny fraction of that, from a few thousand pounds—basically operating off annual teaching, research, and commercial income—to £25 million. As of 2015, ten UK universities had endowments of £25–50 million, and nine of £50–100 million. Apart from Oxbridge, only eight universities had endowments of over £100 million: Edinburgh and Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, and four institutions in the University of London system: King’s, UCL, Imperial… and the LSE, whose ranking in this table (the impressively well-documented Wikipedia page listing UK universities by endowment**) will presumably rise sharply in 2016: this one grant will increase it by more than half.

640px-LSE_main_entranceAnd LSE is considerably richer than it appears from a simple mine’s-bigger-than-yours comparison of endowment size. First, it is much smaller than any of the other institutions in the top ten: far fewer students, far fewer staff.⁂ So LSE’s considerable endowment is spread rather thicker. Second, unlike the rest of these universities, which cover a broad range of subjects from medicine to medieval history, LSE is—as its name suggests—a specialist institution. It covers a relatively narrow set of subjects, mostly in the social sciences. Its endowment isn’t needed to fund the acquisition of supercomputers, advanced laboratory equipment, or expensive library books in the biomedical sciences.

In the extremely unequal landscape of UK higher education, then, LSE is very privileged. Within the school, other inequalities are also reproduced: gender distribution of academic staff, for example, is ‘similar to levels seen across the sector’ (pdf; see fig. 13)—ie, highly unequal, with under 40% being women. (How that distribution breaks down at different levels of seniority is not clear.) Located as it is in the middle of one of the world’s most expensive cities, LSE probably disproportionately attracts students from a background of high household income, though that figure isn’t so easy to find.‡

Is this a problem? The forces that create these inequalities are way beyond the LSE’s control. But if I had £64.4m and I wanted to spend it on tackling inequalities, I wouldn’t start at the LSE—unless I was giving it to the cleaners.†

For ‘tackle’, read ‘structurally reinforce’

The details of the grants programme are no more reassuring. “The 20-year fellowship initiative”, according to the press release, “will train the next generation of leaders seeking to influence and facilitate changes in global policy and practice to enable greater equality, opportunity and outcomes for all. It is expected that well over 600 Atlantic Fellows will be developed across geographic and disciplinary boundaries over the duration of the programme.”

There are two problems here. The first is the absolute refusal to acknowledge that ‘inequality’ is the outcome of political choices, economic exploitation, or social structures: is something that people with power do to other people. If you saw an angry man choking a child, you wouldn’t seek to facilitate changes in his behaviour to enable greater opportunities for that child to breathe. This degree of abstraction would be laughable if it weren’t so disgraceful.

The second problem is the focus is on ‘leaders’. The press release continues:

“Aimed at academics, activists, policy-makers, journalists, lawyers, health professionals, cultural leaders, writers and creative artists, the Atlantic Fellows programme has been designed with the flexibility to offer different levels of engagement in order to create and continue to support an international community of diverse multidisciplinary and action-oriented leaders.”

Even in Britain, a wealthy country where participation in two world wars resulted in several decades of social democracy within living memory, every single one of these different fields is highly unequal, and disproportionately dominated by the privileged. Academia is the example I know best: it’s not the worst, but it’s pretty bad. The further up the hierarchy you go from first-year undergraduate to endowed professor to vice-chancellor, the fewer state-educated people you find; the fewer women you find; the fewer people of colour you find. The same in politics, journalism, law, medicine, the creative arts. So a fellows programme aimed at people in these sectors will, from the start and by design, disproportionately benefit privately-educated white men. This is a global programme, so the precise complexion of privilege will vary according to the hierarchies in place in the countries from which fellows are recruited. But it’s the privileged who’ll benefit most. There’s no evidence that the institute has even considered a strategy to offset this.

In other words, a programme intended to ‘tackle’ inequalities has been set up in such a way that it will simply reproduce them. Note the words of LSE Director, Craig Calhoun: “This remarkable grant will enable LSE’s new International Inequalities Institute to scale up faster, join students and researchers across departmental lines, and prepare generations of engaged practitioners to have an even more profound impact.” The prime beneficiary of the multi-million pound grant tackling inequalities, in other words, is the LSE’s new academic institute itself. The intended outcome is for that institute ‘to scale up faster’. And what, precisely, will that do to limit, moderate, reduce, or—God help us—end inequality?

 

* I guessed the ethnicity from his surname, and confirmed it by looking him up online. As an Iranian-American, he’s ‘Caucasian’ by the US census categories, though I wouldn’t want to second-guess his life experiences; he’s certainly the closest to a person of colour mentioned in this document.

** The 405 references for this page (as at 18 August 2016)  are almost all directly to universities’ own financial statements. University press offices would edit the information if it were incorrect.

⁂ The others all have between twenty and forty thousand students, except Imperial, which has under 17,000 students. But that’s still more than half as big again as LSE, with its 10,600 students. (These figures are from 2014/15.) These other comparably wealthy universities also have at least twice as many academic staff as LSE—most have three, four, five times as many.

† LSE offers bursaries of up to £4,000/year to UK and EU students from lower-income households, but its 2015 ‘Context Statistics’ document doesn’t give a breakdown of students by household income. If the Higher Education Statistics Agency collects such information, it doesn’t make it easily available on its website either.

Click images for source.
LSE Old Building picture credit: Umezo Kamata (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pogo with the Quo

I’ve never done an oral history interview, though I keep meaning to start. But the other night, on a ten-minute taxi ride home from a concert, I got an informal bit of oral history.Jim MacNeary, Glasgow Apollo

As soon as he heard I’d been at a gig, the driver began reminiscing about gigs he’d been to himself, especially as a young man in the seventies and eighties. The venue he talked about most was the Glasgow Apollo, which closed in 1985—he’d seen several gigs there, the first of them Status Quo in the 1970s. The ticket for that one, he said, cost £1.50, and when a friend heard that he was going he said “I hope you’re not in the upper balcony!” But he was indeed in the upper balcony, and when he got there he understood why his friend had said that: it was perilously steep and high, and when people started dancing down at the front of it it felt as if the whole thing was shaking. There were bouncers, he said, going up and down the aisles at rock gigs like that, but if you watched the bouncers in the upper circle you’d notice that they didn’t go all the way down to the rows closest to the stage: from the doors at the top, they’d walk down the stairs of the aisle as far as about five rows up, then stop.

Pink with gold trimThis was a conversation in a taxi: I didn’t take notes, and I’m only getting round to writing this a few weeks later. But the internet being the internet, checking a few details and learning more was easy. The Apollo opened as Green’s Playhouse cinema in 1927—the largest in Europe, according to this website about Scottish cinemas, seating 4,368 (!), and with a ballroom above the auditorium too. You wouldn’t have guessed this from the pavement in front of the building on Renfield Street, where the entrance was set in a row of shops with offices above them (all part of the same building), but going inside must have been like entering another world. A pretty lurid world, too: I don’t know what the colour scheme was in 1927, but when the building was operating as a concert venue between 1973 and 1985 much of the interior was painted in shocking two-tone pink with gold trim.

How this looked under normal lighting, I’m not sure. This is one of a series of photos taken as the building was demolished, in 1987, after a fire had left it strucurally unsafe. Or perhaps that should be even more structurally unsafe: the building’s structural problems were apparently the reason why it was closed two years earlier.

The Apollo had a reputation as the best rock venue in Britain, and ‘the Quo’ loved it—they played there seven times in a single year (1976), a record for the venue, and their three concerts that December were used for recording a live album. I wonder if it was one of these gigs that I heard about from the chap whose taxi I was riding in: if so, he’d have been entitled to one of these stickers:

Quo_Live76_Fixed

That formidable reputation may explain why the online forum devoted to its memory has had nearly ten million visitors. It also figures heavily on the discussion boards of other forums, about Glasgow or about bands who played there. So anyone who wanted to do a proper oral history project about it would find it easy to recruit interviewees. As I did a brief skim of the internet to write this post, a few questions sprang to mind. Was the Apollo’s reputation justified—and if so, why? It wasn’t just a rock venue, but that’s what it’s most famous for: the names most immediately associated with it by Google are Status Quo, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, AC/DC… and this picture of fans at an AC/DC concert makes it look like a bit of a boys’ club, as does the painting at the top of this post. So what was the gender history of the Apollo? In the mid-century heyday of the Glasgow dance halls, these were mixed (that was the whole point of them): was it all sweaty boys later in the century? The cutaway architectural plan shows kitchen, offices, an art room, though whether these were still in operation in the ‘Apollo years’ or dated from the time of Green’s Playhouse I don’t know. Still: what was it like to work at the Apollo, in the box office, backstage, or as a bouncer?

A bit more time on the internet, though, revealed that someone has recently completed a PhD about this: Kenny Forbes, now teaching at the University of the West of Scotland. He ran a blog about the project, and his thesis, You had to be there? Reflections on the ‘legendary’ status of the Glasgow Apollo theatre (1973-85), is available on the e-theses site of my own institution. (It’s been downloaded over 200 times since it was submitted less than a year ago: more evidence that the old ‘no-one reads PhD theses’ claim is nonsense.) So if a student ever asks me about doing their dissertation on this, they’ll have to come up with an original angle of their own.

Playhouse cutawayAnd what about the balcony? The Wikipedia page on the Apollo is on the brief side, but claims that the balcony was ‘designed and built so that it would move up and down’. I’m dubious about this: for a concert venue that might make sense, but for an auditorium designed as a cinema? Kenny Forbes expressed similar doubts on his blog, having heard the claim in several places but found no evidence to support it. He posted some architectural plans and asked if any readers could help: I’ll need to read the thesis to find out if he got any answers. But no-one is in any doubt that it moved, alarmingly. The bouncers were right to take care.

Click images for sources, which aren’t always properly sourced themselves.
The  painting at the top is by Jim MacNeary, sourced from Kenny Forbes’s blog.

This post is for my uncle Phil,
who loved knowing about music and buildings in a city’s history.

 

17 years again

More or Less, camp image

Last week someone tweeted a link to my post about the average length of stay in a refugee camp to the BBC radio programme More or Less, which investigates numbers that are in the news. The “17 years” statistic is exactly the kind of thing they like to get their teeth into.

I duly got a message from the producer, and went into the BBC Scotland studios here in Glasgow for an interview earlier this week. The programme was broadcast on the World Service last night—you can listen to it here.

The image is borrowed from the More or Less programme page (click for link),
and I’m quite pleased that it’s not an aerial view:
An Afghan woman carries laundry in a refugee camp in Malakasa.
Credit: Milos Bicanski / Getty

Twilight of the saints

Vale of Nablus 1890s

This is a book review I wrote for the American Historical Review, which I’m republishing here with permission (and some pictures). A full citation for the published review follows at the end. As ever, I’m struck by how the formal tone of an academic review jars in the context of a blog, but there it is.

JAMES GREHAN. Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. x, 341. $74.00.

In 1747, when a plague of locusts threatened the harvest, the Ottoman governor of Damascus dispatched a delegation of Sufis to an enchanted spring in Persia. The water they drew there, carried carefully back to Syria, would lure a magical black bird – the samarmar – to consume the locusts. Their return was greeted with parades and popular celebration.

Well of the Samaritan 1890s
The Samaritan’s Well, Nablus, 1890s

The bird never appeared. But the fact that everyone thought it would, including Ottoman state officials and urban religious elites, is the starting point for James Grehan’s richly detailed historical ethnography of everyday religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. Grehan argues that histories of religion, especially in the Middle East, have focused excessively on textual traditions. They have overemphasized the salience of religious difference in everyday life, and the ability of religious institutions (the main generators and guardians of textual sources) to determine everyday religious practice. Attempts to go beyond this by studying “popular religion” have only helped up to a point: the dichotomy between “popular” and official religion still grants normative status to text-based orthodoxies, and cannot account for the prevalence of “popular” practices among educated urban elites.

Grehan sets out to offer a more nuanced account of what he terms “agrarian religion”: everyday religious practice in a predominantly rural and illiterate society, where “even the towns” – and their literate elites – “were sunk in an essentially agrarian milieu” (15). His local and western sources include topographies, travel narratives, memoirs, and (for the later part of the period) Ottoman statistical surveys. The scholar and Sufi Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (1641–1731), whose writings figure often, is a particularly genial guide.

Nablus, new mosque 1940
The new mosque at Nablus, 1940

Common to all religious traditions in Ottoman Syria and Palestine was a weak infrastructure of sacred buildings and educated personnel outside the towns. Ottoman state surveys from the late nineteenth century show that mosques, churches, and synagogues, ulama, priests, and rabbis were all concentrated in towns; where villages had them, they were large ones like Jenin or were close to larger towns. Having established the weakness of institutional religion, Grehan explores the everyday religious life of the population through five thematic chapters looking at saints, tombs, sacred landscapes, the spirits that haunted the land, and the magic of blood and prayer. The chapters focus on the countryside, but return often to the towns and cities whose own religious culture was profoundly connected to that of the rural hinterland. Sunni Islam provides the richest body of evidence for Grehan’s account, but there are frequent references to other Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities. These furnish ample material to support his argument that the lines of sectarian difference, however sharply defined in normative religious texts, were blurred to the point of indistinctness in daily life.

Saints, living and dead, were venerated by everyone. It was not uncommon for a holy man to be revered beyond his own faith community: Christians as well as Muslims would stop to kiss the hand of Ali al-Umari, a renowned Sufi in nineteenth-century Tripoli (63). In a landscape where religious buildings were rare outside towns, the tombs of saints provided a focus for religious practice, both as social institutions – places of sanctuary or mediation – and sites for worship. Different religious traditions often shared the same sites, though they sometimes disagreed over the attribution of the tomb, and even educated townsmen like al-Nabulsi saw no contradiction in reporting uncertainty over the identity of a tomb’s resident saint while praying at the site. Tombs were important in towns, too, like the shrine of Ibn al-Arabi in Damascus: there was no doubt about the identity of the person venerated there, though the actual site shifted over time (113).

Joseph's tomb 1930s
Joseph’s Tomb, Nablus, in the 1930s

Tombs belonged to a sacred landscape where stones, caves, springs, and trees were also imbued with religious meaning. Caves often became the nucleus of a church or mosque; saints’ shrines often featured holy trees, but whether the tomb or the tree was the original focus of veneration remains moot. Sacred sites generated scriptural justifications to domesticate them within one tradition or another, but nature itself was “more compelling than scripture” (116). The spirits that haunted these landscapes were familiar to all: talismans, charms, or icons could mediate human interactions with them, and dreams and visions grant more direct access to a spirit realm. Blood sacrifice and prayer offered ways of gaining saintly intercession, and not just for peasants at the limits of the state’s reach: when the Beirut–Damascus railroad was opened in 1895, “religious officials presided . . . with the usual sacrifices” (174).

Agrarian religion “pervaded everyday piety, paid only lip service to orthodoxy, and casually embraced customs and beliefs that had no warrant in scripture or law” (165). Grehan’s argument for dispensing with notions of “popular” religion is persuasive; his argument against the salience of sectarian divisions deserves to be taken seriously, too, particularly in public rather than historiographical debate, though in regard to the latter, more explicit engagement with recent scholarship on sectarianism (189 n. 126) would have been welcome. There are other points of criticism: Grehan argues that agrarian religion’s “immense stability” also permitted “discreet adaptation and invention” (16), but – because he explicitly decides not to reconstruct these patterns of change – the picture presented here is one of timelessness, though it covers two and a half centuries. Gender is not considered in any depth, nor is the survival into the present (as I have witnessed myself) of many of the beliefs and practices Grehan describes. On the editorial side, a list of images would have made the fine illustrations more accessible.

Nonetheless, this is an evocative, thought-provoking, and richly textured work. Grounded in the comparative history of religion as well as the history of the Middle East, it deserves a place on a wide range of postgraduate and advanced undergraduate reading lists.

Joseph's tomb pre-1914
Joseph’s Tomb, this time in the 1890s

Click images for links to originals,
which are all from the Library of Congress

JAMES GREHAN. Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. 
Benjamin Thomas White
The American Historical Review 2015 120 (5): 1996-1997
doi: 10.1093/ahr/120.5.1996a
http://ahr.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/120.5.1996a?ijkey=lB62zajCmBMpqUJ&keytype=ref

Glasgow 1980

1 External corridor, Maxwell Oval

When I was offered (and immediately accepted) my current job, I sent a text message to a friend with the news: Lifelong Belle & Sebastian Fan Gets Job In Glasgow Shock. So when the band themselves played a home-town gig last May, I was quick to get myself a ticket. It was also a chance to see the inside of the SSE Hydro, the recently built enormodrome I cycle past on my way to and from work: Glasgow is surely the only city in the world where Belle & Sebastian could hope to (mostly) fill a 13,000-seater arena where you’re more likely to find Miley Cyrus or World Wrestling Entertainment than gentle art-pop.*

After the support act had finished, Stuart Murdoch’s voice came over the speakers and announced that before the band came on they were going to show a film called ‘Glasgow 1980’, and inviting us to watch it if we liked, or ignore it and just mill about if we preferred.

This is a film for people, about the city they live in—how the city is changing for the people.

At the time, I thought I was the only person in the audience who actually watched it.

Glasgow 1980 was produced in 1971 for the city corporation, by a company called Ogam Films. It’s about the twenty-year transformation of Glasgow after 1960, and presents a startlingly intense vision of where that road—and it was a road—was meant to lead. The process was traumatic :

Between 1960 and 1970, fifty-two thousand houses were demolished in Glasgow.

2 IMG_20160130_133052616

But the film is in no doubt that all this was necessary for a city in a steep spiral of deindustrialization: ‘It had to change’, the narrator declares.

For a locally-made publicity film for the city corporation’s urban regeneration programme, Glasgow 1980 is a remarkably powerful document. That’s partly because of the team that made it: Oscar Marzaroli, the director (and co-founder of the production company), was one of Scotland’s foremost photographers, while the editor, Bill Forsyth, became a director himself, famous for Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero. The music, by local guitarist Iain McHaffie, is also quite something. (It’s harder to find information about McHaffie online, but someone else who was struck by the music for this film had a go.) You can listen to the main theme on YouTube, and you can watch the whole film here, on the website of the Scottish Screen Archive. It’s half an hour long, though it didn’t feel like that when I was watching it at the Hydro. At least, not to me.7 Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 22.20.32

For anyone familiar with Glasgow’s history since the early 1970s, the film’s confident optimism—not to say arrogance—about the process of transformation would strike many ironic chords. The radical solutions to the city’s ills proposed by the corporation and celebrated in the documentary created plenty of new problems, some of which were already visible by the time Marzaroli filmed it and remain with us today.

4 IMG_20160130_133442485_HDRThe area I live in features in the film, for a few seconds (starting at 4’49”). The medium-rise flats that were then newly built are a block away from where I live, in a 1905 tenement building of the sort that were being knocked down in their hundreds in the Gorbals and other nearby neighbourhoods. After I (at last!) got a smartphone a few weeks ago, I took some photos as I went past one morning—the pictures illustrating this post.

With their overhead connecting bridges at the second and fifth storey and long external corridors (see top of post), they’re reminiscent of the ‘streets in the sky’ at Park Hill in Sheffield, built in 1957-61. On the satellite view in Google Maps you see them from above as two T shapes connected at the base by a long bar, T__T. But the left-hand T is no longer there. It was knocked down over the winter. The ragged edges are visible where the skyways from the demolished building met the block that’s still standing, and as I walked down Maxwell Drive I came across the pile of rubble that remains.

3 IMG_20160130_133707966

A friend who’s doing a research project on this part of town (and who took some almost identical photos when she walked past recently…) tells me that the demolished blocks will be replaced by new flats—plenty have sprouted around the place in the last decade or two. You could be forgiven for thinking that the new flats will look like this:

6 IMG_20160224_171154871_HDR

Only on closer inspection do you realize these sharply-attired new flats facing the drab brown ones across St Andrews Drive are part of the same development, but have been given a thorough makeover. They look almost identical in the aerial photo from Google Maps (another T, this one with half its crossbar missing, in the top right hand corner). But from street level the renewed façade and the beech saplings are a good disguise—it’s the overhead walkways linking the two blocks that are the real giveaway:

5 IMG_20160224_171142127_HDR

The other blocks appear to be staying where they are; perhaps they’ll get a refurb like the above. The squat tower blocks that line the railway just to the north—along the top of the aerial photo, and marching on further west—have had a similar refit: I didn’t recognize them in Glasgow 1980 until I rewatched some of it for this post (the camera pans round to them at 05’00″–05’03”). The groovy purple lights that shine softly down from them after nightfall are a signal that we’re nearing home when I’m on the train back from a bikeride in Ayrshire or on Arran on a winter’s afternoon, always slightly depressing because we pass within 250m of my house but the train doesn’t stop till Glasgow Central, a mile and a half away.

Ogam Films recorded a lot of footage for a sequel to Glasgow 1980, entitled Glasgow’s Progress—but production was halted in 1978, according to the Scottish Screen Archive, as ‘there seemed to be no end to the urban renewal in sight’. Meanwhile, in 1980 the Magnum photographer Raymond Depardon was commissioned by the Sunday Times to visit Glasgow. (He’d recently done a reportage from Beirut.) They never published his pictures, but some of them featured in a 2013 retrospective at the Grand Palais. They sparked enough interest, among Depardon’s photos from Lebanon, Latin America or Ethiopia, that they’ve now been released in a book published in France and Britain (and with a short text in French and English) by Seuil. It’s a brilliant collection, but it’s not the 1980 that Marzaroli’s film promised.

8 852597-the-crying-child-photo-raymond-depardon-magnum

(If you want to see more of the photos before you decide to shell out for the book, several newspapers in Britain and France ran stories/image galleries, including Libération and the Scotsman—or you can see them all on the Magnum website.)

Meanwhile, it looks like I wasn’t the only person watching Glasgow 1980 at that concert last year. A new short film has just been made, (Re)Imagining Glasgow, which takes its inspiration from Marzaroli’s film. It mixes some of the footage recorded for the unfinished follow-up with footage from Glasgow today, still unfinished as it is. It was premiered as part of the Glasgow Short Film Festival the Sunday before Easter, and I’d love to say that I saw it—but, having travelled back from Liverpool that morning specially, I only got back to Glasgow just in time to get there a minute or two before showtime. On a sunny spring afternoon, I found myself standing in the longest queue I’ve ever seen at the GFT, and when I got to the head of it the tickets were long since sold out, even though the film (and accompanying panel discussion) had been moved into screen 1, the big auditorium. It’s good to know that that many people care, that much, about the remaking of Glasgow. I hope they’re not getting too many ideas though.

9 Stanley St
Meanwhile, just on the other side of the motorway…

 

Images all by me except the Google Maps aerial view
and the Depardon photo. Click that one for source;
otherwise, they’re CC-BY so feel free to use them,
with attribution and without alteration

*Cycling past before the Miley concert, the streets were full of excited girls and young women in ‘Twerk It!’ t-shirts walking and talking in happy groups. Cycling past as the wrestling let out, they were full of utterly psyched nine-year-old boys and their equally wild-eyed dads. It was terrifying.

Images of refugee camps, part 1: aerial views

This is the first in a series of posts about images of refugee camps. For three earlier posts about images of refugees, click here, here, and here.

1 Zaatari Refugee Camp, Dezeen

You’ve already seen this photo, or one like it. It’s Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, home to a large (though fluctuating) population of Syrian refugees—about 80,000 at the time of writing, according to the UNHCR data portal’s page on the camp, though it’s been higher. At the moment, Zaatari is probably the most famous refugee camp in the world, though there are many that are older, or bigger, or both. Politicians, diplomats, celebrities, and tourists visit it, and so do many, many journalists. That’s one of the reasons why I say that you’ve already seen this photo, or one like it: if you pay even the slightest bit of attention to the news media, your eyes have passed over an aerial view of Zaatari in the last few years. The hi-res image above (if you do right-click ‘view image’ you can zoom in, it’s impressive) is from the design website Dezeen, but there are others all over the internet. Look:

2 Zaatari BBC
BBC
3 Zaatari CNN
CNN (same picture)
4 Zaatari Metro
Metro (same picture, uncropped, at much higher resolution)
Mideast Jordan US Kerry
Business Insider, Australia (different picture but same photographer; also impressively hi-res)
6 Zaatari Mirror
The Mirror

I could go on, and on. This MailOnline story is more of an image gallery, with six pictures of the camp, five of them aerial views. UNHCR itself tweets pictures like this:

7 Zaatari UNHCR
‘It started off as a few tents in the desert’

In other posts on this blog I’ve written about visual tropes of refugees: ways of seeing refugees that recur again and again across time and space, making very different groups of people in all sorts of places look more or less the same—making them look like ‘refugees’, in fact. There are some technical reasons why photos of groups of refugees look so similar, to do with the equipment photographers use and the format requirements of the news media where their pictures are (or have been) reproduced. But the choices that photographers and picture editors make are more important.

If there are standard ways of picturing refugees, the same is true for refugee camps—and one of them, as we see, is to look down from above. What are all these aerial views trying to do?

The answer depends on where they’re being used. In the news media, it’s striking how often stories about refugee camps, or even just about refugees, start with a bird’s-eye view of a camp. Here’s one of Dadaab, from a recent article in the Toronto Star:

10 Dadaab, Toronto Star

That article is actually about a new book on Dadaab, the camp in Kenya whose residents could virtually trademark the words ‘The World’s Largest Refugee Camp’. It’s by Ben Rawlence, and based on extensive reportage. But although the book focuses on individuals, the news story starts with an aerial photograph. The Telegraph, publishing a lengthy extract from the book, gives a more varied set of images—but it includes an aerial view too:

11 Dadaab, Telegraph

Aerial views certainly help to communicate a sense of the scale of a camp like Zaatari or Dadaab. They back up statements about such camps’ sheer size: the Mirror piece about Zaatari, which is from a year ago (30 Jan 2015), observes that in population the camp is ‘virtually the same size’ as the British town of Stevenage, and had been considerably bigger at its peak. Reports, image galleries, and UNHCR tweets alike cite population figures; most of them also mention that the camp is one of the biggest ‘cities’ in Jordan. In fact, when they’re used to illustrate pieces like this, aerial views of refugee camps are one element of a journalistic shorthand, telling the reader what to expect. With a picture, a handy stat, and a factoid (albeit a volatile one: ‘the 3rd/5th/9th biggest city in Jordan’), the scene is set—we’re in a refugee camp.

Such shorthand always leaves me uneasy. Rather than start with a person and a story, it establishes from the start that the story has nothing to do with the reader—this is a different world, one where refugees rather than people live. The occasional relatable fact (‘Crikey, it’s as big as Stevenage!’) doesn’t so much bridge this distance as emphasise it. Sometimes the choice of image runs counter to the story: the BBC story introduced by the picture above is actually about an individual, Mohamed Harib, attempting to run a small business in Zaatari. But just as often, the story itself remains as distant from the people in the camp as the photographer.

Once you notice this, you see it frequently. One example is the Mail Online piece linked above. It’s mostly images: five aerial views of Zaatari, one picture of people at the camp gate, and a map of the Syrian-Jordanian border. What text there is follows US Secretary of State John Kerry on a visit to the camp in July 2013. There are five aerial views of the camp, but it only quotes one person who lives there.

The first photo in this post was taken on that same visit, in fact. As the Mail mentions, while Kerry was visiting Zaatari he took a helicopter flight over the camp: the State Department released this picture from it on its Flickr site. Issued by the US federal government, it is in the public domain, which is why Dezeen also used it. (Wikipedia uses the same photo.)  Tellingly, on Flickr the State Department calls this a ‘close-up view’ of the camp.*

Still, at least Kerry visited the camp itself and spoke to people living there. Compare this with another story about refugee camps, and another set of aerial views, on Quartz.com:

8 Dadaab, Dagaheley - Quartz
DigitalGlobe satellite view of Dagahely sub-camp, Dadaab, Kenya

This is a story about refugee camps in general, and the growing recognition that ‘temporary’ camps are an increasingly permanent part of the human and natural landscape in many parts of the world. I wouldn’t dispute that fact, nor the argument that we need to rethink what a ‘camp’ is and how they’re planned, built, and run. But there’s a problem of perspective here, and the images that accompany the piece illustrate it better than they realize.

If views taken from aeroplanes and helicopters act to create a distance between a news story (and its readers) and the people living in a refugee camp, what are we to make of these views from space? At least in some of the hi-res aerial photographs you can see actual people going about their business. Not here, though, where the view is from a satellite:

9 Zaatari, Quartz
DigitalGlobe satellite view of Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan

That distance isn’t just metaphorical. Read the article and notice how many refugees it quotes: none. The people who live in Dadaab or Zaatari are a purely rhetorical presence. The headline refers to refugee camps that ‘last three generations’, but the author—who perhaps never left the office to write the story—has not spoken to anyone who arrived at Dadaab as an adult and grew old there, or was born in the camp to refugee parents and grew up there.

Who is quoted instead? Kilian Kleinschmidt, former director of Zaatari, now a freelance development consultant; Céline Schmitt, a UNHCR spokesperson; Taner Kodanaz, from a satellite imaging company called DigitalGlobe. These people are, respectively, based in Vienna, Paris, and Denver, not Dadaab, Zaatari, or any other refugee camp—and if they do go to one, they can leave it when they choose. All well-informed and thoughtful, especially Schmitt and Kleinschmidt, they’re good people to talk to about refugee camps, but it’s a problem that the article talks to them instead of, rather then as well as, anyone actually living in a refugee camp as a refugee. And this is common in much reporting about refugee camps: refugees themselves barely figure, or they make a token appearance (‘speechless emissaries‘ again) in the first paragraph. The images that accompany, and introduce, an article are often the first warning of this.

Here, it’s a more serious problem still, because as I said, this is a story about refugee camps in general, not a report from a single specific camp. Now, there’s an evolving policy debate among humanitarian practitioners about refugee camps: the UNHCR, for example, has recently adopted a policy of seeking alternatives to camps where possible.** This needs to be a wider public debate, too, since refugee camps aren’t just a matter for humanitarian NGOs: they figure in government policy, and not only in states witnessing large inflows of refugees. (In Britain, where I’m writing from, the government persists in seeing encampment in the region as the ‘solution’ to the displacement of millions of Syrians.) The new UNHCR policy is itself a tacit response to the fact that states still prefer to encamp refugees. But any public or policy discussion of refugee camps that doesn’t start with, or at least make a sustained effort to understand, the experiences of the people who live in them is missing out the most important thing about them. This article, which looks down on refugees from space, is an example. What do people who live in refugee camps make of views like this, I wonder? A journalist might think about how to find out.

Humanitarian practitioners, too, should be wary of the view from above. As the author notes, ‘To help them best coordinate space, shelters and facilities, many aid agencies use satellite imagery’. For instance, here’s a recent update (November 2015) on the infrastructure of Zaatari:

2 REACHZaataricampGeneralInfrastructureMapNovember2015 (1)It’s easy to find such images on the UNHCR data portal for Zaatari and other camps. It’s harder, though not impossible, to find evidence that refugees themselves have had any role, even a consultative one, in planning the camp and organizing its day-to-day life. Whether we think of them as mere holding camps or as ‘cities of tomorrow’, if those of us who are not refugees get used to seeing refugee camps from space, then whatever plans ‘we’ make for them are destined to fail.

The Quartz article quotes Taner Kodanaz of DigitalGlobe. ‘Our imagery shows the human impact of the crisis,’ he says: it is ‘a very powerful storytelling mechanism.’ Whether they’re setting the scene for a news article or serving as a planning tool for humanitarians, images of refugee camps do indeed tell a story—and it may not be the story we think it is.

Next: ‘rows of tents’. Meanwhile, here’s a good short piece about why Zaatari is a camp, not a city.

Update (same day): for many more of these unappealing views from above, see this ‘story map‘ from ESRI, a mapping software company. It allows you to zoom in on satellite views of the world’s fifty most populous refugee camps—each compared in size to some minor American city, but otherwise almost entirely decontextualized. It’s hard to see what the point is.

Click images for sources

*Taking non-essential chopper trips over a refugee camp is, to say the least, in poor taste, especially in this case. People who have fled Syria have overwhelmingly done so to get away from the regime and its indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations in rebel-held areas—most notoriously, ‘barrel bombing’, levelling whole quarters with cheap and dirty bombs made of barrels packed with explosives and shrapnel and dropped from, yes, helicopters. It would be good to know if there was any purpose to that flight other than to reassure Kerry—and his host, the Jordanian foreign minister Nasser Judeh—of the great distance that separates them from the people who live in Zaatari.

**You can read the full policy here (PDF).

Wicked women and other dark strangers

Not much activity on here recently—the back half of last term got so madly busy that even the break didn’t give me any time for, well, a break. So I thought I’d better post something before this term starts tomorrow.

Cocaine

Interesting article on the Guardian website yesterday, or rather not really an article. It’s a gallery of European posters from the decades around 1900, presented without much comment. They’re all held by the Century Guild museum in Los Angeles, and the link to the museum website at the top of the page, though it’s given as just centuryguild.net, actually takes you to the museum’s online shop—where, coincidentally, the glossy reproductions on sale are of precisely this set of posters. Still, they’re cracking stuff, even if the gallery is essentially a free (or paid?) advertisement.

Alraune

It’s a shame that they’re presented without much comment, though, because there’s plenty to comment about. Their place in art history, for a start: not my field at all, but I was immediately struck by the echo between this poster for the 1918 film Alraune and Giovanni Segantini’s 1894 painting The evil mothers, which I saw in a gallery in Vienna nearly twenty years ago and haven’t forgotten. In Alraune, a tree/woman snarls men in her roots: the film is about a demonic woman created by a mad scientist from what the IMDb plot summary calls a ‘forced sexual union’ between a woman and a mandrake root. In Segantini’s deeply creepy painting it’s the women who are snarled up: there are some in the smaller tree in the background too. They’re ‘wicked mothers’, being punished for abandoning—or killing—their babies by being tangled in thorn trees, where little babies’ heads bite them for all eternity. (Segantini’s mother died when he was seven. So.)

The_Evil_Mothers_by_Giovanni_Segantini

You could say more about how Alraune fits into film history, too: it was made in Hungary by Mihály Kertész, who moved to Hollywood in the 1920s and (as Michael Curtiz) later directed Casablanca. It was also remade more than once—indeed, at least twice within a decade or so, in German and American versions (1928 and 1930 respectively) directed by different people but both starring Brigitte Helm, best known as the star of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.Metropolis Helm’s role in Metropolis is complicated: she plays Maria, a prophetic young woman, but she also plays a robot (more mad scientists) who is eventually transformed into a false Maria sent off to engage in all sorts of wickedness to undermine the reputation of the real one. And anyone who’s seen Metropolis (1927) will remember the scene where the false Maria dances in the Yoshiwara bordello, creating a storm of lust among the tuxedo’d men there—men whose twitching, leering faces bear more than a passing resemblance to those in the poster for the 1923 Paris musical Cocaïne at the top of this post.

That poster, though, is also striking for its obvious racism: two of the figures in it are flat-nosed, fat-lipped racist caricatures of African-American jazz musicians in Paris. There are more racist caricatures in the eleven heads on plates in the poster for the German cabaret performers Die Elf Scharfrichter (‘The Eleven Executioners’), about whom I wish I could write some more—they were an early and influential political cabaret act performing in Munich in the first few years of the 1900s. But my German is minimal, and even if my university library had an online subscription to the Oxford Companion to German Literature it seems that the entry there is only 80 words long.*

Shadow and light

I won’t reproduce that poster here because there’s only so much racist caricature I can stomach even with due critical presentation, and there’s a bit more on the way. But it’s unfortunate that the Guardian site reproduces it without any critical presentation at all. It combines racist caricature with the other theme I’ve just outlined, wicked women, in the tall, dark, and skull-faced figure representing the singer Marya Delvard. (‘One thought involuntarily of sin’.)

And that makes for an interesting comparison with the poster for ‘Shadows and Light’, a 1919 Munich dance performance by Peter Pathe and Maria Hagen. The image of Hagen is lily-white, representing light, though the wild hair, razor eyebrows, and pursed, rouged lips hardly suggest innocence or virtue. Pathe and HagenBut what about the figure representing shadow? “The image is suggestive of contemporary Japanese anime”, the gallery’s founder Thomas Negovan says in the Guardian piece. Well, maybe: but it’s also more than suggestive of Nazi antisemitic caricature. Compare it with this poster by the same artist for another performance by Hagen and Pathe, which I found on an auctioneer’s website: Hagen looks pretty similar—if a bit more virtuous—but the prim and demure male figure bears no resemblance at all to the darkly Hebrew ‘Shadow’. Again, you’d have thought that someone—the Guardian writer if not the gallery owner—might have taken a moment to comment on this, rather than just present it for the internet’s appreciation as clickbait, Buzzfeed fashion. (These antisemitic posters are AMAZING!) I wish I knew more about the artist, Walter Schnackenberg. After the second world war his artistic work was a variant on the fantastic that’s light of touch but a bit too dark in character to be whimsical. You can see a couple of selections on 50 Watts (here and here): the second includes posters and costume designs from the 20s, too. But the brief bits of information I dug up in a quick skim through the internet jump from the 20s to the postwar period (he died in 1961). I wonder what happened to him in the 1930s and 40s.

All of this isn’t fingerpointing: ‘hey look people in the past were sexist and racist’ isn’t a very helpful approach to history, and it does nothing to help us understand and combat sexism and racism in our own time. But it is remarkable, or perhaps it isn’t, that a newspaper that purports to be opposed to sexism and racism can present this selection of images with no further comment. They come from across Europe—Belgium, France, Scandinavia, Germany, Hungary—and from spheres ranging across political cabaret, theatre, film, and opera, as well as campaigns for public health and morality. In other words, they give a wide-angle view of cultural history in both senses: that is, the history of how meaning is constructed within a given culture, as well as the narrower history of a given society’s cultural production, whether ‘high’ or ‘low’. They show how the most striking iconography produced across this spectrum, whether by a radical political cabaret troupe or a conservative institution like the military, relied on a visual language where misogyny and racism (including antisemitism) were taken for granted as key reference points.

Syphilis

Writing the history of all this is not the Guardian’s job, but I wish there was even the slightest hint that they’d at least noticed it. It’s hardly hiding: I mean, look where the seductive female figure of Syphilis is holding the skull. But it wasn’t female seductiveness that made syphilis a danger to soldiers, and the real hecatomb that was going on when this poster was produced wasn’t the one caused by syphilis: it was the one being coordinated by the military authorities that produced it.

*In addition to the link in the next paragraph, there are also brief pages on German and French Wikipedia.

Unless otherwise specified, all images are from the Guardian article and sourced from the Century Guild museum, Los Angeles. For other images, click image for source. Thanks to Andromeda for spotting a typo.