Pandaemonium

A YEAR OF PANDAEMONIUM

“Fragment of a Queen’s face”, Egypt ca. 1353–1336 BCE (courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
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From Covid to Black Lives Matter, 2020 was a year like few others in recent times. Here’s a rundown of the year through the posts on Pandaemonium.

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Covid

Covid-19 was, of course, the issue that dominated the year. My first essay on the subject was a reflection on how new diseases seem to expose the existential fragility of human societies and how responses to epidemics are often attempts by the authorities to show that they are in control, and to shape the public narrative.

I also wrote about one of the themes that later became central to much discussion – that of social inequalities, from the treatment of “essential workers” to the inequality of health in the Global South, an issue to which I returned towards the end of the year. I wrote, too, against the background of the Covid debate, of the history of blaming the poor for social problems.

I discussed what the pandemic tells us about community and trust, on why most people are decent, but decency is not enough, why humans are far better than we give ourselves credit for, and the erosion of the public sphere.

I looked at how Covid has become a vehicle for new forms of policing  and surveillance and why we should not allow rightwing libertarians to define what we mean by “liberty”.

There were a number of essays about the relationship between medicines and the market, including on the globalization of clinical trials and on why medicines should be seen as a human necessity, not a profit making machine. I tackled also the issue of vaccine hesitancy and how to deal with it.

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Race and racism

Against the background of Black Lives Matter protests, I argued that racism is a problem, but white people are not, that discussions of “white fragility” and “unconscious training” reveal the degeneration of anti-racism  and that “Bame” is a meaningless category.

I had my say on the statues debate, and on the debate over David Hume’s legacy

I wrote about Steve McQueen’s film Mangrove as telling a story that is part not just of “black history” but also of the broader history of radical struggles in Britain and, while not directly referencing race, my essay on the Putney debates tackled another aspect of neglected history.

I responded to John Amaechi’s viral BBC video about “white privilege”, and the problems with the concept, and to philosopher Chris Bertram’s critique of my argument.

I wrote also about the relationship between far-right terror and mainstream politics.

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Class and identity

In a year in which there was renewed discussion about “white identity” and the “white working class”, my major essay on the topic, on the need to rethink the history and politics of white identity, was published in full not on Pandaemonium but in Prospect.

I wrote also on the controversy over the funding of scholarships for white working class boys and why we need to stop thinking about the problems faced by the “white working class” in terms of its whiteness and look upon class in a non-racialised sense.

I explored, too, the geography of social division.

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Immigration & citizenship

I got into a debate with Thomas Fazi on immigration and the left, and on the failures of the “Blue Labour” approach.

I  challenged the way  in which the debate over undocumented Channel migrants has been framed, pointed out the ignorance and cruelty of government ministers when it comes to immigration regulations, explored the fundamental problem with the way British officials view immigration, and looked at how debates over Shamima Begum and deportations to Jamaica revealed the transformation in the meaning of “citizenship”.

I showed why a fire in the Moria migrant detention camp on the Greek island of Lesbos exposes how the EU has turned cruelty into policy and what we mean when we ask “But what else can we do but be brutal towards migrants?”

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Politics of identity

As well as my Prospect essay on white identity, I posted two videos in which I discussed both white identity politics and the politics of identity more generally. 

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British politics & the culture wars

I wrote on how corruption and incompetence has become normalised, what the cruelty of “Imprisonment for Public Protection” tells us about social policy and I looked at why the Tories’ faux-egalitarian agenda leaves inequality untouched but seeks to play to the culture wars gallery.

I also wrote of why culture wars can make you blind to change that has actually taken place, and on the values gap between voters and politicians, and why it is not the gap itself but the way we relate to it that is new.

I argued that the debate over whether BBC comedy has become too leftwing misses the point, and that the postponement of exhibitions by artist Philip Guston the launching of Laurence Fox’s “Reclaim” Party both exposed the shallowness of political and cultural debate.

After Roger Scruton’s death, I pointed out some uncomfortable truths about his conservatism.

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Imperialism and international issues 

I wrote about the globalization of clinical trials, the inequality of health in the Global South, and diseases that have become neglected because they afflict largely the poor.

The Delhi “riot”, I argued, was not a riot but an anti-Muslim pogrom. I also looked at what lessons turmoil in India has for struggles elsewhere in the globe.

On the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I wrote on the immorality of the bombings.

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Free speech

After the murder of Parisian teacher Samuel Paty for showing Charlie Hebdo cartoons during a lesson, I wrote both about the unwillingness of liberals to stand up for basic liberal principles  and about the French authorities’ double standards on questions of free speech and liberties

Free speech, I argued, is particularly important for those without power, and I insisted on the necessity of drawing a distinction between people and ideas, and of being clear about what we mean by “respect and “tolerance”.

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Technology

I wrote on the difference between human and artificial intelligence, and on the relationship between the public, technology companies and the state.

Against the background of the exam fiasco in England, I explored the relationship between algorithms, political judgments and fairness.

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Books

Books I reviewed, or discussed, this year included Pankaj Mishra’s Bland Fanatics, Priya Satia’s Time’s Monster, Jeannine Cummins’ American Dirt,  Matthew Cobb’s The Idea of the Brain, Viktor Frankl’s Yes to Life In Spite of Everything, Alan Levinovitz’s Natural, Graham Macklin’s Failed Fuhrers, Colin Yeo’s Welcome to Britain, and Gilbert Ramsay & Moutaz Alkheder’s Joking about Jihad.

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Sport

I discussed the meaning of sport at a time there wasn’t any, what football tells us about globalization, and on what Diego Maradona meant to me. I also wrote about the death of the great West Indian cricketer Everton Weekes, and how it represented the passing of an era.

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Art, music & film

I wrote about Zarina Hashmi’s work,  Helen Zughaib’s homage to Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series, José Clemente Orozco’s “The Epic of American Civilization”, and the Lesothan film This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection.

I paid tribute to McCoy Tyner, Bill Withers, and Jimi Hendrix, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. There was a soundtrack to black struggles in America and posts in praise of the double bass, in classical music and in jazz.

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Photography 

There was not much photography this year, and the posts were largely archive material:  Photography stripped down, a decade of Light Infusion, and more from Light Infusion.

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Top posts

These were the most-read posts in 2020:

1 Racism is a problem , white people are not

2 Race, class and white privilege: A response

3 From racism to white privilege

4 The Great British empire debate

5 Painting by pigment and light

6 Culture wars can make you blind to social change

7 Sartre on Giacometti

8 Why both sides are wrong in the race debate

9 The Putney debates and neglected histories

10 To cast the Enlightenment in a radical light

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Since five of these were published prior to 2020 – one, Why both sides are wrong in the race debate, was published as far back as 2012, but turns up in the most-read posts almost every year – here are the top ten posts actually from 

1 Racism is a problem , white people are not

2 Race, class and white privilege: A response

3 From racism to white privilege

4 Culture wars can make you blind to social change

5 The Putney debates and neglected histories

6 From anti-racism to psychobabble

7 Whiteness, class and the working class

8 The uncomfortable truths about Roger Scruton’s conservatism

9 Turning inhumanity into policy

10 The most important of the least important things  

Finally, my thanks to all readers of Pandaemonium. And most especially to all the Patrons. And best wishes to all for 2021.