Populism, tyranny, and the lessons of the past

Populism, tyranny, and the lessons of the past

In the opinion pages of this morning’s Guardian there’s an article by Timothy Garton-Ash on the worsening situation for free speech and human rights in Turkey as Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian regime tightens the screw. ‘To travel to Turkey today is to journey into darkness,’ writes Garton-Ash; ‘tens of thousands of state employees and thousands of academics dismissed, more journalists locked up than in any other country, and a chilly mist of fear.’

Erdoğan crops up in Jan-Werner Müller’s concise guide, What Is Populism? which I read recently. For the epigraph to his book Muller chose the words of Bertolt Brecht: ‘All power comes from the people. But where does it go?’  It’s a good question, and Muller provides a readable analysis of populism, a term that’s been bandied about a great deal post-Trump, post-Brexit, and in the context of fears of what might happen in Europe in 2017. Even more timely and urgent is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, a brand-new, slim volume by Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder. Continue reading “Populism, tyranny, and the lessons of the past”

On this day: three voices that speak to our time

On this day: three voices that speak to our time

On this day in 1907 WH Auden was born. His poem ‘September 1, 1939’, written in a bar in New York at the outbreak of war, seems to chime with our own time (even if he later disowned the poem, saying it was ‘infected with an incurable dishonesty’). And on this day in 1933, Nina Simone was born. ‘I wish I knew how
it would feel to be free; I wish I could break all the chains holding me,’ she sang, while in her song ‘Revolution’, after a lifetime of tireless advocacy for the civil rights movement, she saw in the demand for Black Power the challenge to continuing racism, inequality and repression in the United States: ‘The only way that we can stand in fact/Is when you get your foot off our back.’ And now, written this month we have a superb poetic response to the present situation in America from Joanna Clink.

Continue reading “On this day: three voices that speak to our time”

Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons

Ava DuVernay’s <em>13th</em>: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
–Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution

Ava DuVernay makes documentaries, though her most celebrated film is Selma, a dramatisation of the story of the historic 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery and their place in the struggle for black voting rights. Last night I watched her most recent film, a Netflix documentary about the American prison system that goes under the title, 13th.

The film takes its title from the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery but left a significant loophole which continues to permit involuntary servitude when used as punishment for crime. In meticulous detail, DuVernay shows how this loophole was exploited in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War and continues to be abused to this day.

In Selma, Stephan James portrayed John Lewis, the SNCC activist whose skull was fractured by police who attacked the marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge on ‘Bloody Sunday’, 7 March 1965.

That’s the same John Lewis whose reputation was besmirched in a tweet by Donald Trump the other day, and it’s the same Donald Trump to whom DuVernay devotes a powerful sequence in 13th. Continue reading “Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons”

Sharon Jones: 2016 takes yet another musician. Let’s celebrate her version of ‘This Land Is Your Land’

Sharon Jones: 2016 takes yet another musician. Let’s celebrate her version of ‘This Land Is Your Land’

2016 has scythed down yet another musician. This time it’s Sharon Jones, at the end of a week in which we have already lost Leonard Cohen, Mose Allison and Leon Russell.

A powerhouse of a soul singer in the great tradition of the sixties, Sharon Jones breakthrough only came later in her life. She didn’t release her first album until 1996, when she was 40, and it was only in this century that she started to receive serious attention, fronting Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. Continue reading “Sharon Jones: 2016 takes yet another musician. Let’s celebrate her version of ‘This Land Is Your Land’”

Holding on to Hope in the Dark after Trump

Holding on to Hope in the Dark after Trump

So now we know what it felt like to be alive when Hitler came to power. That was my first reaction to hearing of Donald Trump’s devastating victory in the U.S. Presidential election. As Martin Luther King wrote in his letter from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, ‘Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.’ Coming after the Brexit vote, Trump’s win induces feelings of total despair. Can we find any hope on this dark day? Continue reading “Holding on to Hope in the Dark after Trump”