Is This Sexist?

By Jason Michael

Few indeed live in hope of seeing politicians wearing only their smiles, but this is exactly what iScot has gone and done to us on the cover of its August issue. It’s brutal and ugly, it’s beautiful satire. It’s many things, but is it sexist?

Yesterday, half an hour before quitting time, the good peeps at iScot announced they’d be unveiling their August cover later in the evening. The uncharacteristic pre-release tweet asked for those who liked it to consider subscribing, stating that the minds behind the design needed the “danger money.” It had to be something good. At half past seven the image was unleashed, and – to paraphrase the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine – there was silence in Scotland for half an hour.

iScot Magazine, for those unfamiliar with it (for shame), is the Rolling Stone of Scottish culture and politics; treading the perilous no-man’s-land of open discussion and neutrality in the aftermath of our 2014 independence referendum. All the finest people – and dogs – make the cover, but August’s august offering takes the biscuit. Scratch that. It makes away with the whole goddamn tin. Mo and Ken put their heads together and reproduced for a soon-to-be traumatised readership Rubens’ 1635 masterpiece ‘the Three Graces,’ complete with the photoshopped heads of our Tory troika; Theresa May, Ruth Davidson, and Arlene Foster – all wearing unionist micro bikinis.

It’s bad. I mean it’s up there with the picture of Snack Beard Mundell smooching Ruthie bad. It’s so disgustingly, eye-wateringly unnerving – never to be unseen – bad that it transcends ugly so far that it becomes beautiful again. While Germans for ScotRef responded with a line of medical masked emojis, one “grumpy old great-granny” tweeted: “WT actual F?” On seeing the cover, after the initial shock of encounter had worn off, I exploded into maniacal laughter, no doubt worrying the other smartphone zombies on the train. It could have been worse, I thought. Reflecting on the sheer volume of urine we’ve had to take from these particular “disGraces,” it could have been Sally Mann’s 1994 version of the theme.

As was to be expected, however, it wasn’t long until the thought police and the unionist art critics of cyberspace were out decrying what was at least comedy genius as sexist. It was alright for the British media to reduce the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon to her, admittedly stylish, heels and her legs. No one in the unionist art appreciation society batted an eyelid when the First Minister was depicted as the wardrobe malfunctioning Liberté storming the barricades. None of this was “sexist,” but somehow the use of Rubens’ Aglaea, Euphrosyne, and Thalia dancing under the “Better Together Money Tree,” as the representatives of British nationalism, is. Nonsense!

Those familiar with the female nudes of Rubens, which I am not (honest), will tell you of his problematic anatomy. Like Michelangelo’s ladies in the churches of Rome, these are muscular men with boobs painted on. Now arguably that is sexist, but I am no art expert and – besides – we have accepted this past artistic convention as a fact of our cultural heritage. If anything, by adding the faces of three real women, the case may be made that Mo and Ken have – through parody – redeemed the sexism of the art by actually feminising the original.

But this isn’t really about sexism. There is no apparent prejudicial use of the three’s sex or gender to stereotype them, mock, degrade, or discriminate against them. Graces – or Χάριτες – are goddesses after all. What this is, before the application of the sexism smokescreen, is a clever and witty comment on power.

Art, as social comment, has much to say about the arrogance of power. Propagandistic depictions of leaders – think Julius Caesar, George Washington, and Kim Jong Un for example – apotheosise their subjects. It stands to reason then that divinity is the chosen arena for laying bear the absurdity of power. In this sort of comment nudity becomes symbolically important. May’s power lust, Davidson’s spineless sycophancy, and Foster’s idiotic opportunism have exposed the truth that the emperor has no clothes; they are performing a ritual of power that has been shown for all to see to have all the poise and efficacy of a chimps’ tea party.

Rather than being base and derogatory sexism, nudity serves an important purpose in such a comment. Let’s remember that there is a tradition of lampooning power and the powerful with depictions of naked, often animalistic and grotesque, corpulence. At the height of the Irish economic collapse the then Taoiseach, Brian – “Biffo” – Cowan, found himself the target of numerous guerrilla nudes, one of which found its way into the National Art Gallery in Dublin. The same happened more recently to Donald Trump. Was this sexism? No, of course it wasn’t. It was art doing what art does, exercising its intended social function.

On the cover of August’s iScot the female form is not being used as a shaming devise directed at women politicians and thus women in general. Ask Davidson herself, she is quite the expert in the lurid instrumentalisation of the female body. Rather it is – returning to John the Divine – a revelation; an uncovering, an unveiling of the truth that is so weakly obscured by the drama of performative power. This is the artistic undoing, and therefore the derision, of May’s heroic paean, “Strong and Stable.” It is a silliness – as all good political art should be – and the Paieonic antidote to the hemlock these gods of the state have forced us to drink. It is a bold stroke for a cover, for sure, but one that does not fail to hit the mark.


Nudity and Art

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Sugar Coated Memories

By Jason Michael

Images of poverty when presented without reference to the realities of poverty verge on becoming voyeuristic poverty pornography. This was certainly the feeling I had seeing the picture of two beaming Glasgow boys.

Yesterday morning the National Galleries of Scotland tweeted a picture from David Peat’s 1968 An Eye on the Street collection depicting two little boys smiling before a background of broken down Glasgow tenement buildings and a scene of, quite frankly, disturbing urban squalor. Tweeting the words “Wonderful image of two beaming boys…” the National Galleries appears to have left the obvious to the viewer’s imagination. On the surface, and as can be read in the responses from the public, this is a sentimental picture that sparks happy memories for those who remember those days in the frowzy comfort of the tenements.

Eddi Reader’s comment is particularly poignant; “we were surrounded by our families and neighbours and felt protected… those tenement windows guarding us as we played.” With her own experience and memories of the tenements she goes further than the National Galleries in ending her tweet with the hashtag “#povertynotpoor,” bringing to the fore the contradiction of the image. This is a scene of poverty, and this is perhaps my issue with its use as “art.”

It is an important image. This is a social history that must be remembered and taught. These “beaming boys” and what they evoke and represent are integral to our national story. My gripe, if that is what it is, is not with David Peat and his photographic journalism of this Glasgow in the late 1960s. His interrogation of this poverty, as is seen in all of his work, is unflinching and yet heart-warmingly humane and – dare I say – beautiful. In this it is both memory and art, but it stands pretty much alone for what it is in the Twitter feed of the National Galleries of Scotland. It is, for all its beauty, also an ugly image. This is a record of an atrocious social reality that goes wholly unnoticed by its artistic presentation, a challenge perhaps too difficult for the Galleries.

Smiling children do not expunge the fact that a hellish reality has been imposed on the subjects of the photograph. Take for example the 1944 photograph of Istvan Reiner, the image of a beaming and adorable four year old boy. We could equally tweet this image with a comment on a beaming boy without mentioning the wider reality of the hell that had been imposed upon him. The reaction to such a tweet would be very different because Istvan is a boy in the striped pyjamas of an Auschwitz inmate taken shortly before he was murdered.


Studio portrait of Istvan Reiner, half-brother of the donor, taken shortly before he was killed in Auschwitz.

Life in the poverty of Glasgow’s slums and tenements was for centuries another kind of holocaust. Tens of thousands of children died as a result of sanitary and living conditions over which they and their parents had no control. Yes, there was great joy and community, memories and moments in the tenements, but nothing of that took from the suffering and the misery that poverty brought with it for the people trapped by it. True, as Eddi Reader says, these were good times; these were innocent and happy times, but they were never “the good old days.”

Poverty the likes of that experienced in Glasgow was never neutral. The poverty of today all over Scotland is not neutral. It served and serves a purpose, and that purpose has always been imposed on innocent people – on beaming children even – by the powerful, the privileged, and the wealthy. How often, I am forced to ask, did these two young lads saunter into the National Galleries of Scotland? Yet it is for the casual and seemingly unchallenging amusement and consumption of those who do that this image is now intended. That bothers me.

All the same, these images – those of the beaming Glasgow boys and that of Istvan Reiner – remain important. We must be challenged by them and still we must challenge their use by their custodians. In viewing them as art, and just as art, the viewer runs the risk of becoming an unaffected voyeur, but as a reminder of a reality that is still very much Scotland’s reality we have a responsibility to use them as heuristic instruments to begin the more challenging discussions of poverty and injustice. Reader is right; poverty not poor. Poverty is the weapon that was used against the people of the tenements. Even the memory of the tenements, as John Cleese is keen to demonstrate, is used as a weapon still, but it is poor only when we learn nothing from this experience.


Slums On Clydeside (1974)

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Demilitarising the Scottish Imagination

By Jason Michael

When people around the world think of Scotland they think of tartan, bagpipes, haggis, and soldiers. Sadly the soldiery has seeped deep into the tartan and the bagpipes. Is this what we want, and can we imagine something else?

Robert Burns wrote of the Highlands that it was the “birthplace of valour,” and Walter Scott asked: “Where is the coward that would not dare to fight for such a land as Scotland?” Our national anthem praises the thistle that “fought and died for [its] wee bit hill and glen.” Tourists pour into Edinburgh and Stirling to lap up the spectacle of Scots martial glory; the kilts, dirks, and rifles. We are, for such a placid wee country, caked in all the muck and trappings of warmongering empire. But is this what we really are, a nation absorbed in militarism and violence?

One answer to this question has to be yes. There is no avoiding the association of tartan and the bagpipes with battlefields spanning the whole width of the world. Scots regiments marched on and subdued Egypt, Afghanistan, and India. Scottish graves litter the fields of Flanders and the Somme. Scotland has made its mark on the world and left behind it a horrendous trail of misery, suffering, and blood. Search for Scottish music on YouTube or Vimeo and you will be presented with an endless list of military tattoos and pipe and drum dirges and requiems for fallen heroes.

Watching an old video of the Black Watch regiment’s 2005 march past in Dundee – a celebration of the soldiers’ return from active service in Iraq – I was struck by the awesome horror of this fame. Iraq was not a glorious war. It was far from it. As now it is coming at last to light that the man who blew the whistle on the Labour government’s sexed-up dossier, Dr. David Kelly, was most likely assassinated by the British government for his troubles, we know that Iraq was an unnecessary Anglo-American war of aggression that was responsible for the deaths of well over one million human beings.

In its 310 year history Britain has not fought a single justifiable war. Some will argue that stopping the Nazi genocide was a just basis for armed conflict, which indeed it was, but this was not the reason Britain went to war with Nazi Germany in September 1939. Britain declared war on Germany and its allies to defend its own allies and empire. Even when the RAF was in range of the Nazi extermination camps the bomber crews were instructed not to waste munitions on disrupting the railroads used by the Nazis to transport their millions of victims. Since 1707 Britain’s wars have always been wars of expansion, conquest, and domination, and Scots have fought in them all.

When we discuss the British colonisation of Scotland the unionists are driven to distraction. Scotland, according to their limited definition of colonialism, was never a colony. They will point to our ancient military tradition and remind us that Scotland was itself a driving force of the British Empire – an empire that killed as many as 150 million people, which it was. They will tell us that Scots were key players in London’s imperial project and that Scotland benefited from empire, and all of this is true. None of this means, however, that empire and murder in the name of Britain was Scotland’s doing. Scotland and Scots too were imperial possessions; England’s long economic war against Scotland forced many into the British Army, lack of opportunities at home drove middle class and educated Scots to seek their fortunes in the furthest reaches of the empire, and, yes, as one of the “home countries” Scotland prospered from the theft of empire as working class Scots were worked to death in disgusting and dangerous factories while being forced to live in slums and tenements.

Scotland and Scots were never the instigators of this atrocious empire. That much is a stinking, dirty myth. Worse, it is a lie. Britain’s empire was the imperial ambition of England, into which Scotland was absorbed in 1707 and Ireland in 1801. Great Britain was and is Greater England, an aggressive and expansionist state political ideology that only ever – as it still does – marches to the beat of a London drum. Scotland, as England’s second oldest colony after Wales, has long been a source of cannon fodder for the British Crown and so it is little wonder that militarism has soaked deep into the fabric of the Scottish psyche. We were bred to be soldiers.

Faced now with the prospect of independence and the final dissolution of this poisonous British state we are left with the problem of this tradition and reputation. What are we to do with it? It would be inadvisable to throw away everything we have gained from our “union” with England, not everything was evil and twisted. Much of this is our history and we must embrace this as part of our national story, but some things are toxic.

We don’t need nuclear weapons. We don’t need little girls and boys running around with guns. The war is over. The empire is dead. Independence requires that we start right now to live as a free and independent people, and this means ridding ourselves of the things that keep us in thrall to our London masters – their traditions and reputations. One of these is the army lark. Between now and independence we have a job to do in rewriting Scotland – not whitewashing the past, but reframing how we think of it so that we are free to imagine a future unencumbered by the weight of an awful and brutal history that was foisted upon us. Our task as independentistas, as far as I see it, is to re-imagine Scotland; finding new and imaginative ways to present ourselves to the world. Our traditions and cultural resources are far richer than the violence of the past. So before we get to the ballot box again we have to know what sort of a country we are going to be.


1st Battalion Scots Guards homecoming parade Glasgow 2013

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Burns Night: Neeps and Tatties

By Jason Michael

“It’s Scotland’s answer to Carnival or Mardi Gras,” I like to explain to the Wilde Irish I live among who don’t quite get our annual fetish for an late eighteenth century poet we can barely understand, “because he made sex cool in a dreary climate.” As an Ayrshire lad I was reared on the words of the Bard. That doesn’t mean I always understand what he was saying, and coming from a family of Kilmarnock printers – the toon where his famous first edition was printed – there was no escaping the connection with Scotland’s most famous philanderer until Tommy Sheridan.

Every year on Burns Night, like many a Scot from Russia to Nova Scotia, I boil me up some neeps and tatties, and if the spirit moves me I’ll add to that a wee dram. We are a sentimental people, but fond memory can’t quite move me to go hunting for a haggis. It’s hard to come by here in Dublin, largely on account of the Dubliners having a more refined palate – and even if I knew a butcher daring enough, I still think I would stick to the neeps and a nice cut of beef. The food and traditional music associated with Burns Night never quite moved me, but his words always have.

It would be nice to say that I love him because his love for Caledonia’s cause inspired my own sense of national pride. It didn’t. I always knew he despised the Union, but I grew to become an independentista for other reasons. It was his humanism and his curious love of the little things of nature that tickled me the most. Seriously, who else writes of mice and lice with such tender and hilarious affection? Few others have shaped my passion for human dignity and worth the way that Rabbie Burns’ words have:

A prince can mak a belted knight, 
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that; 
But an honest man’s abon his might, 
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!

A long time before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, before the abolition of slavery and serfdom, Scots were proud to say that We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns. That has stuck with me my entire life, and because of that wee bit of culture – probably the only real cul’ure I ever picked up in school – I can still see that the likes of Murdo Fraser and Theresa May aren’t really hiding horns under their hair. Not that Murdo has much of that. Other than the fair chance that most of us are descended from him, Burns is one of those great Scots we are right to celebrate.


Ode To A Mouse

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‘I, Daniel Blake’ Left me Bawling

By Jason Michael

I, Daniel Blake: Nothing I can write here is going to do service to this outstanding piece of social history cum Palme d’Or winning cinema. It is art and film speaking truth to power, and from beginning to end it’s like the story of our – working class – lives.

Close to the bone comes nowhere near describing Ken Loach’s ‘I, Daniel Blake.’ Since its 21 October release I have read review after review. The trailer had me eager to see it months ago, but nothing could prepare me for the true, devastating and harrowing magnificence of this masterpiece. Already you can tell what “side” I’m on. Loach has rammed a wedge into the great divide of the cinema-going public; with the right-wing writing the film off as an over politicised and ideological exaggeration, and the left gushing like loved-up teenagers. I’m going to gush – that is, after I have wiped my eyes.

‘I, Daniel Blake’ follows the lives of the title character, Dan Blake (played by Dave Johns), Katie, and her two young kids Daisy and Dylan, as they undergo trial by benefit sanction at the hands of an impersonal, dehumanising, and overly bureaucratic Department of Work and Pensions in Newcastle. Dan is a widower who has been forced out of work after suffering a heart attack, and Katie and her children have been forced to relocate to the north from London due to the lack of housing closer to her family. The futility of their situations and their refusal to become powerless brings them together into a deep and enriching makeshift family, with Dan taking on the role of father and grandfather.

In spite of the pain infused into every scene, Dan’s gentleness, good humour, and razor sharp Geordie wit help oscillate the story between despair and comic relief. Dan’s true genius is that we’ve all met him before. He’s the soft-spoken, hardworking, working class man that lives on every housing estate the length of the country. Dan is that guy who looks out for everyone around him, and who – in the end – deserves so much better than what he’s given.

Katie, we’ve met before too. She’s the straight talking young single mum whose life is her kids, and who can never catch a break. Every lad who has ever been in her life has taken advantage of her good nature, and now she’s surviving by her wits. The well-dressed DWP staff members see nothing of this. She’s a statistic, a nuisance, a number, a chavette.

As the story develops the audience is drawn into an account of social structural violence that its both shocking and heart-breaking, with ordinary people – fallen on hard times – being abused by the system and left as prey for the most unscrupulous villains a burnt out community could produce. Still, the lines are constantly blurred between good and evil, law-abiding life and criminality. We’re given the crime of a woman stealing sanitary towels from a convenience store because no one donates them to the foodbank and the heartless evil of a store security guard you lures desperate women into the lowest end of the sex trade.

No more spoilers. I’ve seen this film before. Many of us have. In fact I have been Daniel Blake on more than one occastion, and I see Katie and her kids every single day. In all, it was close to the bone because it was like looking into a mirror – seeing through the eyes of the director the crappiest realities of being dependent on a state in a country where there just aren’t enough jobs. By the end of the film I was in tears. I was sobbing in the cinema and I wasn’t alone. No one moved from their seats until the lights came on, and even then people took their time shuffling out. Loach had scolded us for what we’ve let happen and hugged us by telling our story.


Author: Jason Michael (@Jeggit)

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