Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Big Brother 2015’s Tory Prime Minister Hopeful and Inverted Celebrity Politics in Britain

Written for the Political Studies Association (PSA) - click here for the original post

Duncan C CC BY-NC-ND
The votes are in, the votes have been counted, and the winner of this year’s second ‘Big’ election has been announced. However, this time the Tory Number 10 hopeful finds himself in second place. Big Brother 2015’s finale, aired on Channel 5 on 16th July, saw Conservative councillor Joel Williams voted runner-up out of 18 candidates. The 19 year old is thought to be the youngest councillor in Wales and has been candidly forthright about his ambitions to one day run the country as Prime Minister.

Since Big Brother UK launched in 2000, British media has been increasingly characterized by reality television and celebrity culture. The expansion of the internet, the impact of Twitter on civic engagement and political debate, and the convergence of mass communication technologies have all contributed to new interactive environments in which relatively unknown individuals can, and do, compete with established public elites for airtime, headlines and digital followers. This trend has been symbolic of wider social, cultural and technological change in the new millennium. Notably, political actors and the cultures in which they operate have responded to these wider changes.

As a number of high profile cases have demonstrated, parliamentarians in the 2000s have gambled with their political reputations and careers by taking to the dance floor on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing (including former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe); braving the jungle on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! (as Conservative MP Nadine Dorries did) and spilling all in the diary room on Celebrity Big Brother (remember former Labour and, later, Respect Party MP George Galloway?).

Such cases have attracted scholarly interest in an area of study that has become known as ‘celebrity politics’. Mark Wheeler has brought together many of the diverse strands relating to the phenomenon of celebrity politics in a holistic framework that also places developments in British political culture within wider historic and global contexts. The US has well-established traditions of integrating its political and media cultures. Hollywood has long been a place in which US political debate has been challenged and generated. It has also trained a number of its prominent stars in the art of stagecraft, which, subsequently, unwittingly prepared them to take a turn on the political stage - notably the former Republican Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger; and Republican US President Ronald Reagan. Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, it would appear that on both sides of the Atlantic the relationship between celebrity and political progression, and vice versa, is quite significant within the sphere of Anglo-American conservatism. Indeed, this raises the question of why? Especially when the arts and media world is often thought to be, perhaps incorrectly, as the comfortably fitting domain of the left.

It seems there are two key differences between the UK and US cases. Firstly, the phenomenon of celebrity politics in Britain seems to be a much more recent trend. It is almost unthinkable that the relative Tory-stuffiness, which was characteristic of 1980s British politics, could have allowed for a Reagan-like figure, with a background in theatre and/or film, to rise to the leadership of the Conservative Party. That said, Thatcher did herself possess an undeniable star quality and arguably became a global celebrity in her own right. Few British prime ministers have been the focus of Oscar winning cinema.

Secondly, and most significantly, is the directional flow in the relationship between politics and celebrity (or celebrity and politics). In the above cases, the American individuals went from media personalities to prominent politicians. The British cases are inverted in comparison, because their transition was the opposite way around. Glenda Jackson went from being a fairly well known serious-actress to becoming a Labour MP. But, arguably, her national profile gradually dropped while in Parliament. TV actor Adam Ricketts and TV presenter Dr David Bull are both examples of celebrity Tory candidates who never made it to Parliament. Therefore, is politician-to-celebrity a fixed directional trend in British politics? Or, in this age of an increasingly dynamic culture of celebrity politics, will the future hold some surprises? Councillor Williams of Big Brother 2015 certainly hopes so.

While in the Big Brother House, the second-place contestant, who has also worked as a secretary for Craig Williams, the Conservative MP for Cardiff North, became known for his dance moves, namely the ‘slut drop’. Could there be a future-Britain that is so free from snobbish judgement and tabloid meddling that a black-tie wearing and slut-dropping Big Brother contestant might rise to lead the country as a Conservative PM? Rylan Clark, Channel 5’s presenter of Big Brother’s Bit on the Side (BBBOTS), believes so saying that he ‘genuinely’ thinks Councillor Williams will one day hold the keys to Number 10.

Former Big Brother winner Brian Belo described his cameo return to the house this year as being ‘…like living with a prepubescent David Cameron on the warpath.’ In contrast, the British public were quite taken with Councillor Williams, voting him into second place ahead of many other highly charismatic and popular housemates. It could be a while before we witness a Big Brother contestant leading the Conservative Party, because Williams intends to hold a career in law before attempting to enter Parliament. But, for now, it seems interesting to point out that a milestone has been reached in Britain’s cultural development - one in which a 19 year old man from South Wales, with genuine aspirations to hold the highest office of state, feels free enough to openly display his life (and dance moves) to the world through the medium of reality television.

Anthony Ridge-Newman lecturers in Politics, Communication and Democracy in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. He tweets @RidgeNewman.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

American Civil Rights, Christianity and Channel 4’s Ku Klux Klan Documentary: #InsideTheKKK

© Metro/Channel4/Barcroft 
#InsideTheKKK Documentary
Rarely have I felt more compelled to blog than today. Last night’s Channel 4 documentary Inside the Ku Klux Klan ‪#‎InsideTheKKK was a disturbing contemporary view of an organisation I naively thought was a thing of the past. Apparently, these so called 'Christians' still burn crosses, wear intimidating costumes, display guns in an antagonistic manner, think white people are superior to other races and plot to kill.

The documentary showed that three prison workers, who are thought to be part of a KKK group, were arrested in April 2015 for allegedly plotting to kill a black prison inmate. Many participating in the programme demonstrated that they believed the white man to be superior. They proudly used words like ‘white power’ and actions like left-handed Nazi-style salutes. A number of KKK members showed-off their guns, with children nearby, some of whom were themselves in possession of firearms, and warned black people to beware.

Part of the film was given to presenting the narrative of the murder of a black man in June 1998, which resulted in two of the three convicted men being sentenced to death. The attending police Sherriff told how the victim was dragged to his death after he was tied to the back of a truck by these suspected KKK members.

Since it was aired, I have spent some time debating the broadcast with others on social media. Some felt sympathetic to the KKK because of the apparent poverty, both economic and educational, within the KKK community. I would not wish poverty on any person. However, I feel that there can be little justification for being part of a group that symbolises racial hatred and has a long and significant history of murder. Attaching oneself to a group with that kind of image and reputation only perpetuates the evil of the past and keeps it alive.

The film maker caught out the participants on a number of occasions and demonstrated that the KKK were attempting to show a cuddlier face for the cameras - as a positive PR exercise. We only saw the surface. There would be those that did not participate in the filming. Are their views likely to be more or less extreme?

Lack of education cannot be used to justify being part of something which today is more than widely accepted to be unacceptable - and in some cases abhorrent. Furthermore, the KKK’s use of the media, both new and traditional, as shown in the film, demonstrates that at least certain members of the KKK hold a higher level of intelligence, public awareness and aptitude for organisational sophistication. Therefore, I would question to what extent they are lesser-educated and argue that using Christianity as a front to hide their true agenda is manipulative and sinister.

I looked at one of their websites last night. The home page declares that the KKK is: ‘Bringing a Message of Hope and Deliverance to White Christian America! A Message of Love NOT Hate!’ If the KKK wants to change its image from an organisation of racial hatred to one that loves all, then why not completely rebrand or, in other words, start a new group with no links to the symbols of their past hatred? It is simply because their racism and hatred is now more hidden than before. If one reads a little deeper, the KKK message becomes clearer. Their message of love only seems to extend as far as the people with whom they share skin tone.

Phrases like ‘White Christian America’ and their link to ‘White Pride TV’ says it all. Christ's central message was about love and equality. Not raising up one group or persons above any other. Terms like ‘white power’ and ‘White Christian America’ are loaded with a separatist agenda. This is driven by hate not love. As a Christian, I believe that all people are equal and deserving of God's grace. Therefore, we are all deserving of the same human rights and freedoms. The KKK’s views, beliefs and actions do not fit that kind of Christian approach. They have more in common with other extremists and terror related groups than with contemporary Christianity. If these extremist groups had their way, they would raise up one group and subordinate others.

And that old saying has some truth here - evil can and will persist if good people stand by and do or say nothing. Last night, the British Twitter-sphere largely denounced the things that the KKK symbolise, which gives me hope. But the America that helped the Allies fight the Nazis has a less consistent history when it comes to tackling such things within its own borders.

America and Civil Rights
The KKK has a lineage that is rooted in a past in which thousands of black people were murdered at the hands of KKK members. The KKK has taken freedoms and liberties away from people going about their everyday lives. No other human being should have a right to take away the human rights of another without due process of the law – and then only if it is legally and morally justifiable. In legal terms, that should be certainly the case in America – a country that was pretty much founded on the principles of the Magna Carta and has a bill of rights as part of its constitution.

However, generations of black Americans were enslaved. After they were emancipated by civil war, in many parts of the US they were treated as second class human beings. Many were murdered and their civil rights and freedoms restricted. They largely fought peacefully for those rights. Peaceful protest won their freedoms in the end. But it was only after white people stood shoulder to shoulder with black people that the media and the US Government took the protests seriously.

Today, some white people in America may have justified concerns about crime, law, order and gang culture. But much of that stems from the history of minorities in America being treated as second class and held back from fulfilling their potential. Black America has a distinct history of poverty and poor access to education. This is where white people have largely had the advantage and still do.

The two historic case studies of black and white people in America are different. There are poor and less educated people in both groups. But that is not the point. The point is that it is black people in America that are on a journey of healing from the ills that some large collectives of white people perpetrated in the past.

White Americans do not have a comparable history in America. The British taxed them without representation in Parliament, but did not enslave them. White Americans fought for their own liberties against the British. But through slavery, and later segregation, many white Americans persisted to rob many black people of the liberties that white people had enjoyed since America’s independence. (Albeit a tradition they inherited from the British.)

Crime in America is sometimes used by groups like the KKK to justify the exertion of ‘white power’. Crime committed by black Americans today is not the same as white people enslaving black people in the past. Therefore, there can and should be better cultural understanding for the black community and how the imagery and symbolism of groups like the KKK can impact.

In recent times, the music of Bob Marley has been a uniting force for black people in Baltimore, who are once again concerned for their civil rights in America. Some claim that there have been more black people killed by police of late than died in the attack on the Twin Towers. This is not happening to white people.

White Americans whose ancestors have not been persecuted and subjugated are going to struggle to truly understand what that means and how it feels. Many white people in America do feel shame and guilt, but that is a different thing. It leads to different outcomes. It often leads to actions that help make amends.

Some young black people might feel angered by their history. But is being confronted with the symbolism of the KKK going to do much to bring healing and forgiveness?

If the KKK are truly an organisation of ‘Love NOT Hate’, then they should actually demonstrate care about the impact that their symbolism and history has had on black people and their communities.

The KKK exist as an organised group because they care only for their own 'white power' interests and not for the equality of all, which is a central Christian belief. Black people are still fighting for equality and civil rights, even with a president of African American heritage in the White House.

KKK members have been partly responsible, historically, for treating black people in a manner that has left deep scars on America. Final healing and forgiveness will not come if deluded white people flounce around with guns and wear white pointy hats, claiming white power.

In this millennium, that sort of behaviour simply cannot be justified - period. It never could before, but we are all more culturally, politically and socially aware these days. Therefore, we should condemn racism in all its forms and all its guises - no matter how cuddly it is trying to portray itself to global media.

Last night's documentary helps elucidate that these things are unfortunately not a thing of the past. It also helps us reflect on our own lives and our own prejudices - and nudges us to work towards changing those as well as condemning the undoubtedly wrongful missions of groups like the KKK.

One has to balance the principle of all people being equal against the context of a certain people's collective history. In America, the balance is currently in the process of being redressed, which takes time. The KKK are growing because there are some white people that take issue with America becoming a more equal place.

It is about choice. These KKK individuals have freely chosen to align themselves with a group known for a history of hate. If they wanted to do the Christian thing and love their black neighbours, they would simply do as Jesus commanded. You can feel part of a community by going to church. The KKK is something entirely different. It is not Christian, it is not about love, and its agenda is not good.