Nuance is dead. The internet killed it this weekend, bludgeoned it in the head. Then, just to make sure the job was done, we all kept kicking the corpse. Some of us still are.
I am, of course, talking about what happened this weekend. Several hundred (or thousand, depending whom you ask) protestors marched through the capital, starting at Conservative Campaign Headquarters and weaving their way throughout central London. “Tories out!” they shouted, protesting the recently elected Conservative majority and, of course, further austerity cuts promised in the party’s manifesto. “Undemocratic riots” were the words bandied about by Tory supporters on my Twitter feed, in what I can only describe as a complete failing to understand democracy (because the people’s right to assemble and protest government policies is a basic democratic principle) or riots (because it hardly classifies as such, especially compared to 2011 or, you know, Baltimore circa last month). “How dare these people protest a popularly elected government” which received less than 40% of the vote, they huffed. In all, 17 people were arrested, only three more than were arrested at an English Defence League march through Walthamstow the same day, which curiously wasn’t deemed a riot and has barely been mentioned in the national press.
The real controversy, though, surrounds one particular act of civil disobedience. The Monument to the Women of World War II was vandalised, with someone scrawling “Tory Scum” in red paint. Laurie Penny, a contributing editor at the New Statesman and prominent left-wing voice, was unfazed:
Which immediately created a predictable, if unfortunate, shitstorm. Ms Penny was subsequently subjected to days of abuse from people on Twitter, the tabloid press, and that perennial gadfly of the right, Katie Hopkins, who suggested she be made “a woman of ISIS”. What she—a living breathing woman made of flesh and bones and feelings—has been subjected to by “the right” is far worse than what that memorial—made of stone and steel and entirely inanimate—suffered.
But this doesn’t mean I’m sat here condoning vandalising a war memorial. Far from it, as I said Saturday night, echoing Conor Pope of Labour List:
I did – and do – have a problem with what happened. On the same night someone graffitied the memories of our war heroes, I was buying a round for three British soldiers recently returned home. My brother only last month returned from serving in Afghanistan, and before that Iraq. My sister is a veteran. My brother-in-law is still an active duty soldier. My father was a US marine. My great-grandfather served admirably in World War II. I grew up a mile from a United States Air Force Base, where many of my friends’ parents served. I sit on the state board of directors for a veteran’s charity. The military, whether in the US or the UK, is very important to me, as are the sacrifices our brave women and men have made for the countries I love. Vandalising a war memorial is abhorrent, and I can’t believe I have to even say I stand against it, because of course I do.
However, I also stand against austerity. And this is a point I tried to make to Mr Pope. On Monday, he criticised the author and World War II veteran Harry Leslie Smith for the following tweet:
To which Mr Pope had to say this:
Of course, this isn’t what Mr Smith was saying at all. He was trying to bring a bit of perspective, offering – wait for it – nuance to what had, to this point, been widely reported in terms of black and white. You’re either with the vandals who defaced the memory of war heroes or you’re against it. Clearly, from Mr Pope’s tweet, even the moderate wing of the Labour Party was buying into this rhetoric.
But it simply isn’t true, as an exchange between myself, Mr Smith and Mr Pope (amongst others) demonstrates. It’s not enough to simply decry the action of a vandal. We must ask ourselves why. Why would someone desecrate a monument dedicated to the memory of women who fought for our freedoms? Why would hundreds, maybe thousands, of people take to the streets a mere 48 hours after an election? What has so disheartened the public to embolden them to such acts?
Maybe it’s best summed up in a sign that appeared in one Camden Town pub:
Or maybe it’s that the working class are being squeezed out of affordable housing. Or that cuts to benefits and the bedroom tax are starving the poor. Or that under-25s still can’t find a job, as youth unemployment remains 3 times as high as the national average.
Explaining behaviour does not excuse behaviour. What Ms Penny, Mr Smith, and I have tried to do is point out that people are hurting. They’re disaffected, disheartened, and feel deserted. They are also angry, and righteous anger is justified anger. It isn’t that they are “sore losers,” as the headline of Bryony Gordon’s condescending piece at The Telegraph put it. It’s that they’re desperate.
But she goes on:
There is something profoundly cruel about vilifying a person for their democratic choices. When normal people become targets instead of politicians, something has gone very wrong. This then is the real politics of fear and hatred. It is espoused not by the Right, but by the Left. And the people who are going to make the next five years truly unbearable are not the ones who make up the democratically elected government, but the ones who desecrate war memorials…
This is all true, except that no one is doing this. “Tory Scum” is a vague phrase, and to assume it’s an attack on voters and not the government is to assume the protestors don’t understand power structures. And to say that it’s the left peddling fear as opposed to the right is not only incredibly reductionist, but also misses the entire point, which is that neither the “left” (Labour) nor the “right” (Tories) as we’ve previously understood it has actually addressed the gripping fear and seething anger of what is, effectively, the modern underclass. It’s to dismiss righteous anger in favour of the status quo.
And this brings us back to Mr Pope, who in his own way agreed with Ms Gordon’s assessment:
Which is exactly the problem, as I wrote on Saturday. Labour is so dedicated to respectability politics and wooing the middle-class that it’s ignoring the legitimate concerns of workaday Brits. You don’t have to condone desecration of sacred monuments to understand why someone so desperate for a better life might do just that. After all, why would they feel the need to honour a country they feel is ignoring them (at best) or abandoning them (at worst)?
I’m aghast that this happened. I’m disgusted that someone would vandalise a monument to our war dead. It is an insult to the memory of every single person, particularly the women, who fought and died for our freedom. I make no apologies for the person or people who did this.
But I’m also concerned with why they did it. Unlike Mr Pope or Ms Gordon, and indeed the vast majority of the nebulous “middle” and right-wing, I’m not allowing the actions of one, or maybe a few, to negate from the message so many aimed to send.
People are hurting. People are scared. And people are angry. This government, which hasn’t even yet written a Queen’s Speech, ought to ask themselves why.
This blog was updated shortly after publication on 13/5/2015 to include the image referred to as having been taken at a pub in Camden Town as well as a link to the Waltham Forest Guardian story on the EDL march in Walthamstow. The Curious American regrets these omissions.