Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Media spectacle

Was 9/11 the first time you became aware of the impact of media spectacle on our lives?

Rosemary Bechler Leonie Rushforth
14 June 2021, 7.29am
First to arrive - ‘Van Man’, from Glasgow’s No Evictions Network, under the van, May 13, 2021

Was 9/11 the first time you became aware of the impact of media spectacle on our lives? A few of us, including fans of Godard and the Glasgow Media Research Unit, will have followed Situationist debates around Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and the May ’68 events. Fewer still might have absorbed the critique launched by Douglas Kellner of Debord’s “neo-Marxian perspective on hegemony” for failing to see that media spectacles could also be contested. But nowadays we all need to be much more literate about the timing and presentation of “those attention-grabbing occurrences that we call ‘news’.”

Will the UK be able to “open up fully” on June 21? Will the Indian variant put a spanner in these works? Whatever the data, Johnson is keen on sticking to this date, (conveniently preceded by Joe Biden’s visit to Britain from June 11 -13 for a meeting of the G7), so that he can distract the British people with ‘best friends’ and ‘good news’ stories, presumably until they have forgotten to care about the handling of covid-19, roughly estimated to coincide with the promised public enquiry in the spring of 2022.

Very occasionally, as Gerry Hassan reminded openDemocracy in his heartwarming article on May 18 – ‘It’s not often you defeat Priti Patel’: Will Glasgow be a wake-up call?’ people manage to give the powers that be a taste of their own medicine.

He is reporting on the spontaneous uprising of the Kenmure Street local community in Glasgow a few days earlier that had prevented the deportation of two young Sikhs by the UK Border Van police. The media spectacle crossed the globe on twitter, but Hassan is only able to tell us the true scale of Patel’s defeat because he lives “one minute away” and responding to the call to join the protest, was “met by friends and acquaintances I had known for three decades”:

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First he fills us in on just how organised this spontaneous uprising was, with the ‘Van Man’ from Glasgow’s No Evictions network arriving within minutes to secure the next eight hours of stand-off and gathering support:

Then he introduces us to “my turf” in all its diversity – to Glasgow, “an arrival city for communities from around the world – Irish, Italian, Pakistani, and Sikh, to name only the most obvious”; Pollockshields – “Glasgow’s and Scotland’s most diverse, multi-cultural community… also home to rich mix of arts, culture, and younger folk”; and not least to “Glasgow Southside’s proud tradition of opposing racists and fascists”.

Nothing could be further from the Monocultural National Us cultivated against Muslims, migrants, the undeserving poor and now ‘Europeans’ by Patel’s Home Office and Johnson’s government.

But he closes with a warning that this is not the last we are going to hear from the infuriated Home Office and Conservative politicians on this issue.

* * *

And he was right. The initial reaction was somewhat hasty – according to a BBC reporter, a Home Office source condemned the evidently peaceful protestors as a law-breaking ‘mob’. But the word was quickly picked up in the Telegraph report, despite an abundance of social media clips showing a masked, good-natured and largely seated crowd surrounding the police van all day that pretty successfully neutralised the state’s first attempt at a re-cast.

Home Secretary Priti Patel during a National Crime Agency operation in east London. Wednesday May 19, 2021. | Alamy. All rights reserved.

A week later, on May 19, the Home Office released images of its more considered response – pictures of a National Crime Agency raid in East London, targeting ‘high-harm offenders’.

Tweets accompanying the above image explain that the two men arrested were ruthless traffickers. Never mind the chef and mechanic the Pollockshields protestors had defended with the chant: These are our neighbours! Let them go! – this picture tells us you never know who you’re living next door to. Those people you nod to when you’re hanging up the washing? You don’t in fact live in a community. These could be your neighbours, these and the ‘rapists and murderers’ Patel referred to in her speech to right-wing immigration think tank Bright Blue on May 24.

On the East London raid, Patel elaborated; the men arrested were offenders ‘treating innocent lives as a commodity, lining their pockets while people die.’ (a risky turn of phrase you might think, in the light of new facts emerging revealing Patel’s part in securing huge PPE contracts for Tory friends and contacts).

On this occasion the Home Secretary was present in person, or in persons, like the medieval conception of the king’s two bodies, the actual mortal body and the symbolic body that ensures continuity of power.

Hers the only face not obscured by pixellation, she is there to be recognized and to make doubly sure wears a uniform with ‘Home Secretary’ emblazoned on the jacket pocket. She is the embodiment of the deporting border-controlling state.

In a refining detail, she has kept on her everyday shoes, reminding us of the other incarnation of the Home Secretary – a woman of the material world with her feet on the ground, daughter of immigrants whose actions (NB Kenmure St) cannot possibly be anti-immigrant. Drama, history – essential spectacle.

Postscript – significant dates

The Kenmure St arrests in themselves contained a menacing element of government theatre – further proof if any were needed of the Government’s interest in dates. They were timed to take place on Eid al-Fitr. The significance will not have escaped Muslims living in Pollockshields.

June 21, Opening Up Day. This of course is not any old day. It’s the summer solstice, the longest day and the beginning of summer, a portal – the dreamy midsummer night when human beings are free to transcend the limitations of their world and enter new ones. The Prime Minister, as we have recently learned, has been busy writing a biography of Shakespeare.

This article was originally published in the June edition of Splinters.

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