Tuesday, 16 August 2011

3 Lessons from History and Current Affairs

I am currently looking at three posters and going back in time as I do.

The first one is from one of the many anarchist blogs that I read. The blogger, Ian Bone, posts compulsively and has a long train of followers. His thoughts are explosive and controversial, sometimes questionable (for example I don’t expect him to change his mind about the recent riots in the UK but I do wish he would take a step back and review his assessment of the rioters as a revolutionary force – to my mind that is ascribing motives to them that they did not have, or at best didn’t know they had), but always worth reading.

The poster advertises a forthcoming protest to take place outside Eton College. The illustration demonstrates the scattergun approach of the blog. The poster mentions Eton, the illustration pertains to Oxford.

 It shows the Bullingdon Club of a few years ago. The Bullingdon Club is a socially exclusive dining club for the sons of the rich and influential. In the picture above amongst the formally-dressed, indolent loungers is the young David Cameron (now Prime Minister of Great Britain) and Boris Johnson (now Mayor of London). The behaviour of members of the Bullingdon Club is often mentioned these days in comparison and contrast to the recent inner-city rioters. I shall give some examples. 12th May 1894[1] and 20th February 1927[2] were two occasions when club members, after dinner, smashed almost all the glass of the lights and 468 windows in Peckwater Quad of Christ Church, along with the blinds and doors of the building. Andrew Gimson, biographer of Boris Johnson, reported about the club in the 1980s: "I don't think an evening would have ended without a restaurant being trashed and being paid for in full, very often in cash. [...] A night in the cells would be regarded as being par for a Buller man and so would debagging anyone who really attracted the irritation of the Buller men."[3] There is also an unverifiable quote currently circulating on Facebook, attributed to David Cameron: “Things got out of hand & we’d had a few drinks. We smashed the place up and Boris set fire to the toilets.” And yes, this is the same David Cameron who said recently about less-socially-favoured smashers and burners: "The looting and arson last night were criminality, pure and simple. Justice will be done and the people will see the consequences for their crimes”. I know it’s a comparison that has been milked and milked lately so I’ll leave it at that.

The second poster I’m looking at is this one from 1942, which announces the internment of Japanese-Americans in the Presidio of San Francisco CA following the attack on Pearl Harbour. It does not relate directly to the first poster except that it is of historical interest. I came across it whilst researching the photography of Dorothea Lange who documented the 1930s and 40s in America, focusing on the conditions of the then-socially-excluded such as migrant workers, people of Japanese heritage, etc.

The final poster is one of which I can’t find an image. It dates from 1912 and contains the following words: “Soldiers, don’t betray your class. You may soon be ordered to open fire upon Workers. Refuse!” It was the publication of this poster by British syndicalists[4] which resulted in the cause célèbre of the so-called ‘Syndicalist Trials’ of 1912, at which the Incitement To Mutiny Act 1797 was invoked and used to prosecute and silence trade union activists.

The reason I am drawing these three things together is this. Even in states that pride themselves on their ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ the law can be used as a spiked bludgeon to stifle political dissent. They can be used against whole sections of society bluntly and indiscriminately. I want to sound a warning and to sound it now. I want people to bear in mind that any new laws, any toughening of existing law, any resurrection of archaic law, any hike in sentencing policy, that are now used against the recent rioters in Britain – people for whom there is little public sympathy and against whom there is understandable anger – will be used in the future as a threat against dissent and activism. It is inevitable.


[1] New York Times, 13th May 1894.

[2] J G Sinclair, A Portrait of Oxford, 2007

[3] BBC News: Cameron photo is banned, 2nd March 2007.

[4] Actually I am not sure whether it was ever published as a poster. It was certainly published in the January 1912 issue of The Syndicalist.

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