Don’t Ban Morris Dancers Who ‘Black Up’

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Flagcrackers’ George Speller and daughter Lucy

Shrewsbury Folk Festival has banned Morris dancing teams from wearing full-face black make-up as part of its routine.  Under threat of legal action from the quango FRESH (Fairness and Racial Equality in Shropshire), the festival felt compelled to ban the acts but have expressed hope the issue can be discussed in public.  And now it has been reported in local press and the Daily Telegraph.  Although FRESH’s discovery that the Shrewsbury Folk Festival is actually a seething hotbed of ‘Hate’ runs counter to the impression of everyone who attends, FRESH’s principles include ‘challenging oppressive and discriminatory views and behaviour’.  In their view, the tradition of ‘border Morris’ which has involved the use of black make up for half a millennium is a bit like the ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’ that existed on the BBC up to the 1978 when it had become a source of sensitivity and embarrassment.  The BBC show however did at least warrant certain allegations of insensitivity since the blacked-up characters did behave in racially stereotypical ways that many in society were wanting to challenge.  That is unlike border Morris.  The BWM show at its peak attracted 21 million viewers, but notably it was never banned by authorities or threatened with legal action.  There were petitions and complaints against it, but the decision to axe it wasn’t quite authoritarian, it simply reflected a changing social landscape.

Contrast this with FRESH’s approach to border Morris.  FRESH, although it calls itself a community group, has no roots in the community.  It only has 30 members, nearly half of whom are Directors, and liaises most of the time with authorities such as the police.  The notion they should target a harmless traditional activity, mistakenly seeing it as a far-right racist campaign, is blatantly a misuse of anti-racist resources.  Real racism consists in things such as the police deporting minorities back to places like Somalia, broader immigration controls, or violent wars being waged against people of colour, all things FRESH is silent over.  They ignore real racism and invent it in the sphere of innocuous entertainment.

Further proof that border Morris is part of a cultural tradition rather than an expression of

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The Black and White Minstrel Show – superficial similarities obscure contextual differences

modern-day racism lies in the realm of historical study.  The very term ‘Morris’ is derived from ‘Moorish’, an allusion to the Moors of Morocco.  Morris dancing as has evolved since the 1500s was partly a fusion of Basque inspired imitation of Moroccan dance and even older English pagan rituals of the battle between Summer and Winter, hence the emphasis on the contrast between light and dark.  None of these sources of influence are remotely like modern-day racism any more than dancing ‘Gangnam Style’ is ‘racist’ against South Korea.

There are three main harms that have occurred by the Shrewsbury Folk Festival ban.  1) they have curtailed people’s enjoyment.  2) they have banned a cultural expression on the spurious grounds they think it expresses the ‘wrong’ sort of politics.  Through doing so, they are politicising art, just as the totalitarian one party state in China polices ‘immoral art’.  So it is harmful to society.  3) they have slandered Morris dancers such as the Flagcrackers of Craven (a team who were considering taking part at Shrewsbury), as ‘racist’.  But Morris dancers are the gentlest folk you could hope to meet – the idea they are closet racists is grossly offensive and insulting.  This is harmful to the individual when done by a quasi-state entity.

May the black faces long dance up and down the country, and may the FRESH faces be sent to Bedlam.

 

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Brexit, Low Wages, and The Myth of Working Class Racism

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Part of the elitist backlash against the UK’s popular vote to leave the EU involves castigating the voters for being backward knuckle-dragging racists, or in a milder form, that they are xenophobic. This blog seeks to refute those ideas.

We are told there has been a 57% increase in racist incidents since the referendum. Yet this ‘spike’ does not reveal the far right is on the march, the figure eludes the truth that the number of reported racist incidents rose to 85 in a four-day period from 54 four weeks prior. This kind of up-and-down is not uncommon throughout a normal year. And photos circulated on Twitter regarding far right activity ignore the truth these same protestors have been doing the same thing week on week, they are not new, but they are now advertised by liberal broadsheets intent on finding an upsurge in working class racism.

The second way the political class seek to demonise the masses is by pointing to opinion polls that show up to 23% of Leave voters want to send East Europeans back to their native countries. However, this is a minority. It amounts to just over 4 million voters which wouldn’t be enough to change policy in the democracy that the broader Brexit campaign envisaged.

But more importantly, in the absence of a real rise in racist incidents, to what extent is this 23% of Leave voters truly racist? Not at all, in this blogger’s opinion. If you actually speak to workers who express this sentiment, what you will find is they hate the fact their areas are socially deprived, that their wages are low, that life only seems to be getting worse year on year. The way they understand this is because they have been told for ages (including by the Labour Party), that it is the fault of immigrants coming over here. Of course this isn’t the real reason, but what else could they be expected to believe?

Indeed, many economics professors no longer espouse the labour theory of value that holds that the value of all commodities is determined by the socially necessary labour time that goes into their construction. It is fashionable now in academia to say that value is only subjective. As an anecdote, to refute this argument against a leading professor in Oxford who I met in a pub there, I said “ok, so I’ll order us drinks and only pay 2p, because that’s all I think they’re worth. Barman! Give us two pints for 2p!” Of course he refused. “Do it!” I demanded, “the veritable professor of economics says value is only subjective and I think that’s all it’s worth!” For fear of being kicked out, I calmed the situation down, but the professor still stormed off in a huff. Oh well.

So how does this relate to alleged working class racism? Well given that economics is in such a parlous state where no theory is even possible once objectivity is ruled out, then how the heck are workers supposed to understand the fact that life seems to be getting worse? The symbol of the immigrant taking jobs and depressing wages really does appear as the only explanation. Yet still the working class are so noble, they do not act on this prejudice in hostile ways, but being polite, they simply cast their ballot in a way that will give them more control over their lives. And they are right about that, Brexit will do that. All we need now are political leaders who are less shifty than the current crop, and actually implement Article 50 to take us out of the EU, so real debate, democracy, and progress can actually occur.

Indeed, as a final note on ‘progress’, I would suggest that the real reason for depressed wages and declining living standards is the loss of conviction in the merits of progress upon the part of the political class. Bereft of ideas to take society forward, we have a fairly stagnant economy. In these conditions the value of the most important commodity – labour power – cannot rise. The value of labour power, i.e. what capitalists pay the workers, is determined by the socially necessary labour time that goes into sustaining that human being at a socially acceptable rate. But if society stagnates and progress becomes a taboo word, then it is no wonder that wages also have to stagnate. That’s the material basis of working class anger today, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with racism.