The paradox at the heart of human nature was laid bare last week. On Saturday, SpaceX and NASA launched two astronauts to orbit aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft. It was awesome to watch it soar with a ground-shaking rumble on a fabulous plume of flames. I prayed it wouldn't explode into tiny fragments. On Sunday, similarly awestruck, I watched the spacecraft docking with the International Space Station. Most of the time, like most other humans, I am consumed with the humdrum world of intricate human relations both big and small. Putting ourselves into orbit underscores just what an astonishing little animal we are.
But the timing of the launch and docking also brought into sharp relief what hateful little creatures we can be. Because back here on Earth – in the very country which afforded us this space spectacle – the most appalling scenes of racism and violence filled our screens in the aftermath of the police killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd. Violence fuelled, of course, by the grotesque who inhabits the Whitehouse. The President of a country who thrilled us with its engineering prowess as it lifted our wondrous gaze to the skies, a few days later teargassed peaceful protestors to clear the way for his unhinged photo-op, clutching an unread bible upside-down in front of a church, having promised to activate his country's military might against his own people. Optimism that Homo sapien's better nature will triumph over our base instincts is in short supply in this tense, frightening world we inhabit.
The Angry Dance
On Sunday, basketball legend Michael Jordan posted a public message for protestors fighting for justice across the US: 'I am deeply saddened, truly pained and plain angry. I see and feel everyone's pain, outrage and frustration. I stand with those who are calling out the ingrained racism and violence toward people of color in our country. We have had enough'. Anyone who has watched the excellent TV documentary series The Last Dance
will understand why this is quite the statement from Jordan. An intensely private man dunked into global fame by his sporting genius, he rarely spoke out on politics until later in life.
Jordan was a 'wide eyed' country lad from rural North Carolina, 'scared to death when he got to Chicago' to play for the Bulls. He became an African American global icon, yet remained apolitical. A comment he made during a 1990 Senate race in North Carolina has dogged him throughout his career. Jordan refused to endorse Democrat Harvey Gantt, an African American who was running against notorious racist, Republican Jesse Helms. Jordan explained his refusal to endorse Gantt with his now infamous quip: 'Republicans buy sneakers too'. He has never been fully forgiven for his 'joke' as he called it. He never thought of himself as an activist or a politician. He was a basketball player, for God's sake.
Wesley Morris in The New York Times
highlighted what he sees as a difference between Jordan's place in the culture and that of Obama and Ali: 'Jordan is as important but less transcendent,' he wrote. 'Less polarising, less political, therefore less politicised'. Being less politicised has obviously caused Jordan anxiety. Critics made caustic comments such as 'racists wear sneakers too' and 'Michael Jordan has the biggest platform but never uses his voice'. In his retirement he has supported NFL players kneeling on one knee in public, raised funds for Obama and donated millions to charities designed to rebuild trust between police and black communities. No wonder he is plain angry today. He has found his voice.
Veil of ignorance
It's easy for white Glaswegians to be plain angry about the harrowing scenes and despair among the African American population. What else can we do? An impressive clip is circulating on social media of activist Jane Elliot speaking to a large audience of white people. She asks a question: 'If you white folks would be happy to be treated the way black people are treated in this society: please stand'. The entire audience remained seated and silent. Eliot responds, 'Nobody is standing. That says very plainly that you know what's happening. You know you don't want it for you. I want to know why you are willing to allow it to happen for others'.
As one commentator said, Elliot's thought experiment was Rawlsian in spirit. In his work, A Theory of Justice
, political philosopher John Rawls suggests that principles of justice are most easily seen if you imagine yourself designing the society in which you will live but without knowing anything about yourself, your abilities, your sex, your race, your social and economic class, and so on. In a word, you know nothing of your identity. From this position, Rawls claims, we would choose to design our society on basic principles of impartiality and fairness. It sounds a simple-enough thought experiment, but in a world consumed by identity, it is difficult to imagine yourself behind a veil of ignorance. But never has it been more critical to try.
A secret history
The plight of people of colour – whether in Minneapolis, Paris, London, Tokyo, or Beijing – is 'civilised' society's human stain. What do we do about it? In Glasgow, these shameful, plantation owner's street names should be removed: Ingram, Dunlop, Buchanan, Glassford… every one of them. Perhaps a better suggestion, as many hold, is to place plaques underneath each street sign at eye-level, giving an account of the name's provenance. I'm not entirely convinced: if we can change Royal Exchange Square to Nelson Mandela Place, shamefully name a trendy area the 'Merchant City', we can replace Ingram Street. Those who propose plaques worry that removing existing street signs will further the 'whitewashing' of Glasgow's dirty, secret history.
Aamer Anwar, Scottish human rights lawyer experienced the city's 'whitewashing' on a visit to the Necropolis cemetery. 'It hit me when I read the descriptions of the many merchants buried there who built their fortunes on slavery and empire. But there was no mention of that, not even in the City Council’s notice at the front gate.' Can you imagine, Jane Elliot style, how offensive it must have been that not a mention was made of slavery as the driving force for wealthy Scots who made their fortunes from cotton and tobacco?
It was heartening to read that last year Susan Aitken, our current Council leader, announced funding for an academic study which will make recommendations on how the city should mark and respond to its legacy of slavery. Let's hope they propose something is done about those street names. More ambitious would be to follow Liverpool's example and install a museum of slavery and trade or, at the very least, a national archive. Anything less would be meaningless to the people for whom we seek to make reparations. Glasgow must do better.