Every year since 1829 England’s two oldest, richest and most revered universities hold a boat race on the River Thames in London. Oxford vs Cambridge, two boats (not sure what kind of boats exactly) and two teams of rowers.
Now Cambridge and Oxford are, as I said, the richest, best endowed, most independent and most ancient institutions of higher learning in England. I’ve never been to either, and have never applied or intended to go to either, though I did briefly have a job at Oxford at one point. As such they have become the focus of much query and have rather become victims of the latest phase of the class wars that have engulfed England since – well at least since the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 probably. * (you know, I pulled that date out of my head and it was right! The things you remember from Mediaeval Studies class!)
It’s a fact, and not really a nice fact, that both these top of the line varsities now take the vast majority of their students from the wealthiest sector of the population: the privately-educated. By that I mean people coming to university from private high schools that cost absolutely hugely enormous amounts of money to go there. The ratio of kids graduating from these kind of school is about 18% of the total high school graduate population which is about right given the ratio of people in the country that can afford it (of course the actual number is less, as some of them are not residents but foreign kids just being educated in England.)
Now, I am the first one to support private education. I think that there is a place for public education and a place for private education, especially the specialised kind, and I support private higher education in particular. I think that to denigrate the privately-schooled as “toffs” is so reductionist it marks you as a bigot. In any case, most kids have no say in their education. I was an exception: I categorically refused the private Catholic girl’s school and enrolled myself in a very experimental Summerhill-type, albeit state-run, establishment from which I graduated and went on to a very well-regarded Canadian university. The point is that the local state school, in a well-to-do area, was not doing the job for me for a variety of reasons and so I left (so did my brother, to a different state school.)
However in England today the private high school system is so eyewateringly expensive, and the routes into them beyond being rich are so limited, and the rewards for attending them are so great, that it has become perceived to be a problem by many who are worried about the state of the nation and the general malaise. An ever narrower and narrower group of people are increasingly in charge of the government, the law, the media, the financial services and public policy. People educated together at a few schools and one of two universities are running everything, it seems. This may not be entirely true, but many perceive it to be true, so it is damaging. Damaging because it is unaddressed in any coherent way, and the bad feeling seethes under the surface, creating distrust that turns easily to hatred.
Yesterday, an acquaintance of mine made an intervention into Oxford vs Cambridge boat race. [ http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/apr/08/protester-halts-boat-race?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487 ] He announced on twitter and on his blog that it was an intervention to protest the elitism of the Boat race and the attitudes and people who support it.
I suppose it was a kind of Situationist “disruption.” Instead of the classic placard-waving protest the “disrupter” simply disrupts the event itself, non-violently. Nobody is harmed, but people are prevented from enjoying whatever it was they were there for in the first place. I witnessed a fascinating one years ago: a group went into the middle of a busy Toronto intersection and laid out a picnic which they proceeded to enjoy, stopping the traffic until the police came and chased them away.
My first reaction was to laugh, because I could not care a fig about the boat race. So what? I didn’t think it was a very coherent protest, though. It could not even have been any fun: the Thames is cold and dirty as well as dangerous. Swimming between oars is even more dangerous. What was he thinking? I shrugged.
Then suddenly, the deluge. The Internet was full, I mean full, of the most horrific and vile and largely unrepeatable excoriation of this man. He was attacked for being privately educated (therefore not meant to have an opinion on ‘elitism’?) for being Australian, for being a faux-class warrior, for putting the rowers in danger (though surely, if anyone would be injured it would have been him). He was attacked over and over again for these crimes. Not a single news report gave any nanosecond to considering the crux of what we was actually trying to say with the protest. What was he trying to say? Is it worth discussing?
Then he had the sick psychopathic violent fantasies of a nation rained down upon his head. “The only shame is that one of the rowers’ blades didn’t take this idiot’s head off! He is a cretin and a misguided moron.” (in a national newspaper website) Well that’s one way of saying “I don’t agree with your position and I think you handled it wrongly.” How about, on Twitter “I wish you had been smashed in your smug ugly face with an oar and permanently disfigured you f**king waste of space.” There’s more of this all over the wretched Net but I wont repeat it..
Look, we’re talking about a guy who disrupted a boat race. He didn’t bomb a school full of kids. He didn’t plunder the financial savings of millions leaving them to penury and privation. He didn’t cancel elections or commit electoral fraud. He didn’t claim a position of power then use it to enrich himself and his friends raping the country’ wealth in the process. You, all that stuff that happens EVERY DAY. Nor did he rape anyone, kill anyone or maim anyone.
That’s when I started to think about what he might have been trying to say. I looked at his blog. He was talking about the state of the nation:
the state of exception with Olympics, the wholesale removal of countless civil rights, the project to create fear and suspicion of others, the transfer of our money into the vaults of a handful of corporations, the ongoing wars, the pomp and ceremony for unelected official anniversaries, the amazingly high unemployment, the devastation to public services such as health and education, the isolation of education due to high fees, the entangled corrupt relationship between the media, police and politicians, the racism, the increasing misogyny, the forced labour in supermarkets, the spying on our emails, skype calls, the control of food production and distribution and the reductions of tax burdens for the richest …
Nobody can say that dreadful stories about all of the above abuses have not graced the pages of the national and local press, and been sprayed out of the airwaves, so frequently in the last few years. Every day we have some new story detailing a new corruption, a new abuse, a new dereliction of duty, a new rip-off. But then we move on to the next one and then the next – we don’t see them as being connected. We don’t see any process. We don’t see who is in charge of it, and why and especially HOW.
I don’t necessarily agree with the protester’s analysis. I’d have to look into it more, and I shall. But I find it really chilling that more people seem to be upset, really genuinely angry and upset, by the disruption to the boat race to than to any of the above. One of the rowers, a Rhodes Scholar, tweeted how wretched the protester is, noting “I will not and have not taken the time to peruse his writings so I don’t know what they’re about.” Er, ok – that’s a good position to take for a doctoral candidate. Enquiring mind, and all.
Instead it’s become a personal attack on a man who rightly or wrongly came up with a way of making a point about stuff we should most definitely be talking about. And wishing him death and violence. And bizarrely, it’s become about whether or not you can be “of the left” if you went to this or that school or uni.
So where are we now? Probably nowhere, really
By this time next week everyone will have forgotten this weekend’s group hate, the Australiam “toff” who spoilt a boat race.
But when are we going to talk about what was behind it?
* 1381, Now, that ended in tears and betrayal, a bitter memory.