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Multicultural Man: On listening to public protest

WILL SELF on the culture of public dissent.

Piers Corbyn attends a demonstration in Victoria Square, Birmingham, to protest against coronavirus lockdown restrictions. Photo: Jacob King/PA Archive/PA Images.

It’s a gloomy, minatory afternoon in Parliament Square – and a gaggle of uniformed officers are hanging around on the grass looking simultaneously bored and quite incapable of dealing with any disturbance if it did kick off. Not that that’s likely: the demonstration against the government’s extension of its extraordinary powers to combat the pandemic (which is being debated across the road in the so-called mother of parliaments) has moved on; leaving in its wake Piers Corbyn, who stands on the traffic island in front of the Treasury, looking like some spectral reincarnation Brian Haw while banging on and on and on through a megaphone attached to a portable amplifier about how the vaccines against Covid implant nanobots in your brain that will make you the zombie- tool of reptilians from outer space once the 5G mobile system is fully rolled out across our troubled isle.

Or some such rot – it’s so very difficult to concentrate on what Corbyn says, since he has all the rhetorical flare of a hebephrenic drunk barking at a shouting dog. There are a few other anti-vaxxers left behind – and what a bizarre-looking bunch they are: it’s as if their conflicted ideological position (simultaneously believing that we’re totally controlled, while displaying the most wayward autonomy) has resulted in a sort of internalised culture conflict. This manifests itself in habiliment at once dowdy and daft: tattooed necks and anoraks, or nose rings and sensible black shoes.

I’m in Parliament Square with a group of students to talk to them about the spatialisation of power in the built environment – and as I bang on (and on), one of the anti-vaxxers approaches me: he’s wearing rather bright blue reflective sunglasses, so that as I break off to speak with him it’s as if I’m confronting two tiny alien versions of myself – although hopefully not reptilian paedophile ones.

The man tells me he regards himself as on the moderate wing of the movement: not an unbeliever in the pandemic per se, but convinced sufficiently that the vaccine programme is really a consolidation of state power to forego his own jabs.

Masterful pedagogue that I am, I incorporate the anti-vaxxer into my class, and soon we’re discussing the culture of public dissent.

He’s a regular attendee at Speaker’s Corner, where he tells me that the atmosphere has markedly deteriorated since the PC who for many years policed this contentious beat retired. “And you know what,” the moderate anti-vaxxer trills, “he’s a great big chap – at least six-five – and when he retired I discovered he was a member of the Ancient Order of Druids…”

It makes sense, really – there’s always something occult about whether things kick off or not: I try to convey to my students that the Parliament Square- Whitehall-Trafalgar Square-Buckingham Palace triangle rivals the Bermuda one when it comes to disappearances without trace – although here it’s idealism rather than shipping: from Charles Stuart stepping from the window of the Banqueting Hall on to the scaffold in 1649, to the Poll Tax rioters hurling scaffolding polls at the Special Patrol Group 343 years later.

And as we stroll past Barry’s monumental Government Buildings, the chanting of a distinctly idealistic demonstration opposite the entrance to Downing Street begins to infiltrate the muggy air.

In the allotted compound a riot of red-and-yellow flags and banners: oddly, it’s a white man not unlike Piers Corbyn who mans the megaphone and whips up the Tigrayan protesters. I point out to my students that the presence of people protesting war crimes in a fissiparous nation thousands of miles away in the Horn of Africa underwrites the British Government’s geostrategic ambitions – in a way, it’s as if imperialism and the Great Game never ended.

One of the Tigrayans hands me a leaflet featuring this dread list: “5.2 million need food assistance, 2.2 million internally displaced, 150k civilians killed, 52k sexual assault survivors…” and for a strange moment it merges mentally with the leaflet I was handed by an anti-vaxxer up the road: “Over 1,600 have been killed and a million made very ill or maimed by the jab… 60% of UK ‘Covid deaths’ & 95% of Israeli seriously ill were jabbed… Take to the streets! Take down the jab centres!”

In one case the idealists are responding to a breakdown in public governance and the concomitant explosion of private passions – in the other to a tightening of the state’s vice-like grip on their already screaming psyches. In neither case is there any definitive relationship between what they believe – and how they act. And perhaps this is the only global culture we truly have.

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