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Weekend reads: Poverty Safari
A Q&A with rapper, author and political commentator Darren McGarvey
In 2019, I was in an airport gift shop in Dublin when I came across a remarkable book. That book was Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass, by the Scottish rapper Darren McGarvey, whose stage name is Loki.
By then, I was back living in my hometown of Vancouver, at the epicentre of the Canadian progressive left — and reeling from the impacts of the city’s runaway housing crisis, which highlighted significant class blindspots in the communities I’d grown up in. As I struggled to cope with skyrocketing rents, and rising tensions among the half of us in the population that didn’t own property, I began to question the financially-privileged radicals of Lotus Land, who championed “woke” politics while ignoring renters’ mounting desperation.
But it was not until I read McGarvey’s analysis that my own started to come into focus.
As many of you know, I started my journalism career in hip-hop. The music and culture has profoundly shaped who I am. So it’s probably no surprise that it was a rapper who helped me to think through my disillusionment with the progressive left. And who showed me what it looks like to make such critiques publicly, while still affirming the need for greater equality in society — especially economic equality.
Hip-hop is now pop culture, and thus many things to many people. But it is an art form that originally emerged out of conditions rife with despair. Post-industrialization, urban neglect, and growing economic inequality; stressed home lives and heightened community violence; a lack of quality education, safe housing, adequate access to healthy food and decent job opportunities. And, with the war to censor rap in the 90s, the erosion of basic rights like freedom of expression.
The music articulated what it felt like to be abandoned, even despised, by a wider society.
But rap music is not a soundtrack of victimization. Far from it. It is defiantly pro-agency. It is about action in the face of adversity. It is about hard work and hustle and heart. It is about asserting one’s own voice, whether it is welcome or not.
At its very best, it is, too, about ending destructive cycles: of street violence, family dysfunction, addiction. About overcoming odds.
Hip-hop, then, is about taking the mess of life and making something beautiful from it. It is, at its core, about the exquisite struggle to be human in an inhumane world.
Hip-hop is very much working-class art; it does not conform to elite tastes and sensibilities. And McGarvey is very much a working-class artist.
His criticisms of the current cultural moment — this weekend, I started reading his latest book, The Social Distance Between Us: How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain, which he’s currently on tour for — are deeply original and deeply attuned to the concerns of working people.
McGarvey grew up in the Pollok housing estate in Glasgow, surrounded by poverty and violence and addiction, as well as music and art and community. In his post-Brexit book, Poverty Safari, he offers a master class in complicating the narratives about the British underclass and its politics. And, as is the case with so many independent thinkers of our time, he takes considerable heat for it, from both the left and the right.
I tracked down McGarvey shortly after I read his book, and we spoke for an hour on the phone, about everything from mass immigration and #MeToo and masculinity, to addiction and personal responsibility and hope. Here is an edited and condensed version of that 2019 conversation.
TH: One of the things your book does so well is show how some behaviours, that may look irrational to people on the outside, have their own logic. In the opening chapters you talk about prisons, for example, and how violence that looks like senseless brutality is actually communicating other things … You wrote, too, about how being steeped in violence, on the streets, in the home, at school, et cetera, limits other forms of emotional expression, to the point where people are wearing the same clothes and speaking the same. Talk to me about how you have untangled [yourself] from that conformity.
DM: One of the things that was fortunate for me was the fact that, as much things were difficult in relation to my mother’s alcoholism, I did have a lot of supportive and nurturing people in my family as well. And my family all have an artistic streak, so we were always around people who were drawing pictures or playing guitars. There’s a Celtic folk tradition in my family. When we would get together, people would sing songs and do little bits. For me, that brought me into conflict with the rest of the community. Where not everyone, but a high enough number of people, were brought up in environments where showing emotion was a kind of vulnerability — unless you were showing anger.
When you go to school, in your teenage years, that’s when peer pressure is beginning to come into play. I was always adamant that I was going to be who I was, and that I wasn’t going to be dictated to. But just being yourself comes with a cost, from whatever lines you choose to speak, to the activities that you choose to engage in. Playing musical instruments. Getting involved in drama classes. There would always be this assumption that you were less of a man if you showed emotion, if you shed a tear, if you played in a brass band. You know, these things that I used to do. Some of them, I gave up because the pressures were a bit too high.
But thankfully, I got into hip-hop. Hip-hop is an interesting middle ground. Because hip-hop emerges out of violence, as an alternative to violence. So, it’s an artistic expression, but it’s one that’s regarded as an expression of masculinity. It meets this double criteria, where on one hand it’s artistic, but on the other hand it’s kind of tough and cool. I think, out of all the reasons that I would have chosen that as an art form that I would become most passionate about, it’s obvious that hip-hop resonated with me not only necessarily just artistically — through what other artists were talking about, which really resonates with me — but also its practical utility in my own life. Unlike playing the trumpet, being able to rap was actually perceived as pretty cool.
TH: When did you start learning about the physical effects of poverty and violence? The over-activated stress response, for instance, and how that impacts kids.
DM: That came in my teenage years and my early twenties, when I became interested in why some people fared better than others — at school, for example. You know, it wasn’t until I left Pollok as a teenager, and ventured into other areas of the city, that I realized that there were massive differences in the quality of circumstances for people. Until I left Pollok, I just assumed everywhere was the same. So I wasn’t really aware of inequality until I seen how well other people were doing in more affluent communities. And then it just seemed like a matter of urgency to understand why.
TH: For people who haven’t read up on the over-stimulated stress response, can you explain how that works.
DM: Essentially, we have a stress response that’s part of our nature. It’s part of the reason why we survived for so long. When we become stressed, we become adrenalized. We have a heightened sense of what is going on, and a lot of our other systems go offline. Our reasoning, for example, goes offline. How we respond becomes a matter of intuition in the moment. This is obviously an evolutionary advantage when we’re dealing with other aspects of what human life used to be like, before more complex societies emerged. But in a complex age such as ours, where a lot of the immediate dangers have been removed, or mitigated in some way, we still have a lot of the same biological software that we did earlier in our evolution.
When the stress response kicks in, it has a profound impact on us hormonally, psychologically. Everything from how our body stores fat, to the range of responses that we’ve got in any given situation. But when children grow up in a more hostile environment, then they are subjected to a stress response more constantly. Which normally means they are living in constant stress emotionally, but also that they might find it harder to adjust to normality. That might lead to them feeling a sense of discomfort when there is no stress, when there’s nothing to be frightened about …
The hyper-vigilance associated with trauma in early years becomes like a misfiring spider sense later on in life. You find it difficult to settle. You have a sense of impending calamity. Or anxiety. Making it likelier that you will enjoy the effects of alcohol, or any other substance or activity that relieves stress. Because you’re finding an emotional comfort level that a lot of other people experience naturally, that’s eluded you because of your upbringing.
TH: In your book, you also write about high-rise housing, and how that came out of utopian appeals. Why do you think that social experiment has failed?
DM: There’s a few reasons why high-rise housing has failed, and it’s not because of high-rise housing itself — the design of it, or the concept of it. We see a lot of other similarly-designed architecture functioning really well … It’s a confluence of two things. One is that the people who have designed these buildings haven’t historically consulted very much with the people who are going to be living in them. So, then they develop the communities, how they are designed, to reflect everything those professionals misunderstand about the needs of human beings in densely populated areas.
The idea is that all we need is shelter, and a certain quality of material comfort — and everything else will iron itself out. When actually, most high-rise communities emerge from slum conditions. And while those conditions were undesirable, communities forged very deep social ties and bonds in those communities. They knew one another. There was a sense of common destiny. When you clear a slum or you demolish a block, and you build new houses, and you disperse a community, what you’ve done is you’ve severed all those social ties.
In poorer communities, people tend — though not always — to know each other, to depend on their neighbours for different things. When you sever social ties, you dial back a lot of the social progress of a community. Which can’t really be measured objectively in the traditional ways, because it’s all about a sense of belonging. It’s all about a sense of who you are in relation to what’s going on around you …
Then, when you’re putting a high concentration of people with low incomes who are dealing with stress, and the outside world is offering less and less opportunities, then it’s natural that they become ghettos of idleness. And become demoralized.
And if you’ve got an economic system that’s all about supply and demand, and efficiency and profit, then the demands that need to be supplied in communities under a lot of stress are reflected in the local shops. Which often consist of off-licenses. Or the black market, where there’s drugs available. Book makers, gambling, bingo halls, fast food places. It’s just a recipe for social deprivation and poor health and a general sense of alienation. People become rudderless within their own communities, because they have no sense of connection to what’s going on. That can be disorienting for human beings, who traditionally, for all of our recent evolutionary history, have functioned on a communitarian basis.
TH: You make the point in the book, too, that a lot of the charities that are serving these communities — their whole reason-to-be is to keep that charity going and keep paying people’s salaries. So, they wouldn’t be in business if poverty didn’t exist.
DM: Well, yeah, and it’s not necessarily the fault of the charities. There’s been a kind of marketization of everything, and community life. So, it’s the supply and demand thing again, isn’t it? Where’s the incentive to eradicate social problems, when organizations expand and people are rewarded for managing them? That’s just problematic, inherently. But that’s just a feature of our capitalist system that’s unfettered. I realize there’s benefits and advantages to the liberalization of markets, in some respects. But when you start dealing with human health, then you start to realize that the incentives become quite distorted. Because sometimes it becomes profitable, or more lucrative, for the problem to continue in some form …
I think we just become accustomed to the fact that there are problems. We just believe that these problems are inevitable. But what we find is, the more that time passes, the bigger these poverty industries become. I just don’t think that that’s sustainable in the long term. I think that there should always be supports in place. But you have charities that bed with one another, for example, to provide methadone programs, recovery programs, pharmacies to provide methadone. I’m not saying that everybody making a profit from it is underhanded, in any way, [but] I do think we’ve become desensitized to the massive sums of money, and the transactions that are taking place. Also, how many jobs depend on poverty existing, and all the attendant problems associated with poverty.
It’s a massive cornerstone of any advanced economy — just providing all the services, products, and everything that comes along with it. So, naturally, it just seems like a fact to point out: If you were to disappear poverty one day, you would be looking at some sort of economic downturn, mass unemployment. It just doesn’t make sense.
I wish we could acknowledge the problem, and be more honest about it. But it’s a subject that a lot of people are sensitive to discussing. Because we feel that by pointing that out, you’re implying that they are in some way motivated by the profit. Or motivated by the advancement [of the problem]. But actually, everyone, you’re just born into a system, and there are only certain pathways out there that we can adopt. And that’s the same for charities. They get into the charities because they want to make a change and then realize it’s not really set up to change things. It’s more about tweaking the knobs.
TH: We’re seeing populist movements across the working classes in Britain, and in the U.S. and Canada. Why is the left failing the poor in such big ways right now?
DM: There’s a conflict in the left between the economic and social conditions which give rise to immigration concerns, and the anti-racism movement, which is obviously equally as important to many people on the left.
For me, I don’t think they necessarily come into conflict in the way that a lot of other people seem to have thought in the aftermath of Brexit, and Donald Trump, for example. There are certain types of immigration concerns which are quite valid for people to express on the left. It’s okay for left-wing people to complain about student flats being built everywhere, and that process of gentrification and low-quality housing, where landlords turns a massive profit building accommodation for foreign students to come and study. It’s okay to complain about how many tourists visit town centres, the level of pollution. The impact it has on transport, on housing. Airbnb.
But for some reason — even though complaining about those things is just acknowledging that an impact is felt whenever there is a sudden spike in population, whether it is permanent or temporary — it’s regarded as more sensitive. It’s regarded as more taboo. It’s regarded as more prejudiced to express a concern about the impact of immigration, in communities where public services, and housing, and education, are already under tremendous strain …
[Personally,] I don’t see immigration as a problem. In my experience, immigration has been largely positive. There were weeks and months where my family wouldn’t have eaten if it wasn’t for the generosity of Asian shop owners giving us credit on our groceries. Racism wasn’t tolerated in our household, nor was slang. Therefore, people didn’t use it. So I didn’t grow up around that. But that’s not the experience that everyone has. And while I condemn immigration concern that seems to be just phobia — veiled behind an authentic immigration concern — I do think that there are sincere immigration concerns out there and it’s important for the left to become willing to discern between those different concerns. Because they aren’t going away.
TH: Your critique of identity politics, and how that works on the Internet, was also interesting to read.
DM: While I have been critical of how this stuff finds expression online, I don’t think that the problems with online “callout culture” are inherent to left-wing politics or intersectionality or feminism, or anything like that. I think that’s human behaviour. We can see there’s a version of callout culture for every political persuasion. We can see that there’s a version of being dismissive of the opposing point of view. It’s just depending on which politics you claim [as] the lexicon for doing that. The moral red lines that you don’t want to see transgressed may be different.
But I think, for people on the left, there’s got to be a kind of balance between saying, “Okay, I get that you are advocating on behalf of a particular group. And I get that you feel strongly about x, y and z. But also, you’re not going to get anywhere unless people in poorer communities are on board.” There’s not enough thought being given to how this stuff intersects with people who haven’t been educated in Ivy League schools. For me, that is just inherently problematic. I believe in equality of gender. Equality of race. And even in the last couple of years, since I wrote the book, my view that we have a long way to go on those issues has strengthened.
It’s just that politics that just exist online are politics that — people don’t realize that while they might have good intentions for doing this, what they are actually doing is extracting value for themselves, by being performative activists online. And actually, that is a very capitalist way of behaving. Like, “Here is the current issue, I am going to make a big song and dance about how strongly I feel about it. Because this has big social appeal for me.”
I think a lot of times people — and I include myself in this — we look at our society and we see what we are collectively about as being very modern, and very intelligent, and very sophisticated, and we kind of conflate that with our own individual intelligence. When actually, as individuals, we’re still falling into a lot of the same pitfalls as we were in Medieval times.
You know, the Medieval public square, where people are demanding for people to be hung, drawn and quartered. And some kind of queen is retreating into the palace, surrounded by advisors, like, “What are we going to do? These nutcases out there are going to go mad. We better throw them some red meat, you know?” I think that we see a lot of that now. Where people will get angry at a decision that a corporation makes, or a company makes, or a political party makes, and before there’s been any investigation into what is actually going on, press releases go out and news panels are done and there’s this sense of panic that grips everyone. I just don’t know if that’s always the best way to go about it. There’s a massive amount of collateral damage that is done, a lot of the time, when that’s how we conduct politics …
I think that on the left, those of us who are as interested in economic equality as we are about racial equality and gender equality, I think we’re beginning now to develop the courage, and also the arguments, to stand our ground when we come up against the more hysterical forms of activism.
Also, it’s important for me to remember that I’m 34 years old. And while I may feel like I’m young, I’m not a young person anymore. A lot of what we see, when it comes to activism, is youth culture. And young people almost have a license to be annoying. It would be terribly hypocritical of me — someone who has made a career out of making middle-class people uncomfortable — to come around to a bunch of teenaged feminists, say, and tell them they’ve got to stop doing what they’re doing because they make me feel uncomfortable …
I feel like there is a lot to learn from identity politics, as much as sometimes it’s uncomfortable, and sometimes it’s annoying. I just don’t think that we should dismiss things, just because they are annoying and there are elements of it that are ridiculous, or extreme. So, I try to take from identity politics what I think it useful, and try to challenge myself to think harder when sometimes my instinct is to be dismissive.
But also, I’m getting a bit more confident about saying, “Look, I’m sorry, I think actually you just might be a head case who’s using a protected group to air out your own little, whatever it is you’re airing out.” You know? Because there are just as many sociopaths on the left as there are everywhere else in society. I’m proof of that!
TH: The last thing I wanted to ask you about was personal responsibility, especially in regards to addiction and your recovery from it, because you wrote about that a fair bit. What I’m curious, where is the line? Sometimes the focus on personal responsibility can breed political passivity.
DM: Well, the argument for personal responsibility arises out of the very stark reality that no help is coming. So it’s not necessarily my factory-setting to make that argument. It’s just from a very honest assessment of the current political/social/economic landscape. To say, “Things are going to get worse before they get better. And so, we have a choice. Are we going to try and adapt where we can, in order to shorten the period of discomfort and distress that we experience? Or are we going to succumb to it?”
The left obviously has a hard time discussing the issue of personal responsibility, in the neoliberal period. Because individualism has become the salient idea of our time. [It’s all about] if you can just put all your Coke bottles in the recycling bin, then maybe we’ll be able to stop global warming, and that fallacy. The idea that personal choices can have some sort of massive impact at a global level. While I think that is sometimes the case, I realize that is basically bullshit. So I’m not buying into that.
What I’m talking about is people who are suffering, people who are struggling, people for whom there is not going to be a lot of help coming. It’s a choice. It’s not fair, but it’s something we have to ask ourselves.
One of the things that I think is ironic about the fact that I get criticized about this on the left, is that that conversation we just had about #MeToo and gender and masculinity? Well, what am I being asked as a man, by people on the left, is to take responsibility for my conduct. I’m being asked to take responsibility for how I speak. I’m being asked to take responsibility for my past, for my present, for my future, for other men in my community. I’m being asked to challenge other male behaviour, and potentially put myself at risk in doing so. That is a call to my conscience to take responsibility for my behaviour and recognize that there are consequences for that behaviour on other people, and me.
So, I just don’t understand why it’s okay to make those kinds of arguments … but you can’t say to someone who is struggling with a methadone addiction or an opioid addiction that it doesn’t matter how many services are being provided, there has to be an act of self-will in order to engage with those services or nothing happens — there’s no change. Actually, on the ground, in the grassroots, that’s a powerful message.
A lot of people on the left say to me, “It’s just a phrase, personal responsibility. Can’t you use another phrase? Like self-agency.” I’m like, “No, I can’t.” Because that’s that the sort of left-wing academic jargon that pisses people off. Personal responsibility is just a simple phrase. The fact that it’s been co-opted by right wing people who speak in platitudes about personal responsibility, unfortunately, with no understanding of what they are asking people to take responsibility for — it’s not something we should be frightened of. We should just reclaim the language. That’s where I’m coming from with it. Because that’s the way people talk.
I know some people say it sounds like a cop-out. But you can make a case that there is a place for personal responsibility in life, and also ask for systemic change. It’s not mutually exclusive. I certainly don’t think it is. One of the things I find most ironic is usually the people who get most offended by it are people who come from well-off backgrounds. With two really white rows of teeth in their mouth.
Sometimes what can be discussed on the left is really just about their own personal sensibilities. You don’t see them in the working-class communities too much. You don’t see them talking to people who have lived poverty. So, while I take on board what they say, I think they’ve got a lot to learn. And I’m happy to help them continue their education. Poverty is something that is lived. It’s not just an economic theory.
Culture now is strenuously cautious, nervously polite, earnestly worthy, ploddingly obvious, and above all, dismally predictable. It never dares to stray beyond the four corners of the already known. Robert Hughes spoke of the shock of the new, his phrase for modernism in the arts. Now there’s nothing that is shocking, and nothing that is new: irresponsible, dangerous; singular, original; the child of one weird, interesting brain. Decent we have, sometimes even good: well-made, professional, passing the time. But wild, indelible, commanding us without appeal to change our lives? I don’t think we even remember what that feels like.
And this paragraph, too, is striking:
Wokeness can only exert its tyranny, in fact, because artists are operating on an economic knife edge. They do not have the luxury of alienating their audience, not even part of it or even for a little while. Not of shocking it, not even of challenging it.
While we’re talking about Tablet, a recent feature there on precarious employment in the academy, “The Woke University’s Servant Class,” is also brilliant and long overdue. If you want to understand the silence of so many faculty members in the face of increasingly aggressive threats to academic freedom, consider the survival mentality engendered by the conditions described below:
Last year, I taught at two schools, a prestigious university and an average state college, for a total of 10 courses. Most academics would consider that a fairly full load for two semesters and a shorter summer term. My pay? $32,447.00 for the entire year. The more I considered all of the ancillary activities required of me, my pay rate on an hourly basis sunk under $10 per hour. After the W-2 forms came, I could calculate more accurately—and the answers were far more painful. I was making $1.77 per hour of work.
To learn more about precarious work here at home, read this new report on British Columbia. (Or attend this virtual panel June 1, hosted by my alma mater, Simon Fraser University.) And here is a piece in the spring issue of The Review of Journalism, on the national broadcaster’s treatment of “temporary workers,” an issue I have raised many times.
Meanwhile, in other news, this week Lean Out guest Joanna Williams was scheduled to appear in London, Ontario, at the annual meeting of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, to deliver a talk on the censorship of public debates around sex and gender — but her talk was censored by the London Public Library. Lean Out guest Rupa Subramanya has a great interview with Williams on her podcast.
In other news: Lean Out guest Philip Slayton appeared at Toronto’s Centre for Free Expression this week to discuss his latest, Antisemitism: An Ancient Hatred in the Age of Identity Politics. And future Lean Out podcast guest, University of Kent professor Matthew Goodwin, gave a fascinating talk on “The Failures of British Conservatism,” at the National Conservative conference in the UK this week. It’s well worth a watch.
Plus, The New Yorker has a great read this week on a Manhattan club for the cancelled. And, finally, on the topic of journalistic objectivity — which we have covered a lot, here at Lean Out — the publisher of The New York Times, A.G. Sulzberger, actually has a pretty solid new essay, over at the Columbia Journalism Review, titled “Journalism’s Essential Value.” It’s reassuring to see a news leader of this level of influence throw their weight behind objectivity, or as Sulzberger calls it, journalistic independence. Have a read of this key passage:
American journalism faces a confluence of challenges that present the most profound threat to the free press in more than a century. News organizations are shrinking and dying under sustained financial duress. Attacks on journalists are surging. Press freedoms are under intensifying pressure. And with the broader information ecosystem overrun by misinformation, conspiracy theories, propaganda, and clickbait, public trust in journalism has fallen to historical lows.
There is no clear path through this gantlet. But there will be no worthwhile future for journalism if our profession abandons the core value that makes our work essential to democratic society, the value that answers the question of why we’re deserving of the public trust and the special protections afforded the free press. That value is journalistic independence.
Independence is the increasingly contested journalistic commitment to following facts wherever they lead. It places the truth—and the search for it with an open yet skeptical mind—above all else. Those may sound like blandly agreeable clichés of Journalism 101, but in this hyperpolarized era, independent journalism and the sometimes counterintuitive values that animate it have become a radical pursuit.
Independence asks reporters to adopt a posture of searching, rather than knowing. It demands that we reflect the world as it is, not the world as we may wish it to be. It requires journalists to be willing to exonerate someone deemed a villain or interrogate someone regarded as a hero. It insists on sharing what we learn—fully and fairly—regardless of whom it may upset or what the political consequences might be. Independence calls for plainly stating the facts, even if they appear to favor one side of a dispute. And it calls for carefully conveying ambiguity and debate in the more frequent cases where the facts are unclear or their interpretation is under reasonable dispute, letting readers grasp and process the uncertainty for themselves.
This approach, tacking as it does against the with-us-or-against-us certainty of this polarized moment, requires a steadfast, sometimes uncomfortable commitment to journalistic process over personal conviction. Independent journalism elevates values grounded in humility—fairness, impartiality, and (to use perhaps the most fraught and argued-over word in journalism) objectivity—as ideals to be pursued, even if they can never be perfectly achieved. And crucially, independent journalism roots itself to an underlying confidence in the public; it trusts that people deserve to know the full truth and ultimately can be relied upon to use it wisely.
The sun is shining in Toronto and it’s time to touch grass. See you next week!
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