The death of Muhammad Ali led me to write an article for Common Space concerning what we could learn from Ali’s life. – see the link to the article here the two main points of the article were; we need to establish our self-identities, our independence and work in unifying ways. Self and unity need to be worked on at the same time. Scotland needs to stand up for its different way of being in the world, establish its independence and develop an economy that works for all the people living here.
When I heard of the death of Muhammad Ali, I was reading Nadine Hubb’s book: Rednecks, Queers and Country Music published by University of California Press. There are several very interesting moments in Nadine Hub’s book, not least when Hubbs, on page 71, raises the case of Tina Turner to discuss the silencing/removal of black artists from the history of country music. Who would know that Tina Turner’s first album was a country album that included songs written by Dolly Parton and Hank Snow, we find out that it wasn’t god who made one of the world’s greatest ever R&B artists, it was Tennessee country.
Hubbs indicates that there is a need to challenge the way country music and its history is represented in the main stream media. She argues that we need to ignore media stereo types of ‘red neck’ country music that seeks to divide the working class into competing groups and/or separate the working class form the middle class. She argues that this process of divide and rule involves the media using class, gender, sexuality or race to separate working class people and to keep the working class and middle class from uniting.
Nadine Hubb’s indicates that American country music stars are often criticised, by middleclass commentators, for loosing contact with their working class routes. She counters that in reality their working class values persist, including the values of: hard work generosity and honesty. Hubbs argues that people who produce a discourse that argues country singers have, ‘forgotten where they came from’ seek to divide working class people from their most powerful collaborators and advocates for change.
Nadine Hubbs, draws from the work of Andrew Gelman to debunk the myth that people who like country music and working class whites are racists who automatically vote republican. Gelman and his colleagues equate class voting patterns with weighting effects experienced between the ages of 14 and 24 and political shock effects which take place during people’s lives. Hubbs draws from research that suggests the middle class and working class have more in common than we might think. She also points out the irony that parts of the media portray all middle class people as thinking working class people are racist and homophobic but it is the working class who will give their neighbour their last dollar to see them all right.
We learn from Hubbs that the danger comes when we assume that all working class or middle class people are the same and adopt stereotypes from the media to ‘other’ people who are not perceived to be the same as us. The danger lies in the fact that we end up ‘othering’ the very people we need to work with to challenge the elites that exploit us all. This leads us to the conclusion that: it is not the middle or working classes that are the problem – it is elites that exploit everyone else in our society.
Nadine Hubbs and Arab American Lesbian writer Joanna Kadi critique a discourse in American culture they call the, ‘Anything but country entitlement’. They critique the fact that people think it acceptable to make ‘I listen to anything but country music’ statements in modern America, asserting that it is a prejudiced position. They question that there has ever been one type of country music and asks us to interrogate country music and to recognise its unifying nature. For example, they point out that the topics that women sing about in country music transcend class boundaries: heart ache, drinking, hope, aspiration, loneliness, sexism, homophobia and everyday economics. These are issues we can all engage with.
Nadine Hubbs, Joanna Kadi and Muhammad Ali encourage us to challenge the journalists and chattering classes (found clawing onto the shirt tails of the elite) who seek to divide us. Hubbs confronts the idea that working class Americans and country music are in some way automatic supporters of republican politics and asks us to look beyond stereo types to see the connection of issues of class, gender, disability, sexuality or ethnicity. Her writing reminded me of the independence referendum in Scotland where people from all types of back grounds and identities came together to campaign for change.
I am a founder member of Common Weal Edinburgh South. It’s a community group that was set up after the referendum and runs events on local issues. At one of our early meetings there was an argument between to groups of people, as to whether we should only be concentrating on support working class people and those experiencing poverty. I suggested that this would be divisive and take our eye off the long term aim which is to unite all the communities of Scotland in a process that leads to independence, change and the eradication of poverty.
I also pointed out that people with income can experience poverty of positive relationships and that apparently wealthy people can be driven into hidden poverty by the economic and social system that we live in. I gave an example of a family I had worked with where both parents were GPs (apparently well paid) but they lived in mortgage poverty and were at their wits end because these parents had had to reduce her hours (and pay) to take care of one of their sons who was being chronically bullied at School. This family were struggling and needed support, but what they got from their school was no help at all. The person who was bullying their son was protected from censure because his father was on the school board and had just pledge to fund a new gym hall. The Head Teacher continually turned a blind eye to the bullying because the bully’s family were part of the elite group who held the power in the School.
When we advocate for peace, love, hope, equity, inclusion, anti-discrimination and social justice, we can’t exclude the middle classes (or anyone else for that matter) as if they and their children do not also experience inequitable systems. Indeed, in Scotland the vast majority of middle class people were either once working class or currently have relatives who are working class – class differences are less embedded than in other countries – let us remember this and find ways to work with each other.
This idea connected to something I heard someone say on TV about Muhammad Ali believing that change came from within. Often, we look to the fault of others to explain society’s limitations, we seek out ‘red neck’ blaming stereotypes or ‘white collar’ blaming discourses but if we really want to improve society the change must come from within. Peace, love, equality and unity the change that comes from within.
Muhammad Ali never forgot his roots in his community, he was a constant and fearless advocate for change. Ali spoke from the authority of, very often, having experienced the same life circumstances of those he sought to support. He did not seek to live quietly amongst the elite – he used his power to support disadvantaged members of his community. His efforts were greatly appreciated not only in Louisville but also in the USA and around the world. The way that Louisville turned out for him today, was a fitting tribute to Muhammad Ali’s life’s work.
Muhammad Ali was aware that it is only when we unite everyday people that we can confront discrimination and inequality in our communities and countries. He reminded us that we all have an active role to play in the process of changing our worlds.